Impatience

J.P. Stern

The four essays the young Nietzsche wrote between August 1873 and July 1876 (as part of a larger project that was never completed) are linked by his concern over the state of German culture after the victorious conclusion of the Franco-Prussian War and the proclamation of the Reich at Versailles in January 1871. These Unzeitgemässe Betrachtungen, written while Nietzsche was Professor of Classical Philology at Basle, are here translated as Unmodern Observations by different hands, under the editorship of Professor William Arrowsmith of Boston University.

The first of them, a satirical attack on The Old Faith and the New, a work of David Strauss’s dotage (1871, English translation 1873), begins with a memorable disclaimer. The German public’s eagerness to infer from the military victory over France a victory over French culture, Nietzsche writes, is a pernicious delusion, ‘not simply because it is a delusion – after all, mistakes can be most salutary and productive – but because it can transform our victory into total defeat: the defeat, if not the extirpation, of the German spirit for the sake of the “German Reich” ’. If culture is defined as ‘a unity of artistic style manifest in all the vital activities of a people’, then Strauss must be the ‘cultural philistine’ par excellence. His shallow ‘cultivation’ of mere book-learning and superficial erudition, his ‘faith’ in the progress of contemporary science and the reduction of the highest achievements of German literature, philosophy and music to the level of bürgerlich platitudes – all these are subsumed in an attack on Strauss’s literary style; in his reliance on le style, c’ est l’ homme même Nietzsche is following in the footsteps of Schopenhauer and of Wagner’s polemic against the conductor Paul Devrient (the topic of the essay itself was suggested to Nietzsche by Cosima Wagner). True, Strauss’s book is vulgar and boring, and Professor Herbert Golder says so more than once in his introduction to Nietzsche’s essay: what he doesn’t say (nor, incidentally, does Nietzsche) is that Strauss’s book also contains some vicious attacks on the German working classes, their propensity to strikes and their indecent clamour for a ten-hour working day. But ‘the so-called Fourth Estate’ – seen as ‘the most unsalubrious spot of contemporary society’ – and as its ‘Huns and Vandals’ – cannot possibly be connected with Nietzsche’s high cultural ideals for ‘the German people’. His polemic ends with some seventy examples of Strauss’s solecisms, feeble metaphors drawn from contemporary science, and weary clichés. These were omitted from the previous translation, by R.J. Hollingdale, which appeared under the title Untimely Meditations, introduced by the present reviewer – who still fails to see the point of translating Nietzsche’s gibes against Strauss’s howlers, neither of which were funny in the first place. After all, Arrowsmith’s repeated references to Nietzsche’s quest for a ‘manworthy culture’ (since OED i and OED ii didn’t, should OED iii note?) might give rise to similarly tedious comments.

In the introduction to the second of these essays, entitled (somewhat oddly) ‘History in the Service and Disservice of Life’, Werner Dannhauser writes that ‘The problems Nietzsche confronted in the 19th century remain [oh dear ...] those of the 20th century ... Thoughtful men may reject the cures he recommended, but we ignore his diagnosis at our peril.’ The essay itself, the most interesting of the four, describes and assesses three kinds of history: the ‘monumental’ or heroic, the antiquarian and the critical. The main butts of Nietzsche’s polemic are the pedantry, pointless fact-hunting and excessive antiquarianism of historical scholarship in his time, and contemporary society’s habit of drawing on a heroicised past to find consolation for its pigmy-like present. I am surprised that these should be the intellectual perils Professor Dannhauser has to face at Cornell University, where he teaches. My own view would be that ‘the problem’ we encounter in our time has little enough to do with history as it is written and studied, and almost everything to do with the history that is unwritten and suppressed; while Nietzsche’s ‘problem’ is that neither here nor anywhere else does he offer respectable criteria by which ‘critical’ history and its ‘healthy forgetting’ are to be practised. But then, I presume that, unlike Professor Dannhauser, he had never heard of Katyn or any of the other examples of ‘the political history of forgetting’. Perhaps, after all, Nietzsche’s sallies should be read with a little more detachment than the scholars who have contributed to this volume could muster – with the sort of irony that speaks from Jacob Burckhardt’s letter of February 1874: ‘In thanking you very warmly, and having merely rushed through this immensely significant essay, I can only say a word or two in reply ... Above all, my wretched head has never been capable of reflecting even from afar on the ultimate reasons, goals and needs of the science of history, the way you can.’ The cautious friendship between the two university colleagues is the subject of one of Erich Heller’s most accomplished essays: here, alas, the relationship is barely mentioned.

‘In “Schopenhauer as Educator” my innermost history, my becoming is inscribed. Above all, my promise!’ Nietzsche writes in Ecce homo; which is a way of explaining why the third essay is neither biography nor philosophical exegesis, and least of all a critical study of Schopenhauer’s philosophy. Professor Arrowsmith in his enthusiastic introduction calls the essay ‘pure self-projection’, and reads it as an assertion of intellectual independence. A declaration of war on the current notion of philosophy as practised by ‘academic ruminants’ is what Nietzsche himself called it, but of course it is a declaration disguised as the encomium of a philosopher whose reputation, after a lifetime of neglect, was now in the ascendant.

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