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.

‘A philosopher matters to me according to his ability to be an example’: what Nietzsche is expressing here is the (surprisingly Lutheran) notion that the value of the works recedes in importance behind the value of the person. It might be objected that this portrait of an ‘exemplary’ Schopenhauer is itself a creation of Nietzsche’s literary and moral imagination, a construct of all the elements of courage, endurance and independence of mind which, in Nietzsche’s view, should go with solitude; these are the qualities which he believes are lacking in the contemporary world generally, and in the world of learning and academic philosophy in particular. But what if ‘the value of these values’ is left unexamined, is to be taken for granted? Then the interest of the essay will lie above all in its rhetoric: that is, in its author’s remarkable success in making this largely imaginary portrait composed of largely asserted values illuminating and convincing: disappointingly, in Richard Schacht’s introduction such an enquiry, which would indeed be timely, is not attempted.

The last essay, ‘Wagner in Bayreuth’, is designed as an apotheosis of the Master on the occasion of the first Bayreuth Festival of July 1876. ‘In tenor, despite Nietzsche’s inner doubts, the essay is unmistakably laudatory,’ writes Mr Gary Brown in his introduction.

It portrays an artist whom he wished, and once sincerely believed, to be the real Wagner. But for the reader aware of Nietzsche’s private doubts, it takes on a stereoscopic quality. The criticisms of [Nietzsche’s notebooks of] 1874 are woven into the text, but explained as dangerous tendencies which Wagner in the course of his development has overcome ... Hence [Nietzsche] can speak of Wagner’s immoderation, boundless ambition, lust for power, use of spurious artistic techniques, and the absurd, demeaning burlesque of great portions of his life, and yet assert that these tendencies have all been transcended.

The high praise (Wagner is compared with Aeschylus and Demosthenes) and the criticism were written before Nietzsche arrived in Bayreuth, which turned out to be a disappointment causing ferocious bouts of psychosomatic malaise. From now on his criticism of the master and the works of his last phase will be increasingly hostile, and eventually as hurtful as he can make it.

But there is a second, equally important strand, which links the argument of ‘Wagner in Bayreuth’ directly with The Birth of Tragedy of 1872 and with Nietzsche’s lifelong meditations on the function of art: ‘For us Bayreuth signifies the dawn ritual on the day of battle,’ Nietzsche writes, the battle ‘of the individual against everything that confronts him with apparently invincible necessity: against authority, law, tradition, convention, the whole order of things. The individual could not live a fuller life than by preparing for death and sacrificing himself in the battle for love and justice.’ And again, ‘Art exists in order that the bow not break,’ or for readers who are apt to be intimidated by American subjunctives: ‘Art exists in order that the bow shall not break.’ The full realisation that ‘life is what one suffers from’ and that art helps us to bear this knowledge leads to that mood of ‘brave pessimism’ which Nietzsche had praised in Schopenhauer, which he had identified with Wagner’s music drama, and which he now believes Wagner has abandoned in favour of expedient compromises with ‘authority, law ... and the whole order of things’. Nietzsche’s personal involvement in this betrayal was profound, but this did not prevent him from eventually commenting on it in some of the most rumbustious prose he ever wrote.

Unlike Unzeitgemässe Betrachtungen, Unmodern Observations is a big and heavy volume. It is full of notes (excellent, though somewhat disfigured by misprints), and it ends with a translation of Nietzsche’s jottings for an essay to be called ‘We Classicists’, which marks the end of Nietzsche’s work as an active Greek scholar. Going out of his way to emphasise that Nietzsche’s Classical studies have invariably been slighted, ignored and misunderstood, Professor Arrowsmith, in his introduction to this last section of the book, pleads for a reconsideration of Nietzsche’s Greek experience; why he should wish to give the impression that he is the first scholar to do so is another question.

Edwin Muir’s calling as a poet, the many years he spent in Prague as well as his deep interest in German literature, made him the ideal reviewer for Erich Heller’s first English book, The Disinherited Mind. In his review, which appeared in the Observer of 14 December 1952, Muir commented at length on the main theme of Heller’s book – the fate of poetry and of the creative imagination in an age of prose – by briefly retracing its argument from Goethe through Nietzsche and Jacob Burckhardt to Rilke, Spengler, Karl Kraus and Kafka: and concluded by commending the book to ‘everyone who cares for the survival of literature and of human values. The condition it describes is our condition, and I can think of no other modern book in which it is described so clearly.’

In the event, The Disinherited Mind turned out to be a critical landmark. It established or at least consolidated a canon of modern German literature; it helped to introduce this literature into many university courses from which it had so far been excluded; and it was one of the first books to succeed in overcoming an English-speaking public’s understandable weariness with ‘the German problem’. It made German and Austrian literary and philosophical thought available by means of a critical argument subtly balanced between the particular nature of that thought, and its roots in the European civilisation which Hitler’s Germany had brought to the brink of destruction. Beginning with that book, and continued throughout Heller’s many subsequent writings, goes his illuminating dialogue with Nietzsche: the present welcome collection of ten essays on this most literary of philosophers constitutes a sort of stock-taking of Heller’s critical achievement over almost four decades.

The first essay sets out ‘the importance of Nietzsche’ as the anticipator, first analyst and critic of nihilism; and nihilism (seen as ‘the state of human beings and societies faced with the total eclipse of all values’) follows – Nietzsche and Heller say: follows necessarily – ‘the death of God’. In his succinct account of Nietzsche’s war on Christianity, Heller connects it with his radical questioning of ‘the Truth’. What is at issue in Nietzsche’s polemics is not our capacity to attain certain knowledge of our place in the total scheme of things: it is the value, purpose and uses of truth itself that are being queried. Heller then asks what if anything we can take to be Nietzsche’s actual beliefs – the Superman? the Eternal Recurrence of the Same? the aesthetic validation of all existence as a game? – and he follows Nietzsche through the paradoxes and contradictions entailed by these ‘beliefs’, on the one hand, and his inveterate suspicion of all ‘believers’ and of the ideology of ‘belief’ itself, on the other. From this introductory essay (of 1965) we proceed to two studies from The Disinherited Mind, ‘Nietzsche and Goethe’ and ‘Burckhardt and Nietzsche’ – the two great minds whom Nietzsche admired and at the same time suspected of harbouring a tragic vision of the human predicament which they preferred not to disclose but to ignore or hide in their work. ‘Nietzsche, the Teacher of “Free Spirits” ’ (1986) returns to the ‘relativism of truth’ as the penultimate step to nihilism, while ‘Zarathustra’s Three Metamorphoses’ – the camel, the lion and the child – considers the poetic and autobiographical aspects of Nietzsche’s imagery. ‘Rilke and Nietzsche’, the most accomplished chapter of The Disinherited Mind, contains an excursus on ‘Belief and Poetry’ in the form of a challenging discussion with T.S. Eliot and his notion of poetry as ‘the emotional equivalent of thought’. This essay was among the first and remains the most illuminating of the many studies in which critics have portrayed Rilke as ‘the poet of a world of which the philosopher is Nietzsche’. The predicament of this world of modernity is described, in traditional metaphysical terms, as ‘the loss of significant external reality’. In such a world, Heller writes:

Neither Rilke nor Nietzsche praises the praiseworthy. They praise. They do not believe the believable. They believe. And it is the praising and believing itself that becomes praiseworthy and believable in the act of worship.

And again:

It is a world in which the order of correspondence is violently disturbed ... Good does no good and evil no harm. Terror and bliss are one. Life and death are the same. Lovers seek separation, not union. All the sweetness of the visible world is stored in invisible hives.

In this portrait, which is both deeply sympathetic and critical, Rilke (‘the St Francis of the Will to Power’) is not just the poet of a religio intransitiva, he is (with Nietzsche’s help) its philosopher and theologian, too.

Throughout these essays, then, Nietzsche is presented as the critic of traditional metaphysics, but also as the last great, albeit negative, metaphysician. True, in Nietzsche’s Nachlass there are notes toward a philosophy of perspectivism – a philosophy of ‘becoming’ and ‘being-in-relationships’ – which point toward a relativist critique of the metaphysics of traditional ontology. In these notes ‘truth’ figures merely as a matter of perspective, and it isn’t even ‘subjective’ because (as Heller writes) ‘the concept of “subject” is not a “given”; it is itself an interpretative invention.’ At this point, we are told, Nietzsche himself ‘resolutely crosses the frontier of nihilism’. Heller doesn’t question Nietzsche’s inference from ‘perspectivism’ to ‘nihilism’, from ‘there are no facts, only interpretations’ to ‘everything is permitted’ and anything goes because the central authority and sanction behind all action and all intentions has gone. Seeing that Nietzsche anticipated in a general way some of the disasters of our century (and took some pleasure in doing so), his ‘prophecies’ may be read as confirmations that the inference is valid; and to anyone querying its validity, Heller is likely to reply: ‘Looking around at the world we live in, what more by way of proof do you want?’ But it is Nietzsche’s premise that is questionable, if only because it doesn’t obey his own relativist injunction. ‘The truth’ surely is that, with its heavy ontological load and its insistence on the compensational psychology of ‘two worlds’, Nietzsche’s is a very North German view of Christianity.

With this weight of a ‘tragic’ or at all events catastrophic understanding of the world on his mind, why did Nietzsche continue to write? In the last essay of this book Heller answers the question by describing ‘Nietzsche’s Terrors: Time and the Inarticulate’ (1985) – that is, his ‘desire to escape from transience, oblivion’ and to wrench experience from the abyss of silence. It is hard to think of a writer who is free from such a desire. In Nietzsche’s case it is so strong that it carries him into a jungle of contradictions, from which Heller undertakes to rescue him: what matters about Nietzsche’s views (he writes) is not their content but their quality, not their consistency but their ‘rank’, and the ‘rank’ or authenticity of those who hold them; and this curious opinion Heller attributes not just to Nietzsche but, less justifiably, to Ludwig Wittgenstein.

The ‘and’ in the titles of several of these essays has of course more than one meaning. ‘Yeats and Nietzsche’ (1969), on the poet’s marginal notes in his copy of a Nietzsche anthology, is an outstandingly successful example of an ‘and’ that implies not just a comparison but a powerful influence. In one essay, though, it might with advantage have been replaced by ‘or’: in spite of some highly illuminating overlappings, ‘Wittgenstein and Nietzsche’ (1965) opens the view on two very different approaches to philosophy. To start with the ‘family resemblances’: both philosophers distrust ‘categorical’ certainties, and both have a genius for peering ‘into the most unsuspected hiding places of error and fallacy’. They share an interest in the relationship of language and experience, though for Nietzsche (but not for Wittgenstein) it is one ‘interest’ among many. And both rebut the assertions of ontology (which for Nietzsche, though not for Wittgenstein, includes Christian ‘ontology’) by affirming that our existence in the world is to be understood not in the abstract isolation in which Idealist philosophers placed it, but contextually, as ‘being-in-relationships’. But here, I think, we come to a difference that outweighs all resemblances. Even where Nietzsche avoids connecting the absence of categorical certainties with the descent into nihilism, he does little to suggest what an alternative ‘philosophy of contexts’ would be like. The later Wittgenstein, on the other hand, examines the many ways a language – the paradigm of contexts – actually functions, instancing the kind of certainties we live by: in all his philosophical writings after 1929 Wittgenstein looks at the ways we establish and sustain the meaningful experiences in which and by which we live. He neither seeks nor misses a transcendent Value outside the world, but shows the relationships of values to usage and usefulness, always on the assumption, which he shares with the poets, that there is only one language, ‘the language of everyday’; and that ‘if the words “language”, “experience”, “world” have a use, it must be as humble as the use of the words “table”, “lamp, “door”.’

Such arguments are of no interest to Nietzsche, and they don’t thrill Heller either. He singles out for critical attention Wittgenstein’s aperçu, ‘To imagine a language is to imagine a form of life.’ The attempt to describe such a form of life (Heller objects) ‘sets a task that could not be fulfilled by a legion of Prousts or Wittgensteins: for what is the “form of life” which, in any one language, is shared by Goethe and Hitler ...?’ Well, anyone who has waded through the morass of historical analyses which purport to show ‘the straight line that leads from Luther (or Goethe, or Nietzsche) to Hitler’ will agree with Heller’s refusal to contemplate such a flagrant abstraction. But seen in its context, Wittgenstein’s ‘form of life’ is not open to this interpretation. On the contrary, in the argument of which it is an integral part, image after image is arrayed to show that the phrase ‘form of life’ designates not a monolithic concept at all but a complex of family resemblances which have no common denominator and no single thing in common – a complex of relationships which is useful nevertheless, ‘for a particular purpose’, as an answer to a particular question. I cannot think of a question in answer to which a statement of what Goethe and Hitler have in common would make any tolerable sense. But there is nothing implausible about, say, a history of ideas describing a ‘form of life’ – a changing concept – which stretches throughout the hundred years from Goethe to Hitler, for, as Wittgenstein put it, ‘we extend our concept ... as in spinning a thread we twist fibre to fibre. And the strength of the thread does not reside in the fact that some one fibre runs through its whole length, but in the overlapping of many fibres.’ And again: when Wittgenstein speaks of ‘the ground of language’, Heller suspects that the phrase betrays a metaphysical belief; he reads it as a ‘transparent metaphor’ through which a mystical light shines on a desolate landscape, whereas it is one more summary phrase for that multitude of customs, conventions and rules which it is the task of Wittgenstein’s philosophy to submit to reasoned thought. Just as Kant made our experiences available to reason by analysing them as determined by the forms of perception, so Wittgenstein makes them available under the aspect of language. Making available is a task to try anybody’s patience, and both Nietzsche and Wittgenstein are impatient philosophers. But there is a difference: Nietzsche’s philosophy vaunts his impatience, much of his pathos derives from it, whereas the motivating force of Wittgenstein’s philosophy is impatience subdued. Not all of Wittgenstein’s reflections are free from the rhetoric of pathos, but his is (mainly) the pathos of the teacher, never that of the public arena. Free from the stridency of ‘the death of God’, his discourse has the virtue of accuracy. In the preface to Philosophical Remarks (1930) he writes: ‘I would like to say that “this book is written to the glory of God” but that would today be an infamy, i.e. it would not be understood aright.’

Nietzsche’s achievement, and the difficulties he bequeathes to his reader, are connected with his instinctive need to label every insight and every act of understanding with a value judgment. Thus error and misprision turn out to be the results of imperception, imperception blends with evasion, deceit of others and of self. Being aware of this tendency, Nietzsche seeks to free himself from it: sometimes by criticising it ironically as the disposition of a ‘graceless, hundredweight spirit’, at other times by writing with a lightness of touch and in a style of good humour which aspire to the condition of a lighthearted game, ‘an innocence of becoming’ symbolised by Heraclitus’s image of the child playing cribbage with the Universe. Heller is at his best when sketching this process, and he also follows it part of the way. An abundance of insights derived from historical parallels and contrasts comes easily and naturally to him, and so does the play of paradox and irony: and these, in ‘the profession of letters’, amount to a rare grace. Quoting from Beyond Good and Evil, Heller provides a clue to his own undertaking. ‘There are “scholarly men”,’ Nietzsche writes, with Burckhardt in mind, ‘who make use of scholarliness because it gives them a serene façade, and because it suggests that the man is superficial: they wish that people should arrive at a wrong conclusion about them’; and in the same context Nietzsche mentions ‘buffoonery’ (Narrheit) as a possible disguise for ‘desperate, all-too-certain knowledge’. ‘Clearly,’ Heller comments, Nietzsche ‘meant himself, referring to his own display of paradoxical formulations, witty extravagances, provocative exaggerations’. Heller never plays the ‘buffoon’, nor does he wish to lead the reader to wrong conclusions. And yet there is a family likeness: his literary manner, too, conceals a dark vision of what the world has become since Nietzsche’s time. If on a few occasions this style betrays signs of caprice, it also provides illumination by which to read our immediate past, and its traces in our present, illumination not always contained in critical writings which lack the wit to be capricious. Professor Heller’s essays are themselves a part of the literature which is the subject-matter of most of them. ‘The condition they describe,’ Edwin Muir wrote, ‘is our condition.’