The more consciousness is struggling away from its animal being, becoming for itself something solid and in its forms something lasting, the more it hardens itself against everything that would make its own perpetuity suspect.
Theodor Adorno, Negative Dialectics
Dear Nietzsche, that is if you are indeed out there…
As I share your belief that there is no grounding whatsoever – that the only ground is the earth we stand upon, the terra firma in which our remains will be buried and thus disappear, or for that matter the soil which will receive our ashes – these words may well have been written on water as were written, according to Chief Grey Owl, all White Man’s promises to the Indians. Being a Dutchman, even using the notion of terra firma is already rather gutsy, as my country consists mostly of blubbering clay and resides for at least one third of its territory under sea level.
Why not dedicate this Morning Glory to you! This very day, it evolved from its cream-coloured cocoon to greet the early light as well as myself. The older I get, the more defective also, the more I need such aesthetic support to commence living again.
Now and then, while writing this letter, I shall cast an eye on its magnificent shape and colour, all the time thinking it is you. After all, there is that law of yours, of the eternal return of everything. This flower may well be you. However, as you will probably know, it will have faded and then withered by early afternoon.
It took me quite a while to solve the little riddle of how to begin this epistle to you. Doktor Nietzsche,... Herr Doktor,… Herr Professor Nietzsche,… Dear Friedrich,…; these forms of address won’t do. Leastwise, I can honor you with the motto written above these words, taken from the work of one of your best readers, our colleague Theodor Adorno.
Having demolished the whole of modern philosophy or perhaps more accurately, having annihilated all the West’s post-Platonian thinking, you would probably despise an officious form of address. Having overthrown the tradition of philosophical writing, almost like a philosophical anarchist, you would not like me to approach you like that. You revolutionized philosophy in content, not aiming any longer at a full system comprising separate books on aesthetics, ethics, epistemology, anthropology and logic. However, in your manner of writing you also uprooted philosophy’s form, abandoning the treatise, opting for paragraphs, aphorisms and poetry in a for your time unique mélange, never witnessed before.
Being the self-disciplined yet crazy man you were, you wrote ecstatically, time and again contradicting your own writings, never however allowing a synthesis, a dialectical transcendence into yet another system. You were an essayist by nature, quite often even an aphorist. You also were a fine poet, one of the great masters of language of all time. This cannot be said of most of our colleagues.
Your poem The Loner I read so many times:
I hate to follow and I hate to lead.
Submission? No! To rule – no, not indeed!
Fearing oneself, one may put fear in others:
And without terror, others won’t be ruled.
I even hate to lead and rule myself.
I do love, as wild beasts do and creatures of the sea,
To wander and, for quite some time, to lose myself,
Be sweetly let astray and muse a bit,
Then, from afar, to lure myself back home,
Seduce myself to what I am – myself.
Dear Friedrich would undoubtedly have been a faux pas; all wrong, like nowadays the postmodern hug men seem to need in order to express their uncouth affection for, and familiarity with other men. My kisses I also reserve for lovers, and I shake hands even with my bosom friend. You are one of my Masters. Dear Nietzsche would be what I might have called you, had I known you in your life-time and, of course, if you would you have allowed me so. Thus, I presume.
Lou Salomé, whipping her asses,
the husband as well as Nietzsche
You must have been a naughty man, somewhere on your road to madness and death having picked up syphilis. I do not think it was Lou Salomé who gave you the disease; assuredly, she looks too much of a prude for a thing like the pox, always in search not so much of men, as of God-Men, whatever that may be. However, you most certainly went after her. Sadly enough that picture of you, being whipped by Lou, does not clear up my question, whether she considered you a donkey or a horse in front of that cart. It might have explained the following story.
Once, you encountered that famous ass in Genoa and enthusiastically embraced the poor animal, shouting “Ah, Wagner, what a pleasure to finally meet you again!”; it is difficult to know whether you were already raving mad or merely a magnificent jester. We know that by then you preferred the exciting march music of Carmen to the boring sounds of that Bavarian’s tedious operas. Was this accolade a sign, then, of utter sanity or already a token of your past sins in the flesh? Or, should we simply step out of this epistemic split and wander into that Jenseits of Sanity and Madness, which you probably prefer…
Then again, you would not have liked Lou’s own answer to that. After all, she became the Platonian lover of Master Freud who turned her into a psychoanalyst on her own account. She wrote to one of her other lovers, the poet Rilke, about the “erotic sadness of dolls”, advising him to solve his troubles by also going into analysis, to which he reacted like a cat in great furry. You, Dear Nietzsche, Lou might very well have considered a donkey to be tamed. After all, you’ve had quite a story-line with donkeys trailing you.
A bit like Pirandello’s Enrico IV, in Bellocchio’s movie version of his play acted by master Mastroianni: Being mad, yet knowing it; perhaps being mad now and then, and only now and then knowing it. Jeez man! How you could let ink flow from your pen like waves whipped by mental hurricanes, transforming philosophy into the exciting foam of poetry, yet fabricating razor-sharp arguments, always acerbic in a very convincing manner.
Nietzsche, shortly before he died
The strange thing is addressing you over the abyss of time with more than a century separating the two of us. By now pretty much afflicted myself, I am yet alive; you on the other hand died in 1900, on the very threshold of the new century in which I was born, the century of the New Man you announced in your philosophy. You were a philosophical anachronism.
However, though of the essence in this letter, time seems to have been irrelevant in the universe we both occupy, that is the realm of contemplation. One may be well aware, one should be well aware of the historical conditions of all writing, if only to avoid anachronisms; however, while reading our colleagues’ essays and books I always feel their fellow citizen in synchrony, residing outside time.
In your case this is even more poignant. Your Death of God has become the axiom of any right-thinking man and woman ever since. Like each great thinker, you were standing on the shoulders of predecessors, in your case Darwin, whose theory of evolution surely triggered your thought. However, it was you who drew the final consequences from that biological grandee’s ideas, even though you accused that celebrated British biologist of pleading man’s domestication.
You wrote against him, claiming that “mankind is not progressing. There appear higher types, however they do not last. The level of the species is not being raised.” However, evolution can do without the gods, which is after all Darwin’s most important insight and one which you most certainly borrowed.
Did you know, Dear Nietzsche, that Oliver Sacks, one of your admirers, himself an admirable writer on the vicissitudes of the mind, considered Darwin’s theory, not yours, to be the Great Divide in the history of thinking? What nerve! One might say that for Sacks, a great believer in the Death of God, Darwin was God…
That, methinks, sums up the problem: How to live in your new universe, in which nothing is grounded and nothing final, in which nothing disappears forever and an after-life being is out of the question? A universe with the lid off, as colleague John Dewy so aptly put it, a universe which has always been there, one way or another, and which will always be there, one way or another. A timeless constellation of explosions of various intensity, all effects needing time to stretch out.
Living by paradox, why not, it seems to sum it up. Is that what you meant, when you wrote “that we need art in order not to perish by truth”? Brother Wittgenstein agreed with this: If you cannot talk sensibly and reasonable about something, you better shut up; to shut up, of course, may take the form of a poem, a painting or a piece of music. Being silent, yet singing.
Yours was an amor intellectualis diaboli, an ironic intellectual pleasure in the conquest of a bourgeois civilization – with its own weapons. However, this game has gone awry. In Sympathy for the Devil the rocker Mick Jagger could still make us guess His name; Lucifer, Mephistopheles. When, by way of metaphor, he asked a motor gang called Hell’s Angels to provide security at the Altamont Free Concert his Stones band gave, the bastards actually killed someone in the audience. So, perhaps in 1969 the mirage of art and irony as our saviors from truth had evaporated and in that year your Age of Zarathustra had already ended.
Your intellectual aestheticism had been usurped, becoming an aesthetics of authoritarian and violent states. Was Pessoa giving it a twist, when he wrote that “art is good because it cannot disappoint you”? The problem here, though, is that making aesthetics the final realm of reality, or rather: considering beauty and ugliness as the ultimate criteria for judging, one may all too easily come to consider war as a way of art, as a Way of Seeing or, for that matter, cruelty as that little spot of glaze left by chance by the Japanese ceramist on his otherwise perfect vase.
The terrifying recreation of a world as Gesamtkunstwerk, it may suddenly turn out to be Kim Yong un’s frightful etching of North Korea or, for that matter, the horrid and surrealist collage of shootings, race clashes, poverty and vulgarity called the ‘USA’, also known as ‘the Melting Pot…’, however a failed nation.
To turn art into the savior of our existence is to run the very risk of decadence which is already lurking in the hyper-reflection which is the upshot of your Philosophy of the End of all Grounding. As the cosmos is never-ending and never-beginning, so now of a sudden is our thinking: whatever may be considered true or good here and now, may be seen as false and bad; you only have to turn the next corner of our perspective.
Your Law of Eternal Return has nothing to do with reincarnation. After all, as there is no soul what would there be left to incarnate? It is more about the return of I/Me/Ego, each time again in its new coat of varnish. Or perhaps its emptying out into a sea of nothingness, then to be compensated by overdoses of narcissism and megalomania.
The history of mankind, as I have understood your writings, is one long misunderstanding of Being and thus of man himself. It is the illusion of will and self-determination, whereas what is, is merely matter in mysterious motion. That illusion of self-determination, though, produces misapprehensions. Life is all too easily considered a stage on which we act out our tragedies and comedies, as if we were its conscious actors. Instead, each of us is but minuscule part of that matter in mysterious motion, appearing and then disappearing.
However, this extravagant misunderstanding of man’s own existence – his being outside himself, thus a ‘subject’ – has the slight, though illusionary advantage that we may feel love, hate, pity and despair. It also provides some of us with the capacity for laughter, even though quite a few of us seem to miss this vital button. The cosmos, on the other hand, does not laugh; it is cold and indifferent. However, lately our own laughing is no laughing matter any longer, more and more it has become a wry smile, observing what has become of us.
Great optimists – and perhaps, Dear Nietzsche, you were an optimist yourself – have drawn the conclusion from your thought that from now on, as no values are given and grounded as such, we should take life in our own hands and create our own values, values far more intricate and delicate than the mere prescriptions of the gods or of people in power.
I beg to disagree. I think that it is another illusion to think that, once the gods have drowned in your great philosophical bonfire, some kind of elite of mankind, or perhaps even each man all by himself will now ‘engage’ in ‘projects’, as the existentialists concluded from your writings.
There will be no Global Village. Man is simply incapable of shattering that illusion of his own supremacy. Thus, confronted with the meaningless of matter in mysterious motion, he will cling even more to certainties, creeds and totems. The twilight of the gods ends in never-ending fireworks of war between religions and their various ‘truths’. On the other hand, we are witnessing the growth of discipline and authority, if not outright forms of militarism which fill the vacuum that, Dear Nietzsche, you and Darwin left behind.
Postmodernity, the name for this New Earth, will be filled with emptied Ego’s living in smaller social cocoons, dearly in need of surveillance by others who are considered relevant. More and more this becomes a shame culture; guilt, after all, presupposes your God and his prescriptions. However, nothing is more shameless than a shame culture! In a civilized manner one will behave towards others only if they are considered as relevant; all other others are regarded as mere things, to be either manipulated or destroyed, as one’s own self tends to be a reified thing with a career, an object to be disciplined.
Though negative dialectics is the last and only manner to think about what is, never reducing Being to Thought, nor ending in the identity of Subject and Object – to think in that manner is not given to most men and women, if anyone at all. People would rather force identity and stamp their order on others. Or, failing to do so, destroy them.
Hurricanes have whipped the face of our earth. Not merely gods were uprooted or splintered to smithereens. Sic transit, sic transit…
Superman won’t come. You expected that only the belief in God kept him from the stage. According to you, after you killed God Superman had to arrive; your Übermensch would be well aware that he does not belong “in the marketplace ruled by the rabble.” We belated ones, however, we have found out that in our 20th century capital and its markets have come to rule all and everything. No Masters, no Herd – just so many non-entities going through the sieve…
So, Dear Nietzsche, as you may have gathered from this letter, I am not your Zarathustra, not your visionary optimist. Having learned from you to consider this world sine ira et studio, I cannot but feel misery in my soul and an ache in the heart.
Yours truly, Sierksma
*Der Einsame – original version; the translation is mine:
Verhasst ist mir das Folgen und das Führen.
Gehorchen? Nein! Und aber nein — Regieren!
Wer sich nicht schrecklich ist, macht Niemand Schrecken:
Und nur wer Schrecken macht, kann Andre führen.
Verhasst ist mir’s schon, selber mich zu führen!
Ich liebe es, gleich Wald- und Meerestieren,
Mich für ein gutes Weilchen zu verlieren,
In holder Irrnis grüblerisch zu hocken,
Von ferne her mich endlich heimzulocken,
Mich selber zu mir selber — zu verführen.