Poor Nietzsche…

January 12, 2011
What would Raskolnikov do?

The guy can’t catch a break.  He gets associated with all sorts of difficult types.  First, Raskolnikov in Crime and Punishment, then the Nazis, a colorblind silent adolescent in Little Miss Sunshine, and now, the Tuscon shooter:

The new details from Mr. Gutierrez about Mr. Loughner — including his philosophy of anarchy and his expertise with a handgun, suggest that the earliest signs of behavior that may have ultimately led to the attacks started several years ago.

Mr. Gutierrez said his friend had become obsessed with the meaning of dreams and their importance. He talked about reading Friedrich Nietzsche’s book “The Will To Power” …

from the New York Times   

Superman at Canterbury?

January 17, 2010

Was Thomas Beckett, murdered archbishop of England, a Nietzschean Superman?

Despite my raging Anglo-philia of boyhood, I never saw Beckett (1964) with Peter O’Toole as HenryII, and Burton as Thomas Beckett, his Chancellor, and then archbishop of Canterbury.  Based on Jean Anouilh’s play, it is the story of an intense friendship between two men who understand power a little differently.  King Henry, a bit of a spoiled child and also a lonely soul, rages at the stuffy imbecility of his courtiers, but he takes his royal job seriously, and he has no intention of ceding royal power to anyone.  Nay, he wishes to increase it.  Beckett, his friend, his servant, then his chancellor, seems to be happy to go along for the ride, the food, the girls, but he knows that he has a tiger by the tail, and he knows how to keep himself safe when he is so close to the live wire of absolute power.

Then Henry makes a mistake – he makes Beckett the head primate of the Church in England, thinking he will then rule heaven and earth, with his friend a pliable and cooperative bishop.  Beckett is transformed by his new position, and finds the higher vocation that has eluded him thus far – he commits himself to the defense of churchly principle against secular power, driving his former companion to his wits’ end.

This was a central conflict played out during the Middle Ages again and again:  sometimes the brute kings won, as when the French king kidnapped the pope and dragged him off to ‘Babylonian’ captivity in Avignon, bringing on the Great Schism; and sometimes the Popes won, as when Henry IV of the Holy Roman Empire was reduced to waiting in the snow at the door of the papal palace in Canossa.  The State lost this round – Henry’s thuggish courtiers murdered Thomas while at services, thinking they were doing the king’s bidding.  Henry did severe penance, Beckett was quickly made a full-blown saint.

Both characters in the play are motivated by the ‘will to power,’ and their different allegiances.  Henry is left to rule the miserable earthly realm, while Thomas, standing tall while he is murdered without resistance, triumphs in true Nietzschean-Jesus fashion, over the pigs who think they can really kill him.  His person becomes venerated, and he casts his spell for centuries over England and its kings.  Good thing too, or we wouldn’t have gotten the Canterbury Tales!  He knows what he’s about:  His last words as he dies are, “Poor Henry…”

Of course, when one thinks of Richard Burton, one cannot help thinking of his on again, off again mate, Elizabeth Taylor.  As a very young boy, I asked my mother who was Elizabeth Taylor, and was told, “She’s the most beautiful woman in the world.”  Well, maybe so…

Finally, back to Chaucer, Beckett, and Canterbury, sort of…  I post here what I think is the most hilarious pastiche from an amazing book, The Holy Tango of Literature.  (Earlier post here and the text online here.)


In tholde dayes of the towne Seatel,
Of whos charmes Nirvana fans yet pratel,
Al that reyny land fayn slepen late.
Thus ofte a sutor failled to keepe a date;
And werkers reched offices at noon,
Noddyng of although the sunne shoon;
Husbondes were too tyred by the eve
A staf for plesyng wyves to acheve.

Now to this citie in a languor stukke,
Came a fair knyght cleped Sterrebukke,
Beryng benes from a forein land
Ygrounde to a poudre in his hand,
From which a potent brew could he deryve
That causeth wery peple to revyve.
Whan word aboute his draghte hadde sprede,
To his shoppe the custumers al spedde
Til everich veine felte a rush of blood,
With humours boyed upward by that flood.
Soone men who herd the crowyng cok
Wolde rise withoute cursyng at the clok,
The thoughte of facyng daylight not so bleke
With coffey bryngyng roses to the cheke
And helpyng them to holde their swords alofte
And shethe them before they falle softe.

Sterrebukke so bygan to thynke
Of other ways to selle the same drynke.
With stemed milk and sprenkled cynamone,
’Twas fit, he sayde, for kynges on the throne;
The capuchino joyned thus his wares,
As wel as mocas, sweter than eclares,
And lattes riche in creme, ofte fresen
And beten to a froth in sumer seson,
And tall espressos armured with cappes
To stoppen scaldyng spilles into lappes
As may hap when one is in a hurry
Upon a pilgrymage to Caunterbury.

Nietzsche, the Whiner

January 11, 2008


[After reading this, be sure to visit my later post,Nietzsche Reconsidered. http://wp.me/p3LmG-2qt%5D

Time to put on my crank-curmudgeon hat. I must “rail against” Friederich Nietzsche (as Flaubert would have said.) Another thinker – yes, I’ll grant him that description – who is vastly overrated. Or at least, not worth the adulation and seriousness with which he is treated, I think.

I’m not going to lay at his feet the blame for the crimes of the Third Reich, or the disgusting propagandizing carried out for the Nazis by his sister, whom he despised, I believe. It all happened after he was long dead! No, I won’t even attack him for being a pitiless scourge of the humanitarians, a cynic, or a war monger. Nope, Fred was a whiner.

Look, I know that personal details of biography are not supposed to be the substance of intellectual critiques, but the fact is, a lot of intellectuals develop their complex systems to work out their personal problems. (Wittgenstein was another.) I suspect that for many, their intellectual systems compensate them in some way for something they feel they lack, but that’s my speculation. Some people compensate with serial murder, pedaphilia, adultery, greed, or generally unpleasant behavior: intellectuals do it with ideas.

Nietzsche, the son of a protestant pastor -That alone should give you a clue! Think of the literary figures, brilliant but a wee bit unbalanced that have come from that backgroud! (Samuel Butler comes to mind.) Why, I personally know a few such people myself, including one that was a radical underground figure of the 60s. Add to this the fact that he was extremely shy, sexually innocent, socially awkward, and that his romantic/sexual experiences are said by some to have been limited to one encounter in a brothel, from which, incidentally, he contracted the syphilis that killed him years later. Of course, he gradually went mad, and died in an insane asylum.

The man was a romantic, a dreamer, a scholar of ancient languages who felt out of place in the sordid hustle of industrial Europe. Nothing unusual there. So, he develops a philosophy that is really his poetical statement of his revulsion towards 19th century culture. (“They vomit their bile and call it a newspaper.”) His work is a song of yearning for a time long past, a time that probably never existed. The dream of a classics scholar, poring over Greek literature, enthralled by the heroic aesthetics of ancient civilization. (Sort of like the shrink in the play, Equus.) And what does he see around him? Commerce! So, he whines, and complains, and insults, and rants and raves, and dreams up the “superman” who is above all that. As he would be if he were not such a nebbish. Can you doubt that he really sees himself as Zarathustra: (“Lo, I am like a bee who hath gathered too much honey, and I need hands outstretched to take it” [his wisdom, that is])? That’s what his philosophy amounts to.

[Prendre le nectar de la pensée et en faire son miel personnel, c’est sa nature.  Pauvre Nietzsche!  Il n’est qu’un une fleur qui se prend pour une abeille.

Taking the nectar of thought and making one’s honey, that is his nature.  Poor Nietzsche!  He is just a flower who takes himself for a bee. 

4.20.10 apropos de Nietzsche et le demon de midi.]

Sure, I agree, his tirades are a “useful corrective” (as has been pointed out to me) to the dogmatic materialism and hypocrisy of 19th century bourgeois culture. Okay. And he could be pretty funny with his nasty, rapier thrusts, e.g., “The last Christian died on the cross.” He was right about the relativistic nature of all morals, but is that a great achievement – has nobody else mined that intellectual vein? His aesthetic sense was sharp, but that’s not why he’s remembered. All in all, a brilliant man, but a “Great Thinker?”

I recall my English class in high school when the teacher asked us who were the greatest thinkers of the 19th century – I believe he was looking for Darwin, Marx as the answers. I, enthused about Zarathustra and what I thought it pointed to in my future, ventured Nietzsche. His dry remark: “Well, there are thinkers and there are thinkers.”

Nietzsche, poet wannabee and whiner.