‘The Sun’ (1909) by Edvard Munch adorns the cover of Mette Blok’s book on Nietzsche
‘Poignant’ is the word that sprang to my mind when I finished reading Danish academic Mette Blok’s groundbreaking book on Friedrich Nietzsche some years ago. I have now completed the translation of this book. (A thorough proofing process now awaits). I say ‘poignant’, because on finishing the translation of the book – I had done a great deal of Nietzsche research in the meantime – I was then fully aware of Nietzsche’s efforts to save us from our own follies. How much effort he made. How much he has been, and still is, misrepresented and wrongly maligned. Nietzsche sought to uplift. To help us face each new dawn with joy, despite our pains.
Though a mercurial genius, it was clear to me that Nietzsche retained a childlike quality throughout his increasingly tortured life. He was a ‘pure child’, as we say in Ireland. An adult child who retained a touching innocence. He clearly reacts with effusive glee when he is praised and profound dismay on being rebuked, rejected or ignored. He was barely read in his own lifetime. Sometimes, even people who admired him or cared for him did not know what to make of his new way of writing philosophy. Nietzsche’s adult side, of course, continued with the work that so agitated or enthralled people depending on their own views, perspicacity or bias. He continued because this was his calling and he could do no other, as he well understood. Constantly seeking approval but also ploughing one’s own lonely furrow regardless of opinion is a special form of human self-torture. No god or beast can know of it. It takes human courage, conviction and fortitude. Thankfully, Nietzsche possessed these in abundance.
As is well known, Nietzsche was also tortured by a lifetime of poor and ever worsening eyesight – the greatest fear for any writer. But he was also tortured because he knew he was, and probably always would be, misunderstood: – “Hat man mich verstanden?” Have I been understood? is a recurring question for him and is discussed in the book. That search for approval again. But it is more than that for Nietzsche, because rather than revelling in the death of God – as he is often portrayed – he was horrified at its implications for humankind. He truly cared about us and our fates and could feel desperate sadness sometimes at the thought of human suffering. Not least because much of it was and is needless. He knew suffering intimately.
So concerned was Nietzsche, in fact, at the inevitable prospect of a rampant nihilism (we are close to it now, perhaps) following the collapse of religious faith, he bent his mind, his will and aching body parts to devising a way out that could lead us to the type of new – what we might call – ‘Age of the Sun’ depicted by Nietzsche acolyte, Edvard Munch above. Dawn and the new day are hugely important motifs for Nietzsche. It is quite irrelevant that Nietzsche proclaimed himself to be the personification (in embryo?) of that new dawn and that he wrote in an often vituperative and caustic style. The key issues are: – were his arguments valid; his remedies helpful; and are the persistent claims of his extreme recklessness and ruthlessness true? This book answers all these questions.
Nietzsche’s strenuous efforts in trying to drag us away from barbarism and back to high culture are at the core of Mette Blok’s book and the reason why its title is not Nietzsche as Ethicist, which is the straight translation of its Danish title (‘Nietzsche som Etiker’), but Nietzsche as Educator. For he is indeed our educator, on a par I would argue with Kierkegaard, Dostoevsky and Karl Marx, in that uplifting mission they all clearly felt was part of their own life-missions. And, without giving too much away, the book’s conclusion even ventures tentatively into ‘Nietzsche as Christian’ territory.
It should be said that this is not the first book every written about Nietzsche that bears the title – Nietzsche as Educator, but it is undoubtedly one of the most important and most accessible. The gift that I have, probably above all others, is to make high-flown academic discourse more accessible to working class people. My people. Thankfully, Mette Blok writes in a very clear and down to earth way and that has made my task as translator and mediator much easier. There are literally thousands of academics who have written, or are at the moment writing about, Nietzsche but very little of this huge output either reaches, or means anything, to ‘ordinary people’. What a pity. Philosophy, and in particular where this book is concerned the discipline of ‘moral philosophy’ is supposed to be about helping us to live our lives more fruitfully and wisely, not to mention more excitingly if we follow Nietzsche’s argument as laid out in this book. Little of the moral philosophy debate percolates down to the masses, yet academics never seem to ask themselves why this is so. It is in this important sense, then, that Nietzsche is, or can be, an educator. For this book demonstrates very clearly the kind of actions Nietzsche believed we must take – and the life-view we should adopt – if we are to self-overcome ourselves. Become the people we truly are, once we establish the answer to that proposition. Nietzsche himself vaunted the idea of his being an educator in his book Ecce Homo in which he states that his book on his mentor Schopenhauer should be really be entitled Nietzsche as Educator, because it is far more about Nietzsche’s journey, rather than Schopenhauer’s.
Edvard Munch’s 1906 (posthumous) portrait of Nietzsche –
a reversal of his ‘Scream’
As is flagged above, where Nietzsche’s undeserved barbarian reputation is concerned, Mette Blok’s book to some extent, and understandably, concentrates on Nietzsche’s reception within the rarified realm of moral philosophy, and in particular refers to a group of Anglophone academics who have been less than careful in their Nietzsche research and have then arrived at sweeping conclusions that accuse Nietzsche of being an immoralist and deliberate wrecker of social harmony. However, part of my reason for immediately wanting to translate the book is that its redemption of Nietzsche has a far wider application. For, quite apart from a brilliant Intermezzo that examines and explains, to my satisfaction, Stanley Cavell’s essential thinking – i.e. that we are continually negotiating moral issues as we go along in life, the book contains the best explanation that I have ever read of the extraordinary dwarf-cum-serpent fable, which lies at the heart of Thus Spoke Zarathustra, a work Blok describes as Nietzsche’s “ethics”. A work she rightly places at the heart of her book.
It is strange that Nietzsche experts fail to pay more attention to this fable, at least in most of the books that I have read. For a start, all of us can relate to the idea of a devil or dwarf around our necks, weighing us down and dripping poison into our ears. Zarathustra throws down this dwarf (a metaphor for nihilism) by demonstrating how we can break modern life’s apparently endless and futile circle of logic with our gift for self-overcoming. That we can embrace that line that goes into the past – no matter how difficult that past sometimes was – and then look into the future with joy at every new moment that is just about to come. This idea of seizing the moment is of course very close to Kierkegaard in terms of the understanding of time, repetition and human agency (our ability to grasp time). Therefore, at every moment, we ourselves – we ordinary human beings – become the masters of time and history – a thought that terrifies the dwarf and no few philosophers, academics and high-ordained clerics as well, it seems. The notion that we – all of us – can be masters of our own destinies. Or as it says in the book – “we are no longer engulfed in time’s endless, impersonal cycle.”
A 17th century alchemist’s depiction of the mythical but all too ‘real’ Ouroboros
What then are to make of the serpent that gorges on the shepherd’s innards in that same fable? This is how, in the book, Zarathustra describes this constrictor and the debilitating effect it has upon him. Its hold on prophets and philosophers also:
The great disgust with mankind – that choked me and slithered into my throat: and what the prophet prophesied: “It is all equally futile, nothing is worthwhile, knowledge just strangles.” […] “The man of whom you are weary, the little man, recurs eternally”
Zarathustra cannot drag the slithering, choking beast from the shepherd’s throat and must exhort the man to bite its head off, which he does and then laughs a human laugh of freedom the like of which was never heard before. We see and feel graphically the point. Zarathustra can only give guidance. Only we ourselves can decapitate the vicious, endless cycle of meaninglessness in our own lives. Precisely because each life is different. Only we humans can transcend Eternal Recurrence and bend it to our will in each given moment. So where then does Nietzsche get the reputation of acclaiming the Overman/Superman – the Übermensch – who will ruthlessly dominate all of us with his monstrous ‘will’?
Put simply, there was a need for an English language book of this sort that specifically tackled the theoretical and philosophical arguments around morality and Nietzsche’s alleged ‘immoralism’. The book demonstrates that he was often his own worst enemy with his coruscating language and contempt for the moral guardians of his day, and precisely with his provocatively use of self-descriptions such as an ‘immoralist’ and ‘hammer wielder’. Hence the need to explain exactly what his intentions were when using these terms – that he was in fact proposing a higher set of morals based on our human striving to be our best selves in every regard. (If they were what passed for morals back then, he was against them and their hypocritical adherents.)
Sue Prideaux’s book demolishes once and for all the Nietzsche as Nazi myth
Though it very much stands on its own ground in its arguments and conclusions, I feel that Mette Blok’s book serves as a useful complement and forerunner to Sue Prideux’s ‘novelesque’ biography that completely demolishes the myth that Nietzsche was an antisemite, a Nazi, or proto-Nazi and extreme German nationalist. Prideaux’s achievement surpasses even that of Walter Kaufmann who first alerted the wider world to the nefarious role of Nietzsche’s sister, Elisabeth, in converting her gentle, though rather haughty, brother into a Nazi ‘Blond Beast’ – this ‘beast’ being another unfortunate metaphor used by Nietzsche. As many readers will have noticed, the cover of Prideaux’s book is based on Edvard Munch’s famous painting of Nietzsche (see above) – we might call it the resolution or redemption of Munch’s ‘Scream’, which it obviously invokes and is in discourse with. Tellingly, Nietzsche’s sister prevailed on Munch to also paint her good self, and the resulting full-length portrait captures her dark, scheming nature well in my view.
Nietzsche has recently been proposed as the inspiration
for the terrifying Judge of Blood Meridian
That an urgent need for corrective books such as those by Blok and Prideaux still exists, and that this need goes far beyond the halls of the Academe, is demonstrated by the relatively recent flurry of books about Cormac McCarthy. Blok’s book was published in 2010 (I only began translating it much more recently), and Prideaux’s book in 2018. But here we are in the mid-20s and we still have a raft of otherwise extremely careful and erudite exegetists – of Cormac McCarthy in this case – who are convinced that McCarthy’s baleful judge was inspired by Nietzsche’s lore of a supposedly ruthless and amoral Superman or Overman – I prefer the term ‘Übermensch’ in my translation as it has now entered the English language with sufficient currency.
As some of my readers are aware, I have written a monograph on the understated influence of Kierkegaard in McCarthy’s works, especially in Blood Meridian and this also deals with the misrepresentation of Nietzsche, not by McCarthy, but by his critics – see, “Kierkegaard’s ‘Point of View’ in Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian”: –
In fact, prior to the above monograph, I have had cause to point out to Danish researchers of Henrik Pontoppidan that, though Pontoppidan was undoubtedly influenced by Nietzsche, his depiction in A Fortunate Man (‘Lykke Per’) of the young Per Sidenius in the ruthless stage of his life journey is not a reflection of Nietzsche’s Will to Power concept. And whilst we are in Danish territory, some academic contemporaries of Mette Blok have in very recent times declared Nietzsche to be an anti-democrat promoting an often-inhuman agenda. It seems to me that authors like Pontoppidan and McCarthy, both of whom read Nietzsche at some length, understood Nietzsche better than their respective present-day exegetists. Indeed it seems to be a general rule that literary authors can do philosophers and philosophy better than philosophers or academics. This, in my view, is because fiction and biography authors are much more adept at seeing people in the round and in context. Whereas many philosophers and academics, the ones that I have read and know about at least, have a much more doctrinaire approach. This inflexibility has been exacerbated by an abandoning of nuance and a flattening of debate to an anachronistic labelling of people so that they can be placed in particular boxes. Kierkegaard has been declared an antisemite, Nietzsche a protofascist. Dostoevsky a ‘Russia fanatic’ and so this depressing trend blunders on. It is the opposite of the type of rigorous but generous investigation that is the true calling of academics surely? Infused – may God forbid – with a joy in humanity in all its complexities and contradictions. The kind of entirely human, yet still erudite and ambitious, philosophy and existential thinking Mette Blok does so well in ‘our’ book.
A draft cover of ‘Nietzsche as Educator’ – educating us on Nietzsche
Na Doirí Beaga