Philosophy and Ideas

What Makes a Man a Hero?

It cost him to travel: one day in the train and three to recuperate. He never visited Paris or London or Brussels, never went west to Madrid or Lisbon. He endorsed Herder’s claim that German was Greek, but made no effort to cross the Balkans to the land that gave form not only to civic liberties but also to the even more potent derivative concept of unenslaved inner freedom: the closest he came to Greece was the temple of Paestum, south-east of Sorrento, which he saw in the spring of 1877, or on the boat trip he made from Genoa to the ruins of Sicily. He never visited Mozart’s Prague, which was a day’s journey from Dresden: it was too far east. Nor did he pay much attention to that other German culture which had its capital in Vienna.

What moved him was an instinct for the issues of glaciers and mountains, the language of the spring wind, and stark shadowless sunlight. “Philosophy, as I have hitherto understood and lived it, is a voluntary living in ice and high mountains” (Ecce Homo). Lucid effort had to go into the election of a place: “I can’t allow myself to commit an error with regards to the weather. Do you know that the error of last winter (Santa Margherita and its dampness) very nearly cost me my life?” The wanderer above the clouds was forever on the lookout for a place where he could rediscover Goethe’s great secret of living at peace with the world. There he might find the one place he could write, or take out his notebook and walk, as he did between Santa Margherita and Portofino where “the bay of Genoa sings the last notes of its melody”.

This essay appeared in a recent Quadrant.
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No great traveller, our Herr Quidam was no adventurer either: while he was turning the pages of Revue des Deux Mondes, Rimbaud was running guns in Harar. Nietzsche was incapable of “adding up” his dangers, as one of his later admirers André Malraux did; but then Malraux sagely contrived to end his days as cabinet minister and museum director. In the age of Pierre Loti and the great “exotes”, the first Thomas Cook excursions and the first travel magazines, Nietzsche followed a different schedule, attracted by the pagan springs of “the old diluvian Europe” and his whim of setting up house in Tunis, Corsica or Spain.

The axis of his world was the bar of the Alps: on one side the matriarchal North, from Naumburg down to Basle, the fogged Wagnerian landscape he grew to loathe; on the other the Ligurian and Piedmontese coast of Italy and France: Genoa, Turin and Nice, which he visited every year from 1883 until 1888. Zarathustra “stole up on [him]” on the bay that stretches all the way from Santa Margherita to the promontory of Portofino, convincing him in a cold and damp albergo, with the high tide surging below his window and keeping him from sleep, “that everything decisive comes about ‘in spite of’”. Out of gratitude, he hoped to bestow immortality on the village of Sils Maria (“perpetual heroic idyll”: July 8, 1881): it should perhaps be considered as the furthermost salient of the Germanic world on the Latin, an Alpine balcony perched over the Mediterranean. This was where “all fifty prerequisites for [his] meagre life” were united, where the idea of eternal recurrence was born one day in the woods beside the lake of Silvaplana “6000 feet above the sea and higher still above all human things” (September 3, 1883). Two tracks in his life met there: the trail above Rapallo and the forest road through the Engadin.

For all his poor arithmetic, Nietzsche was heroic in his isolation, and he knew it. The note of scorn in his writing is unmistakable: scorn for others who lacked, in his eyes, the courage to live their separateness. That was his self-mastery, which is to say morality. Being isolated meant getting to observe the doings of the domesticated. His was the condescension of the Cynic philosopher, trampling on the pride of property-owners with—as Plato remarked of the first cynical philosopher Diogenes—another kind of pride. It gave Nietzsche the urge to rush into the temple and overturn the money-changers’ tables, which is what his writings eventually accomplished, though the columns of the temple ultimately fell in on Europe itself. “We Europeans confront a world of tremendous ruins”: his proclamation was a prophecy too, and one heard by a political agitator called Adolf Hitler, who promised a Munich audience in 1926 that he would complete “the task which Christ began but did not finish”.

Nietzsche even anointed himself with the ointment of greatest value when he claimed, in one of his letters: “now I am, with great probability, the most independent man in Europe”. This remote descendant of Samson who blustered like the Baron Munchhausen could never decide whether life was tragic or just a game. “The problem of the actor has troubled me for the longest time” (The Joyful Science). He certainly hated the thought of life being reduced to the playing of a role—“to a comedy of existence … ‘become conscious’ of itself”—when what goaded him was the absoluteness of truth. To think all the world a stage was to despair of it; and Nietzsche despaired of it so much he proposed its total reinterpretation: the world could be justified “only as an aesthetic phenomenon”. Which is to say: by restaging it!

What Nietzsche sought was a spendthrift moral economy, one that turned not on the calculus of virtues and just deserts but on the individual acting without a regard for consequences. Truly good deeds had to exist, like love, beyond the law. “O all you glances of love, you divine moments! How quickly you died!” (Zarathustra) True virtue was instinctive and profligate: “it is of the essence of the rich spirit to squander itself carelessly, without petty caution, from day to day.” Predictability made him shudder. Hegel’s “partnership-project” for self-realisation was anathema to him, even if much in his life seems to follow Hegel’s speculations to the letter. Commercial society was an aggregate of individuals, but once equipped with a bureaucracy and regulatory organs it evicted the outstanding individual; in a society of self-proclaimed selfhoods the truly individual life was impossible.

“My own person,” he wrote to his Danish admirer Georg Brandes from Nice in 1888, “represents a crucial occurrence in the crisis of value judgments. But that could be an error; and stupid, too—I want not to have to believe anything about myself.” Nietzsche’s dilemma is a deep one: the cost of detecting bad faith in others is to have to reveal the measure of one’s own. So he does what Hamlet did: he denounces the wrongness of the reality he depends upon for the rightness of his grievance against it.

There was a tropism to Nietzsche’s peregrinations: salvation could come only from the south, from the sun-drench of Mediterranean thought, Roman and especially Greek. “I find it strange that every year on the arrival of spring I experience the violent desire to go further south” (July 1, 1883). Unheated rooms and deserted inns, the exaltations and distress of the solitary traveller, the habits of the poste restante, the exigencies of spending winter away from ordinary comforts marked the years of his exile. The world dispersed and reassembled; Nietzsche listened to its Tantric breathing. Eternity, Rimbaud wrote, is the sea merged with the sun.

At Nice, in November 1885, where simoons blew across from Africa to dry the air and toughen the vegetation, “something victorious and extra-European frees itself, something deeply strengthening which tells me: here you are in your place”. He was writing the fourth part of Zarathustra, and the Midi hymned the solar perfection of the world. In Venice a few weeks later, the weather proved to be magnificently clear and fresh, though everything pained him. He was enduring one of his recurrent migraines. He had gravitated to the edge of society, and some of his followers would have to go there to find him, too.

New concepts of energy and power were beginning to gush into language; the buried solar energy of fossil fuels was already stoking the furnaces of industry in Nietzsche’s lifetime. “This world: a monster of energy, without beginning, without end” (Will to Power). Ordinary civil life was changing too. Nineteenth-century Europeans were reorienting themselves to the sun at the centre of culture, the source that cannot be gazed at. It had been the sport of the gods to squabble with each other for possession of that radiant centre; by the mid-century those mythic contests were being codified into the various rules of our contemporary ball-games. A hundred years later, in the 1950s, when that amateur footballer and engaged writer Albert Camus complained that a “German ideology” had been allowed to triumph over the “Mediterranean spirit” of those countries where the “intelligence is the sister of the harsh light of the sun” he had briefly forgotten that it was Nietzsche who had first made a cult of solar thought. Warming himself on the promenade at Nice, Nietzsche allowed himself to mock his homeland: “God, with the cynicism that is peculiar to him, lets his sun shine down particularly upon us more beautifully than upon the so much more reputable Europe of Herr von Bismarck.”

Nietzsche’s debt to other writers was the familiar baggage of any central European thinker of his time: Pascal, Montaigne, Lichtenberg, Schopenhauer. He is seldom compared to thinkers and artists who might dent the myth of his originality, though much in his writing was anticipated by Mandeville, Spinoza, Rousseau (a writer he loathed although they both wrote as if honesty were the only virtue worth cultivating), Hegel, Tocqueville, Heine, and above all Celsus, the second-century despiser of Christians.

Nietzsche’s calumny of Christianity is actually a kind of back-handed admiration, for he knows what Celsus did not: that the vulgar Christian habit of turning the cheek, of renouncing any kind of violence at all, had overcome not only the Roman empire but the god of philosophy. In following Celsus, Nietzsche fails to follow his own advice: “The world-historical stupidity of all persecutors has lain precisely in their giving their opponents the appearance of honourableness—in bestowing upon them the fascination of martyrdom.” It is practically a confession. As for his famous notion of the Eternal Return, it is a classical idea and one entirely familiar to the Stoics, who argued that without a “first cause” everything would end up repeating itself. But the idea of cyclical return was banished by Augustine: the incarnation could happen only once, and history moves, as laid out in the cryptic language of the Book of Revelation, towards its consummation.

Nietzsche’s attitude to ethics goes as far back as Plato’s Callicles, who considered the laws a stratagem of the weak to dupe the strong. Shakespeare’s Richard III comes out with it, too: “Conscience is but a word cowards use, / Devised at first to keep the strong in awe.”

Dostoevsky made Nietzsche want to learn Russian, but he never did; his English and Italian were poor, though he spent many of his most productive periods in Italy; only his French was halfway decent. His German, of course, was surefooted and nimble; and he surely never forgot the lesson he once inscribed in one of his notebooks—that the only real stylists were the Greeks and the French, who, regarding all other languages as cacophonous, made it a matter of pride not to learn them. Hardly enough, then, to be a good European today; though what Nietzsche had in mind with the term was something different.

The term “good European” turns up again and again in his writings of the 1880s. It meant the liberty not to have to be German (didn’t he insist in his last lucid piece of writing that he was “a pure-blooded Polish nobleman, in whom there is no drop of bad blood, least of all German”?), but to allude freely to sources in Greek and Roman, French and Italian history. On the other hand, wanting to be what we are not, permanently convinced that “life is elsewhere”: what else is that but a kind of Bovarysme cloaked in the mantle of the adventurer? For the philosopher who, earlier in his career, had hoped for a New Greece to be born in Germany and seen it disperse in the cannon and cavalry of the New Prussia, it meant—ultimately—preferring the lightweight Bizet to that old thunderer, Wagner. “What did I never forgive Wagner? … that he became reichsdeutsch.”

In fact, the good European may well be an attenuation of the phrase that Nietzsche’s mentor Jacob Burckhardt came up with during his professorship at Basle: uomo universale. It represented a cultural ideal; by 1860, when Burckhardt published his famous study on the culture of the Renaissance, the figure of the complete man was well beyond recuperation. That union of world-historical experience and sublime thought in one person was no longer an aspiration, it was a nostalgia.

The great prose stylist of modern German complains that for the Germans writing is wasted effort. Germany’s gift to the world was music, “the voice of the soul of Europe”. Indeed, Nietzsche actually composed some pieces which sound rather like Schumann—andante con moto. Without music, he wrote, life would be “an error, an exhausting toil, an exile”. Zarathustra ought to be filed away with the symphonies, he wrote to his friend Peter Gast on April 2, 1883. “As an old musician (which is what I really am), I have an ear for quarter tones,” he wrote to Georg Brandes, the Danish critic of Jewish origin, “a good European and cultural missionary”, and the first academic to give serious consideration to Nietzsche’s increasingly ironical quest for historical sublimity. Luther had been there before him: in the schools that he wanted to set up across reformed Germany he would allow no man to teach who was unable to sing—“nor would [he] let him preach either”.

Germany had been the original Kulturnation, free from the scramble for colonies. Yet between 1848 and 1871, it went from an agrarian economy to industrial might. Not having an empire, it was a German politician who came up with the idea of the welfare state; as a substitute for empire. The true concern of empire was always domestic. Empire absorbed misfits and malingerers; above all, it absorbed the resentment engendered by the passage from traditional to market society. Universal suffrage was the political expression of the markets expanding to include the colonising nations’ entire workforce as consumers. As Britain and France expanded their empires, Bismarck compelled Germany to ditch her old principles and enter the era of power politics. Only the state could provide a unified education in a part of Europe that had historically regarded culture as a realm distinct from, and superior to, the politics of social organisation. But where would Germany find the colonial slaves to maintain its program of liberal expansionism? In Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, published as Nietzsche lay benighted in a bathchair in his sister’s villa in Weimar, Marlow, slowly moving upriver to the source of the Congo in search of the symbolic figure of Kurtz (“All Europe contributed to the making of Kurtz”), is a civilised man learning the coils of his own “internal savagery”.

For the Congo read the Rhine. Nietzsche himself had seen the effects of modern war on the front at Ars-sur-Moselle, near Metz. As a medical orderly, he treated six wounded men on a train returning to the support lines at Karlruhe until he came down with dysentery himself. He had seen the militarism of the Gründerjahre close up, and he had no stomach for it. Such a civilisation, Nietzsche feared, would be nothing but discipline, repression and diminution of the individual. “What civilisation wants is not what culture wants; it may even be the opposite.”

In 1885, his sister married Bernhard Förster, an adventurer whose anti-Semitism—half out of Gobineau, half out of Wagner—distressed the philosopher immeasurably. When Förster left Germany to found a colony in Paraguay, later to be called Nueva Germania, Nietzsche wrote to his mother: “You see, because of this species of men I could not go to Paraguay: I am so happy that they voluntarily exile themselves from Europe. For, even if I should be a bad German, I am at all events a very good European.” He was horrified that his name should be associated with vulgarians like Förster. In Beyond Good and Evil, published the same year, he wrote:

“signs clearly point to the fact that Europe wants to become one. In all the more profound and more widely talented humans of the century, such was the general direction and the genuine though secret labour of their souls: to prepare the path to a new synthesis and to anticipate by way of experiment the European of the future …”

Nietzsche was vague about the political means for anticipating the future Europe. He sensed a great levelling process in the offing for “Europe’s heirs, the rich, superabundant, but also superabundantly obligated heirs of two millennia of the European spirit …” Elsewhere he wrote: “We are good Europeans and heirs to Europe’s longest and boldest process of self-overcoming.” In Beyond Good and Evil, the process had even become physiological: “There’s nothing for it but to proclaim ourselves without fear good Europeans and to work for the fusion of the nations.” What was ending, at least in Nietzsche’s mind, was the conviction which had dominated politics since the Treaty of Westphalia in the seventeenth century: that our separate political communities are absolute and therefore entitled to use all possible means to triumph over their adversaries. A future Europe could only be dialectical, not eristic. But Nietzsche had only contempt for the higher dialectics.

In 1888, Nietzsche himself seems to have felt that his preening phrase “the will to power”, instead of being a gauntlet thrown down to his age, might actually be rather congenial to those it was meant to unseat. His biographer Walter Kaufmann calls it an “instinct for freedom”, which makes it sound as if it were an exuberant manifestation of Eros or an overspilling of confidence—the kind of creative urge which, Nietzsche insists, is fulfilled only through self-discipline. But the confusion had been seeded. His antinomianism puts him very much at risk of being seen as a secret power-worshipper of the type that was to become so common in the 1930s that George Orwell talked about power as “the new religion of Europe”.

In our time liberals fall over themselves to denounce all such “wills” in the name of the wounded egalitarianism for which Nietzsche had such an implacable loathing: “Eurocentrism” is one of them, though “Europe” was only to emerge as a concept once the era of the great nation-states had ended. It is difficult to escape the impression that Nietzsche’s will to power was actually a rather selective will not to know—not to admit anything into consciousness that might limit the scope for action. Power, in a peculiarly modern sense, is the external counterpart to the internal happiness of virtue: the happy self is master of its circumstances. Unmastered, those circumstances fester in daily life as boredom, and release themselves in the great explosions called wars. (And by the time we get to Michel Foucault, it becomes clear that power in the social domain is the metaphorical equivalent of energy in the physical.)

It was the nineteenth century which attempted to conscript violence as a positive force. Evil, as Faust suggests, can be good and violence a useful force, as developed in Hegel’s philosophy, for it acts to bring humankind closer towards an understanding of its true nature. In so doing, Hegel wrenched the philosophical tradition out of its socket: philosophy virtually defines itself as the repression of violence for the sake of the city. What Plato had first attempted to do, in conflating philosophy and political science in The Republic, was to fascinate human beings with godlike ideals, each quarantined in its hierarchy, so as to save them from their own conflictual nature. Life is a triumph in as far as it quits the world of time and appearances for that of durable truth. Even Hegel, who, with his dialectic of the master and servant, attempted to make this raw force humanity’s tutor and instructor, failed to account entirely for its nature. His rationality turns it into a cognitive phenomenon that compels us to recognise the reality of other beings precisely because we cannot bridle their violence. (Perhaps that is philosophy’s perennial temptation: to regard violence as an idea rather than a brute fact of life.)

But Hegel could never entirely turn blind destructiveness to rational ends, for blind destructiveness is more irrational than he was prepared to admit. Nietzsche, on the other hand, panicked at the thought of a society without violence, one in which the Christian ethic had been transposed to the sphere of consumption. He had no time at all for the idea that society might be what Hegel called “objective mind”, and scanted the actual social life that accorded him his freedoms as a legal person. (Hadn’t Diogenes the Cynic done much the same to the better-behaved philosophers of the Greek polis?) Yet social envy, rancour and spite (all of which are encompassed by Nietzsche’s French term ressentiment) are trifling and containable phenomena when seen in the light of the carnage and destruction Europe called down upon itself barely a decade after Nietzsche’s physical death in 1900—what he called, in a blindly artful phrase, “the voluptuousness of victory and cruelty”. Dionysus turned out to be the sponsor of mass slaughter.

Even in his dreams of self-sufficiency Nietzsche was not entirely original either: the proud, magnanimous man who, in his grandeur, refuses to seek help because the taking of it would show him to be dependent on others was described millennia ago by Aristotle in his Nicomathean Ethics: this is the megalopsychos, the great-souled man who, with his “slow movements, deep voice and calm speech” is something of an embarrassment to most virtue ethicists. Everyone seeks recognition, as the untold followers of Hegel insist; not so, rebuts Nietzsche, for what can be more servile and shallow than the person whose sense of self requires him to seek its worth in the eyes of others. “Every valley shall be exalted, and every mountain and hill shall be laid low” was the Old Testament promise of the ultimate levelling that was to be realised by the New: Nietzsche wanted, like Conrad’s naive and noble Lord Jim, to stand indomitably alone.

Long before Nietzsche, the Scottish philosopher David Hume had also attempted to “redeem” pride for modern usage and insisted, on empirical grounds very different from Nietzsche’s conjectural method, that the experience of conscious will and causation bears no direct relation to the actual circumstances surrounding behaviour. Hume made no bones about the fact that dissolving causality was a thoroughly disturbing business: his restorative, in moments of vertigo, was to play a round of backgammon with his (non-philosophical) friends. Sympathy still exerted an attractive force in Hume’s weightless world of hypothesis.

Nietzsche, on the other hand, repudiated all qualities that imply mutuality: the most perfect enemy was the friend. In a correspondence that is notable for the warmth with which he writes to his friends, his quip seems perverse: he fails to represent correctly the crucial role friendship played in his own, ordinary, dependent human life. He refuses to acknowledge his own neediness. In a forlorn phrase, in his truncated autobiography Ecce Homo, he confesses to having believed, already at the age of seven, that no human voice could ever touch him. Perhaps seven-year-olds form such drastic opinions at moments of crisis, but they surely don’t hold them for long: the mystery is that Nietzsche wrote that phrase forty years later, at the close of his conscious life. What did the philosopher intend with his autistic confession? That was surely the plaintive little Pietist speaking, all alone with the divine promptings of his heart.

That was where one strand of Protestant Christianity led. Another, anticipated with nothing less than horror by Nietzsche (“Christian hypochondria”), had brought about an era of appeasement in which pride, self-love and the refusal of pity were the greatest sins: solicitude for the welfare of those who differ from “us”, even to our own detriment, is the morality that underwrites both multiculturalism and political correctness. It is the instruction to turn the other cheek become sanctimonious, the other-regarding cant of those Nietzsche scorned as “the last men”. Follow the argument to its absurd conclusion and the really good European, it would seem, is duty-bound to annul his own existence.

Fundamentally, Nietzsche’s ethics are not concerned with states of mind, certainly not with the grubby calculations of homo œconomicus: “[There is no being] behind the doing, acting, becoming, the doing is everything” (Genealogy of Morals). He satirised the conventional ideal of the “good man”:

“At times I have an enormous contempt for good people—their weakness, their wanting to experience nothing, their wanting to see nothing, their arbitrary blindness, their banal resolving in the usual and comfortable, their gratification with their good ‘qualities’, etc.”

Benevolence was a trivialising of obdurate human nature, its pruning down to “a miserable Chinese existence”. What impressed him was not at all the figure of the good but that of the great European, of whom Napoleon was the sole exemplar: “he brought back again a whole slab of antiquity, perhaps even the decisive piece, the piece of granite”. Right and wrong actions, conventionally maintained, were to be judged taxonomically only in so far as they stood in relation to the actor’s nature. Being your own man was the thing. And doing what you did in a robust and untroubled manner was the only way to do it.

Francis Bacon (of all people) caught this odd blend of moral detachment and conniving at the main chance in his definition of fortune:

“overt and apparent virtues bring forth praise; but there be secret and hidden virtues that bring forth fortune; certain deliveries of a man’s self, which have no name. The Spanish name, desemboltura, partly expresseth them: when there be not stonds nor restiveness in a man’s nature, but that the wheels of his mind keep way with the wheels of his fortune.”

Désinvolture was what Nietzsche most admired in France’s tradition of philosophical egoism, though he himself was anything but a disinhibited, carefree and impudent “self-deliverer”. In his prescriptions for the good life, he liked to extol the victor, whose mercy comes from magnanimity and abundance. Only someone with a pressing need to make a display of his own daring could vaunt the virtues of what he calls “spending” and “lavishness”: Nietzsche was too acute a psychologist to go unawares of the strong element of compensatory thinking in his attempt to define what makes a man a hero. Reading his letters of the 1880s make it clear that the hapless Fritz was caught in a three-way emotional tangle with his mother Franziska (“meine alte Mutter”) and above all his sister Elisabeth: her very person embodied the stifling Naumburg inheritance that made him call himself “the virtuoso of self-overcoming”. It is a most vainglorious epithet for a monk who, dutifully and for more than a decade, sent his emotions home for darning. Packages of biscuits, ham and sausages would come by return of post.

Truth was, Germany had already produced one really outstanding European, someone Nietzsche could idolise without reservation: that was Goethe, who:

“did not cut himself off from life but put himself in the midst of it; he was not fainthearted but took as much as possible upon himself, over himself, within himself. What he wanted was totality; he fought the mutual extraneousness of reason, senses, feeling, and will (preached with the most abhorrent scholasticism by Kant, the antipode of Goethe); he disciplined himself into wholeness, he created himself.”
(Twilight of the Idols)

This fabulous creature, a person of convinced realism, strongest instincts, self-overcoming, emancipation and tolerance—“not out of weakness, but out of strength”—is clearly Nietzsche’s own Übermensch. Indeed, the term itself comes from Goethe, when an earth-spirit conjured up by Faust rebukes him with it. Nietzsche considered the conversations with Eckermann to be the best German book ever. Goethe, as Nietzsche wrote in a quicksilver phrase, was a “stylised human being”: an impetuous hotblood who as he aged into severe dignity cultivated a kind of steadfastness, the very opposite of the impetuousness of his earlier Romantic self.

It may well be the case that the modern era has only ever been fully inhabited by one or two supreme men of style, talented figures who had the good fortune to be living at its outset: Wilhelm and Alexander von Humboldt, explorers, anthropologists and linguists are perhaps the last modern men, certainly the last men to experience Europe as an informal republic of letters: the latter saw language not as an end-product but as a vital activity, not ergon but energeia, “streaming outward from the heart’s depths”.

Our sense of being epigones is much closer to the frank remark made by Kafka, who allowed himself a sigh of admiration, in his 1912 diary, at Goethe’s physique. What he saw was probably the famous silhouette done by Lavater when he descended on the house at Weimar and subjected everyone he could lay his hands upon to his truth-revealing pantograph. “Simultaneous impression of repugnance when looking at this perfect human body,” Kafka writes, “since to surpass this degree of perfection is unimaginable and yet it looks only as though it had been put together by accident. The erect posture, the dangling arms, the slender throat, the crook of the knees.”

We are all afflicted with ressentiment, in other words, and Nietzsche’s superman is the supreme disguise for his own sense of inadequacy. A superman could not even begin to think of himself in such terms: he would live in the conviction that his kingdom was not of this world. Nietzsche knew that too: that is why his explicitly pagan programmatic god cannot banish that “innocent from the country”, Jesus of Nazareth. Christianity remains the source of the deepest ethical insights of our society, including Nietzsche’s own. As he himself wrote, “if anything is unevangelical it is the concept of the hero”.

Few of Nietzsche’s followers have ever grasped what Nietzsche understood, for all his blindness to the material basis of his own experience: rejecting a world in which everything is transformed by exchange demands, in all logic, the refusal of the exchange-value generated by the act of rejection itself. In fact, if we cast around in the twentieth century for the figure who most closely resembles Nietzsche we find someone preoccupied by the imitatio Christi like Simone Weil. Weil could almost have been summing up Nietzsche’s entire career when she wrote, in a famous chiasmus: “Whoever takes up the sword shall perish by the sword. And whoever does not take up the sword (or lets it drop) shall perish on the cross.”

Taking up the pen was the only activity to which Nietzsche attached great value; he would have agreed with Henry James that “it takes a great deal of history to produce a little literature”. It was actually another American, Emerson, who had, in his essay The Over-Soul, given the idea of the superman back to German literature; Emerson elsewhere defines the quality that attracted Nietzsche to the culture of the Mediterranean: “No man ever states his griefs as lightly as he might.” Nietzsche never left Europe, yet the sea was his favourite metaphor:

“And where then would we go? Would we cross the sea? Where does this mighty longing draw us, this longing that is worth more to us than any pleasure? Why just in this direction, there where all the suns in human history have hitherto gone down? Will it perhaps be said of us one day that we too, steering westwards, hoped to reach an India—but that it was our fate to be wrecked against infinity?”

Perhaps Nietzsche was more of a frontiersman than anyone has hitherto supposed, more closely kin to the great American essayist he so admired. If the kingdom of God was anywhere it was at hand, in the hearts of men. Not only his antinomianism, but his suspicion of the state, are American instincts. Emerson had written: “Society everywhere is in conspiracy against the manhood of every one of its members.” While the modern state for Hegel was the supreme manifestation of spirit, the kingdom of the idea, Nietzsche thought it merely a more complicated expression of the herd-instinct, an extension of man’s animal nature: the only spirit that counted for Nietzsche was absolute, and its dividing line ran through the human species. Great men could write to each other across political borders, just as much as they could call out to each other down the ages.

Walter Benjamin suggested that Goethe, for all that he foresaw the industrialisation of Europe in the second part of Faust, was unable “to conceive of the state as a factor in history”; the comment applies with equal force to Nietzsche. As far as he was concerned the state was conformist; it was the arch-enemy of the individual’s refashioning of his own nature. “Nothing is at last sacred but the integrity of your own mind” (Emerson). But the all-out attempt to be honest about oneself is intimately related to a lack of interest in correctly representing others.

But if we are looking for the American in Nietzsche it is perhaps to be found not among the amblings of that genial pagan Whitman and his love for “the health of the race” but in the odd but compelling figure of Ambrose Bierce, who, in his late years, abandoned writing and went to seek “the good, kind darkness” down in the Rio Grande. There was a civil war on in Mexico; and the Old Gringo vanished out of history. It was the end of a chapter in the annals of escapism: Americans wanted to escape from Europe, and here was Bierce trying to escape from history altogether. He went under, as if the subterranean psychology both he and Nietzsche had spadeworked in their writings offered secret chambers and negotiable passageways to another moral universe.

The word immoralist was adopted by Nietzsche, as he writes in Ecce Homo, “as a mark of distinction and badge of honour”. But their deeper immoralism was surely their refusal to acknowledge there is no other moral universe, their experimentalism. “What reality was I talking about? Is there a second one?” Ulrich asks himself, in Robert Musil’s novel for the age of probability The Man without Qualities. While there is always something to be said for philosophical heroes who eschew the method of the famous “armchair odyssey” of Descartes’ Meditations, the attitude of contemptus mundi, which Nietzsche claimed to abhor, will always hover around those who, like Musil’s man without qualities, and Nietzsche and Bierce too, are tempted to take a vacation from ordinary life. It is the peril inherent in the essay as a mode of life.

Nietzsche once told Peter Gast that the landscape of Sils Maria wasn’t Swiss, “but something quite different, at least much more southern—I would have to go to the high plateaux of Mexico overlooking the Pacific to find anything similar (for example, Oaxaca)”; and a couple of years later reminded the same friend that he hoped somebody would rescue him from what had been the worst winter in his life. He turns it into a portent of escalating crisis: “I regard myself as the victim of a disturbance in nature. The old Europe of the Great Flood will kill me yet; but perhaps somebody will come to my aid and drag me off to the plateaux of Mexico.” He wanted to go to a ruined civilisation and rediscover, like an anthropologist from the future, its lapidary art of keeping the sun alive. It would be another stage in his fitful process of self-transfiguration, a kind of trickster inversion. To be able to sit in a café in the airy zócalo of Oaxaca proselytising for the good life, joking with the local traders, extolling the cloudless blue skies and devising nutritious recipes; and perhaps even getting to watch Europe’s stately danse macabre (the one on Basle Cathedral) tear through the streets of Oaxaca on All Saints Day as a furious zapateado. Nietzsche knew that the outpouring of energy he extolled comes not from anything an individual good European might desire but from ritual cruelty. Going to Mexico was his fantasy of mortification.

Iain Bamforth is a physician and translator who lives in Strasbourg.

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