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Tag: Friedrich Nietzsche

Charlie Campbell: Keeps the reader amused, informed and regaled

“This is essentially a book about stupidity,” Charlie Campbell writes in the introduction to Scapegoat, his book about the cultural history of blame. In the book, Campbell explores a particular kind of human stupidity, the kind “that hits us after disaster, when we single out one person for blame, and hold them responsible for everything”. This practice, Campbell says, extends to almost everything from world-changing disasters to personal failures, the one thing that doesn’t vary is our need find someone or something to blame. “Marx blamed the capitalist system,” writes Campbell, “Dawkins religion. And Freud thought it all came down to sex. Larkin blamed our parents, Akins the potato and Mohamed Al-Fayed still says it’s all Prince Philips fault.” The subject of Campbell’s book could very easily grow wearisome, but the writer is impressively erudite and tells many an interesting story with flair and enthusiasm, which lends itself immediately to the reader. Campbell’s consideration of scapegoating commences with the word’s derivation (coined by William Tyndale in his 1530 translation of the bible to describe a Jewish Day of Atonement ritual, which included the sacrificing of two goats) and concludes with one of the most hapless instances of the practice in history (an innocent man convicted and hanged for the Great Fire of London), with numerous riveting facts and anecdotes along the way.

One might wonder about the importance of the subject, but in fact as Campbell points out, “the ritual of scapegoat goes back right to the beginning of mankind”. It is also something that has bound different cultures and religious denominations throughout the ages; this idea that “sin was a definitive entity that could be transferred from being to being or object and that wrongdoing could be washed away”. Campbell goes on to illustrate this point by citing similar absolution rituals from various beliefs systems  and societies, and shows how over time the animal scapegoat came to be replaced by a human one, which makes for very interesting reading. The book contains a chapter on animal prosecutions, which Campbell points out is one of the instances when human stupidity excels itself. The writer gives some hair-raising examples of animals being put on trial for such crimes as homicide and sorcery. “In Falaise, Normandy, in 1386 a sow was charged with killing and infant… ” writes Campbell, “In Bale in 1474 an old cock was put in the dock, accused of laying an egg…[and]…There was a case in 1478 in Switzerland involving an insect known as inger, which was devastating the local crop. ” For a time this practice also applied to inanimate objects. Indeed.

In order to understand our need to always find a culprit, Campbell looks to the nature of man “essentially a meaning seeking creature” incapable of accepting the fact that “much of life is inexplicable”.He goes on to show  how we use “myth, art and religion” to try and makes sense of seemingly arbitrary events . “Through them,” he writes, “we tell stories to dispel this frightening notion that the universe is a violent and senseless place where anything can and will happen to us. We listen most carefully to those who tell us that this isn’t actually the case, to those who can offer and explanation. And this all too often turns into blame. Blame tells the most comforting story, one in which there is a villain who seeks to thwart us, the heroes, at every turn.” Our need for explanation is thus directly connected to our fear of the unknown. This fear has been written about for decades, Fyodor Dostoevsky’s narrator in Demons, for example, described it as “the gravest, most tortuous fear of something I cannot define, something unknowable and absent from the order of things”. This was also the topic Friedrich Nietzsche gave some consideration to in Twilight of the Idols. “To trace something unknown back to something known is alleviating,” he wrote, “soothing, gratifying and gives moreover a feeling of power. Danger, disquiet, anxiety attend the unknown – the first instinct is to eliminate these distressing states. First principle: any explanation is better than none.”  This “cause-creating drive,” as Nietzsche referred to it, “conditioned and excited by the feeling of fear” is something that Campbell traces back through history to show how it has led man to find solace in the scapegoat, a usually innocent thing or person “demonised to justify persecution” and to bestow on the act an “illusion of rationality”.

But of course there is nothing rational about it, certainly not the different prototypes of scapegoat. Campbell identifies the following: literal, religious, communist, financial, sexual and medical, all of which have their own purposes and causes. The Christian scapegoat, for example, says Campbell, serves to rationalise evil and “to account for the terrible things that happen in the world”. This is because the religious establishment cannot otherwise justify their putatively omnipotent deity’s failure to safeguard humanity from tragedy and misfortune. The devil is therefore identified as the responsible offender, but this is a rather flawed philosophy because “if we cannot accept the idea that there is evil in our God, there is a danger that we will not be able to endure it in ourselves”. The Communist scapegoat, however, surpasses even the religious one. “Totalitarian regimes moved it up a gear,” writes Campbell, “the self-styled perfect form of government could not be seen to brook any form of failure and so it appointed blame with extraordinary ferocity. They used propaganda to create and enemy, demonising them…creating the idea of this shadowy force responsible for every mishap.” But the worst of these is the Sexual scapegoat; an appellation ascribed to women who were believed to be witches and the trials of whom, Campbell says, serve as “the most spectacular and disturbing examples of blame being misdirected onto the vulnerable,”  tens of thousands of whom were burned, hanged and drowned in Europe in the Middle Ages.

The writer of this slight but comprehensive book has certainly done his research. Every chapter and idea is carefully consider and conveyed, with great historical, social and cultural insight. Campbell skilfully carries the subject from past to present day, where scapegoating seems to be flourishing more than ever because “we are faced with more choice than before” thus “we have a greater number of things to blame”. This notion that evil forces conspire against us has always been a popular one but never more so than in the age of internet and conspiracy theory. And let’s not forget that “every conspiracy theory has a victim”. Campbell chooses one of the most disheartening examples of victimisation in history to show the scapegoating practice at its worst. In 1870, a young French army officer by the name of Alfred Dreyfus was suspected of spying for the Germans. The accusations were based on conjecture but Dreyfus was imprisoned, tortured, his name smeared, largely due to his “Jewishness and family wealth” . Eventually, Dreyfus was cleared of the charges but even after being released from prison he remained a popular figure of blame and died a very unhappy man, after a very unhappy life.  Scapegoat is a marvellous little book written by a fine raconteur, who keeps the reader amused, informed and regaled throughout.

Publisher: Duckworth 
Publication Date: October 2012
Paperback: 208 pages
ISBN: 9780715643785

Writers On Writers

“We cannot help but see Socrates as the turning-point, the vortex of world history.”
Friedrich Nietzsche

“Mayakovsky impregnated poetry in such a way that almost all the poetry has continued being Mayakovskian.”
Pablo Neruda

“I wouldn’t like to do what Elizabeth Bowen once told me she did—write something every day, whether I was working on a book or not.”
Angus Wilson

“Vladimir Nabokov, and I languidly English the name, takes up a good five feet of my library. “
Martin Amis

“Flann O’Brien is unquestionably a major author.”
Anthony Burgess

“Between thirteen and sixteen are the ideal if not the only ages for succumbing to Thomas Wolfe—he seemed to me a great genius then, and still does, though I can’t read a line of it now.”
Truman Capote

“As far as I’m consciously aware, I forget everything I read at once, including my own stuff. But I have a tremendous admiration for Céline.”
Henry Green

“It may really be said: You are either a Spinozist or not a philosopher at all.”
Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel

“Kingsley Amis and I used to exchange unpublished poems, largely because we never thought they could be published, I suppose.”
Philip Larkin

“Tolstoy is the greatest Russian writer of prose fiction.”
Vladimir Nabokov

Sources: Wikipedia, Brainy Quote, The Paris Review  

Writers On Writers

“Of all German writers, it is Goethe to whom I owe most, who occupies me most, claims my attention, encourages me, who forces me to emulation or opposition.”
Hermann Hesse

“O’Neill had a terrible problem with alcohol. Most writers do.”
Tennessee Williams

“Anthony Trollope trained himself to turn out forty-nine pages of manuscript a week, seven pages a day, and he was so rigorous about keeping to that exact number of pages that if he finished a novel halfway through the last day, he’d write the title of a new book and ‘Chapter One’ on the next page and go right on until he’d done his proper quota of seven pages.”
Malcolm Cowley

“I don’t think I knew what real poetry was till I read Keats a couple of years ago.”
Isaac Rosenberg

“When William Blake says something, I say thank you, even though he has uttered the most hopeless fallacy that you can imagine.”
John Berryman

“I’ve always thought that MacNeice had limitations of temperament. He sometimes seems to be writing a jazzy, crazy kind of poetry, but when you look closer you realise that it’s always perfectly controlled. Inside MacNeice there was always an academic scholar pulling in the rein.”
Stephen Spender

“The trouble began with Forster. After him it was considered ungentlemanly to write more than five or six novels.”
Anthony Burgess

“I think that Brecht was a good producer, but not really a poet or a dramatist, except in his early plays.”
Eugène Ionesco

“I like Colette a great deal—I’ve learned a lot from the way she uses herself as a character in her own books and tantalizes the reader with the question: Is this autobiography or is it fiction?”
Edmund White

“As an undergraduate at Syracuse University I discovered Nietzsche, and it may be the Nietzschean influence that characterizes some of my work.”
Joyce Carol Oates

Sources: The Paris Review, Brainy Quote

Guy de Maupassant: A brilliant and delicate psychologist

There is a category of writers whose brilliant careers were tragically cut short by death. Guy de Maupassant is one of them. Maupassant died at the age of 42 in a mental asylum in Paris, following a second suicide attempt. It is thought that his gradual decent into madness was caused by syphilis, which the writer contracted in the 1870s. Maupassant believed he was infected with the “Neapolitan evil” at the age of 20 by a ravishing “female boating companion”. But it may have been any one of the prostitutes he used to frequent on a regular basis. Today, he is largely remembered for his mellifluent but methodically plotted short stories, which set the precedent for the genre even before his death. But Maupassant has also written several excellent novels, one of which has recently been reissued by Penguin to coincide with a new film adaptation. Bel-Ami is a book of genuine intrigue, which follows the life of a charming but unscrupulous young man, Georges Duroy, and his quest for “greatness and success, fame, wealth and love”. A protégé of Gustave Flaubert, Maupassant was always actively encouraged by his master to pursue a literary career as someone who had been “born to write”. Spurred by Flaubert, the young writer developed a lifelong habit of perpetually making notes and conscientiously observing his surroundings, which later provided invaluable material for his work. Whenever asked about his revenant-like, taciturn, disposition Maupassant would simply say: “I am learning my trade.” And learn he did.

In Bel-Ami, his second novel, Maupassant explores the dynamics of urban society through its relationship with politics and the press, power and sex, subjects integral both to the fates of the book’s characters and its  social climate. Written in the 1880s, the book records the social milieu of bourgeois capitalism under La Troisième République, mirroring the reality of its day. Before gaining acclaim and commercial success, Maupassant worked for the Ministry of Public Instruction, which he left after the publication of his first collection of short stories. In the 10-year period before his death, Maupassant produced 300 stories, six novels, three plays, a few travel books and some poetry. But towards the end of his life, his sedulous work ethic was stifled by his illness, as he recorded in a letter from Cannes. “There are whole days on which I feel I am done for,” he wrote,  “finished, blind, my brain used up and yet still alive…I have not a single idea that is consecutive to the one before it. I forget words, names of everything and my hallucination and my pains tear me to pieces.” This writer of immense proficiency and finesse suffered greatly before the “darkness” consumed him. But he also managed to leave behind a literary canon of considerable bulk and scope.

Like Duroy, Maupassant was born in a provincial town and sought to make his name in Paris; and like his fictional counterpart, he had a soft-spot for the ladies, who, as Duroy is told by his old comrade Forestier, are “still the quickest way to succeed”. Bel-Ami is a book that deals with both philogyny and misogyny, liberated women and old-fashioned men, with equally as old-fashioned views toward them. Georges Duroy is a soldier who has returned to Paris after two years in Algeria. Broke and down on his luck he inadvertently meets the “smiling, earnest and attentive” Forestier, now the editor of a daily newspaper named La Vie française – the sort that steers its “course through the waters of high finance and low politics”.  His friend lends him money, sets him up with a job at the paper and introduces Duroy to a number of influential Parisian dignitaries. Yet despite his sudden turn of luck, Duroy feels lowly and humiliated about being “excluded from high society, having no connections where he would be accepted as an equal and being unable to frequent women on terms of intimacy”. The subject of romantic female companionship is a preoccupation that Duroy contemplates continuously, albeit most often in a superficial way. He is frequently seized by a “passionate longing to find love”, but this longing rests upon the condition that in return he should be loved exclusively by “a woman of refinement and distinction”. This plays into his very male idea –one which is endorsed throughout the book by various male characters – of furthering his social position by associating with women of a certain calibre, and so Duroy begins his quest for just such a female companion.

Although immediately bewitched by the “charmingly demure” Mrs Forestier, Duroy postpones pursuing his friend’s wife and instead goes after the “deliberately provocative” Madam de Marelle, who although also married puts up no resistance. The two rent a love-nest and spend their time making “excursions to the dubious haunts where the great unwashed go to amuse themselves”. The romance, however, soon dwindles, while Duroy’s professional life takes an upturn as Forestier’s ailing health paves the way for a promotion to the ranks of editor. Eventually, Forestier dies and Duroy wastes no time proposing to his friend’s widow. Mrs Forestier agrees upon the stipulation that she remain uninhibited to do as she please – in fact she insists “on being free, completely free to act as I see fit, go where I please, see whom I choose, whatever I wish. I could never accept any authority or jealousy or questioning of my conduct.” A bold proposition, but one Duroy accepts. What follows are several affairs, several more moves up the career ladder, divorce, scandal, another marriage and a realisation on Duroy’s behalf that there will always be another “young, good looking, intelligent” and ambitious schemer to take his place. Although the realisation is passing, Duroy will no doubt get his comeuppance in the end. Or so, at least, one hopes.

Maupassant is a writer who refrains from moralising, neither siding with nor objecting to his characters, but rather taking an altogether neutral stance. But the moral of the story is clear and perhaps best summed up in the following excerpt when talking to Duroy an elderly gentleman says: “Life is a slope. As long as you’re going up you’re looking towards the top and you feel happy; but when you reach it, suddenly you can see the road going downhill and death at the end of it all. It’s slow going up but quick going down,” especially when one is alone. And loneliness is where most of the characters in Bel-Ami are headed. This bears an uncanny similarity to Maupassant’s own abject end, which he met solitarily despite having been famous, loved, popular and revered. Bel-Ami contains several other elements from Maupassant’s life, but more than that it showcases his deep and intuitive understanding of the workings of the human psyche. No wonder then, perhaps, that Friedrich Nietzsche declared him to be a brilliant and delicate psychologist. Maupassant himself once seconded this notion saying that a good writer should aim to show true human nature in his work, the unexceptional and the everyday of people’s lives and their characters, “their feelings and passions… how people love or hate each other, how they fight each other…how they make up” – essentially, how they live. And in this Maupassant succeeds, for there is life reverberating through every page of this sprightly and compelling tale.

Publisher: Penguin Classics 
Publication Date: August 1975
Paperback: 416 pages
ISBN: 9780140443158

Georges Bataille: A master of macabre eroticism and satanic fancies

Buying books is – without a doubt – my favourite Saturday morning pastime. It seems, however, that I have come to acquire more of the aforementioned than common sense as I am rapidly running out of space to accommodate them. Still, as someone who is short on sense I fear that this particular predicament will neither deter nor curtail my avarice. Trawling through the numerous shelves in a great little Oxfam in Notting Hill, my eye snagged on a book called Guilty by Georges Bataille. I have had a soft-spot for Bataille ever since I first discovered Story of the Eye at the tender age of 13. I read a few of his works thereafter including, The Solar Anus, L’Abbe C, On Nietzsche and Blue of Noon and found myself unanimously confounded, challenged and inspired by each and every one. I learned a lot about Bataille entirely through his work and came to realise that there are (in a very general sense) two kinds of writers: those who one admires, and those with whom one feels an affinity. Bataille, for me, has always been of the later variety through a mutual appreciation of writers such as Friedrich Nietzsche and Franz Kafka and a desire to “respond to impulses of freedom and whims” or else “destroy myself” only to “discover myself, drowning in a glass of water”. In my case, however, it would more likely be a glass of second-rate gin but that is by and by.

Guilty is a sort of literary nympholepsy, a work which, if pressed, I would only be able to compare to The Notebooks of André Walter by André Gide. And yet, the two books are different in subject matter as well as syntax but one made me think of the other perhaps entirely without just cause. Guilty consists of autonomous chapters, divided into sub-chapters, transcribing the writer’s stream of consciousness free from restriction imposed by “systematic thought”. In the Introduction, Bataille forewarns the reader by saying: “…my way of thinking diverges from others. Especially from the way of thinking of philosophers. Mostly it diverges on account of my ineptitude.” While this may be true from a logician’s perspective, it is Bataille’s indifference to belletristic conventions and his enterprising nature – both in manipulation of lexicon and ideas – that make him a 20th century maître à penser. In the opening chapter entitled Nighttime, Bataille declares that “Life is a feast, a celebration, it’s an incomprehensible and oppressive dream, with charms I’m hardly blind to. Being conscious of chance lets me see a difficult fate for what it is. And chance wouldn’t stand a chance if it weren’t for sheer craziness.” A paragraph later he speaks of a love “so rapturous only torment could fuel it.” A thought which rang so true, it stopped me in my reading as I contemplated it in reference to my own experiences. Sitting outdoors, looking at the paper-trails overhead, the acuity of the above lines roused, as Bataille would say, a “wasp’s stinger in me”. And yet, somehow, it made me more at ease with the bittersweet predicament.

In line with the same thought Bataille speaks of desire likening it to a “hallucinatory darkness” pushing one “towards craziness” and the escape of “illusion of any solid connection…to the world”.  In his own words, Bataille writes with “unholy light-heartedness” and an irreverence bordering on sacrilege, most expressly conveyed in his dictum: “My true church is a whorehouse – the only one that gives me true satisfaction.” This statement is significant both in view of Bataille’s background – a staunch Chatholic upbringing he later renounced – and the continued pursuit of pleasure which came to define his “filthy night” ecstasies and his work. In Guilty, Bataille often talks of the “unquenchable thirst, the unconquerable cold” and that which is “intelligible only to the heart”. In another chapter, Angel, he forsakes what humankind has sought throughout the ages, “complete knowledge”, instead trying to understand the universe which “in the dead of its night” allows you to “discover its parts and in doing so discover yourself”. He further adds, with resigned acceptance, that “knowledge, like history, is incomplete” and argues that the paleolithic human search for “completeness of knowledge” is a fallacy like the idea of God “who is complete only to be imaginary.” 

Guilty is a peculiar sweeping fresco of existentialism, sorrow, self-mortification and also self-affirmation through the writer’s experiences, his meditating practices, his readings, his sexual fantasies, his fears, his memories and his evolving thought. At once theoretical and practical, personal and political, the book swings wildly between tone and subject, between frenzy, boredom and euphoria. It is both the most esoteric and exoteric of Bataille’s writings. It opens with the Nazi assault on Poland, Bataille notes: “The date I start (September 5th, 1939), is no coincidence. I’m starting because of what’s happening, though I don’t want to go into it. I’m writing it down because of being unable not to.” Thought Bataille refuses to talk directly of war; the unmentionable inevitably snakes into his writing as he takes flight from the encroaching chaos of combat, and familiarity of Paris, to the bucolic countryside. At one point, as though reflecting on the mortality of those who lost their lives in battle, Bataille says: “…occasional luck – my luck – in a world that seems increasingly terrible makes me tremble.” There are many things besides luck which make Bataille tremble, one of them being women who to his mind are an “invitation to ruin.” Famous for his sexual cupidity, frequentation of bordellos, macabre eroticism and satanic fancies Bataille muses: “There is some kind of identity between ‘woman’, ‘torment’ and ‘the ridiculous universe’ – my need for self-destruction comes from them.” And, after a short contemplation declares: “To give up my sexual habits would mean I’d have to discover some other means of tormenting myself, though this torture would have to be as intoxicating as alcohol.”

Speaking about Guilty to a fellow writer Jean Paulhan, Bataille said it concerned the “relationship between eroticism and mysticism,” adding “but the book considers a great deal more than that.”  And it certainly does. It documents Bataille’s resolution to throw himself into a state of “headlessness” – a key concept in his general philosophical outlook – through drinking, madness, obscenity, cruelty and extreme sex, all of “life’s majestic horrors”Guilty, however, is one of the texts which most notably marks the beginning of Bataille’s introspection triggered by the death of his lover Colette Peignot, who passed away of tuberculosis in 1938. Writing about it years later in “Notice Autobiographique” Bataille described it as “a death that tore him apart”.  Unable to completely let go of the object of his loss, or relinquish the ties through morning, he merged her into the structure of his own identity, making Peignot an iconographic feminised ideal of the excess-pursuing, tormenting self. Peignot’s death was concurrent with the breakdown of many of Bataille’s closest friendships – predominantly over disagreements about the darker elements of his work – which left him largely isolated. It is therefore perhaps no surprised that Bataille himself once surmised Guilty, written during this particular timeas “violently dominated by tears, violently dominated by death”. Looking over some of his earlier entries in the book, Bataille muses: “Reading these fragments from last year I remember I felt death – a chill in my soul. It wasn’t anguish but a chill, an exasperation with the fact of being me, an exasperation with the lack of happiness and excess…” 

In many respects, Guilty is a work of eschatology, a confrontation of death through “laughter that reaches the stars” and a need for “love eager to exceed the limits of things.” The latter is the dominating subject throughout but as Bataille warns one must not mistake it with sensuality or eroticism, which he defines as “the brink of the abyss”.  The last chapter, Alleluia, speaks directly of and to a woman thought Bataille could be speaking to womankind itself. He says: “It’s time your delirium learns the opposite of each thing you know about. Time to take the boring, depressing, image of the world in you and turn it upside down.” He urges liberation from the manacles of the orthodox through “filth” and “desire for pleasure,” adding: “You come into the power of desire by spreading your legs, showing off your unclean parts, if you couldn’t feel that passion was forbidden, desire in you would soon die, and with it the possibility of pleasure.” Love, however, is something else altogether “flowers… sunlight flooding in, the gentleness of someone’s shoulder” and “in love we stop being ourselves” unwittingly becoming something greater because “Love’s insanity becomes sane when moving towards more insane love.” Guilty is Bataille’s most recondite and multifaceted work, but it is also his most personal and sage. Writing in a state of semi-permanent “anguished drunkenness” while facing the world “alone, wounded, dedicated to his own ruin”he meditates upon all the leitmotifs that have haunted his imagination since he abandoned Catholicism for the avant-garde. There are many conclusions one could draw about this book but the most accurate one has been drawn by Bataille himself, who said Guilty is a work of “chaos boundless in every sense.”

Friedrich Nietzsche: Human, all too human but also a romantic

There are two reasons why I love Friedrich Nietzsche; one is because his moustache semaphored a silent two-fingers-up to the establishment, if even unbeknown to the man himself; and two because he was bonkers. I personally find that a crazy infidel always makes for the best kind of literary idol, add booze to the mix and call him perfect. Now, I am not entirely sure about Nietzsche’s drinking habits but reading some of his work one would be forgiven for thinking he wrote while heavily intoxicated. Still, the man was a genius and a genuine sovereign thinker despite his idiosyncrasies and the inconsistencies in his oeuvre. This, however, according to many scholars, is precisely what makes him unworthy of the “philosopher” appellation but I would argue, in Nietzsche’s own words, that “one is fruitful only at the cost of being rich in contradictions”. I have always held on to that because occasionally I couldn’t hold on to some of my convictions. In other words, we change, and are changed by our experiences; therefore, inevitably, our ideas and beliefs change along with them. A sentiment that was seconded years later by William Somerset Maugham who said: “We are not the same persons this year as last; nor are those we love. It is a happy chance if we, changing, continue to love a changed person.” I find this to be true both of life and, in this case, my personal feelings toward this most divisive philosopher.

Born on 15th October, 1844, Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche was an heir to a long line of Lutheran pastors – going back to the 17th century – who grew up in a staunchly religious household. His early years were marred by death, first that of his father, at the age of four, and later his younger brother. His formative period was defined by matriarchal domesticity and an admiration for Richard Wagner, his early 20s spent immersed in philology and theology at the University of Boon, and his middle-life dedicated to the relentless study which made him into a philosopher of matchless originality at once approachable and provocative. He was a writer by turns endearing, maddening and challenging but always and consistently compelling and complex. Even when his work appears straightforward, Nietzsche is at his most subtle and poignant, most wry and exciting, as he points out to the reader  in The Genealogy of Morality almost facetiously: “I did say I would speak crudely: which does not in any way signify a desire for it to be heard crudely, understood crudely.” And perhaps therein lays the problem which has divided academics and critics’ alike, propelling a negative consensus through misunderstanding which has led to a classifying of Nietzsche as a nihilistic sybarite and a scholastic dilettante. But as Robert Wicks points out, in his book on this most prolific 19th century thinker: “Nietzsche loved to celebrate life, but he frequently had a very difficult time celebrating humanity.” In his guide Nietzsche, published by the Oxford-based One World press, Wicks gives an impressively comprehensive overview of Nietzsche’s ideas, the premises that underpinned them, and the academic, cultural and classic figures that influenced him.

One of the most notable and perhaps profound of those influences was Arthur Schopenhauer whom Nietzsche discovered in 1865 while at University. Schopenhauer’s metaphysical vision at odds with Christianity, encapsulated in The World as Will and Representation, was to shape Nietzsche’s philosophical undertakings more than any other. A year later Nietzsche was introduced to Wagner, with whom he felt a deep affiliation through mutual love of both music and philosophy. Wicks notes: “Partly on the basis of their shared enthusiasm for Schopenhauer, the two men struck up a father-son style of friendship and they remained in contact for the next decade, until Nietzsche’s growing anti-Christian view of life became incompatible with Wagner’s.”  Later, Nietzsche irreparably widened the division by openly and virulently criticising his one-time idol in The Case of Wagner. In the essay Nietzsche lambasts the Wagnerian tradition with unrelenting ardour, finding it to be “brutal, artificial and unsophisticated” and thereby symptomatic of the degenerative trend in music. He is no less vituperative when speaking of the composer himself, querying: “Is Wagner a man at all? Is he not rather a disease? Everything he touches he contaminates. He has made music sick,” before concluding: “Wagner’s art is diseased. The problems he sets on the stage are all concerned with hysteria; the convulsiveness of his emotions, his over-excited sensitiveness, his taste which demands ever sharper condimentation, his erraticness which he togged out to look like principles, and, last but not least, his choice of heroes and heroines, considered as physiological types (—a hospital ward!—).”

Nietzsche’s views on religion are no less damning than his enchiridion on Wagner.  Firstly, Nietzsche believed that the world was fundamentally a “chaos” and that life was by default “immoral, unavoidably so” thus examined both more probingly and in more empirical terms before concluding that “if one is to flourish one must live in a manner beyond good and evil”.  Nietzsche, therefore, determined that traditional morality was inseparable from weakness, debility, cerebral “unreason” and thus a dogma against the innate course of nature. He cites the Christian principles in Twilight of the Idols to illustrate his point: “The most general formula at the basis of every religion and morality is: Do this and this, refrain from this and this – and you will be happy.” It is a fallacy Nietzsche debunks time and again in The Antichrist, most notably in the following passage: “The Christian conception of God is one of the most corrupt conceptions of God…God as the expression of hostility against life, against nature, against the will to life. God as the formula for every slander against ‘this life’ and for every lie about ‘the next life’!” Nietzsche believed that the fundamental tenet of Christianity – the belief in the supernatural all-knowing, all-powerful, all-good God –  was unhealthy and that “faith” was “the will to avoid knowing what is true” which is to say that “there was only one Christian, and he died on the cross”. This, in turn, led Nietzsche to the idea that “heaven” and “hell” are alternative interpretations of our present world and not sacerdotal notions as propagated by organised religion and the “poisoners of life” otherwise known as priests. Nietzsche’s main objective was to point out that what one should “live for” is living itself. Years earlier, Schopenhauer had asserted that the world was “fundamentally absurd”. Loaded with this thought Nietzsche set out to determine the extent of human significance in this absurd world and found that it was “virtually none”. This spurred him to conclude that, for that reason if no other, one should make the most of the “feral quality of experience” in the moment and in the practical sense of the living.

Nietzsche’s philosophical corpus is voluminous and wide-ranging in ideas, topics and meanings. He contended with the notion of supreme logic, deeming it to be “a recipe for intellectual self-deadening and self-imposed ignorance”. He contested the rationalistic, Socratic, approach to “truth”, preferring the metaphoric, poetic and practical wisdom in seeking it, and thereby developed a doctrine of “perspectivism” which later became one of his most cognisant trademarks. He set out for himself an ideal, an “Ubermensch”, a person “cut from wood that is hard” but also “delicate” a person who is “alive, playful” and one who “uses bad luck to his advantage” because he realises that “what does not kill him, makes him stronger.” He advocated independence of spirit in Human, All Too Human and the notion of the individual, pointing out in The Will to Power that: “If from the death of God we don’t fashion a major renunciation and perpetual victory over ourselves, we’ll have to pay for that loss.” He aimed to affirm life directly in the face of its pains, urged a love of fate, and a questioning mind. He made philosophy not only accessible but also exciting and interesting. In turn, he has been misappropriated by the Nazis and accused of anti-Semitism, which he clearly rejects in a letter to his Nazi-sympathising sister Elisabeth Förster-Nietzsche saying: “You have committed one of the greatest stupidities — for yourself and for me! Your association with an anti-Semitic chief expresses foreignness to my whole way of life which fills me again and again with ire or melancholy. … It is a matter of honor with me to be absolutely clean and unequivocal in relation to anti-Semitism, namely, opposed to it, as I am in my writings.” He has been condemned by the likes of Max Nordau, deemed a controversialist, a radical, a misogynist and dismissed on account of being a madman. In short, posterity has not been kind to Nietzsche but Wicks does well to dispel these misconceptions and suppositions, without either patronising the reader or simplifying his subject.

In 1869, at the age of 24, Nietzsche was appointed a professorial position at the University of Basel in Switzerland.  There he wrote his first extended study The Birth of Tragedy, concerned with its Greek origins and in broader terms how it applied to modern day culture. The work failed to gain academic praise, conversely because it demonstrated Nietzsche’s beginnings as a truly original thinker, flying “against the wind, not with it”, through sentiments describing Christianity as “life’s nausea and disgust with life, merely concealed behind, masked by, dressed up as, faith in ‘another’ or ‘better’ life.” This, in part because, and contrary to his upbringing, Nietzsche had already determined religion a fallacy, and the promise of another life an even bigger one. Thus he believed in this life and as he says in The Gay Science strived to get the “greatest fruitfulness and greatest enjoyment” from it by living “dangerously” as befits a “free spirit”. There are many fascinating aspects to Nietzsche’s life and his work, but one that has interested me more than any other is his view of women, summarized perfectly in his belief that “they make the highs higher and the lows more frequent.” This is, perhaps, where Nietzsche was truly speaking from experience having had his proposal of marriage rejected by varied love-interests. He tackles his awe and incomprehension of women head on, through means of mocking witticisms and more earnestly in the preface to Beyond Good and Evil by comparing “truth” with a “woman” for after all “philosophers, in so far as they have been dogmatists, have failed to understand women” and often “truth” unable to truimph over either  because both truth and woman, “she has never allowed herself to be won; and at present every kind of dogma stands with sad and discouraged mien–IF, indeed, it stands at all!” This is perhaps the highest  compliment Nietzsche ever pays the female sex, elsewhere offering somewhat more acerbic snippets, especially when considering the relations between the sexes. In Human, All Too Human he says: “If spouses did not live together, good marriages would be more frequent,” and more scathingly about the female nature: “Woman’s love involves injustice and blindness against everything that she does not love,” before himself concluding that “In sum, one cannot be too kind about women.” He does, however, offer some sound advice at one point by saying: “When entering a marriage, one should ask the question: do you think you will be able to have good conversations with this woman right into old age? Everything else in marriage is transitory, but most of the time in interaction is spent in conversation.” Perhaps prospective spouses should take heed.

Whatever Nietzsche’s faults were it would be unfair to ascribe to him the label of a “misogynist”. He was many things but never really that; certainly an overachiever, a fiercely intelligent yet impractical man, and yet “not a man” exactly but rather “dynamite”, someone who was “human, all too human” but also someone who was a romantic. Yep, a romantic. No one but a romantic could write that: “To put up with men, to keep open house in one’s heart – this is liberal, but no more than liberal. One knows of hearts which are capable of noble hospitality, which have curtained windows and closed shutters: they keep their best rooms empty. Why do they so? Because they await guests with whom one does not have to ‘put up’.” And I guess I too am a romantic because I too await a guest with whom I won’t have to “put up”. After all, love is mad like that but then there’s “always some reason in madness,” and I don’t think anyone would dare argue with that, not even Nietzsche.

Saul Bellow: That suffering joker

Rooting around my makeshift suitcase-library I came across an Oxfam acquisition which I had long-forgotten about. I snubbed the introduction and read the inception to what promised to be a very interesting story then spent the rest of the morning reading Herzog. The book, perhaps one of Saul Bellow’s most exoteric, is said to be based, at least in part, on his experience following a love affair between his second wife and one of his friends. The story, an intermingled binary account of monologue and narrative, chronicles a man’s lapse into psychasthenia in the wake of a traumatic divorce with acutely perspicacious, sometimes plangent and often humorous results.

Herzog’s eponymous narrator is an embittered, but likable, vagabond Professor whose introspective, self-divided, ironical voice – enriched with European literary and philosophical tradition – quickly wins the reader over. Like most of Bellow’s creations Moses Herzog is an acutely cerebral character, raging against the inanity of modern day world through the medium of writing epistles loaded with multifarious arguments, explanations and methodological approaches. Yet Herzog can’t quite find a suitable value system by which to define his own life, thus says: “Go through the comprehensible and you conclude that only the incomprehensible gives any light.” Herzog is physically inert for most of the novel, either collapsed on the sofa of his New York apartment or supine on a mattress or hammock in his Ludeyville retreat, which only highlights the hyperactivity of his mind as he writes to various people, including fellow academics, clergymen, his estranged wife, her mother, the president and even God, to whom he confesses: “How many a mind has struggled to make coherent sense…I have not been too good at it.” His variegated observations, comparable to Friedrich Nietzsche’s acidulous aphorisms, vary from the profound to the absurd. A few in a way of example: “Hitch your agony to a star,” he says to himself, and then dejectedly, “Looking for happiness – ought to be prepared for bad results.” And of himself, “A strange heart. I myself cannot account for it.” Or when expatiating ruefully about connubial discord, his second wife Madeleine and woman-kind in general, who to his mind are factious and implacable creatures, Herzog muses: “Will never understand what women want. What do they want? They eat green salad and drink human blood,” before concluding plaintively, “Bitches.”

Herzog, like many of Bellow’s heroes, stands alone, a man at odds with the culture he lives in. He is an anachronistic remnant with existential problems, two broken marriages and a sense of innate anxiety. Baffled by his own intellectual vigour and burdened by self-knowledge, he struggles against social isolation and the pallid, orderly and easy existence which he shared with his first wife Daisy, a “childishly systematic” and provincial woman with whom he led a “perfectly ordinary life of an assistant Professor” consisting of “stability, symmetry, order, containment”. Herzog, however, had always preferred a life of uncertainty and disquiet mirrored by his own “irregularity and turbulence of spirit”. It has been said that Herzog’s second wife, Madeleine, is one of the most important of all of Bellow’s female characters. Although often alluded to as the morganatic wife, Madeleine is of “considerable intellectual power” who has “the will of a demon” and is a direct opposite of Daisy. She constitutes the most turbulent element of Herzog’s life, but also leaves him in awe and feeling inferior and ineffectual, to the point of emasculation. Herzog speaks of Madeleine in almost deifying terms, juxtaposing himself as the antithesis of her “great charm”, beauty and “brilliant mind”. This view of himself is contradicted by two other women in Herzog’s life, first a young  Japanese girl by the name of Sono who is loving, subservient, admiring and has a “tender heart” and sees Herzog with “eyes of love” irrespective of his diffidence and  “morose, depressed” moods which he ponders sitting in his “Morris chair”. Speaking of his life with Sono, Herzog says: “To tell the truth I never had it so good. But I lacked the strength of character to bear such joy.” In the end, Herzog concludes that his relationship with Sono was “not serious enough”, focusing primarily on the sensual, and that she did not fulfil his “purpose”.  In fact, Herzog deplores the idea of self actualisation through sex, attributing it mainly to women by saying: “To look for fulfilment in another, in interpersonal relationships, was a feminine game. And the man who shops from woman to woman, though his heart aches with idealism, with the desire for pure love, has entered the female realm.” The submergence into the “female realm” is a pathological fear for Herzog, who has “endured a frigid, middlebrow, castrating female [Madeleine] in his bed” that “had treated him with contempt and cruelty as if to punish him for lowering and cheapening himself, for lying himself into love with her and betraying the promise of his soul.”

The other notable woman in Herzog’s life is his mistress Ramona who tries to dispel his self-regarding abjection by assuring him he is a better man than he knows, “a deep man, beautiful (he could not help wincing when she said this) but sad, unable to take what his heart really desired, a man tempted by God, longing for grace, but escaping headlong from his salvation, often close at hand.” Herzog is all of the above but also a man on the verge of losing his mind, and a good mind at that – one that holds its own with intellectual heavyweight such as Spinoza, Marin Heidegger, Adlai Stevenson and Dwight D. Eisenhower to whom Herzog writes to air some of his grievances. Bellow’s prose is supple, adapt to fine emotional nuance and the painterly objective with which he limns the external world but his narrative is that of a detailed realist which can at times be both ponderous and overwritten. Yet Moses Herzog is superb and for all his faults a likable fellow, a tutelary artisan with tragicomic loser-charm and intensity, a “suffering joker” as he himself sees it. But it is his multitudinous missives – interchangeably timorous, pugnacious, haughty and indignant – that make for truly compulsive reading. He writes obsessively to everyone in a manic whirl of spontaneity, derision and candour. The letters are never dispatched to their designated recipients, nor do we get to meet them but rather learn about them through Herzog’s own skewed reveries and recollections.

This particular of Bellow’s books is an immensely enjoyable read, made so by the variable kinks of its title character who, like Bellow himself, has the “blind self-acceptance of the eccentric who can’t conceive that his eccentricities are not clearly understood”. But “his intelligence, his charm, his education” and even his folly is both palpable and intriguing, and has a dash of veracity to it, like one of Herzog’s theories which deems “civilised intelligence” somewhat peculiar in the way it “makes fun of its own ideas.” It is a theory which Herzog comes to believe toward the end of his own frenetic wrestling with chaos which becomes substituted by “tranquil fullness of heart” when he says: “I’ve had all the monstrosity I want.” The book is a brilliant, insightful, humorous and slightly sad culmination of narrative which is occasionally but never unbearably made wearisome by Bellow’s characteristically prolix manner. Thus I think The Nobel Prize committee was on to something when they described Bellow’s work as nonpareil in the way it comprises “drastic and tragic episodes in quick succession… exuberant ideas, flashing irony, hilarious comedy and burning compassion.” Herzog certainly attests to that and is therefore one of the best books that Bellow’s extensive body of work has to offer.

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