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Sunday, September 21, 2008

A Little Tete-a-Tete About Nietzsche

For a change, I don't have to invent funny names for the participants. This exchange took place on www.goodreads.com, so it was quite public to begin with. It started when I posted the following mixed review about Walter Kaufmann's highly admirable but ultimately misleading biography, Nietzsche: Philosopher, Psychologist, Antichrist:

Nietzsche was just a bit more of a jerk than Kaufmann is willing to admit, which is very moving, because you love Nietzsche and you don't want him to have been a jerk, but then there's all the shitty things he said, and his contempt for weakness, and the crap about the "Blond Beast," and you're like, oh fuck it. And Kaufmann's brother was killed by the Nazi's, who hijacked Nietzsche's legacy, and here's Kaufmann himself, the greatest translator Nietzsche will ever have, defending Nietzsche with brilliance, but it isn't enough.

Then a response appeared from a 24 year old dude in Texas using the respectably self-effacing handle, "Joshing ThySelf." He had this to say:

The "blond beast" is a reference to a lion ala Thus Spoke Zarathustra. I've yet to read Kaufmann's book but I've done a fair amount of research on the charges of anti-Semitism and German nationalism and these are soundly refuted by much of Nietzsche's own words in both personal letters and philosophical works. I'm guessing Kaufmann cites a lot of these things and I can't see how someone could see the counter evidence and still associate Nietzsche with the Nazi movement. He may have been a jerk in some regards but a nationalist, fascist and anti-Semite he was not.

Now, getting through one's twenties in America without Nietzsche is something nobody should have to do, and it makes you cling to him pretty hard. So I sympathized with this guy, and I think this shows in my response:

"The weak and ill-constituted shall perish: first principle of our philanthropy. And one shall help them to do so." Anybody care to specify the criteria, before we start helping people to perish?

Note that although some people have called Nietzsche "a nationalist, fascist and anti-Semite," I certainly haven't.

We agree that it makes no sense at all to call him (a) a nationalist; he had a healthy contempt for nationalism in general and German nationalism in particular -- especially the individuals who espoused it, whom he seems to have regarded as even worse than their bigoted little perspective.

To call him (b) a fascist is anachronistic, but his "aristocratic radicalism" is to me quite unmistakably a Rightist ideology. I reject it on principle, but in my not-so-secret heart I hypocritically want to destroy the culture of craputainment, cheez doodles and televisions-in-restaurants, and then jail the brutal rioting cretins whose fury such a policy would incur. In other words, I'm one of these Emersonian elitist democrats you meet now and then.

As for (c) charges of anti-Semitism, two things count here, in my view. First, Nietzsche's explicit (and exquisite) contempt for German anti-Semitism -- which seems to have been Sartre's inspiration for his terrific little essay on French anti-Semitism, containing the great line, "the anti-Semite would rather be a tree, a stone, anything but a man". Second, Nietzsche's genuine loathing of monotheism -- a loathing driven by his deeply personal experience of his father's violent Christian hypocrisy (see Alice Miller, The Untouched Key) -- was also directed toward "the Jews" (that'd be me and my peeps) for the sole reason that monotheism is something we invented (or if you prefer, "discovered").

So, in general, it seems that you and I agree, no?

I thought that would do it, but Joshing was not pleased. His reposte:

What was your point in referencing that constantly quoted and misunderstood "blond beast" line then? I assumed it was brought up for the same reasons others have: to accuse him of a pro-Aryan, blond and blue-eyed brand of anti-Semitism. Also you flat out stated that Kaufmann failes to defend Nietzsche against the connection to Nazi ideals which would be German nationalism, socialism (another thing Nietzsche loathed), and so forth.

Loathing the religious tenets of Judaism is not anti-Semitism. To equate the two is simply mistaken and unfair. I get it, you're Jewish, you like your belief in God. I'm an nonbeliever. The line's been drawn in the sand. The Jews "discovered" monotheism? After how many years of being henotheistic? C'mon, there was clearly an evolution of ideas not a sudden, one true "discovery". They had quite a hand in its invention though. But then again I think theism belongs on the shelf next to Santa Claus, etc. So we can perhaps just agree to disagree there.

P.S. Nietzsche was known to praise the Jews as a people (separate from the religious notions) now and then as well.

From my perspective, this is an example of one particular hazard of American life: you become so accustomed to dealing with people who don't read, that when you suddenly find yourself in a conversation with someone who does read, and can think for himself, you fail to notice until after he's left the room. By this point in the conversation I was beginning to resent the guy's failure to read what I had written, especially since he had not read Kauffmann's book; his clumsy handling of his side of the issue of my Judaism and Nietzsche's legacy; and his youthful assumption that nobody knows what he knows. Wise fool. I closed this way:

You pulled straight out of the air your claim that I'm a theist. No theist would be likely to say that anyone "invented" monotheism. You might take a look at my poem published last year in Free Inquiry, the magazine of the Council for Secular Humanism, which is called "The Round Square." For a look at that poem, see: BLIGBI.

Yes, the Mesopotamian ethnoi who became the Hebrews, who eventually became the Jews, began as polytheists, then became monolatrists (or as you said, henotheists), who acknowledge many Gods but only worship one of them, before eventually turning to monotheism, the belief that the only God worthy of worship is also the only God who exists. You may find that apart from one strikingly innovative and heretical Egyptian Pharaoh, we were the first people to do that.

My previous posting began with a quotation that I put into bold type because, from my perspective, it melts away any excuse -- both yours and Kaufmann's -- for Nietzsche's posthumous appropriation by the Nazi movement. They distorted and textually vandalized his work; nobody could read Kaufmann and not realize that. But if you read the quotation, you must, it seems to me, hold Nietzsche responsible for promulgating the disgusting idea it articulates. Nietzsche's contempt for weakness is the nadir of his thought.

It seems to me quite naive to believe that "blond beast" was to be taken literally and only referred to a certain African species of carnivorous cat. Pointing out that Zarathustra is an allegory simply will not do, since it obliges one to specify what Nietzsche meant by "blond beast" apart from said African cat. Note that I never said Nietzsche was in favor of the chicken-shit Teutonic Wagnerite anti-Semites to whom "blond beast" seems to have referred; in fact, I clearly stated that Nietzsche despised such people. Only someone more obtuse than you and I could infer that just because Nietzsche's thought was stolen and twisted by the worst people who ever lived, therefore (1) he would have agreed with all, or even most, of what those people said and did; and (2) nothing Nietzsche did say can be taken as evidence that he screwed up by inviting the kind of pro-cruelty garbage the Nazis made out of the bogus Nietzsche they half-invented. Still, the real Nietzsche did say -- listen close, bro -- "The weak and ill-constituted shall perish: first principle of our philanthropy. And one shall help them to do so." And the Nazis obviously agreed; in fact, this hubristic crap was the heart of their ideology.

Then, the United States beat the shit out of them.

Then, the United States (in the person of Allen Dulles) rescued many of the worst of the Nazis from certain death at the hands of British military tribunals and transplanted them to California and Langley, Virginia, where they helped America pour our moral authority down the same black hole into which they'd poured theirs.

I'm done here.

All the best,
Jamey

2 comments:

  1. You suck at Nietzsche. You dwell on a possible interpretation of ambiguous imagery. Read Human, All Too Human, he basically comes across as praising the Jews as a superior people, and states antisemites are most loathsome. Read Beyond Good and Evil, there's not so much imagery to confuse you. He rails against nationalism, especially German nationalism (for some reason). I don't care how old you are. You are thinly read.

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  2. Can't you read? I said:

    Note that although some people have called Nietzsche "a nationalist, fascist and anti-Semite," I certainly haven't.

    We agree that it makes no sense at all to call him (a) a nationalist; he had a healthy contempt for nationalism in general and German nationalism in particular -- especially the individuals who espoused it, whom he seems to have regarded as even worse than their bigoted little perspective.

    ReplyDelete

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