Them’s fightin’ words!

And the next thing we know, (Nietzsche’s) hugging a horse and proclaiming himself Jesus and Alexander. You can call it spirituality if you like, I call it syphilitic madness. A fruitful madness, though, with plenty in it worth talking about. But this guy should be nobody’s role model, pasted on no disaffected teenager’s bedroom wall.

… Solomon is spontaneously humane and compassionate, precisely where his hero is hard-hearted and insensitive and disgusted by “weakness.” Nietzsche was not a great-souled man in the Aristotelian mold, nor is it clear how the “greatness” of wanting nothing different than it is can be distinguished from stoicism or resignation.

Well, there’s no accounting for taste and all that. And indeed, there’s plenty to be criticized in Nietzsche’s output, from his misogynistic outbursts to his, uh, suspiciously Christian-like belief in the need for life to be redeemed from meaninglessness. But leaving aside for a moment the issue of whether he personally was the arrogant, insensitive bastard that he appears to be in writing, or whether he even does appear that way when you read closely, I find it strange to think that anyone should allow his capacity for bruising an unsuspecting reader’s feelings to dissuade them from absorbing all the good things there are to be found in his work. Some of the greatest spurs to productive thought I’ve had have come by way of a writer or blogger that pissed me off with their tone or ideas. I mean, really; there’s no shortage of people who will soothingly murmur the same old platitudes about love and compassion and mercy. I didn’t need Nietzsche for that. But for the relentless challenges to unthinking piety, conventional wisdom, and egotistical delusions, for the unusual psychological insights that make the wisdom of the world’s holy books seem like a collection of fortune cookie sayings, I’ve never found anyone better. As Lesley Chamberlain said in her excellent biography, Nietzsche in Turin, “Nietzsche I feel was often acting out the wisdom of Christ, facing the whole world angrily, as if he had found the moneychangers in the temple.” Yes. (And bonus points for ironically juxtaposing Fritz with Jesus.) And yet, at the same time, as Chamberlain also writes:

Mrs. Fynn earned his respect for her kindness and Catholic faith. He once burst into tears at the idea of how much his anti-Christian thoughts would hurt her and evidently that memory touched her greatly. Teasing him for his feigned indifference to the fame stealing upon him in 1888, she suggested that although he had forbidden her to read his books she could not believe anything ignoble could flow from his pen.

Crying?! There’s no crying in iconoclasm! But seriously, I find the contrast between his personal gentleness and philosophical recklessness to be inspiring, even touching. He was an awkward, needy, hypersensitive, bloviating, overcompensating, insecure man, but his sense of intellectual integrity and honesty prevented him from even trying to make life easy on himself.

And the sheer artfulness of his beautiful prose, ye gods! How I wish I could write with a fraction of that poetic grace. Here he is demolishing the common, simplistic misconstruals of his statements against pity:

Our personal and profoundest suffering is incomprehensible and inaccessible to almost everyone; here we remain hidden from our neighbor, even if we eat from one pot. But whenever people notice that we suffer, they interpret our suffering superficially. It is the very essence of the emotion of pity that it strips away from the suffering of others whatever is distinctly personal. Our “benefactors” are, more than our enemies, people who make our worth and will smaller. When people try to benefit someone in distress, the intellectual frivolity with which those moved by pity assume the role of fate is for the most part outrageous; one simply knows nothing of the whole inner sequence and intricacies that are distress for me or for you. The whole economy of my soul and the balance effected by “distress”, the way new springs and needs break open, the way in which old wounds are healing, the way whole periods of the past are shed – all such things that may be involved in distress are of no concern to our dear pitying friends; they wish to help and have no thought of the personal necessity of distress, although terrors, deprivations, impoverishments, midnights, adventures, risks and blunders are as necessary for me and for you as are their opposites. It never occurs to them that, to put it mystically, the path to one’s own heaven always leads through the voluptuousness of one’s own hell. No, the “religion of pity” (or “the heart”) commands them to help, and they believe that they have helped most when they have helped most quickly.

If you, who adhere to this religion, have the same attitude towards yourself that you have toward your fellow men; if you refuse to let your own suffering lie upon you for even an hour and if you constantly try to prevent and forestall all possible distress ahead of time; if you experience suffering and displeasure as evil, hateful, worthy of annihilation, and as a defect of existence, then it is clear that besides your religion of pity you also harbor another religion in your heart that is perhaps the mother of the religion of pity: the religion of comfortableness. How little you know of human happiness, you comfortable and benevolent people, for happiness and unhappiness are sisters and even twins that either grow up together, or, in your case, remain small together.

How is it at all possible to keep to one’s own way? Constantly, some clamor or other calls us aside; rarely does our eye behold anything that does not require us to drop our own preoccupation instantly to help. I know, there are a hundred decent and praiseworthy ways of losing my own way, and they are truly highly “moral”! Indeed, those who now preach the morality of pity even take the view that precisely this and only this is moral – to lose one’s own way in order to come to the assistance of a neighbor. I know just as certainly that I only need to expose myself to the sight of some genuine distress and I am lost. And if a suffering friend said to me, “Look, I am about to die; please promise to die with me,” I should promise it; and the sight of a small mountain tribe fighting for its liberty would persuade me to offer it my hand and my life — if for good reasons I may for once choose two bad examples. All such arousing of pity and calling for help is secretly seductive, for our “own way” is too hard and demanding and too remote from the love and gratitude of others, and we do not really mind escaping from it – and from our very own conscience – to flee into the conscience of others and into the lovely temple of the religion of pity… And while I shall keep silent about some points, I do not want to remain silent about my morality which says to me: Live in seclusion so that you can live for yourself. Live in ignorance about what seems most important to your age. Between yourself and today lay the skin of at least three centuries. And the clamor of today, the noise of wars and revolutions should be a mere murmur for you. You will also wish to help – but only those whose distress you understand entirely because they share with you one suffering and one hope – your friends – and only in the manner in which you help yourself. I want to make them bolder, more persevering, simpler, gayer. I want to teach them what is understood by so few today, least of all by these preachers of pity: to share not suffering but joy.

Here, a different, nuanced perspective on love of one’s fellow man:

The more we think about all that has been and will be, the paler grows that which is. If we live with the dead and die with them in their death, what are our ‘neighbors’ to us then? We grow more solitary, and we do so because the whole flood of humanity is surging around us. The fire within us, which is for all that is human, grows brighter and brighter – and that is why we gaze upon that which immediately surrounds us as though it had grown more shadowy and we had grown more indifferent to it. But the coldness of our glance gives offense!

One of the most touching and generous things he ever wrote:

Ah! How reluctant I am to force my own ideas upon another! How I rejoice in any mood and secret transformation within myself which means that the ideas of another have prevailed over my own! Now and then, however, I enjoy an even higher festival: when one is for once permitted to give away one’s spiritual house and possessions, like a father confessor who sits in his corner anxious for one in need to come and tell of the distress of his mind, so that he may again fill his hands and his heart and make light his troubled soul! He is not merely not looking for fame; he would even like to escape gratitude, for gratitude is too importunate and lacks respect for solitude and silence. What he seeks is to live nameless and lightly mocked at, too humble to awaken envy or hostility, with a head free of fever, equipped with a handful of knowledge and a bagful of experience, as it were a poor-doctor of the spirit aiding those whose head is confused by opinions without their being really aware who has aided them! Not desiring to maintain his own opinion or celebrate a victory over them, but to address them in such a way that, after the slightest of imperceptible hints or contradictions, they themselves arrive at the truth and go away proud of the fact! To be like a little inn which rejects no one who is in need but which is afterwards forgotten or ridiculed! To possess no advantage, neither better food nor purer air nor a more joyful spirit – but to give away, to give back, to communicate, to grow poorer! To be able to be humble, so as to be accessible to many and humiliating to none! To have much injustice done him, and to have crept through the worm-holes of errors of every kind, so as to be able to reach many hidden souls on their secret paths! Forever in a kind of love and forever in a kind of selfishness and self-enjoyment! To be in possession of a dominion and at the same time concealed and renouncing! To lie continually in the sunshine and gentleness of grace, and yet to know that the oaths that rise up to the sublime are close by! That would be a life! That would be a reason for a long life!

And a motto that I would be hard-pressed to improve upon:

To explore the whole sphere of the modern soul, to have sat in its every nook – my ambition, my torture, and my happiness.

Hard-hearted? Insensitive? To be sure, he was large and he contained multitudes, but still, I think not.