[Originally published Dec. 1, 2010.]
So, I’ve been reading Conversations with Nietzsche: A Life in the Words of His Contemporaries, which is, as you can guess, a bunch of recollections from his friends and acquaintances. It’s easily been one of my favorite books I’ve read this year, just because it’s such an interesting change of pace from all the usual books about his philosophy itself. Even the collections of his letters haven’t been quite as revealing of what he was really like as an everyday person as this book has been. This was one of my favorite stories of the whole book, told by a student named Sebastian Hausmann, who encountered Nietzsche on a walk in the countryside of Switzerland during the mid-1880s, a few years before his final collapse. He saw a letter lying on the ground and hurried to ask the man ahead of him on the path if it was his. It was, and the man expressed his profuse thanks for its return and invited the youngster to accompany him on the rest of his walk:
Now all of a sudden I knew why the man’s face had so struck me; it had a certain unmistakable similarity with the pictures of the famous philosopher which I vaguely remembered. I was not one of that philosopher’s admirers and had never read his works to the end, because I ran into too many difficulties I could not easily solve with my simple common sense. Somewhat suspiciously I asked the gentleman: “Are you perhaps a relative of the famous philosopher Nietzsche?” He looked at me sharply for a moment then answered: “No, I’m not related to him.” Involuntarily I remarked: “Well, thank God!” I immediately regretted this remark, I had merely been thinking somewhat too loudly. Again he flashed a look at me from the side and asked: “So you don’t like the philosopher?” To which I answered candidly: “No.” He then asked further: “What has the man done to you?” I looked pensively for a few moments, then I said: “Well, of course the man has done me no harm. But it annoys me that he always writes as if the whole world consisted of professors of philosophy. Why can’t a philosophy professor also write so that an average person with no special philosophical schooling can understand too?”
After a few paces the man suddenly stopped and turned toward me with a good-humored, gentle smile: “Let us not play hide-and-seek. You were quite right to think of the philosopher Nietzsche at sight of me. I am really not related to your Nietzsche, for I am the man himself, whom you chose to call a famous philosopher.”
It’s funny, because aside from the sort of dense, serious subject matter he chose to write about, Nietzsche isn’t really difficult to understand as a prose stylist; he himself scorned the types of intellectuals who purposely muddied up their writing to intimidate people into assuming profundity where none existed. But he told Hausmann something interesting about why some things can’t be expressed colloquially:
“When one writes a book and thus steps into the public light, that is always a significant act deserving of a certain solemnity, so that one has to put aside everyday language. You have a good example in Catholicism, toward which, as you perhaps know, I am not exactly friendly, but this does not prevent me from recognizing the great worldly wisdom with which Rome has been conducting its business over the ages. Why does Rome still have the Mass read in Latin? To give the solemn act, veiled in mystery, a special solemnity even externally. But that must not be at the expense of clarity or intelligibility. If thoughts were thereby hidden, if the real meaning became hard to understand, that would of course be false, that would no longer be solemn, that would be foolish. So give me a particular example that caused you difficulty. Perhaps you have one in mind?”
Bus-ted! Hausmann really hasn’t read much of him at all, and has to scramble to come up with some material to talk about. But they have an illuminating discussion anyway:
In an equally amiable manner he discussed the various other points which came to my mind little by little, and I noticed with great delight how simple, how very clear and easily understandable all his oral remarks were. Yet his conversation had something erratic about it; I constantly had the feeling that his thoughts spouted forth in an astonishing excess, literally crowding one another out.
…During the whole conversation I did not know what I should admire more, the tremendous scope of his positive knowledge, the high flight of his lines of thought, or the brilliant, almost poetically beautiful language. That he bothered with me, a green, insignificant young man, who of course had absolutely nothing to offer him, and spoke with me in such an amiable, friendly manner, gave me the impression that at the bottom of his soul he must have been an unusually kind and loving person, and I was filled with deep gratitude toward him.
I knew from other readings that he was personally nothing like his fire-breathing literary persona, but even I was surprised to see how unanimous this theme was of people remarking on his unfailingly polite, soft-spoken mannerisms, considerate patience with people far less intellectual than him, and general kindheartedness. Walking with one female friend in the country, they were surprised by a herd of cows, which triggered a phobic reaction in her, related to a childhood experience of being chased by a bull. He comically made as if to fend them off with his umbrella until she was too busy laughing at the absurd spectacle to be afraid anymore. In another story, he heard of a mentally ill woman who refused to leave her hotel room to go get treatment despite all her friends’ efforts. He asked to be allowed to talk with her, and shortly afterward emerged with her following calmly along behind him, where he escorted her to the waiting carriage; no one ever found out how he coaxed her out of her shell.
Another favorite passage is from a friend named Reinhardt von Seydlitz:
For he lacked one thing which will always accompany the great man in the customary sense: he had no dark, ignoble sides to his nature, not even sensory crudity. For great men are seldom, in the noblest sense, decent men. A part of “being great”—of becoming and staying great—is a stupid belief in oneself. That is also why great men in their “decent” moments often seem so small. Our Nietzsche was far from all this. I have never known a more genteel person than he—not one! He could be inconsiderate only toward ideas; not toward the persons who had the ideas. And these bearers of ideas—some with crude mentalities—soon discovered this: they knew there was nothing to fear from him. They were silent about him, for he was silent about them even from an innate inner purity.
Inconsiderate toward ideas, not toward the people who hold them. A worthy ideal to strive for, if you ask me.