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Thursday, December 11, 2014

The secret messages of authors: Nietzsche again

How does one use the papers of an author?
Some authors, like GS Lichtenberg, are famous mainly for the notebooks that they left to posterity. Others, like Emerson and Nietzsche, are famous firstly for their books – even as those books are trailed by the vast haul of their Nachlass, their jounals, their scratch books. Both Emerson and Nietzsche, as well, worked in an essay form that centered on the phrase, or paragraph – or perhaps it would be better to say, using Nietzsche’s dynamite metaphor, that the essay or the number is a sort of photograph of the ruin caused by the explosion of these phrases, sentences, slogans at the center. The center, supremely, does not hold.
I’m thinking about this while reading and  gritting my teeth through, Geoff Waite’s book on Nietzsche. Waite, who positions himself as a true, Nietzsche-defying leftist (an authorial figuration that takes many turns – sometimes he casts himself as a man  heading Nietzsche off at the pass, as though FN wore a black hat and rustled cattle and GW was Wyatt Earp), still turns to Leo Strauss’ notion of esoteric and exoteric to find Nietzsche’s true message. This message is in the notes.
I must admit that I find a certain amount of humor in this. Nietzsche, as is well known, was a sick man with bad eyes, who for most of his life made little money from his books and had to depend on the pension he’d been granted when he quit the University of Basel. This pension was around 800 thaler. Which, in today’s terms, would be about 23 thousand per year. Waite, however, refers to him as a rentier – which is exactly what he wasn’t – and comments about certain illegible notes in Nietzsche’s papers: “Exactiy here Nietzsche's text stutters, becomes unintelligible.91 Whenever one's handwriting breaks down completely—becomes illegible to others or to oneself— this is not necessarily by chance, nor necessarily unconsciously motivated.” The ‘not necessarilys” here are supposed to look like arguments, and certainly they are indisputable – but they also indisputably get us nowhere. Was Nietzsche such a sneek that he couldn’t even write in his notebooks without looling over his shoulder to make sure that nobody read what he really wrote about Plato? I would say, not necessarily, and not even probably, given what we know about the material conditions of his production. In another place – this struck even sympathetic reviewers – Waite pushes towards an image of Nietzsche dreaming of concentration camps to come, when in a notebook entry from the time of the composition of Zarathustra, Nietzsche writes “Der Entschluss. Unzaehlige Opfer muss es geben.” Waite translates this as "There will have to be countless dead bodies [Opfer: offerings or sacrifices]."57  The parenthetical translation choices are there, apparently, to save his scholarly integrity – for of course “The decision: there must be countless sacrifices” could mean just what it seems to mean – that there will have to be countless sacrifices. Since Nietzsche’s public works often speak of Opfer, with the meaning being a sacrificed living thing, or a sacrificed desire, etc., it would seem more, well, hermeneutically just to compare uses and decide just what is going on here, if anything.

However, if one is armed with an esoteric reading kit, things become a lot clearer, forensically clearer in fact.

If Waite’s style of reading Nietzsche seems to go off the track at times, he still presents us with an interesting question, one that is particularly pertinent to Nietzsche. After all, famously, many of Nietzsche’s jottings were put into a book and the book was attributed to Nietzsche: “The Will to Power.” The history of that book is a sort of philological crime, and like so many crimes, it was committed by a family member of the victim – Nietzsche’s sister made the book, employing Nietzsche’s friend, Peter Gast, to read the notes.
Gast – guest – what a perfect name for the intruder in the notebooks! And yet, we, who read those jottings, soon make ourselves at home. After all, it is from these notebooks that the books were quarried, and so we are tempted to think of them as the raw material, or key to the mysteries.

Waite himself seems to move between thinking that the notebooks are where the exoteric reveals its esoteric content, and thinking that even the notebook jottings conceal some ultimately even more horrible fascoid thought. Myself, I think that the exoteric/esoteric dichotomy is disturbed, and made less ‘forensically’ useful,  by Nietzsche’s perspectivism.



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