Sunday, April 17, 2011

Nietzsche and dynamite

According to Maxime Vuillame’s book, Les Travaux publics au XIXieme siecle (1883), the ‘sad’ town of Groeschen was the scene for one of the more spectacular engineering projects of the 1870s – the creation of the tunnel at the base of Saint Gothard mountain for the purpose of laying a railroad track. After the tunnel was proposed, Goeschen became quite different: “Side by side with the old quarter soon appeared a new town, put up in haste in order to give temporary shelter to a population of two thousand miners, mechanics, masons, canteen clerks, making an irruption in this desolate corner. During the nine years in which the work of mining proceeded, Goeschen presented to the tourist the strange aspect of one of those improvised American cities, full of movement, of cries, sometimes of bloody battles; each of the houses that lined the route of a long chain of window displays and cabarets, there was thrown out now the sounds of a waltz, now the sounds of a noisy dispute a l’italienne. Marching down the road, the troops of miners returning in groups from the tunnel, singing “the hymn to Garibaldi” or some old refrain from the other side of the mountains, which they beat out with their still illuminated lamps. A muffled explosion made the air shake, another, five or six in succession; this was the mines that blew up in the subterranean tunnel, taking from the mountain a part of its rock each day. Then, everything re-entered into silence, that was only pierced now and then by the sharp whistle of the locomotives hauling out the underground debris.”

Vuillaume may have noticed the songs of the workers all the more because of his experience in the Commune. But did Nietzsche notice them? Did he see them?

The Saint Gothard project was begun at about the time Nietzsche took up his post in Basel, in 1872. Nietzsche and his sister actually crossed the old pass on a horsedrawn sleigh in 1871, so he would have known the area. The the project was finished the year Nietzsche wrote Daybreak, in 1881.

The preface to Daybreak was written In 1886, while Nietzsche was living in Nice. He read, at the end of that year, a French translation of Notes from the Underground, and depending when one dates the preface, it is possible Nietzsche’s soutterain was influenced by Dostoevsky.

But there is another chain of connections, or at least intersigne.

The first of these is in a letter that Nietzsche writes to Overbeck in 1886, in which he mentions Goeschenen. This is a significant letter for many reasons, among which is the fact that Nietzsche is quite conscious that the sickness he suffers from is not simply a physical ill. Or rather, he sees the double aspect of illness, how it accrues psychological and existential meanings. He complains to Overbeck that it makes him ill every time he returns to Italy, and then he makes the fascinating point that the illness is specifically connected to his feeling of being intellectually cramped and exhausted by his post in the university of Basel. After telling his friend that “your post in Basel, really nothing to envy, but at least it is nothing, as well, to commiserate with, has something prospective and fine, which you couldn’t easily find elsewhere,” he writes revealingly about himself: “Unfortunately, this place is climactically impossible for me – than with whom would I rather now speak of my things than with you and Burckhardt? Thus I have really weighed Basel, and I always enjoy meeting someone from Basel (like I did again today: and each time it occurs to me how impregnated with the Buckhardtian spirit and taste everything is that comes from there: naturally assuming, etc. etc). But finally I thank God (or more precisely, my illness, and in good part you, my dear friend) that I am no longer there. To live in a false milieu and to weaken one’s life task, which I did, so long as I was a philologist and university instructor, unfailingly crushed me physically to the ground; and every advance on my way has brought me, as well, health in the physical sense.” [my translation, SB, 7: 207]

Add to this another letter on September 24, 1886, to his friend, Malwinda von Meysenburg. In it, Nietzsche reports on a simile that will have a fatal charm for him in the coming years:
“At the conclusion I want to write you a few wrds about me, that can be read in the »Bund« (16. und 17. Sept.) [A Bern newspaper]. The title: Nietzsche’s dangerous book.
»Those dynamite stocks, which was used in the construction of the Gotthadt railroad, were supplied with black flags to warn of the deadly danger. Completely in this sense will we speed of the new book by the philosopher Nietzsce as of a dangerous book. We are not strewing any trace of blame in this designation against the author and his work, as little as those black flags were supposed to blame the explosive material. Yet less has it occurred to us to call down upon the lonely thinker by reference to the dangerousness of his book official ravens and crows of the altar. The intellectual explosive, like the material, can serve to do very useful work; it is not necessary, that it be used for criminal purposes. Only it is a good idea, where such stuff is stored, to say clearly: here lies dynamite! ‹«
More even than Whitman, Nietzsche identified with his book – or perhaps I should say, Nietzsche’s identies shifted with the Nietzschian ‘we’. By the time we reach the one of the last texts before Nietzsche’s breakdown, Ecce Homo, Nietzsche has himself become this dynamite. But before we reach that point, in the winter of 1886, Nietzsche, working on the preface to Daybreak, was concerned with what appeared in the book – the book from 1881. He was concerned with the subterranean, the dead, the mole.
It is perhaps a little too facile to say that the Icarian Nietzsche, the Nietzsche of the heights, and the subterranean, the creature of the depths, most naturally meet in a tunnel burrowed under a mountain. A tunnel that is, in its vastness, comparable to some work of nature. But it is the kind of image that I want to put, at least, in the margins of the Nietzschian text, to preside over the question of what Nietzsche saw in his 1881 book that made him speak of a subterranean creature breaking the surface and coming into the light.

The Mock community

As the preface is both outside the book and a judgment of what is happening inside it, a good place to start understanding the subterranean is to press on the tension between the lonely beast in the tunnel and the oddly mocking ‘we’. Nietzsche wrote his preface at the same time he was writing the fifth book of The Gay Science, which he claimed in a letter to Peter Gast was written partly in order to establish a symmetry between the two books. He also claimed that he wrote it so quickly that he barely remembered what was in it. The fifth book bears on its face another “we” – Wir Furchtenlos, and the first number concerns “our good cheer”, although the good cheer begins with the very opposite of the good news – rather, it begins with the death of God. In “our good cheer”, the “we” applies to the few who understand this – except the few may be noone at all, no person in the collective, however small, who can encompass the world without God. The shifter in Nietzsche becomes, as it does its enunciative work, as it touches the reader by making the production of the enonce part of a common process, a shapeshifter that escapes the reader, an I escaping the we, and then annihilating itself in an it, in an animal, in a mole, in the spirits of the dead. The dead have no I, in as much as the I only has meaning as a linguistic shifter, because the dead can’t speak. Their I is cancelled.

But of course we, some we, speaks for them, is always speaking for them. Speaking on behalf of the dead is an old community custom. It is literally the law, for the law is intended both to transcend the deaths of the lawmakers and to speak for them.

But this is not Nietzschian “we”. I don’t believe I am mistaken in hearing a tone of mockery in that we that has to do with the coincidence between the shifter and the shapeshifter. It is mockery at the kind of utterance in which the “we” anchors the truth. That anchoring is institutionalized – it is not the we of the intellectual adventurer that anchors the credibility of the philosopher, but his or her post as a teacher of philosophy. If one looks at Nietzsche’s we-s, many are claims to community with the kinds of expertise in which he had no official training, on the one side – and on the other side there was the kind of journalistic we that assumed philosophy, psychology, art as guises for the feuilleton column. The Nietzschian “we” maintains itself – and this is its connection both to the resentment of the reactionaries and the critique of the revolutionaries - between arid academism and newspaper vulgarization in the space of that amateur, the man who understands the world through his experience and reading, or the third life – the one that is spent neither sleeping nor, fully, in waking and its business. These specialists in reading, in an art that has no disciplinary limits or form! These amateurs! The we, then, does signal a community, but it is a community built on mockery.

The fifth book to Daybreak opens with a sort of prose poem, In Great Silence. Here the text presents us with questions that touch on a sort of interweaving: the we, language, silence, and mockery. The we here is Nietzsche and nature. The underground creature, the it, and the dead are all connected to the modernist remove from nature, and its return.
In Great Silence – Here is the sea, here we can forget the city. Although even now we can hear its bells ringing out the Ave Maria – it is that dusky and foolish, but sweet noise at the crossroads of day and night – but only a moment more! Now everything is silent. The sea lies pale and glowing there, it cannot speak. Heaven plays its eternal dumb evening play with red, yellow, green colors, it cannot speak. The small cliffs and bands of boulders, which jut out into the see, as though in order to find the place where it is loneliest, they can all not speak. This terrifying dumbness, which suddenly falls over us, is beautiful and cruel, the heart swells at it – Oh, the slipperiness of this dumb beauty! — How well it could speak, and how evilly, too, if it wanted! Its tied up tongue and the suffering happiness on its face is a deception, in order to mock at your pity. But so be it. I am not ashamed to be the mocked object of such powers. But I feel compassion for you, nature, because you must be silent, even if it is only because of your evil. – Oh, it is becoming quieter, and my heart is swelling up even more: it is shocked before a new truth, for it too cannot speak, it even makes mock when the mouth wants to call out something into this beauty, speak, it even takes pleasure in the sweet wickedness of silence. Speech, and even thought has become abhorrent to me: because don’t’ I hear, behind every word, the error, the fantasy, the spirit of madness laughing? Oughtn’t I do mock my compassion? Mock my mocking?— Oh sea! Oh evening! You are terrible teachers! You teach the human to cease to be human! Should he give in to you? Should he become as you are now, pale, glittering, dumb, monstrous, reposing above himself? Exalted above himself?

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