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Nietzsche and No End
February 9, 2010
O my dear soul, I am teaching you contempt, the one that doesn’t come along like a gnawing worm, but the great and loving Spite, the one that loves most when it despises most.
Zarathustra: The Great Yearning
The Forces of Light, bound by divine obligation, must offer battle to the Hosts of Darkness until they surrender. This an accepted detail of God’s blueprint for His most intrinsic creation. With the small problem that the borderline between the two isn’t that easily defined. Free will plays into it, the local parson once told me. If the warring factions clash in open terrain, the result is always horrible. If they conduct warfare from the depths of an armchair and use words instead of swords, the upshot can be occasionally ludicrous. Especially if the Dark one’s ammunition is a frazzled old hat.
Like Friedrich Nietzsche, that dazzling crackpot.
Who wrote the above nonsense which sounds ten times worse in German, a highly expressive and melodious language, aural preceptor to the world’s greatest composers. Let us take a look at the man’s life before entering into details.
Born 1844 into a stalwart Prussian-Lutheran family, the sensitive infant got probably more Gospel ladled onto his plate than he could comfortably stomach. His father, the local pastor, died when young Friedrich was five years old, and from then on the remaining family kept him under its many pinions. Mother, grandmother, a sister and two aunts, all good Christians but apparently without the paternal edge, looked after the boy. He must have felt like the proverbial rooster in a chicken run, an experience bitterly undone when the one woman in his life, Lou Salomé, refused to be more than a platonic ideal. After a brilliant university completion, and only twenty five years old, the chair for classical philology at the Basel university in Switzerland was offered to him. He accepted, but soon after volunteered and served as a medical orderly in the Franco-Prussian war. This heroically motivated impulse was undermined by an onset of dysentery and diphtheria, diseases which impaired his health permanently and left him in constant physical pain. It made him also, understandably, an ardent foe of every nationalistic ideal. After his return to Basel he wrote his immensely readable The Birth of Tragedy from the Spirit of Music, a work that gives us an idea what he might have produced if sane and content. Around this time he contracted syphilis, which, for inexplicable reasons, was never treated. Its slow but relentless devastation, in conjunction with a generally faltering physical condition, led to his fully fledged insanity only twenty years later.
The bodily destruction went hand in hand with an emotional ruin, brought about by his failure as a man and lover and the almost total disregard for his written work. During his tortuous ménage with Lou Salomé, he suffered the capricious woman’s habit to bed the occasional wayfarer while rigorously rejecting any physical contact with the great philosopher. She may have sensed what was afoot. Whoever has flipped through Thus Spoke Zarathustra, which found so slight a readership that the author had to publish the last part himself, must have recognized the outcry of a tormented soul. Or better, of a gnawing human worm, rattled by disease and despair, who tried to drown the terrible injustice of life in a feverish fantasy called Superman. A mythical being without known analogy, Lucifer in the guise of Hercules, whose self-proclaimed divinity is strictly earthbound and a nebulous recurrence in time. A kind of socio-Darwinian zombie whose general credo is the exact reversal of Christian ethics. Goodness is stupidity, compassion the dumbness of slaves, beauty ugliness, love utter contempt, gentleness dirt under his fingernail. In short, a two-hundred-fifty-page glorification of hate without any strings attached.
And God is dead, in case someone might have wondered what happened to Him.
So what made the man so important that he can be found in every encyclopaedia? First, his command of language. It was powerful, poetic and novel in construct, at times not anymore vehicle, but an independent art form. The second part of Goethe’s Faust is a forerunner and inexhaustible example, and Nietzsche certainly enlarged on it.
Next, a profound sensitivity, beautifully expressed in his poetry. Which rhymed, like the one below, and can be, as always, only roughly translated.
Yes, I know from whence I came!
Famished like the flame
Blaze I and devour myself.
Light is everything I touch,
Ashes everything I leave…
Flame most certainly I am.
Then a hugely intelligent and inquisitive mind, capable of the most extraordinary somersaults, at times so dazzling that even calmer contemporaries suspected, at least for a while, a new and astonishing system of thought behind all the bluster.
Finally the coincidence that — parallel to his own decline and decay — the Eveningland, or Western world, began to show clear signs of foundering as well. It was thus a perfect scapegoat to mirror his ever deepening despair, and the literary result a bottomless font for every fuzzy-brained, armchair-existentialist philosopher who could hold a pen in his manicured paw.
Now all this gives us a fair idea why the great man is so valued by Christendom’s enemies, those who rarely bother with details of his life, but try to tell you that his extrusions are the eruditions of a supreme mind that knew it all better than everybody else.
Take the Antichrist. A multipurpose conspiracy theory with instant appeal for anybody intending to dirty his own nest, but poor material if historical proof is needed to underpin the argument. Because the concrete facts about Christ’s life and times are nearly as scant as those of the Holocaust. Which constitute, according to the eminent expert Professor van Pelt of the Politically Correct Sciences, a miniscule one percent out of a hundred.
What is to be done therefore if a historian comes along and digs up the Antichrist from a dusty corner in the attic and de-dusts it for a spot of Christendom bashing, nicely tempered with implicit self-aggrandizement, a bit of fishy morals and the hope to gain, if not credibility, then at least notoriety?
We look at the Antichrist first, then at the historian.
The former was written only months before Nietzsche’s final collapse into irreversible insanity. Ravaged by hallucinations and in terrible pain, did he manage somehow to produce a crudely coherent epistle. But the feverish rant gives his desperate state away. We hear of Christ’s message as “poisoning, withering, bloodsucking”. His followers are “cunning, stealthy, invisible, anaemic vampires”, and Christianity is the “one great curse, the one great innermost corruption, the one great instinct of revenge, for which no means is too poisonous, too stealthy, too subterranean, too petty — in short the one immortal stain on mankind.” And everything and everyone who sails in it is, the ever repeated phrase, sick, sick, sick!
The Roman Empire, on the other hand, presents itself emphatically as the Superman’s logical forerunner. “The nobility of instinct, the taste, the methodical research, the genius of organization, the grand style in everything, the POWER…” This at a time when Caligula was already holding sway and murder the preferred way to solve political disputes. When the most hideous carnages were celebrated in the arenas for a jeering mob. When public theatres staged the basest fornication or the prolonged torture of a cheap slave, in the hope that the inhuman screams and roars might attract an utterly brutalized audience.
As for the historical facts, they are sparse as of necessity, and we are treated to much guessing. Christ’s parents, we hear to our surprise, were the lowliest scum in all of Judea, potential rebels at that, and the Saviour Himself might never have existed at all. It was that devious bastard Paul who dreamt it all up and succeeded in ensnaring two billion adepts and more, all unspeakable rabble by definition, all gibbering idiots beyond redemption, mere cattle at that, dumb victims of the greatest conspiracy ever pulled off in the history of man.
Even a Freudian headshrink would detect the demented mind.
Now to the historian. The intriguing question is of course why he, of a sane mind presumably, could use this drivel for an attack on Christendom and hope to escape ridicule. Personally I might have expected a skunk of some magnitude, a Dershowitz or Goldhagen perhaps, both authorities with reputations beyond repair, but not a mainstream academic.
Allow me to use a much simplified allegory, namely the one that those who despise, even hate, anything beyond proven reality, are like asses looking over a fence at a luscious meadow sprinkled with myriad flowers and cannot get in. The process is called Enlightenment, with the main assumption that the meadow must be but a mirage of the mind. Complete nonsense, says I, because I only have to sit down in a real, flower-studded meadow and perceive it as a carefully premeditated and immensely generous gift, which gives it a magical dimension and makes it infinitely more enjoyable as if it were a mere phenomenon in time, now in full blossom, tomorrow withered until next year. This leads us of course to an omnipotent God, one whom I believe to be solely responsible for the world’s creation and its grandiose theatre, though not for the crimes of mankind which cause about ninety nine percent of all its suffering.
No way, the historian cries. Forget the Bogey! Because what really happened was a slimy thing that crept accidentally out of the ocean a long time ago and climbed, by mere accident and without any known purpose and we don’t know exactly how, into a tree and stepped on its own toes and slipped accidentally and dropped down and broke into half, and the less slimy half survived and the more slimy one did not, which laid the foundations for the Science of the Survival of the Fittest, though much later, while meanwhile the less slimy thing developed, still accidentally but step by step, into a hedgehog who thus became the accidental forefather of the present human race.
If you say so…
Though I might wink an eye at you, without any patronizing intent, and tell you this: what happened right now, namely me winking an eye at you, without any patronizing intent, has necessitated a manoeuvre so complex that it defies human imagination. Electric currents were set into motion by orders of a brain made up from immeasurable amounts of muscles, vessels, cells, molecules, atoms, sub-atoms, all interlocking as perfect as the wheels of a Black Forest Cuckoo clock. And all initiated, according to you, by a process similar to tossing an infinite amount of golf balls into the air, each numbered, and each falling accidentally into a hole with the corresponding number. Can you believe that? I know you can, and therefore I don’t have any intention to convince you otherwise, just as I would not try to convince a bushman that the world is round, for fear he thinks me demented.
All I ask is that you treat me with decency and fairness, and not accuse me of terrible crimes based on insane testimony.
It was a glorious time when there were many gods afoot, when every brook belonged to a beautiful nymph, when unicorns grazed in silent groves, when pan flutes sounded in the rustling reeds, when a spirit lived in each tree and expected to be treated respectfully. A time when the world had no limits and people refused steadfastly to draw a clear line between imagination and reality. But it was also a time when the preferred pastime was to sack the next city state, kill the males and the infirm, and sell the reminders into slavery. Because missing was a coherent system of ethics that made sense to every person of reasonably good intentions, highly and lowly alike.
One of the great charges against Christianity is that it has destroyed mythology. What utter nonsense! It has transformed it, elevated it, sublimated it into mysticism. Take a Virgin with Child, for example Botticelli’s so-called Wemyss Madonna. Look at Her! Try only for a moment to rid yourself of prejudice and other intellectual ballast. Just as the Minotaur deep in his Cretan labyrinth is symbolic of our fight to wrestle down the inner monkey, is She not a historical representation at all, but a metaphor for man’s highest and most sublime aspiration. An aspiration to consummate, on a strictly personal level, Christ’s divine message of Love and Compassion. A message that is, for those who handle it calmly, an inexhaustible font of joy and inner certainty, a way of life that can brace adversities more thoroughly than any other. And a message that might one day, one day after many a summer, enable mankind to live in the Utopia we sometimes dreamt about when we were young.
Will you still say that She is such a perfect example of Catholic perfidy, because how could She ever give birth without a proper screw nine months previously, and most likely She wasn’t as blond as in this painting?
Perhaps you will.
So here I stand, wearing the Fisherman’s shoes ponderously, brandishing my sword from wood with the aim to partake in a battle that might safeguard the gates of my temple and unlock the stranglehold on the Fine Arts, but instead am accused to be worse than my foes, a liar, a traitor, a corrupter of men, solely because Christ’s Adage is emblazoned on my shield from tin. What must I do? Like a feeble lantern in the gathering dusk I continue to shine while calmly regarding the mongrel that lifts his leg at my base, and pray the Angels may shine a greater light on him than I ever can, so that one day, one day, he may not crawl about anymore on all fours, but walk upright like a real man.
Michael Colhaze (email him) is a pen name.