Between walls and heads

May 2013

In The Genealogy of Morals (as translated by Francis Golffing), Nietzsche writes about how

as a man divinely abstracted and self-absorbed into whose ears the bell has just drummed the twelve strokes of noon will suddenly awake with a start and ask himself what hour has actually struck, we sometimes rub our ears after [an] event and ask ourselves, astonished and at a loss, “What have we really experienced?”—or rather, “Who are we, really?”

I have dug this passage out of my files after reading an e-mail from one of my electronic friends, Carolyn (or Whyde Eide, as she first introduced herself to me). She has, apparently, just spent a long weekend at some kind of “Nietzsche retreat” in the Catskills. I quote from her post-retreat ruminations:

“One thing I learned is that people who like Nietzsche, or who like to go to Nietzsche retreats, also like to think that he went crazy not because of any illness or psychological problems, but because of the power and daring of his thinking. He stretched his mind all the way to a breaking point, or got so in touch with the lack of moorings for our thoughts that, one day in Turin, his own boat kind of drifted away. (Though I do not believe Turin is a notoriously nautical town and what I heard is that when Nietzsche went mad, or was perceived to have gone mad, he was embracing a mistreated carriage horse.) In three days I came across more than one idea that Friedrich might have done well to avoid.

There is no ‘being’ beyond doing, acting, becoming; ‘the doer’ is merely a fiction added to the deed—the deed is everything.

When I analyze the process that is expressed in the sentence, ‘I think,’ I find a whole series of daring assertions that would be difficult, perhaps impossible to prove: For example, that it is I who think, that there must necessarily be something that thinks, . . . that I know what thinking is.

“It seems to me that to think in this way could simply be madness—which does not make it wrong. It helps the rest of us realize what compromises we are willing to make with the truth and with our self-knowledge in order to preserve our sanity. Or the illusion of it. I wonder what a psychiatrist would think of the little ‘Nietzschean’ definition of sanity that I’ve cooked up. Sanity is the ability and willingness to compromise. Just that—simple and hard. But now I’m wondering if the line should be: . . . ability and willingness to accept the compromises we inevitably make?

“We were housed in these rustic cells, 5’6” x 8’ (I measured), with wood paneling, a wooden bed, one high window, and—get this—a Bose radio. So that as we stared up at the ceiling and reflected on the death of God or the revaluation of all values we could listen to NPR or classical music? Scanning the dial, as we used to say, I came across a woman giving advice to anyone and everyone who called in. Among the things she said was that if someone gives you a compliment, there is only one right response: ‘Thank you.’ This allowed me to see Nietzsche and myself as belonging to the other camp, the people who become interested in what might be right or wrong in the compliment. Does my new ‘do’ really make me look younger or is my colleague just saying that to be nice or get in my good graces? Take it from me, this is a good way of wearing out one’s mind at an early age. And I did not get the sense that fate or mental illness had deprived Nietzsche of saying what he had to say. Perhaps he said it all, or wrote it all, and was exhausted or drained, completely drained? Six books (he wrote) in his last sane/insane year.

“As you probably know, another popular theory is that Nietzsche had syphilis, which he got either as a result of his own sexual activities (for all he seems to have had almost no interest in sex) or of his father’s sexual activities. That is, his father may have gotten syphilis from a prostitute and then infected his mother who then infected Friedrich while he was still in the womb. Another hypothesis, which none of my dining table companions had ever seen explored, would be hereditary madness. And a place needs to be made for the possibility that at least some of his symptoms before he went mad—his headaches and nausea—were hysterical, psychosomatic, some perverse kind of defense mechanism.

“If you are, like me, a Philip Larkin fan, you might recall his conclusion—

They fuck you up, your mum and dad.
They may not mean to, but they do.
They fill you with the faults they had
And add some extra, just for you.

“But they were fucked up in their turn / By fools in old-style hats and coats, . . . Man hands on misery to man. / It deepens like a coastal shelf.” Lots of good lines in Philip Larkin.

“But back to Friedrich. In between bits of advice about how to respond to compliments or to a ‘friend’ who offers to pay ‘my’ cleaning lady more than I have been paying her (not that I in fact have a cleaning lady), . . . this is what my mind came up with. Baby Friedrich gets syphilis from his father and mother, and this begins to make him sick at any early age and then progressively sicker as he grows older, until, on that Turin street corner, he goes mad. But of course no more than the rest of us was Nietzsche able to assign his problems—his life—to his parents. He couldn’t make his illness his father’s. And, I assume, he couldn’t even blame his father for dying when he (Friedrich) was very young—another event that might be more than a little crazy-making. No wonder Friedrich came through madness to think that he was “the successor to the dead God” and religion a cruel hoax.

“I will not bore you with the not very sordid or piteous details of my own life, or of my parents’. [I do know that Carolyn’s husband died rather young and that she has raised a daughter, Alexandra, alone.] As a reader—and a school librarian!—am I trying to encourage people to live vicariously? It’s easier? There’s an Emily Dickinson poem in which she claims that she has ‘stopped being Theirs’—

The name They dropped upon my face
With water, in the country church
Is finished using, now,
And They can put it with my Dolls,
My childhood, and the string of spools, . . .

Crowned—Crowing—on my Father’s breast—
A half unconscious Queen—
But this time—Adequate—Erect,
With Will to choose, or to reject, . . .

“I have to say, it is both a beautiful poem and I don’t believe it. The rather more commodious, but still wooden cell, or dolls house, in which Dickinson lived—it was literally theirs (her parents’). The 1,000+ poems she wrote—were they not in a sense a faint if exquisite cry? ‘There’s someone here!’ ‘There is a subject “I” who is, goddammit, indeed the condition of the predicate “think”!’ And ‘feel’ or ‘write,’ and vacating her work room so that her brother and her future editor (Mabel Loomis Todd) could use it to fuck. (Pardon my repeated use of this word; it was a long weekend, and a hard bed.)

“Here’s where I’m headed. Could we say—would you say?—that Dickinson was successful in a way that Nietzsche was not? The cries of neither one were heard—or heard for what they were: cries. But hers somehow kept her afloat, and in a dry land. He kept beating his head against a wall, hoping against hope that the wall would break first?”



Other e-mails from Carolyn (or Whyde Eide):

Image is from a blog: The Online Photographer.

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