I don’t know much about Nietzsche. I churned out the usual undergraduate essay on The Birth of Tragedy and was left untouched by the experience. All I really retained was that in order to foster creativity, Nietzsche would stuff himself with sugary food until he had a bilious attack and was forced to take to his bed. However, I’ve been known to suffer terribly from excessive curiosity, and when, chatting on the phone to my publisher last week, he became stuck trying to recall one of Nietzsche’s aphorisms, of which he could only remember the first half, I cheerfully said I’d look into it. Big mistake: Nietzsche wrote many books of aphorisms and the quality of his thought is what might be termed erratic. Walter Kaufmann talking of Nietzsche’s oeuvre puts it well when he describes how ‘There is much here that is surely admirable: formulations, epigrams, insights, suggestions. And there is much that is shocking: bathos, sentences that invite quotation out of context in support of hideous causes, silly arguments.’ For my own part I couldn’t help but react to what I experienced as a kind of adolescent recklessness in Nietzsche’s writings, a poorly understood bravado that made him throw out outlandish statements and then claim them as profound truths. It could also be that I’m ambivalent about maxims, epigrams, aphorisms, etc, which can work wonderfully well if sufficiently witty, paradoxical and concise, but again are subject to the kind of catapult dynamic that makes one in ten hit the mark whilst the others whistle into the distance, accompanied by the sound of shattering glass. However, all this being said, I did come across a series of maxims in Twilight of the Gods that gave me real pause for thought. They are as follows:
‘You run ahead? Are you doing it as a shepherd? Or as an exception? A third case would be the fugitive. First question of conscience.’
‘Are you genuine? Or merely an actor? A representative? Or that which is represented? In the end, perhaps you are merely a copy of an actor. Second question of conscience.
‘Are you one who looks on? Or one who lends a hand? Or one who looks away and walks off? Third question of conscience.’
‘Do you want to walk along? Or walk ahead? Or walk by yourself? One must know what one wants and that one wants. Fourth question of conscience.’
‘Those were steps for me, and I have climbed up over them: to that end I had to pass over them. Yet they thought that I wanted to retire on them.’
‘The formula of my happiness: a Yes, a No, a straight line, a goal.’
Now I appreciate the irony of admiring insight into the nature of happiness from a man who eventually ran mad, but I found myself pondering this sequence of thoughts and finding myself intrigued. My analysis of them goes thus: First maxim: Niezsche asks us to consider our sense of autonomy and independence. Is it created out of a desire for power or a need to oppose others? Second maxim: Nietzsche asks us to consider our identity. Has role-play usurped a sense of genuine feeling, real passion (the most significant factor in life for him)? Do we stand up for the truths we hold dear, or do we ventriloquise those of others? Third maxim: Nietzsche asks us to consider our ethics. To what extent do we embrace charity, generosity, solidarity, or do we allow the fundamental separateness of human beings to justify our need for self-defence? Fourth maxim: Nietzsche asks us to consider our desires. Initially it looks like he is posing a different question about our relationship to others, but indeed that question will always take us back to our own wants. We may try to make our desire the fault of other people, for either attracting or repelling us, but the truth is that it is ours to manage and express, and we must take responsibility for it. Fifth maxim: There is no way through human dilemma but through the fire. It cannot be avoided or ignored, although people can manage to do so for long stretches of time. What’s interesting is that this avoidance is not in fact a way of eluding dilemma but of remaining locked in stasis within it. Final maxim: for Nietzsche, we can conclude, happiness was bound up in absolutes, the yes and no of absolute conviction, certainty, truth; the clarity and accuracy of the straight line, the mastered and controlled desire of the cherished goal. And perhaps this is why he managed so little of it, for life is full of blurs and smudges and ambiguities. The architecture of existence owes more to the earth mound of the termite than the clear-cut lines of the skyscraper. Still, Nietzsche preaches to the convicted in this instance, for he exhorts us to do what I have always considered to be the greatest task of life: Know thyself. And then have a sense of humour about it (this latter coming from the Book of Litlove, rather than The Portable Nietzsche).