BY MATTHEW HERBERT
This has been a year of reading books twice. Why? I suppose because they felt good the first time.
I read Nineteen Eighty-Four for the umpteenth time. And I read Dorian Lynskey’s The Ministry of Truth: The Biography of George Orwell’s 1984, twice. It is wonderful.
On New Year’s Day of this year I started reading Sue Prideaux’s beautifully crafted I Am Dynamite: A Life of Nietzsche. Now I am reading it again.
Nietzsche is one of the most misunderstood thinkers of all time. People who have never read a thing by him think he is awful because he wrote that God is dead. Then they go on to say, with God out of the way, Nietzsche says we should strive to be supermen, lording it over all the little people who still have faith. Then comes the coup de grace: No wonder Hitler liked Nietzsche. If God is dead and certain people are supermen, of course you end up with supermen machine-gunning people they dislike into pits.
Well, blaming Nietzsche for Nazism is like blaming Lavoisier for causing fires because he discovered the oxygen theory of combustion. You could do it, but you’d be really dumb.
Nietzsche was a conventional, patriotic young man who happened to be very good at Latin and Greek. He could also improvise beautifully on the piano.
Nietzsche’s father and grandfather had both been Lutheran priests, and young Nietzsche intended to follow them into the priesthood. When he was confirmed during high school, Nietzsche experienced a feeling of such intense devotion, he declared to a friend that he was willing to “die for Christ.” His overprotective mother worried that he would take up with a new kind of charismatic Christian making waves in 1860s Germany who went around openly confessing their sins and frankly expounding on their need for forgiveness. They were basically Jesus freaks, if you can imagine that kind of thing in 19th century Germany. The things you read in books, right?
Nietzsche’s break with religion, when it happened, was no mere adolescent rebellion against a naive version of Christian fundamentalism. It grew out of his realization that the Bible was preposterous, and that all the other creation myths, heroic epics, and systems of morals he was learning as a classicist were equally preposterous. They were all stories that humans made up and which insisted on not being read as made up.
When Nietzsche says we are supermen, he is not being arrogant. Quite the opposite. He is asking for a confession of our limits. Humankind, if it is capable of mustering the honesty, must admit it has made up all the cosmologies and codes of law that we think of as being handed down from the sky from God’s hand to ours. “God” was really us all along. It is in that paradoxical sense that we are supermen–we were our own lawgivers. We’ve been writing down our own intuitions for ages and ascribing them to “God.”
With the death of divine authorship comes the duty to think much more carefully. If before you followed a law that required you to be monstrous to other people–massacring them, say, or relegating them to castes of the despicable–now you no longer have divine law as an excuse. Divine law has no objective reality beyond the fears, prejudices, and class interests from which it is conjured.
So grow up, is what Nietzsche says. This is, I think, why so many people dislike him. He is unsettling. And he says plainly that we have grave responsibilities. People don’t like that. They would rather have incense, mystic rites, and the childish doodads of religious tribalism. The purpose of these things is to tell us there is some “mystery” that relieves us of moral responsibility. Well, goodbye to all that, I say. The list of things that strain or compromise our moral responsibility is long enough without adding made-up things to it.
Reading Nietzsche is a way of bucking yourself up.
Looking back at what we have read in certain timespans is, I think, a kind of psychoanalysis. I rarely have a plan of what to read: some unconscious force moves me. So it is instructive to ask: why did I read the books I choose, seemingly at random?
One thing I read twice this year was The Castle, by Kafka. Like Nineteen Eighty-Four, I have also read it many times. I find myself using an awkward phrase about The Castle: I call it the most important novel in the world to me. Not the best. I do not call it the best, because Kafka did not manage to finish it, and there are other novels in its class whose authors did manage to finish. So they get the palm. More about them in a moment.
The Castle is a very Nietzschean novel. It is about self-authorship. It is about two facets of self-authorship really.
One: To lead your own life is thoroughly disorienting. This is because there is no script to follow, where certain well-meaning institutions like school or parents probably tried to teach you there was one. In the early modern frame of mind, you might have thought you could follow a religious path or a nationalist path to who you ought to be. Harking back to ancient time, you might declare with all the confidence of Marcus Aurelius, “I rise to do the work of a human being. What do I have to complain of, if I’m going to do what I was born for?”
(Walt Whitman thought like this. He thought America overflowed with well-defined opportunities that you could see yourself born to fulfill.)
In The Castle, K arrives in a snowy village at night because he has been summoned to be the official land surveyor. He has the full and clear intention to report for duty. He possesses a letter appointing him to the position. But real life takes another direction for K: even though the whole village is made up of nothing but appurtenances of the bureaucracy that appointed him to his position as land surveyor, no one can trace the authority of this appointment back to its source and tell him how to start his job. There is no job for K to do. The Castle bureaucracy buzzes intensely with self-interrogation, but it cannot discover a motive for bringing K here, a rationale for his existence.
Two: If there is no script shape to one’s life, the sheer force of will takes on new priority. This is also very Nietzschean. The only “action” of The Castle is K’s constant, dogged attempt to claim his role as land surveyor. Each way he turns, there appears to be a faint glimmer of hope that someone in the know can tell him what is really happening behind the scenes. Then that person turns out to be as clueless and powerless as K. The system, powerful as it is, lets everyone down.
If you want to extract a simple moral from The Castle, it is this: We are all K. We all must rely primarily on our own will to create the standards by which we will succeed and then try to succeed according to those standards. This is disorienting, because we expect life to have something like a plan imposed from outside. But it doesn’t.
So The Castle tells you that you have very grave responsibilities and no objective scheme for seeing them through.
I also re-read Underworld by Don Delillo. As I wrote here a few days ago, I consider it the greatest American novel. It is, like Nietzsche’s philosophy, and like Kafka’s story in The Castle, a fable of self-creation. I won’t rehash it here; I would probably just go off on a tangent. It is a novel about the way America re-created itself during the Cold War. It relates how Americans used to be outside and together all the time but now we stay in. Delillo thinks the assassination of JFK was pivotal in this evolution. After the Zapruder film–the headsnap and braincase explosion–we started staying inside and discussing disquieting, horrible things. And the news has been like that ever since.
Why are these the books I come back to? Why do they provide the comforts of home?
Are they coordinates in a system? I think maybe they are. Coordinates render a place on a map you can come back to.
In 1850 there was a boy born half-Irish half-Greek on a Greek island. Abandoned by his parents at the age of seven, he went to Ireland, then America. He became a newspaperman in Cincinnati, where his specialty was writing lurid accounts of violent crimes. He married a woman recently emancipated from slavery and had to move to New Orleans because that kind of thing did not go down well in Ohio. The marriage ended. He started writing cookbooks. He also translated obscure French literature.
He moved to Martinique for two years and then Japan. There he married anew, into a samurai family, and he translated 14 books of Japanese folktales. They were so good, they became part of the Japanese school curriculum. The point is, the half-Greek was all over the place. You might not know his name, Lafcadio Hearn, (I certainly didn’t before I read about him in the New Yorker), but what an extraordinary life he led.
Hearn’s whole world consisted of language–reading and writing. You couldn’t say he lacked a home. He eventually became a Japanese citizen. But his real home was the written word through which he was constantly re-creating his identity and environment. Oddly, there is no such thing as getting lost under these circumstances, although from the outside, you might appear as lost as all get-out.
I am no creator of worlds (as Hearns clearly was), but I do know the basic shape of mine. The coordinates that make up its boundary are given in Orwell, Nietzsche, Kafka and Delillo. I suppose I read them over and over for the same reason you can look at a map over and over without losing your sense of fascination. There are multitudes of details inside the boundary–so many you can’t keep them straight. But the framework, if it is stable enough, creates a home.