My most esteemed, and only real, colleague Dr. Gary Van Cott once said that New York City made me a structuralist. I used to sit in my 21st floor midtown apartment and watch the antlike people rush to and fro below; with cars, bikes, and trucks stopping and starting, ebbing and flowing with mechanical precision; no one free to do anything but what the culture programed. It was a brilliant assessment, and one that contained its own share of critique (unbeknownst to me, at least until a year or so later). Looking out my window just now, albeit in a much less grand environment, I suddenly realized that in NYC the assumption that each of those ants had sacrificed something, most definitely comfort, to be there at that moment had kept me from being filled with pity or an overabundance of contempt; for I too was being moved (and made hard) by the same mechanical forces. Now, however, I live somewhere that exists only for two reasons: for humans to work and to die in as comfortable a manner as possible. Thus, watching them drive by in their dirty pollution spewing cars moves me very close to contempt and I wonder how life can be so devalued that we willingly act this way.
It’s funny that I had this realization as I was looking up from a letter Peter Gast wrote about Friedrich Nietzsche. Maybe less funny than I care to admit, as a quick perusal of any of Nietzsche’s letters will inform the reader how desperately lonely and devoid of brotherhood he was. The only time I have ever written letters of the type Nietzsche exchanged with his unworthy contemporaries was when I became estranged from my dear aforementioned colleague; and every time I read Nietzsche’s letters I cannot help but think of him. This Gast letter, though, is different from those exchanged between Nietzsche and others. It is a general recollection of his first impressions of the greatest man since TITVS FLAVIVS VESPASIANVS. The Birth of Tragedy made these impressions, and as an academic who could rebuild the WTC with the amount of ignorance promoted by my betters about Nietzsche, I’d like to share what Mr. Gast said.
“No one had ever peered into the depths of the Greek character with such perceptiveness; here was a mind speaking with interpretative force the like of which we had never seen before. The most secret impulses of culture seemed to unveil themselves before us. When Nietzsche had the Apollonian and Dionysian forces finally destroyed by utilitarian rationalism (as expressed by Socrates), we suspected why a sprouting and blossoming of great art is almost impossible under the domination of our culture of knowledge and reason. Joyously we saw, therefore, how Nietzsche turns against this culture:–The Birth of Tragedy is a mighty protest of artistic and heroic man against the will-weakening, instinct-destroying consequences of our current culture. As one sees, already in this book Nietzsche is the great revaluator. From the very first, he saw types of human vital energy, measured by which modern mankind seems very philistine. Our culture destroys nature in man; where culture should intensify human nature by discipline. Only the most highly potentialized man can give highest value to the world, as Goethe and Nietzsche wish it; the debilitated person devalues it.”
How many scholars will admit to jumping through hoops and tightening screws with maggots in order to deny this basic fact of Nietzsche’s work and turn him instead into a postmodern democratic feminist multiculturalist? It is certainly without irony that one’s position on Nietzsche is capable of telling all who need to know about one’s position on every aspect of contemporary culture, knowledge, and politics. For nowhere within the American academy will Gast’s learned reading of Nietzsche be taken as true or valuable. And yet, in the estranged-PhD dominated New Right (both European and American), Gast’s quick summation of Nietzsche’s earliest published work would be so perfectly accepted that it forms part of the air these radical non-liberal thinkers breathe. (This divide can be easily bridged, however, by people just READING NIETZSCHE instead of what some democratic feminist multiculturalist says about Nietzsche. For there is absolutely no mistaking Nietzsche’s intentions or great politics; these must instead be completely denied to arrive at the French/American postmodern Nietzsche.) Gast continues …
‘“Schopenhauer as Educator’ had won us over completely and became our standard in the highest questions of culture. For while our contemporaries understood culture to mean approximately Bentham’s ideal of a maximum of general comfort (the ideal of Strauss and all socialists since More), Nietzsche suddenly appeared among them like a lawgiver out of thunderclouds teaching that the goal and summit of culture is to produce genius. This was the explicit statement of something that important predecessors surely had suspected but never stated. The entire play of forces of culture would be changed if many people really accepted this doctrine.”
Gast was, by virtue of his extraordinary proximity to most of what Nietzsche published (he was official proofreader and “copier” of every Nietzsche text except the first three Untimely Meditations), perhaps the only person contemporary to Nietzsche that was qualified and worthy to comment on his ideas. When others comment we get largely what we find today, i.e. liberals or Christians so taken aback by Nietzsche’s words that any engagement becomes either an attempt to reconcile Nietzsche with the tenants of weakness and mediocrity that they unthinkingly champion, or ad hominem attacks that supposedly scandalize the great man by linking him with fascism. But when Gast discusses Nietzsche and his words, we are filled with the same intense raising of the hair and tingling of the spine that we ourselves experience when reading any of his works. Thus, it is no coincidence that Gast mentions “Schopenhauer as Educator,” perhaps the greatest polemic against the mediocre humans being produced by modernity ever pinned. Everything Nietzsche came to say about “the last man” is contained therein.
It is so exhilarating to read that it is exhausting; one reads while pacing the floor glancing to the heavens for help. And, even though the essay, which borrows heavily from Nietzsche’s crushing lectures “On the Future of our Educational Institutions,” addresses the very nature of academia and its role in producing the philistines totally devoid of any and all value beside being slaves to capitalist consumption that now pass even for educated humans, I’ve yet to meet ONE anthropologist that knows of its existence. It could be no other way, unfortunately, because we are the philistines Nietzsche hated the most: bourgeois, civil servant, destroyers of greatness, and champions of degeneration. Reading the endless parade of ethnographies on human failures and highly explicable “inexplicable persistent inequality” in the latest Princeton University Press catalogue fills me with such despair that I fear for civilization and myself. (See a separate post on Anthropology Today and its extraordinary intolerance of strength and ascending human and civilizational forces.) Nietzsche understood all too well the consequences of our celebration of weakness, mediocrity, degeneration, and victimization. In an early notebook entry he critiqued History’s role in the destruction of nobility. It is an idea to which I return as often as I can:
“History must speak only of the great and unique, of the model to be emulated.”