Friday, November 12, 2010

Rée, Jonathan. "Antichrist." NEW HUMANIST 125.6 (2010).

To anyone who met him in his prime, Friedrich Nietzsche looked like a genial old-style man of letters: a quiet, dapper, unworldly bachelor, kind to children and exceedingly polite. But those who kept up with his prodigious output of books – he wrote more than one a year once he hit his stride in the 1880s – knew that the mild manner concealed incandescent ambition. The gentle professor liked to think of himself as a wild beast on the rampage, an intellectual terrorist who was going to “divide history into two halves”. His mission: to destroy the last vestiges of Christianity by means of a free-spirited “philosophy of the future” – a brave new pagan philosophy heralding a brave new pagan world. “I am no man,” he said. “I am dynamite.”

One of the books on which Nietzsche pinned his hopes was Twilight of the Idols – an immoralist manifesto which backed the “instinct of life” in its fight against dismal moral precepts. “There is no such thing as a moral fact,” Nietzsche wrote. “Moral sentiment has this in common with religious sentiment: it believes in realities which do not exist.” But he meant to make still bigger waves with Thus Spake Zarathustra, a pseudo-Biblical rhapsody about a messianic Eastern preacher who wanders the earth with an eagle and a serpent, preaching the “death of God”. God has died, we are told, from an excess of “pity”, and his fate should be a warning to us all. We must “beware of pity”, Zarathustra says, and never forget that our first duty is not to others but to ourselves. We should also learn to think of the present as the prelude to a joyous new epoch – an age liberated not only by the death of God but also by the end of humanity as we know it and its transfiguration into the Übermensch, in other words something post-human, superhuman or better-than-human. And if we should find these oracles baffling or repulsive, that lies not in them but in our own all-too-human prejudices: thus spake Zarathustra.

When Zarathustra and Twilight first appeared, they attracted little interest and Nietzsche’s name remained obscure. During the 1890s, however, they caught the public imagination and Nietzsche became the celebrity of world literature he had always wanted to be. He was admired not as a venerable old philosopher in the high tradition of Plato or Kant, but an outrageous and irreconcilable enemy to religion and morality, especially when they deck themselves in the robes of philosophical reason. By that time, however, he was in no condition to savour his success: back in December 1888, at the age of 44, he had collapsed in a square in Turin, and the remaining twelve years of his life were to be passed in a state of serene insanity.

The calamity of madness did no harm to Nietzsche’s burgeoning reputation: he came to fame as the philosopher who denounced the demands of reason so effectively that at last he lost his own. Twilight could now be seen as foreshadowing the eclipse of an intellect of such power that no one could stand it, even himself, and Zarathustra became a record of insights too deep to be expressed in the ordinary discourse of reason: indeed it inspired two of the most adventurous young composers of the 1890s – Richard Strauss and Frederick Delius – to transpose the gospel of the death of God into swathes of futuristic sound. . . .

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