Since I was seventeen I’ve read Nietzsche. I can no longer recall what I read first, probably the yellowing Thus Spake Zarathustra, annotated in two different pens, that still sits on my bookshelf. Nietzsche understands teenagers. He speaks to their complexity and anguish, and they approve of his desire to shatter the tenets of their culture. Nietzsche faced down the nihilism of his age with style, humour and strength. Though Nietzsche’s thinking only partially penetrated my younger self, he left me fortified with the necessity of going deeply into myself to fully experience life.
Over the years I read all of Nietzsche’s published books, though undoubtedly in less reliable translations and editions than are now starting to become available. Nietzsche’s aphoristic style lends itself to dipping into a few lines. Though this achieves little, it is a thought-provoking compass for how one has changed during all the years of reading the same lines. My reading of Nietzsche is changed with all the later reading and thinking I’ve done.
At the moment I’m reading Nietzsche through Walter Kaufmann, only a hundred pages or so in but enjoying his thoughts and observations. Kaufmann untangles Nietzsche’s relations with his anti-Semitic sister Elizabeth Förster-Nietzsche and the intriguing Lou Andreas-Salomé to clarify how both women set out to distort how Nietzsche’s thoughts were later interpreted. Kaufmann then proceeds to show with some elegance how the contradictions in Nietzsche’s arguments are merely superficial. He argues that Socrates is Nietzsche’s ideal, that he is not a ‘system thinker [unlike Kant or Spinoza] but a problem thinker.’
The result is less a solution of the initial problem than a realisation of its limitations: typically the problem is not solved but ‘outgrown’.
Though first published in 1950, Kaufmann’s interpretations are an inspiration for more contemporary readings of Nietzsche, one of which I also wish to read is Alexander Nehamas’ NIETZSCHE Life as Literature (1985). If you know of other Nietzsche secondary literature (not biography) worth reading please let me know.
There are several reviews around of Katherine Angel’s Unmastered: A Book on Desire, Most Difficult to Tell ranging from bizarre to intriguing. Each offers an idiosyncratic reading that reveals as much about the reviewer as about the book. As Rumi said, “We are the mirror as well as the face in it.” The Unmastered effect is insidious. What begins as an energetically explicit sexual autobiography subverts itself to become tragic, though this may just be its curious mirror-like effect. The aphoristic style and generosity of white-space in the UK edition invites projection, so perhaps it says more about me than Angel’s beautiful and thought-provoking book that I saw more tragedy than sex.
I’ve written before of my interest in philosophy in its Greek context as a way to live life, rather than as empty discourse. Though I found much that was insightful in Alexander Nehamas’ The Art of Living: Socratic Reflections from Plato to Foucault, I took less from it than from Hadot’s Philosophy as a way of life. Nehamas writes highly perceptively about Plato, Nietzsche, less convincingly about Kierkegaard and Foucault, but gets bogged down occasionally in nuances of definition. Nevertheless it is an engaging and lucid work that complements Hadot superbly.
On to Rachel Kushner’s The Flamethrowers if I can get beyond dispiriting blurbage from bloody Franzen and Colm Tóibín (“American novel”).
For reading alongside Pierre Hadot’s texts, I recommend Alexander Nehamas’ The Art of Living, which has similar concerns about how to practise a philosophical life, rather than casually reading philosophy for intellectual pleasure or posture. In a brilliant pair of chapters about Platonic and Socratic irony, he quotes Muecke (below), a couple of sentences that capture so concisely the hubris of many (contemporary) politicians and intellectuals (pseudo):
The typical victim of an ironic situation is essentially an innocent. Irony regards assumptions as presumption and therefore innocence as guilt. Simple ignorance is safe from irony, but ignorance compounded with the least degree of confidence counts as intellectual hubris and is a punishable offence.
The Compass of Irony
My reading orbits an accretion of preoccupations. So far, this year’s idées fixes are the influence of the East on Greco-Roman thought (and by extension, modern thought), Epicureanism, the neo-vitalist/transcendental materialist movement in contemporary philosophy, and asceticism. It may be that the interrelation between these themes are personal, but they appear deeply connected.
Following a question on Twitter I thought I’d compile a list of some of the texts that I’ve recently read and that I’ll be reading over the next few months. Please feel free to make further suggestions of titles that speak urgently to these concerns. These are all complementary to the Urtexts of Epicurus, Lucretius, and Diogenes Laertius, and to this superb companion.
- Jane Bennett – Vibrant Matter: a political ecology of things [PDF]
- Pierre Hadot – Philosophy as a way of life
- Jane Bennett – The Enchantment of Modern Life
- Pierre Hadot – The Present Alone is Our Happiness
- Alexander Nehamas – The Art of Living
- David Jasper – The Sacred Desert
- Pierre Hadot – The Veil of Isis
- Randall Collins – The Sociology of Philosophers
- David Jasper – The Sacred Body
- Pierre Hadot – What is Ancient Philosophy?