Sunday, August 29, 2010

Nietzsche and the Life Reform Movement by Julian Young

Nietzsche underwent a 'transformation and crisis' of which he first became 'fully conscious during the summer of 1876, shortly before the first Bayreuth Festival. The consequence of this transformation was a commitment to 'the battle of reason' against 'all metaphysical mystification of truth and simplicity'. Later on, he described this as a turn to 'positivism' . Human, All-Too-Human is the product and record of this turn.

Schopenhauer's (and Wagner's) version of Kant's metaphysical idealism entails the existence of a meta-physical, supra-natural world 'beyond' or 'behind' the 'dream'-world of nature; beyond, as Schopenhauer puts it, 'the phenomenal appearance of things.” Nietzsche's turn to positivism is, above all, a turn away from metaphysical idealism. It is the abolition of the metaphysical world. Nothing exists 'behind nature', nothing exists but nature. In theory, nothing is beyond the reach of natural science , nothing is knowable save that which is knowable by science [however much uncertainty deprives any particular scientific hypothesis, as Nietzsche put it, 'a claim to citizenship'.]

Positivism, roughly speaking the 'Socratism' attacked in The Birth of Tragedy, is what, in his early period, Nietzsche was reacting against. With Wagner, he was, self-consciously 'untimely', a swimmer against the tide of current, educated opinion: against, for instance, the complaisant materialism of David Strauss. But in Human, All-Too-Human he has given up the fight, given up, at least, this kind of 'untimeliness'.

Nietzsche's strategy in Human, All-Too-Human is not to refute metaphysics but to show that the metaphysical world is a 'superfluous' hypothesis. Consider, by way of illustration, Freud. Why do people believe in God? One explanation might be, for the same reason they believe in the sun – there is a God and people experience his presence. But Freud's explanation is: because people have need for a father figure, they invent him. Freud's explanation is thus 'alas all – too – human' for religion because it shows, if true, that we do not need the 'God hypothesis to explain religious belief. In a similar way Darwin's 'dangerous side' is 'all–too– natural for religion: by explaining the appearance of 'intelligent design' in the world in terms of the purely natural mechanism of natural selection it demonstrates another way in which the God hypothesis is redundant.

Thus the title of the work- a reference to human credulity. Almost more interesting, however, is the subtitle: A Book for Free Spirits. At one stage Nietzsche had thought of The Free Spirit as the book's main title.

Books, Nietzsche believed – at least his books – are, in the wrong hands, 'dangerous.' And so, as noted, he always wrote for a select audience, for the 'very few'. In defense of the 'obscurity' of which he accuses himself, he says that he has no desire to corrupt 'old maids of both sexes who have nothing to keep them going but their 'innocence'. And so he writes in a manner only his 'friends' will understand. As we see, he often begged various 'old maids' – whom he loved dearly – not to read his books. So one function of the subtitle was to constitute, as it were, a health warning: for free spirits alone – for, at least, potential free spirits alone. The subtitle is, as it were, a 'restricted audience only' sticker.

What effect is the book supposed to have on the potential free spirit? Most people write books for money. Or, if they are academics, to gain tenure, or promotion. Or, in the best instance, to interest and instruct. But not Nietzsche. He wrote, as the perceptive Lou Salome put it, 'not to teach but to convert'. All his books, as he put it in a letter to Rohde, are 'bait and seductive voices' designed to recruit suitable individuals to his cause. To Reinhart von Seydlitz, who he hoped to seduce away from Wagner, he presented himself quite openly as a 'pirate...always, like any other corsair, seeking to steal human beings, not to sell them into slavery but, around me, into freedom.'

In his early period the cause had been Wagner's programme of cultural regeneration ( whose anti-semitic elements eventually turned him off- a long line of Jews promoted and protected Nietzsche through-out his adult life – he was anti anti-semitic). Now it is regeneration through positivism. The cause is different but the desire to convert remain unaltered. Who, however, are these potential 'free spirits he hopes will join his new cause? What is a free spirit?

Nietzsche writes, 'A free spirit thinks differently from what, on the basis of their origin, environment, class and profession, or on the basis of the dominant view of the age, would have been expected. So a free spirit is someone who thinks – and so acts – differently from the 'fettered spirit', from what Nietzsche calls the 'herd-type'. The free spirit thus swims against the current of his times, is, in other words, 'untimely. 'Free spirit is the successor concept to 'untimely spirit'.

'Free-spiritedness” was in the air during the closing decades of the nineteenth century. Thoughtful people were fed up with the stuffy and often hypocritical conventions of Victorian, Wilhelmian society. In 1898 the term 'Lebensreform Bewegung', 'Life-Reform Movement', was coined to describe the counter-culture that had been developing for some time in German-speaking countries.

Life reformers were against – sought freedom from – some subset of : the big city which isolates individuals into anonymous, lonely 'atoms'; modern industrial technology which reduces human beings to mere tools ('human resources', as we now say), and speeds up life to an inhuman pace; the 'totalizing' bureaucratic state which absorbs all aspects of life into itself; established religion (life reformers were 'free-thinkers'); alcohol; middle class 'materialism (consumerism); and Victorian morality in all its forms, especially its repression of emotion, sex,and women. Life reformers were for: the communal solidarity of traditional village life, the 'unalienated' character of traditional work practices; living in nature and in harmony with its rhythms, natural healing and meditation; nudism; loose, flowing clothing; sunbathing, vegetarianism; a new religious spirituality tending in pantheistic and/or pagan directions; dance; peace; 'free love; and female emancipation. And youth, life reformers started to celebrate youth as the time of life in which one is least affected by, most in a position to liberate oneself from, the fetters of an unhealthy, life-repressing culture...

Though Nietzsche was no 'hippie' – as I have observed- his upright bearing, famous moustache, conservative dress, plus his enthusiasm for self-discipline, cold baths, and brisk walks, led to his being mistaken for a Prussian cavalry officer – he had, nonetheless, many affinities with the life-reformers. So, for example, he polemicized against alcohol and tobacco ( while doing a variety of drugs like hashish, cocaine and various 'downers'), experimented with vegetarianism, and was an enthusiast for 'alternative' medicines and 'curative' diets. He hated the 'harried', atomized life of the big industrial city - Human, All-Too-Human complains that in modern life we see everything 'as if from a railway carriage window – hated the totalizing, bureaucratic, Bismarckian state.

Nietzsche was always, at heart, a 'small-town boy'; 'we wish to live in a small town' he declared flatly. Even when he lived in cities, he sought the village-like parts of them. He believed that one should live close to, and in harmony with nature, that one should possess a 'country sensibility':

“If a man has not drawn firm, restful lines along the horizon of his life, like the lines drawn by mountain and forest, his innermost will itself grows restless, distracted and covetous, as is the nature of the city-dweller: he has no happiness himself and consequently bestows none on others.”

Nietzsche believed, too, at least in theory, in 'free love'. He was against marriage (except as a last, financial resort) and he wanted to live in a 'wild ('de facto) marriage with Lou Salome. Like his admirer, Isadora Duncan, he believed in dance – literal dance, but also the spiritual 'dance' that, in Thus Spoke Zarathustra, triumphs over 'the spirit of gravity'. And he believed in youth; my works are always for 'the youth', he writes. He was, moreover, until a dramatic change of mind in 1882, in favor of female emancipation and had fought hard to gain admittance for women to Basel University. Finally, and above all, Nietzsche believed in joy, in 'life' in the sense of living it to a joyful fullness: the entire point of his philosophy, he writes, is to recover that ability to 'rejoice' possessed by the ancients but destroyed by Christianity, to lay the foundations for a new 'temple of joy'.

As he saw it, I believe, the formulation of the concept of the free spirit in Human, All-Too-Human is an attempt to articulate the spirit of the life-reform movement.

The movement, of course, did not consist in a set of articles to which one either signed up or did not. It was, rather, a loose assembly of beliefs and ideals such that a given individual could subscribe to some but by no means all. Different individuals, that is, would give different 'spins' to the movement. Human, All-Too-Human's particular spin is positivism, as its dedication to the Enlightenment hero, Voltaire, that 'great liberator of the spirit', makes clear. Life reform is going to be carried out, not through anything soft-headed such as Wagnerian music, prayer, astrology, spiritualism or the power of crystals, but through the remorseless wielding of 'hard-headed' scientific enlightenment to clear away every ancient superstition unable to justify itself before the court of reason. As Nietzsche wrote in his notebooks, he dreams of

“...a fellowship of men who want to be unconditioned, who give no quarter and want to be known as destroyers. They subject everything to their critique and sacrifice themselves for the truth. The bad and the false are exposed to the light of day.”

Earlier in his writings Nietzsche deplored the “fairground motley' of modern culture, but in Human-All-Too Human he begins to see that the multicultural nature of modernity gives us an opportunity to consciously chose a new culture on the basis of comparison, of mixing and matching. This new culture will, for example, avoid the 'comedy' of unreason whereby (as in Goethe's fable of the Sorcerers Apprentice) human beings invent machines to make their lives easier but end up as industrial (or electronic) slaves of their own technology, mere 'material for heating up the great machine, which then becomes an end in itself'. He opposes the 'big', all controlling state, whether it be Bismarck's Prussia or the 'totalizing' state he thinks will arrive were socialism to have its way. Influenced by Burckhardt's account of the Italian Renaissance, Nietzsche sees a degree of social anarchy as necessary to the emergence of exceptional individuals. He looks forward to the end of conscript armies and, shortly after, decides that national armies should be abolished. In contrast to the frenetic pace of modernity and to its obsession with activity and production ( 'outputs', as we say in the modern university), the new culture will place the highest value on 'idleness', will make a great space for the vita contemplativa. Punishments will not be retributive. There will be a whole range of more rational choices concerning reproduction, nutrition and education. We will learn “to manage the earth as a whole more economically” (“one should preserve the forests. It is true: through the clearing and cutting down the forest the earth is becoming warmer”).

Surprisingly in view of his new enthusiasm for science, Nietzsche writes that after the joy of first discovery, science does not, in fact, add pleasure to life, indeed, 'deprives us of more and more pleasure through casting suspicion on metaphysics, religion and art, sources of joy to which mankind owes almost all its humanity'. For this reason 'a higher culture must give man a double-brain, as it were a brain of two chambers, one for the reception of science, the other that of non-science. This, he says, is a requirement of 'health'. If it is not done, 'illusion, error, fantasy, because they gave us pleasure, will return and drive out the scientific interest in truth.' A higher culture must construct 'so large a hall' that both science and non-science can be accommodated within it, even if at opposite ends. Both religion and arts will, after all, have a role to play in the 'rational' society.

And so Nietzsche goes on to discuss the problems of globalization, free will, and the need for some non-metaphysical mode for altering repressed anxieties consequent to the immutability of death. How might the 'utopian' vision of a new culture in Human, All Too Human be reconciled with the view expressed in his notebooks that life itself is essentially a process of appropriation, injuring, overpowering the alien and weaker, oppressing, being harsh, imposing your own form, incorporating and, at the very least, exploiting', a view of the world that is extraordinary gloomy and unpleasant – false, cruel and contradictory- with no exit to a saving 'beyond'?

A lot of Friedich Nietzsche's writings were, the author repeatedly states, 'murky and squid-like'. He was not a logician, nor had much training in the formal concepts of traditional philosophy. From a very early age his eyesight was bad and his health generally poor so it is not clear how many or much of the works of his contemporaries he ever read. It is probably best to consider Nietzsche's philosophy in the developmental context of his life as a whole, as Julian Young has done in this book.

As an artist and a writer Nietzsche placed an unusually high value on ecstasy: a state of mind in which one transcends one's everyday identity while at the same time finding the world 'perfect' and so being able to will its 'eternal return', that is, to love one's fate. This valuing of the ecstatic goes right back to the beginning, to the very first section of The Birth of Tragedy with its celebration of the state in which 'all the rigid hostile barriers between man and man dissolve so that, 'singing and dancing', one feels oneself to 'belong to a higher community'. What is important about this description of the Dionysian state is that it is one that we can all recognize and empathize with. For it is, as I pointed out, the 'rock-concert' or 'football-crowd' feeling. Since we all encounter the Dionysian state in ourselves, we are in no position to detect anything 'mad' in the Dionysianism that appears in Nietzsche's philosophy.

What, however, we cannot recognize in our own experience is the belief that we can, at will, control any aspect of the world we chose. But that is the salient characteristic of the bipolar mania of Nietzsche's final days in Turin. There is therefore, it seems to me, a clear line of demarcation between the Dionysianism of the philosophy and the mad Dionysianism of his final days. Though Nietzsche's philosophy was likely produced by a manic-depressive ( as, probably, were the works of Plato, Newton, Mozart, Holderin, Coleridge, Schumann, Byron, Van Gogh, Geog Cantor, Winston Churchill, Silvia Plath, John Lennon, Leonard Cohen and many other great human beings), there is nothing 'pathological' about it- apart from the views on women.

A Philosophical Biography of Friedrich Nietzsche by Julian Young; Cambridge University Press, 2010

1 comment:

  1. This is a really good analysis about Nietzsche. In fact, I got curious about the "life reform movement" and I started to do some research about it. However, I have not found too much o info.

    Do you have any idea about were to get more info about the "life reform movement"


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