Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Again on Nietzsche and youthful reading

I've been reading Nietzsche's On the Geneology of Morals and thinking more about youthful reading. Previously, I quoted Graham Harman on Nietzsche thus:
Many consider him a sort of juvenile pastime that one has to move beyond, and this attitude is understandable, but just think of how your brain is on fire after reading Nietzsche. There aren’t many philosophers who can do that.
At the time, I was interested chiefly in the "juvenile pastime" part of the remark, now I can see better how one's brain could be "on fire after reading Nietzsche", particularly a young person's brain. I can easily see how a young reader of philosophy could be quite enamored of Nietzsche. So confident! So assured! So provocative! So in love with exclamation points!

Interestingly, at least in the parts of Geneology I've read so far, Nietzsche's account of the origins of certain things is almost certainly wrong, and yet seductive. (Note: I opted to read On the Geneology of Morals after reading Daniel Dennett's Darwin's Dangerous Idea--Dennett provides several passages from Nietzsche and suggests that Hobbes and Nietzsche are something like the first "sociobiologists", in that they were trying to explain the beginnings of things in terms of natural history, as opposed to resorting to God as an explanation. Dennett observes that, though Nietzsche may not have read Darwin directly, he was certainly familiar with and interested in the theories of evolution, which interest is reflected in his work. I hope to have something more specific to say about Nietzsche and Dennett and the origins of things, especially in the context of Chris Knight's work, in a later post. Dennett, by the way, is another writer who is overly fond of the exclamation point.) And yet Nietzsche remains a pleasure to read. It is enjoyable following his reasoning, registering objections along the way. I recall William H. Gass' love of reading philosophy--he often echoes a point made several times by Harman at his blog, that the thing about reading philosophy is not necessarily whether the philosopher was right, that they do not become worthless once science has shown them to be wrong on this or that topic; or, as Gass says here in an interview with the Believer, "The fact is that even if it isn’t the truth, it’s worth the journey." (Update: I've provided a substantially longer excerpt on this theme from this interview, here.)

But back to youthful reading. As noted before, Dostoevsky is another writer often said to be for the young. One grows out of Dostoevsky, is the sneer. I don't know about that, but I think I know what is meant by this sort of comment, at least when it's not a form of condescension (as, for example, I don't believe Graham Harman was being in any way condescending in his remarks about Nietzsche). In the final section of his great memoir, Gathering Evidence, Thomas Bernhard recalls his first encounter with Dostoevsky's Demons. He calls it "elemental". Some of us have approached that book and found it decidedly not elemental, for us. But Bernhard was 19 years old, I believe, when he read Demons. For him, at that age, no doubt it indeed was elemental. And what mattered for him later in life, in his own writing, was not what Dostoevksy might have had to say for him or to him in his 30s or 40s or 50s, but what it meant to read Demons when he was 19. Perhaps, if he had not read Demons, or any other Dostoevsky, until his mid-30s--perhaps it would have meant little to him. But that experience, that encounter, that elemental reading at the age of 19--he owed a certain kind of loyalty to that. Indeed, though at the age of 39 I've so far tried and failed to make my way into Demons, I nevertheless remember fondly my experience, at 24, reading The Brothers Karamazov. Yes, I was proud of myself for plowing through such a dense book, but also I was invigorated by the experience, wanted to talk about it, was on fire, in a sense, with the ideas. For some, this very aspect of Dostoevsky is what renders him aesthetically suspect. I used to agree, but now I'm not so sure. (Anyway, resolute atheist that I was and am, I hardly thought it was anything like a conservative religious tract, as others have argued.) After that you'd think I'd have consumed more Dostoevsky at that still relatively young age, but I did not. And by the time I got around to reading Notes from Underground, at 36, even this lean novella felt flabby to me.

The point is that these youthful readings are important, not to be dismissed or sneered at, or disowned. They form part of our worldview and our aesthetic, even if we move beyond or away from them. With some authors, if we miss out on appropriate youthful readings, then perhaps we miss out on them altogether, or maybe they simply cannot mean as much to us as they otherwise might have.

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2 Comments:

Blogger Joe Miller said...

"Many consider him a sort of juvenile pastime that one has to move beyond, and this attitude is understandable, but just think of how your brain is on fire after reading Nietzsche. There aren’t many philosophers who can do that."

I've encountered very few people and a small number of critics who have made that argument. The same could ultimately be said of Marx, no?

"So confident! So assured! So provocative! So in love with exclamation points!"

That's strange, I've read most of Uncle Fritz's books, and he is VERY tentative in regards to his explanations of complex processes. Also, I don't recall him using very many exclamation points outside of "The Antichrist", which was intended as a polemic. Have you really read GOM, and if so, which translation did you read?

April 02, 2011 4:33 PM  
Blogger Richard said...

"I've encountered very few people and a small number of critics who have made that argument. The same could ultimately be said of Marx, no?"

Well, I don't know how to respond. I've encountered that sentiment said of Nietzsche a number of times. Now, whether it's fair or not is not really the point. As for Marx, I suppose it could be said of The Communist Manifesto, not so much Capital and related writings, which are what matter to me.

And I have read Geneology of Morals, the Kaufmann translation. It was replete with exclamations points. That said, I have not yet read much else of Nietzsche's yet, so I am not comfortable commenting on his overall project.

April 02, 2011 5:41 PM  

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