Friday, December 14, 2018

Niche-y Nietzsche


I first discovered Nietzsche in middle school when I read Danny Sugarman’s biography of Jim Morrison No One Here Gets Out Alive. In describing Morrison’s formative years, especially the books he read, Sugarman mentioned the writings of Nietzsche as being hugely influential in the early self-education of the future Lizard King, and for a young suburban kid fascinated by the rise of punk and the rebellious music of the 1960s, the writer-philosopher who developed the concept of the ubermensch and explored the depths of nihilism seemed to be to perfect inroad into the intellectual side of cool.

Over the years, I've been casually intrigued by how many times and ways references would come up time and again to Western Civ’s most challenging philosopher. That consistent presence just deepened and reiterated to me the significance of this complicated man. To know Nietzsche was to know something elitist-ly subversive. Thirty-five years after I first learned of Nietzsche, his presence still pops up in culture and conversation, and the recent publication of John Kaag’s Hiking with Nietzsche has pushed the original Superman onto our cultural radar again. What is it about this man that makes me (us) want to buy the book just based on the title? Mention Nietzsche and you immediately perk interest. We want to know Nietzsche even if we don’t know why. We want to cite him. We want to understand him. We want to be in the know about him.

There is just something niche-y about Nietzsche.

In “Hiking With Nietzsche, ” Mr. Kaag turns from these homegrown, largely optimistic philosophers and considers Friedrich Nietzsche, the German thinker best known for such pronouncements as “That which does not kill us makes us stronger” and “If you gaze long into an abyss, the abyss also gazes into you.” Why? What is it about Hitler’s favorite philosopher that holds Mr. Kaag’s attention? Mr. Kaag admits that “Nietzsche’s philosophy is sometimes pooh-poohed as juvenile—the product of a megalomaniac that is perhaps well suited to the self-absorption and naïveté of the teenage years but best outgrown by the time one reaches adulthood.” Mr. Kaag’s own wife, a student of Immanuel Kant, loathes Nietzsche. True to cliché, Mr. Kaag’s fascination with Nietzsche is rooted in his adolescence. Years later, having reached a period of relative calm and happiness in his life, he feels compelled to reclaim and come to terms with a raw, wild element from his past that Nietzsche inspired and exemplified.

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