Nietzsche's Kisses

Lance Olsen
Fiction Collective 2
Florida State University
c/o English Department
Tallahassee, FL 32306-1580
$15.95 (paper), 244 pp.

Review by JR Foley

“In order to understand anything at all of my Zarathustra one must perhaps be similarly conditioned as I am – with one foot beyond life.”
                         Friedrich Nietzsche, Ecce Homo, “Why I Am So Wise,” section 4
                                                                                     (tr. Walter Kaufmann)

     Nietzsche’s Kisses extends Ecce Homo, Nietzsche’s last salvo of gaya scienza, completed two months before the mental collapse that ended his coherent thinking and writing. Nietzsche’s Kisses extends Ecce Homo the other step, several steps further, “beyond life.”

     Into Eternal Recurrence.

     Friedrich Nietzsche’s collapse is usually dated from January 8, 1888, when, it is oft told, on a street in Turin, Italy, he threw his arms round the neck of a horse being whipped by its master. Haunted by his father’s early death from “softening of the brain,” he had actually predicted such a collapse, although not before 1890, and intended his last sane act before it happened to be suicide. He had hoped to have just enough time to complete his magnum opus, the Revaluation of All Values. Already the first part, The Antichrist, was finished, one of an amazing run of books all composed on the wings of an extraordinary elation through the months of 1888. Not only sick but in pain almost all his life – migraines and nausea, aggravated by severe eye strain – Nietzsche had never before experienced such a sustained period free of illness and supercharged with creative energy. He sensed it was a prelude to the end; he did not sense just how swiftly the end would come.

     Or how devastating in ways unexpected.

     Months of manic singing, dancing (often naked), and piano-pounding interspersed with lucid moments among friends gradually drifted into flat affect and general paralysis (according to Walter Kaufmann, Nietzsche: Philosopher, Psychologist, Antichrist, 4th ed., Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ 1974) or at least general inertia (according to Curtis Cate, Friedrich Nietzsche, Overlook Press, 2005), ending with a heart attack in the night of August 24-25, 1900. Both Kaufmann and Cate believe probable Nietzsche’s self-diagnosis of syphilis, even though he made it, to a sanitarium doctor, only after his breakdown and gave no details other than “1866, syphilis from contagion.” In 1866 he was at university in Bonn, and did carouse briefly with fraternity brothers in the brothels of Cologne. (A former medical student at the same sanitarium later claimed Nietzsche told him he contracted the disease in 1870 while tending wounded soldiers of the Reich during his weeks as a medical orderly in the Franco-Prussian War.)

     It is more than an academic question, though, whether a Nietzsche somehow restored to sanity before he died would more regret what had happened over 11 years to his mind and body, cared for tenderly by mother and sister, or the fate of his writings in the hands of that same sister. Lisbeth Nietzsche had nursed her brother often during his spells of illness in his 20’s and early 30’s. But after falling in love with Bernhard Forster, she took up her husband’s politics and became an energetic exponent of two of the three things Nietzsche hated most: German nationalism and anti-Semitism. (Christianity was the third.) After her husband’s suicide, Lisbeth returned from a failed German colony in Paraguay to sweep her brother home from the sanitarium, and discover that his books, widely ignored as he published them, were at last finding fame. She set up an archives in the family home – the one service for which she will always deserve gratitude. But then she promptly commenced editing (with hired help) his published as well as unpublished writings, skewing them to advocate the very movements on which he had never ceased to heap scorn. As high priestess of a new cult she prospered quite well. Her last public act was to greet the new German Chancellor, Herr Hitler, in the shrine of the author of Also Sprach Zarathustra, and present the Fuhrer with her brother’s old walking stick. Until Germany collapsed with the Third Reich in a catastrophe he forecast in the 1880’s, Friedrich Nietzsche would be infamous as the prophet of the Nazi Master Race.

     But as times change Friedrich Nietzsche has not faded.

     In his translations of the 1950's and 1960's, especially The Portable Nietzsche (The Viking Press, New York, 1954, Viking Penguin, 1982), Walter Kaufmann did much to rehabilitate the philosopher’s reputation in the United States and elsewhere. Cambridge University Press is now publishing a series of new translations of all of Nietzsche’s works in its Cambridge Texts in the History of Philosophy. Nietzsche as a caricature of one sort or another – mad philosopher, evangelist of Zarathustra, Ur-father of the Ubermensch – “What does not destroy me makes me stronger!” – is everywhere familiar, at least in the literate mass media (no oxymoron intended). Monty Python played with him a couple of times – once as Lipizzaner-prancing wing of the All-Star German Philosopher team in its Olympic soccer match against the Ancient Greeks. The shaggy gawky brother who has taken a vow of silence in Little Miss Sunshine broods his way cross-country through the Penguin Thus Spoke Zarathustra. And that prodigious walrus ‘stache is as iconic as it can never be unfunny. Nietzsche’s no longer a demon – a fate he would also, with demonic laugh, lament.

     So who is he, really? Cate’s biography humanizes Fritz Nietzsche in rich detail for English-readers. But Lance Olsen is not content to make a fictionalized biography along conventional lines. In a sense, Nietzsche’s Kisses is a novel of the Nietzsche no one knows – the lost mind itself during its last hours of existence. [But this puts it much too simply.] It is a mind gone quite beyond the books it once wrote. In fact, only two of the books is ever mentioned, in passing, neither of them Zarathustra. Yet every thought the author ever wrote buoys and permeates the world the lost mind breathes – especially Zarathustra.

     The first three of the novel’s four parts, for example, take their titles directly from chapters of Thus Spoke Zarathustra: “on the despisers of the body,” “on the spirit of gravity,” and “on the vision and the riddle.” The title of the fourth part, “the world is transfigured and all the heavens are full of joy,” not literally a Zarathustra chapter title, all the same expresses the exultation of the book’s final pages. Most of the other captions in Nietzsche’s Kisses are lines from other Nietzsche essays or maxims. Hours and body parts supply the rest.

     The narrative proceeds, in fact, in a cycle of hours, body parts, and “flashbacks” headed by Nietzsche lines. The hours run from 5 p.m. (on the undated August 24, 1900) to 1 a.m. and beyond (of the next); the body parts from “tail” through “teeth,” “tongue,” “stomach,” “bowels,” and “nervous system” (among other parts) to “eyes.” The “flashbacks,” making the third part of every cycle, recall significant moments in Nietzsche’s life; although to call them strictly biographical is to misread them. The cycles also vary in point-of-view, as Olsen explains in a recent interview:

the first-person, representing real-time ([Nietzsche’s] last night on earth); the second-, representing dream-time (a series of hallucinations [in the manner of stream-of-consciousness], each tied in some way to an organ of the body); and the third-, representing a failed attempt on Nietzsche’s part to pin down memory and therefore history. The consequence, I hope, is for the reader to feel increasingly unmoored in time and space, in fact and fiction, in “selfhood” and “personality.”

     This complex technique embodies almost precisely the kind of self-alienation Nietzsche’s Zarathustra describes in his chapter, “On the Despisers of the Body:”

     Even in your folly and contempt, you despisers of the body, you serve your self. I say unto you: your self itself wants to die and turns away from life. It is no longer capable of what it would do above all else: to create beyond itself. That is what it would do above all else, that is its fervent wish.
     But now it is too late for it to do this: so your self wants to go under, O despisers of the body. Your self wants to go under, and that is why you have become despisers of the body! For you are no longer able to create beyond yourselves.
     And that is why you are angry with life and the earth. An unconscious envy speaks out of the squint-eyed glance of your contempt.
     I shall not go your way, O despisers of the body! You are no bridge to the overman!                                         (Tr. Kaufmann, Portable Nietzsche, p. 147)

     The “I” here, Zarathustra, tells the “you” that his “self” – in the absence of specific reference to a woman, Zarathustra addresses men only – is separate from his ego. Yet part of the irony of juxtaposing Nietzsche’s Zarathustra to Olsen’s Fritz is that, even in the discomfort of defecations and urinations as he sweats between his death-sheets, Fritz – addressing himself directly as an “I,” a “you,” and a “self” – has not come to despise the body betraying him. Although his body no longer permits him to create on paper, neither does it prevent him from recreating his life in what’s left of his disintegrating mind. It does not think in terms of “overman” or “bridge to overman,” this mind; yet his eagerness to open eyes and see the unseen ahead makes a bridge to ... over-something.

     This recreating of his life as it dies is indeed a self-overcoming such as Nietzsche has always extolled. Does the dying Fritz know he’s doing as Zarathustra exhorts, as Zarathustra’s author has extolled? On the disintegrating surface of his thoughts, no. Yet, of course, in the depths and throughout every cell of his disintegrating body, yes.

     What parts or moments of his life does the dying Nietzsche recreate? Certainly the serious flirtation with Lou Salome – their more-than-intellectual triangle with Paul Ree – the battlefield at Worth – a wintry lakeside stroll with Cosima Wagner, Richard in the van, effusive over The Birth of Tragedy – Pastor Nietzsche’s fall down stairs, for which the five-year old Fritz feels responsible – Lisbeth’s marriage to Forster – Nietzsche in a Cologne brothel in his university years – even Hitler’s visit to Lisbeth, 34 years after Nietzsche’s death. But they are never flashbacks nor, in the latter instance, exactly a flashforward. Although they are, of course, both. One “memory” will morph like a dream into another, or into the present, or future. Yes, it’s all in his head, but this does not mean the vengeful triumph of that German idealism that was another of Nietzsche‘s hates. This is partly because his mind is not creating in disembodied space; his dying body parts prompt the images his remaining mind then makes “sense” of.

     As strict biography these memories are not meant to be reliable; not even as lightly fictionalized biography are they meant to be probable. Olsen’s Nietzsche is making it up as he goes along. Only in an unimportant sense is this a function of his derangement. Even apart from considerations of parallax – that he’s reimagining actual events from different, even contradictory points of view, this philosopher who loved to re-see questions and propositions from every angle on the pro and the con – who delighted to contradict himself exuberantly and without shame.

     The point is that Nietzsche, however self-unaware, is practicing the Eternal Recurrence he preached. He did not believe in a life after death (in heaven or hell) as imagined by Christians, or any transmigration of soul into a new body, as imagined by others. For him the body is the soul, the body is it; death ends life, period. There is no actual return to life, temporal or eternal. But one can look back over one’s life and affirm every moment of it, happy or painful, affirm that if given the chance one would relive every moment of it without change, forever: that is the highly ironic Eternal Recurrence that gives one’s only life transcendent meaning. That transcendent meaning, however, can also reflect the invention of a new kind of man, whose model future men may adopt, and may in their own ways surpass as well.

     So even in madness Olsen’s Nietzsche continues the positive project of his life: affirming that life, pains and all – pains above all – overcoming – laboring to give birth to a new self, be it called “Ubermensch” or whatever. Quite literally, Fritz hallucinates or dreams or in this new visionary world gives birth to a new creature, both male and female, then is himself reborn of his mother Franziska. But more than this: Nietzsche’s Kisses embodies that new self, new being, new more-than-human.

     In the months leading up to his breakdown Nietzsche wrote The Wagner Case, The Antichrist, Twilight of the Idols, Ecce Homo, and Nietzsche contra Wagner (an updated anthology of previous writings). Ecce Homo, the last completely new book he wrote, is a spiritual autobiography written in a spirit so hilarious as to verge on the manic. The extravagant self-praise (with chapters entitled “Why I am So Wise” and “Why I Write Such Good Books”) has tongue so far in cheek it pierces clean out into the wind; but that is the wind blowing around Zarathustra, and it is not a wind of self-doubt. It gives a few facts; it does not tell all, certainly no grist for gossip; but puts the author’s personality on exuberant display. Exuberance is the keynote even more than growing megalomania. Nietzsche takes a break from his labors to have fun (in all solitude) and tell his absent readers what he really thinks of the books he’s written. Modesty does not become him.

     As a mental step beyond Ecce Homo, Nietzsche’s Kisses leaves the manic and hilarious behind, although not the underlying amusement at the wonder of all that happens. Disintegrating, all but blind, Fritz contemplates all that passes, projects all that passes, never in despair, never in self-pity, always in eager curiosity for what comes next, for what next he can make of it, where he will get. The end – whose last word is “Again.” – takes him back to the beginning.

     Because the beginning is no beginning any more than the end is an end. The best initial way to read the book, of course, is from p. 11 through p. 244. One does grasp the great arc that way. But afterwards, in the spirit of Nietzsche’s anti-gravity, one can pick up the story anywhere and jump to anywhere else, recreating it anew.

     Here’s half-a-page at random:

     Friedrich is positive, groping, he is no fonder of Friday than he is of Thursday or Wednesday, Tuesday or Saturday, Sunday or Monday, although he is reasonably sure he must have been born on one of these.
     Give it a second.
     Give it a second.
     Yes, that’s it: October fifteenth.
     Of this he is virtually certain he is virtually certain, since he seems to recall he shares the date with his namesake the Prussian king, yes, and the Roman versifier Publius Vergilius Maro born in...born in...the same day in any event seventeen-something-something that Edward Gibbon, sitting among the remains of the Roman Capitol, conceived the plan to write his big book about damage and culture, and Thomas Hastings, the nearsighted American albino with a hankering for catchy hymns, was born in seventeen-something-something-else.
     On the same morning, but in a wholly different year, Napoleon commenced his exile on the rock named St. Helena in the blustery South...and...
     Friedrich’s fingertips brush brick and he pulls up short.
                                        (p. 70)

     Not plucked at random, the following passage, recreating a moment which in ordinary terms might be pure apocryphra:

     And so, once upon a time, you tell yourself, passing this passing, once upon a time there was the kiss.
     In Tautenburg.
     The grassy fragrance. The gauzy air. The fertile afternoon.
     Lou was walking in front of me up the path, her violet perfume drifting back. I was re-making a point. Humans, I was proposing, want to know the worst in a situation because eventually they tire of wanting to know the best. Everything totaled the yellowgreenness of the day.
     And then Lou simply stopped ahead of me.
     Time became a block of ice holding both of us motionless inside.
     Lou simply stopped, simply turned, and, two short steps later, I was breathing her breath, her lips full upon mine.
     I didn’t know what to do with myself.
     There were so many ideas not to entertain.
     My body found itself leaning into her, and, leaning, I realized my eyes remained open. I wanted to see. There was so much to take in.
     I could taste Lou’s violet perfume on her softly plump tongue. Her hands ascended my back to cradle gently the base of my brain. My hands found themselves beginning to unbutton her blouse. They possessed maps of their own.
     Our teeth clicked together. Once. She laughed quietly into my mouth.
     My knuckles brushed the skin beneath her jaw.

     More light.

     More light, please.

     She kissed me.
     This, in any case, being the crux of the matter.
                                        (pp. 173-174)

     This passage indicates, by the way, that Nietzsche’s kisses are those received as well as those given – in fact mostly those received, literally – from, say, Lou – and figuratively – from the “voices of history,” both past and future.

     Both passages also exemplify the bouyant suppleness of Olsen’s prose. As my other FlashPoint reviews of his novels indicate, I find Olsen always fun to read. But here he has outdone himself. Any consideration of Nietzsche – a musician in his own right – turns at some point to his love for and keen disappointment in Wagner. Wagner could compose light, lovely music as well as other kinds. But Olsen’s prose makes me think rather of the brilliant, delightful complexity, lightness, and exuberant drive of a Mozart concerto.

     A fine accompaniment to the gaya scienza of Nietzsche’s Kisses.

Reviews of Lance Olsen’s Time Famine and Freaknest appear in FlashPøint #3 and FlashPøint #5.
An interview featuring the collection Hideous Beauties” appears in FlashPøint #6.

More of Lance Olsen can be found at Cafe Zeitgeist.