Thursday, September 9, 2010

Nietzsche's Tone

Regular readers have probably noticed an increase of interest in Friedrich Nietzsche, much of which was triggered by my attempt to explore parallels between his work than of Slavoj Žižek. One of my conclusions was that these two writers differed radically when it came to having a sense of humor. While it sometimes seems as if Žižek has dedicated himself to "raising the tone of philosophy" (if I may be permitted to shamelessly appropriate the title of Peter Fenves' book, which examines the "tone" metaphor as it migrates from Immanuel Kant to Jacques Derrida) to the level of the standup comedian, when I first explored his relationship to Nietzsche, I made the following assertion:

While Nietzsche's language can be poetic, it is hard for me to read it in any tone other than dead seriousness.

At the time I made this claim, I had begun reading Twilight of the Idols in my copy of The Portable Nietzsche, which had been compiled, edited, and translated by Walter Kaufmann. Ironically, Nietzsche's "Preface" to this text could be taken as a refutation of the claim I was trying to establish:

Nothing succeeds if prankishness has no part in it.

Nevertheless, this would not be the first time that I would think about challenging an author's assessment of his own text.

Now, however, I am about to embark on Thus Spoke Zarathustra (in the same Portable volume). Because of the context in which I am approaching this text, the following remark from Kaufmann's introduction leapt out at me:

This overflowing sense of humor, which prefers even a poor joke to no joke at all, runs counter to the popular images of Nietzsche—not only to the grim creation of his sister, but also to the piteous portrait of Stefan Zweig, who was, in this respect, still too much under the influence of Bertram’s Nietzsche: Attempt at a Mythology. Nietzsche had the sense of humor which Stefan George and his minions, very much including Bertram, lacked; and if Zarathustra occasionally excels George’s austere prophetic affectation, he soon laughs at his own failings and punctures his pathos, like Heine, whom George hated. The puncture, however, does not give the impression of diffident self-consciousness and a morbid fear of self-betrayal, but rather of that Dionysian exuberance which Zarathustra celebrates.

This emphasizes a prevailing cultural bias to cast Nietzsche as the ultimate nineteenth-century tragic figure, even if his own spirit might have warmed to one of Žižek's "acts" as a standup comic. To further emphasize his point, Kaufmann began this introduction with an example of Zweig's style in portraying Nietzsche:

Carefully the myopic man sits down to a table; carefully, the man with the sensitive stomach considers every item on the menu: whether the tea is not too strong, the food not spiced too much, for every mistake in his diet upsets his sensitive digestion, and every transgression in his nourishment wreaks havoc with his quivering nerves for days. No glass of wine, no glass of beer, no alcohol, no coffee at his place, no cigar and no cigarette after his meal, nothing that stimulates, refreshes, or rests him: only the short meager meal and a little urbane, unprofound conversation in a soft voice with an occasional neighbor (as a man speaks who for years has been unused to talking and is afraid of being asked too much).

I found myself reminded of one of my favorite moments in Nikos Kazantzakis' The Last Temptation of Christ. It is the scene in which Jesus gets his first look at what Matthew has been writing about him and has what we have now come to call a "Whiskey Tango Foxtrot moment." Had Nietzsche been able to confront Zweig about this text, his sense of humor might have led to asking whether Zweig was writing about Nietzsche or Werther.

Come to think of it, this tendency to transmogrify the comic into intense seriousness (if not bathetic balderdash) is probably more common than we realize. By the time David Lean had his way with Doctor Zhivago, much of the world was convinced that the novel carried the tradition of great Russian romances into the period of the Revolution, whereas Boris Pasternak had written explicitly that his intention had been to parody all those "classics" of nineteenth-century Russian literature. Similarly, Hermann Hesse's Glass Bead Game became an object of cult-like worship, even after Richard and Clara Winston published their translation whose Foreword argued that Hesse, too, was making fun of the mentality, rather than setting it as an example.

Perhaps we are all more inclined to pathos, as if our knowledge of having such feelings cultivates an illusion of depth of character. From this point of view, Kaufmann's metaphor of puncturing such pathos has (if you will forgive my own wordplay) a pointedness to it. It may also clue us into why we treat certain texts as funny and dismiss the possibility that other texts have the same attribute. In Stranger in a Strange Land Robert Heinlein had his protagonist hypothesize that humor is always the product of the suffering of another. Thus, it is all a matter of whose ox is being gored. When the object of the puncturing is someone whose otherness is remote, if not downright alien, than the act of puncturing is funny. However, if the point strikes too close to self or to those with whom self sympathizes, the possibility of comedy is vigorously (if not violently) denied. This is neither more nor less than an aspect of our own humanity, as is the fact that each of us will subjectively decide whether or not the state of affairs is a funny one.

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