Academic journal article Chicago Review

The Thinker's Voice

Academic journal article Chicago Review

The Thinker's Voice

Article excerpt

Will it never end, this prattle called Philosophy?

-Friedrich Klopstock

Allow me to begin with winged words- it is such as these that first hum about the ears as soon as the conversation turns to the subject of Friedrich Nietzsche. They are still on every tongue even today, nor are they likely ever to be forgotten. If, as is customary in this age of statistics, we were to take a survey - something along the Unes of: "Name four Nietzsche catchphrases"- we would see them all trotted out, all the wild formulae of this linguistic powerhouse from Saxony. Rare indeed is the man or woman who will have failed to whisper of the "will to power," of the "blonde beast," or of the "overman" who threatens and provokes, alas, his miserable opposite, the "underman." That familiar turn of phrase "Thus spake Zarathustra" is one I had occasion to hear more than once on my grandfather's tongue as we played chess: a euphemism invented as if to offer a consoling distraction from the brutal and heartless "checkmate." There's hardly a barstool in the world where the proverb about dealing with women, in which one is advised always to bring along a whip, hasn't been repeated with relish. Oddly, the talk is still always of "broads" while the original reads "women." But as Heinrich Heine writes in the Harzreise, "Among common folk, such corruption of texts is a matter of course." If someone wishes to appear rigorous and determined, he suggests that this or that question takes us "beyond Good and Evil." Certainly, most of it has gone out of fashion, as for example the adage, "human, all too human," and without a doubt the verdict of so-called "herd morality." For to quote Nietzsche without having actually read him may still pass muster, but to take his malice upon oneself is out of the question. By contrast, it remains good taste to "interrogate" a claim, and even the college freshman takes himself more seriously when scratching "God is dead" into the plywood veneer of his library carrel. I know what I'm talking about - I scratched it there myself. And since I'm on the topic: years later, on the side of an apartment building, I read a kind of riposte that, compared to the original utterance, struck me as now truly brutal and heartless. Someone had sprayed, in screaming graffiti colors, the words, "Nietzsche is dead. God." And that's how it goes in the fiefdom of Philosophy, I said to myself then: an eye for an eye, argument against argument. And then it happened that, for the first time, I perceived the rift that Nietzsche's sentence had left in our collective consciousness, mine included; and I noticed how much more potent his negative prayer was than every Lord's Prayer mumbled the world over. His calculated sarcasm could always and at any moment go off like an explosive device, while the daily credo amounted to no more than neutralization.

Even Friedrich Nietzsche himself has not been spared this fate. The trajectory of his winged words provides a case study in the wear and tear brought about by too frequent a misuse of quotation. In the end, it boils down to depletion of sense, and it happens with philosophical insights and with the most brilliant poems alike. No sooner was the masterful thinker dead and buried than every Tom, Dick, and Harry had his personal Nietzsche at his hip, ready for the quick draw. The joke was that Nietzsche himself, to the very best of his ability, encouraged this. One might express it in Faustian terms: this man - and thus begins his tragedy - made a pact with his own mother tongue. God and the Devil and who knows what ancient and modern Muses granted him the expressive genius, an ascent without parallel, only to plunge him thereafter into the abyss of absolute speechlessness. At the time of his greatest productivity as a writer, he was the unchallenged champion in the field of philosophical prose; he was the verbal-image-thinker in German, a master of every kind of idiom. This solitary Saxon knew all there was to know - since Goethe and Schopenhauer, Hölderlin, Kleist, and Heine - about the style, syntax, rhythm, and tempo of linguistic expression. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.