Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Nietzsche: The Antichrist or the Cordelia of Christianity?

“I am one thing, my writings are another.” Nietzsche, Ecce Homo

“Whatever I create and how much I love it ― soon I have to oppose it…” Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Of Self-Overcoming

Music to accompany the essay: Miserere (Friedrich Nietzsche)

Nietzsche has earned a reputation of being the most audacious of God-assassins. In The Gay Science, a madman announces that “God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him”. He then asks a question: “must we ourselves not become gods simply to appear worthy of it?” (The Gay Science, 125). Reclaiming the ’divinity within’, coupled with an urge to kneel at the altars of higher power, became a persistent theme in humanity’s struggle for the independence of its soul. It was also a pivotal dilemma in Nietzsche’s life and in his writings.

   Nietzsche was born into a deeply religious, pious family. Many ancestors on both sides were clergymen, including his own father, who was a distinguished Lutheran pastor. Nietzsche’s childhood and youth were permeated with values and traditions of Christianity. At school, he was famous for reciting by heart hymns and long passages from the Bible, and this earned him the nickname “the little pastor”.

   Nietzsche’s road to atheism was far from straightforward. At the age of 13, he wrote in his autobiography: “in everything God has safely guided me... I have firmly determined to serve him forever”. For his seventeenth birthday, he asked for a book by Ludwig Feuerbach, and the following April of 1862, he wrote to his friends Pinder and Krug: “Christianity is essentially a question of the heart... The main teachings of Christianity only relate to the fundamental truths of the human heart; they are symbols...”. Around the same time, he wrote a poem Vor dem Kruzifix that depicted a drunkard throwing a bottle of Schnapps at a crucified figure of Christ. Much to the chagrin of his mother and sister, he refused to take his Holy Communion at Easter of 1865.

   And yet, in his graduation speech at Pforta School, Nietzsche read his poem:

Once more, before I wander on
and turn my glance forward,
I lift up my hands to you in loneliness-
you, to whom I flee,
to whom in the deepest depth of my heart
I have solemnly consecrated altars,
so that your voice
might summon me again.[...]

I want to know you, Unknown One,
you who have reached deep into my soul,
into my life like a gust of a storm,
you incomprehensible yet related one!
I want to know you, even serve you.

                                    To the Unknown God

   Although one might regard these fluctuations in Nietzsche’s attitude towards the divine as quite typical for a sensitive, searching adolescent, the stage for a life-long battle was set.

   The first book Nietzsche wrote soon after his break-up with Wagner in 1876  a highly traumatic event that can be compared to the death of his father  was Human, All Too Human: A Book for Free Spirits which he dedicated to Voltaire. There he “took sides against [himself]” as he confessed in a preface written a decade later. Until then, his atheism could have been described as stoic, with a predominantly intellectual aura. However, from then onwards, Nietzsche would be firing at Christianity with his almighty gun-pen, in effect waging a war with himself. He confessed in a letter to his friend, Köselitz, dated 25 July 1882: “I have been since 1876 more of a battlefield than a man”. But his longing for a loving deity was never far away:

No! Come back,
With all your torments!
Oh come back
To the last of all solitaries!
All the streams of my tears
Run their course to you!
And the last flame of my heart ―
It burns up to you!
Oh come back,
My unknown God! My pain! My last - happiness!

                                                      Thus Spoke Zarathustra

   One of the problems with many interpretations of Nietzsche’s works is that his utterances – provocative and paradoxical – have been taken at face value. But perhaps this ‘philosopher of masks’ often said precisely the opposite to what he felt, so that his philosophy became an inverted image of his soul. In Beyond Good and Evil, he asked a challenging, rhetorical question: “Does one not write books precisely to conceal what lies within us?”. Nietzsche rarely revealed his heart in his published writings; this can be gleaned from his letters and accounts of friends who knew him. We remember how Cordelia, the most loving and devoted daughter of King Lear, refused to proclaim love towards her father because her devious sisters had already devalued the word. She loved him too deeply to join the chorus of flatterers and deceivers. I suggest that Nietzsche may have adopted a similar stance towards Christianity.

   In a famous scene in Turin’s piazza, just before a total mental collapse, Nietzsche, with tears streaming down his face, embraced a horse which had been beaten by a cabdriver. Such action stands in clear contradiction to his self-professed stance against pity; it was a moment when the mask of hardness slipped. A close friend, Meta von Salis, observed: “he condemned a whole series of intense feelings not because he did not have them, but on the contrary because he had them and knew their danger”. Nietzsche was fully aware of his psychological vulnerability and that “[his] soul was missing its skin and all natural protections” and that developing a so-called thick skin was “the sole antidote to our massive inner vulnerability and capacity for suffering”. Nietzsche’s many masks, of which the mask of Antichrist became the most notorious, served this purpose. And yet, he confessed to his close friend, Overbeck: “As far as Christianity is concerned, I hope you will believe this much; in my heart I’ve never held it in contempt and, ever since childhood, have often struggled with myself on behalf of its ideals”.

   Nietzsche staged a vociferous, frontal attack on Christianity as constructed by Paul, whom he called the greatest ‘apostle of vengeance’. In The Antichrist, written in his last creative year, he blamed Saint Paul for the invention of sin, judgement and punishment as a way of controlling the herd. Nietzsche vehemently objected to the Paulinian interpretation of Jesus’ martyrdom as redemption for our sins, whereby the crucifixion had become symptomatic of religious self-hatred. The huge debt thus inflicted on humanity could never be repaid. He stressed that Jesus “died as he had lived, as he had taught—not to ‘redeem men’ but to show how one must live”. In The Antichrist, we read:
The ‘kingdom of God’ is nothing that one expects; it has no yesterday or no day after tomorrow, it will not come in ‘a thousand of years’— an experience of the heart; it is everywhere, it is nowhere.
   This sounds remarkably like the notion of Christianity which Nietzsche held as an inquisitive teenager. After more than a decade of anti-Christian campaigning, he returned to the point of departure. Perhaps he never truly left that point and in his heart of hearts he remained faithful to the ideals of Christianity? His last letter to Köselitz, dated 4 January 1889 and signed “The Crucified”, reads:

          “Sing me a new song: the world is transfigured and all the heavens rejoice.”

This theme was fully explored in my paper “Nietzsche Contra God: A Battle Within”.