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Tuesday, June 1, 2021

You probably don't want to read this.


Academic Camelot "moment" -- having a real office!

Once long ago (in April 2009) I introduced my personal philosophy in the form of an interview with myself but never went back to do the threatened second interview. In 2011 I introduced as “Part I” the beginning of the story of my relationship with the philosophy of Freidrich Nietzsche, and again did not follow through with a second part. What does it matter? I never received a single complaint about my lack of follow-through and doubt whether anyone has been awaiting Part II of either my personal philosophy or the story of my Nietzsche crisis.  Whenever I do get onto philosophical topics, on a blog or in a crowd, I generally lose most of my audience. Recently, however,  reading a book by one of my graduate school cohort has brought back pieces of those days, and so this morning, if only to provide myself with some sense of closure (wishful thinking?), here it is, the story of a philosophical crisis in the life of one middle-aged graduate student. 

Me and Philosophy, Part II of My Nietzsche Crisis


In my long-ago Part I to this story, I gave skipped over my crisis to the solution I cobbled together, which essentially was an evasion of the problem. In Part I, I wrote (quoting myself here -- ahem!):


The supposedly objective, unbiased and fair way to read Nietzsche is—well, first we set aside The Will to Power, an abortion of a book heavily edited by the philosopher’s sister, whose agenda was to make her brother’s work not only accessible but also of service to the Nazis. Ugh! Okay, so we’re not going to give any credence to that! But then (getting back to academic “fairness”), we “bracket” all those pesky, troublesome remarks about Jews, women, blacks and others said to share a “slave mentality.” Nietzsche was only using the terms metaphorically, we are told, and we are not to “paw at them” with clumsy, literal hooves. Only metaphorically? This is a defense of one of metaphor’s strongest philosophical advocates? Well, okay, I thought, I’ll bend over backward in the spirit of the so-called principle of charity (usually applied upward to Big Names but not downward to unknowns), and I’ll focus exclusively on language claims and not deal with statements about morality or about superior and inferior types of human beings except as these illustrate the philosopher’s views on meaning and metaphor. That should be fair enough. 


That is the background. Today’s post is my account of the crisis itself. 


Curtain goes up: There I was, pre-crisis, struggling to give Nietzsche every benefit of the doubt, looking at only the least objectionable linguistic claims and trying to keep the rest in a locked cupboard. Well, as any writer will tell you, to get your writing done you need to sit down and do it, but I will tell you that it is also necessary, very often, to get up and move around, even leave your work space entirely for an hour or a day to recharge your mental energy. Sometimes a long walk is in order. Other times a shower will suffice. On the day my crisis erupted, full-blown, I had roamed only as far from my desk as the living room bookshelves, where seemingly at random (was it?) I plucked a book from a shelf. It was a fateful selection.


Now, this is terrible to admit, but I cannot dredge the title of the book or the author’s name from memory’s recesses. The author was a woman – that’s all I remember. It was a serious work, but what was the overall theme? Was it a book on psychology, literature, what? I have tried and tried to remember. Perhaps someday the book will find me again. Whatever the details, I was skimming through the book's pages, giving my brain a rest from Nietzsche, when I came upon a chapter (this may or may not have been the chapter title; I don’t know) on a personality type the author called “the Narcissist,” and I went into shock.

The name Nietzsche appeared nowhere in either the “Narcissist” chapter or book’s index, but it was all I could see in every line of that chapter. Everything that had ever troubled me in Nietzsche’s writings, everything I had tried to “bracket” and ignore as I bent over backward to extend the principle of charity, came pouring through the pages before my wide, panic-stricken eyes. Nietzsche’s most superficially innocuous linguistic claims, I saw suddenly – and once I saw could not stop seeing -- were hardly free of the prejudices that tainted his written views on women and dark-skinned races. It all went together without contradiction in his obsession with purity. An overriding obsession. The shock to my system was physical, a paralyzing lightning strike.


I have recounted the eruption of the crisis in the above paragraph without italics or underlining or exclamation marks because such emphasis or punctuation could add nothing to my story. Most of my blog readers (if any have stayed with me in this post), even close friends, will shrug and think the term “crisis” either misapplied or, if accurate, denoting an overreaction on my part. I can only report that for me the revelation brought on full-blown panic. Free-falling through  space, I could barely focus on my immediate surroundings. 


But who understands the existential crises and panic attacks of graduate students in philosophy, other than another graduate student in the same department? I managed to get to the phone (a kitchen wall phone in those long-ago times) and in desperation called my metalogic study partner, J., to tell him what I’d read and what I’d seen in what I’d read. Bless his heart! He too was horrified! He understood instantly not only what I was saying about Nietzsche but also what it meant for me in our department, the chasm that had opened in front of me: the professor of the class for whom I was writing the paper was also my advisor, and he and the department chairman had both built their reputations on Nietzsche. J. saw it all. I was doomed! “Oh, my god, Pamela!” he exclaimed. “What are you going to do?”


If you read my Part I, you know that my solution to the immediate problem was to move from the one long paper to the two short papers option for that particular class. Rather than hanging myself on a Nietzschean noose, I shifted to Scheler in my second paper. Scheler was someone I found more compatible. Nietzsche had now become my nemesis.


In the end – or rather, to reach my academic end, the Ph.D. -- I changed advisors (which was not a piece of cake), and neither the chairman nor my former advisor attended my dissertation defense, although one entire chapter was devoted to Nietzsche, in which I wrote what I had seen and what I understood as gently as possible but standing by my revelation. And in the yet larger end it didn’t matter much, as I never did go on the national job market. By the time of my dissertation defense, I was already living Up North and was already started down the bookselling path, on which I have found also a life of the mind and the freedom to think and to hold to my own views. I am happy for those of my cohort who found academic positions and have been happy in their classroom lives, but I feel no envy and would not change places.


As for the crisis, I’ve had a handful of others since, but what I learned that day in Urbana was that they are survivable. Hideous and even fatal as they can feel at the time, they are like hurricanes that eventually blow themselves out. And an intelligent, sympathetic, understanding friend in the hours of existential darkness is priceless and unforgettable.


Deborah said...

Does the crisis really blow itself out, like the hurricane, or rather is the person who has the crisis - the survivor then - blowing it out or at least partially responsible?

Very thoughtful, interesting reading today!

P. J. Grath said...

I don't know the answer, Deborah. Over the years, though, I have come to think of my extreme moods and reactions (not that all of them are extreme, mind you) as weather. I'm engulfed by a storm for a while, and then it recedes -- because, I guess, life goes on, and there are things that need doing....

Barbara Stark-Nemon said...

Intellectual integrity isn't always easy, but necessary and important!

P. J. Grath said...

Well, Barbara, philosophy isn't medicine, so no lives were at stake, only my potential for an academic career -- which, as it turned out, I never pursued full-time. For those seriously committed to and desirous of full-time academic careers, the stakes were much higher.

Anonymous said...

Read the article, pondered, wrote a long reply.
But Google is apparently at war with me, now
the 4th attempt.

BB-Idaho said...

Fifth comment try, browser support problem
..worse than Nietzcshe..Google Crisis!!

P. J. Grath said...

Oh, NO! I know your comment would have been interesting, whether observation, argument, or reminiscence. So sorry you couldn't leave it! One thing I do when I want to leave a long comment is to compose it first in Word or in my Mail program, then copy and paste it in the comment section. That way, if it doesn't "stick," it is not completely lost, and I can try again. Although you did try again. Five times! What a revoltin' development this is!

BB-Idaho said...

Thanks for sympathy and advice. "You probably don't want to read this' was almost a command to thoroughly read the Nietzsche Crisis. Since my comment
was all of those things, I will use 'organic' recall, and write in a processor and paste. My Neanderthal Windows 7 Google has apparently become a buried relic.

BB-Idaho said...

OK. Good advice. It seems my neanderthal Windows 7 google is fast becoming a stone age fossil.
We suspect panic attacks are fairly common, perhaps morso in grad school, but the Nietzshe Crisis is a new one to me! (I had a brief attack trying to spell Neet-she, by the way). As a philosophy neophyte,
I never finished a book, but sampled Kant, Kierkegaard, Hume, Schopenaur, Decartes etc and came away numb and befuddled, except that Nietzshe criticized Descartes' Cogito Ergo sum' and probably rightly so, but golly Descartes invented analytical geometry and Friederich only taught philology.
With those disqualifications though, I had three kids in grad school. The two girls were in the physical and biological sciences, which tend objective- not only that but they had excellent major profs (who
dutifully, along with their parents, attended their dissertations). The first still has daily panic attacks
involving car keys and missing volleyball games, the second cannot fly commericial without some pills
her physician provides (see- panic attacks are fairly common).
I also followed the career of a bright kid who went to U of Minn to study for doctorate in molecular
biology. His crisis occurred when he 'came out' and his major prof abandoned him and was unable to finish. I suspect the humanities, being on the subjective side, may have more profs with opinions which must be adhered to. My son set off to grad school in medieval history, was a teaching assistant and had a major prof who was fluent in 9-10 dead languages. His grad career crisis involved a coed
who was a bipolar mathematics wunderkind/exotic dancer- ran off with his savings.
So we ponder that the course of individual lives are like the metal ball in an arcade pinball machine:
We proceed along with or without goals, bouncing off pins sideways and sometimes backwards. That is why I am not the cowboy I dreamed of all through grade school..that and a fear of horses! Along those lines we note the PhDs who for whatever reason do not work in their field. A microbiologist I
know decided to move to suburban Denver and produce microbeer, a couple others work for fish and game etc...and the talented Myam Bialik, PhD Neuroscience, became an actress on 'Big Bang Theory'.
So rather than face a bunch of freshmen philosophy students, with their tattoos and smartphones, you
use your education in the world of books and literature. No crisis there!
My grades in college poetry were considerably unstellar, so my choice in quotes is plebian, but a line that I always liked was-
'You are a child of the universe no less than the trees and the stars; you have a right to be here.
And whether or not it is clear to you, no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should.'
From the Desiderata. Written by Max Ehrmann, trained not in poetry, but a lawyer- I like the statement..more poetic than my life pinball machine, no? I sympathize with your crisis. Hopefully just a one day 'I hate Nietzsche to Pieces' pandemic fomented episode.

P. J. Grath said...

Phew! Thank you SO MUCH for persevering, BB! Not many would do so.

Of my graduate school cohort, two I know are working in academic philosophy. Two are in the IT field. One went back to the ministry, one is a vintner, another a lawyer. I am a bookseller but do not regret my time in philosophy.But then, I still think of education as exploration rather than job training.

As for the hard science/humanities divide and ironclad opinions, I knew a woman years ago, a lesbian, who felt that her graduate committee rejected her work in biology because it had to do with earthworms being hermaphroditic. Who knows?

Thanks again for your unflagging efforts to post a comment!!!