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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.