reading writing

Nietzsche as a Writer

I recently received the advice (simple but not something I have ever done in a deliberate way outside of classes) to actively study books that do what I’m trying to do with mine. Alas, right now, I do not happen to be reading numinous fantasy. However, I am reading Nietzsche. I’ve written a titch about Nietzsche before, and have a lot to say about his ideas if I can ever wrangle my brain into sitting still and saying it — but now I want to write about Nietzsche as a writer, to see what I can learn from him.

How does one turn insights from Nietzsche’s writing into a fantasy novel? If at all, probably by reading Thus Spake Zarathustra, not Beyond Good and Evil, and I may do that yet this year. But I love not only the quasi-mythological, subverted-religious quality of Zarathustra but also Nietzsche’s style and intuitions and auctorial persona, although I (like most people) disagree with many of his conclusions. I probably won’t learn too much of use from the larger structure of a philosophy book (though you never know), but I can learn a lot from closer reading of rhetorical strategies and stylistic devices. Especially since, well, my cross between a protagonist and an intrusive narrator is an arrogant, intense, loquatious, and idiosyncratic intellectual, someone whom I hope to endow with both charisma and deep insight — and someone all too likely to write (at some point) Zarathustra-esque episodes about — if not herself, her/my primary character.

I am going to be reading Nietzsche for a few more weeks, so I feel reasonably justified in starting a bit broad and impressionistic in my observations (though, knowing me, I may well hare off into something other than Nietzsche in following posts). But first — something about Nietzsche makes him almost compulsively readable for me (unusual for philosophy/the sorts of books I’m not embarrassed to read) — but what?

I find Nietzsche’s style of thinking familiar and easy to identify with (and I did when I first met him in high school, too, so I don’t think I can blame this entirely on my memory of him and his influence on me). Yet he goes well beyond where I instinctively go, and quickly, and joyfully, but not so quickly he doesn’t take me with him (as happens in much poetry). This results in many “Aha!” moments. So — pacing. Trying neither to write down nor write up to your readers. Sincerity. Sharing the bits you personally find interesting, in hopes that your enthusiasm will pour through.

Here’s a weirder one — he’s insulting. A lot of his insights are phrased as sick burns against philosophers, occupations, historical periods, nationalities — probably (cf human overenthusiasm in forming stereotypes) nonsense and at times quite offensive, neither of which, I suspect, would bother Nietzsche too much. If he follows his own doctrine (which I tend to think he does), in his thinking art and self-expression are at least as important as the search for truth and probably far more important (and the feelings of strangers are rarely important at all…).

What’s to learn from this? I have enough of a socially malicious streak that it’s easier to attend to and learn from someone’s scorn than it is from their logic alone. It brings social learning and social cognition into play — especially when the writing makes you question (and hope) that you are one of Nietzsche’s “higher types.”

Still, this sort of thing is probably bad magic, as it were (unless, like Nietzsche, your transvaluation of values leads you to value malice actively, as he explicitly says he does in Kaufmann’s translation.) Still, used judiciously, it might work, and perhaps there are benevolent (or at least non-malicious) equivalent ways of writing and arguing. And sometimes honestly expressed scorn is better than any amount of polite circumlocution. And in a fictional character, you’re allowed — perhaps — a bit of leeway, in that their judgments may not be your judgments.

Further, though — Nietzsche embodies his philosophy in his writing about philosophy. He claims that philosophies (at least, those worth attending to) are reflections of their philosophers’ drives — so he analyzes the personalities and desires that various philosophies express. He advocates delicacy, and he employs it — he jests, he plays, he suggests, and he does not string together ugly chains of logic with gaping holes, but he’s happy to point out gaping holes in others’ when he sees them.

One central difficulty in Nietzsche for me is how he can talk in value-laden terms about the glories of his superior individuals when he does not believe in objective value, and I feel fairly confident he is trying to assert his own preferences and, in a will-to-power way, make those preferences law.

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