Friedrich Nietzsche's career as a philosopher and writer is nothing short of monumental. His criticism of organized religion and support of nihilism are key characteristics of his work, and his books are unified by one simple fact: Nietzsche himself wrote them. While this revelation may not seem profound in any sense, Nietzsche's view of his vocation as an author is the source of inspiration, complication and, indeed, the very root of his philosophy. Nietzsche's use of literary technique results in the complexity of each work, and his reasons for writing shape every page. Brazen egoism is sharply contrasted by sheer despair, while Nietzsche's commentary on his own works creates the image of a perfectionist. His perspective on the works of his contemporaries and their reciprocal criticism of his also lend to the complete vision of Nietzsche as author. When Nietzsche's qualities as an author are tallied, a unique image of the great philosopher is painted demonstrating not only his brilliance and confidence, but his skepticism and frailty as well.
Nietzsche's view of authorship can be clarified first through the literary techniques he employed in his works. Much like Soren Kierkegaard and Rene Descartes, Nietzsche used masks as a method of furthering his philosophical endeavour. Harold Alderman, in his book Nietzsche's Gift, examines these masks and their relation to Nietzsche's theses. While not the first to incorporate the mask in his work, Nietzsche was the first to value the love of masks over the need for them. Only via the mask can the uniqueness of humanity be preserved, and only the lover of masks can discover this truth. Nietzsche wrote of the philosopher who loves masks, "he alone has the strength to look behind a mask to discover a man, the courage to mask himself in his individuality, and the playful innocence to choose a mask which not only hides, but represents him to the world." In this sense, then, masks serve not only as a literary tool, but a quality of the philosopher. The lover of masks can effectively employ them in his own work, but gains the ability through fascination to peel back the masks that others wear.
This perspective differentiates Nietzsche from other philosophers, but how do the masks themselves differ from those used by Kierkegaard and Descartes? Alderman claims that the Cartesian mask was a barrier between Descartes and the Inquisition. Descartes' masks were not used out of ingenuity, but necessity. Kierkegaard's masks served a two-fold purpose: firstly, the Protestant Church of Denmark and the provincial society of Copenhagen displayed little comprehension of the magnitude of his work, so pseudonymous authorship - the mask Kierkegaard prolifically employed - provided a simple method of concealing the author; secondly, Kierkegaard's use of pseudonymous authorship enabled him to use the first person when dramatizing the aesthetic, ethical and religious modes of existence. While masks served Kierkegaard and Descartes' purposes, they differ from Nietzsche's use in that they both rely on necessity. Nietzsche's theory of masking is far more complex and represents a superior level of technical thought.
Nietzsche provides three reasons for the use of masks in his literature. Firstly, since his masks are complex, they are often misinterpreted by his critics. This misinterpretation "is beneficial since it leads astray those who can only go astray." The result of misinterpretation, the confusion of the masses, gives Nietzsche a distinct audience, which he greatly desires. This tactic is indicative of Nietzsche's opinion of his work, that is, its superiority, a quality which will be discussed later in this essay. Secondly, deliberately created masks worn by the thinker often serve the same function as those in his literature. In other words, Nietzsche himself wore a mask as an author to mislead the unworthy. In doing so, misconceptions may be created, but the reality of the thinker is known by only those whom the author wishes. The mask of the author is important to the task of the thinker for Nietzsche because it separates his personal life from the public life of his thought. Finally, Nietzsche employed masks as a road map by which the discerning reader discovers his true thesis. Nietzsche already gives preference to the reader with the advantage of realizing the presence of the mask, and furthers this preference by using masks as clues to the message of his thought.
It is obvious from the complexity of Nietzsche's masks that they were implemented as a detailed exclusionary tactic from the beginning of his career as an author. Once he has isolated the desired readers, Nietzsche implements three different masking devices. Allegories and metaphors swirl through the pages, concealing the truth while pointing towards it at the same time. The aphoristic mask serves the concealing, and in Thus Spake Zarathustra, Nietzsche gives reason to their use: "In the mountains the shortest route is from peak to peak, but for that you must have long legs. Aphorisms should be peaks, and those to whom they are spoken should be tall and [of great stature]. The air thin and pure, danger near, and the spirit full of a joyful wickedness: these things suit one another." Finally, Nietzsche uses irony to further conceal his thesis. These three devices demonstrate the "playfulness of a free spirit" and serve as "clues in a detective story which, since they must ever be interpreted, require commitment from the reader." Not only are Nietzsche's masking devices complex and ingenious, they are proof of his passion for writing. The hours of work spent perfecting the intricate details of their employment are indicative of a labour of love. In the mask, the reader discovers not only Nietzsche's brilliance, but his pure affection for his vocation.
Another important technical aspect of Nietzsche's writing is his use of language. To manipulate the reader's perception of the thesis requires a mastery of linguistics, and Nietzsche readily demonstrated his ability in this field as well. Gary Shapiro, in Nietzschean Narratives, presents Nietzsche's use of language in an interesting way:
Writing notoriously leaves itself open to interpretation... We cannot simply seek the "true" Nietzsche who did not mean to say what [others] had him say. For undoubtedly, part of that "true" Nietzsche would be the thinker who affirms that language is not the instrument of non-linguistic intentions and that "facts is precisely what there is not, only interpretations..." [Furthermore,] the written text is avowedly material rather than ideal. It does not create the illusion that language is a diaphanous medium between a knowing mind and an intelligible object. Nietzsche's texts... often seem designed to frustrate such logocentric prejudices and expectations.
It is through the manipulation of the text that the reader's interpretation is affected the most. While this point may seem obvious, it is not the principle but the ability with which Nietzsche utilizes it that is profound. The language Nietzsche employs supports interpretation in place of fact - an important distinction. Nietzsche enables the reader to determine for himself what his thesis may be, and does so through the language used in the text. This tool, as Shapiro explained, shatters the expectations of the text and replaces expectation with revelation. Through language, Nietzsche makes his theses specific to the reader and in doing so radically changes the very nature of philosophical literature. Nietzsche best reasoned his use of complex linguistics in a conversation with Sebastian Hausmann:
When one writes a book and thus steps into the public light, that is always a significant act deserving of a certain solemnity, so that one has to put aside everyday language... Why does Rome still have the Mass read in Latin? To give the solemn act, veiled in mystery, a special solemnity even externally. But that must not be at the expense of clarity or even intelligibility. If thoughts were thereby hidden, if the real meaning became hard to understand, that of course would be foolish.
Although ironic, Nietzsche's parallel to the Roman Catholic Church is accurate: the language used creates solemnity. However, his belief that linguistics must not be extended beyond the boundaries of understanding seems contradictory. Nietzsche's desire in his writing is complexity, but only to a certain extent. If no one understands his thesis aside from himself, little benefit can be derived from his writing. Nietzsche did concede that "the great preponderance of emotions cannot be expressed through words. Words can do no more than indicate." Creating a work with complex language, and within such a boundary exemplifies Nietzsche's affection for writing. Much like his masks, the perfect word takes patience and dedication to be found and properly placed, the hallmark of one who writes because he loves to.
One of the more potent weapons wielded by Nietzsche was his incredible sense of self-awareness. Ronald Hayman examines this ability in his book Nietzsche: A Critical Life, and concludes that self-awareness was present in Nietzsche's writing even from his school days:
In Nietzsche's mature philosophy, as in his schoolboy essays, his main weapon was self-observation. Malaise is conducive to introspection, and it was Freud's opinion that Nietzsche achieved a degree of introspection never achieved by anyone else and never likely to be achieved again... Nietzsche was ingenious at applying self-knowledge to social movements, cantilevering out into the remote past from analysis of his own needs for self-assertion, reassurance, revenge, destruction, hero-worship.
While psychoanalysis is pertinent, Nietzsche's ability to discover the truths within himself are the key here. Perhaps, as Hayman argues, his lengthy illnesses provided Nietzsche with the desire to be introspective - is there an internal explanation for all that is wrong with my body? Not only is Nietzsche's ability to communicate with himself significant. The application of such material is extremely difficult, and the ease with which Nietzsche implemented such discoveries identifies his as a great mind. To communicate to the reader such personal truths is to feel a tangible connection to one's literature; this is the result of Nietzsche's passion for writing.
One of Nietzsche's sources of inspiration was his fascination with the work of Arthur Schopenhauer. In a letter to his friend and colleague, Carl von Gersdorff, Nietzsche wrote, "my ears were ringing with the stylistic precepts of Lessing, Lichtenberg, and Schopenhauer. It always consoled me that these three authorities unanimously insist that it's hard to write well, that no one has a good style by nature, that you really have to work like a dog to get one." In a later letter, Nietzsche told Gersdorff "only now am I really grateful to our Schopenhauer, now that I have occasion to practice a little self-denial." Ronald Hayman draws a concrete parallel between the abilities of Nietzsche and Schopenhauer: "Nietzsche's method of composition was Schopenhauerian... Like Schopenhauer he could write better prose than any earlier philosopher in the German language. They both despised Hegel's prose and... they both depended partly on style to unite heterogeneous material." Furthermore, Hayman writes, "Nietzsche's devaluation of the word may strike us as modern, but he was only developing the views of Schopenhauer... Nietzsche even made the Schopenhauerian point that self-oblivion was the starting-point for both dramatic and epic art." In Schopenhauer, Nietzsche found the roots of his thought and made a conscious effort to incorporate his mentor's work into his own. The further development of the thought of one's philosophical idol provided Nietzsche with an important starting point, and the literary connection between he and Schopenhauer served only to better his work.
After an examination of Nietzsche's literary technique, an important question arises: why did Nietzsche write? In and of itself, writing was a painstaking process for Nietzsche. Indeed, in launching the first major attack on divinely sanctioned ethics and ideologies, Nietzsche "was also attacking the system that had conditioned all our intellectual habits. [The question arises] is it possible to reject as much of our moral and linguistic tradition as Nietzsche did without following him down the road to insanity?" Nietzsche wrote partly because he was frustrated with the world of academia. His "most dramatic alternative to... historical consciousness is to reconstitute his own activity as a writer of narratives. He will be a writer, rather than a lecturer, because he is aware of the illusions of immediacy and community that are fostered by the university and its enabling philosophy of logocentrism." This frustration with universities and the world of academia enabled Nietzsche to retreat into a private realm in which introspection was possible, and he could manage his poor health.
Nietzsche once wrote, "The scales are falling from my eyes, I've been living all to long in stylistic innocence. The categorical imperative 'Thou shalt write' has awakened me. I was trying to do something I haven't tried except at school: to write well." Writing was more than art for Nietzsche. He told Carl von Gersdorff in an 1872 letter, "whatever you do, bear in mind that we... have been called to fight and work in the vanguard of a cultural movement which might take a generation, perhaps longer, to filter down to the broader mass. May this be our pride, may this inspire us." While this battle was an important part of the reason behind writing, Ronald Hayman argues that "Nietzsche must have come to feel that his writing constituted a higher self, that his physical existence was no more than a stepping stone towards it." This is reflected in a letter from Nietzsche to Erwin Rohde, a friend and fellow philosopher, in July, 1882: "this is my only excuse for the kind of literature I've been doing since 1876: it's my homemade remedy for disgust with life. What years! What relentless pain! What physical upheavals... So be patient, if only because you must see that for me it is a matter of life and death." Writing allowed Nietzsche to escape his frail body and bury himself in thought. With this in mind, Nietzsche used writing as a 19th century aspirin: it put the aches and pains away, at least temporarily, and gave him the ability to contribute to his society.
An important aspect of Nietzsche character is his prominent ego. Despite physical hardship, he managed to compose some of the greatest philosophical thought of his century, and of this he was well aware. His use of masks was representative of this ego, lending to a select group of readers. In a conversation with Malwida von Meysenbug on New Years' Day, 1877, Nietzsche declared
two kinds of people are therefore excused from reading any further; for they can and should never claim Nietzsche for themselves: these are, first, the levelers, the raucous-voiced revolutionaries; and, secondly, the poor types who are so fascinated by the modern era that they have forgotten antiquity in themselves - probably considering it superfluous to assimilate the past.
His egoism is best displayed in letters to his friends: "Who knows how many generations it will take to produce a few men who can fully appreciate what I've done? And I'm appalled by the thought of all the unqualified and wholly unsuitable types who will some day appeal to my authority." Harold Alderman argues that "Nietzsche's attitude... expresses an elitism which has been present in western philosophy since Plato... [He] expressed a similar pessimism about ever being understood by anyone and poignantly cautioned the serious thinker never to make public his innermost doctrines."
Why did Nietzsche see the need to write for an exclusive audience? His perspective of society clarifies this question. After a length absence from lecturing, Nietzsche declared, "I confess I'd very much like to give a lecture now and again... but students are so dumb, and professors even dumber." Nietzsche wrote to Gersdorff about a fourth and final part to Thus Spake Zarathustra, saying "there is a fourth (last) part to Zarathustra, a sort of sublime finale, which is not intended for the public at all (forgive me, but in this context the words 'public' and 'publish' sound rather like 'whorehouse' and 'slut')." It appears that Nietzsche was himself an elitist. If this is true, then the logical conclusion would be to write exclusively for those who were able to understand. Nietzsche dreaded the thought of commoners reading his books and drawing their own conclusions. He distinctly felt such people were unworthy of his genius.
Nietzsche's egoism regarding his own work was extensive. He claimed, "I know perfectly well that there's no one alive who could write anything like Zarathustra," and that "since Voltaire there's been no such assault on Christianity; and frankly, even he had no idea that one could attack it like this." Nietzsche knew that he was a phenomenal linguist. To Erwin Rohde, he wrote,
I fancy that I've now brought the German language to perfection. After Luther and Goethe there was still a third step to take. See for your yourself... if power, suppleness, and melody have ever before been blended like this in one language. I write a stronger, manlier line than Goethe, without falling prey, as Luther did, to coarseness. My style is a dance; it plays with all sorts of symmetries, only to leap over and scoff at them.
Every word written was done so fastidiously, each with a specific intention in mind. Nietzsche prided himself on ability to write beautifully, and rubbed that pride into the faces of his predecessors.
It is clear that Nietzsche perceived his work to be superior to anything ever written in Germany, but this entrenched perception did not absolve him from despair. Ida Overbeck wrote of Nietzsche's frustration regarding his lack of popularity, documenting a comparison he drew between himself and four great French minds:
Nietzsche at the time counted himself among those aristocratic moralists [La Bruyere, La Rochefoucauld, Fontenelle, Louis XIV], and suffered very much... because he was so little known and read. After every publication he hoped to receive enthusiastic approbation, to be greeted by the public as a new star in the heavens, and to find followers and disciples. He was not really lacking in enthusiastic recognition but his ambition aimed for a much more general and greater influence. The nature of his ambition could become quite clear only after his own goals had been clarified in his own mind.
As Overbeck indicates, Nietzsche was really not lacking in popularity. The goals he had set were so lofty that the accolades he was receiving were simply not enough. Harold Alderman wrote that "Nietzsche's comments... must be understood as the lament of a man who despairs of being understood, but who at the same time delights in the misunderstanding since, after all, he never meant to write for the 'many too many.'" His own genius resulted in despair, for the misunderstanding which he worked so hard at creating turned on him. While the select few whom Nietzsche desired understand his work did so, the vast majority of the philosophical community had difficulty grasping his theories; in this, Nietzsche despaired. In his egoism, Nietzsche was frustrated by the lack of attention some his works were receiving:
It's becoming very hard for my book [Thus Spake Zarathustra] to get a hearing. An excellent review which Rohde did for the Literarisches Zentralblatt was rejected by the editorial staff. There went the last chance that a serious voice in a learned journal would speak out in support of it. From now on I expect nothing but malice and stupidity. But I'm counting on a slow, quiet journey - centuries long, I'm convinced. For some eternal truths are spoken here for the first time. They're bound to reverberate. I'm unconcerned about myself; I want nothing for myself, least of all a career.
In this passage, Nietzsche is so frustrated that Zarathustra was being refused by philosophical publications that he rejected the thought of having a career as a writer. This is the great problem that Nietzsche's ego created: it continuously placed him in jeopardy of having his lofty self-perceptions dashed. All too often this happened.
Nietzsche's perspective of his contemporaries and their work, along with his response to their criticism of his work, complete the picture of Nietzsche as author. After reading Ulrich von Wilamowitz-Mollendorff's Philology of the Future! A Reply to Friedrich Nietzsche's Birth of Tragedy, Nietzsche commented, "Not a word strikes home! Everything, down to the smallest detail, is distortion, misunderstanding, and malice. The little fellow really deserves a spanking... I feel heartfelt sorrow for this deluded young man, and... feel genuine regret when I thing of his good name. But it can't be helped. He must be punished publicly." Nietzsche even wrote to his contemporary Paul Deussen, saying of Zarathustra, "[it] says Yes wherever your book says No, and just about as eloquently. This amuses me no end - but perhaps you'd find it offensive. I haven't made up my mind yet whether to send it. To write your book you couldn't think about things as I do, and your book had to be written. Ergo....." We have already seen how Nietzsche treated German greats like Luther and Goethe, and this exhibition of confidence appears to be aimed as personal attacks on Deussen and Wilamowitz. Nietzsche had no desire to spare criticism if it was deemed necessary (which it most often was).
Criticism is usually reciprocal, and Nietzsche received just as much as he doled out. His response to such critiques of his work tends to be marked by amazement. It seems Nietzsche believed his work to be so brilliant that to receive criticism was almost unexpected. Nietzsche wrote, "my writings are said to be dark and incomprehensible! I thought that if one spoke of dire straits, those in them would understand. Surely that's so. But where are those in dire straits?" When critics attacked him personally, Nietzsche wrote, "In Germany there is much complaining about my 'eccentricities.' But since it isn't known where my center [sic] is, it won't be easy to find out where and when I've thus far been 'eccentric.'" The initial lack of response to Zarathustra appeared to Nietzsche to be harsh criticism: "I'm curious to know whether it has any merit whatsoever... I've heard and seen nothing of the book... It's indecent to treat me like this - but then who is still decent to me?" Nietzsche's reception of criticism tended to be less than graceful. This is unsurprising, given the magnitude of his ego.
As illness overtook Nietzsche's body and madness penetrated the very centre of his mind, Nietzsche slipped away into the eternal shadows. His books and personal correspondence are the only tools we have today to uncover the man behind the magnificence. Nietzsche's mastery of literary technique demonstrates the meticulousness of his writing; each word was specifically chosen and placed according to his genius. The mask created an exclusive club into which one could essentially enter only by invitation. Writing in itself provided Nietzsche an escape from the sicknesses which seemed omnipresent in his life, allowing him to discover his truths through introspection. His ego was monumental, to say the least, and is clearly exhibited in personal correspondence with friends and colleagues. This ego was, however, shadowed by despair, frustration with his body and the inability of society to meet his expectations. Finally, interaction with his contemporaries provides the reader with a last glimpse of the man, as he attacked with glee their work and took in their criticism. It should be said of Nietzsche that this was a man who wrote foremost out of love. This love of his vocation shapes the pages of his writings and places them in a class to themselves.
Alderman, Harold. Nietzsche's Gift. Ohio: Ohio University Press, 1977.
Fuss, Peter, and Henry Shapiro, eds., trans. Nietzsche: A Self-Portrait from His Letters. Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1971.
Gilman, Sander L., ed. Conversations with Nietzsche: A Life in the Words of His Contemporaries. New York: Oxford University Press, 1987.
Hayman, Ronald. Nietzsche: A Critical Life. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1980.
Shapiro, Gary. Nietzschean Narratives. Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1989.