Read an Excerpt
The Shadow of the AntichristNietzsche's Critique of Christianity
By STEPHEN N. WILLIAMS
Baker AcademicCopyright © 2006 Stephen N. Williams
All right reserved.
Chapter OneDifferent Worlds
Forgetfulness ... Of that which is within me; read it there- Ye know it, and I cannot utter it. ... Oblivion, self-oblivion-. Byron, Manfred, act 1, scene 1
It has long been something of a truism that "the modern consciousness of history is a consciousness of crisis." So to say that Nietzsche was born in critical times is not to say much. Still, we should recognize that the years of his life (1844-1900) encompassed the revolutions of 1848, which took place in the year when the Communist Manifesto was published, the unification of Germany under Bismarck in 1871, and the ominous buildup toward the First World War, in 1914-18. Nietzsche's thought and even his life are sometimes described in relative detachment from the political story of his times. When the scope of an account requires such detachment, as it does in the present case, at least we must keep in mind that there is a price for omission.
It is impossible to say how the bigger scene might have impacted Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche, born in a quiet village in Prussian Saxony, not far from Leipzig, had his childhood in a Lutheran parsonage been happy and uneventful. It was not. He was not yet five years old when his father died. This was shattering for little Friedrich, or "Fritz." What is particularly sad and striking is not just his immediate and natural experience of grief. It is also the impression still left on his mind and soul years later. Looking back, at the age of fourteen, Nietzsche wrote: "The thought [that] I was forever parted from my beloved father seized hold of me and I wept bitterly.... The ceremony began at one o'clock, accompanied by the tolling of the bells. Oh, I shall always have the hollow clangour of those bells in my ears, I shall never forget the gloomy melody of the hymn 'Jesu, meine Zuversicht.'?" This death was on August 2, 1849. Nietzsche later wrote: "The sight of the surroundings of our childhood moves us deeply: the garden-house, the church with the graveyard, the pond and the wood-we see all these with a sense of suffering. We are seized with pity for ourselves, for what have we not gone through since those days!" (HH 277).
Admittedly, he ended this paragraph with a contrast between what these things can represent, namely, somewhat unthinking contentment and the path that he would himself tread, leading to the acquisition of "a higher culture." But the suffering sensibility is manifest. "That which we call 'Nietzsche' is an extraordinarily, almost incredibly sensitive substance, whose endeavor from beginning to end is to bind the flood of painful stimuli called 'life' by becoming the 'most powerful and tremendous nature' who could absorb it all." Much can be made of Nietzsche's eventual emotional reaction to religion in connection with the early loss of his father. A good portion of Nietzsche's greatest work, Thus Spoke Zarathustra, was drafted in 1883, the year when the author turned thirty-nine. At what is perhaps its highest moment of drama, as a perplexed and burdened Zarathustra advances toward insight into the eternal recurrence of all things, we read the following:
Thus I spoke more and more softly: for I was afraid of my own thoughts and reservations. Then, suddenly, I heard a dog howling nearby. Had I ever heard a dog howling in that way? My thoughts ran back. Yes! When I was a child, in my most distant childhood.... Had I been dreaming? Had I awoken? All at once I was standing between wild cliffs alone, desolate in the most desolate moonlight. But there a man was lying!
In a commonly used English translation of this text, Hollingdale glosses this passage as "a memory from Nietzsche's childhood. Nietzsche's father died following a fall, and it seems that Nietzsche was attracted to the scene by the frightened barking of a dog." He tacitly dropped this reference in both the first and second editions of his biography of Nietzsche, and we cannot presume on its accuracy, but there is plenty of fodder in Nietzsche's literature for psychoanalysts, who highlight the impact of the death of a beloved father on an extremely sensitive child. And Z apparently contains allusions to Nietzsche's childhood experience of mortality.
A psychological account of the formation of Nietzsche's views on God and on Christian belief is both possible in principle and instructive in the attempt. It is surely hard to become seriously interested in Nietzsche's thought without becoming seriously interested in Nietzsche's personality, and it is not only hard but also wrong to resist the temptation to read his literary output as a biography or autobiography of the soul. "It has gradually become clear to me," Nietzsche once remarked, "what every great philosophy has hitherto been: a confession on the part of its author and a kind of involuntary and unconscious memoir" (BGE 6). Still, in the pages that follow, little is offered in the way of psychological interpretation. The way by which someone comes by a philosophy of life does not of itself tell us to what extent that philosophy has something to be said for it. Many have been influenced by Nietzsche's teachings without the presence of the same or similar psychological factors. However interesting we find the man Nietzsche and however much interest in him is spiced by an observation Freud somewhere makes-to the effect that Nietzsche knew himself better than any man who had ever lived-it is not with the man himself that we are principally concerned in this study. Yet, it is difficult to block out things like his thirty-eight-year-old disclosure that he had "not for a moment been able to forget ... that my mother called me a disgrace to my dead father." A little over a year before his eventual mental breakdown in 1889, he wrote to that mother: "Never since childhood to have heard anything deep and understanding said about me-that's all part of my fate; also I do not remember having complained about it."
As in the case of neglecting the political context, so also there is a price to pay for relatively ignoring the "psychological" trajectory of interpretation. Just what this might amount to is indicated by Joachim Köhler's recently translated psychobiography of Nietzsche. In this sad and oppressive, moving and memorable account, Köhler purports to lay bare Zarathustra's secret, which is Nietzsche's own. It lies buried not just in the bleak agony of nightmares and visions that succeeded his father's death but also in homoeroticism, forbidden homosexuality, and intense attachment to the culture of the naked Greek. Here is the ground of the profound suffering and profound spiritual and psychological disturbance that constitute Nietzsche's inner reality. Read aright, Thus Spoke Zarathustra discloses it. So Köhler argues.
Excerpted from The Shadow of the Antichrist by STEPHEN N. WILLIAMS Copyright © 2006 by Stephen N. Williams. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.