Hiking with Nietzsche: On Becoming Who You Are

Hiking with Nietzsche: On Becoming Who You Are

by John Kaag


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"A stimulating book about combating despair and complacency with searching reflection." —Heller McAlpin, NPR.org

Named a Best Book of 2018 by NPR. One of Lit Hub's 15 Books You Should Read in September and one of Outside's Best Books of Fall

A revelatory Alpine journey in the spirit of the great Romantic thinker Friedrich Nietzsche

Hiking with Nietzsche: Becoming Who You Are is a tale of two philosophical journeys—one made by John Kaag as an introspective young man of nineteen, the other seventeen years later, in radically different circumstances: he is now a husband and father, and his wife and small child are in tow. Kaag sets off for the Swiss peaks above Sils Maria where Nietzsche wrote his landmark work Thus Spoke Zarathustra. Both of Kaag’s journeys are made in search of the wisdom at the core of Nietzsche’s philosophy, yet they deliver him to radically different interpretations and, more crucially, revelations about the human condition.

Just as Kaag’s acclaimed debut, American Philosophy: A Love Story, seamlessly wove together his philosophical discoveries with his search for meaning, Hiking with Nietzsche is a fascinating exploration not only of Nietzsche’s ideals but of how his experience of living relates to us as individuals in the twenty-first century. Bold, intimate, and rich with insight, Hiking with Nietzsche is about defeating complacency, balancing sanity and madness, and coming to grips with the unobtainable. As Kaag hikes, alone or with his family, but always with Nietzsche, he recognizes that even slipping can be instructive. It is in the process of climbing, and through the inevitable missteps, that one has the chance, in Nietzsche’s words, to “become who you are."

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780374170011
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Publication date: 09/25/2018
Pages: 272
Sales rank: 642,398
Product dimensions: 5.30(w) x 8.30(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

John Kaag is a professor of philosophy at the University of Massachusetts, Lowell. He is the author of American Philosophy: A Love Story, which was an NPR Best Book of 2016 and a New York Times Editors’ Choice. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, Harper’s Magazine, The Christian Science Monitor, and many other publications. He lives near Boston with his wife and daughter.

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He who has attained to only some degree of freedom of mind cannot feel other than a wanderer on the earth — though not as a traveler to a final destination: for this destination does not exist.

— Friedrich Nietzsche, Human, All Too Human, 1878

I often tell my students that philosophy saved my life. And it's true. But on that first trip to Sils-Maria — on my way to Piz Corvatsch — it nearly killed me. It was 1999, and I was in the process of writing a thesis about genius, insanity, and aesthetic experience in the writings of Nietzsche and his American contemporary Ralph Waldo Emerson. On the sheltered brink of my twenties, I'd rarely ventured beyond the invisible walls of central Pennsylvania, so my adviser pulled some administrative strings and found a way for me to escape. At the end of my junior year he handed me an unmarked envelope — inside was a check for three thousand dollars. "You should go to Basel," he suggested, probably knowing full well that I wouldn't stay there.

Basel was a turning point, a pivot between Nietzsche's early conventional life as a scholar and his increasingly erratic existence as Europe's philosopher-poet. He had come to the city in 1869 as the youngest tenured faculty member at the University of Basel. In the ensuing years he would write his first book, The Birth of Tragedy, in which he argued that the allure of tragedy was its ability to harmonize the two competing urges of being human: the desire for order and the strange but undeniable longing for chaos. When I arrived in Basel, still a teenager, I couldn't help thinking that the first of these drives — an obsessive craving for stability and reason that Nietzsche termed "the Apollonian" — had gotten the better of modern society.

The train station in Basel is a model of Swiss precision — beautiful people in beautiful clothes glide through a grand atrium to meet trains that never fail to run on time. Across the street stands a massive cylindrical skyscraper, home to the Bank for International Settlements (BIS), the most powerful financial institution in the world. I exited the station and ate my breakfast outside the bank as a throng of well-suited Apollos vanished inside on their way to work. "The educated classes," Nietzsche explained, "are being swept along by a hugely contemptible money economy." The prospects for life in modern capitalist society were lucrative but nonetheless bleak: "The world has never been so worldly, never poorer in love and goodness."

According to Nietzsche, love and goodness were not realized in lockstep order but embodied its opposite: Dionysian revelry. His life in Basel was supposed to be happy and well-ordered, the life of the mind and of high society, but upon arriving, he fell into a fast friendship with the Romantic composer Richard Wagner, and that life was quickly brought to an end. He'd come to Basel to teach classical philology, the study of language and original meanings, which seems harmless enough, but Nietzsche, unlike many of his more conservative colleagues, understood how radical this sort of theoretical excavating could be. In The Birth of Tragedy, he claims that Western culture, in all of its grand refinement, is built upon a deep and subterranean structure that was laid out ages ago by Dionysus himself. And, in the early years of their friendship, Nietzsche and Wagner aimed to dig it up.

Dionysus did not appear to live in Basel. According to Homer, he was born far from the walls of Western civilization, "near the Egyptian stream." He was the wild child of Greek mythology, the figure that Apollo tried unsuccessfully to keep in check. Also known as Eleutherios — the "liberator" — this rowdy god of wine and mirth is usually depicted as wandering through the hills with his drunken sage of a foster father, the satyr Silenus. Wandering makes it sound more serious than it was; cavorting was more like it — dancing and sexing his way through the trees outside the city limits.

Wagner was thirty years Nietzsche's senior, born in the same year as the philosopher's father, a devout Lutheran who had died of a "softening of the brain" when his son was five. There was nothing soft or dead about the composer. Wagner's middle works were expressions of Sturm und Drang — "storm and stress" — and Nietzsche adored them. Wagner and Nietzsche shared a deep contempt for the rise of bourgeois culture, for the idea that life, at its best, was to be lived easily, blandly, punctually, by the book. "Making a living" was, and still is, simple in Basel: you go to school, get a job, make some money, buy some stuff, go on holiday, get married, have kids, and then you die. Nietzsche and Wagner knew that there was something meaningless about this sort of life.

At the beginning of The Birth of Tragedy, Nietzsche recounts the story of King Midas and Silenus. Midas, the famous king with the golden touch, asks Dionysus's companion to explain the meaning of life. Silenus gives the king one look and tells it to him straight: "Oh, wretched ephemeral race ... why do you compel me to tell you what it would be most expedient for you not to hear? What is best of all is utterly beyond your reach: not to be born, not to be, to be nothing. But the second best for you is — to die soon." As I sat on the steps of the BIS, watching men and women scuttle off to work, I thought that Silenus was probably right: certain types of lives were best lived as quickly as possible. Nietzsche and Wagner believed, however, that being human was to be savored, lived to the fullest.

"It is only as an aesthetic experience," Nietzsche insists in The Birth of Tragedy, "that existence and the world are eternally justified." This was Nietzsche's response to the wisdom of Silenus, the only way to overcome modern nihilism. Aesthetic: from the Greek aisthanesthai, "to perceive, to sense, to feel." Only in perceiving the world differently, only in feeling deeply could Silenus be satisfied. If agony and death could not be escaped, perhaps instead it was possible to embrace them, even joyfully. Tragedy, according to Nietzsche, had its benefits: it proved that suffering could be more than mere suffering; in its bitter rawness, pain could still be directed, well-ordered, and even beautiful and sublime. In embracing rather than evading tragedy, the ancient Greeks had charted a way to overcome the pessimism that was quickly overtaking modernity.

I was supposed to stay in Basel for several weeks, supposed to spend most of my time in the library, but as I slowly made my way through the city, it struck me that this plan was impossible. The streets were too straight, too quiet, too mundane. I needed to feel something, to break through the anesthesia, to prove to myself that I wasn't just asleep. I was, perhaps for the first time in my life, free to do something other than what I was supposed to do. By the time I got to the university where Nietzsche had once taught, I knew I'd be leaving as soon as possible.

By 1878, the hopefulness of The Birth of Tragedy had begun to fade. Nietzsche's health declined as the first signs of mental instability began to emerge. He literally headed for the hills, embarking on ten years of philosophical wandering through alpine terrain — first to Splügen, then to Grindelwald at the foot of the Eiger, on to the San Bernardino Pass, then to Sils-Maria, and finally to the towns of Northern Italy. To take this path was to follow Nietzsche through his most productive period — a decade of feverish writing that would produce many of the seminal works of modern existentialism, ethics, and postmodernism: Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Beyond Good and Evil, On the Genealogy of Morals, Twilight of the Idols, The Antichrist, and Ecce Homo. On my first and only evening in Basel, I decided that this was the trek I would take — a path that many scholars think charts Nietzsche's ascent of genius and descent into madness.

I woke the next morning before daybreak, went for a long run in order to confirm my suspicion that Basel was utterly soulless, exactly the wrong place for me, and made for the train station. First stop: Splügen, high in the Alps. I thought I might eventually end up in Turin, where Nietzsche would write The Antichrist in 1888, shortly before he lost his mind. That was where he'd found something on the edge of insanity: a philosophy meant to terrify rather than instruct us. If we are to read The Antichrist, Nietzsche demands that we cultivate "an inclination, born of strength, for questions that no one has the courage for; the courage for the forbidden." Terror has its uses. The questions that scare us the most are precisely the ones that deserve our full and immediate attention. I settled into the thought as best I could. The train eventually left the valley behind — and with it, rather slowly, my fear of the forbidden.

* * *

MY FATHER, LIKE NIETZSCHE'S, went crazy when I was four. Nietzsche's died. Mine abandoned his family. My father and namesake, Jan, had been in international banking in the 1980s, specializing in triangular currency arbitrage, a form of trading that exploited currency market inefficiencies between the dollar, the yen, and the pound. Today, computers do the job, but when currency arbitrage first started, men like my father did it. One of my earliest memories is of my grandfather trying to explain what his son-in- law did for a living. He pulled out a box of marbles and showed me three different types: blue, green, and purple. Imagine, he began, that you could trade me ten blue ones for seven green ones. And then you find someone who would trade your seven green ones for twelve purple ones. Now take your purple ones and trade them for eleven blue ones. He handed me back the original set of blue marbles, fished another one out of the box, and tossed it to me: "You get that." That's arbitrage — something for nothing, too good to be true.

"What was once done 'for the love of God,'" Nietzsche suggests, "is now done for the love of money." In truth, what was once done "for the love of God," Jan did for the love of money and experience. He was an experience junkie: fly-fishing, sailing, driving, riding, skiing, partying, hiking — if you could feel something doing it, he did it. From the outside, he was an obscenely wealthy, good-looking man, with a beautiful wife and two gleaming sons. But appearances are often deceiving. As Nietzsche neared the end of his time at Basel, he confessed, "I am conscious of deep melancholy underlying [my] ... cheerfulness." My father was conscious of a similar secret, one he tried to mask with a beautiful facade — but it eventually drove him to depression, alcoholism, and an untimely grave. In the end, arbitrage really was too good to be true.

As a child, I had just an inkling about my father's behavior, but at nineteen I was beginning to understand it with the clarity of firsthand experience. Jan felt the lure of what Nietzsche called "the great and the impossible" — a desire to compensate for the sense of having loved and lost something of incomparable value. His own father, who was also largely absent, wasted his life in a stocking mill outside of Reading, Pennsylvania, for a wife who was attracted to money but ashamed of a blue-collar husband who had to actually work to procure it. My grandfather would sneak home in the evening, eat dinner, settle himself in a corner armchair, and pour the sort of drink that makes everything go black. Love was always something contingent, something that had to be earned. And there was never enough. This sense of privation was born not of actual poverty but of a conception of love and affection that is not unique to my family. It is regarded as a deal. Of course, exchanging affections is exactly as fulfilling as exchanging goods and services — which is to say not at all — but this does not keep one from trying, constantly, to trade up. The utter bankruptcy of love's conditions keeps everything in frenetic motion.

After my grandfather died of cirrhosis of the liver, Jan discovered the sort of drinks his father had drunk, and he bought a red leather love seat for the corner of the living room. But mostly he traveled, constantly, always away, in search of the next deal. From one of these trips he just never came back. He ended up first in Philadelphia and then New York. At a certain point I lost track of him.

* * *

THE TRAIN PASSED THROUGH Bad Ragaz, on the Liechtenstein border, at the foot of the Pizol Alp. I surveyed the hills above Ragaz, where sheep grazed lazily at the lower elevations. Somewhere among the rocks was the Tamina Gorge, a narrow grotto filled with the healing waters of Pfäfars mineral springs. For seven hundred years pilgrims have made their way up the mountain to restore themselves and wash away the filth of daily life. In the 1840s the water was piped down the hill to fill the now-famous baths of Ragaz. Nietzsche, at the age of thirty-three, exhausted by his years in Basel, retreated to this spa resort in hopes of escaping the migraines that had plagued him since he was a teenager. It was here that he first decided to abandon his obligations as a dutiful professor. "You can guess," he wrote, "how fundamentally melancholy and despondent I am ... All I ask is some freedom ... I become outraged at the many, uncountably many, unfreedoms that imprison me." He would leave Basel and turn for higher ground. As Ragaz faded from my view, I could understand the appeal of such a retreat but also the forces that made running away so vexed.

When Nietzsche's father, the pastor, died, the little boy — called "Fritz" for most of his childhood — did what comes naturally to most devout Lutherans: he became even more obedient. In his adolescence he intended to enter the ministry; he was called the "little pastor" by his fellow students — not a term of endearment. Nietzsche was too smart and introspective for his own good, and his classmates teased him mercilessly. If he couldn't be accepted by his peers, Fritz would seek affirmation from God: "All He gives, I will joyfully accept: happiness and unhappiness, poverty and wealth, and boldly look even death in the face, which shall one day unite us all in eternal joy and bliss." The aspiration to joyfully embrace polar opposites, even the starkest — that of life and death — was one that Nietzsche would neither relinquish nor fully realize.

Companionship didn't come easily to the young man, but not because he was rude or self-centered. Quite the opposite. The young Fritz was shy, polite, deferential to a fault. For a long time, his best friends were books. At the age of fifteen — when other teenagers were sowing their first wild oats — young Fritz established an exclusive book club called Germania. There were a handful of members: Nietzsche and a few other boys who were bookish enough to satisfy him. At their inaugural meeting they bought a ninepenny bottle of claret, hiked into the ancient ruins of Schönburg outside Pforta, swore their allegiance to arts and letters, and hurled the bottle over the battlements to sanctify the pact. For the next three years the members of Germania met regularly to share poems, essays, and treatises (this is where a young Nietzsche presented his first philosophical paper, "Fate and History") and to perform Wagner's newest compositions, among them Tristan and Isolde. This was Nietzsche's version of fun.

As the train carried me higher, I thought about the absurdity of this sort of childhood — only slightly more absurd than one that included nine-week pilgrimages in homage to long-dead philosophers — about how difficult it was for him to actually fit in.

Fritz attempted to be normal, but things didn't go especially well. When it came to everyday life, he either overdid it or, more often, grew tired of the banality. Upon leaving Pforta, the premier boarding school in Germany, he enrolled in the university at Bonn and made a good showing at being average — drinking buddies, holiday excursions, even a brief romance. He tried drinking like other kids, but on the one evening he truly let loose, he got so thoroughly besotted that he was nearly thrown out of school. Describing the unfortunate bender to his mother, he complained that he "just didn't know how much [booze] I could take." When he joined the Burschenschaft Frankonia, the equivalent of an American fraternity, he reached the limits of his willingness to conform. He actually didn't like beer. He liked pastries. And he liked studying — a lot. When he left Bonn for Leipzig after only ten months, it was with the distinct sense that being normal was a waste of time.


Excerpted from "Hiking with Nietzsche"
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Copyright © 2018 John Kaag.
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Table of Contents

Map xi

Prologue: Parent Mountains 3

Part I

How the Journey Began 11

Enduring Companions 37

The Last Man 50

The Eternal Return 63

Part II

Zarathustra in Love 83

On the Mountain 105

On Genealogy 120

Decadence and Disgust 140

The Abysmal Hotel 156

Part III

The Horse 173

Behold, the Man 180

Steppenwolf 194

Become Who You Are 210

Epilogue: Morganstreich 223

Time Line of Nietzsche's Life and Writings 231

Selected Bibliography and Suggested Readings 235

Acknowledgments 241

Index 245

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