Madman or Genius?

If you find pearls [in Nietzsche’s writings], don’t think that they all are genuine. Be suspicious, because this man has a sickness of the brain.
-Paul Julius Möbius (1853-1907)

A little learning is a dangerous thing;
drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring:
there shallow draughts intoxicate the brain,
and drinking largely sobers us again.

-Alexander Pope

I write this review with trepidation. Why? For one thing, like so many Americans, my understanding of Friederich Nietzsche (1844-1900) is minimal (which I readily admit even though I teach philosophy) because my reading of him has only been sporadic. It is also tainted by the expressed opinions of others throughout my life (which may, in part, explain why my reading of him was sporadic).

Buy on AmazonMy first introduction to Nietzsche was in high school, following Time Magazine’s April 8, 1966 cover story, “Is God Dead?” Later, the nuns showed films of Nietzsche (or rather an actor portraying him) in an agitated state, emphasizing his diseased mind later in life, and I remember seeing emblazoned on the screen, “’God is dead.’ – Nietzsche. ‘Nietzsche is dead’ – God.”

When I was in seminary, as an undergraduate, any discussion of Nietzsche in philosophy was passed over quickly and lightly, although mention of such stalwarts of theology as Paul Tillich, Hans Buber, and Dietrich Bonhoeffer was frequent. Did my professors not know, or not care, that these beacons of thought about God and existence were deeply influenced by Nietzsche?

So, was the writing of Nietzsche simply the rambling of a mind diseased by syphilis, as pious nuns and priests told me? Was whatever he wrote, therefore, tainted by a diseased mind?

Well, these answers to these questions are not certain. It is now the opinion of some that his disease was not syphilis, but could have been schizophrenia or–as one writer contends–a tumor of the pre-frontal lobe. One thing that most of us in America have never stopped to think about is the degree to which Nietzsche’s writing has influenced the way we think. Whether we admit to the post-modern attitude that is seen in the eclectic values of an Oprah Winfrey, or repeatedly speak of “empowering” ourselves; whether we go to church yet secretly wonder whether we will survive after death, or buy into the notion that values are a matter of circumstances of the present moment, absent any absolutes to guide us; if our thinking approaches these issues in this fashion at any time, we are displaying the influence of the thinking of Nietzsche.

As a teacher of philosophy, I always stress the notion that ideas we hold unconsciously can radically affect our lives; therefore, we should examine our attitudes and bring them to consciousness, thus helping us understand our behavior. Socrates said it better: “The unexamined life is not worth living.” When I say it, I betray a bit of unconscious Nietzschean influence because it sounds as though I am “empowering” my students!

Now, along comes a book by a University of Wisconsin-Madison history teacher that helps us understand the source, degree, and contradictory influences of Friederich Nietzsche on American thought: American Nietzsche: A History of an Icon and His Ideas, by Jennifer Ratner-Rosenhagen (University of Chicago Press, October 2011).

It is interesting that Ratner-Rosenhagen is a history teacher, and not a philosophy teacher. Her book is touted as an “intellectual history” of American thought as influenced by this radical German philosopher. It is appropriate, since even a cursory reading of Nietzsche reveals a man who is, himself, an “intellectual historian” who calls into question the answers that philosophy has historically provided.

As it turns out, she explains, influence traversed the Atlantic both ways. She examines the notion that Nietzsche, as a young man, was deeply influenced by the American philosopher of transcendentalism, Ralph Waldo Emerson. In Emerson he discovered “a new kind of thinker” who saw the most fundamental question of philosophy as “not What is the nature of being? What are the conditions of knowledge? or How do I know? But rather…”How shall I live?”
This suggests that Nietzsche was disenchanted—and indeed he was—with philosophy that sought to provide firm foundations for our lives, beliefs, and thoughts; that he saw them as arbitrary, arrogant, and artificial.

Nietzsche, in fact, put a sledgehammer to work in his anti-foundationalist attitude toward faith and philosophy and realized that, absent a firm metaphysical footing in philosophy or even a firm belief in God, the only question remaining is “How shall I live?” And in fact, how do we live in a world without a firm philosophical or spiritual footing? The question has been asked throughout the 20th century, and the man who opened the Pandora’s box by saying what many people had thought about in quiet moments but dared not say aloud was Nietzsche.

Nietzsche’s introduction to the United States was plagued by poor translations, which certainly didn’t help with interpreting what the man was saying; and a flurry of different interpretations that, more often than not, were the result of quick readings and the fact that Nietzsche used witty and striking aphorisms (the media would have loved him; he was the inventor of the ‘sound byte’). He did not write like most philosophers; you could actually understand his train of thought. Unfortunately, he frequently contradicted himself—or at least was perceived as contradicting himself.

Through the years, the attitude towards this philosopher changed with the times. Early progressive intellectuals from the left saw a new voice that would lead us to a better future. Evangelists read words of the devil who threatened their faith and their Sunday attendance. If this wasn’t bad enough, when World War I broke out, even his apologists backed away because of the widely-held notion that German militaristic philosophy took its cue from Nietzsche’s idea of a “will to power,’ and his notion of Übermensch.

As for the Übermensch, Ratner-Rosenhagen spends a good deal of time discussing how people argued over the translation of this word. Furthermore, the intent of this term—which is most commonly translated as “Superman”—is explained in differing ways that may seem familiar. Some taught that the notion of Superman was, indeed, the man who exercises the ‘will to power’ to take control of our lives and destinies (a view Hitler adhered to). Others discussed the notion of Übermensch as a spiritual replacement of a stronger soul by a soul racked with pain over the fact that he lives in a world without the foundations that had always existed before. A world without God. Of course, today we hear differing explanations of the equally confusing term jihad; is it a call to militaristic action, or a spiritual struggle?

One thing that is clear from reading this much-needed history of thought is that, as Alexander Pope once wrote, “a little learning is a dangerous thing.” A shallow understanding of the Bible can lead people to justify slavery, the stoning of homosexuals, or the primacy of Peter. The opposite notions are just as easily discoverable, and most of us—who know our bible only from Sunday school or from what our teachers taught us—aren’t thinking for ourselves but only parroting what we have heard (or read incompletely). I get the impression that this has been the fate of Nietzsche. After all, Huey Newton found in the German philosopher a champion of civil disobedience. Hitler found a champion of anti-Semitism (which is strange, since he was not anti-Semitic, and broke off a friendship with the composer Richard Wagner over this issue). Some socially progressive Christians viewed him as a prophet whose attack on religion was not an attack on faith as much as an attack on the complacency that moderns experienced because of their faith.

Will the real Nietzsche please stand up?

I myself am inspired and enlightened by Ratner-Rosenhagen’s history, enough so that I have begun to put the pieces together in my growing understanding of Nietzsche’s thought and its impact on our lives. Peter Gay, the editor of Walter Kaufman’s monumental translation, Basic Writings of Nietzsche, best summed up the real lesson regarding Nietzsche:

Shallow judgments frequently take one of three forms. Either one knows all about Nietzsche: he was the man who said, or claimed, or believed this or that. Or one knows how to label Nietzsche as, say, an irrationalist metaphysician, or an evolutionist in ethics, or an existentialist. Worst of all, people who have never read a single one of his books from beginning to end “knew” at one time that he was the kind that had caused World War I, and a generation later that he was a Nazi philosopher. Regarding this last notion, suffice it here to say that all serious interpreters of Nietzsche, no matter how much they may disagree on other points, agree that this absurdity can be supported only by either rank ignorance of his works (common at one time in the English-speaking world) or an incredible lack of intellectual integrity (common to a few Nazi hacks). In fact, no other philosopher since Plato and Aristotle, with the exception of Kant and Hegel, has influenced so many widely different thinkers and writers so profoundly.

Was Nietzsche a madman, or a martyr (as some would have it)? Or was he a man who did what philosophers are supposed to do: ask fundamental questions about our most closely held assumptions that leave us uneasy—and anxious? Is he guilty of heresy, or of simply positing “inconvenient” truths? If there is anything to be learned from Ratner-Rosenhagen’s thorough study of his influence on our lives, it is that interpreting the work of this very influential thinker is not something to be attempted unless we are seekers or truth rather than seekers of affirmation for those assumptions we cling to so tenaciously.

Copyright Isaac Morris January 21, 2012

Books and Movies and Stieg Larsson

Noomi Rapace is steamy in the Swedish productionMy review of the Millennium Trilogy by Stieg Larsson all started because I planned to see The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, starring Daniel Craig as Mikael Blomkvist and Rooney Mara as Lisbeth Salander, during the holiday break. At the time, I wasn’t aware of the story and decided to read the book before going. I am glad I did.

Rooney Mara plays Lisbeth with a visceral sensualityI liked the movie, even though it was long (it had to be to get the whole story in, which I understood having read the book), and I refer you to Roger Ebert’s review. It was disturbing, as was the book, and far more graphic in its scenes of sexual abuse than might have been necessary. Still, the scenes were needed in order to convey the character of Lisbeth Salander, a woman who is not one to be abused without some consequences.

Since seeing the movie, I became aware that a Swedish version of the story was filmed a couple of years ago. In fact, the entire trilogy was filmed, starring Michael Nyqvist as Blomkvist and Noomi Rapace as Lisbeth. This trilogy is available on Comcast On Demand in six parts, and is quite good. The American version of Dragon Tattoo is good in its own way, and it is interesting to note the differences between it and the Swedish version. Both capture the power of Larsson’s narrative, and both struggle with his tendency to over-narrate. The rape scene in the Swedish version are not as graphic, although as the story continues the filmmaker delights in presenting the lesbian love scenes in a manner that is just outright prurient.

Especially interesting are the differences between the performance of Rapace—who is not made up quite as horrifically—and Rooney Mara in the role of Lisbeth Salander (photos above). Both performances are strong, and both convey in slightly different ways the mystique and menace of this young woman whose life is made almost unlivable because of government gone awry.

Rapace may not be familiar to most of you, but if you go see Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows, she plays Madame Simza Herron. She is a beautiful girl, as is Mara. Both are very gifted performers.

So, if you are in the mood for a good mystery, and can stomach the violence, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo is worth seeing. But read the book first if you want to know what’s going on!

Knowing Lisbeth Salander: Quite a Trip!

In The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest, the third installment in Stieg Larsson’s Milennium Trilogy, all of our questions are finally answered about Lisbeth Salander. Here we learn what “All the Evil” was that she alluded to earlier on, and what that has to do with the fact that a highly secret and secretive government organization would prefer to have her dead than alive.

Lisbeth spends the first 300 or so pages in a hospital bed recovering from a bullet wound to the head, which she received at the end of The Girl Who Played With Fire. While she recovers, Mikael Blomkvist (who was sleeping with her in The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, but who hasn’t been in her presence since) conducts his own investigation, and enlists his sister to represent Lisbeth in court. A host of others who find something redeemable about this girl with the photographic  memory come to her aid: computer hackers from around Europe, members of the security firm who formerly employed her, and her former guardian—now recovering from a stroke—who was among the few human beings Lisbeth could trust.

Sound confusing? It is. And it gets even more confusing. In fact, the convolutions are noted even by characters in the book. At one point, one of the secret operatives turns to another and says, “this whole story has so many different threads and connections….” Later, the truth of Lisbeth’s plight is deemed a bit improbable, and an investigator admits, “I know. It’s the stuff of a spy novel.” That it is. Sometimes Spy v. Spy.

So, we have a secret organization operating within the secret police, whose activities are largely unknown to the people in charge of the secret police, running around protecting their own interests by committing murder; we have the police investigating crimes supposedly committed by Lisbeth Salander, but becoming more and more aware that those crimes make no sense; we have journalists—spearheaded by Blomkvist—writing Lisbeth’s “improbable” story on a fast and furious schedule so as to coincide with her trial for murder; and…oh shoot! It’s almost too much to keep up with.

But wait!  There is also a subplot involving Erika, the woman whom Blomkvist sleeps with (with her husband’s approval—only in Sweden!), who has a new job at a large Swedish newspaper—and a stalker. Lisbeth comes to her aid and ferrets out the person who is determined to destroy Erika’s reputation by placing her sex tapes on the internet. But I gather that, in Sweden, that would merely have made her more popular!

The book comes to a rousing climax at the trial of Lisbeth, where Annika—her lawyer and Mikael’s sister—brilliantly unveils the secret organization at the same time all of the bad guys are being rounded up by good guys. When all is said and done, the secret of Lisbeth’s incarceration in a mental hospital is made public, and she finds herself free for the first time since “All the Evil” that happened when she was 13.

I found this book the hardest to get through, precisely because it became so complicated and involved more and more characters (all of whom Larsson found necessary to give us exhaustive background information about). However, I found the trial to be a compelling ending to this series, which made all of the frustration in the previous 400 pages worth while. Almost.

Part of the fun about reading Larsson ‘s trilogy is learning about how an author thinks, and it is clear that—having invented this totally unique character, Lisbeth Salander—he felt he had to explain her in some way, to help us understand how environment might have messed up a child to whom nature had given such gifts. He felt obligated to us, perhaps; but sometimes people should just be left to their own uniqueness and we should just be allowed to marvel at them. Having all the answers can somehow destroy the mystery.

How many of us have all the answers about people we have been married to for decades? Very few I would imagine. And that’s as it should be. That’s perhaps why we still can find them fascinating.

Hornet’s Nest was one of the most popular books in the United States after its release, and I can only imagine it might have been so because it deals with government run amok, and the fear that many in this country have that this is what is happening in the United States. Perhaps. But as a conclusion to the marvelous story of Lisbeth Salander, a woman who touched us deeply in the first installment, it ends more with a whimper than a bang.

But the whole experience was, nonetheless, quite a trip!

Copyright 01/10/2012 Isaac Morris

Lisbeth Rises Again

The Girl Who Played With Fire is the second of the three novels that make up Stieg Larsson’s Millenium Trilogy. It picks up where The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo left off.

In Fire we learn more about Lisbeth Salander, the computer hacker with the mysterious past who spoke of a turning point in her life as a time when ‘All The Evil’ occurred, resulting in her placement in a psychiatric facility.

‘All The Evil’ is disclosed here amidst multiple interstices in a complex web of intrigue involving human trafficking in Sweden, political corruption, the impact of the closing of mental hospitals on the crime rate, and all that he believes to be bad about Swedish society.  You sense from the start that the story is a puzzle when it begins by explaining how to solve algebraic equations which, as it turns out, is Lisbeth’s latest hobby.

When the story begins, Blomkvist has lost track of Lisbeth, who—for some reason unknown to Blomkvist—wants nothing to do with him. Lisbeth, not one to trust easily, was left heartbroken unwittingly by Blomkvist at the end of Dragon Tattoo, and isn’t about to leave herself open to hurt ever again. And the two never do touch base in any meaningful way through most of the novel. In fact, they are reunited only in the last three paragraphs following a riveting denouement that calls up images from The Walking Dead and provides a bizarre twist on a theme of death and resurrection. The ending makes compulsory reading of the third, and final, installment.

Blomkvist gets involved in her life again, indirectly, when a journalist and his wife are murdered. Also murdered is the court-appointed guardian, Bjurman, who abused Salander so brutally in Dragon Tattoo, and then was subsequently brutalized by her and kept at bay with a tape she had made of him raping her. Finally, he had turned to a man from Salander’s past to free him of her grip. A man who, unfortunately for Salander, does not officially exist.

A gun is found at the scene of the crime with Salander’s fingerprints on it, and soon a nationwide hunt for the girl—whom newspapers dubbed a crazed, psychotic killer—is under way. Blomkvist is certain that she had no reason to commit the crimes against the two journalists (although the murder of Bjurman gives him pause), and he sets out to prove it. His theory: the journalists were preparing to publish stories about the sex trade in Sweden, and this was the motive for their deaths.  His investigation brings him into a world of human traffickers who recruit biker gangs in their process of intimidation, and into a plot that leaves you guessing from page to page until the pieces all begin to fall into place.

Gone are the brutal sex scenes that punctuated Dragon Tattoo, replaced with sometimes plodding detail of the police investigation and the various personality conflicts that occur among the task force members, the prosecuting attorney, and the members of the security firm that once employed Salander. Yet, the details are important—indeed Larsson thrives on details—so one should resist the temptation to skim past them.

Salander, true to form, is out to fight her own battles and only reluctantly shares information with Blomkvist by means of messages left on his hard drive, which she had hacked into years earlier (something he never bothered to remedy for some reason). This is their only means of communication, but no matter how hard he tries he is unable to elicit little except curious, inadequate, and sometimes pathetic replies.

In the process of investigating the crimes, Blomkvist learns about ‘All The Evil’ that Salander alludes to without explication in The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, and realizes that she is truly dangerous, but only to those who would harm her or someone whom she cares about (a very small group of people, as it turns out). He also learns that Bjurman was appointed her guardian for a reason by a man who has a great deal of influence in high places and has a very good reason for wanting to rid the world of Salander. Who that man is is one of the biggest surprises in the novel.

Once again, the convoluted plot is not what holds your attention. What captivates is the character of Lisbeth Salander, who fascinates for some reason that has to fall into the category of primal. She is, Blomkvist tells the police, a woman with a strong moral fiber, which only confuses them based on what the media is saying. Further confusing the authorities is that anyone who ever knew her closely—her former employer at the security agency, her former guardian (who is slowly recovering from a stroke), and Blomkvist himself—describe her as being strange but highly intelligent and more centered than anyone would ever have guessed.

One hint of Larsson’s writing skill is evident in the fact that we see Salander begin to mature, as some of the piercings come out and as she even has one tattoo removed. She is more confident, for some reason, and is growing in grace, strength, and self-assurance. But she is still dangerous.

The book, like Dragon Tattoo, is long—more than 500 pages; and, even though it sometimes gets bogged down in the details of a convoluted investigation, it is a compelling read that continues to answer the question on the minds of anyone who has read this far: “Who, exactly, is Lisbeth Salander, and what made her the way she is?”

Larsson died in 2004 of a heart attack and never knew that his three novels, which were delivered just before his death, would become international best sellers (Fire was first published in 2009). What a shame. But he left us with one of the more intriguing mysteries yet in print, at least in my opinion, and unquestionably one of the most memorable protagonists.

Copyright Isaac Morris 01/04/2012