Friday, December 27, 2019

Nietzsche and Twain

Nietzsche in his mid-20s
When our group convened several weeks ago for our final discussion of 2019, our reading was Friedrich Nietzsche's "On the Advantage and Disadvantage of History for Life"*  In a post last month I mentioned Nietzsche's categorization of three kinds of history.  Also embedded in the piece is another Nietzschean triad, that of the historical, unhistorical and superhistorical man.  

The historical man has a passion for the past and its usefulness for the present.  This attitude, however, has its downside.  Nietzsche writes, "There is a degree of insomnia, of rumination of historical sense that injures every living thing and finally destroys it, be it a man, a people, or a culture."  Conversely the unhistorical man does not have this sensibility. He lives in the present, almost as an animal does.  Nietzsche's superhistorical man understands how accidental the unfolding of events can be.  Further to his point about the superhistorical, he writes, "Whoever asks his acquaintances whether they would want to relive the last ten or twenty years will notice quite readily which of them is prepared for the superhistorical standpoint: they will of course, all answer, No!, but they will give different reasons for this No!" In the final analysis, Nietzsche says we should leave superhistorical men to their "nausea and their wisdom." 

Nietzsche invites us to consider the proposition, "The unhistorical and the historical are equally necessary for the health of an individual, a people, and a culture."  Is this the final takeaway of the piece, in light of his opening quotation from Goethe: "..I hate everything that merely instructs me without increasing or directly quickening my activity"?  Poised as we are on the verge of a new year and, depending on your method of reckoning time, a new decade, the time is ripe to consider what for me is Nietzsche's fundamental lesson here:  Sometimes it is better to remember, and sometimes it is better to forget.

Mark Twain in 1907

In the Janus-faced spirit of the season, permit me also to look back to October, when we took up one of Mark Twain's masterpieces, his short story "The Man That Corrupted Hadleyburg," about a mysterious stranger who puts the reputation of the "honest and upright" town of Hadleyburg to a test.

Nietzsche and Twain were contemporaries!  A pair of late nineteenth-century geniuses, but in very different ways.

Happy New Year!

*The German title is the more expressive "Vom Nutzen und Nachteil der Historie für das Leben"