Surely the soul of Friedrich Nietzsche is pierced with lances whenever a page of his work is touched by an interpreter. He has forever lost the chance to make himself clear. He has been praised as a great thinker, dismissed as a mediocre poet, derided as a fountain of lunacy; his thought has been classified under every heading from existentialism, to fascism, to far worse. Perhaps it is all true – or all false – but there is reason to believe that the real Friedrich Nietzsche remains lost to us in darkness.
This was a night he brought upon himself, for he claimed that thought is only a relation among our psychological drives, that rationality is only a kind of thought we cannot get free of, that conscious intentions are only a kind of symptomology, and that we are living at our best when we are in some sense unconscious.
Some, supposing one of the fates of the damned to be idiocy, would be content to leave the matter there. But deciding who is damned and who is not is not a proper work for humans, and it is fair to ask whether a man who makes assertions like Nietzsche’s can be understood at all. Just a few should try.
Yet there is an undeniable streak of diabolism in Nietzsche. Those who are temperamentally immune to his spell may take this as a mere metaphor if they like – but he has the power to possess, as he himself was possessed. He spoke of himself as a new pen that something was trying out. Shouldn’t he be left alone? Why risk infection?
I regard this as a cogent argument, and I would never expose young minds to him. But the day is long past for quarantine: The infection is already abroad, and walking nihilism is far more prevalent than walking pneumonia. We should analyze a thinker like Nietzsche for the same reason that we culture diphtheria or dissect hookworms: To study cures.
In my own case, three decades past, there was another reason, for mine was one of those young minds which should never have been exposed to him. When finally, by sheer mercy, I was set loose from what the old rite called the glamour of evil, I found for a time a continuing infirmity in the powers that had been touched by it. The close proximity of his books affected me as you might be affected by the close proximity of a caged but snarling wolf, or as the smell of almonds might affect someone who had once suffered cyanide poisoning.
This was the moment of my discovery of penance. Although the Protestantism in which I had been raised had no penitential tradition, in my naïve way I had read enough to know what it was. In the spirit of accepting a penance, I forced myself to submit to the medicinal pain of writing once more about Nietzsche, this time as a diagnostician and epidemiologist, for the benefit of others.
As doctor who treats himself has a fool for a patient, so perhaps a penitent who assigns himself his penance. But the balm was applied by the divine physician who was really in charge, and the treatment was successful. I have no words for the relief: Only certain passages of music, which even now breathe the scent of the fields of heaven.