I’ve never read much philosophy. Technically JUST Mary Wollstonecraft’s Vindication of the Rights of Woman. So, for me, reading Friedrich Nietzsche’s Beyond Good and Evil was a relatively new experience twice over. This was not just an unfamiliar writer, but a type of writing I’m none too comfortable amongst. Oooh.
Structurally, this book is the same as David Shields’ marvelous Reality Hunger, and Jean Cocteau’s Opium – it is 296 separate sections varying in length from a short sentence through to a few pages. They are grouped, thematically, and each section offers opinions and thoughts (or ideas/philosophies?) about different topics. Some were interesting, some very dull and some were incredibly fucking offensive.
This book reeks of its era and its time. There is some of the most aggressive misogyny I have ever read, as well as incredibly unpalatable generalisations about Jewish people, the French, the English, Germans, Austrians and anyone unfortunate enough to not be from Europe. Urgh. Nietzsche comes across as a cantankerous, probably inebriated, selfish old man with little personal regard for anyone he’s ever met. He is self-obsessed, self-aggrandising, aggressively criticises other people by name, directly promotes the importance of an uneducated “slave” class, includes a few poems, repeatedly refers to his other books and ultimately seems to advocate the loss of all empathy from society… But, despite all that, his writing is sharp, intriguing and often offers interesting/terrifying insights into the dominant European mentalities that led to the warring and nationalistic first half of the 20th century.
There is a lot of stuff in here about religion, about its failings and about its uses, there is a lot of stuff about physicality, too, about personal cleanliness and personal interactions. There are also really intriguing bits about the ideologies of hermits and saints. Thematically, I suppose this brief paragraph is saying, is that Beyond Good and Evil chimed with a lot of the ideas I’ve recently been studying and considering and writing about myself. Which is good.
There’s loads of stuff, too, about aging, bodily decline and notions of morality, about what “is” morality (?), and the book even questions if the very concept of morality is itself always immoral. It’s intriguing. And the quick-fire section of aphorisms in the centre of the book offers gems such as:
- The love for one individual is barbarous, for it is practised at the expense of everyone else. Even a love for God.
- What is done out of love always takes place beyond good and evil.
- The thought of suicide is a powerful solace: it helps us through many a bad night.
- Poets are shameless with their experiences: they exploit them.
- Talking a great deal about yourself can also be a means of hiding.
- Praise is more intrusive than blame.
- Ultimately, it is the desire, not the desired, that we love.
I typed up about twice that amount and then deleted a load. This is what I mean, though – Beyond Good and Evil is full of smart and snappy ideas. And lots of them. But it’s also full of a fucking shitload of tired crap.
The misogyny, the xenophobia, the cruelty, the philosophy circle-jerk-debating, old man bollocks that isn’t really relevant to the modern world: cut it. This volume, half its size, would have been an essential read. As it is, it’s still good, in places great, but Nietzsche just comes across as such a smug, self-satisfied dick that I don’t really want to encourage more people to pay attention to him. This is the smuggest book I’ve read since The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao.
But, I suppose, when it’s good, it’s a pleasure. When Nietzsche offers intelligent comments on the human condition, he offers interesting ones.
Maybe I’ll read more philosophy. By someone nicer.