The Eternal Hourglass of Existence
The Eternal Hourglass of Existence
Sascha Pöhlmann reviews Lance Olsen’s 2006 novel Nietzsche’s Kisses.
Knowing no more about the book than its title, Nietzsche’s Kisses, this work of fiction triggered in me an association to a line that must have been in my unconsciousness for years, a remainder of a lasting, difficult relationship with the dead man who wrote it: “Der beste Autor wird der sein, welcher sich schämt, Schriftsteller zu werden.” The best author will be the one who is ashamed to become a writer. Professional writer, that is, and writer of fiction - the loose translation above misses the finer meanings of Schriftsteller, especially as they are opposed to the less technical and more imaginative and poetic aspirations of a Dichter. Aphorism number 192 from Human, All Too Human haunted me for no other reason than that: I never fully understood it, never got to the bottom of the idea, never seemed to be able to offer possible interpretations, never got beyond feeling that Nietzsche had a point, without me being able to say what it was. And there’s Nietzsche for you - the elusive, challenging philosopher who was not ashamed to be literary, the man who was illogical, ambivalent, imprecise, contradictory, and elusive in the expression of his ideas, but who managed to express ideas others did not have the courage to even think, let alone try to find the words that might circumscribe them. This literary philosopher has haunted literature for a century, and Lance Olsen has decided to take a closer look at this ghost in Nietzsche’s Kisses, respectful of his spirit, but only enough to bring him down to earth where one can have a better look at him.
He was up to the task, simply speaking. Philosophers have not always been treated well by their literary cousins, as they are often equated with their ideas, set up as cardboard dummies to represent only that which their names stand for in the concise histories of the field. Doctorow did this reductive disservice to Wittgenstein in City of God: he briefly invokes Wittgenstein as a character only to present fragments of his philosophy on a few pages, and his Wittgenstein consists of hardly anything but these statements that do not do justice to his ideas. These brief statements are never integrated into the larger philosophical project of City of God, and the text simply can not carry the full weight of Wittgenstein’s philosophy. Doctorow carves his philosopher with an axe; Olsen uses a scalpel. His Nietzsche is much more than a label to unite a certain set of ideas. Basically, his text presents Nietzsche on his last night on earth, dying in the mansion in Weimar where he was put on display by his sister Elisabeth, “the show called Friedrich” (20). The text sets out using a three-part structure, which soon collapses in its clear-cut divisions but is present enough to help the reader sort through the demanding ontological questions that are posed. Nietzsche, like Malone dying, is in bed, his thoughts racing, his body failing. First-person narrative becomes second-person stream of consciousness which becomes third-person free indirect narrative. The time shifts from Nietzsche’s dying day to his childhood, and many significant events in between, and even beyond his lifetime - for example, he quotes Joyce alongside Goethe. The man who abolished truth is presented from a variety of perspectives, both temporal and spatial, but each is personal enough to make it clear that the uniting element in this fragmented narrative is indeed Nietzsche’s mind. This assertion may be explanation enough as to why the fragments at times do not make sense to the reader - they are highly associative, often poetic, and refuse to cohere. Still, this text is more than just play; it presents Nietzsche narrating himself into existence and identity, and readers reminded of Beckett should see that this parallel is one of recognition, not imitation. Of course, Nietzsche narrates himself out of existence too, and the identity he creates is only one of many.
Here, Olsen has achieved something quite remarkable: he presents Nietzsche not as an individual character thinking the thoughts we would expect him to think, but as a person changing according to how he is perceived. Even though the book is, to some degree, accurate, Nietzsche’s Kisses is not a biographical novel that tries to recreate a famous man’s life in fiction, but it is a text that is more about such attempts recreate a person and his or her ideas. It does not make the mistake of equating Nietzsche with his writings, and instead of showing him proclaiming clichéd statements (such as God is dead or do not forget the whip when going to women), it presents many different Nietzsches. Others try to fix him, for example when Housekeeper Alwine tells him: “You’re Fritz this afternoon, Fritz. You were Fritz yesterday afternoon. And tomorrow afternoon? Tomorrow afternoon you will be Fritz again” (19). Nietzsche resists and escapes this time, but other characters employ strategies more subtle than repeating his name. The significance of distinguishing a man from his writings becomes obvious when Nietzsche’s imagination takes him to a scene after his death in which his sister welcomes Hitler to the Nietzsche archive. The Nietzsche of the Nazis and the Nietzsche of Elisabeth Förster-Nietzsche may have a lot in common, but both have not much to do with the Nietzsche who wrote Thus Spake Zarathustra. “Editing” her brother’s writing to produce his posthumous “masterpiece” Will to Power, Elisabeth created a Nietzsche whose philosophy could form the ideological basis for racial genocide and fascist domination, the Nietzsche both Hitler and Mussolini could like. The unedited Nietzsche would have only had disgust for what the edited Nietzsche seemed to praise. He did not call her the “llama” for nothing, spitting out “half-digested fodder at its adversaries” (83).
Still, Olsen does not let him off the hook so easily, and fortunately he also does not make the mistake of presenting Nietzsche as the innocent, misunderstood philosopher with only the best intentions. Much in the text foreshadows the terror built in part on his philosophy, and statements such as the following take on an uncanny quality: “One had to fight every war to its conclusion, no matter what that conclusion might be. This was the definition, after all, of noblesse and philosophy” (53). The preceding statement is also the definition of waging total war, using children to defend Berlin and exterminating Jews while evacuating the concentration camps to escape those who came to liberate them. When a photographer tries to get Nietzsche to smile for a picture, using the sentence “Deutschland, Deutschland über alles” as if it were merely a innocent synonym for “cheese,” and then presses the camera’s “trigger” (59), the scene resonates with what is to come, the worst combination of nationalism and violence ever to arise. Nietzsche even sees a woman “walking down a burned-out street in Dresden, dragging what was left of her skin behind her” (139) and he feels that there is a world coming in which “Everything [consumes] everything else” (167). He dreams up a clown that takes the stage in Bayreuth, replacing Wagner’s mythical histrionics with a plain but agitating warning that the audience is “living at the tip of calamity” and that the building (and the country, and maybe the world) is about to burn down, thanks to “Deutschland, Deutschland über alles” (179).
Yet, maybe it is indeed true that Elisabeth only edited Nietzsche’s writing in order to craft it “into the thing that it wants to be deep down inside itself” (192). Raising such questions of accountability, Olsen writes about issues of interpreting Nietzsche directly, but his more important contribution to the issue of interpretation is that he shows how all our versions of Nietzsche are textual - the philosopher is only accessible through his writing, and the image we have of him is largely determined by these texts. Narrating himself, Olsen’s Nietzsche seems to be aware of this, and writing and (parts of) the body are inextricably linked in Nietzsche’s Kisses. He explains his admiration for Schopenhauer’s The World as Will and Representation by calling his sentences “teeth” (44) and claiming that his own works are organs essential for his survival:
Friedrich always experienced a jolt seeing someone reading something he had written. His books existed for him deep inside his organs. A swish of trespass accompanied the flush of enchantment he felt whenever someone held a piece of him in her hands. She could just as well have been holding his lungs. (28-9)
As his body in Weimar in 1900 fails, this Nietzsche again becomes a student in 1865, the war medic in 1870, the admirer of Lou Salomé in 1882. He becomes the teacher who gave an excellent eight-minute lecture to three students. The impossibility of fixing one Nietzsche becomes clear when he stops admiring Richard Wagner and instead thinks of him as an
overdressed sycophant prancing back and forth, relishing the attention he is receiving. Attend one of his performances, and you don’t see the beginning of tomorrow. You see overbearing people more interested in a good meal and in a good bottle of wine than in being made new.
Lately, the Total Artwork has seemed to Friedrich less about absolute transformation than about amusement and entertainment at any cost, a banal spectacle designed to keep the herd distracted, eager to return for more. (99-100)
(Speaking as an eyewitness: This is one of the best descriptions of the circus of the annual Wagner festival in Bayreuth I’ve read.)
Nietzsche is consciously trying out different versions of himself, sometimes gladly and sometimes under coercion. It becomes clear that he is subject to his own theory of eternal recurrence in history, and even though at times it seems that he should have proposed a linear theory instead, one that would have prevented him from living through all the suffering again, this perpetual return does seem to appeal to him in the end. The statement “We have been here before. We will be here again” (42) offers both comfort and terror. Olsen rescues Nietzsche from the image of the bleak nihilist often attributed to him; this characterization does not make his Nietzsche a philanthropist, but it cracks the lens through which we read Nietzsche, and in the kaleidoscopic shards and cracks we see him multiplied.
Olsen’s prose is quite focused for the most part. Nietzsche may be playing with ways of being conscious about himself, but the prose does not. There are no metafictional excursions, nothing that could contradict the unifying idea of Nietzsche’s mind, assuming that his dream on the deathbed is also a nightmare about the century his death would set off. Even as the text begins to dissolve (even graphically) towards the end, with sometimes only a single sentence on each page, this dissolution is only the logical conclusion of the attempt to let a dying mind represent itself in text.
Nietzsche’s dissolution, in its stark contrast between a decaying body and a visionary mind, is also reminiscent of that of Sir William Withey Gull in Alan Moore’s From Hell: as Gull dies, his spirit travels through time and space, connecting with others, influencing Blake as well as some murderers, seeing past and future, in the end becoming God, and represented as a tiny word on a blank white page - giving birth to the 20th century as Jack the Ripper. Nietzsche is, “at the portal to a new century” (62), ultimately also suffering the same pains of birth as he has “entered the kind of dream where you know you are dreaming, and you can change anything you want however you want” (218). On the first page he hears “all the voices of history speaking to me” (15), but they are also speaking through him.
In 10:01, Olsen submits his language to the simple structuring element of a clock, but in Nietzsche’s Kisses he draws on the much more effective ordering idea of Nietzsche’s consciousness. One might argue that even a “normal” single mind, not to mention a mind as vast (and confused and insane) as Nietzsche’s, would bring more chaos than order to a narrative, and indeed the text is not as structurally tight as 10:01 is in its temporal strictness; however, this formal looseness gives it a warmth that 10:01 lacks, and luckily Olsen does not make up for discrepancies of form by setting off a few postmodern textual smoke bombs; instead he uses what made Nietzsche’s philosophy so different from that of others: its poetry. Among the shifts in time and space, the fragments of a life and mind, the reader can find passages such as this:
Friedrich inhales deeply.
Green air. Horse hide. The last coal fires of the season.
This is what time smells like. (26)
These words are appropriate for a philosopher who not only told the world about the human will to power, but also told it in poetry about the pain of having no home (“Weh dem, der keine Heimat hat!”). Here is yet another Nietzsche, and he is one who would know about such pain. Olsen, on ebr, included Thus Spake Zarathustra in his praise of “narratological amphibiousness,” appreciating its project to “fuse and confuse radical skepticism with fictional narration with lyric poetry with visionary rant.” He lets this project, Nietzsche’s project, be at work in his own writing, certainly rearranging and imagining things but never interfering with that multiplicity to simplify it into something more digestible. It is almost as if Olsen followed the rallying cry he put in Wagner’s mouth: “fuck l’art pour l’art” (96). In stepping back just enough as the author of this book to let Nietzsche tell his own stories of his selves, Olsen may be exactly that author ashamed to be a writer, the Dichter who is not only a Schriftsteller: he allows Nietzsche to be a poet instead of a narrative device; he also treats his subject with enough respect and imagination, and little enough self-consciousness, to let it speak for itself, mediated for sure, but never subordinated.
Doctorow, E.L. City of God. New York: Plume, 2001.
Moore, Alan, and Eddie Campbell. From Hell. London: Knockabout, 2006.
Nietzsche, Friedrich. Menschliches, Allzumenschliches. 1886. München: dtv, 1988.
Olsen, Lance. 10:01. Portland, OR: Chiasmus, 2005.
Olsen, Lance. “Narratological Amphibiousness, or: Invitation to the Covert History of Possibility.” electronic book review. Apr. 2003. 29 Oct. 2006
Olsen, Lance. Nietzsche’s Kisses. Tallahassee, FL: FC2, 2006.