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Ecce Homo , by Friedrich Nietzsche

Ecce Homo - Friedrich Nietzsche

Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900) began the composition of this most unusual book on his 44th birthday, October 15, 1888, the last birthday before he believed himself to be the King of Italy, then Napoleon, then God, ultimately sliding into the final catatonic phase in which he passed the remaining 11 years of "life". Ecce Homo (Behold the Man), his last book, has as subtitle Wie man wird, was man ist (How one becomes what one is). It is a final summary of the significance of Nietzsche the prophet written by himself shortly before his ascension. Here are some of the Chapter headings:


Why I Am So Wise


Why I Am So Clever


Why I Write Such Good Books


Why I Am Fate


So, yes, one has gone well past megalomania...


After his many early and mid-period critical texts and the mid-period and late prophetic books (in which he never revealed all of the visions/emotions he confided to his notebooks), he knew he was due to write a systematic presentation/justification of his new ideas/visions/hallucinations. In his letters to friends and in his notebooks he made plans for a 4 volume summa, but he knew that, even if he had had the time, he was not up to the task. He was exhausted and ill in body and mind, and systematic thought was never his strength. But I also suspect that he knew there was no there there; that is to say, he was riveted primarily by visions and emotions, not by thoughts and ideas. He expressed the visions and emotions beautifully in his prose poems and poetry, but when he went to find ideas and arguments, they were inchoate, at least during his last few years of intelligent life. 


In the letters he wrote in Bologna during his last weeks of relative sanity to the two remaining contacts he maintained, he was ebullient, at a new peak above all his previous manic phases - everything was so perfect then, his health, the weather, the music, the food. And one last time he wrote a book - Ecce Homo - in one go, in approximately two weeks (he did this several times during the last 3 years of his more or less sane life). Though he couldn't write his summa, he could write about his favorite topic - the global significance of his role and his work.


These are the first lines of the Foreword:


In Voraussicht, dass ich über Kurzem mit der schwersten Forderung an die Menschheit herantreten muss, die je an sie gestellt wurde, scheint es mir unerlässlich, zu sagen, wer ich bin.


(In anticipation that I soon will have to approach Mankind with the weightiest challenge ever posed to it, it seems to me indispensable to say who I am.)


Up until this point of his life, the disparity between the enormity of his task and the superficiality of his fellow human beings had as consequence that nearly no one had taken notice of him (outside of a few academic philologists, who had derided him, and the Wagnerians, who had seen him as a useful tool - and none of these had taken notice of his actual task, as he saw it). So it was necessary that Mankind be told who he was, in order that it finally take notice of his work. This was clearly not an undertaking with a great promise of success, and he actually did stop the production of the book at an advanced stage (though the reasons he gave for this act to various persons were all contradictory). But it was published later, even though his sister and mother consigned to the flames the copy of the manuscript he had sent to them.


In this book one can clearly see his state of mind shortly before he became king, emperor, god:


Wer die Luft meiner Schriften zu athmen weiss, weiss, dass es eine Luft der Höhe ist, eine starke Luft. Man muss für sie geschaffen sein, sonst ist die Gefahr keine kleine, sich in ihr zu erkälten. Das Eis ist nahe, die Einsamkeit ist ungeheuer—aber wie ruhig alle Dinge im Lichte liegen! wie frei man athmet! wie Viel man unter sich fühlt!


(Who knows to breath the air of my texts knows that it is the air of the heights, a strong air. One must be made for it, otherwise the danger is not small to become ill in its cold. The ice is close, the loneliness enormous - but how quietly all things lie in the light! How freely one breathes! How much one feels is beneath one!)


Umwertung aller Werte: das ist meine Formel für einen Akt höchster Selbstbesinnung der Menschheit, der in mir Fleisch und Genie geworden ist.


(Transvaluation of all values: that is my formula for an act of highest self-awareness for Mankind, which has become flesh and genius in me.)


Ich bin bei weitem der furchtbarste Mensch, den es bisher gegeben hat; dies schliesst nicht aus, dass ich der wohlthätigste sein werde. Ich kenne die Lust am Vernichten in einem Grade, die meiner Kraft zum Vernichten gemäss ist,—in Beidem gehorche ich meiner dionysischen Natur, welche das Neinthun nicht vom Jasagen zu trennen weiss. 


(I am by far the most fearsome man who has ever existed; this does not exclude that I will be the most charitable. I know the desire to destroy to a degree which is quite suitable to my power to destroy - in both I obey my Dionysian nature, which cannot separate no-doing from yes-saying.)


Along with these and similar sayings, one also finds instruction on when and how strong one should take one's tea (coffee only darkens the mind), as well as assurances that all women love him...


This book left me saddened for many reasons, not least of which is the sight of a human being disappearing down a rat hole. Moreover, it reminds me that he never delivered on his dark promises, and the great transvaluation was never made. What seems to remain of Nietzsche's philosophical work, at least for me, is the criticism of mid-nineteenth century thought and life, of which a portion was a profound cynicism with respect to knowledge and values. Underneath that, however, there was a gaping nihilism, which, it appears to me, he tried to fill up with his visions/hallucinations. His overman, his Zarathustra, his transvaluation, his doctrine of eternal return are all emperors without clothes. Either they remained in his unpublished notes or were little more than announced with a trumpet fanfare without any real follow up. On the other hand, his critical works contain the seeds of much of 20th Century thought,(*) and as a prose stylist, and even, towards the end, as a poet, Nietzsche has few equals in the German language.


How can it be that everyone from the far right to the far left has found what they wanted to find in Nietzsche's writings? One reason, presumably, is that in the thousands of pages of notebooks, letters and books he produced, many "ideas" were tried out; he did not care the least about contradicting himself, even in print. For in its core, the part he really cared about, his thoughts/feelings were very consistent - "No" to present day society and thought; "Yes" to Nietzsche and his visions. So there is grist for almost every mill in his pages, even without the deliberate falsification of his views carried out by the Nazis with his sister's eager collaboration. 


Another reason is that his multifaceted criticism of mid 19th century German society could serve as a starting point for the revolutionaries, both on the left and the right, who wanted to replace it with their own dreams. After dissolving it in Nietzsche's acid, the way was clear for a new start... 


(*) However, as I have been learning through other readings of 19th century authors, many of the criticisms credited to Nietzsche were anticipated in print well before Nietzsche's books were written. More on this elsewhere.