A Rarely Realized Classroom Ideal

Last night, in my graduate seminar–which carries the snappy title ‘From Schopenhauer to Freud (Via Nietzsche): Depth Psychology and Philosophy‘–my students and I spent the entire two hours of our class meeting time reading and discussing Section 354 of Nietzsche‘s The Gay Science. We each had a copy of the section in front of us; I read its text out aloud in class, pausing to offer commentary and elucidation and inviting similar interjections from my students. In the closing half-hour or so of class time, we discussed a pair of written responses to the section 354. (My students write responses to the assigned reading every week; this week while the primary readings were all secondary sources on Nietzsche, I had asked my students to base their responses on the primary Nietzsche texts invoked in these sources.)

It is no secret. to me at least, that the class meeting I described above comes close to an imagined ideal for a philosophy class meeting: I assign a text to be read; my students do the reading and have intelligent responses to it; in class we ‘work through the text’ diligently and patiently, reading every single word carefully, bringing out the texts many meanings and allusions and implications. Rarely is such an ideal realized; that is precisely what makes its rare occurrences even more pleasurable. Once, over the course of a semester in an undergraduate Social Philosophy class, my students and I achieved this ideal repeatedly; the secrets of that ‘success,’ were that my reading assignments were short and my class included a few ‘bright lights’ who came to class prepared and ready to dig into the material with me.

The reasons why such a class meeting represents an ideal for this teacher of philosophy should be evident from my descriptions above. My students and I ‘encounter’ the text in the way its writer intended it to be: sympathetically. This does not mean eschewing criticism of the text, but rather, “by looking at reality in the light of what it is saying.” From a personal perspective, as I’ve noted here previously, my understanding of a philosophical text is considerably enriched by these discussions with my students. A good  discussion with my students always lets me know there is more going on in the text than I might have imagined.

Our task was made easier, of course, by the text and its writer. Nietzsche always repays close attention and his language is extraordinarily rich (and to think that we were reading him in translation!) As he almost always does, Nietzsche sends out a message to all future writers and philosophers: if you want to read be with such attention and care, you would do well to follow him–in your own way!–on his chosen path. Write clearly and joyfully, letting your readers know that your writing represents a genuine attempt on your part to work through the problem at hand–which should always, always be a problem for you too, and not an idle academic pursuit.



Oscar Wilde’s Nietzschean Notes In De Profundis

In ‘Suffering is One Very Long Moment‘–part of a series of essays on prison literature–Max Nelson writes on De Profundis–“a letter written by Oscar Wilde during his imprisonment in Reading Gaol, to “Bosie” (Lord Alfred Douglas)”–and makes note that:

Certain passages in De Profundis do seem to credit prison with strengthening and deepening their author’s nature, but only to the extent that, by subjecting him to intolerable, constant, and thoroughgoing misery, it gave him something against which to muster all his creative energies and all his verbal powers. “The important thing,” he writes himself telling Douglas at one of the letter’s turning points, “the thing that lies before me, the thing that I have to do, or be for the brief remainder of my days one maimed, marred and incomplete, is to absorb into my nature all that has been done to me, to make it part of me, to accept it without complaint, fear or reluctance.”

There are two Nietzschean notes at play here.

Nelson suggests that for Wilde, prison has become that form of adversity which enables a kind of ‘overcoming’; it is that zone, that space, within which Wilde is able to express himself through ‘his creative energies’ and ‘verbal powers,’ thus enhancing them, and thus too, enabling a kind of self-discovery or transformation on his part. It is within this space–with its provisions for ‘testing’ him–that Wilde might find out whether he is a ‘noble soul’ or a ‘slave.’ (This is a point made in many forms and locations in Nietzsche’s writings; in the The Gay Science for example, Nietzsche had made note of the relationship between pain and profundity, suggesting that ‘great pain…the ultimate liberator of spirit’ could make us ‘more profound.’)

The Wilde quote that Nelson points to seems to invoke Nietzsche’s ‘amor fati‘: Wilde is determined to integrate into himself his experiences, his fate and to not reject them; these experiences are part of his life, they are matters of record, they have left their imprint, one which must be reckoned with and incorporated into his life’s economy. To walk away from them, to fail to acknowledge them, is to merely initiate pathology: perhaps of repressed memories, sublimated into self-destructive behavior, perhaps of futile, life-wasting rage. We must accept all that is our lot, all that is a component of our lives; to do otherwise is to be inauthentic, to be unfaithful to oneself. Wilde must have been aware that anger and bitterness and resentment could continue to imprison him even after he had left Reading Gaol; the very thought of that continued incarceration of his mind, must have struck him as a terrifying burden for the creative person to carry; it would mean the end of his life, or at least, that component of which mattered to Wilde, its productive, artistic one. Perhaps it might also have occurred to Wilde, even as he wrote De Profundis, that his attempts to integrate his life’s experiences to his notion of himself had already proved creatively and artistically fruitful; after all, it was making him write about that attempt.


Nietzsche as Reservoir Dog With ‘Style’

A few months ago, an  ex-student of mine sent me the image–courtesy bros.failblog.org–above. It made him chuckle out loud; he was in a library when he came across it and decided to send it to me because he thought I would have a similar reaction. (This was shortly after I had announced that I would be teaching a Nietzsche seminar in the spring semester.) Well, it made me chuckle and chortle a bit. I sent it on to a couple of friends–yup, they chuckled too–, and went so far as to make it my GMail profile image.

But what is so funny here? The juvenile rhyming, the placement of the sunglasses on Nietzsche’s otherwise solemn visage, the color coding in black and white that evokes Tarantino-cool? Well, of course. And they work because in turning Nietzsche into a Reservoir Dog,  the image reinforces a well-established not-so-academic impression of Nietzsche that supposedly appeals to angsty undergraduates and teenagers everywhere: the ass-kicking, taking-no-prisoners polemicist, slashing and burning his way through the thickets of orthodoxy.  (This is the Nietzsche imagined walking into a Wild West saloon, and suggesting, not so gently, that everyone put down their rotgut whisky and pay attention to the Zarathustrian gunslinger now in town.) It might also be the Nietzsche that tries to emerge from Ecce Homo, letting everyone know what time it is, and why indeed, the clocks have been commanded to do so by him.

Let’s not forget too, that if you wanted to dig a bit deeper, you could associate ‘sunglasses’ with ‘style,’ and well, when you think of Nietzsche, don’t you remember all those times he went on–and on–about ‘style’?

From The Gay Science, Book IV, Section 290:

Giving style” to one’s character – a great and rare art! It is exercised by those who see all the strengths and weaknesses of their own natures and then comprehend them in an artistic plan until everything appears as art and reason and even weakness delights the eye.

Or, from Twilight of the Idols, “Reconnaissance Raids of an Untimely Man”, Section 11:

The highest feeling of power and sureness finds expression in a grand style. The power which no longer needs any proof, which spurns pleasing, which does not answer lightly, which feels no witness near, which lives oblivious of all opposition to it, which reposes within itself, fatalistically, a law among laws — that speaks of itself as a grand style.

Finally, it might also be that we associate Nietzsche with laughter, for he often makes us laugh out loud when we read him. Sometimes the laughter is provoked by his wordplay, his puns; sometimes it is evoked by the pleasure he provides us as he goes after those that deserve his scorn, far more skillfully than we can imagine ourselves ever being able to. Nietzsche knows he can be a joker and a jester; in dressing him up as he has been above, we are reminded of that aspect of his persona. There was plenty of grimness in Nietzsche’s life, but his writing, at least, often tried its best to keep that at bay.