One of my course right now is on Theodor Adorno, and my professor assigned both texts by Adorno and the philosophical grounding on which they were written. Last week we read the first chapter of Dialectic of Enlightenment, preceded by Kant’s “An Answer to the Question: What is Enlightenment?” and Marcel Mauss’s A General Theory of Magic. This was an incredibly useful exercise, as without it reading Adorno often feels like hearing one-half of a conversation in a different language. At least now, only translation is required.
This week he assigned the first Excursis of Dialectic preceded by the preface and first essay of Nietzsche’s On the Genealogy of Morals.
Academic reading is often laborious, but Nietzsche is not that. He writes in aphorism and polemic (two words I did not know the definition of until very recently) and will switch between highly scholarly etymological examination and seemingly spiteful anger. There are sections in the first essay that read like contemporary SJW etymological arguments. He approaches the genealogy of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ from the point of language, identifying that words associated with nobility and high class are always etymologically related to the words for ‘good’ while those words associated with the common folk or lower classes are always linked to ‘bad.’
As someone who has written extensively about political correctness and language like the ‘man-bun,’ this was FASCINATING. He was using an approach that I had always felt drawn towards to make a similar argument that which I was making, or so I thought.
I think there’s something odd about translated texts. My favourite example is the word ‘consequence.’ In French that word carries no moral connotation. In English it is a term referring to the bad results of an action. The connotation changes, and so does the meaning if one is not careful.
Reading Nietzsche’s etymology of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ felt like the preface to saying this etymology created meanings that were unfounded in an objective moral position. But then in the seventh section he says the following,
“All that has been done on earth against “the noble’ “the powerful,” “the masters,” “the rulers:’ fades into nothing compared with what the Jews have done against them; the Jews, that priestly people, who in opposing their enemies and conquerors were ultimately satisfied with nothing less than a radical revaluation of their enemies’ values, that is to say, an act of the most spiritual revenge.”
Here, just as the earlier sections seemed to have a clear moral connotation, only it seems reversed and undeniably anti-semitic. He continues on about Christianity and the “slave morality”
“And could spiritual subtlety imagine any more dangerou~ bait than this? Anything to equal the enticing, intoxicating, overwhelming and undermining power of that symbol of the “holy cross,” that ghastly paradox of a “God on the cross,” that mystery of an unimaginable ultimate cruelty and self-crucifixion of God for the salvation of
Reading this felt wrong, and yet his language (or at least the translation of his language) is so crisp and clear, so polemical and angry, that it’s hard not to want to read more. And that aesthetic impulse is further driven by an ethical one: how could someone so obviously brilliant write such awful things? I had a responsibility to continue reading, not just to fulfill the requirements set by my professor, but because there had to be something more.
Strangely enough, in a footnote I found exactly the trail I was looking for.
“Having said things that can easily be misconstrued as grist to the mill of the German anti·Semites, Nietzsche goes out of his way, as usual, to express his admiration for the Jews and his disdain for the Germans.”
I don’t read every footnote in a text because, for the most part, the elaboration is just that. Here though, the editor is pointing something out that seems essential to reading the text. Nietzsche’s language is not clear, at least not its moral connotations (a hilarious point given the subject matter). And if one is to fall in love with work of this magnitude, it will require more effort to do so. So I went back through the earlier footnotes and found this:
“No other German writer of comparable stature has been a more extreme critic of German nationalism than Nietzsche.”
Nietzsche knew of anti-Semitism and of nationalism and wrote in this way anyways. Why? That’s what I want to know.
So I went to a bookstore today and bought this book (I had previously read from an excerpt) and Beyond Good and Evil as well as two essays of Schopenhauer and the Confessions of Augustine. Grad school is getting me to read more, read more deeply, fall in love with authors who died long ago even when I disagree with them vehemently. That’s the moment I knew I was in the right place.