Monday, August 10, 2009

More on the disputed Nietzsche

I hungrily devoured my Nietzsche - My Sister and I: A Critical Study, the 2007 work by Walter Stewart that makes a case for the apocrypha Nietzsche work My Sister and I, long taken to be a forgery, as a potentially legitimate work. I have to say that I am impressed. Stewart's work is not without a few minor points of contention, but on the whole he makes an excellent case for a re-examination of the work. While I am still apt to lean towards a vote for its illegitimacy, I am in complete agreement with Stewart that a true, thorough examination of the nuts and bolts of the text has never been undertaken, and that such a project should be begun immediately for the sake of the revelations it will inevitably unveil.

Consult my post from a few days ago for the back story if you're presently in need of it; otherwise, we can move on to Stewart's many arguments. I couldn't hope to make the case any better than he - rather I want to summarize what struck me as the argument's strengths and point out a few possible objections.

Stewart begins by making the excellent point that Nietzsche's condition between late January 1889-March 1890, or the time between confinement to the mental facility in Jena following his mental breakdown and eventual release, is criminally misunderstood and misrepresented. Kaufmann, for one, seems stubbornly insistent that Nietzsche remained all but utterly incoherent during this timeframe and while Stewart doesn't deny Nietzsche's clear dementia during much of this time, he wants to emphasize the extended period of lucidity that Nietzsche expressed that most of his biographers, particularly Kaufmann, ignored and/or denied. That Peter Gast believed for a time that Nietzsche was faking his insanity is significant, (and is an under-documented fact that is represented in the text of My Sister and I that adds to the case for the book's validity.) Kaufmann's position as the authoritative and definitive voice in Nietzsche scholarship should here be questioned. Stewart does a decent job of addressing some of Kaufmann's specific claims against My Sister and I's legitimacy, such as the Detroit problem being related to Nietzsche's excitement at his growing audience in America and his documented passing knowledge in unknown cities like Baltimore (thus implying that Nietzsche could have easily had Detroit on the brain - not a case-closer, but not a bad point, and one that I will further expand upon in consideration of the author of the work's overall success at capturing biographical minutia.) Other cursory textual issues are relatively well-addressed by Stewart, from quite convincingly to semi-spuriously. Stewart also points out that while Roth is of quite dubious literary distinction, he was not actually a forger of any literary works, merely a copyright infringer and peddler of pornography. As for Levy's daughter's denial of her father's involvement in the translation, Stewart points out that the text would have been controversial and spelt the possibility of jail time for parties involved and thus did not relate information about the work to his daughter or wife, both of whom were generally involved in his career from office work to more technical academia. Again, not really a conclusive argument, but one solid enough to proceed with our examination.

One promise I'd heard that excited me about Stewart's study prior to reading it was the claim that letters and journals discovered post-1951 had been found that definitively struck a connection between Nietzsche and the authorship of My Sister and I based on themes touched upon only in these two sources and nowhere else in the Nietzsche canon. This promise was not quite delivered - rather, in the material that Stewart presents we have some highly suggestive and strong connections that remain only circumstantial, albeit tantalizingly so. Three examples that I found particularly strong: 1.) A reference to the nobility of Egyptian brother-sister incest as preserving the strong was found in a stricken section of Ecce Homo. References to Nietzsche and Elisabeth's incest, of course, abound in My Sister and I and are frequently coupled with references to the Egyptians. Who do you think struck that section from Ecce Homo? You guessed it, Nietzsche's literary butcher, Elisabeth Foerster-Nietzsche. 2.) My Sister and I's puzzling reference to Bakunin, a figure that appears nowhere in any of Nietzsche's writing that I was aware of (and Stewart confirmed this), was validated by an obscure section of Cosima Wagner's diary, which mentioned Nietzsche's exposure to and opinions on Bakunin. 3.) The consistent misspelling of Julius Langbehn as Julius Langbein. The name of this figure who appeared well into Nietzsche's period of illness to attempt to cure him never appears misspelled in any Nietzsche biography, but the ambiguity of the German pronunciation and spelling would lead someone who had never seen the name in print but heard it spoken - as would be the case with Nietzsche himself but not someone researching his later years - to be as apt to spell it the latter (incorrect) way as the former (correct).

Stewart has half a dozen or so similar points in which Nietzsche's obscure, un-translated or completely unknown tastes, conditions, and thoughts are recreated faithfully in My Sister and I. This, of course, raises the natural question (which was briefly addressed previously in connection to Detroit) - if the author is doing such an impeccable job representing the obscurities of Nietzsche's thoughts, why is he butchering simple details like the year of his sister's return to Germany from Paraguay, Nietzsche's age at the time, and the state of American cities at the time of the book's composition - details that led scholars like Kaufmann to give the book a quick dismissal? Well, maybe the author is a demented, incarcerated intellectual!

Or maybe not. I only have a few lingering concerns that Stewart did not address, but they seem significant. First, why did the publishing company lie about the number of editions the work received? My copy claims to have been published in 1955 (four years after the book's appearance) and to be on the 13th edition. This simply cannot be factual, as the book was invalidated in 1953 by Kaufmann and essentially relegated to the realm of pulp-schlock distribution thereafter. To me, the fact that the publishing company was clearly lying about their success in distributing the book was an instant red flag - that is a sure sign that the publishers were involved in a conscious hoax, giving the book excess printing statistics to manufacture its undeserved legitimacy which once refuted would strike a serious blow against its overall validity. One possible way of addressing this may be in the publishing company itself - it seems that Roth's original company, Seven Sirens, was behind the initial printings of the book, but my copy is alternately ascribed to Boar's Head Books and Bridgehead Books, which means that mine might have come from a second party intent only on deceiving and profiting. Roth clearly had issues with scruples when it came to publishing, so it is natural to assume that he would stoop to such measures simply out of habit. But if he truly believed that he had the unpublished, undocumented final Nietzsche work in his hands to treat as he saw fit, why would he revert to deception here? The fishiness abounds.

My second major objection returns to the text. My initial reading of the book was clouded by my suspicions and biases against it, as I read all but the introduction and first 30 pages with the knowledge that it had been rejected by nearly all Nietzsche scholars, and thus I was apt to find fault with the text. Nonetheless, I cannot shake the nagging feeling that the philosophical elements within the text seem amateurish. Stewart feels that the author of My Sister and I perfectly captured Nietzsche's tastes in philology, music, politics, etc., and while I am not enough of an expert on any of these subjects to have an opinion, my sophomoric understanding of philosophy leads me to be skeptical that this could be true of Nietzsche's philosophical musings. His voice in his canonical works is true dynamite, synthesizing and cross-referencing concepts throughout the history of philosophy, refuting and reworking them prior to even thoroughly signifying them. Many of the points in My Sister and I ("If Plato is right and my mind will live forever...", "We are all crucified on the cross of reason...") simply sound ill-formed, uninformed and uninspired. Stewart would point out that my opinion here is subjective (and he would be right), and that Nietzsche was indeed demented during the period that this would have been written (right again), but I cannot shake the feeling that the supposed Nietzsche's philosophical muscle is so far depleted that, dementia or not, it has arrived at the point of sounding illegitimate.

However, I am by no means claiming to be any kind of Nietzsche expert with any hope to crack this case through my own analytic prowess, merely a humble Nietzsche novice who finds himself quite taken by this mystery and is seeking personal resolution through the means available. As such, I plan on re-reading My Sister and I with much more care than I gave my first read, trying to consider the content from a more open-minded stance (and with a better understanding of his condition and chronology in Jena along with a refreshed sense of his late biographical details) to reach a more informed opinion. The text seemed so overwhelmingly pulp to me in my first read that I simply refused to consider the possibility of its legitimacy. Will a second read change that? Keep your browser tuned to this blog and in coming days to find out!

No comments:

Post a Comment