H.L. Mencken

Baltimore Evening Sun/November 3, 1910

Pioneer Treatises

 The Nietzscheans are hard at it. Five years ago not more than half a dozen of the mad philosopher’s books had been clawed out of the original German, and the literature of comment and interpretation, in English, was confined to Grace Neal Dolson’s little doctor’s thesis and an unsatisfactory volume of extracts translated and edited by Thomas Common. The student who couldn’t manage German had a hard time getting at the substance of the Nietzschean creed. Miss Dolson was super-scholastic, Common was vague, the translations were clumsy and full of gaps, and the stray magazine articles of the time were chiefly written by fools who sought to denounce and dispose of Nietzsche without first understanding him.

Not so today. No philosopher, ancient or modern, is being written about more copiously. A flourishing Nietzsche cult has sprung up in England, and its high priests are producing handbooks and commentaries at a quite dizzy rate. Better still, the complete text of the philosopher’s works is being done into English by translators who understand both German and English—an infrequent combination—and under the editorship of men who understand Nietzsche. An Edinburgh publisher named T. N. Foulis has this enterprise under way and already about a dozen volumes have been issued. The general editor is Dr. Oscar Levy, and among those who are giving aid are A. M. Ludovici, Thomas Common and J. M. Kennedy.

Of all the Nietzscheans of the moment Ludovici seems to be the most industrious and enthusiastic. He is helping, as has been said, with the Foulis translation, and in addition he is lecturing whenever he can get an audience and writing books and articles in great number. His latest work is a contribution to the Dodge Publishing Company’s excellent series of handbooks, “Philosophies: Ancient and Modern.” The merits of this series are well known. Each volume is written by an expert, each includes a workable bibliography and all are printed and bound admirably and published at an absurdly low price. Of special interest are the volumes on scholasticism by Father Rickaby, S. J.; on stoicism, by Prof. St. George Stock; and on Hobbes, by Prof. A. E. Taylor.

An Excellent Little Book

Mr. Ludovici’s “Nietzsche” makes a little book of 100 pages divided into five chapters. The first recites briefly the facts of Nietzsche’s life, the second details the route whereby he arrived at his theory of morals, the third sets forth his objections to Christianity, the fourth describes the Dionysian morality and the fifth details Nietzsche’s social theories. Then comes a brief consideration of the philosopher’s present influence, and after that a useful though incomplete bibliography.

Mr. Ludovici’s chief defect as an interpreter of Nietzsche is his intense earnestness. He has abundant knowledge, but he lacks discrimination. He is, in brief, too faithful a disciple to shine as a critic. He believes in all of the Nietzschean doctrines and seems to be firmly convinced that they will one day prevail in the world. Dr. Oscar Levy is less hopeful. He contributes a brief preface to Mr. Ludovici’s book, and in it he makes the frank confession that he looks for no general adoption of the Nietzschean creed, even in the remote future. Democracy and Christianity, he says, are too strong to be overthrown. And then, growing melancholy, he quotes Alfred de Vigny, thus:

Alas, it is thou, Democracy, that art the desert. It is thou who hast shrouded and bleached everything beneath thy monticles of sand! Thy tedious flatness has covered everything and leveled all! Forever and ever the valley and the hill supplant each other; and only from time to time a man of courage is seen; he rises like a sand-whirl, makes his 10 paces toward the sun and then falls like powder to the ground. And then nothing more is seen save the eternal plain of endless sand.

Goethe and Hebbel, Stendhal and Heine, De Vigny and Nietzsche—all made their 10 paces toward the sun and “all are now sleeping peacefully beneath the dry sands of Christian democracy.” The thought saddens the good Dr. Levy and he recalls a visit he once made to Nietzsche’s house at Weimar. It was after the philosopher’s death and Dr. Levy sought audience with his sister, Frau Foerster-Nietszche. Sitting in the drawing room awaiting her coming, his eye was arrested by “a powerful letter N. Which the ingenious builder had engraved profusely upon the panels of the room.” And then—

The N reminded me of another big N. connected with another big name—the N which used to be engraved, together with the imperial crown and eagle, upon the plate and regalia of Napoleon Bonaparte. There was another victim of democracy—the man who, elevated by its revolutionary wave, tried to stifle and subdue the anarchical flood and was swallowed up as ignominiously as its other implacable opponent, the plucky parson’s son of the vicarage of Roecken.

Sad! Sad! But worse thoughts followed. To wit:

I saw in that moment, as though lit up by a flashlight, the fate of Europe clearly before my eyes. A fate—an iron fate. A fate unavoidable for a continent that will have no more guides, no more great men. A fate unavoidable for an age that spills its best blood with the carelessness of ignorance. A fate unavoidable for a people that is driven by its very religion to disobedience and anarchy. And I thought of my own race, which has seen so many fates, so many ages, so many empires decline—and there was I, the eternal Jew, witnessing another catastrophe.

Nietzsche’s Teachings

Poor Dr. Levy is just a bit too sad. The facts do not quite justify his tears. True enough, the peoples of civilization have not yet abandoned democracy for Nietzschism, and perhaps they never will, but all the same the spears of the mad German have left wounds. His writings will forever stand as a counterblast to that childish sentimentality, that pathos, that emotional denial of reality which marks democracy at its worst. If he has done nothing else, he has at least offered us convincing proof, in terms comprehensible to every man, that there is nothing essentially honorable about being meek and mean and dependent and useless, and nothing essentially disgraceful about being strong and brave and efficient and clean.

Nietzsche: His Life and Work, by Anthony M. Ludovici (cloth, 102 pp., 50 cents.) Published by the Dodge Publishing Company, New York. (Eichelberger.)

(Source: University of North Texas, Microfilm Collection)

The works of H.L. Mencken and other American journalists are now freely available at The Archive of American Journalism.