The Prophet of the Superman

H.L. Mencken

The Smart Set/March, 1912

THE newspaper editorial writers still turn the name of Freidrich Wilhelm Nietzsche into “Nietzse,” “Nietsche” and “Neitzche,” and the pale parsons who arise in suburban pulpits to argue for his damnation still call him “Nishy,” “Nitsky” and “Neatsky;” but all the same he seems to be making a certain progress, even in those dull and cabbagy streets of the world wherein English, in some form or other, is the prevailing cackle. Thus the mere report of seeming. Behold now the evidence: eighteen thick volumes of an Englished Nietzsche—say some five thousand pages duodecimo—a complete version, by a corps of twenty or more bilingual volunteers and with Dr. Oscar Levy at the editorial desk, of all the wild German’s books and pamphlets, pasticcios and fragments, broadsides and dithyrambs—a whole library of Nietzscheism (Foulis).

Publishers, you may be sure, do not venture upon such libraries unless there is a public waiting to buy, or at least willing to sniff the goods. Fifteen years ago, when Nietzsche still lay dying at Weimar, the enterprise would have brought up the commercial coroner at a gallop. There was at that time not a single whole book of his in English; a few stray selections, not too well chosen or too clearly interpreted, had to content the investigator who shrank from German verbs. But when, at the beginning of the new century, death released the philosopher from his ten years of darkness, some echo of the noise his ideas were making in Germany began to reach us. Theodore Roosevelt was one who heard—the leit-motif of “Also Sprach Zarathustra” reappeared as the fanfare in “The Strenuous Life.” And in Eng land, George Bernard Shaw and others took up the tune; it was transposed into softer keys, syncopated, developed by diminution and inversion, commingled in timid counterpoint with gentler themes, now and then bawled brazenly.

A demand arose slowly for more. Dr. Grace Neal Dolson, going up for a Cornell doctorate in philosophy, wrote her pioneer handbook, describing for students the Nietzschean ethics, the Nietzschean esthetic, the superman. The Macmillans announced an English Nietzsche in eleven volumes, and actually published five. I myself, rushing in where angels feared to tread, concocted a Nietzschean Gemara in the vulgate—the hot labor of a hotter summer, the butt of many a slashing review. More learned fellows followed: Mtigge, Ludovici, Kennedy and others. Nietzschean commentaries were clawed out of German and French; the quarterlies began to discuss “Der Antichrist;” Shaw wrote “Man and Superman;” the orchestras played Richard Strauss’s “Zarathustra;” the custom of alluding darkly to “Nietzse,” “Nietsche” and “Neitzsche” was inaugurated by the newspapers; finally T. M. Foulis, the Scotch publisher, announced a complete Nietzsche in eighteen volumes. Well, here it is after many days, the last five volumes coming together. The Nietzsche shelf, once so small, is now full five feet long. The prophet of the superman has ceased to be a mere projection upon the clouds, a half-fabulous hobgoblin. People begin to read him, and even, perhaps, to understand him, for all his unprofessorial (and hence mystifying) clarity.

“Ich bin noch nicht an der Zeit. Einige werden fosthum geboren”—“I have not yet come to my time; some men are born posthumously.” So said Nietzsche in his last book, the astounding “Ecce Homo.” That was written in 1888. An accurate self-judgment then; and despite the hearing he is now getting and the sudden rooting of his ideas here and there, a judgment he might reaffirm were he still alive today. The time for him is not yet, nor will it be tomorrow or the next day. The races of Christendom still flirt with the theory of equality. The sponge of democracy is not yet squeezed dry. And so we are not ready for Nietzsche’s doctrine of essential inequality, with its scale of natural castes and its plea for an aristocracy uncompromising and unashamed. Folk still gabble about brotherhood and the duty of the strong to give of their strength to the weak, and so the law of the survival of the fittest, for all Nietzsche’s eloquence, is forbidden the house, though made welcome in the stable. Our “good” is still “meek;” our “bad” is still “ruthless.” However much our practical acts may war upon these definitions, we still give lip service to them. And not only lip service, but also genuine assent and reverence, for every time we violate them there lingers in us some sense of wrongdoing—some feeling that our instinctive desire to get on in the world, to win advantage over the other fellow, to grab and hold the thing desirable and valuable, has led us into proceedings not altogether creditable. The man who lacks that feeling—for example, the stray Bonaparte, or Byron, or Jay Gould—takes on a sinister aspect. We may admire him and envy him, and even admit it under cross-examination, but we never wholly approve of him. Our taste among conquerors is for the conqueror who first conquers and then melts—Carnegie pensioning doddering Latinists, Grant giving his prisoners their horses, the mortgage shark on the mourner’s bench. The cult of self-sacrifice, of abasement, still holds us fast.

Well, it was Nietzsche’s business in the world to attack that cult, to pry into its uncelestial lineage, to expose its weaknesses, to point out its dangers, to protest against its effects. What he proposed, in brief, was a transvaluation of moral values—an exchange of definitions between “good” and “bad.” “What is good?” he asked, and then he answered boldly: “All that increases the feeling of power, the will to power, power itself in man.” And bad? “All that proceeds from weakness.” True happiness, he argued, was not the child of self-sacrifice, but of victory—“of the feeling that power increases, that resistance is being overcome.” His ideal was not contentment, but fresh conquest; not peace as an end in itself, but successful war; not virtue in the ordinary Christian sense, but efficiency. The law of natural selection, for all his denials of Darwin, was his one supreme mandate and revelation. “The weak and the botched,” he roared, “must perish; that is the first principle of our humanity. And they should be helped to perish.”

Out of this fundamental concept grew the whole of his philosophical system, with his dream of the superman as its final flower. “Man,” he said, “is not a goal, but a bridge. Man is something to be surpassed. What the ape is to man, that man must be to the superman.” But what was this superman that he saw in the distance? Merely man raised to perfect efficiency, to perfect accord with his environment—man completely in control of the natural and social forces making for his destruction—man absolutely healthy, absolutely unfettered, absolutely undeluded, absolutely immoral. Literalists have denounced Nietzsche savagely for this dream of his; many sheets of white paper have been spoiled in demonstrating its essential fantasy, its impossibility of realization. But there is no reason whatever to believe that Nietzsche himself took it so seriously. Certainly he had no hope that it would condense into fact any faster than the anthropoid ancestors of the cave man developed into Shakespeares and Huxleys. All that he sought to do was to set before man a new ideal—an ideal as remote and impalpable, perhaps, as the Christian ideal of a race without thought of self, but still an ideal in measurably closer agreement with the facts of life. His plea was ever for a square facing of reality. He was the sworn foe of all systems in opposition to those natural laws which control man in his myriad activities as firmly as they control the protozoa in the sea ooze. As he was himself fond of saying, he was a ja-sager—a yes-sayer.

No doubt this brief glance at Nietzscheism has brought several objections to your tongue. If it be true, as Nietzsche argued, that the ideal of self-sacrifice is fallacious and dangerous, that it goes counter to natural laws and makes for decadence, then how is it that it remains in such high esteem among the most alert and observant races of the world today? And how is it that these races, in the face of its evil influence, yet survive in full vigor and bid fair to survive for ages to come? Such questionings are inevitable—but rest assured that Nietzsche was not without answers to them. You will find those answers in all the volumes of his philosophical canon—answers developed at great length and meeting all imaginable objections. My advice to you, if you desire to make acquaintance with them and with the ideas accompanying them, is that you first clear the way to understanding by reading one or other of the half-dozen handbooks now available—books which afford a clear birds-eye view of the whole Nietzschean system. Then tackle “The Dawn of Day,” in the new and excellent translation of J. M. Kennedy; then go to “Human All Too Human;” and then, in order, read “ The Genealogy of Morals,” “Beyond Good and Evil” and “The Joyful Science.” After that you will be ready for “The Antichrist,” which is a small pamphlet of one hundred pages or so, and is printed, in the new edition, as the second part of the volume entitled “The Twilight of the Idols.” Then will come “Thus Spake Zarathustra,” Nietzsche’s magnum opus and one of the most astounding works of our time—a book of dazzling brilliancy, alive with ideas, the Bible of the Nietzscheans. But to understand it you must have the other books behind you. Plunging into it as a novelty, you will infallibly find it incomprehensible.

The other books of Nietzsche are much less important than those I have named. His early essays on Greek philosophy and esthetics, for instance, are of interest only to the specialist in those sciences, and need not detain the general reader. So, too, the pamphlets aimed at Richard Wagner, Arthur Schopenhauer, David Strauss and others. The Nietzsche-Wagner controversy was one of the famous feuds of the seventies and eighties, albeit Nietzsche did all the fighting. For long the intimate of Wagner and Frau Cosima and an ardent propagandist for the new music, he was alienated by “Parsifal,” which he regarded as a weak and hypocritical concession to Christian mysticism, and so his appalling powers of invective were turned against the composer. When Nietzsche took the floor to denounce, it was time to send for ambulances. No man of his time, certainly no German, matched him at that black art. He devised epithets which cut like knives; his wit was of almost cannibalistic cruelty; his one aim was to flabbergast and destroy his antagonist, regardless of the means. Blasphemies, libels, bad puns, indecencies, gross personal accusations, quotations out of ten languages, elaborately artificial and offensive nicknames—all these weapons were in his arsenal. But all that fuming and fury belongs to the dead past. Wagner lives and Nietzsche lives. Neither carried any very serious wounds from the encounter. Nietzsche himself, indeed, survived to regret his extravagance, if not to retreat from his position. His old affection for Wagner returned. “Den habe ich sehr geliebt,” he said, almost with his last breath: “He was one I loved a lot.” And in his last book, “Ecce Homo,” he even ventured upon unblushing praise of Frau Cosima!

More salty, revolutionary fellows—Goethe, Poe, George Bernard Shaw, George Moore. The Moore book is called “Ave” and is the first volume of an autobiographical trilogy to be called “Hail and Farewell” (Appleton). In a prefatory note signed by the publishers, but undoubtedly written by Moore himself, he protests that it is not autobiography at all, but “a certain amount of material modeled as in a novel.” Well, let him have his quibble; what are the odds? The simple fact is that the book is devoted, in the main, to Moore’s relations with William Butler Yeats, Edward Martyn and Lady Augusta Gregory, and so tells the story of the origin and rise of the New Irish Theater Movement. It is rambling, it is whimsical, it is moody, but it is also extremely frank; and out of that frankness grows an irresistible charm. One hobnobs here at close quarters with people of the first consideration—Yeats the true genius, Martyn the false genius and Lady Gregory the foster mother of genius. Moore not only describes them painstakingly, from their articles of faith to their warts, but also explains them, interprets them, estimates them. Altogether, a book you are certain to enjoy—for both its matter and its manner if you are interested in the Neo-Celts, but at all events for its manner. Moore has an extraordinarily limpid, liquid style. His words purl and caress. There is not a misplaced accent from end to end of him.

The Goethe book is “Goethe and His Woman Friends,” by Mary Caroline Crawford (Little-Brown), a well written and amiable attempt to bowdlerize the great German. One by one his love affairs are rehearsed, and it is proved by ample evidence that he proceeded in this one no further than stately bows and in that one no further than a discreet kiss. Not often, we are assured, did he sin the sin. It may be so, but I, for one, cannot profess to be glad to hear it. It is harrowing, indeed, to think of the author of “Faust” as a highly respectable man, or even as a temporarily respectable man. We expect of genius a greater valor and a greater originality. Arthur Ransome essays no such disconcerting purging in his “Edgar Allan Poe” (Kennerley), a most intelligent study of that fantastic fellow and his works. Mr. Ransome sees Poe clearly—his theatrical posturing as well as his solid achievement, his word madness as well as his word magic, his underestimated virtues as a critic as well as his overestimated virtues as a poet. It is a book marked by unusual sanity and courage of judgment —a book which may well serve as antidote to those absurd Poe rhapsodies which pass for critical estimates in this uncritical land.

Of Archibald Henderson’s “George Bernard Shaw” (Stewart-Kidd) I can tell you less than I’d like to tell you, for after taking in such vast agglomerations of fact and fancy the mind grows be numbed and confused. The book is a quarto weighing two pounds and a half; and must contain fully 200,000 words. In addition, there are numerous portraits of Shaw, including two in color and two in photogravure, several facsimiles of his manuscript, reproductions of Shaw playbills in English, German, French and Swedish, and an impressive genealogical chart of the Shaw family, whereby it appears that the author of “Man and Superman” is a direct descendant of one Shaw, who flourished so long ago as 1690, and the seventh cousin of Sir Robert Shaw, Bart., of Bushy Park, Dublin. Dr. Henderson, in brief, has here exhausted Shaw completely. He tells us, with enormous detail, the story of Shaw’s early Dublin days, of his invasion of London, of his carttail bawling of Socialistic nebulosities, of his critical labors in the fields of music and the drama, of his introduction to playwriting, of his rise to opulence and fame. We are made privy to Shaw’s inmost thoughts upon all subjects under the sun; we see Shaw in all the relations of existence; we peep into his home; we meet his friends; we plow through every one of his books from end to end. It is a Shaw encyclopedia, a Shaw Talmud, a Shaviad. And for all its bulk and beam, its pontifical tone, its deadly seriousness, it is still a book of interest and value. I, for one, have read every line of it, and with constant edification.

Spring is just around the corner—and here are its literary harbingers: books of travel. If I must make a choice among them, then let it be “The Germans,” by I. A. R. Wylie (Bobbs-Merrill), a delightful series of chapters upon the people and institutions of the empire, with sympathy and understanding in every line. Miss Wylie’s German home is in Karlsruhe, the capital of placid little Baden, and so it is of the South German, that ovoid and merry fellow, that she chiefly discourses; but there are full length portraits, too, of the stiffer and more elegant Prussian, with his high collars and his truculent mustachios, and you will like both of them the better for seeing them so closely. We Americans make a lot of mistakes about the Germans. We judge them on the one hand by Weber and Fields, and on the other hand by English caricatures of the Kaiser. We wobble between the impression that they are beer-soaked boors, all paunch and thumbs, and the impression that they are cocky strutters, with chips eternally upon their epaulets. The real German, the normal German, is neither the one thing nor the other, nor does he partake in the slightest of the qualities of either. The qualities which actually do stick out of him are efficiency and good temper. His day’s work, whatever it be, whether drilling a regiment or salting a herring or excising a tonsil or composing a fugue, is done with honest industry and superlative skill. He thinks it worthwhile to learn his trade; he is not ashamed to be a workman, so long as he is a good workman. And when he has earned his day’s wages and the time comes to turn them into joy, he is the jolliest companion in the world—a true playboy, a fellow of genuine charm. There is one German word, gemuthlichkeit, which stands for his ideal and tells his story, and significantly enough, it is untranslatable into any other language. It means, in the first place, comfort, ease, peace, divertissement, good eating, good drinking, a warm fire, an untroubled mind; but it also means politeness, urbanity, hospitality, friendliness, sociability, toleration, general good humor. In brief, the concept behind it is essentially a social one. The German, when he sets out to have a pleasant time, infallibly takes his family or his friends along.

And that pleasant time of his is commonly without any touch of grossness. He may drink enough beer to send an American down for the count of ten, but you may be sure that he will carry his cargo safely home, his wife under his arm, and without stopping to fight the polizei on the way. He gets a certain intellectual quality into his amusements. He likes the drama of ideas. His card games depend upon skill more than upon luck. He demands that his comic papers employ draftsmen who really know how to draw and wits who are really witty. His attitude toward music is not that of a dancing bear but that of a civilized white man. He knows the good from the bad, and he prefers the good. Which awakens, by the way, a memory. I sat one day in the dining room of a commercial hotel in Leipzig, eating dinner at the long table with twenty or thirty drummers. You know, of course, what such a crowd of American drummers would have talked about: sales, hotels, railroads, baseball, poker, women. But not these Germans. They talked about a Beethoven sonata! Imagine it—twenty or thirty drummers talking about a Beethoven sonata! The hotelkeeper (he sat at the head of the table) was a pianist of sorts; I heard him practicing upstairs later in the day. Well, he and his guests found stuff for half an hour’s disputation in the “Pathetique in C Minor”—how it should be played, what public performer played it best. Finally, just before I bowed myself out, an oldish fellow beside me referred to it as Opus 22. “Pardon me,” said Herr Wirt, “but you must mean Opus 13.” “Thirteen is right,” said four or five voices. I dropped into a music store on my way down the street. Thirteen was right.

It is the German in this aspect—his true, if unfamiliar aspect—that Miss Wylie draws for us. She is not blind to his weaknesses and follies—for example, his sentimentality, his curious reverence for authority, his touch of pedantry—but she shows that qualities of genuine worth lurk behind them. Such a book, I believe, is of decided value to the world, for its effect is to break down, in the minds of those who read it, the absurd prejudices which separate race from race and make for dislike and misunderstanding. The trouble with the average American is that he is densely ignorant of other peoples, even those who have immigrated to his shores, and that his ignorance commonly reveals itself as contempt. He believes that all Italians are Black Hand men, that all Spaniards smell of garlic and wear rings in their ears, that all Greeks are bootblacks, that all Frenchmen wear corsets, swill absinthe and seduce their neighbors’ wives, that all Norwegians are brothers to Peer Gynt, that all Swedish women are servant girls, that all Englishmen are surly and red-faced and incessantly remark “Haw, haw!” and that all Germans drink beer steadily from dawn to dark, eat abominable dishes, yodel all day Sunday and condemn their wives to the washtub. It is his comforting theory, to paraphrase George Bernard Shaw, that because he was born in Youngstown, Ohio, he is a better man than Wagner or Moliere, Ibsen or Huxley, Michelangelo or Lope de Vega. Well, let him read fewer newspapers and more books, and so find out his error. Let him, as a beginning, read this book of Miss Wylie’s. It is addressed to English readers especially, but there is profit in it for the American, too. An excellent volume, well intended and well done.

“Plain Towns of Italy,” by Egerton R. Williams, Jr. (Houghton-Mifflin), is a companion volume to the author’s “Hill Towns of Italy,” published eight years ago. Mr. Williams’s itinerary covers the whole of Venetia, from Cividale in the far northeast to the Lombard border and beyond. A painstaking, a clearly written, but a somewhat ponderous account of towns and palaces, sculptures and pictures—the fruit of hard delving, of a true passion for the glories and beauties of other days. Lighter stuff is “In Chateau Land,” by Anne Hollingsworth Wharton (Lippincott), a sketchy record of a swing round a familiar circle. Here and in Mr. Williams’s book there are many excellent pictures. A curious journey is that described by Mrs. Harriet White Fisher in “A Woman’s World Tour in a Motor” (Lippincott). Mrs. Fisher, it appears, runs an anvil and vise factory at Trenton, N. J., and is a lady of considerable enterprise and force of character. With a chauffeur, a man servant and an Italian maid, not to forget her automobile and a Boston bull terrier, she set out from New York in July, 1909. A dash through France, Switzerland and Italy, then India and Japan, then Hawaii, then from San Francisco home—ten thousand miles or more on the open road. Entertained by the Mahareene of Gwalior, the Maharaja of Benares, the Gaekwar of Baroda, Princess Ito and other such Oriental magnificoes, Mrs. Fisher encountered no affront until she reached Sandusky, Ohio, on the last lap of her long trip. There she was arrested for speeding by a certain Mr. Ketchum, apparently a constable of that fair city. Enraged by this action, she publicly denounced Mr. Ketchum, expressing the hope that he would someday tumble from his motorcycle and “be laid up long enough to give you time to consider what an outrage you have done to me.” Laugh at spells and curses if you will, Mr. Ketchum, in future, will certainly not; for shortly afterward he duly tumbled from his motorcycle and broke his leg, and now Mrs. Fisher hears that the foot attached to it will have to be cut off! Harry A. Franck has no such occult wonders to tell, though his “Four Months Afoot in Spain” (Century), like his “A Vagabond Journey Around the World,” is full of delightful adventure. The total cost of Mr. Franck’s pilgrimage was one hundred and seventy-two dollars. He arrived home with a balance of six cents in his pocket. Meanwhile he rubbed shoulders with the dons in their very homes and saw a lot of things that even automobilists miss. Finally comes “The Log of the Easy Way.” by John L. Mathews (Small-Maynard), the chronicle of a honeymoon journey down the Mississippi, in the path of Huck Finn and good old Jim. A houseboat was the means of transport, and the trip was one of lazy charm.

(Source: Hathitrust.org, https://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?view=plaintext;size=100;id=njp.32101076380466;page=root;seq=177;num=153)

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