Hiking with Nietzsche is a tale of John Kaag’s two philosophical journeys—one as an introspective young man of nineteen, the other seventeen years later as a husband and father. Kaag sets off for the Swiss peaks above Sils Maria where Nietzsche wrote his landmark work Thus Spoke Zarathustra. Both of Kaag’s journeys are made in search of the wisdom at the core of Nietzsche’s philosophy, yet they deliver him to radically different interpretations and, more crucially, revelations about the human condition.
John Kaag joined Mark Greif, author of Against Everything, in conversation to discuss Nietzsche’s ideals and how they inform life in the 21st century. The discussion was hosted by the California Institute for Integral Studies, listen to the audio here.
Mark Greif: Hello. Thank you everyone for coming. Thank you, John, for being grilled on stage. I don’t know how many people have had the opportunity to read the book yet but it is a wonderful book, Hiking with Nietzsche. Very moving, I thought. I felt like this book was going to solve problems for me as someone who spent too much time reading Nietzsche when young, and spends probably too much time reading him now. I thought, “At last! Someone’s going to get to the bottom of this business of loving Nietzsche, fearing Nietzsche, wishing to be like Nietzsche.” Can you tell the audience why you went to Switzerland recently?
John Kaag: So the book is the story of two philosophical pilgrimages in search of Friedrich Nietzsche: one when I was nineteen, and the other when I was thirty-seven. Both in Sils-Maria, Switzerland where Nietzsche had his summer home, where he spent most of the 1880s, really, and where he wrote Thus Spoke Zarathustra. I grew up in central Pennsylvania. Not a place where many philosophers grow up, but I was a philosophy student at Penn State, and at the end of my junior year I was writing a thesis on Nietzsche and the “will to power.” At nineteen, having grown up in a very conservative Pennsylvanian town, Nietzsche resonated with me, because Nietzsche also grew up in a very conservative Lutheran town. Nietzsche gave me permission to do otherwise. So, at the end of my junior year, Doug Anderson, whom you know, and Dan Conway, who was teaching me Nietzsche, handed me an envelope and in the envelope was three thousand dollars. And they said, “You should go to Switzerland. You have not been outside of the United States. You should do that.” So I went. I went to Sils-Maria and they said to me, “We already have the place set up. You can stay in the Nietzsche Haus, which is a museum. We contacted the curator and you can sleep next to Nietzsche’s room.” That was, I thought, the coolest thing a professor had ever done for me. It also turned out to be the most dangerous thing a professor had ever done for me.
Greif: I was going to say, was this good advice? You should go to Switzerland and sleep in the room next to the one in which Nietzsche had written Thus Spoke Zarathustra?
Kaag: Good and bad advice. When you go in search of the “will to power,” there’s this idea that what human beings find most meaningful is the most re-creative or the creative enterprise of transfiguring yourself, recreating yourself. When you go in search of that at nineteen, sometimes you can push it a little bit too far. And the individualism that Nietzsche is known for—what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger—can actually come just close to killing you.
The individualism that Nietzsche is known for—what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger—can actually come just close to killing you.
Greif: I was shocked while reading the book. I anticipated that it would be an intellectual journey of, you know, scars and wounds. But I didn’t anticipate that your ear would actually come in for rough treatment. Can you say what happened with your ear?
Kaag: So I had never gone backpacking before in my life, and I was in the Alps. I thought instead of taking the trails, it would be faster if I just took a straight line between two cities about twenty-five miles away. This was one of the dumber things that I had ever done. Oftentimes, when we’re talking about our freedom, and radical freedom, the type that Nietzsche wants us to explore, it doesn’t always look like the smartest thing.
Greif: Is it because Nietzsche does dumb things?
Kaag: It is.
Greif: That’s one interpretation of his work.
Kaag: It is. But also that freedom is the ability to opt out of certain conventional paths. That freedom in fact can be the impulse to go against one’s self-interest.
Greif: What happened to your ear?
Kaag: I got frostbite. It turns out that even in summer, when you get up to certain elevations, it can be very cold. I got lost and then it took me three days to get back to civilization. Strangely, that didn’t deter me. That was even before I got to the Nietzsche Haus. I spent nine weeks backpacking and exploring what Nietzsche calls the “ascetic ideal,” which is this idea of self-depravation or self-control. When Nietzsche says “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger,” he’s encouraging us to exercise our strength in very radical ways. Nietzsche has a critique of the ascetic ideal, which is: in the mouths of Christians, this ideal turns self-destructive, and, in fact, weakness is elevated, rather than a sort of healthy strength or a strength of wellbeing. So, I was trying to tread that line, trying to figure out how hard I could push myself.
Greif: In the book, as I was reading it, it’s quite dramatic. When the frostbite occurs, I thought, “This is a warning, maybe!”
Kaag: It should have been.
Greif: What will become of your time in the Nietzsche Haus? You go back, of course, in the book. Can you explain that?
Kaag: Sure. After I finished my trek, my first trek at nineteen, I moved out of studying Nietzsche and into more moderate philosophers. The writings of Thoreau and Emerson, who strangely was Nietzsche’s hero, but also William James and John Dewey—so, American philosophers. That is what gave rise to American Philosophy: A Love Story. I took American philosophers to be much healthier, and they helped me cultivate a certain togetherness in life. My twenties were spent studying those folks. But, as you approach forty, you have moments when you think, “Perhaps I could go back to Nietzsche.” So, I’m bathing my, at the time, four-year-old daughter, Becca, and she reaches up with this little hand and she grabs my ear and she goes, “Papa, what happened to your ear?” It made me think, “Maybe I should see if Nietzsche, me, Becca, and Carol, my partner, can go back and hike the same trails. I wonder what would happen.” That was the initial reason to go back.
Greif: You’re still here, it’s important to say. Nothing too terrible happened.
Kaag: Nothing too terrible happened.
Greif: But they are dramatic, the various hikes that you make. Will you describe the high point and the low point of the return, as we get them in the book? Of course, I don’t want to take away the dramatic quality of the book.
Kaag: Nietzsche has this concept of the “eternal return.” And the “eternal return,” at least in one rendering of it, is a thought experiment. Nietzsche says a demon comes to you in your loneliest of lonelies and says the following: “Can you imagine this moment, relived, exactly the same way, in all of its detail? Not once, not twice, not a dozen times, but an infinite number of times? And then would that thought elevate your soul? Or would it crush you?” That’s the “eternal return,” a sort of existential challenge. When I was nineteen, I thought that the only way to respond to the “eternal return” was through the “will to power.” In other words, when I talked to my students, my nineteen-year-old students at UMass Lowell, I’d ask, “What are the most meaningful moments of your lives?” Nineteen-year-old men raise their hands and they say, “Oh, when I scored that hockey shot,” or “when I hit that home run,” or “when I had really great sex,” or “when I did drugs.” These are actually the responses I get. These moments serve as an instantiation of Nietzsche’s “will to power”—moments that these people would be willing to live over exactly the same way, again and again and again.
But, when you’re thirty-seven with a four-year-old and a partner, you come to realize that most of life is not about the exercising of the will to power. It’s about something else. So the high points, to answer your question, are glimpses when you can answer the eternal return in ways other than simply exercising the “will to power.” I think the low points are the times when you realize that no matter how you want to wrench yourself out of your nineteen-year-old self, your nineteen-year-old self is sometimes just lingering. And those are, at least in the book, very low points for me.
Greif: What would happen if your nineteen-year-old self were still there inside the adult?
Kaag: In part, the radical individualism for which Nietzsche advocates, that doesn’t sit well with conventional understandings of family or parenting. My father, Jan, he left when I was four. Just took off. Gone. I didn’t talk to him for twelve years. I always hated him for that. But in moments when my nineteen-year-old self would come back and say, “Hey, maybe the individualism of Nietzsche is good!”—at those moments, I’d come to understand my dad in a sort of new way. In fact, I’m not that different from him in certain ways. So, that’s low. Or it felt low at the time.
Greif: It’s certainly conspicuous among the philosophers that a lot of them do not have kids. Even when they do, some of those kids, like in Rousseau’s case, wind up as foundlings deposited on some church doorstep. In Emerson’s case, he’s a bit odd about his children, right? Insofar as Thoreau and his wife Lidian are taking care of them most of the time. And he’s off giving lectures and so forth. Speaking at places like the Center for Integral Studies in San Francisco.
Kaag: That’s right.
Greif: I do think a lot about this—if you believe very strongly in the kind of ideal of a strenuous thinker, man or woman, it is hard to imagine futurity. A child who won’t be you, and whose life will, in some sense, be more important than yours, once they’re born. How did you find yourself thinking about it? There you are, at the Nietzsche Haus, at the hotel, in Switzerland with your five-year-old daughter, who has to go pee when you’re up in the Alpine gondola. Did you feel you had attained some higher form of life that Nietzsche never imagined? Or did you say to yourself, “Oh, this is strange.”
Kaag: There were moments when I thought, “Oh my god, can I just get rid of my family? Can’t they just be rid of me? Wouldn’t it be for the best? ” Nietzsche says that we should ask ourselves the forbidden questions! And if you’re a parent, and if you’re doing equally shared parenting, which my father never did, but if you’re actually there, in it, in parenting, I think if we ask ourselves the forbidden questions, those that elicit remarks like, “Gosh, I wish you would just go away,” are very honest moments. And I think that they can cause huge amounts of anxiety if we don’t actually face up to them.
Facing up to them might actually be the first step in being a happier parent. I think that that type of honesty is really important but also incredibly disturbing. Or it can be. Especially in a culture that doesn’t want to embrace that type of honesty. So, that’s one thought about it. Nietzsche says, “Are you the type of man who deserves to have a child? Are you the self-conqueror?” Nietzsche has this idea, and one of the reasons why Nietzsche didn’t have kids is that maybe the interpersonal dynamics didn’t work out for him, right? But in other ideas, maybe he just had really, really high standards for what you had to be in order to be a parent. A perfect self-conqueror? I doubt that most parents could check that box before they have kids. I am the perfect self-conqueror! I am that master of myself! Check! Then you have a child . . . no! At least for me it was like, “Oh my god we’re having a baby!” Then, nine months later, it happens. And then you’re like, “Oh shit!”
So in part, Nietzsche, I think, gives us, at moments, the space to ask really hard questions about ourselves. At other times he’s unrealistic about the expectations he has for us as human beings and for us as parents.
Greif: Yeah when I think of these moments, these things just don’t square with our world today. And I think, jeez! Those guys really missed the boat on relationships, and children in some way.
When you said earlier that there are no great philosophers from central Pennsylvania, well, maybe people should say, “Well, of course Kaag was from central Pennsylvania . . .” right? Do you consider yourself a professor of philosophy rather than a philosopher? This is one of the taunts that turns up in your favorite writers and in Thoreau and Emerson and Nietzsche. When they say things like “what honor is left in teaching,” it’s because it was once honorable to just philosophize. Or is there a different model of a philosopher possible for us now who would believe in egalitarian parenting? Egalitarianism? And in a dad-philosopher? Is there a dad-philosopher figure that is conceivable for us?
Kaag: The actual fathers of philosophy.
Kaag: I think that contemporary philosophy risks jeopardizing its own relevance in a very real way by being just a bunch of professors. In other words, people who profess knowledge rather than talking with others. I think that initially, philosophy was teaching. I think that’s how the ancients understood it. I also think the ancients understood it as a way of understanding the business of living, and working through the business of living thoughtfully. What I’d like to think about when I think about these books and the books that you’re writing as well—they don’t fit standard academic models of philosophy, right? These are not peer-reviewed journals. These are books that people can read, thoughtful people, people who have never taken a philosophy course before, in order to think through their lives. And hopefully there would be parents who actually take the time to also be philosophers. Or philosophers who take the time to be parents, right?
These are books that people can read, thoughtful people, people who have never taken a philosophy course before, in order to think through their lives.
Greif: I wondered if you considered yourself part of a kind of moment or movement of books by people who are often professional philosophers, people who teach in university departments, who try to write books that integrate immediate experience—memoir, in some ways. I mean, even in the case of this book, it’s not quite memoir because it’s not retrospective. It’s something like experiment in the most basic way. You are your lab rat, right? You set yourself to go back to the place where you had been when something momentous had happened and see what happens again. But certainly the book is not alone in that there have been other books which have tried to take up this experiential, philosophical mandate. It’s funny, in this book you talk about Emerson in the 1840s as actually engaging a moment as the experiential turn in philosophy. Are we, do you think, in another such moment? Where it, in fact, will become plausible and recognizable for university departments to say, “Well you don’t just need peer-reviewed publications.” You can write something in which you are hiking or even surfing, as in a recent book on Sartre. Or is that just not the right way to think about this at all?
Kaag: I actually don’t know if I see it as a trend, just because I think there are so few people doing it in disciplinary philosophy that it’s still marginalized fairly actively. What I would like to see is people believing that you can write in the first person and see that as a philosophical enterprise. Augustine did it. Montaigne! We have a long tradition of writing in the first person philosophically. I’d like to return there. Whether we call it philosophy or not, I really don’t care. Or, actually maybe I do care about that. Maybe I’d like to keep the term and expand it, or force it to expand.
But it seems strange to me that in the move away from history—in terms of contemporary philosophy’s insistence that it’s, you know, recreating the wheel—that we forget about all these different forms that had respectability. With aphoristic philosophy, Nietzsche’s multiple modes of doing philosophy, we forget that aphorism and first person accounts and parables and fiction, all of these things can be different forms of the love of wisdom.
Greif: I wonder, too, about whatever it is that’s different about the kinds of books you write that I find exciting. I also ask myself about what the outside springs and sources are. Because if I think of this kind of nineteenth-century set of heroes, it’s a peculiar set of things that they were reading or being inspired by. For the transcendentalists or for Nietzsche, too, a lot of it is Eastern. It’s crucial that they’re reading Hindu texts and Buddhist texts and so forth. For Nietzsche, too, it’s also music, it has to be. Is there some outside upwelling influence that makes this moment different?
Kaag: So you’ve said—in two different books—that transcendence is not a vertical issue, it’s a horizontal issue, or rather, it’s an issue where instead of going somewhere else, or transcending in a traditional way, we go deeper into experience. To understand this, I think we need to think through what happened in the nineteenth century. You’ve pointed this out as well, that when Nietzsche writes The Birth of Tragedy in 1872, and later says “God is dead,” he’s writing after Darwin writes On the Origin of Species. He’s lived through German higher criticism, which basically says that we need to read the scriptures historically. He’s living through these things that make traditional modes of transcendence impossible. The question is, how can we still manage some sort of existential meaning? Or, how can we have some sort of—not even salvation—but redemptive quality to our life? Not vertically but horizontally. Or, rather, in experience? Which I think sort of explains why these Eastern texts would resonate so deeply with folks like Schopenhauer and Nietzsche and Emerson and Thoreau.
Greif: You make me sound very dignified.
Kaag: No, I’ve read the books!
Greif: One thing I’ve been wondering about lately is to what extent there’s a kind of obligation even to take in things in contemporary life that seem farcical, trivial, et cetera. Lately, I’ve been having it with rock and roll. We’ve talked about this very briefly in the green room. I think to myself, if I were really to be honest about the things that seem to drive emotion and passion and so forth, I’d have to ask myself why I listen to the same music that I was listening to when I was nineteen over and over again? It’s such stupid music, too! Why am I listening to Black Sabbath? Why am I listening to The Doors? The Damned? It turns out I like all this strangely theatrical, hail-Satan kind of music, still. It inspires some kind of feeling which, to me, is connected to whatever the philosophical feeling is in Nietzsche. And, indeed, isn’t there a connection between the people in trench coats who are reading Nietzsche in the back of the Greyhound bus and Black Sabbath? Like they have pentagrams and things inscribed on their hats, right? That was my experience of the teen years.
There’s this real tension in your books—the last one and this one, too—between, if you’ll allow me, truth and dignity in some way. Because there is some kind of experiential truth in which you are genuinely in quest, right? And yet, some of the forms in which you’re searching for it feel, to me, like they’re not grand. They’re not warfare. They’re tourism. They’re hiking. They’re being with your kids and noticing the piano in the hotel. There’s a great chapter on the hotel piano. How do you reckon with this? Sometimes I just feel like a fool. Something’s wrong with me that I’m listening to this stuff.
Kaag: So, the first trip, when I was nineteen, was at the Nietzsche Haus, the museum where Nietzsche summered. Rather, it was a house—now it’s a museum. It was fairly austere. The second trip was made to the Waldhaus, which is not austere at all. It’s the place where Adorno and Benjamin and Marcuse went on their Nietzschean pilgrimages. It’s this grand European hotel. That’s where we stayed on the second trip. I was very ambivalent. I figured Nietzsche had a problem with decadence. In other words, one of Nietzsche’s diagnoses of the modern age is that we live in a decadent world. What to do in the face of that decadence? Because we are complicit in the decadence—all of us. Even if we’re here right now, we’re complicit in it. How do you make your way through it meaningfully? In light of that complicity, there are several options. You can pursue the acsetic ideal and starve yourself and hike really hard and live in austere conditions. You can do that. Or you can find some sort of redemption in the mundane. In those moments when you just chase your daughter up a hill and you realize: she’s actually quite content being naked. But you aren’t running outside in the Alps. She’s comfortable. Somehow you’ve lost that comfort, right? But the idea that, oh my god, my daughter is just this beautiful little being that’s right there! It takes a slight change in orientation to realize that. Well, maybe a radical change in orientation.
Greif: This makes me realize how much I like the comic Nietzsche. It’s very hard to explain to people. I’m like “Aw, Nietzsche! Sweet, cuddly guy. You know, he’s funny.” But he is funny! Actually! Often! I mean there’s this other prophetic voice which I like in different ways; Thus Spoke Zarathustra always frightens me in a certain way and I’m not prepared to go up to the mountain. But the middle books—Human, All Too Human, et cetera—those are funny, funny books about human folly and weakness and so forth. What is it that you like about Thus Spoke Zarathustra? Can you win me over to that book?
Kaag: I’ll try. In Zarathustra, we usually think of him as the quintessential hermit, or the quintessential individual. But what we miss in that reading is that he is always shuttling between the mountain top of individuality and the valleys of communal activity. And he’s doing it—at one point I tried to count how many times he goes up and down the mountain and think I got twenty-seven times throughout the book. Twenty-seven times he’s going up and down and up and down—because these are degenerate extremes. And you can easily lose your life or spend your life by yourself. You can easily lose your life or spend your life dissolved in community. It seems like preserving these two, finding some kind of middle ground between these two extremes is where the good stuff in life happens. What I like about Nietzsche, what I like about some of these authors that you’ve mentioned, is that you get a real sense that when you are writing, or when you are reading their writing, that there’s a type of urgency about it all. And it’s an existential urgency—like, you’re spending your life right now! Think about that. We are hell-bent to the grave right now. And we are spending this time doing . . . something! Think about what it means to write an academic paper, right? Do you want to spend your life doing that?
Greif: Nooooo. Nooooo.
Kaag: I, at least, want to infuse academic papers with existential meaning such that I don’t get to the end of my life and, like Thoreau fears, look back and think that I haven’t lived. With Nietzsche there’s never a moment where I think, oh, he’s just wasting his ink or blood or breath. But when I read a lot of academic stuff today, I think, oh my gosh, these people are wasting their lives.
Greif: Well let’s return, if you will, to the “eternal return,” then. This is giving me some trouble. We left off with your students who say, “Yes, Professor, I’d be happy to hit that extraordinarily admirable, long home run again and again throughout eternity.”
Kaag: True. That’s what they say.
Greif: And you say, “That’s not really what I asked!” There’s a version, maybe, of the “eternal return” in which one seeks after a kind of daily reality that you could imagine repeating. Or to somehow come into the right relation to it. And this gets us toward the ordinary. What does it mean to actually live a life that’s not just sadness up on the mountaintop and not just community-stew, where you are the carrot in the stew? There’s another version of the “eternal return” that has always terrified me in a different way. And that’s the one that looks like what you find elsewhere, maybe in Jonathon Edwards’s ascent to being in general, or even in Nietzsche, that strange moment when he says, “Agh, everybody thinks I’m so negative, but really I want to evolve to be a yea-sayer to everything! To be able to say yes to everything!” That may be a kind of mischaracterization of what he says there. But that’s intense, dude! If in fact it doesn’t matter what the instant is, where you can’t know or decide what the instant is, where you have to live again and again and again, and the true kind of coming into harmony with it would be to be able to will it no matter what it is—that’s hard for me to even imagine myself getting to.
Kaag: These two trips—the first one was structured around the “will to power.” It’s kind of a farce of the “will to power.” Things do not really go well on this first trip. It’s about the inadequacy of this “will to power.” But on the second trip there are moments of what Nietzsche calls the “amor fati.” The love of fate. And Nietzsche says that in order to respond to the eternal return, it’s not the case that most of our lives consist of times when we can exercise our will to power. Most of our lives consist of times when we exercise the will to power and we hurt each other or someone else or we hurt ourselves, or our will to power comes up short, or we feel impotent or regretful. And then Nietzsche says—and here’s the amor fati—you must come to love your fate. In other words, you must come to love what is most despicable, most embarrassing, most harassing, about yourself. That’s like, whoa! And he asks, what kind of strength must you cultivate to carry your own weight? That’s it. I think that’s the type of thing that a thirty-seven-year-old—maybe doesn’t need to come to—but, in my case, I haven’t mastered it, but I now see it. I need to get my head around what it means to love—not just bear, but love—those things that are most embarrassing and most despicable to me.
I need to get my head around what it means to love—not just bear, but love—those things that are most embarrassing and most despicable to me.
Greif: All right, well, let me put this to you. Because I fear for myself a bit. I know just what you mean, I think. But I think of it in terms of Gustave Flaubert, a great hero of mine and another of these figures from the 1850s, ’60s, ’70s, and so forth. I was teaching Madame Bovary today and trying to communicate this strange possibility that somehow if you really wanted to get to the thing that you could rely upon and love in human life, that for Flaubert, the only thing that you can rely on in that way and learn to love and see in every person in every situation is human stupidity, human vanity, self-seeking. The one thing you can rely on everyone to do is not really see anyone else’s perspective but their own. Well, but of course, this is the ultimate comic register. What’s pleasing about this or what he’s able to love is not then that one is like, “God, everyone is so stupid!” but that one is like, “Everyone is so funny!” I often feel this way, and friends will say to me, “Why do you keep laughing?” But it’s very disturbing, especially because, I mean, everyone is a little funny! Like the current government. There are many things that are funny in their incapacity to see other people and very funny in their repetitions and parodies of the Flaubertian sense, right? What does it mean if someone tries to say something profound and winds up repeating something out of a fortune cookie? Or a tea label? What does it mean if people can’t escape these kinds of joke structures where they’re always delivering a punch line against themselves? So—in the public psychoanalysis of me—have I attained maturity, in that I can laugh at everything?
Kaag: I think that laughter, a certain type of laughter, matters a great deal, and particularly for Nietzsche.
Greif: I often wind up in a kind of passive, rocking-arm-chair-Norman-Bates style of laughing madness, like, “Heh! Heh! Heh!” There’s this situation with Nietzsche! Shall we talk about his breakdown? In the book, you’re like, “When he hugged the horse and collapsed to the pavement in Turin, it’s overplayed.” Can you explain?
Kaag: Nietzsche, when he arrives in Turin, he moves in—he was in Sils-Maria, primarily by himself. Then he moves to Turin, and he returns to his father-figure Wagner. He plays Wagner by memory on the piano, with his hands and with his elbows. And he attracts the attention of his neighbors. There were many factors that led to Nietzsche’s breakdown. One of which was the fact that he was in a community that didn’t necessarily understand him. That’s one aspect. I think that to go to your issue about the laughter, though, you’re right to say that things are funny. And tragically funny! I mean, tragedy-and-comedy funny. I don’t go the Flaubert route, I go the Schopenhauer route in this way. Arthur Schopenhauer writes this posthumous book called Studies in Pessimism. I know it sounds like an upper. Don’t worry it’s going to be funny! The first chapter is entitled “On the Suffering of the World.” He says, if there’s one commonality that we can see—a very Buddhist observation—it is that life is suffering. And then Schopenhauer spends nine pages convincing us that we’re all suffering. And he says that it’s kind of like watching the same theater performance over and over again. Which is kind of a funny thought.
And then he says, at the end of it, maybe you should adjust yourself to thinking that we’re all suffering. Maybe it would have good consequences for you. It would adjust your expectations of the world, for one. Secondly, you could regard other people as people in the same penitentiary. And finally, you could see yourselves as companions in misery. Which, strangely enough, seems like the saddest moment, but also the type of consolation that is fitted for human beings . . . which is funny. I mean, the fact that we can see each other as companions in misery and that’s the only ethical community that we have? That’s funny. And strange. And really sad. So I wonder if the commonality is not suffering rather than the farcical. What do you think?
Greif: This is great! I get to finally ask someone all my questions about Nietzsche! My real questions! With the awareness of suffering, it has always troubled me that I have all the practical thoughts: why was this? All the things that they tell you in the biographies. Like syphilis! Maybe it was syphilis! Madness! Mental illness! But then there is some part of me which I think I’m not supposed to give utterance to because it feels romantic or old-fashioned or something, where I think: whoa, he went too far, insofar as one is going to continue to live as a human being. He thought to the end of things and that was that! It’s a very strange thought, right? What are you going to do then? Just vegetate? I feel it with Flaubert in the last book. Sorry, I’m Flaubert-obsessed, you know. It’s very useful that he drops dead in the middle of writing Bouvard et Pécuchet because somehow you can’t conceive a book that would go past it, in just copying down the follies of the world. Is this too romantic a vision?
Kaag: Lou Salomé says pretty much what you’ve said (Lou was probably the woman Nietzsche most wanted to end up with). And she writes his first biography and says in the biography that his madness is a product not of any particular dementia or illness but rather a product of his philosophy. So the mixture of megalomania involved in the “Übermensch,” or the “will to power,” and the self-loathing of the not-being-able-to-get-there, and the end, the feeling of passivity, having to embrace your fate. These are schism-creating thoughts. If you push them far enough, you have a break. Or at least that’s what she claimed. I don’t think it’s romantic. I think about this notion of “pre-list,” which in the ancient Christian community is a pilgrim confusing redemption, or rather confusing narcissism for redemption, or confusing self-importance for some sort of salvation. And I think that many people who read Nietzsche, myself included, when I was nineteen, suffered from pre-list. And then I think Nietzsche at times suffered from pre-list. So I think that’s something to keep in mind as you try to “think to the end of things.” That’s a nice expression for it. To think to the end of things.
Greif: Will you tell the audience what your next book is about? To lighten the mood? The next book is about sin and death and . . .
Kaag: Yeah, it’s not about Nietzsche. I’m returning to the American philosophers actually. The next book I’m writing is about William James again. It’s called Sick Souls, Healthy Minds. It’s much more like American Philosophy: A Love Story. It basically tracks William James’s life and the distinction that he makes in the varieties of religious experience between sick souls and healthy minds and how you can have an immanent form of redemption, salvation, meaning. But that’s for the next book. It’s much brighter. My mother is again happy. My mother read Hiking with Nietzsche and said, “That was really dark, John!” But frankly I think going back between these two extremes where you move from lightness to dark is very Nietzschean.
Greif: It’s like your Zarathustran movement up the mountain and down the mountain. I have to say, just in terms of a final reflection on the differences of philosophy in the twenty-first century, it has often struck me that—not so much the case for these major nineteenth-century figures, though I guess Nietzsche’s mom was alive—there is something always interesting, now that we live in an era of greater lifespans. There seems to be a greater likelihood for us that we will try to write something profound and self-disclosing, self-revealing, and the rest, and then inevitably, you’re going to have to hear from one of your parents being like, “I don’t really think your childhood was like that.”
Greif: It does give you a totally different sense of what philosophical utterance would be.
John Kaag is Professor of Philosophy at UMass Lowell and the 2019 Miller Scholar at the Santa Fe Institute and author most recently of Hiking with Nietzsche: On Becoming Who You Are.
Mark Greif co-founded the literary and intellectual journal n+1 in New York and has been a principal at the magazine since then. He earned a PhD in American studies from Yale in 2007. Since 2008, he has been on the faculty of the New School in New York, where he is currently an associate professor. His most recent book, Against Everything, was published in 2016.