Lost in the depths of his father-in-law’s study, Geoff Dyer finds himself inside the head of Thomas Mann
Instead of doing the sensible thing and taking books on holiday that might be fun to read, I still – after 20 years of failing to learn my lesson – take books I have found too intimidating to even start in the course of my normal life. So when I went to stay with my in-laws recently, I took along a couple of newish books on Nietzsche.
Keeping up with books on Nietzsche is one of my little hobbies and, as such, is pursued with enthusiasm rather than rigour. I decided pretty early on that I wouldn’t persevere with Malcolm Bull’s Anti-Nietzsche. It was one of those books in which a scholar lets his hair down a bit – an early chapter proposes the idea of “reading like a loser” – and, in the process, reveals he’s as bald as an egg. A desk-bound author, in other words, of the type ridiculed by Nietzsche. I understand that without some kind of formal schooling you just aren’t going to get your head around much philosophy – whether you’re as bald as Foucault or as hirsute as Žižek – but with Nietzsche it’s almost the other way around. Much of Heidegger might be unreadable without help but most of Nietzsche is easily readable without any assistance at all – it becomes unreadable with help. It’s the help that needs help!
There’s a moment in Raymond Williams’ novel Border Country when the protagonist gets into a political discussion with someone and stands listening, “waiting for terms he could feel”. When I couldn’t wait any longer I moved on to Jennifer Ratner-Rosenhagen’s American Nietzsche, which turned out to be perfectly readable but way more thorough than I needed. I decided I could read a long summary-review of it somewhere, instead of ploughing through the book itself.
Which meant that after the two-hour train journey to my in-laws I was in the all-too familiar position of turning up at someone’s house with nothing to read. I would have to gorge on or peck at whatever my in-laws had. This feeling of being at the mercy of what’s to hand can induce a sense of dread (nothing but Patricia Cornwall or James Joyce!) but the uncertainty also has an element of excitement. It’s the readerly equivalent of going away somewhere and hoping for a brief affair – without any of the moral complications.
In this instance the analogy breaks down pretty quickly, since I knew that in my in-laws’ house there were two rooms of densely packed bookshelves. A lot of these volumes were not great lookers: old and dreary hardbacks, most of them, some without even a dust-jacket so they looked like volumes in a university library.
Looking more closely at the rows of liver-spotted titles in my father-in-law’s study, I saw a 1959 edition of Thomas Mann’s Last Essays that included his ‘Nietzsche’s Philosophy in the Light of Recent History’. Now that was something I could read – if I could reconcile myself to doing so without making notes in the book itself.
It wasn’t just that I couldn’t make my own notes; there were also my father-in-law’s annotations to contend with. There was no overlap whatsoever between passages he’d marked and the bits I would have marked if I’d been reading my own copy. Clearly he’d had some agenda but what had he been after? This became fiendishly fascinating to me because, as I sat there pencil in hand, trying not to annotate his book, I realised that owning and annotating had become a substitute for absorbing. Reading my own books in my own home – and marking them up as I did so – had itself become a way of avoiding reading (in the sense of complete immersion and active interrogation). This was a skill I now needed to recapture, because this essay of Mann’s turned out to be an absolute cracker.
Above: Friedrich Nietzsche
Above: Thomas Mann
Here, I was immediately in the presence of an entire sensibility and style of engagement that I could feel. It was not just that Mann’s Nietzsche was my Nietzsche – there is, of course, a Nietzsche for everyone, from Nazi to philosemite, from warmonger to quasi-Buddhist ¬ or that I was basking in having my own feelings endorsed by a higher authority. No, Mann was articulating the experience of someone for whom a state of readerly and writerly immersion and interrogation had become second, or even first, nature. This created – in spite of Mann’s natural hauteur, his consciousness both of his own importance and of the weight of German history weighing on his shoulders – a relationship of intimacy and equality, as if we were sitting together, Mann to man, while he described “the desperate cruelty with which Nietzsche spoke of all that he himself venerated: of Wagner, music in general, morality, Christianity…”.
Shelved elsewhere in the house – my father-in law’s organisational system was as mysterious as his annotations – was another of Mann’s books: The Genesis of a Novel is about the writing of Doctor Faustus, whose hero is “so much Nietzsche’s substitute that the original is no longer permitted a separate existence” in the novel. My fondness for Nietzsche did nothing to prevent Faustus being one of the most cosmically boring books I’d ever crawled through, but I found Mann’s lugubrious account of its composition completely compelling. In particular there was Mann’s conception – derived, interestingly, from “American critical writing” – “that Nietzsche’s struggle against Christian morality constituted an event within the history of Christianity”.
Maybe there was a section in Ratner-Rosenhagen’s book about which American critical writings Mann had in mind. I could have checked – I had her book with me, after all – but this was all I needed: a lightning flash about the philosopher who one reads, precisely, for lightning flashes of prophetic illumination. The older I get the less patience I have. Unlike a former friend who, on hearing Nietzsche’s line about suicide – the thought of it, Nietzsche claimed, had got him through many a bad night – responded, “What does he mean by that?” I don’t want things written out in longhand any more than I need the punch lines of jokes explained. (Nietzsche for Mann is, among other things “a cosmic jester”.)
There was something perfect about the almost random discovery of those two books by Mann, and the accidental rediscovery of achieved immersion they induced. Through the megaphone of Zarathustra, Nietzsche claimed that the time had passed when accidents could still befall him. So it was became Thus I willed it. It’s a formula with a dangerous potential for delusion, but that’s exactly how I felt about this series of accidents.
Illustration Jason Ford
Geoff is a celebrated author and journalist