Nietzsche: A Closeted Conservative’s Unexpected Ally

For years I’d heard and read about Friedrich Nietzsche’s terrible influence on Western culture. Knowing only a few lines attributed to him (“God is dead,” “Live dangerously,” “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger,” etc), and having read perhaps too much Ayn Rand (not necessarily the amount but the exclusivity with which I read her), I believed that Nietzsche had set himself up against the vast progression of Western reason and philosophy. And he did—though not in the way I thought. Nonetheless, as I plotted out the story and dug into the characters of Sacred Shadows and Latent Light, I erroneously assumed Nietzsche would provide the philosophical foundation for my planned antagonist, Smith Ingman, journalism and philosophy professor and head of the on-campus newspaper, The Praesidium.

Actually sitting down to read Nietzsche did greatly influence my book, but not in the way I’d expected. That phase of the writing process, and, I believe, my willingness to let the book & characters develop beyond (and in direct contravention to) my initial intentions, is what turned Sacred Shadows and Latent Light into what it’s meant to be: a work of literature and of art, rather than merely an ideological polemic in novel’s clothing (though the jury’s still out on how well I transitioned it from the latter to the former—still working on it!). In approaching Nietzsche honestly, I had to let go of my preconceived notions of who the characters were, how they would behave, and why they would succeed or fail. That is, I had to let my art cut me, first. In the end, Nietzsche’s philosophy (or some key aspects of it) did end up filling out one of my characters, but it was not Ingman.

Originally planned as a foil to the book’s hero, Ingman was going to lead the charge against Rydar Colson’s Shakespeare production, primarily through The Praes. Like a chess player, he would manipulate students to think they were leading the charge against tradition, all the while pushing them from behind a smug, tolerant mask of deniability. That, however, would have been a cartoon.

To be sure, there is a character who does that—Ermine Jackson, protegé of Ingman and, at the book’s opening, one of the editors of The Praes. A student who is so misled by his vision that he exhibits no attempt at introspection is, at least, believable (I drew on several interactions in college and since to create Jackson). Meeting a professor with a similar character flaw is still quite possible, but at the time of writing I was unable to present such a person roundly and accurately—i.e. with a deep, authentic understanding of their decades-weathered perspective.

Either way, such a character would have posed no real match for Rydar Colson; he would not have been aware of their existence, beyond the common courtesy of colleagues. In the words of Nietzsche, “When has a dragon ever died of the poison of a snake?” (Zar. 1.19.1). Besides, merely having a “for and against” dichotomy among characters would be too simple. Again, in Nietzsche’s words (notably from Beyond Good and Evil, his own argument for progressing beyond simplistic dichotomies), “when one is young, one venerates and despises without that art of nuances which constitutes the best gain of life” (Sect. 31). The more I got to know Ingman, the more I, myself, relaxed, and I realized he was not a villain. Indeed, he provides the book’s compromise between the extremes of the plot. I discovered in him a Kennedy-era liberal who values progress but, nonetheless, maintains the value of free speech (having lived through the Berkeley movement)—and, thus, I found a well-meaning professor who ends up supporting a production he does not fully agree with in the name of diversity of thought. The work of Jonathan Haidt greatly influenced Ingman’s character, and he has become one of my favorite characters in the book (I encourage everyone to read The Righteous Mind and The Coddling of the American Mind, if only to gain a nuanced understanding of what we mean by “conservative” and “liberal” andof the current state of many college campuses).

The character whom Nietzsche influenced—and who, like Ingman, subsequently changed from a cartoon into a realistic character in the process—was Colson, himself. Having avoided Nietzsche for similar reasons to mine, Colson recounts to the student protagonist, Elliot, that it was in response to a trauma—a season when even his ability to accurately perceive reality was in question—that he began to approach writers he had until then avoided. After diving into Dostoevsky (whom I’ll talk about in a later post), Colson became emboldened to see what else he could survive. Rather than play it safe and try to hold onto his previous worldview, he instead dives into the fire of his own questioning in order to see what parts of him will remain—and in doing so he acts out a central part of Nietzsche’s philosophy: self-overcoming. Not to give a spoiler, but in the end, he did not kill himself (not literally, at least); if one thinks it’s ironic that someone DOESN’T kill him or herself after reading Nietzsche, it might prove they’ve never read him. At least, I would have once thought it ironic–and I would have been wrong.

However, I did not approach Nietzsche lightly. Reading (and rereading) his works chronologically and accompanying my study with commentaries and a few lecture series (“The Great Courses” have a few good ones on existentialism broadly and Nietzsche specifically, and Jordan Peterson’s online lectures give a further context for understanding the man), I wanted to make sure I understood what Nietzsche was really saying and why before I blithely included him in my book’s pantheon of authors. However, I found I already knew the kind of values he was espousing—hardness, joy in testing our premises against reason, the capacity to face the questions provoked by reality, and the willingness to be punished not for one’s faults but one’s virtues; for all her vitriol against the man, I had already met and digested shadows of his values in Ayn Rand. In fact, I found his articulation of his ideas more organic and compelling than I had hers for nearly a decade. It felt in hindsight as if Rand had written her characters as the Overmen (and women) that Nietzsche had called for—like Nietzsche filtered through Aristotle and Locke, as it were, or Aristotle satisfying the questions posed by Nietzsche and then placed in an American setting. Something like that.

Anyway, it was not the alleged godlessness of Nietzsche that informed Rydar’s character, nor was it the will to overturn all previous conceptions of value, religion, or history (a philologist, Nietzsche actually displays an outstanding knowledge and appreciation for Scripture and the works of the past; he, for one, possesses the “nuance” mentioned above, and I think Christians like me would be remiss to pass him off—and miss the meat to be found in his writing). What got me was his attempt to foster an attitude of strength, of personal resilience, and of pride (which, in Aristotle, is the crown of the virtues—if one can deserve it). Ironically, I found these aspects of his message to be in-line not with the sympathetic liberal, Smith Ingman, but with the (closeted) conservative, Rydar Colson.

It’s not that Colson isn’t sympathetic to his students (he grows quite close to several), but, like Nietzsche’s Zarathustra, his sympathy takes the form of encouragement toward growth—of the withholding of pity, and the fostering of strength. He actively seeks to withhold the impulse to coddle the parts of them that would make them weaker and less resilient to the realities of life—which, we find, he has tasted in no small part. ““The discipline of suffering, of great suffering—do you not know that only this discipline has created all enhancements of man so far? That tension of the soul in unhappiness which cultivates its strength, its shudders face to face with great ruin, its inventiveness and courage in enduring, persevering, interpreting, and exploiting suffering, and whatever has been granted to it…was it not granted to it through suffering, through the discipline of great suffering?…[O]ur pity—do you not comprehend for whom our converse pity is when it resists your pity as the worst of all pamperings and weaknesses?” (BGE, Section 225). Thus reads one of my possible epigraphs, and it provides a key to understanding Rydar’s character and how he interacts with his students.

However, despite Nietzsche’s effect on Rydar (and on myself, to the chagrin of my very patient wife during the process), he does not pretend to live out a Nietzschean life; to do so would be to misread Nietzsche’s whole purpose. Indeed, in his excellent critique of the man, Walter Kaufmann argues that it would be a contradiction in terms to consider oneself a disciple of Nietzsche. In the man’s own words, “You have not yet sought yourselves: and you found me…Now I bid you lose me and find yourselves” (Zar. 1.22.3). Thus one finds part of Rydar’s educational philosophy—though he subsequently hands his students copies of Aristotle, the Bible, and Shakespeare with which to find themselves.

 

Colson, like myself, does not blithely recommend students read Nietzsche, despite his desire for them to be able to digest him at some point; it’s too easy to misread him even within his larger context. Indeed, Nietzsche constructs his prose to mislead shallow readers—which was part of the fun of trying to find and digest the meat while avoiding and spitting out the bones. For Rydar, it was the experience of reading one who was originally (and shallowly) considered an enemy to be avoided, and finding an unexpected and greatly needed ally. As he tells Elliot later in the book, “Such writers aren’t for the faint of heart; one does not read them as one would Aristotle…[You] don’t read them to learn: you read them to survive—which may be precisely how we should read Aristotle.” It was to see how much he could take that Rydar approached Nietzsche, and this view of reading-as-crucible—of controlled, intentional crisis out of which only gold can survive—has become a main theme of the book. Needless to say, hearing Colson’s explanation of confronting Nietzsche gives Elliot the courage to humbly do the same.

 

There is so much more I could say about how diving into Nietzsche’s work influenced Sacred Shadows and Latent Light (even my choice of that title hearkens to the philosopher’s onus to seek for truth in our abysses and to discover which light might survive the process). Like I said in my previous post, if I’ve been a good writer such things will be implicit. The greatest influence from reading Nietzsche (and the part of which I’m most proud) was my own willingness to let the characters grow and take shape as they needed to. It required me, too, to move beyond my preconceived notions of “good” and “evil” in context of the plot, and I found that rather than undermine my understanding of why and how the characters should act the process has helped me understand such things more clearly. Personally, I think I gained the same nuance spoken of above; while I still hold my same convictions regarding literature (and many other things), my understanding of them is stronger and deeper, their (and my) having survived the process of releasing my hold on them and submitting them for questioning. I, like Colson, found an unexpected and unforeseen ally in Nietzsche’s writing. I should feel humbled and sheepish for my dashed assumptions about the man; however, I find I’m proud of the humbling—or, rather, of the parts of me that survived it.

Besides, to paraphrase Colson, I’m too busy digging for gold—or, rather, for light latent in the shadows.

Author: dustinllovell

Writing professor, literature and US history tutor, previous ESL instructor, and would-be novelist who enjoys/specializes in Shakespeare, 19th century lit, and philosophy (whether in print or via audiobook). Author of the novel Sacred Shadows and Latent Light (Wipf and Stock, Resources Imprint). Member of Heterodox Academy. Columnist for The Mallard.

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