Sunday, 13 November 2016
Nietzsche, Humour and the Great War
Yesterday, on the anniversary of Armistice Day, I like so many others in the UK observed two minutes of silence at precisely 11am in memory of all those who lost their lives in the wars. This coming together as a nation in a moment of intense solemnity to remember their sacrifice seems fitting, the least we could do. But is there perhaps a very different way of ‘remembering’ what happened in those wars and what meaning this should impart to our modern lives?
When I was a child, I recall casting my eyes around the volumes of my school library and there looming large and ominous before me was a series called The Causes of the Great War. I can’t remember how many volumes there were – perhaps a dozen or so – and opening them one would discover hundreds of pages on the European alliances of the nineteenth century, the imperial rivalries over Africa, the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the infringement of Belgium neutrality. Unfurling in front of me in black ink and on yellowing pages were the causes of the First World War in all its bewildering complexity.
I asked my grandmother, who was born in 1898, whether she could remember the war breaking out. My grandmother had been born in Northern Ireland, left school at age 9 and by the age of 16 was working in a mill in a small border town. I asked what the local people at the time said was the cause of the war. ‘The King and the Kaiser had fallen out over land’ was her compact reply.
There was in that sentence a very Irish wisdom, as if Irish farmers had grasped the reins of world politics. Yet thinking about those ten words in comparison to all the millions upon millions of erudite words in the library, I was inclined to think that my grandmother’s answer grasped the nettle of the problem: The King and the Kaiser had fallen out over land.
These days I incline towards a more radical view. I think the war was partly caused by a lack of humour in both the Germans and the British and an acute failure to understand some profound insights into the human condition. I think, for example, that one reason the war broke out was because the peoples of Europe failed to get the jokes of that much maligned and misunderstood philosopher, Friedrich Nietzsche (pictured below).
It’s of course not possible that one philosopher can, on his own, move history. And yet we have all heard how Nietzsche’s ideas of the Superman were later twisted by the Nazis and turned into a doctrine of a master race. But even before the rise of the Nazis, Nietzsche was being blamed for all of Germany’s ills. At the time of the First World War, for example, a host of books in Britain declaimed him for a philosophy of maniacal selfishness that led the German people to think that they could trample on their neighbours with impunity.
All this would have been abhorrent to Nietzsche himself. He was the ultimate individualist; his whole philosophy was concerned with encouraging people to forge their own unique identity. The idea of forming people into regiments acting in complete obedience to a Kaiser was contrary to the spirit of everything Nietzsche ever wrote. And far from thinking that the Germans were superior, Nietzsche once acidly remarked that just dining next to one of his fellow countrymen was enough to give him indigestion.
So why was Nietzsche so misunderstood? And why did he keep receiving the blame for the disasters of the twentieth century, starting with the First World War?
One reason – as is reasonably well known – is that the all-pervasive nationalism of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century mutated with Nietzsche’s philosophy and produced a Frankenstein’s monster. Nietzsche’s philosophy of assertion of will was all about emancipation of the individual, but when those ideas were transferred to the nation itself, they became the very opposite of everything Nietzsche intended.
Nietzsche’s philosophy is essentially a sensible guide to how to live your life. Be strong, he is saying, don’t allow yourself to be overwhelmed with pity or you’ll never get anything done in life. Yet when transformed to a national level it very quickly degenerated into a philosophy of hate that was totally opposed to everything that Nietzsche had preached. It was used as a convenient propaganda tool by the British against the Germans, claiming that here was a country that was trying to be stronger than its neighbours and imposing its will upon them and always expanding its borders.
But I said that one cause of the First World War was a failure to understand Nietzsche’s jokes. How so? We don’t I think in the English speaking world appreciate how marvellously humorous so much of Nietzsche’s writing is. There is the image of the forbidding German philosopher with his enormous moustache and his deep, dark ponderings on the nature of existence, his mind full of Sturm und Drang and Wagnerian overtures. Yet in reality, Nietzsche was a great comic writer. Not perhaps laugh out loud funny, more along the lines of comic depths that slowly sink in. One problem is that much of the humour simply doesn’t translate into foreign languages leaving the English reader to take Nietzsche’s ideas - brilliant as many of them are – a bit too literally.
Take for example the famous concept of the Superman, the so-called higher man. In German the term is Ubermensch, but what you might not know is that this is a bit of a joke on Nietzsche’s behalf. One of the constant themes in Nietzsche’s Also Sprach Zarathustra is that people should always be striving to become better, more accomplished people in life. Zarathustra was written in the 1880s and being a man of the Victorian age, Nietzsche was surrounded by lots of starch-collared professors and other dignitaries full of pompous pride about their achievements, who liked to cling to their titles and station in life. We are all too familiar with this type of person in the world today, people blowing their own little trumpet.
The ‘uber’ in ubermensch did not come from any idea of a master race controlling subjugated, weaker men and women; the ‘uber’ is wordplay, a pun on the German word for crossing over – ‘ubergehen’. The ‘ubermensch’ is the person who is always trying to cross over to the other side, evolve, improve himself. That is the higher person whom we should try and emulate. It’s a pun, a bit of amusing wordplay, not a reference to some Germanic master-race. That this little witticism should have been twisted to produce misunderstandings that would lead humanity down the road to the Somme and Auschwitz is almost too disturbing to contemplate.
Another famous phrase coined by Nietzsche is ‘The Last Men’ or in German ‘Die letzten Menschen’. When you start reading about a world populated by ‘The Last Men’ at the end of Also Sprach Zarathustra you begin to think that you are reading a sci-fi fantasy describing an apocalyptic vision of the future where the only survivors of the human race are the scary ‘Last Men’.
But what Nietzsche is really saying is that ‘The Last Men’ are the opposite of the ‘Ubermensch’. The Ubermensch is always trying to improve herself, because she knows she can and should do better. However the ‘Last Men’ think they know everything there is to know, they’ve already reached the last stage of their development, they just want to sit back on their laurels and see things tick over the way they always have. We all know people like this – people who won’t try anything new because they fear to fail, who are full of arrogance about their own achievements. They are ‘the last men’.
But where’s the joke? I didn’t get it for a long time. Then in a minor attempt at ubermensch behaviour, I went to brush up my schoolboy German at a night class. We were listening to a taped recording of one of those impossibly unrealistic conversations between a Herr and Frau Muller when I suddenly heard one of the voices say ‘Das ist das Letzte!’ Literally, ‘That is the last one!’ I asked the teacher what the phrase meant. Apparently it is an idiom meaning ‘That’s the pits! That’s as low as it gets!’ So finally I understood Nietzsche’s joke. The last men were the pits because they think they know it all and have nowhere else to go.
All of Nietzsche’s writings are littered with such wordplay and much of it is impossible to translate. But there are many other central ideas, whose humour is misunderstood even when there is no barrier of translation. Take for example the famous line ‘the Death of God’. If you were talking about any other philosopher before Nietzsche they would not be writing of the ‘Death of God’ but of the ‘non-existence of God’. Yet the ‘Death of God’ has a quite different meaning. Non-existence is a dry observation of empirical reality. The ‘Death of God’ is an intrinsically humorous, satirical comment on the death of a supposedly ‘immortal’ being. Such a being used to ‘live’ in the beliefs of the religiously minded, but now science and the Theory of Evolution has bumped him off. It’s humour, but the phrase also tells you that the exterior world is a construct of your own mind.
You might think that what I am saying here is that Nietzsche expressed his ideas in a humorous fashion, but actually I wish to say something very different: for Nietzsche, humour was intrinsic and essential to the idea itself. If you take humour away from the idea – as countless academics and intellectuals have done when discussing Nietzsche in arch solemnity – you have misunderstood the idea itself.
Many philosophers, like Bertrand Russell who suffered from the delusion that the world could be grasped through logic and rationalism, dismissed Nietzsche because he wrote in such a way. But actually Nietzsche is the greatest of all philosophers because he grasped a profound truth: the human condition is an intrinsically humorous one. To get to the heart of humanity you have to express that humour. Nietzsche here reaches the same conclusion as Zen philosophy that saw humour – expressed in riddles and comic drawings – as the best means of getting to the very heart of what it meant to be human.
Already by the time of the First World War, Nietzschean thought was perceived in Britain as being the brutal, egomaniacal engine behind German militaristic expansion. Marshalled against it was supposed to be the free alliance of the nations conjoined in the British empire, whose soldiers were, until 1916 at least, all volunteers pitted against the German conscript army.
Yet the reality is that a familiarity with Nietzsche’s writings would have immediately revealed that Nietzsche had no time at all for nationalism and militarism. The problem was that his writings were mostly being read by exactly the kind of smug ideologues that he loathed.
In their propaganda war against the Germans the British needed an ‘axis of evil’ to make as a target and with it Nietzsche and his concept of the ‘ubermensch’ was portrayed as fuelling a belief in German superiority. His talk of the ‘last men’ meanwhile was portrayed as a dark threat to wipe out existing civilization and leave it as rubble. He became known as the man who thought of the ‘master-race’. It was almost as if there was a deliberate desire on the part of the British to misunderstand individuals like Nietzsche and through him to vilify the German threat.
And the ultimately irony is that by misrepresenting Nietzsche’s ideas in this way and using it as a propaganda tool against the Germans, the Nazis eventually started believing the twisted misrepresentation of Nietzsche’s ideas and believing that they truly were the ‘master-race’.
The disastrous twinning of nationalism with Nietzsche’s individualistic philosophy is generally understood, but equally important was the way in which humour was stripped from Nietzsche’s ideas and imported into the zeitgeist in grim seriousness. A widespread belief in the solemn destiny of the nation was a crucial part of the cocktail of ideas that fuelled the outbreak of war. Ironically today, when we ‘remember’ the wars, we abide by this obeisance to seriousness, solemnity and the nation: the very things that caused the wars in the first place.
But I think that if we wish to avoid war, we should remember what Nietzsche really had to say and recall his celebration of the individual, his advocating of permanent self-improvement, his love of life and belief in embracing danger and dangerous thought. But above all, we need to ‘remember’ his focus on the profoundly humorous heart of the human condition and never lose our own ability to perceive the intrinsic humour in the world around us.
I like Nietzsche’s jokes. And I find many of Nietzsche's ideas liberating. But had Nietzsche lived a little longer and seen the way his philosophy was twisted by nationalism and grim ‘seriousness’ – the very things he most despised - into the horrors of the twentieth century, I suspect he would have probably thought that the joke was very much on us.