Tag Archives: Friedrich Nietzsche

Started reading Derrida, the biography by Benoît Peeters. Hesitantly at first, for I thought I would not need info on the life of the man whose work always challenges me. But won over when reading, on the first page that Derrida himself had said: ‘you must […] put philosophers’ biographies back in the picture, and the commitments, particularly political commitments, that they sign in their own names […].’ And on the second: ‘In his view, autobiographical writing was the genre, the one which had first given him a hankering to write, and never ceased to haunt him. Ever since his teens, he had been dreaming of a sort of immense journal of his life and thought, of an uninterrupted, polymorphous text […]’

So why, would I, a lover of (auto)biography, had hesitated to read his? I suppose out of some fear that when I would discover the ‘secrets’ behind his philosophical texts, they would become less cryptical and challenging. Like I always feared to write or even speak about the happiest childhood years I spent in a village along the banks of the river Maas. In both cases we deal with a source. A source of happiness, a source of thinking, a source of selfhood. It should not be dammed in, boxed in, written upon, for that might make it flow less freely. Recently, and now again, I discovered the self-deception in this line of thought. Good texts are porous, and leave the stream unhindered, only attract attention to it, like a beautiful bridge to a river.

There is more in the connection of Derrida and (auto)biography. When I read the words by his commentator Bennington, cited by Peeters on page 6, a chord of recognition was struck. Bennington wondered how to write on the life of the deconstructionist: ‘Is it possible to conceive of a multiple, layered but not hierarchised, fractal biography which would escape the totalising and teleological commitments which inhabit the genre from the start?’. Now I have to become autobiographical. It was in 2002 or 2003 that I first started reading the Vita by Victor Klemperer, about whom and which I have written before. What fascinated me was that Klemperer somehow did that – he kept to the traditional form of the autobiography, its chronology, its tropes, like trying to understand one’s parents to understand oneself – but all the same interrupting the totalizing narrator that he embodied, and sometimes interrupting the interruptor. He probably got the idea for this from the plays of Bertolt Brecht that he watched in the early German Democratic Republic. Thus he found the philosopher’s stone for writing a post-modern (auto)biography.

When reading Klemperer I knew: this is it! This is what I want to do when I am old. I am not so sure anymore now, but the idea of a ‘multiple, layered, not hierarchised, fractal’ biography has fascinated me from that time. Klemperer’s novelties were the deconstruction/verfremdung concerning the narrator’s voice, and at the same time the deconstruction/verfremdung concerning chronology. What I was trying to figure out was, how one could write separate lines of a life, going back and forth trough time, that related to different themes and important relations of the subject. For, like, telling the story of a person from the point of his work would be very different from telling it with a focus on his religious development, or his relation to his mother, his longtime friend, etcetera. A person can only be approached through the many faces (s)he shows. And these again change face through the process of interpretation – as the point of view of the narrator shifts according to the events and moods in the narrator’s life.

I never managed to solve the puzzle up till now, perhaps someone else has done it, or is doing it right now, and I don’t know of it. The writer of Derrida obviously abstained from it – for a reason that I like: not wanting to mimic a Derridian style, which ‘does not seem the best way of serving him today’. This is not only true for serving Derrida, but for holding on to something which was important to him, I think, as a lover of Nietzsche: that everyone should become her/his own. Doing just that, is the only way to understand the ‘posthumous friend’ (Peeters calls Derrida thus) a true thinker might become to me. As Nietzsche said in these famous verses:

Leg ich mich aus, so leg ich mich hinein:
Ich kann nicht selbst mein Interprete sein.
Doch wer nur steigt auf seiner eignen Bahn,
Trägt auch mein Bild zu hellerm Licht hinan.

Translated freely, this reads:

Interpreting myself, I project myself.That’s why I can’t interpret myself. But who climbs his own path, will also carry my image towards a brighter light.

Do these verses hold the secret to a post-totalizing (auto)biography? Pointing towards the inter-subjective and perspectivated character of understanding, they underline what first was understood falsely as the ‘death of the subject’ in postmodernity. The subject is not dead. It is not its own possession. It has no clear place it inhabits. It is an intersubject. In my 2005 book Return of Nature I explored the idea of the intersubject. An (auto)biography would also be a great place for such an exploration. While the impossibility of delineating and organizing a lived life in a final system of meaning shows how it (every individual life) overflows constantly in the lives of others, human and animal, in interaction with an inanimate environment too – and how the lives of these ‘externalia’ overflow at the same time in the life of the subject. The hero of a life’s story is also the one who suffers, from events and actions (s)he did not choose. The ‘deeds and works’ of ‘a great man’, as it used to be called, are only the chance instances where (s)he succeeded in reconstructing and redecorating fate to get a unique tasty personal flavor. A ‘Derrida’ flavor, or a ‘Klemperer’ flavor. Without such flavor, Derrida would admit to this, I think, we do not have general truth and universal history – we have nothing.

Citations are from Derrida by Benoît Peeters, first published in 2010, in English in 2013 by Polity Press.

The Dutchman, wrote Immanuel Kant in his Anthropology, is only interested in the useful. ‘A great man signifies exactly the same to him as a rich man, by a friend he means his correspondent, and a visit that makes him no profit is very boring to him.’ Although, being Dutch, and loving any kind of humorous thought that relativizes the idea that ‘my’ people, race, sex, or other group to which I could be ascribed might be better or wiser than those to which others are said to belong – the things that ‘our’ (Western European) most important Enlightenment thinker wrote on peoples and races makes me feel ashamed of ‘us’ philosophers.

Immanuel Kant is well-known for his revolutionary appeal to each man that he should think for himself (and the famous Monty-Python clip from Life of Brian illustrates how frustrating making such an appeal can be). This was not just an ideological move, he founded this appeal on his very complex and systematic philosophy. This philosophy is often summarized in his ‘four questions’: what can I know (epistemology), what should I do (ethics), what is there to hope for (metaphysics/religion/spirituality), and who or what is ‘man’ (as the human being was called in pre-feminist times). The final question was, in Kant’s eyes, the summarization and presupposition of all three others. It is man that knows, acts, and hopes – and understanding man is therefore understanding the world. This makes anthropology (the knowledge of man) not just a discipline among others, for it digs into the enigma that we pose to ourselves – being conscious and only thus being ‘in the world’.

In the same book in which one can find the chit-chat on Dutchmen and Frenchmen and Germans, one finds a critical observation like the following: Anthropology […] can exist either in a physiological or in a pragmatic point of view. – Physiological knowledge of the human being concerns the investigation of what nature makes of the human being; pragmatic, the investigation of what he as a free-acting being makes of himself, or can and should make of himself.’ What is philosophically most revolutionary and interesting in this sentence is the idea that there are different ways of knowing, which produce different kinds of knowledge – and actually different domains of reality which we can enter or leave at the moment that we adopt or leave behind one or the other way of knowing. We can know the human being/mankind from the outside, so to speak, as a natural object – empirically. Or we can know it from the inside, as a free agent.

Many philosophers have returned to this strange potential to flip from being an agent to being an object of observation. George Herbert Mead, for instance has distinguished between the ‘me’ (the self as observed) and the ‘I’ (the acting self). The agent, the ‘real’ I, however, can not be known – in the sense that we normally understand knowing as explaining by means of causality. The I is free, and distances itself from external causes. It never knows what it will choose. Psychologically: when we choose something, we notice it when we already have done so. Choosing precedes that kind of observational knowledge. Kant, now, claimed that we can know about choosing – but in another manner than the normal empirical manner. This kind of knowing he calls reason. Through reason I can know what I, as a free-acting being make of myself, or can and should make of myself. In reason, therefore, lie the foundations of morality, of education, and of civilization. Beautiful thoughts that have appealed to many great minds through the centuries, and nowadays form the basis of the global belief in education, development, and the necessary progress of reason.

The enigma is, how a critical philosopher like Kant could mix up, in one book, these core Enlightenment insights, and gossip like the above about the Dutch. The gossip is more serious still when he looks into peoples farther away from his own tribe – the Germans (more exactly the Prussians). Not in the Anthropology itself, but in related and earlier works one can find outrightly racist remarks, where he writes about ‘the negroes of Africa’ that their belief in fetishes is ‘a sort of idolatry that sinks as deeply into the trifling as appears to be possible to human nature.’ Remarks like these provide ammunition for those present-day thinkers who criticize the whole endeavour of Enlightenment as a colonialist enterprise, which has betrayed it’s own lofty ideals – as they are only the soft side of the exploitation of those who were declared to not partake in reason.

They (those criticists), pointing to the parochialism of Kantian Enlightenment, have an early predecessor. Max Scheler, who dedicated a stout volume to the critical analysis of (and finding an alternative to) Kant’s philosophy of morality and agency, already before 1916, wrote: ‘Only through the reasons contained in the foundations of Kant’s ethics […] can it be shown, psychologically and historically, that it was the roots of the ethnically and historically very limited […] ethos of the people and state of a specific epoch in the history of Prussia that Kant presumptuously dared to seek in a pure and universally valid human reason.’

There arise deeper questions, now, however. First concerning knowledge through reason. Foucault, who wrote one of his dissertation studies on the Anthropology of Kant, wrote (in a later work) that ‘we should abandon a whole tradition that allows us to imagine that knowledge can exist where the power relations are suspended […] [and] admit that power produces knowledge.’ Concluding his work on the Anthropology he made it consistently clear: Kant’s thought revolved in an anthropological illusion – believing that through man we can know the world. His question ‘what is the human being?’ led in the end to Nietzsches answer: ‘the Übermensch’. And who is this superman? He/she is the one who has become enlightened about this: that everything he/she poses as truth is an interpretation. That there is no final truth behind the endless interpretations the human being produces. And the ‘super’ in his/her name indicates the psychological strength to endure and live in this unending uncertainty.

So, if Foucault is right, where does this leave those of us who were placed by Kant outside the community of reasonable people? Does it make sense to just cry out that the Enlightenment was an imperialistic movement which used Prussian morality as it’s ideological weapons? And say that bringing the empire down will bring a new freedom? Or is there still something else about the enigma? Is it possible that there is a truth (a real one) to be found in the works that sprung from German soil? It might be this: Kant’s words were not final, they have shown to be open to reconstruction. And their appeal to self-governance have shown to contain the very weapons to break down the parochial, misogynist, racist, and eurocentric prejudices in which they have been packaged. Even if Nietzsche was right that no truth can be final, the emancipatory force of the Enlightenment ideal is open ended. It can be interpreted anew over and over again. The boundaries of reason can be redrawn (even to encompass the so called fetishist idolatry, perhaps). And even if the Enlightenment ideal will know an end, like everything in history, the end might not be here yet, as the ideal still functions as a tool in the hands of those whom Kant did not really see fit to take it in their hands.


Sources used:

Immanuel Kant Anthropology from a Pragmatic Point of View, Cambridge University Press, 2006

Emmanuel Eze Race and the Enlightenment. A Reader, Blackwell Publishing, 1997

Michel Foucault Introduction to Kant’s Anthropology, Semiotext(e), 2008

Michel Foucault Discipline and Punish. The Birth of the Prison, Penguin, 1977

Max Scheler Formalism in Ethics and Material Value Ethics, Northwestern University Press, 1973

Did you immediately get the references to other philosophers that this title implies? Did you think of Bertrand Russell’s book ‘Why I am not a Christian’? Or rather of Friedrich Nietzsche’s essays titled ‘Why I am so clever!’ and ‘Why I write such good books!’? Well, I did, after I thought it up. Russell’s text was meant to give a criticism of Christianity, of course, and the personalized sentence was meant to give it urgency, and to draw attention. Nietzsche’s texts did more, philosophically. They criticized the idea that philosophy can be detached from the individual that writes it, and in the meantime they make you smile, at least they did that to me, as the irreverent boasting so strongly goes against the grain of the courteous style of classical philosophy. Untill Nietzsche philosophers succesfully upheld the image that they could erase themselves as individuals, giving the weight of universality to their thoughts, and in the meantime, through the backdoor so to speak, bestow fame upon their own, impersonalized selves as ‘thinkers’. Plato was ‘a great thinker’, it is said. Never ‘he was a great man’.

Since Nietzsche, and to be sure some others from his times, we can not get rid of the nagging truth that there is a man, or a woman, speaking in those venerable texts. And of recent, with the appearance of Heidegger’s notebooks, it gets more and more difficult to separate thought from life. Feuerbach already was very clear in this point, of course, the thinker whose words I took as the motto of this very blog: ‘try not to think as a thinker, but as a human being.’ What you feel, what you have enjoyed and what you have suffered not only will appear in your work, but you should let your work profit from it, more, express it in your work, to let others get a fair view of your experiences and be able to dialogue with your thoughts in the context of your life, and possibly to learn from them.

Just a few days ago I realized why I am a philosopher. And by that I do not mean to say why I became one, why I decided to go and study philosophy a long time ago – this had a very simple reason: I had the impression that the study of philosophy would help me the most to better my writing, which was my main goal when I was young. And it did. I also do not mean to say anything about the advantageous effects being a philosopher might have – like being able to clear up minds, my own and other’s, or being able to enhance the knowledge of why our world is like it is, etcetera. These are all positive effects of being a philosopher, to my view. What I mean with the title of my post of today is, however, something else: just what makes me passionate about what I am doing, right now, every day anew, if possible. What makes me enthusiastic. Why I LIKE it. I just suddenly saw that doing philosophy to me is the possibility of being in an adventure. The adventure of the mind, so to say.

Feyerabend said it very clearly, in his ‘Against Method’, although he was speaking about science: only ‘a little brainwashing [makes] the history of science duller, simpler, more uniform, more ‘objective’ [than it actually is]’. In fact it is ‘as complex, chaotic, full of mistakes, and entertaining as the ideas it contains’. The same goes for my pathway through philosophy: it is complex, sometimes chaotic, it contains mistakes, and it is entertaining. And I want to add this: it is exciting. Learning something new from time to time, seeing new connections, after having read so many books and articles some times without really knowing why – untill they suddenly and unexpectedly get connected amongst each other, creating new views to understand things which were irritatingly incomprehensible before. I just like it, like wandering, not knowing where I will go when I start out. The best views are the unexpected ones. The sudden glittering sunlight on a canal, when I take an alternative route with my bike. Finding an unknown part of town, or of countryside. Meeting people who have a view of life I did not know before. Learning from grief and disappointment, from success, and from shame. In doing philosophy, which is always mixed with all these personal events: suddenly getting enlightened about something which seemed closed to understanding for years on end. Yes! I like it!


In all these past months, since the summer holidays, the diaries of French literature professor Victor Klemperer (1881-1960) have been my evening reading matter. I have followed him observing life in Germany under nazi rule from 1933 on and am presently witnessing his witnessing, in 1957, his own growing confusion on political life in the DDR, communist eastern Germany. From all his notes one thought of his is central to me: that we can never understand history. As he says it: we cannot understand it when we are living it, because then the distance to interpret what is happening fails us; and we cannot understand it from a distance, because then the actual observations fail us. His one goal in life seems to have been, besides all his other ambitions in work and in his personal relations, to overcome this paradox, as he was always dreaming to rework his diaries in encompassing memoirs, which should combine the distance of looking back and be fed from the proximity of his notes. He only completed his memoirs untill 1918 – but from hindsight his diaries, thanks to his younger second wife, who made it possible to have them published more than 30 years after his death, seem even more important for us, who live with the heritage of those days.

His was a real paradox, as the impossibility to understand history is only that for one man or woman, but when we understand knowledge as a common possession of human beings, it is possible to make something from the (near) real-time observations of a good chroniqueur and the interpretive power of us, who come after and look back. Still this does not mean that history can be an objective science. The hermeneutic aspect can never be overcome, not only because it is impossible to reach the objective understanding that Klemperer was striving for, but also because history itself is always a force in the political life as it unfolds uncessingly. Here we should acknowledge the importance of the revolutionary view Nietzsche put forward in his 1874 study On the Advantage and Disadvantage of History for Life. According to him, history has three functions for life: a monumental one, an antiquarian, and a critical one, of which the last-mentioned is of course the most interesting. We need it, because, in order to be able to live, human beings need the to be able to drag history before the court, torture it, and judge it. This is not just a destructive process – Nietzsche keeps his eye on the possibility of the arrival of a ‘true civilization’ – which is not a eschatological necessity, but something humans need to believe in, I think. As a preparation for this arrival, again, we need (in Nietzsche’s words) an ‘increase in honesty’ – an honesty which will bring down hardened cultural constructions which do not serve life anymore.

The great deconstructive/destructive process in understanding history in our times seems to me to deal with the double helix of modern western belief in rational and technological progress and it’s accompanying oppression of every culture (and the people who live in a culture considered as such) which it deemed non-rational and technologically backward. An indispensable read in this respect forms the work of Sandra Harding – who has aimed to understand ‘modern science’ from the colonialist and masculinist frameworks which were at work in them: ‘It turned out that these two great processes marking “modernity” – the emergence of modern sciences in Europe and European expansion – provided crucial cognitive resources for each other as well as economic and political ones’.

In the end, however, criticism was not the final goal for Nietzsche, and history will have to move beyond the criticism of colonialism and imperialism – for the benefit of life. A thorough and creative attempt to do so can be found in an even more recent work, which inspired the title of this post, The Politics of History in Contemporary Africa, by Michael Onyebuchi Eze. The trail he leaves in this work, as he moves through such questions as postcolonialist politics, the problematic of the ‘Invention of Africa’ and of finding a perspective beyond that of the ‘other’ of eurocentric thought, proves his work to be a worthy recreation of this Nietzschean dream: to try to press for more honesty in search of a truer civilization, while searching to ‘[…] “relocate” African historiography in a manner that would open spaces for fresh air, fresh perspectives.’ This search is not only of interest for those who ‘have an interest in Africa’, but for all those who have an interest in history as such, not ignoring the political forces that are at work in it, but critically examining them and taking responsibility for the collective task to create more civilized political goals in dialogue with the past.

Nietzsche’s work On the Advantage and Disadvantage of History for Lifeoriginally published in 1874, can be accessed online:

Michael Onyebuchi Eze’s Study The Politics of History in Contemporary Africa was published by Palgrave Macmillan in 2010

Victor Klemperer’s Diaries and Memoirs I read in their original German version. They are also partly available in English

Sandra Harding wrote Is Science Multicultural? Postcolonialisms, feminisms, and epistemologies, Indiana University Press, 1998

At nineteen, I first read Nietzsche’s Antichrist, and read it in one go, excited. I had just decided to switch from sociology to philosophy, so I did not have any tools yet to analyse or interpret what I was reading. Let alone to understand why it excited me. This much I can say from hindsight, though: I was not excited because the book overthrew or hurt my religiosity – I felt rather confirmed in my religious attitude by it, which seemed frightening, though, because of Nietzsche’s reputation. But that was all – and being the type that always aims to understand what I am doing or thinking, I decided to put this book away for later, and not to think about it, until I would be able to know what I was reading.

Now I am at a point that I can explain why Nietzsche’s text attracted me so much: because it contains a profoundly pragmatist theology, written by someone with a deep understanding of Christianity. Let me put this straight from the beginning: Nietzsche’s proclamation of the death of God is mostly still not understood – when it is read as an attack on religiosity. It is, instead, from a wider reading of his works clear that it is an attack on what European Enlightenment, especially the philosophy of Kant (remember his famous description of Enlightenment’s turn away from life as becoming ‘pale, Königsbergian’), did to religion: transform living religiosity into a philosophical play with concepts – killing God by incarcerating and starving him in terms like ‘substance’, ‘transcendence’ or, worse, ‘transcendentality’. ‘God is dead’ was just his description of what was happening in European culture, and especially (philosophical) theology.

All the same, Nietzsche wrote a Christian theology himself – in his Antichrist -, and it was of course philosophical too, but in a radically different temperament than that of the mainstream philosophy of his days. In fact, his approach was pragmatist avant la lettre – and radically so. Directly after his claim that ‘there has been only one Christian, and he died at the cross’, he gives his reason for dismissing Christianity’s claim to follow Jesus: it’s mistake was to think that belief, like belief in the redemption through Christ, would be Christian: ‘only Christian practice, a life like he who died at the cross lived, is Christian.’ And what is a Christian practice? It is a ‘doing, more appropriate a not-doing […], an alternative way of being.’ What Jesus did, or did not, to his view, was fight the way things went. His ‘Christianity’ was to completely accept what happened. He even calls the aborted movement which Jesus started ‘a new, a completely original initiative towards a buddhist peace movement.’

Here, although Nietzsche sees Jesus’ initiative as part of a cultural decadence (stopping to fight for one’s own cultural ‘truths’) – his Jesus clearly echoes his own ideal of ‘saying yes’ to life. Nietzsche saw clearly that, from a pragmatist standpoint, taking real experience and practice which goes along with it more seriously than theoretical ‘beliefs’, Jesus’ good news was all about a real transformation of life, here and now – a spiritual happiness here and now, instead of a theoretical belief in rewards in heaven. He had discovered, according to Nietzsche, a way to ‘live the unity of God and human being’, among other things by doing away with the concept of ‘debt’ or ‘sin’ – and this was, says Nietzsche, his ‘good news’. We must also remember that to Nietzsche, ‘decadence’ is not ‘bad’ as such, it is just what happens in cultures at a certain point of their existence. Beyond good and bad, we can assess that certain moments in history provide certain opportunities – and the decadent ones provide the opportunity to transcend ‘ego’, as both Buddha and Jesus understood and practiced. To practice peace, and leave the spirit of revenge alone.

From his point of view, Nietzsche interpreted historical Christianity as a movement which took revenge, revenge against life, against ‘those who killed Jesus’, to it’s heart, and therefore could not bring to fruition the discovery of Jesus, whom it ‘killed’  like Enlightenment killed God – by transforming him into a unique godly person, thereby covering up his discovery that we can all find unity with God and be free. As a young boy, Friedrich is said to have been so devout, that he was nicknamed ‘the little Jesus’. It is too easy to see his later work as revenge against his strict pietist protestant upbringing. We understand him better, I think, as someone who just had a very hard time to articulate boldly what he understood from what he took in in childhood, against the mainstream, and therefore had to hammer away to sculpt what he felt into words. Therefore we can understand why he concludes his book mourning bitterly that we count time by the so called beginning of Christianity. If that was Christianity, he felt, we should rather start to count anew from this day, from it’s final day. And make a new start – revaluing practice and experience over theory and belief.

The citations from Nietzsche’s Antichrist. Curse on Christianity are my own translations from the beautiful Dutch translation by Pé Hawinkels.

Friedrich Nietzsche lived from 1844 untill 1900, and published the Antichrist seven years after writing it (1888), in 1895.

For years, Lampedusa to me was the name of an Italian writer, Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa, the count of Lampedusa. I must have read his novel, The Leopard, somewhere in the nineties, but I have forgotten what it was about. A lovely, illustrious name, Lampedusa. Like many Italian words or names, it flows through your mouth like good wine when you say them, leaving you with a sense of beauty. To try to recapture my lost memory of the writer and his book, I google him as I know him: ‘count of Lampedusa’ – and immediately find how meanings change: the first thing that comes up is ‘body count from Lampedusa’…

Would this Italian island have been dreaming of being just a nice sleepy holiday resort, it has now become the symbolic tombstone of the tens of thousands that drown in view of the European side of the Mediterranean Sea. They drown not just near Lampedusa, they drown also on the open sea, or near Gibraltar, or near some other place I before would have associated with sunshine and leisure. I think I can never swim in the Mediterranean any more, in this watery graveyard of so many refugees and so called ‘illegal’ migrants. I felt this when a good friend on a similar trip, a young man with so much promise in him, in his eager and concerned mind, drowned in that same sea, now one year ago. I still mourn him, and already thought I should write a post for the anniversary of his sad end. We still miss your presence in this world, Malick Fall.

Why do they take the risk, one wonders? Knowing that their possible luck is just an uneven chance. Those that do enter the boats are mostly not the most destitute refugees, not the mothers with hungry children or the sick men who have lost all their possessions on the way. They are the strong ones, for a large part young men, those who can pay the boatsmen their expensive fare. They are like the scouts of a silent army, trying to find the cracks in ‘Fortress Europe’. Lampedusa is a name of freedom to them – the freedom to do what humans always do: migrate to interact, to find out what’s going on beyond the horizon, to try and find new ways to live or to survive.

When for so many this name has turned into their symbolic tombstone – the name by which those many nameless will be remembered, it bitterly becomes clear how greatest hope and hopelessness are closely linked. It reminds me of those words of Nietzsche, where he says of churches in the nihilistic age: they are the graves and tombstones of God. The dark interior of romanic architecture comes to mind: it is easy to imagine that such a manmade place, the place where humans sing the glory of their God, is also always at the same time His grave – the momument of his absence.

Derrida properly understood this when he composed the first pages of his famous essay ‘Differance’, on the letter ‘A’ which he described as a ‘tacit monument, I would even say a pyramid’. Of it he writes a bit further along: ‘This stone – provided that one knows how to decipher its inscription – is not far from announcing the death of the tyrant.’ The tyrant being, as I tried to decipher in my post on White Mythology, the false ideology of a culture which dreams that it is universal – white culture, dreaming it is the dream of any human being. It seems to be, when one thinks of all those aiming ‘to get in’. It is not – as migration is always, whether failed or illegal or whatever, a game that already has changed the conditions of interaction – it is an ‘act’ of differance, of deconstruction. Tombstone of freedom, Lampedusa silently announces the end of its restriction.

Which brings me back to the count, the count of the same name, of whom I found this citation: ‘If we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change’ – and this goes for both parties in this deadly game: those who enter will not find the earthly paradise for which they gambled their life, those who try to keep the walls of the fortress into place, will find them stifling the costly air of freedom inside them. Europe as the paradise of reason and freedom is no more. And those mourned dead have shown it.

Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa lived from 1896 untill 1957. He got famous through his only novel, The Leopard (1958, originally published in Italian as Il Gattopardo), which has for its subject the downfall of Sicilian aristocracy.

Malick Fall lived from 1985 untill 2012, a promising student and an original thinker, with a great heart for his friends and family, for his country, his continent, and for humankind. Your death shocked all of us deeply, Malick.

We can not return to nature – I once read words to that effect in Nietzsche’s works, which struck me. In the Seventies (when I grew up) ‘return to nature’ was a popular slogan in hippie circles. It tried to call a halt to the rapid invasion of technology in every aspect of human life. It turned against leading lives in concrete buildings, doing administrative jobs in airconditioned atmospheres, eating tasteless food which was grown in glasshouses. Although I was sympathetic to the search for a good life, and saw the flaws of much of modern life, I mistrusted the belief of many hippies that they could leave them behind. I sought to critically examine the whole matter first, and a first call to do so came from Nietzsche’s words.

Nietzsche’s thought has been controversial ever since German fascism tried to provide itself with philosophical ornament by twisting it’s words to sustain it’s ‘Blut und Boden’ ideology. Nietzsche’s texts do not defend any ideology, however. When one has learned to undergo their tactics of throwing you in different directions whenever you thought you found ‘truth’, it might dawn that his method is like that of the Buddhist master: learning to distrust any truth as possibly being dressed-up ideology. So, we can not return to nature – this was Nietzsche’s reaction to Rousseau’s naive (and dangerous) idea of the original good man, which he unmasked to be ideological. The importance of this reaction lies in the discovery that one should not naively turn against any so-called unnatural life style without investigating the political forces at work in it’s criticism.

I have returned to the theme of nature (and humanity’s relationship to it) over and over – somehow intuiting that it touches on the greatest questions/problems of our present world. An author who challenged me to probe further however was not a professional philosopher, but one of the greatest writers of the twentieth century: Victor Klemperer. A writer who reflected deeply on his times, as he survived in the lion’s den (being a critical professor and a jew in nazi Germany), writing down it’s inner developments day by day. Some fifteen years ago, when reading his Curriculum Vitae (the autobiography he wrote when teaching and doing research was interdicted to him), I got stuck on a passage which was the most beautiful and horrific that I had ever read. When describing his first trip to the country in his teenage years, he lets the chroniqueur be interrupted by the professor in him, who voices his distrust of images of nature in literature for their superficiality – and then the victim of nazism in him interrupts the professor by reminding him of the misuse of ‘nature’ in the present time, to be finally interrupted once more by the writer of the text himself. In my translation it’s conclusion reads: ‘And at the profoundest level I am so suspicious, since every emphasis of experiencing nature almost inevitably turns into emphasizing the connectedness to nature. In the name of this connectedness however, and the ‘return to nature’, all the bestiality has been unchained, that – but I am writing ahead of my Curriculum for many chapters now, only to escape the poisonous gases of the present times.’

This passage has troubled me for years and years, for it leaves the question behind how one could (should) describe the enjoyment of nature, which Klemperer obviously has experienced deeply and often, in such a way that it does not fall into the political/ideological trap of nazism and other cruel movements. Only recently I found some clues, while reading Klemperer’s diaries (1933-1945). First he notes down, on the 19th of July 1937 why ‘return to nature is the greatest unnaturalness’, when it refers to the farmer as leading the natural life: ‘No human activity as such is closer or more distant to nature as any other.’ On the 19th of February 1938 he then writes down his unbelief in the evolutionary direction of ‘vegetative unconsciousness, instinctive life, conscious life’. He rather sees a circle: ‘unconscious, conscious and again unconscious, for the highest aspect of the spiritual is inspiration, which is just as unconscious as the growing of one’s hair. Which doesn’t say anything against reason. […] Without the unconscious, feeling, inspiration, naturalness, etc. etc. art turns into babbling and unart, life into arbitrariness, destruction, guillotine.’ And finally he concludes on the 10th of January 1939: ‘the return to nature proves itself a thousand times as going against nature, because development is according to nature and its repression against it.’

It is not easy to make sense of these remarks, not because they are inconsistent, but because of the deep sense of humanity they transfer, a sense still uncommon in discourse on this subject. Klemperer warns against the ideological newspeak of his days which disguises it’s murderous intentions behind images of a mythological, natural past. A true understanding of nature should not feed on the opposition of reason and feeling. Nature is not hate against certain people, groups, ‘races’, but the enjoyment and development of the richness of life. One should almost say (but that is a rare word in Klemperer’s cautious language): It is love.

Victor Klemperer lived from 1881-1960. He was a professor of French literature, who survived the genocidal politics of nazi Germany protected by his marriage to his ‘Aryan’ wife Eva. Only in the mid-nineties of the twentieth century his autobiography as well as his diaries were published and became a literary hit.

My translations are from the German editions of his Curriculum Vitae (Aufbau Taschenbuch Verlag 1996) and his Diaries 1933-1945 (Ich will Zeugnis ablegen bis zum letzten, Aufbau Taschenbuch Verlag 1995 – revised edition 1999). In 2005 I published a philosophy of nature in my Terugkeer van de natuur (see ‘All books’ in the sidebar) – it’s title (as is the title of this post) is an expression of my mistrust in the idea of the return to nature.

A student came to me and said he wanted to write his minor thesis in ethics on suicide. But listening to him, it was quite clear he would not be interested in the sophisticated arguments of official ethicists like Bernard Williams – he wanted to delve into the question of the value of life, and ask whether one could find some existential arguments against suicide. As it often goes, somewhere from the depths of my memory came a name: ‘you should read Camus! He is a rather neglected philosopher (at least in my country), but I know he wrote sensible things on this subject.’

I had never read Camus, however, it was just some implicit knowledge from my student days that made his name come up. But I had to know now whether what I had said made sense, so I started to read his ‘Myth of Sisyphus’. And thus the book started: ‘there is but one truly serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide.’ Reading on, one finds that Camus takes the subject broadly: it is not the act of suicide which interests him, but  the psychological, or rather the existential condition which sees no sense in living. His is a philosophy which does not remain in the borders of technical reasoning, but which draws from literature and life’s experience to penetrate the condition of real human beings. Thus he comes to his clear description of a well-known state of many modern humans, living in an ‘exile without remedy [being] deprived of the memory of a lost home or the hope of a promised land.’ This, he calls, is the feeling of absurdity.

In fact, what Camus describes is an awareness of the limits of the religion of modernity: the belief in the absolute power of reason. This religion tried to teach men that they could solve all problems of existence by reason, and its aide: technology. The problems of hunger, of communicating and trading over long distances, of sadness, of disease, of… death? Well, death cannot be solved in any way by reason or technology. And what is more: technology and reason provide no hope (as traditional religion might do) that there is or has been any state of comfort (home, in a spiritual sense) accessible to us. We just live and die and that’s it.

Nietzsche, a main inspiration to Camus, had shown the same already. His answer to the comfortless condition of a modern man (i.e. to the one conscious of the limits of reason) would be endurance. Power, keeping oneself together through will-power, in the midst of the harshness of our fate. Camus, however, has another answer. He was a revolutionary in the heart (which Nietzsche clearly was not). Modern man, he holds, cannot retreat (without giving up his honesty) to easy dreams of eternal life, nor is he honest when he chooses to give up, when he chooses suicide. But he can do more than will his way through life: he can keep up the work of toiling towards a better life and protesting the injustice of his fate at the same time, without ever being certain his efforts will lead to anything.

Albert Camus lived from 1913-1960. All citations are taken from his The Myth of Sisyphus, Vintage Books, New York, 1983 (original French edition 1942).


I dedicate this piece to the memory of my young friend Malick, who drowned at age 26, trying to reach Europe from Africa by fisherman’s boat, while being allowed, just because of his place of birth, no legal way in. He studied computer science, but in his heart he was a philosopher, who analyzed today’s world from a perspective that refused to be just local. Reading his posts (re)introduced me to many forgotten revolutionary and existential thinkers.