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Aus hohen Bergen

As Adrian del Caro, at the end of his translation of Beyond Good and Evil (Stanford Univer­sity Press), chose to preserve the rhyme scheme of the ending “Nachgesang” at the expense of Nietzsche’s meaning,** I thought I would try my hand at a literal, deliber­ately artless translation. (Adrian del Caro did not attempt to preserve Nietzsche’s meter, ren­dering his translation accidentally artless.)

**I give an example after I give my own translation.

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From high Mountains.

Aftersong

Oh life’s midday! Festive time!
…..Oh summer garden!
Restless happiness in standing and peering and waiting: –
The friends I await, poised day and night,
Where do you stay friends? Come! It’s time! It’s time!

Was it not for you that the glacier’s grey
…..Today adorns itself with roses?
You the brook seeks, longingly rushes,
The wind and clouds thrust higher today into blue
To peer at you from more distant bird’s view.

In the highest place, for you was my table covered: –
…..Who dwells so near the stars
Who near the abyss’ greyest distance?
My realm – what realm has stretched itself wider?
And my honey – who has tasted it? . . . . .

– There you are, friends! – Woe, then I am not
…..The one you wanted?
You hesitate, marvel – ach, better if you resented!
I – am no longer? Swapped hand, step, face?
And what I am, you friends – I am not?

I became another? And foreign to myself?
…..Sprung from myself?
A wrestler who too often vanquished himself?
Too often braced himself against his own force,
Through his own victory wounded and obstructed?

I searched where the wind blows most sharply?
…..I learned to dwell
Where no one dwells, in barren polar bear zones,
Unlearned man and God, curse and prayer?
Became a ghost, that over glaciers goes?

– You old friends! Look! Now you look pale,
…..Full of love and horror!
No, leave! Rage not! Here – you could not reside:
Here between remotest realms of ice and rock –
Here one must be hunter and chamois-like.

A wickeder hunter I became! – Look, how steeply
…..My bow tenses!
It was the strongest who drew such a draw – – [der solchen Zug gezogen]
But woe now! Dangerous is this arrow,
Like no arrow, – away from here! For your health! . . . . .

You turn? – Oh heart, you carried enough,
…..Stark remained your hope:
For new friends hold your doors open!
The old ones leave! Leave the memory!
Once were you young, now – be better young!

What ever knotted us, a band of hope, –
…..Who reads the signs,
That love once inscribed, yet pallid?
To parchment I compare it, that the hand
Dreads to grasp, – like it browned, burned.

No longer friends, they are – yet how can I call them?
…..Only friend–ghosts!
That knock at night on my heart and window,
That inspect me and say: “yet we were?” –
– Oh wilted word, that once like roses smelled!

Oh youth’s yearning that misunderstood itself!
…..For which I yearned,
That I imagined related, converted to myself,
That they became old has removed their charm:
Only who changes himself remains related to me.

Oh life’s midday! Second youth!
…..Oh summer garden!
Restless happiness in standing and peering and waiting: –
The friends I await, poised day and night,
The new friends! Come! It’s time! It’s time!

* * *

This song is over, – wistfulness’ sweeter cry
…..Died in the mouth:
A magician did it, a friend at the right time,
The midday-friend – no! Ask not who it was –
It was around midday that one became two . . . . .

Now we celebrate, confident victory unites,
…..The feast of feasts:
Friend Zarathustra came, the guest of guests!
Now laughs the world, the horrid curtain tears,
The wedding came for light and eclipse . . . . .

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Comment: an example of del Caro sacrificing Nietzsche’s meaning to the rhyme scheme.

In the fourth stanza, the poet begins to worry that he is no longer himself, and this theme dominates the fifth stanza. In the final four lines of that stanza, Nietzsche suggests a causal mecha­nism by which this change of identity occurred:

Ein Andrer ward ich? Und mir selber fremd?
…..Mir selbst entsprungen?
Ein Ringer, der zu oft sich selbst bezwungen?
Zu oft sich gegen eigne Kraft gestemmt,
Durch eignen Sieg verwundet und gehemmt

Del Caro translates these lines as follows:

I have become someone else? Strange to me?
…..From me unseated?
A wrestler by himself pinned and defeated?
Who strained against himself too forcefully?
Wounded and blocked by his own victory?

The first line is fine, though awkward, as is the last. The three lines in the middle, however, are all problematic. I’ll go through each in turn.

In the second line, Nietzsche uses the verb ‘entsprungen’, literally ‘sprung from’. This suggests not only that the narrator has become someone else, but further that he was himself the agent of this change. Del Caro changes this to ‘unseated’, which carries no such connotation – if anything, it suggests that it was some external force that caused the change. At best, del Caro loses an important implication, such that the line contains no information not contained in the previous line, and thus becomes redundant, distending the poem. At worst, del Caro has inserted a meaning into the poem that is opposite to what Nietzsche intended.

The next line confirms this implication of Nietzsche’s verb choice. Here del Caro’s choice of ‘defeated’ is fine, though he needlessly adds in an additional verb (‘pinned’) with no source in Nietzsche. More problematically, del Caro changes the tense of the sentence, from active – “a wrestler who too often vanquished himself” – to passive: “by himself pinned and defeated.” Where Nietzsche (again) highlights the agency involved in the narrator’s transformation, del Caro again makes it sound like something that just happens to the narrator from “outside.” Del Caro sneaks the agency back in with the “by himself,” but the force of this is attenuated. Finally, the extra verb is not only absent from Nietzche’s poem, it also means del Caro has no space to include Nietzsche’s “zu oft” (“too often”). What Nietzsche very clearly indicates is something that occurs multiple times, del Caro gives the impression was a single event.

The following line afforded del Caro a chance to rectify this mistake, as it contains another “Zu oft,” but del Caro did not avail himself of the opportunity. Instead, he switched the “too” over to a later adverb: “strained […] too forcefully.” But in fact this adverb never appears in the German. What Nietzsche actually says is that the wrestler “braced himself against his own force.” This identifies the wrestler’s “own force” (“eigne Kraft”) as the object of struggle. In del Caro’s translation, however, the object of the struggle is just “himself.” In Nietzsche’s original, the line adds new information: in vanquishing himself, he had to set himself against his own force. But in del Caro’s translation, there is once more, at best, no new information. We simply hear, again, that he’s struggling with himself. At worst, there is new information, but not that which Nietzsche wanted to convey: del Caro’s translation suggests that the cause of the change was the application of too much force, when really it is the result of the struggle occurring too often.

What is gained by these changes? The idea, I suppose, is that something of Nietzsche’s artistry is preserved. There is, in translation, always a trade-off between style and sense, and I can understand sacrificing some nuances of sense to style, though my own taste (if not talent) in translation leans Nabokovian. However, I don’t believe that is actually going on here. Preserving the rhyme scheme does not at all preserve Nietzsche’s artistry.

Consider: a different poet who writes a different poem in the same rhyme scheme does not in any sense share Nietzsche’s artistry. Whatever the meaning to be expressed, any talentless pseudo-poet can find a way to make it answer to a rhyme scheme. It is not the answering to a rhyme scheme that makes the poem, but the specific rhymes chosen. And the exact rhymes Nietzsche chose by definition cannot be translated, since they involve German words. All of the rhymes in del Caro’s translation belong to del Caro alone, even if they are constrained, very loosely indeed, by Nietzsche’s original.

Moreover, if one is to preserve something of the formal scheme to which Nietzsche’s poem answers, surely it should be to the meter. After all, as del Caro notes in his translator’s afterword, so much of Nietzsche’s writing is its tempo. The meter is a major instrument of tempo in a poem, yet del Caro makes no attempt to preserve Nietzsche’s meter. (I do not have a good enough feel for the sound of German to confidently spell out this meter, but it is obvious that it has a metric base. For instance, lines two and three of each stanza generally consist of an iamb followed by an amphibrach.) Instead, del Caro’s translation is all over the map. Just looking at the stanza thus far considered, his translation of the first line is top-heavy, while his translation of the third line is oddly lilting in a way that does not fit with the meaning.

So what, then, is gained? There is a trade-off made, but it is not between Nietzsche’s sense and his style. Instead, it is between Nietzsche’s sense and del Caro’s style. I get a sense of del Caro’s quality as a poet (you may infer what I think), but at a cost. There is, moreover, a second trade-off: between Nietzsche’s style and del Caro’s style. For there are aspects of Nietzsche’s poetic sensibility that do translate, e.g. his use of repetitions and his non-redundancy. By preserving the rhyme scheme, del Caro is forced to eliminate repetitions and neuter lines to the point of redundancy.

When I was first reading Nietzsche, before I knew any German, I believed that Nietzsche simply was not a very good poet. That belief, I am now convinced, was entirely an artifact of my having read English translations that choose to preserve the dubious façade of rhyme over the poetry involved. This is not to say that I now believe Nietzsche was a good poet – my German is not competent for that. (Aside: I hope any readers of this post will keep in mind what the translation I offered above is, namely, an exercise that may help me to one day be a competent reader of German.) But it is to say that I wish translators would make less egotistical decisions when translating Nietzsche’s poetry.

Or, if they were so inclined, more egotistical decisions – i.e. the decision to write a poem that preserves all of Nietzsche’s artistic trappings, at the expense of any attempt at line-by-line correspondence (theme and “plot” are enough) – so long as they admitted that what was provided was not so much a translation as a hybrid offspring. That would be interesting, though of course such an attempt is only appropriate for a genuine poet.

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Skepsis, sepsis, and epanalepsis

Napoleon is, for Emerson, an answer, of sorts, to skeptical doubts. I have noted that these skeptical doubts are left unanswered in Emerson’s essay on Montaigne. Or, to be more precise, they were given answers in that essay, but those answers were patent dogmatisms, and thus plainly unsatisfactory. Does Napoleon’s response fare better?

Perhaps. Emerson makes the point, in the essay on Montaigne, that “some minds are incapable of skepticism.” (706) Skeptical doubts he has just referred to as “diseases of thought”—we may then say that some minds simply do not suffer from these diseases. If that is so, then Napoleon is, for Emerson, just such a healthy individual. “To what heaps of cowardly doubts is not that man’s life an answer.” (739) It is a fact of Napoleon’s constitution that he does not suffer from the “universal imbecility, indecision, and indolence of men.” Napoleon’s lack of skepticism is not a product of reason. He has not talked himself out of any doubts—he simply does not entertain them.

Emerson’s essay is full of praise of Napoleon, much of which hints at Napoleon’s imperturbability in the face of doubts. One case, however, seems central: it is the case Emerson himself takes to exemplify Napoleon’s answer to the “heaps of cowardly doubts.” It is worth quoting at length:

When he appeared, it was the belief of all military men that there could be nothing new in war; as it is the belief of men to-day, that nothing new can be undertaken in politics, or in church, or in letters, or in trade, or in farming, or in our social manners and customs; and as it is, at all times, the belief of society that the world is used up. But Bonaparte knew better than society; and, moreover, knew that he knew better. I think all men know better than they do; know that the institutions we so volubly commend are go-carts and baubles; but they dare not trust their presentiments. Bonaparte relied on his own sense, and did not care a bean for other people’s. The world treated his novelties just as it treats every body’s novelties,—made infinite objection; mustered all the impediments: but he snapped his finger at their objections. (739-740)

The skepticism and doubt here presented is one with which Emerson perpetually struggles: the universality of objections. Take this passage from “Experience”: “There are objections to every course of life and action, and the practical wisdom infers an indifferency, from the omnipresence of objection.” (478) Objections crowd about one, and threaten to turn one’s own reason against its bearer: practical wisdom ends in paralysis, hence impracticality. Napoleon offers a response to this paralysis: he snaps his fingers. There is no rational response, only a closing of his ears. To borrow again from Nietzsche: “Wenn der Entschluß einmal gefaßt ist, das Ohr auch für den besten Gegengrund zu schließen: Zeichen des starken Charakters. Also ein gelegentlicher Wille zur Dummheit.” (Beyond Good and Evil, §107) [One could violate time’s arrow and treat Emerson’s essay on Napoleon as nothing more than a reflection on the wisdom and danger contained in Nietzsche’s remark.]

The practical efficacy of Napoleon’s response to skepticism cannot be denied. Napoleon acted. He was not paralyzed. Rather than seeking to pacify the skeptic, Napoleon ignored him or, should the skeptic be in his way, crushed him—“wo to what thing or person stood in his way!” (732) Perhaps Emerson could offer dogmatism and nothing more, in his essay on Montaigne, because there is nothing more to offer. Yet this response comes at a price.

At the end of the essay, Emerson turns on Napoleon, as he turned on Swedenborg and on Shakespeare. Here there is a more savage tone, however. Having heaped praise upon Napoleon with greater gusto than he found in discussing Swedenborg or Shakespeare, his reversal equally comes with greater force. Every point of praise in the essay becomes a criticism: Napoleon’s usurpation of ideas becomes theft and injustice, a petty lust for credit, his brilliant calculation becomes theatrical, his doctrine of immortality collapses into miserable fame, and his lack of pity becomes a lack of scruples.

Emerson goes further. Napoleon addressed the skepticism that always accompanies innovation by blowing raspberries at it. Therein lay his response, the conditions of his action. Yet Emerson ends by undermining his claim to novelty. “Here was an experiment, under the most favorable conditions, of the powers of intellect without conscience.” (744) A bit later: “the result, in a million experiments, will be the same.” (745) Napoleon was only the replication of a common experiment: “Every experiment, by multitudes or by individuals, that has a sensual and selfish aim, will fail.” Napoleon was nothing new, only an old error writ large.

We may describe the upshot as follows: Napoleon provides an answer, dogmatic but effective, to one skepticism, only to leave the door open for another, more troubling skepticism. This skepticism cuts to the heart of Emerson’s work: it is a skepticism about self-reliance itself. When Emerson, in the Montaigne essay, says that some are unable to be skeptics, he has just defined skepticism: “Belief consists in accepting the affirmations of the soul; unbelief, in denying them.” (706) When he critiques Bonaparte, he finds he cannot blame Bonaparte, and for an interesting reason: “It was not Bonaparte’s fault. He did all that in him lay, to live and thrive without moral principle.” (745) Napoleon was established, throughout the essay, as a pinnacle of self-reliance, yet his experiment ended in failure, even disaster. And Emerson cannot blame him—what else would he have had Napoleon do? Not be self-reliant?

In the skepticism that Napoleon opens up, the entire core of Emerson’s philosophy lies at stake.

Poetry and Prudence II

2014/01/01 2 comments

An interesting phenomenon recurs across Plato’s corpus: Socrates, in critiquing some other, pushes the critique to a point where it rebounds on himself, where it poses an is­sue that he, qua philosopher, must confront. He threatens to undermine himself. In his dialogue Ion, Plato has Socrates take a rhapsode to task: does he have mastery over his subject, or only a sort of divine inspiration and madness? It must be the latter, for Ion is “so wonderfully clever about Homer alone.” Were he truly a master of his subject, whatever that might be, he should be wonderfully clever about all poets. Socrates here is toying with Ion, but his critique ends up extending to poetry in general. For the method of argument Socrates pursues is to understand how to tell whether Homer or, say, Hesiod speaks better about divination, a subject on which they disagree. Socrates argues—and Ion accepts—that one must know divination to do so, and hence a diviner is the one competent to say who has spoken better. Since poets would speak well about all of life, this criticism attaches itself not just to those who evaluate poetry, but to the poets themselves: to speak well about all of life, poets must be masters in all domains—or merely divinely inspired. “You know, none of the epic poets, if they’re good, are masters of their subject; they are inspired, possessed, and that is how they utter all those beautiful poems.”

Now we can see that this criticism actually has one further expansion: it extends to the philosopher. For the philosopher, too, would speak about all of life: of the auto mechanic, whether he is virtuous, of the doctor, whether she is virtuous, of the judge, of the janitor, of everyone. To master virtue and truth requires being able to apply the notions, and that—by the very criteria Socrates has set out in his critique of the rhapsode—requires having mastery over every domain. Is the philosopher, too, then, divinely inspired? Or can the intellect manage to achieve such mastery? Plato, in writing in a poetic style, and in reminding readers of Socrates’ daimon to whom he listens, certainly not does make it easy to straightforwardly place him on the side of the intellect.

In either case, we can understand why Plato’s dialogues repeatedly come up against the problem of conflict between philosophy and poetry. The war is a turf war: philosophy and poetry conflict because their domains are identical. And I can add a third character to this skirmish: prudence, which also extends itself around every domain. The conflict between philosophy and poetry is really the flip side of the conflict between poetry and prudence—and of course philosophy and prudence have a history of enmity probably more storied than either of the other conflicts. One need only think of Pyrrho, or the Cynics.

Emerson, in his essay on “Heroism”, explores poetry caught between these two antagonists. While the topic is heroism, Emerson does much to link it to poetry: “Heroism feels and never reasons” (374) and is divinely inspired—“Where the heart is, there the muses, there the gods sojourn, and not in any geography of fame.” (378) Moreover, “A great man scarcely knows how he dines, how he dresses; but without railing or precision, his living is natural and poetic.” (376) So we have heroism described in a way that aligns it with Plato’s conception of poetry.

What, for Emerson, is heroism, precisely? It is a warlike attitude toward external evil, a contempt for safety and ease, self-trust, an extreme individualism, obedience to a secret impulse of character. It is ashamed of the body, loves temperance for its elegance and not its austerity, does not condescend to take anything seriously—it is “the unremitting retention of simple and high sentiments.” (380) It is a Stoicism of the blood, and not of the schools.

And it is opposed to philosophy. Emerson puts it plainly: “There is somewhat not philosophical in heroism.” (374) Interestingly, Emerson goes on to explain this: “it seems not to know that other souls are of one texture with it” (374)—this sounds very much like the counterpart to his advice, in “Prudence”, that one should “assume that you are saying precisely that which all think” (366). Emerson, perhaps unintentionally, almost seems to collapse the distinction between philosophy and prudence. Maybe the reason for this is that the solution to both sorts of opposition is the same. But to see that we need to see his exploration of the heroism/prudence conflict, which he discusses in much more detail.

Emerson is clear: Heroism as “obedience to a secret impulse of an individual’s character” runs afoul of prudence, as “all prudent men see that the action is clean contrary to a sensual prosperity; for every heroic act measures itself by its contempt of some external good.” (374-375) Heroism, at the time of the heroic act, is almost inevitably condemned by prudence, which measures acts by how they yield sensual prosperity. Likewise, the prudent “reckon narrowly the loss of time”, while “the soul of a better quality thrusts back the unseasonable economy into the vaults of life.” (375) Heroism is ashamed of the body, not in a self-loathing, ascetic way, but it shows a disdain for sensual prosperity.

So poetic heroism finds itself in inevitable conflict with prudence. “It is a self-trust which slights the restraints of prudence.” (374) How does it overcome prudence, these objections? By ignoring them, mostly. “The characteristic of heroism is its persistency. All men have wandering impulses, fits, and starts of generosity. But when you have chosen your part, abide by it, and do not weakly try to reconcile yourself with the world.” (379) Once the hero has felt the impulse, he must act on it, without regret, without any attempt at reconciliation with the world. “If you would serve your brother, because it is fit for you to serve him, do not take back your words when you find that prudent people do not commend you.” (379) Heroism simply ignores the reproaches of prudence. “Greatness once and for ever has done with opinion.” (380)

Emerson’s solution is thus not an attempt at reconciliation of any kind, of easing the conflict. He sees the conflict, and he takes his stand: he stands on the side of heroism, of poetry. We saw in my essay on “Prudence” that his proposal there for reconciliation was lacking, that he left us in a position of inevitable conflict where reconciliation seemed impossible. “Heroism” seems to address this problem by giving up the attempt for reconciliation, by simply siding against prudence. Emerson simply closes his ears to the objections of prudence. And this is more or less his solution to the conflict with philosophy as well: the hero listens to his impulse, feels and doesn’t reason, if reason—i.e. philosophy—objects, no matter: the hero does not listen. Nietzsche gave this solution pithy expression: “To close your ears to even the best counter-argument once the decision has been taken: sign of a strong character. Thus an occasional will to stupidity.” (Beyond Good & Evil, §107)

So perhaps our first problem is resolved—or at least dispensed with. But Emerson raises one further problem, with which I end.

To speak the truth, even with some austerity, to live with some rigor of temperance, or some extremes of generosity, seems to be an asceticism which common good-nature would appoint to those who are at ease and in plenty, in sign that they feel a brotherhood with the great multitude of suffering men. (380)

The asceticism of heroism is something that “common good-nature” assigns to those who enjoy a certain amount of luxury. In this, poetry/heroism is lumped with philosophy, another pursuit that seems to require luxury, requires time that need not be spent simply fulfilling one’s needs. Indeed, one reason why Feyerabend takes Plato to task for his elitism is precisely because he sees this elitism as effectively condemning people for not having leisure time—see the first dialogue of his Three Dialogues on Knowledge. Perhaps a will to stupidity and a contempt of ease and plenty are possible when one has—ease and plenty, but in more impoverished circumstances the cry of prudence is not so easily silenced. The facts of Emerson’s own life bear this out: he was able to retire from his job as a minister and embark on his dizzying experimental voyages only because of his first wife’s inheritance. So we face the problem: luxury seems to be a prerequisite for poetry—when luxury is absent, prudence has the upper hand. Nor can Emerson simply make an elitist move of Plato’s sort, for it is the very task of poetry to find what is poetic in the, broadly speaking, illiterate. Emerson, in this essay, does not resolve the problem. So it lingers.

And, moreover, this is nothing other than our first problem, the problem of truly reconciling poetry and prudence. So that problem has not been solved at all. We remain left with the question: can there be a reconciliation between poetry and prudence?

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My version of the Ion is in the Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. Emerson’s essay is in the Library of America volume of his Essays & Lectures. For Nietzsche, I used the Penguin Beyond Good and Evil.

Doubt and Climate

2013/09/07 5 comments

The material in Emerson’s “The Transcendentalist” is too personal, cuts too deeply, for me to talk about seriously here. So instead I shall follow a safer path, and use Emerson to resolve some of my doubts about Nietzsche’s Hyperboreans. Page references to Emerson are from the Library of America volume of his Essays & Lectures (E&L); those to Nietzsche are to: (a) TSZ: Thus Spoke Zarathustra, trans. Adrian del Caro (Cambridge Texts in the History of Philosophy), (b) BGE: Beyond Good and Evil, trans. R.J. Hollingdale (Penguin Classics), (c) AC: The Anti-Christ, trans. R.J. Hollingdale (Penguin Classics, combined with Twilight of the Idols).

Emerson’s essay begins abruptly: so-called “new views” (i.e. Transcendentalism) are not new at all; they are simply old views adapted to the times. This lets Emerson cast the issue as, fundamentally, the old disagreement between materialists and idealists. Transcendentalism is just a new incarnation of idealism.

The materialist insists on facts, on history, on the force of circumstances, and the animal wants of man; the idealist on the power of Thought and of Will, on inspiration, on miracle, on individual culture. (E&L 193)

Emerson then goes on to characterize the way the idealist relates to the materialist.

He [the idealist] concedes all that the other affirms, admits the impressions of sense, admits their coherency, their use and beauty, and then asks the materialist for his grounds of assurance that things are as his senses represent them. (E&L 193)

The idealist grants to the materialist that, indeed, the appearances are as he says, but inquires after the veridicality of these appearances. And here Emerson, in a very cursory manner, raises old skeptical doubts.

But ask him [the materialist] why he believes that an uniform experience will continue uniform, or on what grounds he founds his faith in figures, and he will perceive that his mental fabric is built up on just as strange and quaking foundations as his proud edifice of stone. (E&L 194-5)

It is not Emerson’s interest to enter this debate, nor mine. What we should recognize is simply that, to a great extent, the materialist today concedes this point to at least some degree. It is a familiar point that science “proves” nothing, that it deals only in probabilities that never quite reach 1 or 0. (This is codified in Bayesian epistemology, which generally forbids attaching a prior probability of 1 or 0 to any hypothesis. I take no stand on the viability of Bayesian epistemology.) Scientific inquiry is not built on the firm foundation of certainty; it always leaves space, however slight, for the skeptic. Now, this is not a full concession, for to renounce certainty need not be to admit of “quaking foundations”. But it is at least a partial concession, and it is enough to make room for a crucial move in Emerson’s essay.

Immediately after the idealist’s concession to the materialist (two quotes above), Emerson continues,

But I, he [the idealist] says, affirm facts not affected by the illusions of sense, facts which are of the same nature as the faculty which reports them, and not liable to doubt; facts which in their first appearance to us assume a native superiority to material facts, degrading these into a language by which the first are to be spoken; facts which it only needs a retirement from the senses to discern. (E&L 193)

What is striking in this passage, to me at least, is the five-word phrase preceding the first semicolon: “and not liable to doubt.” That is to say: the idealist’s truths, as opposed to the materialist’s facts, are built on a firm foundation; they do not admit of doubt, however slight. And by this I think Emerson means precisely epistemic doubt, the sort of doubt that is codified by Bayesian epistemology in the refusal to allow probabilities to reach either extreme—nothing is conclusively accepted or rejected.

This understanding of ‘doubt’ as specifically epistemic doubt is crucial, for without it nothing much makes sense. For one thing, Emerson’s journals are full to the brim with doubt. Doubt is almost compulsive for Emerson: he hardly makes one joyous leap that is not followed by an episode of crippling doubt. So when Emerson says that the idealist position does not admit of doubt, he cannot be using the word in its fullest sense—unless he is lying.

This is confirmed when, later in the essay, Emerson moves from describing the materialism-idealism conflict to describing the incarnation of idealism that is called the transcendentalist. And when he does this, what characterizes the transcendentalist but doubt. At this point there is a path into Emerson’s essay that explores its incredibly rich and resounding portrait of the solitude of the transcendentalist, but it is just here that I want to swerve off into a new path, the one that leads me into Nietzsche.

Let me preface this by saying that what I will be doing is simply noting a few intriguing parallels between Emerson and Nietzsche, and suggesting on this basis a possible purpose for which Nietzsche invented his Hyperboreans. I am not claiming that Nietzsche was influenced by the specific passage in question in Emerson—though perhaps he was—nor that the parallels I draw make my reading of Nietzsche inevitable. Moreso even than most of what appears on this blog, the reading of Nietzsche I shall produce is tentative, to be justified by its fruits in making sense of his corpus. I shall only accomplish only a small portion of this task in this post.

With those caveats out of the way, we can return to the issue of doubt in Emerson. What form does this doubt take? Emerson describes it at length, and I quote it in full:

But, to come a little closer to the secret of these persons [the transcendentalists], we must say, that to them it seems a very easy matter to answer the objections of the man of the world, but not so easy to dispose of the doubts and objections that occur to themselves. They are exercised in their own spirit with queries, which acquaint them with all adversity, and with the trials of the bravest heroes. When I asked them concerning their private experience, they answered somewhat in this wise: It is not to be denied that there must be some wide difference between my faith and other faith; and mine is a certain brief experience, which surprised me in the highway or in the market, in some place, at some time,—whether in the body or out of the body, God knoweth,—and made me aware that I had played the fool with fools all this time, but that law existed for me and for all; that to me belonged trust, a child’s trust and obedience, and the worship of ideas, and I should never be fool more. Well, in the space of an hour, probably, I was let down from this height; I was at my old tricks, the selfish member of a selfish society. My life is superficial, takes no root in the deep world; I ask, When shall I die, and be relieved of the responsibility of seeing an Universe which I do not use? I wish to exchange this flash-of-lightning faith for continuous daylight, this fever-glow for a benign climate. (E&L 205)

In this dazzling passage, we see the full shape of the idealist/transcendentalist’s doubt. It is the doubt that the grasp of truth is sustainable. Of the truth itself, there is no doubt. But that it may be consistently lived and felt, that is doubted. For the truth is grasped in a flash, a lightning strike. It is feverish and unstable. It is not the characterized by continuous daylight and a mild climate, but by flashes of light in a storm. In the space of an hour, it is gone. And that is the doubt.

What I want to do now is to suggest that this same doubt is implicit in Nietzsche, and that Nietzsche’s Hyperboreans are an invention designed in part in the face of this very doubt. And what I think is remarkable, and what strengthens me in my doubt-ridden conviction that there is something to this line of thought, is that we see that this doubt appears in Nietzsche accompanied by precisely the same metaphors as are used by Emerson in the passage just quoted.

At the start of Thus Spoke Zarathustra, in the section titled “Zarathustra’s Prologue”, Zarathustra delivers his famous speech to the marketplace, which begins, “Ich lehre euch den Übermenschen” (rendered by del Caro as “I teach you the overman”; TSZ 5). Zarathustra uses two metaphors to characterize the Übermensch: first, he is a sea, and can “take in a polluted stream without becoming unclean” (TSZ 6); second,

Where is the lightning that would lick you with its tongue? Where is the madness with which you should be inoculated?

Behold, I teach you the overman: he is this lightning, he is this madness! – (TSZ 7)

It is this lightning that “shall be the meaning of the earth!” (TSZ 6) And so here we see the first parallel between Emerson and Nietzsche: the likening of the highest of moments to a lightning strike, something very intense but equally brief. The madness of the Übermensch comes only for an instant, and then it is gone. And Zarathustra later makes it explicit that this lightning strike implies stormy weather: “I want to teach humans the meaning of their being, which is the overman, the lightning from the dark cloud ‘human being.’” (TSZ 12)

Now I am not sure if the doubts that Emerson raises about this “flash-of-lightning faith” are found explicitly in Nietzsche—that is, I do not recall any passages where Nietzsche explicitly comments on this feature of the Übermensch as a source of doubts. But I do think we can see that the tension is implicitly operative in Nietzsche when we juxtapose that description of the Übermensch with one of the brief sayings from the “Maxims and Interludes” section of Beyond Good and Evil.

§72. It is not the strength but the duration of exalted sensations which makes exalted men. (BGE 91)

The contrast between this thought and the description of the Übermensch could not be starker. The Übermensch is intense but brief, yet the exalted man’s sensations are long, yet perhaps not so intense. In Emerson’s metaphor (which I want to suggest is Nietzsche’s as well), better a constantly gentle climate than the momentary explosion of energy that comes with a storm. So now I want to express the doubt that I think this passage raises: if the Übermensch is what gives meaning to the earth, and the Übermensch “comes down to earth”, as it were, only briefly (but very intensely), then we have to worry about whether the exalted man is truly possible. For exalted sensations—the sensation of being licked by the lightning of the Übermensch—seem to be quite brief.

Now I arrive at the fruits of this labor: an understanding of why Nietzsche needs to create the Hyperboreans. Recall from the 1886 preface of Human, All too Human (quoted in the “Nietzsche’s People” blog post linked above) that Nietzsche invented his free spirits to remain in good cheer in the midst of “bad things”. Among these bad things, Nietzsche lists: illness, isolation, foreignness, sloth, inactivity. (I note in passing that all of these except illness may be found in Emerson’s description of the conditions of the transcendentalist with whose doubt we began.) The invention of the Hyperboreans, whose relation to the free spirits remains unclear (to me, at any rate), we might expect to occur under similar conditions.

Who are the Hyperboreans? Nietzsche begins The Anti-Christ’s main body (I am excluding the foreword), “– Let us look one another in the face. We are Hyperboreans – we know well enough how much out of the way we live.” (AC 127) So it includes Nietzsche, as well as the readers of his book—those readers for whom it is intended, that is. The helpful footnote to my text describes the Hyperboreans as “a race dwelling beyond the north wind (Boreas) in a country of warmth and plenty.” So what characterizes the Hyperboreans is that they live beyond the north wind, in a gentle climate. That is what is set down in their very name. Lest there be any doubt, Nietzsche makes it quite clear that he intends to emphasize this fact about them: “Beyond the North, beyond the ice, beyond death – our life, our happiness…” (AC 127).

So we have a perfect correlation with Emerson’s metaphor. The Hyperboreans are beyond storms, beyond harsh climates. They come from a land in which the climate supports something more constant, more solid, than the lightning-flash of the Übermensch. The land beyond the Boreas is thus exactly the sort of place where the tension between the brief intensity of the Übermensch and the value of long-lasting exalted sensations over intense exalted sensations does not arise. To count himself as a Hyperborean, then, is for Nietzsche to resolve this tension, or at least to attempt to do so. It is a response to a doubt within himself. The Hyperboreans serve, for Nietzsche, as an attempt to prove poetically (I take this notion from the preface to Human, All too Human) that exaltation such as he dreams of is possible.