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"Nietzsche, Don Juan of the Intellectual World", by Stefan Zweig

Dernière mise à jour : 20 août 2021

Extract from :

Stefan Zweig

The Struggle with the Daemon: Hölderlin, Kleist, Nietzsche




What is of genuine importance is eternal vitality, not eternal life.

KNOWLEDGE WAS KANT’S DAILY and nightly companion; she lived with him and bedded with him for forty years on the same spiritual couch; he procreated with her a family of German philosophical systems whose descendants still live with us in every middle-class circle. His relationship to truth was essentially monogamous. The urge that brought Schelling, Fichte, Hegel and Schopenhauer to philosophy was a desire for order, a desire which has nothing daemonic about it, but is typical of the easy-going German nature, objective and professional, tending to discipline the mind and to establish a well- ordered architectonic of existence.

They love truth, honourably, faithfully, durably. No selfishness has any place in this love, there is nothing erotic about it, no desire to consume or be consumed in the furnace of passion. Truth is for them a docile spouse from whom they do not part until death calls. They, too, remain faithful until the end. Their relation to truth, therefore, invariably smacks of domesticity, and as an actual fact, each one of them built a house, that is to say, a special philosophical system, wherein to accommodate bride and bed. With a master hand they plied harrow and plough in the spiritual field they had wrenched from chaos in order to bequeath it to mankind. They pushed the frontiers of knowledge far beyond the culture of their times and, in the sweat of their brows, they increased the spiritual harvest.

Nietzsche’s craving for knowledge arose from a totally different emotional world. His attitude towards truth was a passionate and breathless tremor, was high-strung and inquisitive, never satisfied, never appeased, never contented with achievement but precipitating itself, beyond every response, into further impatient and insatiable questionings. Having acquired the knowledge he was in search of, he was incapable of making it his own in perpetuity, of espousing it, of shaping it into a system, a doctrine. Everything allured him; nothing was able to retain his interest. So soon as a problem had lost its virginity, had lost the charm and mystery of maidenhood, he forsook it pitilessly, without jealousy, for others to enjoy if they cared to — as did Don Juan, his brother so far as the impulsive life was concerned, in the case of his “mille e tre”.

For just as genuine seducers are forever seeking among womankind the one and only woman of their hearts, so did Nietzsche seek among all kinds of knowledge the unique knowledge of his choice, the knowledge doomed to everlasting unreality and eternally eluding his grasp. It was not desire for conquest and possession and sensual enjoyment which stirred him, thrilled him and reduced him almost to despair, but invariably questionings, doubts, the pursuit of knowledge.

He loved insecurity not certainty; and consequently his lusts turned for gratification to metaphysics and consisted of amour-plaisir in knowledge. He yearned to seduce, to lay bare, to penetrate voluptuously, and to violate every spiritual object —“to know” in the biblical sense of the word, when a man “knows” a woman and thereby filches her secret. This everlasting relativist of values recognised that his acts of possession never knew truth to the uttermost limits, for, in the last resort, truth never gives herself wholly to anyone :

“He who fancies he is in possession of truth, has no inkling of how much eludes his grasp.”

Nietzsche, therefore, never set up house with knowledge so as to economise and preserve; he built no spiritual home over his head. Maybe it was a nomadic instinct which forced him into a position of never owning anything. Like a Nimrod of the mind, he ranged through the forests of the spiritual world, alone, with no roof to protect him, no wife, no child, no servant; nevertheless, he was filled with the pleasures of the chase, a hunter incarnate.

As in Don Juan’s case so in Nietzsche’s the duration of an emotion was a matter for indifference; what held import for him was the fleeting “moments of grandeur and rapturous delight”. Hazardous activities of the mind, those “dangerous maybes” which make a man glow with ardour and which goad him to the pursuit but fail to satisfy his longing when once attained, these were the only adventures that attracted Nietzsche. He did not desire the quarry but the spirit, the spur, the pleasures of the hunt for knowledge, upward and onward to the outermost stars, until in the end there was nothing left for him to hunt but the residue of all that is harmful in knowledge — “like a toper who finally comes down to drinking absinth or nitric acid”.

For the Don Juan in Nietzsche was not an epicure, he was not dainty in his choice, neither could he enjoy robustly — this finical aristocrat with his quivering nerves lacked the sleepy ease of digestion, the lazy contentment of satisfied appetite, the boastfulness which makes the common mortal parade his conquests. The woman-hunter is himself hunted by his insatiable desires — thus, likewise, the Nimrod of the mind; the unscrupulous seducer is himself seduced by consuming curiosity, he is a tempter who is everlastingly tempted to tempt women to forgo their innocence, just as Nietzsche was perpetually interrogating the universe for the mere pleasure of questioning and to gratify his inextinguishable psychological lust.

For Don Juan the mystery was contained in everything and in nothing, in each woman for one night and in no woman thereafter. Thus is it also in the case of a psychologist for whom in every problem truth resides but for a moment and never permanently. Nietzsche therefore was denied repose and calm in the realm of thought. His mental life was full of unexpected twists and turns. Other German philosophers lived in a quasi-epic tranquillity; they spun their theories quietly from day to day, sitting commodiously in an armchair, and their thought process hardly raised their blood pressure by a single degree.

Kant never produces the impression of a mind seized by thought as by a vampire, and painfully enduring the terrible urge of creation; Schopenhauer from thirty onwards, after he had published The World as Will and Idea, seems to me a staid professor who has retired on a pension and has accepted the conviction that his career is finished. They have chosen a road, and calmly walk along it to the end; whereas Nietzsche was forever tracked down and pushed towards the unknown. That is why Nietzsche’s intellectual story (like Don Juan’s bodily story) assumes a dramatic aspect, constitutes a chain of unforeseen episodes, a tragedy which passes unintermittently from one vicissitude to another even more perilous, until it culminates in annihilation.

Now, what renders this life unique and tragical is precisely the absence of repose in Nietzsche’s searchings, his incessant urge to think, his compulsory advance. These make his life a work of art. Nietzsche was doomed to think without respite like the legendary hunter who was condemned to an everlasting chase. What was once a pleasure became for him a bugbear, an affliction, so that his style grew breathless and spasmodic like a panting beast which recognises that it will soon have to face the hounds, at bay. Nietzsche’s complaint, therefore, moves us profoundly.

“One falls in love with something, and hardly has this something had time to become a deep-felt love than the tyrant within, which we should do well to name our higher self, claims our love for the sacrifice. And we yield to the dictator, though ourselves consumed in a slow fire.”

Don Juan natures have ever to be wrenched from love’s embraces, for the daemon of dissatisfaction incessantly urges them to further exploits — the same daemon that harried Hölderlin and Kleist and harries all those who worship the infinite. Nietzsche himself exclaimed:

“Everywhere I go, I find gardens of Armida and, consequently, ever-fresh bereavements and ever-renewed bitterness of heart. I am forced to lift my foot, my weary and wounded foot, and it is precisely because I am constrained to advance that I throw a backwards glance into the past, a covetous glance upon the beauties it contains—begrudging them because of their inability to hold me!”

Such cries, wrenched from the depths of a suffering human creature, are not to be met with among the German philosophers who preceded Nietzsche. We may encounter them in the mystics of the Middle Ages, the heretics or the saints of the Gothic era, but then they are for the most part uttered between clenched teeth and strike the ear less stridently. Pascal in his day went through a purgatory of doubt, and he experienced a similar upheaval and annihilation of the questing spirit, but neither Leibniz nor Kant nor Hegel nor Schopenhauer is capable of stirring us with so primitive a groan.

Loyal they may be, courageous and resolute, yet they never throw themselves heart and soul and destiny into the heroic game with knowledge. Theirs is the light of a candle, that is to say, they burn from the top only, with head and with mind. They have their reserves, keeping their private existence sheltered from the blows of fate. Nietzsche, on the contrary, gave himself completely, fronting danger not merely “with the antennae of cold and inquisitive thought”, but with voluptuous ardour, with the whole weight of his destiny. His thoughts do not come only from on high, are not simply conjured out of his brain, but are at the same time engendered by the fever of his blood, by violently quivering nerves, by ungratified sense organs, by the consuming might of the entirety of his vital forces.

Hence his ideas, like those of Pascal, tend to become “a passion-fraught history of the soul”; they are the extreme consequence of perilous, nay, almost mortal, adventures, a living drama moving us profoundly. Yet even when he was in the bitterest distress Nietzsche had no desire to change his lot for another, milder, fate; he did not wish to exchange his “dangerous life” for stability and repose of mind, would not for any consideration dam up the overflow of his feelings. Nietzsche hated such a prospect, seeing therein a diminution of vitality. Away with security ! Out upon satiety and contentedness with what one has !

“How is it possible to be placed in this amazing uncertainty and multiplicity called ‘existence’ without questioning its meaning, without trembling with curiosity, and without the voluptuous emotion engendered by questioning ?”

Thus did he rail at our sit-by- the-fires, and make mock of those who are easily satisfied. He, the typical adventurer in the long savannas of thought, was not even inclined to possess his own life; here again he demanded a surplus on the grand scale:

“What is of genuine importance is eternal vitality, not eternal life.”

For the first time on the ocean of German philosophy the black flag was hoisted upon a pirate ship. Nietzsche was a man of a different species, of another race, of a novel type of heroism; his philosophy was not clad in professorial robes, but was harnessed for the fray like a knight in shining armour. Others before him, hardy navigators of the spiritual world, discovered continents and founded empires; they were animated to a certain degree by a civilising and utilitarian intent, hoping to win those unknown lands to the profit of mankind, to complete the map of the philosophic world by penetrating further and ever further into the terra incognita of thought. They set up the standard of God or of the mind in these new-found lands, they built cities and temples, planned out streets and avenues in the unknown, while governors and administrators followed in their steps in order to reap the harvest of the pioneers’ labours — commentators, dons, men of culture and the like.

But the aim of these forerunners in the philosophical universe was repose, was peace and security. They desired to increase terrestrial possessions, to promulgate norms and laws, to inaugurate a superior kind of order. Just as the filibusters invaded the Spanish world towards the close of the sixteenth century — a lawless gang of desperadoes, lacking restraint, acknowledging no king, men without a flag and without a home — so Nietzsche made an irruption into the philosophical world, conquering nothing either for himself or for those who should come after; his victories were not achieved for the sake of a monarch or dedicated to the greater glory of God, but purely for the intrinsic joy of conquest, since he did not wish to possess or to acquire or to conquer. He was a disturber of the peace, his one desire being to plunder, to destroy property relationships, to trouble the repose of his fellow mortals.

With fire and sword he went forth to awaken the minds of men, an awakening as precious to him as is a fusty sleep to the vast majority of mankind. In his wake, as in the wake of the filibusters of old, churches were desecrated, altars were overturned, feelings injured, convictions assassinated, moral sheepfolds sacked; every horizon blazed with incendiary fires, monstrous beacons of daring and violence. Never did he look back to gloat over his acquisitions or to appropriate his conquests. He strove everlastingly towards what had never been explored and conquered; his one and only pleasure was to try out his strength and to rouse up those who slumbered. He was a member of no creed, had never sworn allegiance to any country. With the black flag at his masthead and steering into the unknown, into incertitude which he felt to be the mate of his soul, he sailed forward to ever-renewed and perilous adventures.

Sword in hand and powder barrel at his feet, he left the shores of the known behind him and sang his pirate song as he went :

I know whence I spring.

Insatiable as a flame,

I glow and consume myself.

All I touch flashes into fire,

All I leave is a charred remnant.

Such by nature am I — flame.

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