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Friedrich Nietzsche Stefan Zweig

Transformation in search of the true self

A snake which cannot slough its skin is
doomed to perish. So likewise, a mind
which is prevented from changing its
opinion ceases to be a mind.

der_kampf_mit_dem_daemonGoethe’s life expanded around a fixed point, just as year by year a circle invisible to the outer world is added to the trunk of a tree. Patiently, thanks to an active though stubborn concentration of his energies, Goethe attained his maturity; he resolutely guarded his ego while defending his proper growth.

Nietzsche, the changeable, was perpetually obliged to destroy himself that he might reconstruct himself wholly.

Each of Nietzsche’s spiritual earthquakes destroyed the whole edifice of his convictions, and the philosopher was obliged to start building anew from the foundations. Nothing even grew quietly and imperceptibly and naturally with him; his inner being was never given a chance to develop and extend by a process of stealthy labor. Invariably he is struck “as if by lightning”; always his universe must be annihilated in order that the new cosmos may emerge.

“My books tell the story of the victories I have gained over myself.” They relate his manifold transformation, his spiritual pregnancies and lyings-in, his deaths and resurrections; they are tales of the merciless warfare he carried on against himself, the punishments and summary executions he inflicted upon his own being; they are the biographies of all the creatures Nietzsche impersonated during the twenty years of his mental existence.

What makes Nietzsche’s transformations so peculiar is that they seem retrogressive. If we take Goethe as the prototype of an organic nature in harmony with the forward march of the universe, we perceive that this development is symbolical of the various ages of life. In youth he was fiery and enthusiastic; as a man in his prime he was actively reflective; age brought him the utmost lucidity of mind. His mental rhythm corresponded in every point with the temperature of his blood. As with most young men, he began in chaos and ended his career in orderly fashion, as is seemly with the old. After going through a revolutionary period he turned conservative, after a phase of lyricism he became a man of science, after being prodigal of himself he learned how to be reserved.

Nietzsche took the opposite course. Instead of aspiring to an even more complete integration of his ego, he desired complete disintegration. As he advanced in years he became increasingly impatient, vehement, revolutionary, and chaotic. His outward aspect was in strident opposition to the customary evolution of a man.

While his university companions were still delighting in the usual horseplay of undergraduates, Nietzsche, though but twenty-four years old, was already a professor, aspirant to the chair of philology at Basel, that famous seat of learning. At twenty-four, Nietzsche’s intimates were men of fifty and sixty years of age, sages such as Jakob Burckhardt and Ritschl, while his closest friend was the most celebrated artist of the day—Richard Wagner. He deliberately put the brake upon his poetical aspirations and upon his love of music. Like any other pedant, he sat over his Greek texts, revising pandects, and compiling erudite indexes. From the outset, Nietzsche’s eyes were turned towards the dead past. Old before his time, a confirmed bachelor, he had no true joy in life. Professorial dignity swamped his cheerfulness, dimming what should have been his natural exuberance. He was wholly immersed in printed texts and in dryasdust problems.

His first book, The Birth of Tragedy, was completed when he was twenty-seven. Herein he breached into the present, though his face was still wearing the mask of a philologist.

At the age of thirty, when most men are starting life, when Goethe became a minister of the State, and when Kant and Schiller were full-fledged professors, Nietzsche had kicked over the traces of his official duties and, with a sigh of relief, had quitted the chair of philology at Basel University. Now at last he came to grips with himself, seeking to penetrate into his personal universe, undergoing an initial transformation, rupturing old ties, and making his début as an artist. This initial step into the realm of the present was the moment when the real Nietzsche was born.

By the time he had reached his thirty-six year, Nietzsche had become an outlaw, an amoralist, a sceptic, a poet, a musician. He had regained “a better youth.” Such a course of rejuvenation is almost unprecedented. Having reached his fourth decade, Nietzsche’s language and his thoughts, his whole being, indeed, possess a freshness, a colour, a fearlessness, a passion, and a music he had never known as a lad of seventeen. The recluse of Sils-Maria had a lighter touch, his words soared on freer opinions, his feet danced more joyously through his works than had those of the prematurely old professor of twenty-four summers.

He could find no halting-place for his restless mind. Hardly had he settled down somewhere when he felt his “skin chapped and rent.” He himself felt as if he were confronting a ghost when someone referred to “Professor Friedrich Nietzsche of Basel”; it was hard enough even to remember that he had been such a person twenty years before. Has any human being, before him, made so trenchant a cleavage between past and present? Does not this severance account for the terrible solitude of his latter days? He had broken all the links which attached him to the past, and the furious rhythm of his life and of his ultimate transformations was too ardent for him to create new ties.

His ruthless amputation of the Wagner complex proved to be an extremely perilous surgical intervention, one that was almost fatal, because it came so very close to the heart. For, precisely at the moment when the form of his being was stretched to the utmost, his mental tensions culminated in disruption. The primitive and daimonic power exploded, annihilating the superb series of incorporations which he had created form his own blood and out of his own life while storming the hidden battlements of the infinite.

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