Again and again a page loosens in the scroll of time, drops out, and flutters away—and suddenly flutters back again into man’s lap. Then man says “I remember” and envies the animal which immediately forgets and sees each moment really die, sink back into deep night extinguished for ever.
— Friedrich Nietzsche, On the Advantage and Disadvantage of History for Life
I was a gin-soaked ski bum from farm-field nowhere the year I fell for Nietzsche. Twenty-two, only occasionally employed, with a brand-new and guilt-inducing fancy-New England-liberal-arts-college diploma on my wall, from a school whose loans, twenty years later, I have yet to repay, I was living in the last house at the end of a dirt road on top of a mountain in southern Vermont. Rent was $250 a month. Most months, I couldn’t make it. In desperation, I applied for any job that I thought might take me: the local gas station and sawmill (neither called), and, as my savings quickly zeroed, the dog track, where I labored just long enough to quit. Instead of working, I walked, and skied, and mountain biked, but mostly walked, through thousands of acres of forest, over mountains named for their colors—White and Green—from the dying gold of fall to the newborn viridescence of spring, and, on the rare pay-day, from my oil-burning truck to the liquor store and the used book shop, because the only other things I did that year besides walk was drink and read.
I had encountered Nietzsche before, attracted by rumors of danger, madness and blasphemy, and I had felt myself resound sympathetically to the hammer-blows of his thinking. “How does one compromise oneself?” goes a passage from Twilight of the Idols that I had triple-underscored; “If one is consistent. If one proceeds in a straight line.” But things felt different in the winter of 2002-2003. Insane. The dot-com bubble had burst. Nearly all of my friends were staggering under the weight of their student loans. The Twin Towers had come down. The U.S. had been at war in Afghanistan and was about to invade Iraq, based on the faulty intelligence of a dubiously elected president, leaving piles of civilian casualties in the rubble. No one had yet heard of Abu Ghraib, but we were learning of Guantánamo and extraordinary rendition and waterboarding. Bush had just unveiled his global climate change policy, which depended on voluntary CO2 reduction, after rejecting the Kyoto Protocol because it would hamper American economic growth. All of this—a vast conspiracy against life—seemed connected, though I couldn’t say how, exactly. I remember listening to the regional NPR station the house caught, its airwave static-scratched from its journey over the mountains, and feeling paralyzed by repugnance for what I was supposed to be launching my life into.
So, one cold-numb winter night I poured myself a mason-jar-ful of alcohol, and, following a whim, grabbed my copies of Walter Kaufmann’s The Portable Nietzsche and Basic Writings of Nietzsche. I recall wolfing down the cheap-print pages of my collections: Twilight of the Idols and The Antichrist, Beyond Good and Evil, Ecce Homo, On the Genealogy of Morals and Thus Spoke Zarathustra—never before had I so doggedly tracked a writer or thinker. It was the relentless intensity of Nietzsche’s individualism that initially attracted me, his utter contempt for everything conventional. “I call an animal, a species, or an individual corrupt when it loses its instincts,” he had written in The Antichrist, in 1888, only a few months before breaking down. I took Nietzsche to mean the task of living is to never give up whatever inherent thing it is that makes each of us unique, a message I was primed to receive in 2002. But more than the content of his writing, it was the way each of Nietzsche’s sentences had its own blunt syntactical gravity that pulled me—to the next sentence and the next, deeper into my collections, hundreds of sentences raining down in a torrent, each with a distinct feel as it passed over. I desperately needed the vibrant, even violent sensuality of reading and thinking that I was finding in Nietzsche. A sharp intimacy. What had grown numb was chafed and began to prickle.
I had forgotten much of this when one day, in the fall of 2018, an advance copy of John Kaag’s new book, Hiking with Nietzsche: On Becoming Who You Are, landed in my lap. Kaag, a professor of philosophy at the University of Massachusetts-Lowell, is nearly exactly my age. He, too, discovered Nietzsche during a long moment of crisis, a few years before mine. He, too, fell hard for the philosopher. He’s also a walker, and this new book of his, a follow-up to his smash hit, American Philosophy: A Love Story, is an account—part memoir, part intellectual history, part myth—of an adult life lived in Nietzsche’s shadow.
Born the “gleaming” son of “an obscenely wealthy, good-looking man,” who was, nevertheless, a tyrant, Kaag, in his junior year of college, in the midst of writing a thesis on Nietzsche, was handed a blank check for $3000 by his advisor and told only to go to Basel, where Nietzsche had been a professor. Once in Switzerland, Kaag fled for the Alps, to the landscape where, over a short ten years, Nietzsche composed, before going immediately insane, those books that have meant so much to both Kaag and me. Nietzsche was the excuse, but Kaag was in the Alps for another reason: he was suffering, and had long suffered, from the sense that he was exceptional, but unrecognized. Much of what powers Hiking with Nietzsche is Kaag’s contempt for, as he puts it throughout, “the herd,” as well as his anger in not yet achieving prominence. And so, in the Alps he pushed himself, making risky ascents of trail-less peaks, and fasting to become harder, sharper, leaner than the mass of mediocrity by which he felt polluted.
But a gnawing, insatiable specter of self-loathing shadowed Kaag in his wandering. This internal division, between superiority and abjection, is the tension that keeps the pages turning. We learn that Kaag has long suffered from an extreme eating disorder. Gradually, we discover that he went to the mountains not for research, not for redemption or philosophical inspiration, not even for Nietzsche—but to die. Once there, he starves himself, considers pills, blades, a noose, self-immolation and pitching himself headlong into a crevasse, before ultimately, thankfully, calling suicide off.
That’s chapter one.
The rest of the book is written from the perspective of a nearly middle-aged adult, who, returning to the Alps with wife and young daughter, grapples with the actions and inactions of his younger self, with the course and disappointments of his life—with who he has become—all with Nietzsche’s help. What, Kaag is really asking, is the point of suffering? And if to live is to suffer, then what is the point of existence? And can one even contemplate these questions without either going insane or slitting one’s wrists?
Answering these questions is not Hiking with Nietzsche’s task. The task is to think them, to live them, if possible, to see where asking them takes a person and to not shy away from the journey. Kaag’s structure—thirteen chapters braided of memoir, biography and a consideration of each of Nietzsche’s works—is intended to evoke the thinking life. The effect brings distant things near: Nietzsche and Kaag, philosophy and life, thought and action. Kaag’s pacing is quick, sure-footed, seamless in its hand-off from memoir to biography to philosophy.
By the book’s end, Kaag has come to a sort of accommodation; it’s not so much that he solves the problem of existence or disappointment, or that he finds the crack in Nietzsche’s logic and proposes something else. It is that he discovers within himself the will to live what he supposes is a Nietzschean life. In the book’s best-rendered scene, which occurs nearly at the end, Kaag, who, again, is not eating, is walking with his wife, the philosopher Carol Hay, in a high Alpine valley. He falls, twice, the final time smashing his head, and then rests for a while, head in Hay’s lap, where he drifts to sleep and dreams a twisted dream of his teenage years, of standing on the lip of the crevasse into which he nearly threw himself. He takes off his clothes, in the dream, and prepares to jump, but instead of leaping, opens his eyes, suddenly awake, redeemed, even peaceful, ready to begin the book’s final chapter, “Become Who You Are.”
This should all work—but it doesn’t. One of the many frustrations of the book is that Nietzsche’s thinking never comes fully alive. In part this is because Kaag clearly wants to emulate the famous punch of Nietzsche’s aphorisms (“what does not destroy me, makes me stronger”), but lacks the vigor: “There is a constant tension when walking on a steep grade,” Kaag writes of hiking as life’s metaphor. “It is best to pace oneself.” Unfortunately, each chapter is clotted with such sclerotic pronouncements—a forgivable shortcoming if it wasn’t also symptomatic of a more terminal problem: the book’s dismissive view of its reader’s ability.
Kaag’s method is borrowed from the tried-and-true freshman lecture: distill a complicated book down into one high-proof idea easily graspable for a sleepy, only-attending-for-the-distribution-requirement audience, highlight that idea as the key to that particular book, and then repeat the next day (or chapter) with a different text until the end of the semester brings relief. Sometimes what results is pithy and compact—“humans would rather will nothingness, even at high costs, than embody the passivity of willing nothing at all,” he writes of The Genealogy of Morals, an observation that lands—but just as often Kaag boils off Nietzsche’s complexity, beauty, inconsistency and vibrancy. The godlessness, the rumors of fascism, the cutting elitism and nihilism, all the frenzied fury and danger with which Nietzsche has long been associated, correctly or not; that’s all gone, as if we, the audience, are too infirm for Nietzsche’s intensity. “I am dynamite,” Nietzsche famously roared in Ecce Homo, but this book on suicide and desperation culminates in a self-help bumper-sticker. When he awakens from his slip on the trail, and raises his head from his wife’s lap, Kaag comes to the book’s final, philosophical conclusion: “life does not change, but the attitude you bring to it might.” It’s dynamite reduced to last summer’s damp sparkler.
At the end of Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Nietzsche has his protagonist call out to the night sky in desperation, “‘You great star…you deep eye of happiness, what would your happiness be had you not those for whom you shine?’” It’s an ambiguous rhetorical question: perhaps Zarathustra means that happiness comes only to those with idolaters who can do nothing but live out their twilight lives by the gleam of the few glittering heavenly bodies.
This is Kaag’s Nietzsche, and the urge to be seen as a radiant intellect is the urge that leads Kaag to flatten Nietzsche, to mistake pomp for potency and to condescend to his audience. He is quick to crown himself the next great man of philosophy, Nietzsche’s kin (both, Kaag points out, were abandoned by their fathers when they were four), the inheritor of the same insomniac wandering and thinking as the men he most admires: Theodor Adorno, Thomas Mann, Hermann Hesse and Zarathustra. Indeed, much of Hiking with Nietzsche is spent turning superficial likeness into Kaag’s family resemblance.
What ultimately seems to animate Hiking with Nietzsche is a vision of philosophy as a strategic path to success—a will to power over others. It is symptomatic that the people Kaag meets on his journey are uniformly cast aside, worthy of not even a cutting quip, or else typecast—intellectuals are dull pedants; peasants shine with health. Even his wife, Hay, an accomplished philosopher herself, appears either to have her expertise in Kant belittled as juvenile or else to serve as support: stroking Kaag’s head when his thoughts congeal into migraine; looking after their child when Kaag goes wandering; feeding Kaag strudel, in the book’s final scene, as he wrestles with how closely his life comes to Buddha’s.
But I have to admit, I, too, remember the shock of recognition upon cracking into my Kaufman collections. Zarathustra also lived alone on top of a mountain, and he also spent his days in thought surrounded by the natural world: “You great star,” the book begins, as it ends. Zarathustra came down from his peak, as I knew I eventually would, to spread his philosophy to the world, as I hoped, in my wilder fantasies, I might. I can recognize Kaag’s desire to be great and respected as my twenty-two-year-old’s own. But I also knew that the resemblance between Nietzsche and me was slight, coincidental, and that no matter how much I read, I was nothing like him. I hadn’t withdrawn, like Zarathustra, for clarity. I had withdrawn out of fear—fear of a culture I found inhuman and depraved, fear that I might have nothing, after all, to say back. After a while—I distinctly remember this—I began withdrawing further still, further into myself: emotions faded, tastes dulled, my thinking slowed and the world turned weary and grey.
There is, however, another way of understanding Zarathustra’s question to the stars: we can all shine, and none need orbit another. “All of life is based on semblance, art, deception, points of view, and the necessity of perspectives and error,” Nietzsche wrote in The Birth of Tragedy, a view that flirts with chaos. But if neither Church nor State nor potentate has Truth cornered, if we can’t look to any of them for salvation from suffering, then neither do we have to accept their version of who we ought to be. Nietzsche is sometimes misread as the philosopher of the one percent, but I’ve never understood that. In The Will to Power he writes, “If we affirm one single moment, we thus affirm not only ourselves but all of existence.” This Nietzsche, in contrast to Kaag’s, advocates an active philosophy where each of us—we—can resist caricature, can resist a life of herdlike sleepwalking. Enraptured by the sun, the sustainer of life, Nietzsche is the philosopher who realizes that though we may not be able to control much, we, at least, can master our own selves. Nor should we seek to bend others’ lives to our will: the sun shines not to be worshipped, but because it can do nothing else.
I had originally grabbed my Kaufmann translations because I was looking for a guide, and in that, I was wrong. The problem with the herd is not that we are stupid or weak or ill-bred and low-born, but that we are timid and docile: we look for a leader when what we ought to be doing is living.
There’s a parable, in the first part of Thus Spoke Zarathustra, of the camel, the lion and the child. The camel is the stoic who can reverently bear the burdens of life, and for Nietzsche, this is the most underdeveloped of human states. Every once in a while the camel will grow claws and teeth, throw down its burdens to become the lion, the anarchist who refuses convention—no gods, no masters. But Zarathustra’s hope for all of us is that, at least in our best moments, we become creative, like the child, who sees and experiences the world in which she must make her way as fresh and new and filled with wonder and terror, simple and alive.
That winter of 2002-2003 was a cold winter in Vermont, and a snowy one. It snowed every day of dark December, and most of the days in January, and one night, the night of the full moon, I can’t remember which month, I stayed up late, as usual, reading Nietzsche and listening to the Velvet Underground’s Loaded on repeat, at a volume that rattled the window panes in their flaked lead-painted decaying frames. Sober. At midnight, on a crazy whim, I pulled on gloves and a thin jacket and stepped out into the clear negative-ten-degree darkness. I turned off the porch light, killed all the house lights. The moon lit the snow to a bright blue, bright enough to show my cross-country skis, bright enough for me to skim a thin layer of kick wax on them, bright enough so that I could glide into the woods and its 5k loop without a headlamp. I spent the next two hours rocketing around the trail, once more, and again. I remember, now, my sweat prickling sharp as it froze on my brow, and the ivory-white bleached limbs of the dead sugar maple lofted out stark against the blue moonlit snow, and the metallic taste in my mouth of effort as I kicked harder, faster. I remember the feeling of the pure cold air as it slid beneath my layers to my skin, the way it brushed over my body, made me suck in the sudden cold and exhale sharply, and I remember unzipping my jacket for more. I remember the hiss of the snow as I flew, faster than I had ever moved by muscle alone, and the citric smell of spruce, the crack of the too-cold beeches. I remember stopping in a clearing of hemlock to howl at the moon, screaming at the starry sky until my throat tore, soothing myself with handfuls of dry, cold new snow, before setting off again.
The world was indeed insane, and it would no doubt grind me into dull conformity, but not that night.