Contemplating Nietzsche

October 15, 1994|By Victor Paul Alvarez | Victor Paul Alvarez,Contributing Writer

"That which does not kill us makes us stronger." -- Friedrich Nietzsche

He would know.

After an 11-year fight with syphilis and paralysis, the German philosopher, writer and composer died penniless in 1900.

Tonight, on his 150th birthday, Towson State University and Goucher College will present a free concert of his music at the TSU Concert Hall. It's part of the "Nietzsche Event," an interdisciplinary series of concerts and conferences celebrating the man who has been called one of the most important philosophers of all time, among other things.

"Nietzsche gets hit with everything from nutcase to Nazi," said George Hahn, an English professor at Towson State.

The nutcase part is essentially true. "He had a nervous breakdown on the streets of Turin on Jan. 4, 1889," said Towson State philosophy professor Wolfgang Fuchs. "He saw a horse being whipped and he broke down in tears. He never got it [his sanity] back."

The Nazi part is essentially untrue.

"During World War I, 100,000 copies of Nietzsche's book 'Thus Spoke Zarathustra' were published," said Dr. Fuchs. After his death, Nietzsche's sister, Elisabeth, gathered his unpublished writings and letters and pleaded with Adolph Hitler to publish Nietzsche anthologies. He did -- after editing them to suit his purposes.

"It became widely known that many German soldiers carried the book in their back packs; on the surface it seems to exemplify militaristic values," Dr. Fuchs said. "I think that was a wrong reading."

Philosophy scholars say the number of misinterpretations of Nietzsche is appalling. Organizers of the "Nietzsche Event" hope to dispel some of them.

The idea for the event was developed by John Rose, chairman of the philosophy department at Goucher, and Dr. Fuchs. The series of seminars, lectures and concerts has been prepared mostly by local scholars.

"We wanted this event to have a broad appeal, so that any audience would be able to appreciate these ideas, even if they've never heard of Nietzsche before," Dr. Rose said.

The son of a Lutheran minister, Nietzsche was born Oct. 15, 1844, in the Prussian province of Saxony. Nietzsche taught philosophy and served as a medic with the Prussian army in the Franco-German War in 1870. He returned in ill health to teach again, and resigned in 1879 to write. During the next 10 years he suffered poverty, near blindness, migraine headaches and manifold physical agonies. Still, he relentlessly drove himself to write and publish.

"At first no one read him," Dr. Fuchs said. "This disappointed him. He wanted to change the world, culture; and he wasn't widely read. He always thought his next book would change that."

Nietzsche found moderate fame when Georg Brandes began to lecture on him at the University of Copenhagen in 1888. He soon became popular within poets' circles, and eventually he would influence the likes of Albert Camus, Sigmund Freud and Jean-Paul Sartre.

So, knowing all this, why should we care today about a man who died at the turn of the century? Because, as they say at the colleges, Nietzsche is everywhere.

"Nietzsche portrays America's sense of individualism, skepticism and doubt," said Dr. Hahn. "He wrote of the evils of conformity, which emerged here in the '60s, and his writings affected American popular philosophy more than anyone else's."

His writings are not the standard philosophical fare. In other words, you don't have to be a scholar to appreciate him.

"Nietzsche was one of the very few philosophers who deliberately didn't speak in the vocabulary of the academia. He's accessible," Dr. Fuchs said.

Nietzsche thought all human behavior could be reduced to a single basic drive: the will to power. This is the power to perfect oneself, to become a creator rather than a mere creature. When we fail to do this, and resign ourselves to this failure, we seek a crude power over others as a substitute.

This higher being that man strives for is called the 'overman,' or 'superman' -- the man who is master of his passions; who can creatively employ his powers of passion and reason.

Nietzsche found fault with democracy because he thought it empowered the weak over the strong. Likewise, he felt Christianity was born of weakness and bred weakness. To him, Christianity was the enemy of reason and honesty, teaching people to worship perfection instead of perfecting themselves.

Conversely, Nietzsche's music isn't as controversial.

"His music is good," said Gerald L. Phillips, chairman of the voice department at TSU. "It's not just interesting because he was a great philosopher; his music is interesting in its own right."

Tonight's concert will include a vocal quartet, two four-hand piano pieces and two choral works. The concert, to be preceded by a brief discussion of Nietzsche's music, will be performed by members of the TSU music faculty.

In the coming weeks, the "Nietzsche Event" will continue with a variety of other events.

It seems his time has come.

"It's like the old joke," said Dr. Fuchs. "The older the kid becomes, the smarter the parents seem to be. That's our relationship with Nietzsche. He's the father that was pretty smart after all, whereas he once seemed nuts and weird."

THE NIETZSCHE EVENT

Concert

Tonight, 8:15, Towson State University Concert Hall

*

"Looking at Nietzsche, Looking at Ourselves"

Oct. 29, 9 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. and Oct. 30, 11:30 a.m. to 4 p.m., Merrick Hall, Goucher College

*

L "Friedrich Nietzsche: Music and the Evolution of the Heroic"

Nov. 14, 7 p.m., Merrick Hall, Goucher College

*

"There is No Escaping Nietzsche"

Nov. 21, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., Chesapeake Room, Towson State University

All events are free. Call Towson State at (410) 830-2750 or Goucher at (410) 337-6333 for information.

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