On Being a Basel Professor
In Walter Kaufmann’s chronology of Nietzsche’s life, under 1889, it states briefly, that “Nietzsche becomes insane early in January in Turin.”
Insanity, evidently, is no impediment to writing letters. Chesterton said that the maniac was the man with the one idea that explains everything. He is the completely rational man for whom everything made sense in terms of his one idea. It does no good to tell the man who thinks that he is Napoleon that he is not Napoleon. For if he were Napoleon and someone told him that he was not, he would be certain that the other person, not himself, was mad, since he knows he is Napoleon. The madman sees himself first and everything else in terms of himself.
Nietzsche is the most amusing of the philosophers, except perhaps for Chesterton himself. This series, “On Essays and Letters,” is, in its own way, an homage to the wonderful existence of letters and essays in our literary tradition. Some of the finest things we ever read or write are in our short letters or essays. And, of course, with his aphorisms and maxims, Nietzsche is a master of philosophic brevity and wit.
In The Wanderer and the Shadow, Nietzsche himself, in an age when letters were, as it were, still letters, not e-mails, wrote: “A letter is an unannounced visit; the mailman, the mediator of impolite incursions. One ought to have one hour every eight days for receiving letters, and then take a bath” (#261, Portable Nietzsche). I presume this advice was not intended for us to take one of those invigorating baths just to relax and enjoy the warm water. “Unannounced visits” are often the best kind. I suspect Nietzsche saw them as intrusions into his own world that he claimed to dominate with his will.
On January 6, 1889, just when insanity was evidently setting in, from Turin, Nietzsche wrote to his famous mentor, Jacob Burckhardt. Nietzsche began, “In the end, I would much rather be a Basel professor than God.” One suspects that God would also prefer that Nietzsche be a Basel professor. The authority and prestige of German professors are, of course, legendary. We are not quite sure, with this amusing preference, whether Nietzsche is yet insane. He gives his reasoning: “I have not dared to push my private egoism so far as to desist for its sake from the creation of the world.” There is self-insight and humor here.
Naturally, to recall Chesterton’s maniac, a man who thought he was God would, of course, be busy creating the world. This was one of the divine occupations. Being a Basel professor, however high a preference over the divinity, might distract from this “god’s” activities. Nietzsche justifies his choice: “You see, one must make sacrifices however and wherever one lives.” Lucky for us, we continue to exist even though Basel loses a professor.
Nietzsche tells Burckhardt that he has a student’s room across from the Palazzo Carignano. He next claims that he (Nietzsche) was actually born in this Palazzo as Vittorio Emanuele himself. This is quite a come-down from his previous creative status! But there is music below in the Galleria Subalpina. The room only costs twenty-two francs. He does his own shopping, but has “torn shoes.”
Nietzsche figures that, evidently on account of his sins, if not, more likely, his own aphorisms, he is “sentenced to while away the next eternity with bad jokes.” There could be worse fates. But he has his writing with him. “The post office is five steps from here, so I mail my letters myself to play the great feuilletonist of the grande monde.” This “romance writer” of the great world has some relationship with Le Figaro in Paris, but he wants to prove his harmlessness with two jokes.
In the first “joke,” if it can be called that, Nietzsche identifies himself with two well-known criminals at the time. He wants to show Paris something which it had not seen before, namely, “a decent criminal.” The second “joke” is a salute to Alphonse Daudet, who had just published a satire on the “Forty Immortals” of the French Academy, for which Nietzsche thinks he merits immediate membership in this august body.
Is Nietzsche already mad? He seems almost too witty to be so. He claims next to be “every historical personage,” no mean feat, though a logical consequence of his superman position. And of the children he has “brought into the world,” again back to theology, he ponders “with some misgiving the possibility that not everyone who enters the ‘kingdom of God’ also comes from God.” Scripture itself says that “not everyone who says to me ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven.”
But we suspect that Nietzsche has something more sinister in mind. If there is in fact someone in the Kingdom of God who is not originally “from” God, we have implicitly a denial of the creation account in Genesis in which God saw that all being was good because He created it. If Nietzsche is busy creating the world himself, instead of being a Basel professor, this is probably who slips in. He continues by telling us that he has witnessed his own funeral twice, once in the form of the natural son of the Piedmont king and once as the Papal Secretary of State.
Nietzsche next tells Burckhardt that he wants him to see what he is writing, but he may not “profit from it,” because “we artists are incorrigible.” He invites Burckhardt to come down to Turin for “a really fine chat.” He promises “a glass of Veltliner” (a famous Austrian wine) and advises him not to worry about dressing up. Burckhardt does come down to take him back to Basel for treatment.
This famous letter has a number of postscripts on the margins. They are again rather funny. He explains that he goes about Turin in a student coat slapping some startled gentleman on the back to ask him whether “he is content?” He explains to the man that he is God, not the Papal Secretary of State. He created this “farce of a world.” The reaction of the Italian gentleman to this divine slap on the back is not recorded. Allora.
Evidently still in his divine capacity, Nietzsche adds, “I had Caiaphas put in chains; I too was crucified last year in a long, drawn-out way by German doctors. Wilhelm, Bismark and all anti-Semites done away with!” He carries out his own incarnation.
Two days before the above letter, Nietzsche wrote another letter from Turin to the composer Peter Gast that simply said: “Sing me a new song: the world is transfigured and all the heavens are full of joy.” These words are obviously inspired by scripture. However, the signature is simply “the Crucified.” The irony and paradox here are obviously intended. Yet, I sometimes think that Nietzsche did somehow believe his own aphorism that read, “the last Christian died on the Cross.” That is why the Crucifixion haunted him, even his own, even perhaps in madness.
The man who would rather be a “Basel professor than God” was busy creating the world, his world. After we create our own world, we have to live in it. The only escape from such madness is into a world that we did not create, one that we discover already created for us, one in which we are freed from the prison of our own reason revolving creatively about itself alone.
James V. Schall, S.J. is professor of government at Georgetown University.
Posted: March 25, 2012 in On Letters and Essays.