As a person educated in the mid-20th century this is what I knew about Fredrich Nietzsche: he was a philosopher who was all the rage in the late 19th and first half of the 20th century and he had this thing about achieving a more perfected human condition. Oh, I knew one more thing about him, something that discouraged all other curiosity: the Nazis liked him, saw him as an intellectual forerunner of their decidedly non-intellectual movement.
I know only a little more than that now. In the past few years it’s become accepted knowledge that the Nazi connection was to a large degree accidental. Nietzsche’s sister was his literary executor,* and she was a Nazi fan-girl who did a great deal to forge that linkage; and since the Nazis were nationalists, the available idea that there was a notable German cultural figure whose contradictory writings could dab some intellectual cologne onto their bully-boy stink was useful.
I vaguely knew that one of my childhood heroes George Bernard Shaw had admired him, but I had no idea how many leftist and anarchist figures rated Nietzsche. Remember Gustav Landauer, the German Anarchist theorist and grandfather of the famous director and improv comic pioneer Mike Nichols, brutally killed in the post WWI revolutionary activity in Germany? He was said to be influenced by Nietzsche too.
But this fall, while reading a blog I follow,** I learned another thing: that Nietzsche was also a poet. Which shouldn’t be news to me I guess, but it had never occurred to me, even though as a philosopher Nietzsche seemed to be something of a human quote machine who could turn out memorable phrases. And today’s text, “In German November,” was the example that introduced me to that fact.
Ah sunflower! Weary of cold and $%*@! snow.
I know only a little about German literary Romanticism, but what I know makes Nietzsche’s poem part of that tradition: worship of nature, doomed love—Damn! There’s even a prominent talking flower for Odin’s-sake! This can seem very twee in summary, but Nietzsche redeems it with his gift for language and characterization. Unlike other translations I’ve done here, this one’s poetic images and plot moved rather easily into English.
This is autumn: it — it just breaks your heart.”
After the poem establishes its “This is Autumn…” refrain by opening with it, the first full stanza has a graceful post-equinox image of a now lower sun against a mountain that would please Wang Wei. The poem’s second scene, set in a orchard with post-frost fruit starting to rot mixes sex and death tropes effectively. And then there’s that talking flower.
It takes some nerve to carry that scene off both as a writer and as a performer. I felt I had to push myself as a singer to portray the sunflower, and part of the reason I’ve started to put chord sheets up for some of my compositions here is to encourage better singers to improve on my attempts.
Simple chords, but this one has opportunities for a singer.
Because Nietzsche’s German moves fairly easily to English my translation doesn’t differ that much from the one in this link, which also provides you with the original German. One choice/change I made: I wanted to emphasize the existential angst of the sunflower and to strengthen an image—and so the original German: “in ihrem Auge glänzet dann/Erinnerung auf” gains a repeated word “memorial” reflected in the dying flower/eye. I also thought the implied pause in Nietzsche’s refrain: “This is autumn: it—just breaks your heart.” could be emphasized further by repeating the “it” for a stutter effect.
As I mentioned above, I went for it in this performance, and given my limits as a singer it may not be to everyone’s taste, but it was the best I could do given the more limited recording opportunities I have these days. The player gadget to hear it is below. Thanks for reading and listening in whatever November wherever you are.
*Nietzsche died in 1900, late enough to give his ideas access to the early 20th century’s cultural ferment, but with the benefit that the proponent of those ideas wasn’t around to contradict the uses interpreters put them to.
**Byron’s Muse. I like to think I’ve outgrown youthful goth romanticism, which fits badly with my aged frame and less virginal connections to death, but Byron’s Muse sometimes reminds me that artistically there is still some attraction there.
One thought on “In German November, or What? Nietzsche was a poet?”
Here is an interesting aspect of Nietzsche’s thought, showing that his will-to-power wasn’t a heroic individualism as Nazis probably understood it:
“Few convictions have proven to be as strong as the conviction of the existence of a fundamental subjectivity. For Nietzsche, it is an illusion, a bundle of drives loosely collected under the name of ‘subject’ —indeed, it is nothing but these drives, willing, and actions in themselves—and it cannot appear as anything else except through the seduction of language (and the fundamental errors of reason petrified in it), which understands and misunderstands all action as conditioned by something which causes actions, by a ‘Subject’ (GM I 13). Subjectivity is a form of linguistic reductionism, and when using language, ‘[w]e enter a realm of crude fetishism when we summon before consciousness the basic presuppositions of the metaphysics of language — in plain talk, the presuppositions of reason. Everywhere reason sees a doer and doing; it believes in will as the cause; it believes in the ego, in the ego as being, in the ego as substance, and it projects this faith in the ego-substance upon all things — only thereby does it first create the concept of ‘thing’ (TI, ‘Reason in Philosophy’ 5). As Nietzsche also states in WP 484, the habit of adding a doer to a deed is a Cartesian leftover that begs more questions than it solves. It is indeed nothing more than an inference according to habit: ‘There is activity, every activity requires an agent, consequently – (BGE, 17). Locke himself found the continuous existence of the self problematic, but did not go as far as Hume’s dissolution of the self into a number of ‘bundles’. After all, even if identity shifts occurred behind the scenes, he required a subject with enough unity to be able to enter into the Social Contract. This subject had to be something more than merely an ‘eternal grammatical blunder’ (D, 120), and willing had to be understood as something simple. For Nietzsche, it is ‘above all complicated, something that is a unit only as a word, a word in which the popular prejudice lurks, which has defeated the always inadequate caution of philosophers’ (BGE, 19).”