Fiction Collective Two, 2006
The Bardo Thodol of Friedrich Nietzsche
“I am Herr Professor Nietzsche and I will be your labyrinth.
My task this semester is to make you uncomfortable” (110).
Reviewed by Rainer J. Hanshe
Goethe’s dying words were “More light! More light!” Nietzsche,
if he could have spoken during his last instant, may well
have called out “More life! More life!” Overwhelmed by what
he did receive, the mercurial philosopher finally collapsed,
his acutely sensitive nerves overburdened by the influx of
the cosmos and whatever he was afflicted with along with the
pressure of thinking at high altitudes, inventing perhaps
the most radical, apocalyptic philosophy in history. Few have
written of those final years after Nietzsche’s infamous end
in Torino (Richard Foreman’s play Bad Boy Nietzsche
is one of the rare accounts and an interesting corollary to
Olsen’s novel) though many of the apocryphal myths, the embrace
of the horse the most evocative, have been exploded, yet most
(even many Nietzsche scholars) still repeat them as if they
were irrefutable facts. But what is or isn’t true is the last
concern of the novelist, especially perhaps if writing of
Nietzsche, who questioned the validity of truth and found
the world nothing but appearance. Though only Nietzsche’s
sister was present during his final hours, Lance Olsen has
recreated those moments with bristling vigor and startling
presence, bringing a hitherto relatively unknown Nietzsche
to life. It is a riveting and evocative portrait, but far
more than that, it is an experience, an experience
in which the reader is instantly thrust into Nietzsche’s consciousness
during his final hours on earth and they are hallucinatory,
fantastical, tragic hours, hours not only achingly poignant,
but terribly haunting.
What a guide to have as one perishes.
From Thomas Mann’s Doktor Faustus and Liliana Cavani’s
film Beyond Good and Evil to Irvin Yalom’s When
Nietzsche Wept and David Farrell Krell’s lesser well
known Nietzsche, the philosopher’s life has been
the subject of numerous fictionalizations; surely, there are
other accounts in different languages and there will probably
continue to be more. Nietzsche, whoever ‘he’ was, is clearly
an enigma of endless fascination. Whether this enthrallment
has become something of a sickness is difficult to discern
and Nietzsche may have become in some ways the very thing
he most feared becoming and warned against: an idol in need
of smashing. In Ecce Homo, perhaps one of Nietzsche’s
most misunderstood texts, his warnings against being made
into an idol are unequivocally clear and direct, hardly as
ambiguous and opaque as are many of his aphorisms. But Olsen
doesn’t present an idealized or sacrosanct picture of the
philosopher who called himself God’s buffoon; if anything,
this is a Nietzsche few have known, a truly human, but still
apocalyptic Nietzsche the philosopher himself might have relished
– Nietzsche struck with a gleeful and liberatory hammer. There
is not just one Nietzsche in Lance Olsen’s novel though, but
numerous, for the philosopher is multiplied into a series
of selves that often converse and engage with one another
as the body which contains all those numerous selves spends
several hours dying.
While those final hours don’t last forever (at least in the novel), they are as mesmerizing as the life which preceded them, a life whose insides flourish before us in explicit and incandescent detail.
The Bardo, like memory, is surely full of vagaries; it is
a time of combat with one’s existence and its end and the
disintegration of life or unraveling of consciousness is evoked
in the fragmented and elliptical form of Nietzsche’s Kisses.
As he dies, Nietzsche lives through his every moment again,
coming face to face with the greatest weight of his own existence.
The questionableness of recollection is perhaps Olsen’s primary
concern and the vagaries of memory are set in play by his
mischievous, ludic imagination, which shifts between fact
and fiction and creates a flowing amalgam wherein the tragic
and the comic often merge together. In Nietzsche’s attempt
to recall his entire existence, or as his entire existence
erupts within him like a spool of film violently unwinding
against his will, much of it is distorted, mythologized, or
invented by the dying Nietzsche; as Olsen has him state at
one point, “And so: I compose in my head to pass the timelessness”
(40). Life is as much a fiction as literature. Like the infamous
bard said, All the world is a stage. Come, Nietzsche
might playfully remark, join me as I die, I will entertain
you. Did you not know I was Caesar and Pantagruel?
I will break history in two and make you piss with laughter
as I do it. What doesn’t kill Nietzsche doesn’t make
him stronger, but “stranger” (22 – emphasis added)
and Olsen recreates his eccentric behavior with merry delight.
The reader is caught in the perpetual circle of Nietzsche,
or of the various and multitudinous Nietzsches. But this is
not a desultory or repetitive book. Hell, no. It is a comic,
ribald, surreal experience, at once disturbing and disorienting,
as sad as it is funny. It is not only the ‘metaphysical’ journey
of Nietzsche’s Bardo Thodol we embark on, but the physical
one too and Nietzsche’s disintegrating body is presented in
stark, unflinching detail. As it deteriorates, so does his
thought, but the depiction of these events isn’t ever grotesque
or sensational, only utterly, irrevocably, painfully human.
Early in the text, Nietzsche watches as his nurse Alwine raises his “bedpan like a Sunday roast on a serving tray, turns, and careful not to spill a drop of me. Fritz, she says over her shoulder. Fritz. What are we going to do with you? A good question. The door opens. The universe pauses. The door clicks shut. Everywhere wind surging into cognition. Everywhere noise without end” (20). In this passage, with great simplicity, Olsen reflects Nietzsche’s belief in the body, which is the locus of the self (he is not even distinct from his urine), however much he questioned its nature. The only ‘thing’ that is going anywhere in this Bardo Thodol is Nietzsche’s thought – the soul doesn’t exist, but is just a word for Nietzsche which represents the internalized drives of man, instincts turned upon themselves. But more, the scene, and others throughout the book, also reflects a certain genuine tenderness and affection and Alwine, as well as Nietzsche’s sister Elisabeth, despite the dubiousness of her intentions, care for the ailing philosopher faithfully and with unerring devotion. Olsen’s portrayal of the fragile, heartrending Nietzsche in conflict with a body which will no longer obey him (throughout the book, Nietzsche lashes out at his body when it disappoints him) and those that care for him is truly moving.
Franzsiska and Elisabeth tend to that dissembling body, but while he may have loved his mother and sister, they also made him nauseous; the nausea was so intense Nietzsche found it exceedingly difficult to embrace his thought of the eternal return - he knew they too would return. Elisabeth and Franzsiska clearly function as representatives of humanity, and Nietzsche is continually disappointed in them. During one of the many Christmas celebrations at which Nietzsche’s family members present him with gifts completely at odds with his character (an oil painting of the Virgin), Nietzsche laments not only the ability to have confidence in others, but the unfulfilled potentialities of humanity: “Wouldn’t it be nice, Friedrich reflected as he peeled away the pretty paper, to be able to trust one person in the universe, one person able to live up to his expectations of what a member of this species ought to be? In place of that wish, he received the family surrounding him” (165). Not long after this scene the man who said his “genius was in his nostrils” sniffs his mother’s pillows in order to know “what a lifetime’s failure of the imagination smelled like” (172).
Though persistently at odds with his family, for the last eleven years of his life Nietzsche is helpless before them; although able to leap into other dimensions through his mind, his body repeatedly fails him and like a baby’s, needs constant nursing. Ironically enough, it is only while in this helpless state that Elisabeth would be able to make him into an icon, transforming him not into a great fool like Falstaff, but deforming him into an embarrassing one. Alwine remarks, “Everyone wants to see what a great man looks like. Won’t that be pleasant? But before we show them, we must eat and wash ourselves. Open your mouth. Tell me one of your great ideas. The spoon ticks into the teeth I am baring at her. I am going for a growl, the blond beast in the swaying bed. The spoon withdraws” (41). It is not the Overhuman, not Zarathustra, but the victim of some unknown affliction which Nietzsche tragically ends as; his end is not his entire life though and his philosophy, as Olsen reveals, is a living testament of his overcoming, of his battle with afflictions which would have made of others unrepentant pessimists.
For Olsen’s Nietzsche, “every sentence is a kiss” and “every
paragraph an embrace” (20), but sentence is too delicate a
word for great ideas and Nietzsche refers instead to them
as “teeth”. Schopenhauer’s “sentences aren’t angular like
the sentences of other philosophers no but written with gunpowder
instead of ink. They aren’t at all sentences being
too soft a word for what they are they are teeth”
(44). The great ideas everyone wants to hear are things which
bite; no more are they just kisses, but molars, incisors,
teeth of wisdom, and it is Nietzsche’s ‘teeth’ which men such
as Wagner fear and others, like Hitler, had little knowledge
of (in the leading biographers of Hitler, mention of Nietzsche
is extremely scant. He was more intimately involved with Wagner’s
anti-Semitic tracts and the Bible than he was with Nietzsche;
the God of vengeance was far closer to Hitler than the philosopher
who despised the state and the German people). Olsen’s sentences
bite too as he masticates Nietzsche, spewing forth his own
inimitable portrait, a portrait which captures the energy,
verve, and dangerousness of the man who demanded we build
our “cities on the slopes of Vesuvius!”
In one of the most agonizing, brutal, and memorable passages
in the book, Nietzsche envisions Wagner as a sadistic dentist
who is not only Wagner, but simultaneously Nietzsche’s father.
Before the abominable scene commences, Wagner-Karl Ludwig
states that “giving birth . . . is the production of proof
concerning the parents’ inadequacies” (86), reflecting perhaps
Nietzsche’s own sentiments regarding his parents. It is his
memory, or narrativization of his existence and but one of
the instances where the mind tells its own story, distinct
from the events which actually occurred; whether we are even
capable of knowing what is ‘true’, of distinguishing between
an actual memory and a mis-memory is a question Olsen returns
to again and again. After forcing his entire fist into Nietzsche’s
mouth, Wagner-Karl Ludwig touches his son’s/the disciple’s
teeth “as if every one were a beautiful pearl that could reverse
time” (87), then begins violently unscrewing each of Nietzsche’s
‘pearls’ until all of them have been removed and placed in
his own mouth, smeared with the blood of the son-disciple.
In this brief scene, Olsen expresses rather cunningly not
only Nietzsche’s complex relationship with Wagner and the
deep love he felt for his father, but Nietzsche’s relationship
to the 20th century, which at once fears and is in awe of
Nietzsche’s ‘teeth’, often the scapegoat for everything from
eugenics to fascism, as well as an intertext in or influence
upon many of the most significant works of the 20th century.
Olsen refuses to settle on crude answers though; he is too
shrewd and sagacious to do so, too intelligent to make one
man into the sole cause of the errors of humanity. It is not
the philosopher who sought to overcome the desire for vengeance
and the necessity for punishment or destroying others that
is to be put before the gallows, but what is human, all-too-human
in mankind. Wagner though is only one of the many figures
from Nietzsche’s life we encounter during his Bardo Thodol.
Lou-Salome, Paul Ree, and others all appear in the final hours
of Nietzsche’s life, which sputters, twists, and recoils like
a spool of film winding haphazardly through the lens of the
philosopher’s memory and Olsen’s projector, though with utter
clarity and poeticism. Imagine Stan Brakhage at Nietzsche’s
death bed. While the narrative is hardly linear but instead
a flowing, sinuous labyrinth of circling passages, it is never
unclear; it pursues its own logic, the intractable but unerring
logic of dreams or death, an intuitional and fantastic illogic
which is absolutely galvanizing. Nietzsche’s Bardo is played
out like a tragi-comic drama, rendered with impressive skill,
imagination, and intelligence, the formative aspect of the
novel reflecting not only the event of death but the radical
experimental nature of Nietzsche’s own thought, evoking too,
with great subtlety, his thought of the eternal return. It
is a prismatic, discontinuous book devoid of finality.
As Nietzsche perishes, time is a pliable form which twists and bends, his unfurling consciousness reflected in the shifting narrative, which ably leaps from first, to second, to third person, moving through some degree of ‘real’ time, fragmented stream-of-consciousness, and, at last, a complete disintegration of time altogether as Nietzsche finally collapses and vanishes only to forever remain, not as a body or returning soul, but as thought and thought alone. This disjunctive sense of time is expressed textually as Olsen repeats phrases, breaks dialogue in pieces, and spreads out words on the pages like an abstract painter; his prose is muscular, light, and crystalline and expresses with admirable proficiency Nietzsche’s own rather inimitable tone and spirit, itself a daunting task. The writing is as crisp and bright as the piano lines of Thelonius Monk.
While it’s impossible to know exactly what was whirling through Nietzsche’s brain-body those last eleven years of his life, let alone those final hours, Olsen’s fictional account casts a few bright rays of lightning upon those moments. When recalling his years as a professor it occurs to Nietzsche as he is standing before his students that “for some people consciousness is a dangerous tenement whose rooms they should never enter alone” (109); few actually enter the dangerous realms of their consciousness, certainly not its utter and extreme limits as did Nietzsche. Most need companions along the dark road, though they only skirt its edges, never enter its depths. The abyss Nietzsche gazed into gazed back into him and it is that labyrinthine abyss which Olsen opens up to us. It is truly a “resurrection of consciousness” and that seems to be Olsen’s ultimate concern as we enter the dangerous, fascinating, fabalistic rooms of Nietzsche and his numerous selves, his masks only reflecting a plethora of other masks as he remains an indissoluble enigma, a Sphinx whose questions remain forever unanswered.
Come, join Nietzsche as he dies. Lance Olsen invites you
. . . And so do Nietzsche, and Nietzsche, and Nietzsche .
. . Let the Bardo begin.
Review by Rainer J. Hanshe