How to Frame a Life

by Joseph Shieber

I’ve been reading Stanley Corngold’s surprisingly interesting Walter Kaufmann: Philosopher, Humanist, Heretic. I say “surprisingly interesting” because I only thought of Kaufmann as the author of a dated book on Nietzsche and a number of anthologies on Nietzsche and other existentialist figures.

As it turns out, Kaufmann was a fascinating figure in his own right. Born in Germany in 1921, Kaufmann was raised Lutheran, but, finding that he couldn’t accept the doctrine of the Trinity, Kaufmann converted to Judaism – after the Nazis had already assumed power! – only to find that both his paternal and maternal parents had converted to Lutheranism from Judaism.

Kaufmann spent one year studying for the rabbinate in Berlin before fleeing Nazi German for the United States. Alone in a new country, Kaufmann taught himself English, enrolled at Williams College and then received an M.A. in philosophy at Harvard before joining the U.S. Army in Military Intelligence and returning to Germany, where he served as an interrogator, before returning to complete his Ph.D. in philosophy at Harvard. He then embarked on a 30-year teaching career at Princeton.

Apparently, for all of the stability of his academic career, Kaufmann remained a peripatetic figure. Before his untimely death in 1980 at the age of 59, Kaufmann had already traveled around the world – four times!

Reading Corngold’s chapter on the book that cemented Kaufmann’s reputation, Nietzsche: Philosopher, Psychologist, Antichrist, I was struck by the ways in which Kaufmann’s own biography must have predestined him to be receptive to Nietzsche’s philosophy.

Corngold, to be sure, highlights a number of reasons for the affinity between Kaufmann and Nietzsche. In particular, Corngold suggests that Kaufmann sought to reclaim Nietzsche for the German tradition of Bildungsbuergertum – roughly, an expansion of spirit through a classical education – in which Kaufmann himself had been educated.

However, what arrested me was the extent to which Nietzsche’s conception of greatness and the way to assess the life of great men (and yes, it seems always to have been men!) resonates both with Kaufmann and Corngold. Indeed, Corngold’s discussion suggests that both he and Kaufmann see Nietzsche’s notion of what makes a life great to be one of Nietzsche’s singular insights.

Corngold mentions Nietzsche’s aphorism that one should be both “vor- und ruecksichitig”. As Corngold recognizes, this is a neat bit of wordplay, because vor- and rueck- mean “forward” and “backward”, respectively, but – as Corngold points out – “vorsichtig” also means “careful” in German.

What Corngold misses is that “ruecksichtig” also has a meaning in German. To judge someone with “ruecksicht” is to take into account all of the circumstances, to weigh the totality of the evidence in order to reach a more balanced picture.

To view something with vor- and ruecksicht, in other words, is to view it (with apologies to Fox News) with care and balance.

It’s a minor example of Nietzsche’s dazzling skill at wordplay. (And it doesn’t hurt that it lets me humblebrag by revealing an element of that wordplay that the otherwise excellent Corngold missed.) But it strikes me that Nietzsche’s wordplay here, as elsewhere, reveals something deeper.

Nietzsche was deeply distrustful of truth. Though most readers gloss that distrust as a distrust of objectivity, this is a mistake. What Nietzsche distrusts is much more the univocality of the truth, the idea that, when I say that it’s true that “the cat is on the mat”, I misleadingly convey the impression that I’ve thereby conveyed all of the information concerning the cat and that mat.

Wordplay like the “vor-” and “ruecksichtig” example explodes the mistaken notion that we ever express “the truth and nothing but the truth” – NOT because of the objectivity implied by “truth” but because of the univocality implied by the definite article “the”.

What Nietzsche expresses with the injunction to be “vor- und ruecksichtig” IS that we should be forward- and backward-looking, but ALSO that we should interpret situations with care and balance. This sort of polysemous play isn’t typical philosophical fare. (Nietzsche: “what an atmosphere prevails among … scholars, what desolate spirituality-and how contented and lukewarm it has become!”) It is also Nietzsche thumbing his nose at the idea that communication involves straightforward expressions of simple truths.

Nietzsche’s embrace of complex, aphoristic utterances stands in tension, however, with his aesthetic theory of self-creation. Roughly, Nietzsche sees the pinnacle of human existence as expressed by those elite who can turn their lives into works of art, whose personal arcs exhibit a sort of organic unity that Nietzsche associates with the greatest artworks.

In other words, it seems that Nietzsche endorses the following two theses:

[Life as Art] The good-making qualities of a life and the good-making qualities of a work of art are the same.

[Art as Organic Unity] It is a necessary feature of a good work of art that it form an organic unity.

I’m not primarily interested in Nietzsche exegesis here, but it’s not remotely controversial that Nietzsche does in fact endorse these two theses.

As evidence for the first, note that the title of Alexander Nehamas’s classic discussion, one of the most celebrated Nietzsche works of the past four decades, is Nietzsche: Life as Literature. As evidence for the second, here’s a representative quote from Corngold’s chapter on Kaufmann’s Nietzsche: “as Nietzsche said of Goethe: ‘he disciplined himself to wholeness, he created himself’ and became ‘the man of tolerance, not from weakness but from strength,’ ‘a spirit who has become free’”.

Again, my goal here is not exegetical, however. In particular, I don’t want to engage in a debate about whether, to the extent that Nietzsche DOES advance the two theses, he does so descriptively or normatively.

Here’s what that distinction means. If Nietzsche advances the theses merely descriptively, then he’s not endorsing the theses himself. Rather, he’s writing psychologically or anthropologically; he’s saying, “This is how people in fact DO assess a life for its good-making qualities”.

If, on the other hand, Nietzsche advances the theses normatively, then he’s saying that people SHOULD apply the theses in assessing the good-making qualities of a life.

Note that the evidence will be different, depending on which reading you take Nietzsche to be making. On the descriptive reading, the evidence needed would be evidence about what people in fact do. On the normative reading, the evidence would have to involve a consideration of how one ought to assess a human life.

As with that other arch-naturalist, Hume, there are proponents on both sides of the debate as to whether we should read Nietzsche descriptively or normatively (or both ways). I don’t want to take a position on that debate here.

Instead, I want to examine the two theses, understood normatively, on their merits. Are they plausible?

The second thesis might seem the more immediately acceptable of the two. How ought we measure the goodness of a singular work of art if not in terms of its constituting an organic unity?

Nevertheless, this thesis in fact strikes me as singularly implausible. Why must it be the case that a good work of art constitutes an organic whole? Why think that, in order to be worthwhile, such a work must be able to be summed up in terms of a meaningful narrative arc, in the case of a work of literature or a piece of representational visual art, or a coherent rhythmic or tonal structure, in the case of a piece of music?

Now you might respond by wondering how an artwork could fail to constitute a unity — it’s an artwork, after all, a single entity! But when Nietzsche speaks of an “organic unity” he’s speaking of a cohesive whole, one in which the individual parts work together to reinforce the artistic qualities of the work as a whole.

Of course, it’s hard to know what sort of argument might show that the Art as Organic Unity Thesis is inapt. In lieu of argument, let me cite the shambolic and luminescent (in equal measure) Walt Whitman’s Song of Myself 51: “Do I contradict myself?/Very well then I contradict myself,/(I am large, I contain multitudes.)”

Or, if Whitman doesn’t convince you, how about Nietzsche himself? The point of Nietzsche’s punning wordplay, if it has a point other than to display Nietzsche’s towering erudition, would seem to be to explode too-facile, simplistic narrative arcs. (Remember: he is “dynamite”.)

What about the first thesis? How plausible is it that the good-making qualities of a life are the same as those for a work of art? Does it make sense to apply aesthetic criteria in evaluating a life lived?

Perhaps not surprisingly, much of Nietzsche’s art criticism involves the reverse strategy: the application of evaluations of living creatures in the service of aesthetic judgment. To cite two prominent examples, two of Nietzsche’s most-used binaries for praising or damning artworks are strength vs. weakness and health vs. illness. Nietzsche praises strong, healthy art and excoriates artists – like Wagner, for example – who he sees as weakening contemporary art with their sickness.

Nietzsche’s focus on a few dimensions of artistic appraisal strikes me as a singular weakness. Is Marilynne Robinson’s transcendent Gilead strong? Is Lorrie Moore’s brilliant short story, “People Like That Are The Only People Here”, a picture of health? A more appropriate measure of artistic merit would allow for a range of good-making qualities, not all of which would be present in all works of art – even in great works of art!

With this rejection of Nietzsche’s narrow-minded aesthetic judgments in mind, however, once one separates the assessment of artistic greatness from Nietzsche’s overly limited framework, the first thesis actually becomes more plausible. To the extent that our judgments of aesthetic excellence admit a wider range of good-making properties, the more appropriate it might seem to translate those judgments to assessments of human lives.

However, even if we — as we should! — allow for a diversity of perspectives in recognizing the good-making features of works of art, the attempt to assess human lives using aesthetic criteria will inevitably fall short. The reason for this is one that probably isn’t surprising: Nietzsche’s theory is too focused on the individual and is inadequate to account for the role of social embedding of the features that constitute a human life well-lived.

An artwork certainly exists in a particular social and historical context, and therefore references other artworks and is referenced by other artworks in turn. But these reference relations are not the same sorts of interrelations as shared commitments, shared goals, shared beliefs, or shared emotions.

This means that any attempt to carry over aesthetic categories to the evaluation of human life will be doomed to miscategorize the social dimensions that give life much of its value.

Here’s one example. When a person sacrifices herself for the betterment of someone else or when a life of “quiet desperation” is lived in the incremental service of some greater social good, we assess not only the contribution of that sacrifice or that incremental service to the greatness of those individual lives. Rather, we also must assess the extent to which those lives contributed to some good encompassing more than an individual life.

Some lives achieve value at least in part not because of their individual beauty (to adopt Nietzsche’s aesthetic framework), but because they contribute to a larger mosaic that is beautiful — even if their individual part, taken for itself, may seem unassuming or even dull.

Oscar Wilde shared Nietzsche’s conviction that lives should be assessed on the basis of their aesthetic qualities. Though near-contemporaries, it is unlikely that Wilde and Nietzsche knew of each other’s work. Nevertheless, Wilde and Nietzsche were soon recognized as common “rebels in the name of beauty”, to cite Thomas Mann’s description of them.

In his defense of The Picture of Dorian Gray, Wilde observes, “Those who find ugly meanings in beautiful things are corrupt without being charming. This is a fault. Those who find beautiful meanings in beautiful things are the cultivated. For these there is hope.” 

What Wilde seemingly cannot even imagine is the possibility of finding beautiful meanings in ugly things. Without that possibility, however, there is no way to make human life understandable — let alone bearable.

(The image at the beginning of this post is Ivan Albright’s The Picture of Dorian Gray, painted for the Oscar-winning 1945 film adaptation of Oscar Wilde’s novel. From the website of the Art Institute of Chicago.)