Autobiography as history

Nietzsche seems to have enjoyed writing his autobiography. One gets the sense that his life rather surprises him from time to time, as if the same twelve bells that echo in the ears of the genealogist also make him ask of himself, “‘Through what have we actually just lived?’ further, ‘who actually are we?’”[1] There is a problem, a meta-historical problem to be specific, in the writing of one’s life that concerns the possibility of explaining or even describing the object under investigation. And Nietzsche recognized this from the start. On the very first page of his collected “Jugendschriften,” in a sketch of himself titled “Aus meinem Leben,” he writes, “Indeed, I am not yet grown, hardly have the years of childhood and boyhood behind me, and yet so much has already slipped from my memory [Gedachtnifi] and the little that I know about them I have probably retained only by means of tradition. The sequence of years rushes past my gaze like a confusing dream. Therefore it is impossible for me to establish the facts of the first ten years of my life.”[2] Even over a span of fourteen lived years the young Nietzsche recognizes the unreliability of memory to produce an accurate and objective picture of the past. Of course, Nietzsche records faithfully the town of his birth, the profession of his father, and the name of his aunt. But these alone do not an autobiography make. We rely as much on tradition - what other people tell us about ourselves - as upon our memory to get a more genuine sense of our own whens, wheres, and hows. But how do those other people remember our lives better than we do, if after all they too rely upon the tokens of their memory and their traditions to recall how we were?

An autobiography is not the reproduction ofmnemonic tokens any more than the history of Rome is a collection of its coins. In both cases, we are presented symbols whose meaningfulness depends upon the perspective of the interpreter. Passive observation, absent the interpretive activity of a particular perspective, has never produced a history of any object, whether inside or outside our skin. This very problem of telling not only an accurate, but also a meaningful story of oneself was sensed by Nietzsche throughout his life. In another autobiographical sketch, this time at the ripe old age of nineteen, he asks,

How do we outline a picture of the life and character of a person whom we have come to know? In general, just as we outline a region we once saw. We must visualize its physiognomic particularities [physiognomisch

EigenthUmliche]: the nature and form of its mountains, its fauna and flora, the blue of its sky; all this, as a whole, determines the impression. [. ..] However, what just stands out at first sight, the mass of mountains, the form of the rocky terrain, does not provide in-itself the physiognomic character of a region. Something similar happens when we want to survey a human life and appreciate it properly. Fortuitous events, gifts of fortune, the changeful appearances of destiny, which arise from interconnected circumstances, should not guide us at this point, since they likewise stand out at first sight like the mountain tops. Precisely those little experiences and internal processes, which we think have been overlooked, in their totality [Gesamtheit] depict the individual character most clearly, they grow organically out of human nature, while those that are inorganic only seem to be connected to them.[3]

At the time of writing, Nietzsche stood deeply in the debt of the early Romantics. One might imagine Nietzsche fancying himself a disciple of Goethe’s Dichtung und Wahrheit, wherein the portrait of the man is revealed only by an artistic blend of these everyday details in such a way that communicates an indelible impression of one’s ‘inner nature’ - a morphology intended to reveal the enduring essence behind innumerable events and changes. To quote Goethe, “We should try in vain to describe a man’s character, but let his acts be collected,” especially his act of reinterpreting himself, “and an idea of the character will be presented to us.”[4] By October 1888, though, just as he “buried his forty-fourth year,” Nietzsche’s meta-history had undergone profound changes. The postgenealogical thinker understood that to speak of ideal innermost natures and enduring personalities was to speak as a romantic metaphysician, and to ignore both the fundamental character of life as the expression of conflicting wills to power and the nature of the historian’s activity as abbreviating in meaningful signs that never-ending flow of becoming. Nietzsche had severed his meta-history from the influence of Schopenhauer, of Goethe, and ofBurckhardt and Bachofen, and accordingly no longer sought timeless essences - whether by means of Anschauung or morphological typology - behind the transitory phenomena of life.[5]

Yet to reject the faith in underlying and eternal things and essentialist values was to recognize the intrinsically transitory, historical character of all phenomena, including the one we turn to now: the self. And herein lies the problem:

Immediate observation [unmittelbare Selbstbeobachtung] is not nearly sufficient for us to know ourselves: we require history [Geschichte] since the past flows inside us in a hundred waves; we ourselves are, indeed, nothing but that which at every moment we sense of this continued flowing [Fortstromen]. It may even be said that here too, when we desire to descend into the river ofwhat seems to be our own most intimate and personal being, there applies the dictum of Heraclitus: we cannot step into the same river twice.[6]

The historical character of the world and of the self within it renders at least conventional knowledge of both of them impossible. The external world and the internal world are both a continual flowing that resists arrest by static concepts and words. We have seen in the previous chapter how Nietzsche mitigates this problem with respect to moral values by means of a representational anti-realist mode of historiography which admits it cannot describe once and for all the true state of affairs as they really stood outside the historian, but nevertheless tries to present in meaningful symbols the expression of an individual historian’s power-aims, with the aim of affixing, making-known, and eventually convincing certain perspectives of their interpretation of the past. The same strategy is invoked, I contend, in Nietzsche’s self-history. Whereas an epistemologically naive autobiographer might consider her account a perfectly objective exposition of a discrete and static object by a discrete and static subject, Nietzsche’s thoroughly historical philosophy of history cannot. In its place, Nietzsche employs his mature historiographical method in Ecce homo to provide an anti-realist representation of himself which serves as a perspectival explanation of how he “became who he is.”

  • [1] GM Vorrede, 1; KSA 5, 247.
  • [2] BAW1, 1. The problem of whether memory is uncovering or constructing his past is intimated inseveral autobiographical sketches. See, for instance, the 1861 “Mein Lebenslauf”; BAW 1, 279.
  • [3] Found in his 1863 “Kann der Neidische je wahrhaft glucklich sein?” BAW2, 269—272, here 269. For anotherobservation of the philosophical problems involved in autobiography, see MaM 1, 274; KSA 2, 226.
  • [4] Goethe (1970), xxxvii.
  • [5] A more thorough examination of typoogical history and the transition to the genealogical method isthe subject of a forthcoming paper to be published by Walter de Gruyter Press in an anthology editedby Axel Pichler and Marcus Born.
  • [6] MaM 11/1, 223; KSA 2, 477. See also NFend 1876—summer 1877, 23(48]; KSA 8, 421.
 
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