I’ve just been reading I Am Dynamite!, Sue Prideaux’s very engaging life of Nietzsche, mainly because I knew nothing about the man or his work.
As well as being a good read, and to appreciate much better the intentional ambiguities of Nietzsche’s thoughts, it was also very striking to see a story of someone finding their place in the world.
From those of you unfamiliar with the details, Nietzsche was a brilliant philologist, in an age when philology was the very highest discipline in German academia.
After only three semesters as an undergraduate at university, Basle wrote to him in Leipzig to offer him a chair in the subject, on the recommendation of his tutor: impressive for a 24 year old.
But for me it was even more impressive that relatively quickly Nietzsche decided that he didn’t want to be a philologist, but a philosopher. Having tried to make that switch within the university system, and failed, he struck out on his own.
Now you may quibble that he only made his big breakthroughs just at the point he lost his mind and that these things might be connected, but the point still stands: life, for Nietzsche, was about overcoming yourself, loving your fate while simultaneously making the most of your situation.
I see this as a somewhat more positive message than my usual go-tos in philosophy, the Existentialists, who make the very good point that life is meaningless, but who seem to be a bit too “I’m having such fun” to ring quite true.
But what does this have to do with you and me?
I think it’s partly a function of the time of year: teaching’s coming to an end, we’re all exhausted, not least because of the pile of research activity waving to us from the other end of the desk. Talking with various colleagues, it’s the time of “why do I do this? should I be doing this?”
That’s a difficult conversation to have with yourself and with others: indeed, I’m regularly struck by people who I consider to be very able, competent and enthusiastic about their work who turn out to be not so sure it’s what they want to be doing. Success does not necessarily mean satisfaction, as young Nietzsche found out.
Even if we don’t have the idea to tear down the foundations of Western civilisation and thought, it is still good to recognise and engage with these feelings inside us,
I know that I derive great enjoyment from my work, in part because it is so varied and irregular, but I also know that this is a source of anxiety: what will come next? How will I cope? Where does it lead?
Thinking back to my previous post, it’s really essential to have a good support network, people you can talk with, frankly and openly. That can be friends, family, colleagues, it’s not really important who, as long as you recognise that you don’t have to tread your path alone.
As Nietzsche noted, it’s all too easy to fall back into comforting patterns of behaviour and not to ask yourself difficult questions, but ultimately it’s only by doing that you progress, a sentiment that shouldn’t be so problematic for academics. You don’t have to buy into the rest of it, but acknowledging your situation and what you want from it all isn’t the worst thing to do.
And if all that’s a bit heavy, wait until you find out what I’m reading next.