Saturday, October 6, 2012

J. B. Priestley on Nietzsche

( Originally written and posted on MySpace on October 12, 2008 )

In his Literature and Western Man, published in 1960, J. B. Priestley displays some of the plain English common sense that is often evident in H. G. Wells's The Outline of History.   The same common sense is often apparent in Thomas De Quincey and in Samuel Johnson, but Priestley and Wells in particular have won the disdain of the herd of professors who write hyperspecialized articles for refereed journals which, in turn, go unread save by other professors preparing hyperspecialized articles for publication in yet other refereed journals.   Priestley dares to write on the whole of literature, just as Wells dares to write on the whole of history.   Such daring is anathema to academe.

Some of Priestley's common sense appears in his synopsis of Nietzsche.  After explaining that Nietzsche began as a great destroyer -- announcing the death of God -- ,  he notes that Nietzsche then encountered a great dilemma:

    "  A new myth, then, had to be found.   It was here, turning from the negative, in which his brilliant insights cannot be questioned, to the positive and what must be done, that Nietzsche goes from strength to weakness.   He had rejected so much:  Christianity, rational liberalism (he thought John Stuart Mill a vulgar blockhead), the Hegelian state, Marx's Communism, French or English socialism, Russian anarchy; all were useless.   So, not unmoved by vague dreams of his Greek and Renaissance heroes, he offered his own myth of the Supermen, towering high above the herd, beyond present good and evil, tyrant-philosopher-artists who by the splendour of their richly individual lives would more than justify the toil and servitude of common men, the masses that would find their own drab lives enriched by the mere existence of these magnificent beings, by a dazzling new myth.   The idea is neither ignoble nor completely absurd, though Nietzsche, as he goaded himself on, in the shadow of madness, wrote both ignobly and absurdly all round it, over-compensating  his own feeling of inferiority by insisting upon his supermen being ruthless, violent, cruel, and devils with the women.  (In fact, respectively like Hitler, Goering, Himmler and Goebbels.)   Nevertheless, he was demanding the impossible.   He was asking for qualities that cancel each other out:  for beings at once more sensitive and less sensitive than ordinary men are, for ruthless tyrants with the tenderness for life of artists, for military bullies who could turn themselves inside out and be philosophers, for lovers of women who, whip in hand, could not know how to love women.   The myth is so inadequate, the positive so pitiful after the negative, the destructive force of his criticism, that it is as if a man had blown up a city in order to stage a second-rate pageant. . . .  "

Of course, Priestley oversimplifies,  but one must appreciate the delightful image at the end of this accounting.   Those on the left who make use of Nietzsche,   such as the late Jacques Derrida or Herbert Marcuse, obviously shun the Nietzschean Uebermensch, either as too problematic or too preposterous.  Priestley here attacks the Nietzsche of the nationalist, militarist, German right, who was probably closer to the real, original Nietzsche than the present-day Nietzsche of the leftist deconstructionists.

Perhaps one text-critical note is relevant:   Priestley first refers to "Supermen," the new myth, and then shifts to "supermen," when he exposes the concept's emptiness.   Was the shift from upper case to lower case an error which passed by a proofreader, or was it intentional?    I suspect the latter, that the craftsmanship of Priestley explains this.   Also,  Priestley gives evidence of having read Nietzsche's works.   Something more than a glib dismissal is involved in his assessment of the Uebermensch, but it should be noted that Nietzsche writes of der Uebermensch, singular not plural. 

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