'Hiking With Nietzsche': 2 Philosophical Journeys To Become Who He Is

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"Hiking With Nietzsche," by John Kaag (Courtesy of Farrar, Straus and Giroux - Macmillan Publishers)
"Hiking With Nietzsche" by John Kaag (Courtesy of Farrar, Straus and Giroux - Macmillan Publishers)

It all began with an envelope stuffed with cash. But this one didn't end up at the center of a heist film; it landed in the palm of a 19-year-old student, eager to better understand Friedrich Nietzsche by visiting the Swiss mountains where the German philosopher wrote some of his most important works.

Some 20 years later, that student, John Kaag, now a philosophy professor at UMass-Lowell, went back with his wife and young daughter.

His latest book, "Hiking with Nietzsche: On Becoming Who You Are," tells the entangled story of those two visits.


John Kaag, professor of philosophy at UMass-Lowell and author. He tweets @JohnKaag.

Book Excerpt: "Hiking With Nietzsche"

By John Kaag


To those human beings who are of any concern to me I wish suffering, desolation, sickness, ill­ treatment, indignities— I wish that they should not remain unfamiliar with profound self­ contempt, the torture of self­ mistrust, the wretchedness of the vanquished: I have no pity for them, because I wish them the only thing that can prove today whether one is worth anything or not— that one endures.

— Friedrich Nietzsche, The Will to Power, 1888

NIETZSCHE LEFT HIS SUMMER RETREAT IN SILS- MARIA for the last time on September 20, 1888. He was on his way to Turin. His mood and productivity swelled. His vibrancy—I refuse to call it mania—in the Italian city was punctuated ever more frequently by a strangeness that drew the attention of his neighbors and friends. Had he been by himself in Sils- Maria, I have no doubt that these psychological sun showers would have gone undetected for months, even years.

But in Turin, for better and for worse, he had companions who had some trouble understanding the shifts in personality he would undergo during this time. In 1888 he had begun to sign his letters “Dionysus,” and in the following year he took on the moniker of “the Crucified.” Days after the new year of 1889 he explained in a letter to his friend Jacob Burkhardt, “basically I am every name in history.” His most unusual moments came after long stretches of work, running late into the night as he wrote autobiographical tracts that addressed Dionysian creativity, the deficiencies of Christianity, and the inescapable wake of history. At the same time, he was wrestling with his own past— most explicitly with the enduring ghost of his estranged surrogate father, Richard Wagner. In fact, during his stay in Turin he sat at the piano playing Wagner incessantly from memory. Much to the dismay of his landlord, his finger work would devolve into banging on the keys, mostly with his elbows. Much of this could have been excused had it not been for Nietzsche’s fateful, unduly famous episode with the horse.

AS WE BEGAN TO APPROACH the end of our trip, I tried very hard not to think about the end of Nietzsche’s life. It was a lovely day in the Engadine. Becca had seen the horses at the bottom of the hill, below the Waldhaus, earlier in the week, and now she wanted to pet them. I couldn’t blame her. At eighteen gorgeous hands, the animals were stately, otherworldly creatures. She wasn’t scared at all and, clambering up my back onto my shoulders, pleaded for me to “Get closssser, Papa.” I moved in cautiously and let her little hand take hold of the dark mane. The beast didn’t move, save for the hoof, which nearly crushed my foot.

Becca is a lovely child—to me, the loveliest: affectionate, even- tempered, curious, playful, so like her mother. She extended her right palm and ran it up toward the animal’s ear and slid her left hand under its neck. Just this was a thing of beauty worthy of tears, but I didn’t cry. Becca asked to ride the beast, and after a few minutes I managed to convince her that riding in the cart behind the horse would be almost as good. We would take a ride to the Val Fex in the afternoon. After our non- trip to Fedoz, Carol and I agreed that Becca was still too little to make the hike, and cars aren’t allowed in the valley. We would go by horse and wagon. Nietzsche would probably not approve, but it was the only way to get there as a family.

The high trail to the glaciers is a narrow path made for one or, at most, two hikers at very close quarters. Switchbacks to traverse, waterfalls to jump, loose stones to negotiate—the trail is more than a little treacherous in dim light. By contrast, the road to Val Fex is wide and rolling. One could walk it with their eyes closed, and the horses probably did. Becca sat in the front of the wagon with the driver, who swung a long whip lazily above the two animals. Carol and I had the back seat to ourselves—to enjoy the view and marvel at how quickly a child can grow up.

This was where Adorno had walked. He’d begun to visit the Waldhaus only after World War II, and he was in his mid- sixties when he wrote “Aus Sils-Maria,” an essay on Nietzsche and his village, which first appeared as notes in a popular German newspaper in October 1966. Adorno’s reflections capture a visit to Sils with fellow philosopher Herbert Marcuse. Both of the men, edging seventy, were on a Nietzschean pilgrimage of sorts. They’d walked to Val Fex, hoping to find something in the footsteps of Nietzsche. But I couldn’t imagine that they took the high trail. Their trip was a pale copy of Nietzsche’s. And ours paler still. In a certain sense, this was inevitable. Indeed, Nietzsche’s days in Turin, playing Wagner by heart, might have delivered him to a similar conclusion. Adorno explains that “a human being only becomes a human at all by imitating other human beings.” This might be descriptively true, but the truth was, at least in this case, painful and frustrating. “Today self- consciousness,” he writes, “no longer means anything but reflection on the ego as embarrassment, as realization of impotence: knowing that one is nothing.”

I looked up at Becca and the man with the whip. At first it didn’t look as if he was using it at all, but after a minute or two I noticed that he occasionally, especially on the hills, lowered it enough so that the threads on the end brushed the undulating brown backs. The beasts immediately quickened their pace, and I cringed, waiting for Becca to realize that this form of obedience was hinged to violence. Thankfully, she didn’t. For a moment I thought about the surreal picture of rée, Nietzsche, and Salomé in Lucerne: a woman with a whip and two men in harnesses. The whip whispered across the horses as we rolled slowly up the next incline. How could an animal feel that? What sort of training had to be endured to cultivate this sort of sensitivity?

We began to reach proper altitude, and the valley stretched behind us. High above us was the trail I’d taken early that week, now just a tan thread against a green backdrop. I knew it would soon disappear altogether. From there, one could have seen the hamlet of Fex far below. Adorno had written about the villages that were scattered across the valley floor: they were best viewed from above. Indeed, high above. “From these heights, the villages look as though they had been deposited from above by light fingers, as if they were movable and with- out firm foundations. This makes them look like toys that promise happiness to those with giant imaginations: it is as if one could do with them as one pleases.” Great heights can make one feel this way. Nietzsche called this the “pathos of distance,” and there is probably something to it— the glorious feeling of looking down— but these vistas are merely temporary. The sense of infinite possibility closes so quickly. And the higher one goes in order to get a better, wider, more comprehensive view, the more likely one is to contract altitude sickness. One might also have great trouble reacclimating to lower elevations.

When they weren’t wandering around Val Fex, Adorno and Marcuse interviewed the few inhabitants of Sils-Maria who still remembered Nietzsche, the person. An elderly shop keeper named Zaun had been a boy when the philosopher took refuge in town. He remembered that Nietzsche carried a red parasol in all weather to shield his sensitive head from the elements. Zaun, along with the other boys of the village, would sneak pebbles into the umbrella so they would rain on Nietzsche when he opened it. He was a man whose most genuine attempts to protect himself backfired with stunning regularity. According to Zaun, Nietzsche would chase after them but never catch or harm them. These, I can only assume, were moments of resignation, of accepting his destiny as a man beaten, gently, from all sides.

Our wagon slowed, and Becca let out a peal of laughter. Luki, a twenty-year-old stallion and one of the largest I’d ever seen, stutter-stepped and defecated. The result was huge and, according to our daughter, hilarious. It fell into a waxed burlap bag rigged up to the back of his harness. Obviously there was some rule about the cleanliness of the road to Fex. Luki wasn’t finished, and he paused for another moment. Most horses can do it in full stride, but Luki didn’t want to. It was a moment too long. The whip gently fell on his back. And then again, not quite so gently. Like it or not, Luki was finished. A beast that is forced to carry his own shit day after day while being whipped—I cannot think of a more appropriate object of compassion. In Crime and Punishment, Raskolnikov dreams of witnessing a horse being beaten to death. His response is natural and automatic: to embrace and kiss the poor creature while shielding it from its drunken assailant.

RASKOLNIKOV’S DREAM BECAME Nietzsche’s reality. He hugged a horse in Turin’s Piazza Carlo Alberto on the morning of January 3, 1889. He then supposedly crumpled to the ground, unconscious. Nietzsche intended to protect the animal from being beaten by its driver, but in the process he succumbed to the pressures—physiological, mental, philosophical—that had confronted him for years. The baroque facade of the Palazzo Carignano, a sign of the Enlightenment and decadence, loomed above him in the plaza, and he fell apart. This was the point where Nietzsche supposedly broke, and most scholars suggest that he was never able to pull himself together again in the remaining eleven years of his life. Many books that discuss his philosophy terminate in his fateful meeting with the horse in Turin. There is, however, something false or weak about these accounts: they look away at precisely the point where Nietzsche would encourage greater vigilance. His late study of decadence taught him to be patient in investigating decline and self-destruction. It often takes longer than one thinks, and one is to remain especially clear-eyed as something fully vanishes.

The last decade of Nietzsche’s life reveals many things: that life itself outstrips philosophy, that one can really live on in dreams and fantasies, that life and story are inseparable, that degeneration is often regarded as an embarrassment worthy of covering up, that dying at the right time is the greatest challenge of life, that the line between madness and profundity is a faint thread high in the mountains that eventually disappears.

This segment aired on October 11, 2018.



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