At night, I awake to hear a crazed tremolo that sends a
shiver through the darkness: something has spooked the loons.
In the morning, two tree swallows are courting in the branches
of a maple that hangs over the water. The male darts in small,
mischievous circles around his mate, picking at her tail feathers.
The last time I came to this lake, I was married—happily, I
thought at the time, or at least happily enough. But, slowly, my
wife and I turned into strangers. Nietzsche said a marriage
should be a long conversation (though it’s odd that he would
have known). Our conversation quite literally drifted into an
awkward silence. Then one day I walked out of that life and into
this one. I bought a small house in an old neighborhood with wide
front porches and a corner store. I can walk there for groceries, as
well as to the university where I teach and to the downtown
movie theater that shows independent >lms. My life has taken on
a somewhat Heraclitean feel.
I now >nd myself single, childless, unbeholden. And I >nd
myself thinking of two other unbeholden, Heraclitean walkers:
Thoreau and Nietzsche. Nietzsche said walking was thinking,
and he spent hours doing both in the mountains surrounding
Turin, Italy. Thoreau declared himself a saunterer by occupation
and even invented an etymology for the word: sans terre, meaning to be without land, and therefore at home wherever he went.
Thoreau would spend six hours a day walking the forests and
>elds of Concord, Massachusetts. And out of such solitude came
Walden, just as out of Nietzsche’s mountain rambles came his
masterpiece, Thus Spoke Zarathustra.
Did they need their solitude to incubate their genius? Would
marriage and family life have redirected their energies, softened
their uncompromising critiques of Western bourgeois civilization? It is obviously quite possible to write great books surrounded
by family; Dickens and George Sand managed it quite well. But I
think there are certain books—Walden and Zarathustra, for
instance—that can only come out of a deep solitude, perhaps
even a wounded solitude. Both authors had been rebu=ed in
their proposals of marriage, after which Nietzsche turned to the
Alps and Thoreau to the rivers and ponds of Concord. In the
wilderness, they each practiced and articulated the art of self-invention. They replaced the Socratic call to know oneself with
the Heraclitean injunction to become who you are.
Can such a philosophy of self-invention still be accomplished
within a marriage, within a family, within a community? For the
sake of our survival as social animals, we had better hope so. But
the solitary experiments of Nietzsche and Thoreau, because they
are solitary, throw the act of self-invention into dramatic relief.
Everything else is cleared from the stage so we can watch Thoreau
strip his life to the bare essentials, then build it back up according
to his own needs and his own nature. Nietzsche’s invocation of a
new man, a free spirit, an “immoralist,” was not, as has often been
said, a sign of his nihilistic elitism; it was rather a call for
Germans, for Americans, for modern men and women, to
become much more interesting people. The great enemy in
Nietzsche’s writing, as in Heraclitus, is mediocrity. Nietzsche disapproved of modern Christianity precisely because it encouraged
a herd mentality, a loss of originality, an
unthinking acceptance of a moral code
that seemed to him too hostile to life.
Morality should affirm life (Nietzsche loved
italics) in all of its manifestations, not deny
it. To invent a self, a morality, a style—that,
for Nietzsche, meant to elevate one’s life to
the level of art.
Being—it’s a big subject. Too big,
alas, for the language we’ve invented to
discuss and de>ne it. But often, I think, we
have tended to use language as a cage,
something that traps words inside rigid
de>nitions. And because, as a species, we
have never been able to agree on those
de>nitions, and because language has
never been able to objectively represent the
world around us, some of the most important modern philosophers—Nietzsche,
Heidegger, Ludwig Wittgenstein, and