Wednesday, September 24, 2008


“A green liqueur flavored with wormwood, anise and other aromatics.”

No, I’ve never tried it, and though I understand that its reputation for deranging the mind and debauching the soul is exaggerated, I don’t intend to.

But I wanted to say a word or two about Nietzsche. I’ve been reading about China lately--spurred by public things, like the Olympics, and the Tibetan situation, and by private things, like an intimate relation being taken off a vital medicine last spring when its Chinese manufacturer was suspected of tainting it to stretch it (shades of The Third Man). But China is a large subject, and its civilization a huge part of the human story, little known to me, so I started reading a history I’ve had on the shelf unread for a few decades, and ordered a book of Chinese poetry for beginners, and was re-dipping a little into Confucius and Lao Tzu.

But last Saturday at the Santa Fe Public Library’s overstock store I came across three volumes of Nietzsche for two bucks each and I couldn’t resist. Nietzsche is one of philosophy’s guilty pleasures, but if Confucius’ words are like a hot cup of black tea, and Lao Tzu’s like a bracing drought from a cold mountain stream, Nietzsche’s are like absinthe. He is radical and disorientating and intoxicating, and thank God almost no one reads him today except scriveners working on dissertations. The madness he names is real, but I wonder whether we might not be better off not trying to comprehend that reality in all its vertigo and bitterness.

But he has his attractions. This, I think, is from a late introduction to his earlier Birth of Tragedy, on madness at the heart of vibrant cultures:

Ist Wahnsinn vielleicht night notwendig das Symptom der entartung, des Niedergangs, der ueberspaeten Kulture? Gibt es vielleicht—eien Frage fuer Irrenaertzte—Neurosen der Gesundheit? Der Volks-Jugend und –Jugendlichkeit? Worauf weist jene Synthesis von Gott and Bock im Satyr?

How many worlds away is the Chinese sage?

“Chi Wen Tzu always thought three times before taking action. When the Master was told of this, he commented, ‘Twice is quite enough.’”