Sunday, July 25, 2010

Halforism 146: Friedrich Nietzsche, David Mitchell, and John Milton

Nietzsche, 1882

I've long rather liked this aphorism from Nietzsche's Beyond Good and Evil (Jenseits von Gut und Böse, 1886):
[W]enn du lange in einen Abgrund blickst, blickt der Abgrund auch in dich hinein.

[I]f you peer long into an abyss, the abyss peers back into you.
Actually, it's merely half the aphorism, the first half being the famous line about fighting monsters. Anyway, I'm picking up on it today because I wonder if it lies behind a line from Mitchell's story "Letters from Zedelghem," in Cloud Atlas. The story's main character, Robert Frobisher, is reading Nietzsche's famous work Also Sprach Zarathustra (Thus Spoke Zarathustra):
After ten pages I felt Nietzsche was reading me, not I him. (Mitchell, Cloud Atlas, page 63)
Ten pages might seem like little, but with Nietzsche, those are a long ten pages, and if Nietzsche is reading him, then he's peering back into Mr. Frobisher to do so. Maybe I'm reading too much into this, though. A perhaps more likely connection to Nietzsche's aphorism are two lines from John Milton's Paradise Lost:
Into this wild Abyss the warie fiend
Stood on the brink of Hell and look'd a while . . . [PL 2.917-8]
The "warie fiend" is Satan, who peers into the "Abyss" so long that it really does look back into him, transforming his interiority, and has done so since his first fallen moment, for which this moment on the edge of the abyss is perhaps a metaphor. I wonder if Nietzsche was thinking of these lines in Milton as he penned his aphorism.

But if he were thinking of them, he would likely apply them to Milton himself, for in writing Paradise Lost, Milton fought with monsters and peered long into the abyss, so we'd perhaps best quote the entire aphorism:
Wer mit Ungeheuern kämpft, mag zusehn, dass er nicht dabei zum Ungeheuer wird. Und wenn du lange in einen Abgrund blickst, blickt der Abgrund auch in dich hinein.

One who fights with monsters should beware, lest he himself become thereby a monster. And if you peer long into an abyss, the abyss peers back into you.
Was that Milton's fate? Did Nietzsche have an opinion on the matter? Nietzsche, at any rate, was aware of Milton and may have read some, for Joshua Brazee, of the Milton List, has thoughtfully noted Aphorism 150 from Human, All-Too Human (Menschliches, Allzumenschliches), written between 1878 and 1880:
Über seine Grenze hinaus. -- Wenn ein Künstler mehr sein will als ein Künstler, zum Beispiel der moralische Erwecker seines Volkes, so verliebt er sich, zur Strafe, zuletzt in ein Ungetüm von moralischem Stoff—und die Muse lacht dazu: denn diese so gutherzige Göttin kann aus Eifersucht auch boshaft werden. Man denke an Milton und Klopstock.
Mr. Brazee offers a quick translation, which I've slightly edited:
Beyond his limits. -- When an artist wants to be more than an artist, for example the moral Awakener of his people, then he falls in love, as punishment, with a monster of moral materials -- and the muse laughs at that: then this so kindhearted goddess can also become spiteful with jealousy. One need think only of Milton and Klopstock.
By Klopstock, Nietzsche meant Friedrich Gottlieb Klopstock (1724-1803) and his main work, The Messiah (Der Messias), which has been judged by some critics an uneven work, the earlier cantos being superior. Klopstock had been inspired by Johann Jakob Bodmer's 1732 prose translation of Milton's Paradise Lost, and Nietzsche may have known this fact, though why he would think Milton's masterwork a failure puzzles me (though, admitedly, some critics find the last three books of Paradise Lost inferior). The aphorism might even be applied to Nietzsche himself, for what is Also Sprach Zarathustra (1883-1885) other than Nietzsche calling out as a "the moral Awakener of his people"?

Anyway, I suspect that there's something to be mined here in Nietzsche concerning Satan -- and Milton -- peering into the abyss.

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At 4:57 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks for the post, Jeffery. I had stumbled into writer's block and this post gave me some ideas.

"Was that Milton's fate?"
--Horace Jeffery Hodges

So even the blind may see the stare of the abyss...

Are you suggesting some partial cure?



At 12:53 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Perhaps the stare blinded him?

Jeffery Hodges

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At 9:12 PM, Anonymous Derek Murphy said...

Thanks so much for this; I'm building up a rather large PHD thesis concerning Milton's Satan and just beginning to root out the Nietzschean connections. I agree there's definitely something more... I'll probably end up using the abyss metaphor to conclude and wrap it all together.

At 9:16 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Let me know what you discover . . .

Jeffery Hodges

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