Saturday, August 1, 2020

Brandes on Nietzsche

After finishing Henrik Pontoppidan's Lucky Per, I was wondering how well-known Nietzsche was in Scandinavia, and when. The main events of Pontoppidan's novel take place in the 1880s; there's a lot of Nietzschean-sounding language, though no actual reference to Nietzsche; was that anachronistic? For other reasons I had a bunch of Project Gutenberg books by Georg Brandes already on my eReader. (Post on James Huneker coming maybe some day?) One of them was Brandes' short book on Nietzsche.

Brandes was a well-known Danish critic in his day. He died at the age of 85 in 1927. He wrote mostly in Danish, but had a European reputation and his works were rapidly translated into other languages, including English. He was Jewish. The introduction to Lucky Per told me that the Dr. Nathan of that novel was a stand-in for Dr. Brandes, a not entirely flattering portrait Brandes took in good humor anyway. (Per calls him an ineffectual aesthete at some point, but perhaps Per is not entirely to be trusted.)

This book consists of three essays written on Nietzsche at different times, the earliest in 1889, just after Nietzsche's embracing the horse and descending into madness; the last in 1900, just after he died. They're sensible, I thought, taking Nietzsche seriously, but not completely reverently. He chastises Nietzsche for his attitude on women, preferring Mill. He emphasizes Nietzsche's opposition to anti-Semitism. There are better introductory works on Nietzsche now, though.

The most interesting part of the book were the letters between Brandes and Nietzsche. Nietzsche had his publishers send copies to Brandes of two of his books in the hope that this prominent European intellectual would do something with them. Brandes ignores the first couple (Beyond Good and Evil and Human, All Too Human) but then reads the third, The Genealogy of Morals. He writes a letter to Nietzsche apologizing for ignoring his earlier books, explaining he gets so many...But now he plans to read them and say something. This is the opening letter between them in November of 1887.

Nietzsche for us is Nietzsche, i.e., terrifying, one of the unscalable mountains of philosophy, but in 1887, even though he'd written a good deal of his major work, he's still pretty much a nobody, and he's charmingly thrilled and deferential that such a luminary as Brandes is reading him. Now that's reversed. My spell-checker is perfectly happy with Nietzsche as a word. Brandes is underlined everywhere. So fleeting is fame.

And Brandes does take Nietzsche seriously. In the spring of 1888, Brandes gives a two-lecture series on Nietzsche in Copenhagen; the first was poorly attended, "since no one knew who and what you are", and Brandes apologizes for that; but his first lecture got a favorable notice in the newspaper and so the second was better attended. Nietzsche writes from Turin, "I am so relieved, so strengthened, in such good humor...Have I not the good north winds to thank for it, the north winds which do not always come from the Alps?--they come now and then even from Copenhagen!"

The last of the letters is a postcard from Turin, one of the so-called Wahnzettel, the madness letters, written after Nietzsche's breakdown. He signs it 'The Crucified.'

Anyway, that more or less answered my question. Per almost certainly would not have read Nietzsche at the time he was saying rather Nietzschean things. So you have to just assume it was in the air. But the question usefully got me to read the book...

Some more quotes (all from Brandes' letters to Nietzsche):

"There is a writer who would interest you, if only he were translated: Søren Kierkegaard."
  --Letter of Jan. 11, 1888 (Ha! I can just imagine.)

"I am not an intruder by nature, so little in fact that I lead an almost isolated life, am indeed loth to write letters and, like all authors, loth to write at all."
  --Letter of Apr. 3, 1888 (Amusing, though a bit disingenuous.)

"In my early days I was passionately polemical, now I can only expound; silence is my only weapon of offence."
  --Letter of Nov. 23, 1888


  1. How interesting.

    Per is not to be trusted at all. I wrote about Pontoppidan and Nietzsche in this blog post. It is quite a story. Short version, Pontoppidan discovered Nietzsche halfway through the novel (halfway written and published), had his mind blown, and rewrote the novel, both the forthcoming parts and the already published parts.

    1. I just went & read through all your Lucky Per posts. Good stuff. I knew about the readalong last year, maybe after it had already started, & since I had it mind to read the book at some point, I pretty much didn't read anybody's posts then.

      I also hadn't twigged to the other new translation. From your comparison I think I'd have preferred the Larkin. The Lebowitz left me deeply suspicious, not what you want to be wrestling with in a translation. Especially since tone is so important in this.

      I think my read of the novel took it more ironically than yours, but I was hardly certain. The fact that in many ways he was Hans of Hans im Glück was a good ending. You can hardly admire Hans and yet he's happy at the end. I did find it hard to swallow that both Jakobe and Inger forgave him, which didn't quite fit with an ironic read. How does Hans' mother feel about her bonehead son? We never know, which would have been better here, too.

      Anyway fun stuff. I didn't know about about Pontoppidan's history with Nietzsche, though obviously he was steeped in it in the version of the novel I read. Well, in 1900 that would not have been unusual. There was one point--I forget how Lebowitz translated it--where I wondered if the original word was Sklavenmoral, which would really have given the game away.

    2. The one translation is too flat, I guess, the other too puffy. Strange, though, that there is a choice.

      You think maybe Pontoppidan did not take Per seriously? I read the novel ironically in the sense that I did not take any of its ideas seriously, but I figured the author did. Maybe not. I always wondered about the canal scheme and Per's inventions. Obvious nonsense, or not? Isn't an inventor supposed to actually build things?

    3. It is strange that after nothing for a hundred years, you suddenly get two. Like buses, I guess.

      I think we should take the canal scheme seriously. The Kiel Canal is built in 1895, just 50 miles to the south of Per's plans, and it transforms German shipping, not the least because it makes Danish control of the Øresund irrelevant. I think it would be big in a Danish mind at the time. The issues involved, water flow, etc., strike me as real.

      The tidal power things might be a bit more futuristic. Obviously possible now, but in 1880 with the machine-tooling available then? Maybe, but I don't know.

      I think Pontoppidan takes Per seriously, but only to a degree. How autobiographical is it really? They're both the sons of severely pious preachers with funny Latinate names. Mr. Bridgetown changes himself into Mr. Seat (unless it's Mr. Star--I was a little uncertain how to construe the Latin of Per's family name.) If I remember--I've already loaned the book to a friend--the timeline has Pontoppidan marrying, divorcing, and remarrying. Pontoppidan clearly takes Nietzsche & Kierkegaard seriously. So Per is him, except Pontoppidan achieves things. Hans im Glück indeed.

      It reminded me of the somewhat gentle, but very dark irony of The Magic Mountain. All this talk of the great ideas of the West and where does it lead? Both authors like their somewhat difficult young naifs, but in the end Sidenius holes up in the sticks because he figures he's some sort of poison that destroys his loved ones, and Castorp marches off to get his brains blown out in battle.

  2. fascinating, the connections you found between the two... i pretty much had a positive attitude toward Nietzsche because of his manic walking, but not so much after reading a bit of his philosophy...

    1. I have a pretty mixed feeling about Nietzsche myself--and of course I scarcely know him. There are sensible bits in him, I think, but he has this need to outrage the powers that be that carries him too far, I think.

      You don't have to know much Nietzsche to see that Pontoppidan in this book is deeply involved even if Nietzsche's name is never mentioned.

  3. Hah! Those quotations are fun. I admire your mini-projects that grow out of your proper reading projects. I always mean to look "further" but I, more often than not, get distracted by other reading instead.

    1. I'm not that reliable about following up--and at the same time I know you do follow through on projects--cityscapes, short story projects, etc.

      Of course getting distracted is half the fun...