Tuesday, April 7, 2009



I have written almost every day for the past seven months. When I began maintaining this blog, I had a clear vision in mind: I would write satires and essays. I think I have generally held to this vision. But during my recent trip to Berlin I made an important discovery about my own identity as a writer. While there, I picked up one of my favorite old texts, Nietzsche’s On the Genealogy of Morals. I read the first twenty pages or so in my hotel room, including the Prologue. Nietzsche always put great weight on his Prologues. He used them to provide some insight into the reasons why he was writing, as well as how he perceived his audience. As I read his words, I felt a close kinship with Nietzsche. Nietzsche always inspired me when I was younger, but only now—after truly immersing myself in writing for many months—do I truly perceive the pervasive influence he has exerted on me. I certainly do not want to compare myself to Nietzsche. I simply believe that my writings continue his tradition: Brash criticism of prevailing values; acerbic analysis; and unashamed pugnacity in confronting long-held “truths.” I also believe that Nietzsche’s approachable prose inspired me to write clearly. Above all else, I attempt to make my writings readable, even if the subject matter is wildly complex. Nietzsche has many followers who did not achieve his readability. Foucault is a prime example. For me, however, rhetoric and readability are essential. How else can I satirize and analyze if others cannot readily grasp my points?

Nietzsche called On the Genealogy of Moralseine Streitschrift.” Typically, translators render that German word as “A Polemic” in English, namely, a “writing that incites conflict in its readers by strongly advocating a contentious position.” “Polemic” derives from the Greek word for “war.” But in my view, the German sounds so much better. “Streitschrift” derives from two words: “Streiten,” meaning “to dispute, fight or contend” and “die Schrift,” meaning “writing,” or “written piece.” Streiten is a core Germanic word. It gives us our English words “strife” and “strive.” It implies bitter dispute, struggle and a willingness to fight. Viewing these meanings as a whole, then, “polemic” seems an academic and indirect way to label On the Genealogy of Morals. It would be better to stick to Germanic words to convey Nietzsche’s core meaning. His writings “strive,” “struggle,” “fight” and invite “conflict.” They cause “strife.” Germanic words hit harder than Greek ones, at least in English. Nietzsche’s iconoclastic willingness to present unpopular views will always intoxicate me.

Streitschriften. That is what I write.

I adore Nietzsche’s Streitschrift style because it stands in contradistinction to vacuous, faux logical “legal writing.” Nietzsche does not burden the reader with endless references to “legal authorities” or “scholars” when he writes his arguments. He takes a position, drops a bomb then lets the reader figure it out. He does not quote. He does not cite “authors” or “judges” to back his position. He presents his own position. He criticizes authorities; he does not depend on them for persuasiveness. In this sense, legal writing is essentially anti-individualistic. In the law, no argument works without reference to “established authority.” Yet Nietzsche’s writing is quintessentially individualistic. He identifies troubling intellectual issues, cuts to their heart and brutally points out the folly in accepted approaches to those issues. Nietzsche did not shy away from inviting quarrels. He even labeled one of his books “Unzeitgenössische Betrachtungen” (Untimely (or Unpopular) Observations). He did not mind ruffling feathers or presenting unpopular views. Nor did he attempt to convince anyone. Legal writing always attempts to “persuade the reader” to accept this or that position. Nietzsche did no such thing. In his Prologue to the Genealogy of Morals, he wrote that it would be a mistake to try to “decipher” his writing. Rather, he intended his writing to spark “interpretations.” Zur Genealogie der Moral, Vorrede 8, S. 11. He hoped to cultivate “reading as art” rather than labor. To practice that art, he admonished his readers not to be “modern men,” but rather “cows,” because good reading necessarily involves “rechewing.”

I see all these sentiments reflected in my own writing. Although Nietzsche did not write satires, his ruthless criticisms concerning ethics, morals, culture and neglected principles all joyfully mock accepted viewpoints. I share his joy in mocking accepted viewpoints and hypocrisy. That joy burns through my writing, whether satirical or not. Satire is a good vehicle to expose absurdities in culture, argument and power. Nietzsche used aphorisms and short, biting essays to expose those absurdities. I opt for satire because I find it accomplishes the same mission, plus it is fun to write. Nietzsche constantly exhorted his readers to relish their intellectual abilities by mocking accepted notions. “Cheerfulness,” Nietzsche wrote, “or to be more precise and to say it in my own language, ‘The Joyful Science,’ is a reward: a reward for a long, brave, diligent and otherworldly seriousness—something that, freely, will not appeal to all.” Zur Geneaolgie der Moral, Vorrede 7, S. 10. For both Nietzsche and me, there is a joy in criticism, a joy in mocking accepted notions. It is fun to write satires; and there is an “intellectual reward” in it because it makes me—and hopefully some of my readers—“cheerful.”

Nietzsche also knew that not everyone would appreciate him. He recognized that his Streitschriften would insult his targets as much as they would delight his followers. I do the same thing. I recognize that my satires about morality, lawyers, “conventional life,” children, criminal justice, finance, sexuality, politics and capitalism will negatively impact some readers. Some readers will inevitably reject my criticisms or take offense that I mock certain dominant values. Some may even resent me for my own values. But here I quote Nietzsche again: “If this piece is incomprehensible or grates the ears of some listeners, I am not necessarily to blame.” Zur Genealogie der Moral, Vorrede 8, S. 10. If people are offended by what I write because I have “no respect” for certain values, or if I “unfairly simplify” certain issues, they fail to understand that my purpose is neither to convince nor to win. Rather, like Nietzsche, I aim only to “cheerfully” spark “interpretation” by pointing out critically troublesome conundrums in our civilization. If I can bring joy to some and thought to others, I will have succeeded in my mission as a writer. If someone blames me for advocating an unpopular position—or for failing to understand the irony in my satires—then I feel sorry for the reader who did not grasp my purpose. As Nietzsche theorized on this point, perhaps an angry reader should question his own values, rather than mine, to identify the source of his outrage with my critique.

I have learned so much by writing. It is astounding to think that, since beginning this blog, I have written the equivalent of a 600-page book. I have no intention of stopping. I simply think it is important to at times sit back and reflect on the trajectory my writing has followed, and to evaluate whether I have stayed true to my original aims. Reading Nietzsche again showed me not only that I have held the course, but also reminded me that I am part of his ongoing critical tradition. To that extent, do not expect my essays or my satires to contain airtight logic or rigid organizational structure. Rather, expect them to toss rhetorical grenades into tranquil waters. Expect them to breathe with joyful mockery. Let them provide an incitement to think about power, relationships, fairness, equality and principle. Do not expect them to provide answers to every specific question. Rather, let them provide an opportunity to think more deeply about things you might never have thought deeply about. I am not here to convince, persuade or conquer. I am here simply to point a few things out—with Streitschriften. If I cause strife, I apologize; but as Nietzsche said, I am not fully to blame for it. It is “constructive strife.”

Thank you to all who take the time to read—and “rechew”—my posts. If my arguments seem overheated, illogical, disorganized or melodramatic, I have good reason, for Streitschriften are not traditional arguments. Instead, they are invitations to intellectual struggle, and there is joy in that.

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