“Now let us pray,” I said, and the blind man lowered his head. My wife looked at me, her mouth agape. “Pray the phone won’t ring and the food doesn’t get cold,” I said.
“Look, he practically begged me to invite him. He’s alone, he’s lonely, but in truth, he’s a nice guy, we shoot the breeze now and then, he’s very smart. Once you get past the silly mustache…
“Yes, I did know he can be contentious…
“Yes, I did know he can be overbearing…”
“And he brought those horrid sausages.”
“And that beer….”
“…which incidentally had everybody so blitzed there was no one to drive me to the hospital.”
Yes, true, but…
A short segment of a very long conversation I had with my sister after I committed the enormous faux pas of inviting Friedrich Nietzsche for Thanksgiving dinner.
Yes, I should have told her I was inviting a stranger, but it was a last minute thing. The man’s a famous philosopher, after all. Okay, a philologist. I still think it was more about turkey gravy in his mustache, then about what probably is a stupid idea—that which does not destroy me, makes me stronger. Sure, everybody had a little too much to drink, but that whole ‘grace thing’ my cousin May does every Thanksgiving set him off. It doesn’t mean that much to me. May wants to pray; I’m cool. But Friedrich Nietzsche…it’s obviously… you know, he’s made a name for himself, Mr. Anti-Christian.
“Father Sprit, blessed Jesus, Lord of the land, sea and air—please bless this table and those who sit in common communion at its portals…”
“This ‘Father Spirit’, liebchen, what does it signify…?”
I suggest it is a metaphor, a personification…
“A metaphor for what?” asks my supposed friend. The one who’s supposed to be grateful for a little company for the holidays. The whole family is hanging over the cranberries. Cousin May does not think she’s metaphoring anything. She’s talking to the Father Spirit, and thanking him for our blessings.
“But what about the poor and starving, the homeless, the wretched of the earth…why has god not blessed these as well?
The old ‘problem of evil’ argument. I try to change the subject by asking my friend if he’d been reading Franz Fanon—the wretched of the earth, you know. Everybody at the table knows that ‘god’ he’d just referred to was not capitalized.
May thinks she’s talking to God. Is there harm in this? She says, “Well, what do you believe in, Professor Nietzsche?”
He could have said something like: Look, I’m a nineteenth century man; I’m reacting to forces, to intellectual currents of the time. It’s becoming increasingly clear to us that traditional faiths need to be re-examined. I am searching for the truth.
What he does say is: that which does not destroy me makes me stronger.
He also sneezes at this point, spraying particles of the hors d’œuvres he’d been pigging out on across the table. That enormous mustache again. My theory about cold and flu season is that it starts with Thanksgiving. You bring your cold from Chicago; May brings her virus from southern Jersey; and Nietzsche…who knows where he’s been?
I say, “I once knew this guy, Joey O’Hearn, he went one Thanksgiving Day to visit his sister. Took the Long Island Rail Road out to Levittown, took a cab to his sister’s house. His sister sees him pulling up in the cab, she runs out to the curb, says, ‘Joey, here’s 20 bucks, get back in the cab and go home. Okay?”’
It’s not a great story. It’s supposed to remind everyone you don’t talk about religion and politics at family gatherings; someone’s supposed to say, ‘that’s horrible. Why would a sister do such a thing?’ And I explain about the Atlantic and Pacific Rail Road and how we should all be on the Pacific tracks…
May says, “Don’t you believe in God, Professor Nietzsche?
I think FN has gotten my gist. “Madam May, I apologize. That which does not destroy me makes me stronger is…”
“…is a kind of substitute for God,” I say, looking daggers around the table. “I for one would like to try some creamed onion.”
Okay, the ‘substitute for God’ thing isn’t going to fly.
Ted, my brother-in-law picks up the cudgels.”A guy from work, he’s had three strokes in six months. He’s on oxygen 24/7. He can only move his left arm, and that flaps around.”
“There was that movie, ‘The Squid and something’, about that French journalist, locked in his body.”
Ted: “My point is that three strokes do not make you stronger. Life is a wearing down process. You get old, you get sick, you die.” Ted mimes a kicking process with his foot. “I refute it thus.”
“Ah, Samuel Johnson.”
I told you this Nietzsche was smart. Ted’s been doing the stone kicking routine for years. I’m pretty sure he’s never even heard of Dr. Johnson. “There is something to what you say. The real, you know.”
“Tell them how you spent the last years of your life,” I say. We’re into to it now; might as well bring out the heavy cannons.
Friedrich Nietzsche looks at me for several moments. Maybe I’m going too far.
“Very well, if I’m to be the entertainment…” Pause. “As a young man I foolishly contracted syphilis. At the age of 45 I collapsed in utter mental confusion, the syphilis eating my brain. I spent the last years of my life, eleven years, in the care of others. The syphilis left me an idiot, vacant, unknowing…yet I still knew. I too had several strokes before I died.”
This is sobering, to say the least. No one in my family has read any Nietzsche, so this rather dismal end comes as a surprise. That which does not destroy me… Why this as a summary of a long complex life? One of the great thinkers, reduced to ashes, reduced to braggadocio? There is a kind of parallel between the idea, held in such contradiction to the facts, and the believer who thanks God for His blessing, even as this God (who must be responsible for the bad as well as the good) rains down adversity:
I burn down your cities-how blind you must be
I take from you your children and you say how blessed are we
You all must be crazy to put your faith in me
That’s why I love mankind
You really need me
That’s why I love mankind
…sings God in the old Randy Newman song, and it seems as if we want to sing along, or at least tap our feet, despite the fact that God’s made them a little arthritic in our old age. In the lull I pass around the mashed potatoes.
Consider: there is the normal and abnormal suffering that flesh is heir to. May makes her appeal to mitigate this suffering to God. If God exists, and he’s an all powerful being, or at least a pretty powerful one, he should be able to give us a break. The issue is simply: does this being exist? ‘God, I’m hurting down here, you hear me?’ But my philosophical friend, what has he got exactly? An aphorism. The consolations of philosophy.
The telephone rings. This must by Jocelyn, who’s late—who’s always late—but not usually this late. My sister listens into the phone. “I can’t believe it’s a telemarketer on Thanksgiving. The warranty on my car is running out. On Thanksgiving.”
Professor Nietzsche has been talking quietly to May: “…music,” he is saying. “As a young man I knew Wagner. He was a great man—though ultimately wrong about so many things. On my iPod right now is music from Texas, a Mr. Sam Baker. More like Bizet than my friend Richard. I listen sometimes to prevent thinking.” It seems they have made friends.
So, I’m thinking about the role of words in our life. I’m lost in thought for a while. They should be bracing, life-enhancing. They should give us courage. This must be Nietzsche’s message. Sure, he understands life wears you down, but you play the cards you’re dealt. You make the best of a bad situation. You embrace life. Makes sense, right? I sit listening for a while.
“…to prevent thinking?” That one would like to stop thinking, this is news to May
“It’s like the game,” FN explains “called ‘The Little Ones’. I used to play it…you know…when I could.”
“Who are The Little Ones?” May is confused here.” How do you play?”
“That’s the thing,” he tells her. “You never know. Not until they get big.”
“Given,” I interrupt ,”that the idea qua concept is inadequate, that Ted is right at base, that one is not at liberty to, as it were, legislate this reality into existence, how does the idea function? ‘That which does not destroy me makes me stronger’ isn’t true, right? So what is it?”
The telephone rings again. Jocelyn, for sure. My sister hangs up immediately.
“They always call in pairs,” May says. “I’ve noticed that. Car warranty and then long term health insurance. ”
FN: “You’ve heard the news today, liebchen. Terrorists in Mumbai. Men willing to die for something they believe in. Killing people. We think innocent people. Now the dialog here is with their god…”
May starts, but Frederick holds up a hand. “You think this is naïve. Virgins waiting at heaven’s gate. Sexual naiveté. But their beliefs are as real to them as yours are to you. Ultimately it is against life.”
Yes, religious people sometimes do bad things. I’ve read Hitchens. Not good enough, professor. The other story in the news actually takes place on Black Friday, the day after Thanksgiving. You probably heard about it: Shoppers rampaging into a WalMart –at what? 5 or 6 in the morning—trampled a man to death. Trampled. To get a good price on a new iPod for Junior…
I would ask FN’s opinion on this too, but of course he’s gone. Religious pilgrims storming the temple of the newest, fastest growing religion, Professor? Or just people without a god?
The phone is ringing again. This time it must be Jocelyn. My sister holds the receiver, listening, takes a deep gasping breath.
“You see,” FN says to May and me too, I guess. To all of us. “The Little Ones. They’re coming.”