Monday, March 20, 2017

Nietzsche and the Nations as European Perspectives

"a homeland is not a blot on a map but the living essence of man"
-Gombrowicz, Diaries

It is so very German of several Germans to have undertaken a genealogical investigation and proof of Nietzsche's German identity in order to refute as baseless Nietzsche's own claims that he was in fact Polish.

It is likewise so Polish of several Poles to have ignored Nietzsche's claim to Polish identity because to take it seriously would invite the possibility that through a German claiming to be a Pole, Poles could find their way to a European identity rooted in the Nietzschean concept of Polish identity.

This could, after all, lead to a Europe rooted in the Polish experience, no doubt a frightening prospect for Poles who appear to harbor a religious yearning for political failure and marginalization in European affairs. Yet what if Nietzsche is right about what it means to be a "good European"?

Before answering that question - and it is a serious political question - it is first necessary to understand what Nietzsche meant by "Polish" or "German" or "English" or the other national epitaphs he so frequently resorted to.

One could cite Nietzsche or a scholar - but to do so would be so antithetical to what Nietzsche taught. Rather, it should be enough to simply state what is obvious from his work: Nietzsche uses national identities as signifying a cultural sense or tendency, not the result of breeding.

To take Nietzsche's statement that he is a Pole as a statement of ethnic identification would be as ridiculous as suggesting that Nietzsche rejects modern medicine in favour of digging graves and sleeping in them like Indian Fakirs, or that Nietzsche recommends the employment of military strategy wherein the soldier resigns himself to death and lies down.

This despite Nietzsche's own talk of lineage. Nietzsche identifies two possibilities that justify his Polish nature: first he wonders if he did not have Polish noblemen in his lineage, second he notes his Polish character traits.

Only the pedant who takes aristocracy at face value - as a necessity for political rather than spiritual power - would place any but the most superficial weight on the first point. This is particularly true given the proximity of Prussia to Poland and the high probability that even the "pure German" ancestors investigators have found may not have been so pure. The concept of eugenics and racial purity was late in coming to Poland which had always and above all been a realm of spiritual purity.

It would be foolish to read Ecce Homo with a literal interpretation of nationality. Those so inclined often reveal that they not only do not understand Nietzsche, but likewise do not understand just what is meant by him when he writes of himself as a "good European."

Nietzsche does not consider his European identity as being above his national identity: quite the contrary, he can only be a good European because of his national senses. The national sense, for Nietzsche, is a-political in the very formal meaning: Nietzsche is a stateless German who considers himself a Pole.

To do so as a German, a former Prussian citizen, in the late XIXth century, is to express solidarity with the Polish nation  which was made stateless by Prussia and the other great powers which partitioned her. It is likewise to prefer statelessness as an expression of superior taste and predisposition. For Nietzsche is not any Pole, he is the Polish nobleman wielding his liberum veto.

And just what was Nietzsche vetoing with his stateless Polish nationality? Certainly he was vetoing a Europe where, as KrasiƄski accused, states are built as edifices to reason with no consideration for nations. However, Nietzsche's comportment also indicates that he was vetoing the antithetical claim on the rise from 1848 onwards: the concept of nation-states. Nietzsche, to drum the point into our minds, was vetoing the state as such in favor of nations and a Europe of nations. The good European was only possible as a national man. Nations were, for Nietzsche, the various perspectives through which the European identity could be experienced.

Nietzsche's contention that he is the last a-political German is likewise a statement in favour of nations but against the state. Nietzsche wants a Europe of Nations, but he is weary of a Europe of Nation-States. The State is an expression of the herd. The nation is the tapestry of organic communal life of individuals.

All of the elements of modernity which Nietzsche hates: equality, democracy, feminism, socialism, democracy, Christianity and the epitome of the modern project; German idealism - all of these things conspire in his time to flow towards statehood. Nietzsche rejects the State for the nation and through the nation he finds Europe.

Yet it is not any nation that leads him to Europe; it is Poland. Being Polish predisposes Nietzsche to being truly European. His Slavic sense, evident also in his Russian fatalism, makes him a good European.

This is something the Germans cannot understand about Nietzsche as they go digging for his genealogy, as if proving he was a German through and through is supposed to discredit his arguments to the contrary. As if the thing which our genes have produced must give way to pseudo-scientific theories of what those genes should have produced.

With this line of reflection, we are ready to shed new light on the problem of Nietzsche as a good European and subsequently the question  of Polish identity as a truly European identity. Above all, we are ready to pursue a political science of nationality and European identity on the one hand and the nation-state and European super-state on the other. Nietzsche allows us to recognize that far from antagonistic, the nation state and the European state may be bedfellows conspiring to ravage both the nations and Europe.

Note: Picture is the Portrait of Friedrich Nietzsche by Edvard Munch, c. 1906; Munch-museet, Oslo, Norway; De Agostini Picture Library/Bridgeman Images

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