10/01/2005

The Weblog: Friedrich Nietzsche as a Jane Austen Character

Friedrich Nietzsche as a Jane Austen Character

Awhile back I wrote a piece arguing that the supposed sexual repression of Christendom grew from the financial obstacles standing in the way of respectable marriage, which in turn can be traced to the efforts of ambitious families to maintain or raise their statuses via favorable marriages (i.e., marriages which bring wealth into the family). I gave special attention to St. Augustine, Nietzsche, Thoreau, and Rimbaud, all of whom came from marginal families who hoped that their sons’ education in the classics would allow them to enhance the family status – at the cost of deferring marriage for a decade or more. These four authors combined a high degree of alienation with the extraordinary eloquence derived from their intensive literary educations, and as a result, their dissident points of view were better expressed than the more mainstream points of view of other contemporary authors who were luckier, lazier, and happier. (Only St. Augustine seemed aware of the problem as such, though it can easily be seen in the biographies of the others.)

Nietzsche was the most brilliant German classicist of his generation and became a full professor younger than anyone ever had before. His family was completely respectable, but his mother was widowed and far from wealthy, and since academics were not well paid he was not especially marriageable – certainly not after his retirement with a disability. His relationships with women were few and unsuccessful, apparently being limited to infatuations with the wives of friends and a conjectured encounter with a prostitute. On the other hand, women who met him testified that he was courtly and pleasant and by no means unattractive – “not like a professor”, as one explained. (See Conversations with Nietzsche, ed. Gilman.) Nietzsche is often enough treated as a sexless object of ridicule, but I am willing to argue that his sexual problems were mostly situational.

Nietzsche was always a good boy, and during the bourgeois XIXc, especially in Lutheran Germany, the demands on good boys were enormous: hard work, educational and professional success, good manners, deference to superiors, chaste and decent behavior, and adherence to an ethicized (Kantian) version of Lutheran modernist orthodoxy which emphasized Duty. Nietzsche rejected part, but not all of these demands -- primarily in religion and the ethics -- but actually lived an essentially convential life. What he retained from his heritage was an emphasis on distinction, refinement, superiority, and self-improvement: the superman may be regarded as an intensified replacement for the already absurdly-high Lutheran standard which had been imposed on him from birth. Instead of making life easier and more fun, Nietzsche chose to make it more difficult: he was in thrall to The Seriousness.

Nietzsche rejected the bourgeois work ethic in favor of a more heroic aristocratic ideal, and he rejected Lutheran moralism for a freer, more aristocratic way of life. The traditional aristocrat was not answerable to anyone, and while moderns tend to misrepresent aristocrats as effete and sissified, the traditional aristocracy consisted of elegant but brutal military specialists with strong hedonistic and erotic tendencies.However, actual aristocracies did not conform to Nietzsche’s ideals, nor would Nietzsche’s marital prospects have been much better in a less bourgeois society.

Let me, perhaps capriciously, take Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility (1811) as a case study in the actual life of an aristocracy. Austen’s book describes the lifeboat ethics of the children of the English gentry, many of whom were doomed by demographics to downward mobility. Elegant, pious propriety masked the use of every means necessary to destroy rivals for favorable marriages and inheritances – rivals who were usually very near kin. In Austen’s book the people tend to be epiphenomenal, with the real players being the titles to parcels of landed property.

The class systems which made culture and refinement possible by concentrating wealth also produced cultured people of uncertain status who had to be ejected and forgotten, while at the same time dooming most of its members to conventional and not terribly happy marriages. A good marriage partner had to be of good family with an adequate income, belong to the right sect and political faction, be reasonably well-bred and personable, and belong to approximately the same social circle (which seemingly required being “cousins or something like it”.) Any personal requirements imposed by the individual partners would further restrict the pool of eligibles, though often marriages were arranged in complete disregard for the desires of the nominal principals of the ceremony.

Furthermore, the aristocrats in Austen’s book, who are typical of aristocrats everywhere, were not supermen or anything like supermen. They did not aspire to self-overcoming, but were perfectly happy to occupy themselves with hunting, whist, hot toddies, dances, flirtation, and seduction. While Nietzsche envied the amoral ease and grace of the aristocracy, as a self-confessed decadent (i.e., as a bourgeois Lutheran) he could not hope to attain it, especially insofar as it was linked with stupidity and laziness. Instead, he invented a new rigorist, strenuous ideal, even more difficult than the conventional life he had been born into. Nietzsche was a hyper-bourgeois hyper-Lutheran.

But the big question is this: if Nietzsche had been an Austen character, could he have married one of Austen's Dashwood sisters?

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