Here we have Friedrich Nietzsche describing the “difficulty” created by the “aphoristic form” of some of his work which:
arises from the fact that today this form is not taken sufficiently seriously. An aphorism, properly stamped and molded, has not been “deciphered” when it has simply been read; one has then rather to begin its exegesis, for which is required an art of exegesis.*
Not this week nor the next, but perhaps in the week after I will begin to write the fragments of my notes of my ideas of the art of exegesis of Fernando Pessoa’s The Book of Disquiet, a fragmented text that could be fruitfully read aphoristically. Whatever that means.
There is my question. What does that mean? How do I read a book of aphorisms? How do you do it? I start at the upper left corner, reading all of the words as my eyes move right, moving down and left when I reach the end of the line, etc. Yes, that is in fact how I read such books, but I do not believe that helps much with Nietzsche’s criticism.
I am rummaging through the “Maxims and Arrows” section of Twilight of the Idols (1888), not reading it straight through.** Hey, there’s a famous one:
8. Out of life’s school of war: What does not destroy me, makes me stronger.
I can posit a principle in my art of exegesis: do not take aphorisms literally. Do not add “except for those things that do not destroy me but do weaken me.” A difficulty with this one is that it is too famous, material for motivational posters, and hard to see straight. Let’s see. What’s next.
9. Help yourself, then everyone will help you. Principle of neighbor-love.
A cynical dig at Christian “slave morality”? My temptation is to snort “Preposterous” and move on. Perhaps Nietzsche is not the right test case for my current mood. It has been twenty years since I have even glanced at Nietzsche and am obviously not reading him in a deciphering spirit. Even here, where I am pulling the thought from the text, typing it myself, and staring at it intently, I feel the urge to explain this idea not by thinking about it but by reading the next one. The next one will provide the key, right?
As Georg Christoph Licthenberg wrote, "Much reading is harmful to thinking" (F51), and also "People who have read a great deal seldom make great discoveries" (E85). Neither idea is quite true, but when I compare them to my own experience, I can only wince. They are not mere provocations. It may help to know that Lichtenberg was a physicist who made one discovery, and likely would have made more if he had not spent so much time reading.
Lichtenberg has so many pointed sayings or jokes about books and reading:
D66 When a book and a head collide and a hollow sound is heard, must it always have come from the book?
A common Lichtenberg theme is that readers are fools. Also, that we all are fools, but readers particularly so, although writers are worse:
D36 May Heaven forfend that I should ever write a book about books.
What a relief that Wuthering Expectations is not a book.
I should be done with this subject, but I am not.
* The quotation is from the prologue of On the Genealogy of Morals (1887), but I found it in R C. Hollingdale’s introduction to the NYRB edition of Georg Christoph Lichtenberg’s Waste Books, p. xiii. Subsequent Lichtenberg quotations are from the same source.
** I’m in The Portable Nietzche, actually.