Oct 152017
 

Today is the birthday (1844) of Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche, who needs no introduction as a philosopher although I suspect that few people read much of what he wrote, but, instead, come up with his ideas (or their antithesis) “independently” because they are oblivious to the huge impact his philosophy has had on Western culture. I’ll give a small biography as background and then dribble on a bit about some salient points in his writing, followed by a few quotes for good measure. Nothing I can say here will be remotely comprehensive.  That’s your job to investigate.

Nietzsche grew up in the small town of Röcken, near Leipzig, in the Prussian Province of Saxony. He was named after King Frederick William IV of Prussia, who turned 49 on the day of Nietzsche’s birth. (Nietzsche later dropped his middle name, Wilhelm). Nietzsche’s father died from a brain ailment in 1849 and his younger brother, Ludwig Joseph, died six months later, at age 2. The family then moved to Naumburg, where they lived with Nietzsche’s maternal grandmother and his father’s two unmarried sisters. After the death of Nietzsche’s grandmother in 1856, the family moved into their own house, now Nietzsche-Haus, a museum and Nietzsche study center.

In 1854 Nietzsche started at Domgymnasium in Naumburg, but because his father had worked for the state (as a Lutheran pastor) the now-fatherless Nietzsche was offered a scholarship to study at the internationally recognized Schulpforta where he studied from 1858 to 1864 (the scholarship was not because he excelled at his studies, as is sometimes asserted – he did not).

While at Pforta, Nietzsche had decidedly odd tastes for the time.  For example, he favored the almost  unknown poet Friedrich Hölderlin, who was considered mad by contemporaries. He also became personally acquainted with Ernst Ortlepp, an eccentric, blasphemous, and often drunken poet who was found dead in a ditch weeks after meeting the young Nietzsche but who may have introduced Nietzsche to the music and writing of Richard Wagner.

In 1864 Nietzsche Began studies in theology and classical philology at the University of Bonn with a view to becoming a minister. After one term he lost his faith and stopped his theological studies. In June 1865, at the age of 20, Nietzsche wrote to his sister Elisabeth, who was deeply religious, a letter regarding his loss of faith. This letter contains the following:

Hence the ways of men part: if you wish to strive for peace of soul and pleasure, then believe; if you wish to be a devotee of truth, then inquire…

Nietzsche was a passionate, challenging, and complex writer. He evokes strong responses, positive and negative, many of which are fueled either by misunderstanding or a need to reduce his philosophy to simple terms.  Both are a disservice. I won’t continue such disservice, but merely point out how easy it is to go wrong in attempting to understand Nietzsche.

The idea of the Apollonian and Dionysian as philosophical, poetic, and dramatic concepts was famously expounded in Nietzsche’s The Birth of Tragedy, but his favorite boyhood poet, Hölderlin, had already expounded on the idea. Nietzsche saw classical Athenian tragedy as an art form that transcended what he saw as the pessimism of its age in philosophy. The Greek spectators, by looking into the abyss of human suffering depicted by characters on stage, passionately and joyously affirmed life, finding it worth living. A main theme in The Birth of Tragedy was that the fusion of Dionysian and Apollonian Kunsttrieben (“artistic impulses”) forms dramatic arts, or tragedies. He goes on to argue that this fusion has not been achieved again since the ancient Greek tragedians. Apollo represents harmony, progress, clarity and logic, whereas Dionysus represents disorder, intoxication, emotion and ecstasy.

The point of Greek tragedy, according to Nietzsche, is the complex interplay of these two forces: the tragic hero of the drama, the main protagonist, struggles to make order (in the Apollonian sense) of his unjust and chaotic (Dionysian) fate, though he dies unfulfilled in the end. Nietzsche argues that a Dionysian figure possesses knowledge to realize that his actions cannot change the eternal balance of things, and it disgusts him enough not to be able to make any act at all. Hamlet falls under this category—he has glimpsed the supernatural reality through the Ghost, he has gained true knowledge and knows that no action of his has the power to change this.

Nietzsche is adamant that the works of Aeschylus and Sophocles represent the apex of artistic creation, the true realization of tragedy. With Euripides, he believes that tragedy begins its Untergang (“going under”). Nietzsche objects to Euripides’ use of Socratic rationalism and morality in his tragedies, claiming that the infusion of ethics and reason robs tragedy of its foundation, namely the fragile balance of the Dionysian and Apollonian. Plato continued with this path in his dialogues, and the modern world eventually inherited reason at the expense of artistic impulses that could be found only in the Apollonian and Dionysian dichotomy. This leads to his conclusion that European culture from the time of Socrates had always been only Apollonian and thus decadent and unhealthy.] He notes that whenever Apollonian culture dominates, the Dionysian lacks the structure to make a coherent art, and when Dionysian dominates, the Apollonian lacks the necessary passion.

Ruth Benedict, noted Boasian anthropologist, tried to elaborate on the Apollonian and Dionysian in her most enduring work, Patterns of Culture, where, in my very humble opinion, she rather misunderstood Nietzsche’s intent. Benedict uses the Apollonian and Dionysian as pure cultural ideals to explore bedrock values in cultures under observation. Thus, for her, traditional Puebloan cultures of the American southwest are Apollonian cultures because they value community, rules, and order, whereas the potlatch cultures of the American northwest Pacific coast are Dionysian because they value individualism, excess, and disorder. I think she’s wrong to characterize them that way at all, but also wrong to lay the analysis at Nietzsche’s doorstep. Nietzsche was interested in the Apollonian and Dionysian as intertwined and conflicting tendencies within a single culture or individuals, not as models of separate cultures. Benedict’s simplification of Nietzsche’s idea suited her need to reduce complex cultures to simple models. I won’t be too harsh on her, though. She was living in the early days of American anthropology when there was a drive towards finding the “rules” that drive culture. Hopefully, we are more mature these days.

Nietzsche was also famous for stating that God is dead, (and prelates in the Church of England eventually caught on: more accurately than most atheists, as it happens). What Nietzsche was saying was that absolutism (in the name of God) is dead. It is true that he had lost his faith in Christianity while studying theology, but that’s not what he is referring to here. Nietzsche believed that the Western world was losing its grip on any universal perspective on things, and along with it any coherent sense of objective truth. He rejected the idea of objective reality, arguing that knowledge is contingent and conditional, relative to various fluid perspectives or interests. This viewpoint meant that there had to be a constant reassessment of rules (including those of philosophy, the scientific method, etc.) according to the circumstances of individual perspectives. You can easily see how a German physicist could take this idea and come up with a theory of relativity, although Einstein challenged the orthodoxy of the scientific world of his day and not of the scientific method itself. That agenda is still in the making.

The cultural relativism of anthropology is also embedded in Nietzsche’s philosophy. According to Nietzsche, the values of one culture are no better or worse than any other culture. What makes a culture great (and unified) is not the nature of its particular values and beliefs, but in the collective will to see those values realized and achieved.

While Nietzsche attacked the principles of Judaism, he was not anti-Semitic. In On the Genealogy of Morality, he explicitly condemns antisemitism, and points out that his attack on Judaism was not an attack on contemporary Jewish people but specifically an attack upon the ancient Jewish priesthood whom he claims anti-Semitic Christians paradoxically based their views upon. Nietzsche felt that modern antisemitism was despicable and contrary to European ideals. Its cause, in his opinion, was the growth in European nationalism and the endemic “jealousy and hatred” of Jewish success.

Nietzsche held a pessimistic view on modern society and culture, especially mass/popular culture.  He believed the press and mass culture led to conformity and brought about mediocrity. Nietzsche saw a lack of intellectual progress, leading to the decline of humanity. According to Nietzsche, individuals needed to overcome this form of mass culture. He believed some people were able to become superior individuals through the use of will power. By rising above mass culture, society would produce higher, brighter and healthier human beings. The jury is still out on that one.

Here is a sprinkling of quotes to illustrate Nietzsche:

The individual has always had to struggle to keep from being overwhelmed by the tribe. If you try it, you will be lonely often, and sometimes frightened. But no price is too high to pay for the privilege of owning yourself.

Whoever fights monsters should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster. And if you gaze long enough into an abyss, the abyss will gaze back into you.

There is always some madness in love. But there is also always some reason in madness.

The essence of all beautiful art, all great art, is gratitude.

Success has always been a great liar.

 

Nietzsche had a complex relationship with food and diet much of his life. He was something of a pig in his younger days, but later had to be more circumspect because he was subject to constant nausea and indigestion. At one point he wrote, “If only I were master of my stomach once more!” in response to his endless digestive ailments. As a young man his main meal of the day was a late lunch, avoiding the midday crowds at restaurants, usually consisting of steak and gargantuan quantities of fruit. As his stomach ailments got worse he tried vegetarianism, living on milk and eggs alone, and eating hardly anything at all. At one point, he put his faith in Liebig’s meat extract, a thick paste that could be mixed with water to produce a beef broth which he thought was very nutritious — but wasn’t.

Nietzsche wrote copious notes on diet which were not well known for a long time but were eventually collected into a book translated into English by R. J. Hollingdale under the title Fat is Dead (2004). Hollingdale summarizes Nietzsche’s diet as follows:

The basics of the Nietzschean regimen are simple. The dieter exercises a painful amount of self-honesty in order to identify the primary object of his or her deepest human dread as personified by a wide-ranging group of foodstuffs. Once the dieter’s Fear has been identified, he eats that food exclusively, in unlimited amounts, until the food no longer appetizes or frightens him. Having completed his gorge and transcended his fear, the dieter fasts for 20 days on water and Simple Salad.

There is your recipe directive du jour. Eat copious quantities of the food you dread the most because of the fear it will make you fat. Or . . . look to Nietzsche’s boyhood home: Naumburg. Naumburg holds a famous cherry festival annually. If I had a kitchen I’d opt for a cherry crumble.

 

Sep 082015
 

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Today is the birthday (1886) of Siegfried Loraine Sassoon, CBE, MC one of the leading poets of the First World War. His poetry both described the horrors of the trenches, and satirized the patriotic pretensions of those who, in Sassoon’s view, were responsible for a jingoism-fuelled war. Sassoon became a focal point for dissent within the armed forces when he made a lone protest against the continuation of the war in his “Soldier’s Declaration” of 1917, culminating in his admission to a military psychiatric hospital. This resulted in his forming a friendship with Wilfred Owen, who was greatly influenced by him. (see http://www.bookofdaystales.com/wilfred-owen/ )

Sassoon was born and grew up in the neo-gothic mansion named “Weirleigh” in Matfield, Kent, to a Jewish father and an Anglo-Catholic mother. His father, Alfred Ezra Sassoon (1861–1895), son of Sassoon David Sassoon, was a member of the wealthy Baghdadi Jewish Sassoon merchant family. For marrying outside the faith, Alfred was disinherited. Siegfried’s mother, Theresa, belonged to the Thornycroft family, sculptors responsible for many of the best-known statues in London—her brother was Sir Hamo Thornycroft. There was no German ancestry in Siegfried’s family; his mother named him Siegfried because of her love of Wagner’s operas. His middle name, Loraine, was the surname of a clergyman with whom she was friendly.

Sassoon was educated at the New Beacon School, Sevenoaks, Kent; at Marlborough College, Marlborough, Wiltshire (where he was a member of Cotton House), and at Clare College, Cambridge, where from 1905 to 1907 he read history. He went down from Cambridge without a degree and spent the next few years hunting, playing cricket and writing verse some of which he published privately. Since his father had been disinherited from the Sassoon fortune for marrying a Gentile, Sassoon had only a small private fortune that allowed him to live modestly without having to earn a living (however, he would later be left a generous legacy by an aunt, Rachel Beer, allowing him to buy the great estate of Heytesbury House in Wiltshire. His first published success, The Daffodil Murderer (1913), was a parody of John Masefield’s The Everlasting Mercy. Robert Graves, in Good-Bye to All That describes it as a “parody of Masefield which, midway through, had forgotten to be a parody and turned into rather good Masefield.”

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Motivated by patriotism, Sassoon joined the British Army just as the threat of a new European war was recognized, and was in service with the Sussex Yeomanry on 4 August 1914, the day the United Kingdom declared war on Germany. He broke his arm badly in a riding accident and was put out of action before even leaving England, spending the spring of 1915 convalescing. He was commissioned into the 3rd Battalion (Special Reserve), Royal Welch Fusiliers, as a second lieutenant on 29 May 1915. On 1 November his younger brother Hamo was killed in the Gallipoli Campaign, and in the same month Sassoon was sent to the 1st Battalion in France. There he met Robert Graves, and they became close friends. United by their poetic vocation, they often read and discussed each other’s work. Though this did not have much perceptible influence on Graves’s poetry, his views on what may be called ‘gritty realism’ profoundly affected Sassoon’s concept of what constituted poetry. He soon became horrified by the realities of war, and the tone of his writing changed completely. Where his early poems exhibit a Romantic, dilettantish sweetness, his war poetry moves to an increasingly discordant tone, intended to convey the ugly truths of the trenches to an audience hitherto lulled by patriotic propaganda. Details such as rotting corpses, mangled limbs, filth, cowardice and suicide are all trademarks of his work at this time, and this philosophy of ‘no truth unfitting’ had a significant effect on the movement towards Modernist poetry.

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Sassoon’s periods of duty on the Western Front were marked by exceptionally brave actions, including the single-handed capture of a German trench in the Hindenburg Line. Armed with grenades, he scattered sixty German soldiers. He went over with bombs in daylight, under covering fire from a couple of rifles, and scared away the occupants. A pointless feat, since instead of signaling for reinforcements, he sat down in the German trench and began reading a book of poems which he had brought with him.

Sassoon’s bravery was inspiring to the extent that soldiers of his company said that they felt confident only when they were accompanied by him. He often went out on night-raids and bombing patrols and demonstrated ruthless efficiency as a company commander. Deepening depression at the horror and misery the soldiers were forced to endure produced in Sassoon a paradoxically manic courage, and he was nicknamed “Mad Jack” by his men for his near-suicidal exploits. On 27 July 1916 he was awarded the Military Cross; the citation read:

2nd Lt. Siegfried Lorraine [sic] Sassoon, 3rd (attd. 1st) Bn., R. W. Fus.

For conspicuous gallantry during a raid on the enemy’s trenches. He remained for 1½ hours under rifle and bomb fire collecting and bringing in our wounded. Owing to his courage and determination all the killed and wounded were brought in.

Sassoon was also later (unsuccessfully) recommended for the Victoria Cross.

Despite his decorations and reputation, in 1917 Sassoon decided to make a stand against the conduct of the war. One of the reasons for his violent anti-war feeling was the death of his friend David Cuthbert Thomas, who appears as “Dick Tiltwood” in the Sherston trilogy. Sassoon would spend years trying to overcome his grief.

At the end of a spell of convalescent leave, Sassoon declined to return to duty; instead, encouraged by pacifist friends such as Bertrand Russell and Lady Ottoline Morrell, he sent a letter to his commanding officer entitled “Finished with the War: A Soldier’s Declaration.” Forwarded to the press and read out in the House of Commons by a sympathetic member of parliament, the letter was seen by some as treasonous (“I am making this statement as an act of willful defiance of military authority”) or at best as condemning the war government’s motives (“I believe that the war upon which I entered as a war of defence and liberation has now become a war of aggression and conquest”). Rather than court-martial Sassoon, the Under-Secretary of State for War, Ian Macpherson, decided that he was unfit for service and had him sent to Craiglockhart War Hospital near Edinburgh, where he was officially treated for neurasthenia or “shell shock” (now usually referred to as post traumatic stress disorder).

Before declining to return to active service Sassoon had thrown the ribbon of his Military Cross into the river Mersey. According to his description of this incident in Memoirs of an Infantry Officer he did not, as one would infer from the context of his action, do this as a symbolic rejection of militaristic values, but simply out of the need to perform some destructive act in catharsis of the black mood which was afflicting him; one of his pre-war sporting trophies, had he had one to hand, would have served his purpose equally well.

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At Craiglockhart, Sassoon met Wilfred Owen, a fellow poet who would eventually exceed him in fame. It was thanks to Sassoon that Owen persevered in his ambition to write better poetry. A manuscript copy of Owen’s “Anthem for Doomed Youth” containing Sassoon’s handwritten amendments survives as testimony to the extent of his influence and is currently on display at London’s Imperial War Museum. Sassoon became to Owen “Keats and Christ and Elijah”; surviving documents demonstrate clearly the depth of Owen’s love and admiration for him.

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Both men returned to active service in France, but Owen was killed in 1918. Sassoon, despite all this, was promoted to lieutenant, and having spent some time out of danger in Palestine, eventually returned to the Front. On 13 July 1918, Sassoon was almost immediately wounded again—by friendly fire when he was shot in the head by a fellow British soldier who had mistaken him for a German near Arras, France. As a result, he spent the remainder of the war in Britain. By this time he had been promoted acting captain. He relinquished his commission on health grounds on 12 March 1919, but was allowed to retain the rank of captain. After the war, Sassoon was instrumental in bringing Owen’s work to the attention of a wider audience. Their friendship is the subject of Stephen MacDonald’s play, Not About Heroes.

Having lived for a period at Oxford, where he spent more time visiting literary friends than studying, he dabbled briefly in the politics of the Labour movement, and in 1919 took up a post as literary editor of the socialist Daily Herald. During his period at the Herald, Sassoon was responsible for employing several eminent names as reviewers, including E. M. Forster and Charlotte Mew, and commissioned original material from “names” like Arnold Bennett and Osbert Sitwell. His artistic interests extended to music. While at Oxford he was introduced to the young William Walton, to whom he became a friend and patron. Walton later dedicated his Portsmouth Point overture to Sassoon in recognition of his financial assistance and moral support. Sassoon later embarked on a lecture tour of the USA, as well as travelling in Europe and throughout Britain. He acquired a car, a gift from the publisher Frankie Schuster, and became renowned among his friends for his lack of driving skill, but this did not prevent him making full use of the mobility it gave him.

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Sassoon was a great admirer of the Welsh poet Henry Vaughan. On a visit to Wales in 1923, he paid a pilgrimage to Vaughan’s grave at Llansantffraed, Powys, and there wrote one of his best-known peacetime poems, “At the Grave of Henry Vaughan”. The deaths of three of his closest friends – Edmund Gosse, Thomas Hardy, and Frankie Schuster (the publisher) – within a short space of time, came as another serious setback to his personal happiness.

At the same time, Sassoon was preparing to take a new direction. While in America, he had experimented with a novel. In 1928, he branched out into prose, with Memoirs of a Fox-Hunting Man, the anonymously-published first volume of a fictionalised autobiography, which was almost immediately accepted as a classic, bringing its author new fame as a humorous writer. The book won the 1928 James Tait Black Award for fiction. Sassoon followed it with Memoirs of an Infantry Officer (1930) and Sherston’s Progress (1936). In later years, he revisited his youth and early manhood with three volumes of genuine autobiography, which were also widely acclaimed. These were The Old Century, The Weald of Youth and Siegfried’s Journey.

Siegfried Sassoon died one week before his 81st birthday, of stomach cancer, and is buried at St Andrew’s Church, Mells, Somerset.

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Sassoon was born in Kent which at one time was known as the Garden Of England. It lost that title to South Yorkshire after its orchards and farmlands became overgrown with suburban houses. For centuries it was legendary for cherry and apple orchards, hops, and the nut, related to hazelnuts (filberts), the cobnut. Cobnuts can sometimes be found raw, that is, not dried or roasted, and are delicious in salads. They are also dried like hazelnuts with a similar flavor. I feel some inventiveness coming on, so I am going to speculate on a recipe which I will experiment with when I get hold of a food processor (and counter space for it): cherries with nut crumble. My basic idea is to make a crumble topping, but to replace some of the rolled oats with coarsely ground hazelnuts or cobnuts. So . . .

© Cherry Nut Crumble

First make your cherry filling. Remove the stalks and pit about 20 ounces of sour cherries. Place in a non-reactive pan, cover with a 50-50 mix of sugar and water, bring to a boil, and simmer until the cherries are soft, but not mushy. You can use a 21 ounce can of cherry pie filling if you are lazy. With a slotted spoon transfer the cooked cherries to a deep ovenproof dish.

In a food processor combine 1 cup of all purpose flour, 1 cup of granulated sugar, ½ cup of unsalted butter that has been chilled and diced, ½ cup rolled oats, and ½ cup hazelnuts or cobnuts coarsely chopped. Pulse the mix 8 to 10 times until all the ingredients are chopped and well mixed. Pour the crumble mix over the cherries and pat it down firmly. Dot the top with butter and bake at 350°F for 35 to 40 minutes, or until the top is golden and the cherry filling is bubbling.

Serve with egg custard, vanilla ice cream, or whipped cream.

Crumbles are also delicious served chilled the next day with whipped cream.