To you, the riddle-drunks . . . because you don’t want to fumble with a timid hand for a thread; and, where you can guess, you hate to deduce.
—Nietzsche, Ecce Homo, “Why I Write
Such Good Books,” Section 3
Nietzsche had just finished sending final corrections for Ecce Homo to his publisher when he collapsed into madness on January 3, 1889. Ecce Homo is subtitled “How One Becomes What One Is,” and it is a kind of intellectual autobiography, though hardly a naturalistic document. The first full chapter of Ecce Homo, entitled “Why I Am So Wise,” opens with a riddle, leading the reader to believe that the solution or interpretation of this riddle is crucial to the meaning of the life story which follows: “The happiness [Glück] of my existence, its uniqueness perhaps, lies in its fate [Verhängniss]: I am, to express it in the form of a riddle, as my father already dead, while as my mother I still live and grow old.”1
This chapter will attempt to enter the “riddle” of Nietzsche’s happiness, or good fortune, which is, he says, to be dead as his father and to live on and grow old as his mother. The prominent placement of this statement leads us to expect further hints, more information, some way to make sense of a conundrum so centrally positioned. We do indeed receive large amounts of additional information, both about the narrator’s sense of his dual or split nature, inherited from his parents, and about his relation to his father. But when it comes to specific references to his mother, or how it is that “as his mother” he still lives and grows old, the only text available until recently gives us just a single hint: “My mother is, at any rate, something very German.”2
The reader is thus left with two riddles: Nietzsche’s mysterious formulation “as my father I am already dead, as my mother I still live and grow old”; and a new riddle posed by the lack of information about his mother. Why would Nietzsche, a careful writer and always conscious of form, begin his autobiography with a riddle which promised to illuminate the whole uniqueness of his existence, and then give us only half of what we need to interpret it? As a matter of fact, this particular riddle has a simple answer: Nietzsche did realize he had been remiss, and he did include further evidence in his final revision of Ecce Homo. A variant version of Section 3 of “Why I Am So Wise,” discovered and published in 1969, a version sent by Nietzsche to his publisher only days before his final collapse into madness, is indispensable for reading Ecce Homo; as we shall see, it supplies heretofore missing information necessary for an interpretation of the riddle of Nietzsche’s existence.3
Before moving on to the evidence provided by this variant text, let us follow the clues already available in the first-published, earlier version of Ecce Homo as far as they can take us. The path we shall follow has three parts: the vision of the father, the theme of doubleness, and the mother as “German.” On a literal level, the riddle “as my father I am already dead, while as my mother I still live and grow old” might seem simply to point to the actual biographical facts at the time of this writing. Nietzsche’s father had died when Nietzsche was four years old; his mother would live until 1897, nine years beyond the composition of Ecce Homo. Yet it is as his father and mother that he claims to be both dead and alive; in what sense does he see himself as his own parents?
References to Nietzsche’s father in Ecce Homo are invariably positive, and imply a strong identification between father and son. In Section 1 of “Why I Am So Wise,” Nietzsche describes his father as “delicate, kind, and morbid, as a being that is destined merely to pass by.”4 He notes that his father died at the age of thirty-six, and claims that his own life began to “go down” when he was the same age.
In Section 3 he states, “I consider it a great privilege to have had such a father. . . . it requires no resolve on my part, but merely biding my time, to enter quite involuntarily into a world of lofty and delicate things.”5 He considers himself, because of this bond and identification with his father, to have “one foot beyond life.” In this section, Nietzsche also identifies his father as the source of his “Polish” blood: “My ancestors were Polish noblemen: I have many racial instincts in my body from that source.”6 Finally, in Section 5, Nietzsche compares his own forbearance and lack of instinct for revenge to qualities of his father:
At another point as well, I am merely my father once more, and, as it were, his continued life after an all-too-early death. Like everyone who has never lived among his equals and who finds the concept of “retaliation” as inaccessible as, say, the concept of “equal rights,” I forbid myself all countermeasures, all protective measures, and, as is only fair, also any defense, any “justification,” in cases when some small or very great folly is perpetrated against me. 7
Nietzsche thus identifies with his father: they are both above or “beyond life,” existing in a “world of lofty and delicate things”; they are “noble,” “Polish,” non-German (at least in some vague past); they are uninterested in retaliation and cannot fathom ordinary motives of self-defense; in short, they are exalted, pure, and altogether above mundane human existence. What is most revealing here for our purposes is Nietzsche’s repeated assertion that he is continuing a life which was prematurely interrupted. He sees himself almost as a reincarnation of his father and is immensely grateful for his inheritance from him. But how does this help us with the first part of Nietzsche’s riddle, “as my father I am already dead,” since he claims that his father, through himself, is actually still living? Perhaps if he and his father are one, Nietzsche too has died; and indeed those much-praised characteristics of detachment, superhuman tolerance, delicacy, and altitude are “angelic”; they suggest a distanced, privileged, perhaps transcendent perspective on life. Thus, to the extent that Nietzsche lives on as his father, he is already dead, dead to the ordinary mortal world of attachment, feeling, and even self-defense.
The second strand of evidence relevant to the riddle is the theme of doubleness. Immediately after posing the riddle, Nietzsche writes:
This double origin, just as if from the highest and lowest rungs on the ladder of life, at the same time decadent and beginning—this, if anything, explains that neutrality, that freedom from bias in relation to the total problem of life, that perhaps distinguishes me. I have a better nose for the signs of ascent and decline than anyone has ever had, I am the teacher par excellence about this—I know both, I am both.8
In light of Nietzsche’s explicit statements about his father and his almost complete silence concerning his mother, we may infer only that the “highest rung” and “lowest rung” on the ladder of life refer respectively to his father’s and his mother’s influence and heritage. From the high, lofty type of the father, he is a decadent, declining example; at the same time, evidently from his mother’s side, he has the sense of ascent, climbing up out of what is low, weak, or sick. From the lowest rung on the ladder of life, he can be a beginning, a creator of himself, perhaps in some sense his own mother. In Section 3, he writes: “This double series of experiences, this access to apparently separate worlds, is repeated in my nature in every respect—I am a Doppelgänger, I have the second sight in addition to the first. And perhaps also the third. . . . ”
How strange that after emphasizing this doubleness, and after specifying all that his father bequeathed to him, Nietzsche should leave the mother’s influence so nearly completely untouched. As noted above, in the standard version of Section 3 of “Why I Am So Wise,” there is ony one direct mention of Nietzsche’s mother: “When I consider how often I am addressed as a Pole when I travel, even by Poles themselves, and how rarely I am taken for a German, it might seem that I have been merely externally sprinkled with what is German. Yet my mother, Franziska Oehler, is at any rate something very German. . . . ”
This brief mention is immediately followed by a barrage of biographical information relevant not to the mother’s side of the family, but to the father’s. His mother is etwas sehr Deutsches; more about her he will not say. The contrast with the extravagant praise of his father is extreme, and we might be forced merely to speculate on what “something very German” might mean to Nietzsche, if he hadn’t spelled it out in great detail later in this book.
It is not until the second major division of Ecce Homo, entitled “Why I Am So Clever,” that Nietzsche begins to specify what he means by the word “German.” A sampling of statements immediately dispels any impression that Nietzsche was a Germanophile:
The origin of the German spirit [is] from distressed intestines. The German spirit is an indigestion; it does not finish with anything.9
The slightest sluggishness of the intestines is entirely sufficient, once it has become a bad habit, to turn a genius into something mediocre, something “German.”10
The few cases of high culture that I have encountered in Germany have all been of French origin.11
As far as Germany extends, she corrupts culture.12
[I am] so alien in my deepest instincts to everything German that the mere proximity of a German retards my digestion.13
I was condemned to Germans. 14
I shall never admit that a German could know what music is. 15
German-ness for Nietzsche is tied up with indigestion, constipation, corruption, and complete insensitivity to culture. It is all that he experiences as abject, all that reminds him of the “baseness” of his own maternal heritage. In the first division of the book, Nietzsche ventured only to say that his mother was at any rate “something very German.” Whether consciously or not, he piously deferred his invective about Germany and Germans until the second and third divisions of the book, and distanced the mention of mother as “something very German” from the characteristics he associates with German-ness.
He writes, “To think German, to feel German—I can do anything, but that goes beyond my powers.”16 For Nietzsche to “think” or “feel” German is impossible; he claims that he cannot in any way identify with the people he so despises, or even believe that he is a German like his mother. He rejects and represses his maternal inheritance, and distances himself from the negative complex of German attributes with which he associates his mother. But the word “German” has yet another connotation in this book. It is in fact also the name of Nietzsche’s greatest love, his mother tongue, his language, the medium within and through which he struggled throughout his life to “become what he was.”17 The young Nietzsche, abandoned by his “angelic” father at the age of four, left to a household of women, was certainly left with “something very German,” was “condemned to Germans,” but was left also to “German” itself. He became a philologist, a lover of language, and remained one all his life. The second part of the riddle went, “as my mother I still live and grow old.” Perhaps as his own mother, his own creator, he struggles to give birth to himself, always in and through language, through “German,” the mother tongue. This mother “lives and grows old.” She is perpetually, or at any rate periodically, pregnant. She becomes la mère qui jouit, the great unfigurable figure behind all of Nietzsche’s experimentation with language, his erotic, insatiable, overflowing attempts to achieve full expression, to let his “river of love plunge into the pathless places.”18
Perhaps for Nietzsche “to think German, to feel German” is impossible; but to speak German, to write German is imperative! Nietzsche writes of his favorite poet, Heine: “And how he handles German! Someday it will be said that Heine and I were by far the first artists of the German language—at an incalculable distance from everything that mere Germans have done with it.”19 Of course, Nietzsche’s work must be at a distance from what mere Germans do with their language! Nietzsche here again identifies himself as a Pole, and Heine was a Jew; thus, both escape the fate of being “mere Germans.”
Again, he says, in reference to the multiplicity of his inward states and the plural styles required to communicate them: “That this was possible precisely in the German language remained to be shown: previously I myself would have rejected it most severely. It wasn’t known, before me, what one can do with the German language—what one can do with language in general.”20 This sounds megalomaniacal; it may be inflated. Yet there is some truth in it too. The transmutation of abjection into the ecstasy of language, into jouissance, has rarely been demonstrated as powerfully as by Nietzsche.
The riddle at the beginning of Ecce Homo was a way of expressing the good fortune or happiness of Nietzsche’s existence, its uniqueness, its fate. As his father, with whom he strongly identifies, he is dead, above life, detached and safe; as his mother, whom he sees as “something very German,” he lives on, grows old, continues to give birth to himself, always through and in relation to language. These conditions of doubleness and split consciousness, the loss and absence of the father, the suffocating presence of the mother, have pressured the subject of this autobiography into a jouissance in language, a way of achieving satisfaction, release, pleasure, even joy in language itself. For Nietzsche, happiness, uniqueness, and fate are inextricably tied together. Without any one of the three, none of the others is possible. “My formula for greatness in a person is amor fāti. . . . Not merely to endure what is necessary . . . but to love it.”21
Not merely to endure his parentage but to love it was Nietzsche’s task, and his attempt to love it underlies his literary and stylistic accomplishments.
The Riddle of the Text
Important new clues for the interpretation of Nietzsche’s riddle have been available since 1969, when a newly discovered, later revision of Section 3 of “Why I Am So Wise” was published. In most editions of Ecce Homo, as we have seen, there exists only one direct reference to Nietzsche’s mother. The version of Section 3 that appears in the complete critical edition of Nietzsche’s works edited by Giorgio Colli and Mazzino Montinari is radically different from the one we have been examining. Montinari tells how Nietzsche’s late revision of Section 3, unlike his many other last-minute changes, was rejected by his editor and friend as unsuitable for publication, and has been suppressed ever since.22
Nietzsche collapsed in January of 1889, very shortly after sending final revisions to his publisher, so the editing of Ecce Homo fell to his friend Peter Gast, one of whose letters shows that he removed certain passages which disturbed him. He explained: “At least to me, [they] produce an impression of great self-intoxication or perhaps of contempt and injustice which goes too far.”23 Ecce Homo was not published until 1908, and by that time control of the manuscripts had passed into the hands of Nietzsche’s sister, whose self-interested handling of the materials is well known. She perpetuated Gast’s policy of ignoring this late revision of Section 3, for reasons which will become clear below.
More relevant to our purposes than this story is a stylistic comparison of the earlier (published) and later (suppressed) versions of Section 3, the only section in all of Ecce Homo which provides any clues directly pertinent to the mother side of the riddle. Close analysis of the two versions shows that neither is representative of Nietzsche’s highest abilities as a stylist. Each is an attempt to confront the subject of his mother directly: the first ends up in pious reportage, effectively blocking any access to the mother; the other is a study in transgressive fury. On most subjects, Nietzsche had managed to mediate between these extremes; on the subject of his mother, however, he was incapable of achieving a point of balance.
The early Section 3, some of which we have already examined above, begins with a reference to Nietzsche’s double nature. He calls himself a Doppelgänger and notes that he has “second sight”: he has an ability to take multiple perspectives, especially in matters of nationality. In the second paragraph (as divided in Kaufmann’s English translation) he calls himself the “last anti-political German,” yet claims Polish ancestry.
The third and central paragraph of the section contains the single mention of his mother, a mention which is immediately followed by a striking shift in style. As we have seen, he imagines he himself might have been “merely externally sprinkled with what is German,” but his mother is “at any rate something very German.” Precisely at this point, the prose undergoes a metamorphosis, and becomes very uncharacteristic of Nietzsche’s work. Suddenly, as soon as the topic of his mother is broached, the page is densely packed with proper names, place names, and biographical details bearing little relation to the matter at hand. The focus shifts rapidly away from Nietzsche’s mother to his paternal grandmother, Weimar, Goethe, Konigsberg, Herder, Nietzsche’s great-grandmother, and Napoleon. This sequence of details seems to have been prompted by the thought that Nietzsche’s father’s mother was also “very German”; but in the context of the riddle about the mother, clues to which the reader is avidly seeking, the information seems strictly beside the point. Then the focus returns to Nietzsche’s father, and we learn his years of birth and death, positions, names of his famous pupils, and other miscellaneous details.24
The entire passage is uncharacteristic of Nietzsche’s works, cluttered and full of uninterpreted and unrelated data. It simply recites a series of facts, all of which seem to aspire to some meaningful impression, but which actually succeed only in stultifying the reader and obscuring the matter at hand. Such a style would have to be called a banishment of style, a repression of expression. If the “meaning of every style” is, as Nietzsche claims, “to communicate a state, an inward tension of pathos,”25 this passage seems almost intentionally to prevent communication, a communication which in this case might give too much away.
The section draws toward its close with the statement “I consider it a great privilege to have had such a father: it even seems to me that this explains whatever else I have of privileges—not including life, the great Yes to life.” Perhaps the father could not provide this last privilege, having died so young and bequeathed to Nietzsche his own angelic stance. Finally Nietzsche reminds us again that he himself is beyond life: “In order to understand anything at all of my Zarathustra one must perhaps be similarly conditioned as I am—with one foot beyond life.”
Thus ends the earlier version of Section 3 of the first chapter of Ecce Homo, related at its beginning and end to the major themes of the book, but conspicuously stilted and pedantic in the middle, immediately after the mention of his mother. Nietzsche seems to have bitten his tongue, to have cut off style, and, as we have seen, to have deferred until later in the book any further clues as to what he means by calling his mother “something very German.” The whole section serves only to intensify the reader’s riddle, to insinuate through pious near-silence a story that awaits proper circumstances to be told.
Evidently Nietzsche himself also found this section inadequate. The later revised version of Section 3 of “Why I Am So Wise” is strikingly different from the earlier one. Gast was to suppress it because he found it “self-intoxicated,” full of “contempt” and “injustice.” Kaufmann says that it “smacks of madness,” and “one simply does not speak that way.”26 In the context of this investigation, however, it is a riveting example of the precise opposite of biting the tongue. The new version is a study in transgressive discourse, an outpouring, for the first time for public consumption, of the horror, bitterness, and abjection Nietzsche was experiencing in relation to his mother.
The new Section 3 opens with the statement “I consider it a great privilege to have had such a father.” This sentence is the only one in common with the earlier, constipated, “German” version. Nietzsche goes on to say a little more about his father, replacing the names and dates of the earlier version with the observation that “the peasants to whom he preached . . . said an angel must look like that.” In this new version he calls himself “a Polish nobleman pur sang, in whom also not a drop of bad blood is mixed, least of all German.” Instead of being merely angesprenkelt, or sprinkled with German blood, as he speculated he might be in the earlier version, he now denies having even a drop of it.
The next few sentences, which deal directly with Nietzsche’s mother, here conflated with his sister, are the heart of this section, and provide the evidence so conspicuously lacking in the earlier version. Nietzsche writes: “Whenever I seek the deepest contrast to myself, the incalculable meanness [or commonness] of instincts, then I always find my mother and sister.”27 Set on a height, searching far beneath himself for commonness and instinct, he finds his mother and sister. “To believe myself related to such canaille would be a blasphemy against my godliness.”
Appropriate characterizations for these two are not to be found in German. Nietzsche chooses the French word canaille to sum them up, thus situating himself in the place of the cultured French and sneering at this “rabble” or “riffraff.” To believe himself related to such low types would be a “blasphemy” against his “godliness.” He styles himself so pure, so much the “Polish nobleman pur sang,” identified all at once with France, Poland, nobility, blue blood, and pure blood, that the obvious fact that he must be related to his mother is denied. He is motherless; his “godliness,” his highness, cannot allow the “blasphemy” of being related to the lowness of his mother. “The treatment that I suffer from my mother and sister, up to this moment, infuses me with an unspeakable horror. . . . ”
What can two such low creatures have done to fill his “godliness” with horror? This treatment, whatever it might be, continues bis auf diesen Augenblick, right up to the present moment. To be subjected to any sort of Behandlung, or treatment, at the hands of these women is horrific to Nietzsche; it is degrading; it renders him speechless; it infuses him, passive before the power of the mother, with something that cannot, perhaps must not, be said. “Here works a perfect hell-machine, with unfailing certainty about the moment when one can bloodily wound me—in my highest moments . . . for there all strength is lacking to defend oneself against poisonous vermin.”
Here the imagery becomes even more intense and explicit. The mother and sister are a “hell-machine,” suggesting not only inhumanity but a lack even of any cold blood. To be a machine is to be nothing but calculation, predetermined action, an unstoppable, unreasoning, unfeeling force. The image of a machine of hell, diabolical, originating in the depths of the underworld, combines terror before the unliving with the horror of evil itself.
This hell-machine has unfailing (hence inhuman) certainty about the Augenblick, the precise instant “when one can bloodily wound me.” When could this be but in his highest Augenblicken?28 Association of erection and castration are suggested by this entire fantasy. The hellish perfection and inhuman, unfailing certainty of this female machine, a machine that knows exactly when to attack, when the victim is at the height of his exaltation, in his highest moments . . . all suggest Nietzsche’s attribution to his mother and sister of his deepest fears related to his ability to express himself, to perform, to remain at the heights. A castrating mother awaits him at the bottom of his ladder of life as the opposite of his divinized, angelic, noble, pure-blooded, dead father. She threatens bloodily to wound him, although he has just claimed to be a “Polish nobleman pur sang” (no mention of Blut!), “in whom not a drop of bad blood is mixed, least of all German.” He has only pur sang like his father, and none of the mother’s bad, German blood; yet she is capable of bloodily wounding him, reminding him all too painfully of his low, “bloody” German origins.
The hell-machine is capable of wounding him in his highest moments, “for there all strength is lacking to defend oneself against poisonous vermin.” Here the constellation of images becomes almost too transparent to require explication. At his highest moments, in spite of his nobility, godliness, and pur sang, he lacks all strength to defend himself against giftiges Gewürm, poisonous vermin. Adam in his innocence, at his height, before the fall, lacks all strength to defend himself from the Gewürm, worms, serpents, which threaten him with poison, with downfall, with the fall itself. Here the evocation of the classic Western complex of images linking women, sexuality, serpent, hell, blood, death, and fall is complete, and Nietzsche knows himself powerless before it, perhaps especially when he attempts to stay at his highest Augenblick—his Olympian elevation above it all.
At this point is interjected a sentence which provides a moment’s relief from the horror and fear suggested by the preceding passages. “The physiological contiguity brings about such a disharmonia praestabilita.” Through a sudden shift to Greek-and Latin-based words, words which suggest a scientific and philosophical remove, away from the pithy, primal (and mother-identified) Germanic vocabulary, Nietzsche momentarily distances himself from his mother, naming in pseudo-scientific terms the disturbance which the bodily nearness of his female relatives causes in him.
Finally comes the last reference to mother and sister: “But I confess that the most profound objection to the ‘eternal recurrence,’ my truly abysmal thought, is always mother and sister.” Here we recall that the “abyss” of the thought of eternal recurrence consists in the requirement that it be willed: one must be able to will that one’s life be repeated eternally, down to the smallest details. The thought of eternal recurrence is integrally linked to amor fāti, and thus to the necessity of loving one’s destiny, even insofar as it is determined by one’s parentage.
Perhaps “mother and sister” are the only elements of his own fate which Nietzsche cannot imagine himself willing to recur. This is a striking statement from a man whose life seems to include so many other sources of suffering and pain. Or is it simply again that the lowness, or baseness, he associates with these two in itself constitutes an objection or argument against the possibility of this paradoxically sublime and abgründlich, “bottomless” thought? In any case, the female family members stand for the opposite of all with which Nietzsche identifies.
The late revision of Section 3 ends with a relatively calm meditation on the idea of kinship. Nietzsche writes, “All prevailing notions of degrees of kinship are unsurpassable physiological nonsense” (ein physiologischer Widersinn, der nicht überboten werden kann). At first reading, this seems to be mere hyperbole, asserting that the Widersinn, the “nonsense” or “absurdity,” of the idea of kinship is a real nonsense, nonsense that can’t be topped, or as Kaufmann translates it, “a physiological absurdity that cannot be excelled.” But überbieten may also be translated literally as “to outbid,” or “overbid”; to propose a higher value or price; figuratively, to outdo or surpass. At one level the idea of kinship may simply be a very high, very absurd absurdity, one that can’t be beat for its absurdity. Might it not also be a nonsense which in the end cannnot be outbid, or outrun? A nonsense so real, so powerful, that devising some means of understanding it, relating to it, even of loving it (as in amor fāti) is imperative for the survival of the self?
Piety, Transgression, and Style
On the verge of disintegration, writing his autobiography, Nietzsche confronted at last the unavoidable nonsense of his parentage, his undeniable yet deeply unlovable connection with his mother . . . and found this contradiction unsustainable. He tried twice to write for public consumption about his mother and his sense of himself as his own mother, and the two versions of Section 3 show this “subject in process/on trial” at two extremes. Nietzsche’s first attempt to look directly at the mother effectively paralyzed him. As if confronted by the Medusa’s head, he stopped still and stammered a passage of pious reportage, cluttered with factual details to the point of the exclusion of meaning. In the second attempt, he took the opposite tack. Faced with a terrifying abyss, Nietzsche plunged into rhetorical excess and fantasy, attempting to express the abjection he experienced in relation to this mother and sister.
The alternation or oscillation between piety and transgression so transparently demonstrated in the two versions of Section 3 is a driving force behind the stylistic achievement of Nietzsche’s corpus taken as a whole. Neither of the two extant passages achieves the brilliance of some of Nietzsche’s best work, but I believe there is a clear and cogent reason why this is so.
Kaufmann thinks that if Nietzsche had not lost his sanity at this point, and had therefore been able to work on this section a little longer, he could have created a better version than either of the two we have been examining.29 But my point here is that it was precisely the unprecedented pressure to speak directly about the mother, for public consumption, that produced the two radically different and equally “inappropriate” passages.
Perhaps Kaufmann’s conjecture benefits from a reversal: “Had Nietzsche been able to rewrite this passage, to hold together for the first time in his life his contradictory feelings of piety toward his mother and his extreme horror and hatred of all that she represented to him, he might indeed have retained his sanity, and more than just a little longer.”
Such a conjecture may seem bizarre, but in a life so dominated and shaped by writing itself, our ordinary understanding of cause and effect must be questioned.30 The subject creates itself through language; Nietzsche always forged toward his ever-evolving sense of identity through his writing. One of the central problematics for every subject, and surely for Nietzsche, is the relation to the parents, to one’s own sexuality, and to the contrasexual. As Nietzsche worked and reworked the riddle of his double inheritance, he circled closer and closer to the drive to speak directly of the ultimately unspeakable, the foundational relation to the mother.
Is it not just as reasonable to presume that the pressure to integrate the self-contradictory feelings about the mother into one coherent, “sane” section precipitated Nietzsche’s final crisis, as to assume that his sanity deserted him just before he would have the chance to accomplish this formidable task?
Neither interpretation needs to be seen as correct. But if, as I am arguing, the confrontation with “the feminine” was pivotal for Nietzsche’s development as a writer, then the two versions of the section where he attempts to be most direct and explicit about that relationship itself are equally indispensable in the task of interpreting his works.
Just what is it that this later version of Section 3 adds to our understanding of the riddle of Nietzsche’s existence? How does it further illuminate the statement “as my mother I still live and grow old”? Nietzsche had written, in introducing this riddle, that the “good luck” of his existence consisted in its “fate,” which was in turn expressed by the riddle. Therefore, his good luck is his fate, which is to be dead as his father, and live and grow old as his mother.
Fate is a crucial idea for Nietzsche. The content of one’s particular fate is much less important than the way in which one approaches and appropriates it. Nietzsche’s definition of “greatness” consists in loving one’s fate: “My formula for greatness in a human being is amor fāti: that one wants nothing to be different, not forward, not backward, not in all eternity. Not merely bear what is necessary, still less conceal it . . . but love it.”31
Certainly Nietzsche’s mother is part of his own fate. Can he love her as such? He writes that “the most profound objection to the ‘eternal recurrence,’ my truly abysmal thought, is always mother and sister.” Their existence as part of his fate challenges his own ability to will their recurrence. But he has claimed that his fate is his good fortune. Is it precisely the difficulty of loving what is so unlovable that contributes to his sense of his own achievement?
Or did his attempt to love his fate, and thus to achieve the greatness to which he aspired, break down on the requirement to include the mother in his love? The passages about his mother in the later variant of Section 3 certainly seem to belie Nietzsche’s claim to be like his father, above human feeling, beyond life, without instincts for revenge. They are full of horror and disgust . . . he goes so far as to deny being related to his mother. These passages alone undermine any impression that Nietzsche himself was fully capable of loving all that was in his fate.
Maybe it is a mistake to try completely or systematically to unravel a riddle such as this one. After all, Nietzsche himself mocked those who “fumble with a timid hand for a thread,” and encouraged us to guess rather than to deduce. My own guess is that Nietzsche, in spite of the horror of his mother shown in the later text, would stand by his equation of the riddle with the good luck of his existence. For him, there is no virtue in being born into harmonious circumstances. In fact, there is less opportunity for greatness, for the love of fate which only a complex and tension-filled fate makes great. What may we “guess,” then, that Nietzsche means by living and growing old as his mother? Perhaps he is admitting that in spite of his protests, this lowness, bloodiness, horror, and poison are indeed parts of himself. The tension between the bodily existence and abjection associated with his mother and the elevation and angelic purity ascribed to his father is integral to who Nietzsche is. His imagery invokes the classic Western split assigning spirit to male and body to female, but even in his late revision of Ecce Homo he lets the riddle stand, and continues to assert that “as my mother I live and grow old.”
Second, we may guess that the riddle expressed Nietzsche’s sense of creating or giving birth to himself. “As my father” can be read “as my own father”; and his father’s work is already done. His perspective from beyond life has been effectively passed on. “As my mother,” “as my own mother,” I must continue to give birth to myself anew. The self is never complete, never fully born, so as one’s own mother, one lives and grows old.
A third possibility, suggested above, is that Nietzsche’s mother, who was “something very German,” may in some sense be “German” itself, the German language, in which and through which Nietzsche constantly struggled to create and discover himself, to “become what he was.”
But perhaps it is a mistake to try to read the riddle as two separate halves. We are tempted into that tactic by the separate and radically different treatments afforded to the topics of father and mother by both versions of Section 3. Perhaps the image to hold on to is that of the subject suspended between two equally important figures or forces, searching for his own way of being himself. As his father he is dead, beyond life, and as his mother he is abjectly implicated in the horrors of “human, all-too-human” existence. Is there an authentic middle ground, a point of balance between leaving life behind and finding it horrifying? Yes: that point of balance is amor fāti, loving one’s life as it actually is and has been. Suspension between two untenable poles then becomes a gift, a piece of “good luck” that makes possible—no, necessary—the discovery of the way between: the great Yes to life.
Nietzsche wrote: “I consider it a great privilege to have had such a father: it even seems to me that this explains whatever else I have of privileges—not including life, the great Yes to life.” Life itself, the great Yes to life, the attempt to love one’s fate and create oneself in relation to it, is not a gift from either father or mother, but a result of the suspension between the two parents, between the representatives for Nietzsche of holiness and abjection, between piety and transgression, between a deathlike spirituality and a common, instinctual vitality.
Nietzsche tried twice to express the riddle of his existence; each time he foundered on the need to clarify his relation to his mother. But each text provides the “riddle-drunks” with different clues, teaching us to be better readers of Nietzsche and thus of ourselves . . . and to guess rather than deduce.