Gass on Nietzsche's 'coaster full of riders'

I was pleased to pick up the new Harper’s, which includes “A Forest of Bamboo: The trouble with Nietzsche,” by William Gass. The piece is responding, in part, to Curtis Cate’s book “Friedrich Nietzsche.” From Gass:

“Whatever their persuasion, Nietzsche’s devoted followers are like followers always are: they deplore their leader’s revisions of mind and falls from faith; consequently they reinterpret or ignore his changes of heart, while what are felt to be weaknesses of character are concealed. Bertrand Russell regularly left his fellow aerialists grasping air and hoping for a net; Ludwig Wittgenstein made a huge U-turn in mid-career, thereby creating rival factions representing the Early or the Late; and Friedrich Nietzsche sometimes recolored his mind between tea and Tuesday. This is tiresome. A single unified system is required if one is to propagandize for it properly. At least there must be a final, definitive position for the mind, as though the writer were fighting a last-ditch action and were willing to die before surrendering a yard of argument. But in Nietzsche, if such a thing were to be found, it would have to be skeletal, submerged, in code, because the body of his work certainly dips up and down and turns around enough to bear a coaster full of riders who have paid mostly for the thrill. A tone of jubilant acrimony is perhaps its most consistent quality.”

When I spoke with Gass last January, he must have been working on this piece. From our talk, in a discussion of what philosophy gives us that literature doesn’t:

“So what you’re dealing with is a certain quality of mind. I think it is important to realize when you’re studying philosophy that what you’re getting is not simply that they got it right. What they got right was the going after it and showing you how it works, and imagining this and that. Usually, doing what Emerson suggested: capturing the world as it might seem from one point of view. That tells you a whole lot about that point of view. That’s something Nietzsche seized on, too. I’m writing on Nietzsche now. Or trying to. (Laughs) I’m delaying writing on Nietzsche.”

Look for the full interview in this November’s Believer.