On Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche’s Ecce Homo
A few years ago, I was riding my bike and thinking about the declaration “I am not a man. I am dynamite,” when I hit a pothole and flipped over my handlebars, giving a new meaning to having one’s view of the world turned over by Nietzsche. The self-anointed Antichrist never wanted to be made a holy man (sooner even a buffoon, he said) and I won’t conscript him here except as, of all things, a contemporary memoirist. Ecce Homo,the mostly forgotten autobiography in which the dynamite explodes, is a downright archetypal if extremely odd memoir. The book’s subtitle, How One Becomes What One Is, nearly saysit all: this is a story not of a life but of a self in time—how the I of the story became the I who tells the story—and like so much of Nietzsche’s writing, Ecce Homo was, as he said, a hundred years ahead of its time.
Nietzsche had no way of knowing, when he wrote the text in three weeks in the fall of 1888, that he was about to take ill or that Ecce Homo would be his final work. At the time he was mostly ignored, and had been best known as a former philological wunderkind. His status grew under his sister’s careful management during the insanity of his final decade when he was unable to appreciate it, but she withheld publication of his own self-reflections until 1908, eight years after his death.
Ecce Homo remains a kind of lost book from a found author; in the century since its publication, while Nietzsche has risen in prominence and fluctuated in notoriety, Ecce Homo has remained relatively obscure. While books like The Birth of Tragedy and Thus Spoke Zarathustra are frequently referred to (if less frequently read), Ecce Homo most likely sits on your shelf only as the unfamiliar text included in the volume of The Genealogy of Morals you were assigned in college.
If you go to your bookshelf now and crack that 1989 Vintage edition to page 202 you will encounter Walter Kaufmann of 1966 making the case for Ecce Homo by comparing Nietzsche’s—can I say swagger—to that of his contemporary Van Gogh (“the lack of naturalism is not proof of insanity but a triumph of style”). We have Kaufmann largely to thank for the redemption of Nietzsche’s name after the Nazis’ attempted appropriation. But I don’t think it’s enough to read him only as a thinker but also as, perhaps, a liver. Because life for Nietzsche was both the root and the fruit of his philosophy, and his philosophy appears as much in the life he recounts as it does in what we normally think of as philosophical writing.
“Behold the man,” says Pontius Pilate as Jesus is presented for crucifixion. “Behold the man,” says Nietzsche as he presents himself for—well, for what? What does Nietzsche invite with chapter titles such as “Why I Am So Wise” and “Why I Am So Clever”? Here is a supreme ironist at work, whose words always mean more than they say. Beyond simple disclosure there is another sense to his “homo”: that we behold a man as we’ve never seen one: Man as he might be, one who celebrates and finds virtue in his humanness. The discussions of diet, nutrition, climate, walking, etc., are many and become the stuff of philosophy, demonstrating the inverse of the claim, as he writes, that “every great philosophy [is an] … unconscious autobiography.”
Where Christ extols heaven, Nietzsche affirms life on earth. The book’s final line reads, “Have I been understood?—Dionysus versus the Crucified.—” But the phrase “Ecce Homo” occurs first in Nietzsche in the marginalia to his copy of Emerson’s “Spiritual Laws,” where he writes the words alongside a passage that includes, “The man may teach by doing, and not otherwise.”
Nietzsche is frequently (and rightly) commended as a stylist, but this can be dismissive praise of an author for whom style reveals rather than disguises character. Behold a man whose teaching is inseparable from his doing. Behold a memoirist whose writing is inseparable from his living. Collapsing the space between self as writer and self as written (in the text if not outside it), Nietzsche works a neat little ouroboric logic: his own Dionysian flair is confirmed by the text that produces it. Such megalomania can be read as solipsism, it can also be read as apogee; memoir invents a world in which the I is the only possible conclusion; the text deviates from Nietzsche only insofar as it circumscribes its world.
The longest of Ecce Homo’s four chapters, “Why I Write Such Great Books,” is a pitiless reading of the author’s oeuvre. Whether or not he is his own best reader, Nietzsche’s unsentimentality toward past works performs his virtue of self-overcoming as effectively as one of his readily quotable lines: “One pays dearly for immortality: one has to die several times while still alive.”
Singing of Thus Spoke Zarathustra, which Nietzsche considered his (not to mention the world’s) most important book, and to which he gives the most attention in Ecce Homo, Nietzsche writes, “Let anyone add up the spirit and good nature of all great souls: all of them together would not be capable of producing even one of Zarathustra’s discourses.”
This self-regard would be obscene if it did not belong to Nietzsche. And maybe it still is, but it’s meaningful here to recall the context for Ecce Homo. Nietzsche was writing with manic purpose in 1888 (four books that year alone), yet despite his sense of destiny his legacy was hardly assured. Writing that “To become what one is, one must not have the faintest notion what one is,” Nietzsche recognized that the memoirist, like the philosopher, was “of necessity a man of tomorrow and the day after tomorrow.”
And yet to be constantly inventing a new future for Nietzsche is not to turn one’s back on the past. His conception of amor fati figures centrally in Ecce Homo, as it does in every memoir. No writer has more resoundingly spurned self-pity than Nietzsche when he writes, “My formula for greatness in a human being is amor fati: 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.” Which would be a startling proclamation from someone who suffered greatly in life, except that Nietzsche considered suffering necessary precondition for greatness. It follows, then, that he would say, “Never have I felt happier with myself than in the sickest and most painful periods of my life.” To actually love the past is to affirm the necessity of life as it is. What better impulse to memoir than: “How can I fail to be grateful to my whole life?—and so I tell my life to myself.”
For Nietzsche this gratitude presents in contrast to resentment, which claims a false recourse to circumstances that do not—and therefore cannot—obtain. If things were different they wouldn’t be the same. No one should understand contingency with respect to the self better than the memoirist. In his introduction, Kaufmann offers this his final assessment of the book: “‘The tragic man affirms even the harshest suffering.’ And Ecce Homo is, not least of all, Nietzsche’s final affirmation of his own cruel life.”
Good memoirs do not blame or settle scores. And surely Nietzsche’s does not. What generosity of spirit there is in an unheralded writer with the courage to be thankful for his failures: “Ten years—and nobody in Germany has felt bound in conscience to defend my name against the absurd silence under which it lies buried… I myself have never suffered from all this.” How many writers could mean that? And if he indeed was suffering, as raising the issue suggests, he nevertheless supports the possibility that for a writer the only book that matters is the next one, and that for a person what matters is what one is currently becoming.
Reading the Nietzsche of Ecce Homo is an exhilarating—and sometimes maddening—undertaking. Thinking back to my bike accident and the dynamite that caused it, I find myself to be in sympathy with Malcolm Bull, who writes in Anti-Nietzsche that “Even though Nietzsche is attributing the explosive power to himself, not to us, we instantly appropriate it for ourselves.”
It can feel impossible to read Nietzsche without leaning on his style in one’s own writing, but as Nietzsche says, “One repays a teacher badly if one always remains a pupil only.” The drive to overcome that originates in Ecce Homo flows off the page and fills its reader. Nietzsche compels us to see our own lives as destinies, as narratives, and take up our own memoirs, whether literally as writers or figuratively as subjects set loose to compose our lives. Each of us saying one way or another, “Hear me! For I am such and such a person. Above all, do not mistake me for someone else.”
Scott F. Parker is author of the memoir Running After Prefontaine and, writing pseudonymously as The Synthesis, the anti-memoir in here.