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Macmillan Childrens Publishing Group

Hiking with Nietzsche

On Becoming Who You Are

John Kaag

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

MORE ABOUT THIS BOOK

HOW THE JOURNEY BEGAN


He who has attained to only some degree of freedom of mind cannot feel other than a wanderer on the earth— though not as a traveler to a final destination: for this destination does not exist.

—Friedrich Nietzsche, Human, All Too Human, 1878

I often tell my students that philosophy saved my life. And it’s true. But on that first trip to Sils-Maria—on my way to Piz Corvatsch—it nearly killed me. It was 1999, and I was in the process of writing a thesis about genius, insanity, and aesthetic experience in the writings of Nietzsche and his American contemporary Ralph Waldo Emerson. On the sheltered brink of my twenties, I’d rarely ventured beyond the invisible walls of central Pennsylvania, so my adviser pulled some administrative strings and found a way for me to escape. At the end of my junior year he handed me an unmarked envelope—inside was a check for three thousand dollars. “You should go to Basel,” he suggested, probably knowing full well that I wouldn’t stay there.

Basel was a turning point, a pivot between Nietzsche’s early conventional life as a scholar and his increasingly erratic existence as Europe’s philosopher-poet. He had come to the city in 1869 as the youngest tenured faculty member at the University of Basel. In the ensuing years he would write his first book, The Birth of Tragedy, in which he argued that the allure of tragedy was its ability to harmonize the two competing urges of being human: the desire for order and the strange but undeniable longing for chaos. When I arrived in Basel, still a teenager, I couldn’t help thinking that the first of these drives—an obsessive craving for stability and reason that Nietzsche termed “the Apollonian”—had gotten the better of modern society.

The train station in Basel is a model of Swiss precision—beautiful people in beautiful clothes glide through a grand atrium to meet trains that never fail to run on time. Across the street stands a massive cylindrical skyscraper, home to the Bank for International Settlements (BIS), the most powerful financial institution in the world. I exited the station and ate my breakfast outside the bank as a throng of well-suited Apollos vanished inside on their way to work. “The educated classes,” Nietzsche explained, “are being swept along by a hugely contemptible money economy.” The prospects for life in modern capitalist society were lucrative but nonetheless bleak: “The world has never been so worldly, never poorer in love and goodness.”

According to Nietzsche, love and goodness were not realized in lockstep order but embodied its opposite: Dionysian revelry. His life in Basel was supposed to be happy and well-ordered, the life of the mind and of high society, but upon arriving, he fell into a fast friendship with the Romantic composer Richard Wagner, and that life was quickly brought to an end. He’d come to Basel to teach classical philology, the study of language and original meanings, which seems harmless enough, but Nietzsche, unlike many of his more conservative colleagues, understood how radical this sort of theoretical excavating could be. In The Birth of Tragedy, he claims that Western culture, in all of its grand refinement, is built upon a deep and subterranean structure that was laid out ages ago by Dionysus himself. And, in the early years of their friendship, Nietzsche and Wagner aimed to dig it up.

Dionysus did not appear to live in Basel. According to Homer, he was born far from the walls of Western civilization, “near the Egyptian stream.” He was the wild child of Greek mythology, the figure that Apollo tried unsuccessfully to keep in check. Also known as Eleutherios—the “liberator”—this rowdy god of wine and mirth is usually depicted as wandering through the hills with his drunken sage of a foster father, the satyr Silenus. Wandering makes it sound more serious than it was; cavorting was more like it—dancing and sexing his way through the trees outside the city limits.

Wagner was thirty years Nietzsche’s senior, born in the same year as the philosopher’s father, a devout Lutheran who had died of a “softening of the brain” when his son was five. There was nothing soft or dead about the composer. Wagner’s middle works were expressions of Sturm und Drang—“storm and stress”—and Nietzsche adored them. Wagner and Nietzsche shared a deep contempt for the rise of bourgeois culture, for the idea that life, at its best, was to be lived easily, blandly, punctually, by the book. “Making a living” was, and still is, simple in Basel: you go to school, get a job, make some money, buy some stuff, go on holiday, get married, have kids, and then you die. Nietzsche and Wagner knew that there was something meaningless about this sort of life.

At the beginning of The Birth of Tragedy, Nietzsche recounts the story of King Midas and Silenus. Midas, the famous king with the golden touch, asks Dionysus’s companion to explain the meaning of life. Silenus gives the king one look and tells it to him straight: “Oh, wretched ephemeral race … why do you compel me to tell you what it would be most expedient for you not to hear? What is best of all is utterly beyond your reach: not to be born, not to be, to be nothing. But the second best for you is—to die soon.” As I sat on the steps of the BIS, watching men and women scuttle off to work, I thought that Silenus was probably right: certain types of lives were best lived as quickly as possible. Nietzsche and Wagner believed, however, that being human was to be savored, lived to the fullest.

“It is only as an aesthetic experience,” Nietzsche insists in The Birth of Tragedy, “that existence and the world are eternally justified.” This was Nietzsche’s response to the wisdom of Silenus, the only way to overcome modern nihilism. Aesthetic: from the Greek aisthanesthai, “to perceive, to sense, to feel.” Only in perceiving the world differently, only in feeling deeply could Silenus be satisfied. If agony and death could not be escaped, perhaps instead it was possible to embrace them, even joyfully. Tragedy, according to Nietzsche, had its benefits: it proved that suffering could be more than mere suffering; in its bitter rawness, pain could still be directed, well-ordered, and even beautiful and sublime. In embracing rather than evading tragedy, the ancient Greeks had charted a way to overcome the pessimism that was quickly overtaking modernity.

I was supposed to stay in Basel for several weeks, supposed to spend most of my time in the library, but as I slowly made my way through the city, it struck me that this plan was impossible. The streets were too straight, too quiet, too mundane. I needed to feel something, to break through the anesthesia, to prove to myself that I wasn’t just asleep. I was, perhaps for the first time in my life, free to do something other than what I was supposed to do. By the time I got to the university where Nietzsche had once taught, I knew I’d be leaving as soon as possible.

By 1878, the hopefulness of The Birth of Tragedy had begun to fade. Nietzsche’s health declined as the first signs of mental instability began to emerge. He literally headed for the hills, embarking on ten years of philosophical wandering through alpine terrain—first to Splügen, then to Grindelwald at the foot of the Eiger, on to the San Bernardino Pass, then to Sils-Maria, and finally to the towns of Northern Italy. To take this path was to follow Nietzsche through his most productive period—a decade of feverish writing that would produce many of the seminal works of modern existentialism, ethics, and postmodernism: Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Beyond Good and Evil, On the Genealogy of Morals, Twilight of the Idols, The Antichrist, and Ecce Homo. On my first and only evening in Basel, I decided that this was the trek I would take—a path that many scholars think charts Nietzsche’s ascent of genius and descent into madness.

I woke the next morning before daybreak, went for a long run in order to confirm my suspicion that Basel was utterly soulless, exactly the wrong place for me, and made for the train station. First stop: Splügen, high in the Alps. I thought I might eventually end up in Turin, where Nietzsche would write The Antichrist in 1888, shortly before he lost his mind. That was where he’d found something on the edge of insanity: a philosophy meant to terrify rather than instruct us. If we are to read The Antichrist, Nietzsche demands that we cultivate “an inclination, born of strength, for questions that no one has the courage for; the courage for the forbidden.” Terror has its uses. The questions that scare us the most are precisely the ones that deserve our full and immediate attention. I settled into the thought as best I could. The train eventually left the valley behind—and with it, rather slowly, my fear of the forbidden.

* * *

MY FATHER, LIKE NIETZSCHE’S, went crazy when I was four. Nietzsche’s died. Mine abandoned his family. My father and namesake, Jan, had been in international banking in the 1980s, specializing in triangular currency arbitrage, a form of trading that exploited currency market inefficiencies between the dollar, the yen, and the pound. Today, computers do the job, but when currency arbitrage first started, men like my father did it. One of my earliest memories is of my grandfather trying to explain what his son-in-law did for a living. He pulled out a box of marbles and showed me three different types: blue, green, and purple. Imagine, he began, that you could trade me ten blue ones for seven green ones. And then you find someone who would trade your seven green ones for twelve purple ones. Now take your purple ones and trade them for eleven blue ones. He handed me back the original set of blue marbles, fished another one out of the box, and tossed it to me: “You get that.” That’s arbitrage—something for nothing, too good to be true.

“What was once done ‘for the love of God,’” Nietzsche suggests, “is now done for the love of money.” In truth, what was once done “for the love of God,” Jan did for the love of money and experience. He was an experience junkie: fly-fishing, sailing, driving, riding, skiing, partying, hiking—if you could feel something doing it, he did it. From the outside, he was an obscenely wealthy, good-looking man, with a beautiful wife and two gleaming sons. But appearances are often deceiving. As Nietzsche neared the end of his time at Basel, he confessed, “I am conscious of deep melancholy underlying [my] … cheerfulness.” My father was conscious of a similar secret, one he tried to mask with a beautiful facade—but it eventually drove him to depression, alcoholism, and an untimely grave. In the end, arbitrage really was too good to be true.

As a child, I had just an inkling about my father’s behavior, but at nineteen I was beginning to understand it with the clarity of firsthand experience. Jan felt the lure of what Nietzsche called “the great and the impossible”—a desire to compensate for the sense of having loved and lost something of incomparable value. His own father, who was also largely absent, wasted his life in a stocking mill outside of Reading, Pennsylvania, for a wife who was attracted to money but ashamed of a blue-collar husband who had to actually work to procure it. My grandfather would sneak home in the evening, eat dinner, settle himself in a corner armchair, and pour the sort of drink that makes everything go black. Love was always something contingent, something that had to be earned. And there was never enough. This sense of privation was born not of actual poverty but of a conception of love and affection that is not unique to my family. It is regarded as a deal. Of course, exchanging affections is exactly as fulfilling as exchanging goods and services—which is to say not at all—but this does not keep one from trying, constantly, to trade up. The utter bankruptcy of love’s conditions keeps everything in frenetic motion.

After my grandfather died of cirrhosis of the liver, Jan discovered the sort of drinks his father had drunk, and he bought a red leather love seat for the corner of the living room. But mostly he traveled, constantly, always away, in search of the next deal. From one of these trips he just never came back. He ended up first in Philadelphia and then New York. At a certain point I lost track of him.

* * *

THE TRAIN PASSED THROUGH Bad Ragaz, on the Liechtenstein border, at the foot of the Pizol Alp. I surveyed the hills above Ragaz, where sheep grazed lazily at the lower elevations. Somewhere among the rocks was the Tamina Gorge, a narrow grotto filled with the healing waters of Pfäfars mineral springs. For seven hundred years pilgrims have made their way up the mountain to restore themselves and wash away the filth of daily life. In the 1840s the water was piped down the hill to fill the now-famous baths of Ragaz. Nietzsche, at the age of thirty-three, exhausted by his years in Basel, retreated to this spa resort in hopes of escaping the migraines that had plagued him since he was a teenager. It was here that he first decided to abandon his obligations as a dutiful professor. “You can guess,” he wrote, “how fundamentally melancholy and despondent I am … All I ask is some freedom … I become outraged at the many, uncountably many, unfreedoms that imprison me.” He would leave Basel and turn for higher ground. As Ragaz faded from my view, I could understand the appeal of such a retreat but also the forces that made running away so vexed.

When Nietzsche’s father, the pastor, died, the little boy—called “Fritz” for most of his childhood—did what comes naturally to most devout Lutherans: he became even more obedient. In his adolescence he intended to enter the ministry; he was called the “little pastor” by his fellow students—not a term of endearment. Nietzsche was too smart and introspective for his own good, and his classmates teased him mercilessly. If he couldn’t be accepted by his peers, Fritz would seek affirmation from God: “All He gives, I will joyfully accept: happiness and unhappiness, poverty and wealth, and boldly look even death in the face, which shall one day unite us all in eternal joy and bliss.” The aspiration to joyfully embrace polar opposites, even the starkest—that of life and death—was one that Nietzsche would neither relinquish nor fully realize.

Companionship didn’t come easily to the young man, but not because he was rude or self-centered. Quite the opposite. The young Fritz was shy, polite, deferential to a fault. For a long time, his best friends were books. At the age of fifteen—when other teenagers were sowing their first wild oats—young Fritz established an exclusive book club called Germania. There were a handful of members: Nietzsche and a few other boys who were bookish enough to satisfy him. At their inaugural meeting they bought a ninepenny bottle of claret, hiked into the ancient ruins of Schönburg outside Pforta, swore their allegiance to arts and letters, and hurled the bottle over the battlements to sanctify the pact. For the next three years the members of Germania met regularly to share poems, essays, and treatises (this is where a young Nietzsche presented his first philosophical paper, “Fate and History”) and to perform Wagner’s newest compositions, among them Tristan and Isolde. This was Nietzsche’s version of fun.

As the train carried me higher, I thought about the absurdity of this sort of childhood—only slightly more absurd than one that included nine-week pilgrimages in homage to long-dead philosophers—about how difficult it was for him to actually fit in.

Fritz attempted to be normal, but things didn’t go especially well. When it came to everyday life, he either overdid it or, more often, grew tired of the banality. Upon leaving Pforta, the premier boarding school in Germany, he enrolled in the university at Bonn and made a good showing at being average—drinking buddies, holiday excursions, even a brief romance. He tried drinking like other kids, but on the one evening he truly let loose, he got so thoroughly besotted that he was nearly thrown out of school. Describing the unfortunate bender to his mother, he complained that he “just didn’t know how much [booze] I could take.” When he joined the Burschenschaft Frankonia, the equivalent of an American fraternity, he reached the limits of his willingness to conform. He actually didn’t like beer. He liked pastries. And he liked studying—a lot. When he left Bonn for Leipzig after only ten months, it was with the distinct sense that being normal was a waste of time.

During his late teenage years Fritz had two comforts: his mother, Franziska, and the writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson. He had begun reading Emerson in the early 1860s as he finished school at Pforta, and the American Transcendentalist quickly became, in his words, “a good friend and someone who has cheered me up even in dark times: he possesses so much skepsis, so many ‘possibilities,’ that with him even virtue becomes spiritual.” Philosophy at its best was to be learned by rote—not in the sense of mindless memorization, but in the sense of learning something by heart and enacting it in experience. This most personal of knowledge was meant to give individuals the courage to determine their own lives, without the guidance of teachers or priests. And then there was Emerson’s skepsis, the critical doubt that had wedged itself between Nietzsche and the ministry. “There exists in the world a single path along which no one can go except you: whither does it lead? Do not ask,” Nietzsche instructs, “go along it.” The path of self-reliance would become the high road that would eventually lead him to the Alps.

Nietzsche was drawn to Emerson’s Promethean individualism, his suggestion that loneliness was not something to be remedied at all costs but rather a moment of independence to be contemplated and even enjoyed. In fact, isolation, to the extent that it allows one to be free from societal constraint, is the most appropriate condition for a philosopher. This Romantic impulse ran deep with both thinkers; aesthetic experience was life-affirming not in the abstract but in the emotional and intellectual tenor of an individual. At the age of twenty-two, in a letter to his friend Carl von Gersdorff, Nietzsche wrote of his frank admiration for the American: “Sometimes there come those quiet meditative moments in which one stands above one’s life with mixed feelings of joy and sadness … Emerson so excellently describes them.” As he entered adulthood, Nietzsche began to view certain types of experience—these “quiet meditative moments” among others—as a way of escaping the sorrows of life, and he was attracted by the thinker who, in the 1840s, had initiated the experiential turn in philosophy.

It is, admittedly, a strange thought: that one could achieve transcendence by immersing oneself in lived experience, that transcendence was not to be found “out there,” but only in a deeper exploration of life. But this idea is precisely what drew young Nietzsche to Emerson. Traditional religious routes to salvation had been cut off in the early decades of the nineteenth century: German “higher criticism,” a form of biblical scholarship that read the Gospels as historical documents rather than the word of God, undermined the Church’s spiritual and existential authority; contemporary capitalism hit its stride, replacing the cross with the almighty dollar sign; and modern science—epitomized by Darwin’s discoveries in the middle of the century—only further eroded religious faith. One could have faith—and experience moments of deep, nearly divine meaning—but only in the tangible, observable flow of existence.

In Emerson’s 1844 essay “Experience,” published in the year of Nietzsche’s birth, he wrote, “No man ever came to an experience which was satiating, but his good is tidings of a better. Onward and onward! In liberated moments, we know that a new picture of life … is already possible.” This is Emerson at his most hopeful, but Nietzsche understood that Emersonian buoyancy also required one to learn to suffer experience in the right way. For Emerson, self-overcoming was realized in summer moments of joy and sadness, the moments at high noon when one realizes that the day is in decline, already half over. This American, a man in his late thirties who had lost his first wife to tuberculosis, was no stranger to personal tragedy, and he would help Fritz overcome, and endure, his own. Published in 1841, Emerson’s essay “Compensation,” the sister essay to his more famous “Self-Reliance,” promised that “every evil to which we do not succumb is a benefactor.” Nietzsche spent most of his life trying to internalize this message, echoing it repeatedly, most famously in The Twilight of the Idols: “What does not kill me,” he asserted, “makes me stronger.”

I knew that he had written these words—and the rest of the book—in one insane week of work in Sils-Maria. After exploring Splügen, I would turn there. Maybe I could walk. I’d brought my sneakers and flip-flops. It couldn’t be more than twenty-five miles.

* * *

ROADS AND RAILWAYS ARE SUPPOSED to connect two points in the shortest possible distance, but in the mountains, roads curve around foothills and bluffs—the only time they’re actually straight is in the tunnels, where they pierce the mountain face. I peered down out of the train window. We were getting close to Splügen, and we stopped for a moment at the town of Chur, the regional capital. There was, I imagined, the road that Nietzsche hiked, just a narrow gravel path carved into the granite that disappeared around the next crest. It was splendid. And treacherous. The road had a shoulder of a few feet and a guardrail, and then it dropped off completely for what seemed like a thousand more. The guardrail had been a recent addition. Nietzsche came to the mountains to tread on the edge of the void.

We entered a high valley, higher than most New England mountains, and I came to appreciate, for the first time, the majesty of the Alps. If the beauty of Nietzschean tragedy could be captured in landscape, it was here: quaint, well-ordered Swiss villages dotted a wide, grassy valley floor that slowly, and then suddenly, gave way to walls of rock and ice that met the clouds. Extremes brought together in perfect harmony.

“I ascend the country roads easily,” Nietzsche reported during his brief stint in Chur, “everything reposes before me … splendid views to my rear, continuously changing, ever-expanding outlooks.” Looking around before catching the train to Splügen, I thought that the ascent into the mountains couldn’t have been that easy for him. Hiking like this doesn’t make much sense—especially to a culture that prides itself on ever more painless ways of getting from here to there. Nietzsche had a word for such a culture: decadent. The word comes from the Latin decadere, “to fall off”—as in off the rails.

According to Nietzsche and Emerson, modernity had fallen out of rhythm with life. It was out of tune with the basic impulses that once animated human existence. Animals naturally love to play, to race, to climb—to expend energy and relish power. But in our efforts to become civilized and pious, Nietzsche maintained, we moderns had managed to kill or cage the animal within us. With the help of Christianity and capitalism, human animals had been allowed to go soft. When one “went to work,” it was rarely for the joy of exercising free will, but rather for the sake of some future paycheck. Life was no longer lived enthusiastically—only deferred.

Nietzsche fled to the mountains for many reasons. He was sick—suffering from the nausea, headaches, and eye trouble that would plague his later life—and he needed more time for his writing. He was in search of new experiences, deeper and higher. But he was also no longer wholly welcome in Basel. In the philological community the publishing of The Birth of Tragedy in 1872 had created a rift between the literalists and the existentialists. The literalists held that the point of studying the origins of language was to “get it right”—to cut through the limits of interpretation in order to grasp the meaning of words as the ancients once understood them. Nietzsche, and a small band of existential philologists, held that this sort of intellectual time travel was both anachronistic and impossible—that the “task of the philologist is that of understanding his own age better by means of the classical world.” The point of historical study was to enrich the present moment of experience. This claim was made in an unfinished essay Nietzsche titled “We Philologists” that remained unpublished, at least in part, because of the controversy that already raged around The Birth. Upon its publication, Friedrich Ritschl, Nietzsche’s longtime mentor and the leader of the literalist tradition, turned on his most promising student.

According to Ritschl, there were two sides to Nietzsche: the brilliant and rigorous scholar who could make sense of the densest and most confusing passages of Greek, and the “fantastic-exaggerated, overly clever” madman “reaching into the incomprehensible.” Nietzsche’s Dionysian spirit made him few friends in the staid circles of Basel’s intellectual elite. The reviews of The Birth of Tragedy—one of them by one of his closest friends—were savage. The promising young scholar, who, in the words of one of his famous mentors, “could quite literally do whatever he chooses,” was suddenly an academic outcast. So in September 1872 he left for Splügen; it was an experiment in mountain living that he would take up in earnest a few years later. “As we approach Splügen,” Nietzsche wrote to his mother, “I was overcome by the desire to remain here … This high alpine valley … is just what I want. There are pure, strong gusts of air, hills and boulders of all shapes, and, surrounding everything, mighty snow-capped mountains. But what pleases me the most are the splendid highroads over which I walk for hours.” When Nietzsche arrived in Splügen, he settled into a small guesthouse at the outskirts of town. If he was equal parts celebrity and pariah in Basel, here he was a stranger, and the villagers treated him as such. Nietzsche wrote to his mother that he enjoyed the freedom of anonymity. “Now I know of a nook,” he wrote, “where I can gain strength, work with fresh energy, and live without any company. In this place human beings seem to be like phantoms.”

As I disembarked after the five-hour trip, I had to agree: the ephemera of human existence stood in marked contrast to the solidity of this terrain. People slipped out of the train and set off for their tiny houses nestled in the hills. I was left by myself in the station, gasping the thin air, wondering where I would spend the night. But it was only three in the afternoon, and the mountains beckoned. With flip-flops on my feet and a thirty-pound pack on my back, I set off on my first Alpine trek.

I followed an ancient mule track that led out of the center of Splügen into the hills. Small, unassuming signs pointed the way to Isola, a village on the Italian border thirty miles away. I would just go for a short hike and turn back before nightfall. Walking is among the most life-affirming of human activities. It is the way we organize space and orient ourselves to the world at large. It is the living proof that repetition—placing one foot in front of the other—can in fact allow a person to make meaningful progress. It’s no coincidence that parents celebrate their child’s first steps—the first, and perhaps the greatest, signs of independence.

The trail was relatively flat and even occasionally cobbled, and I covered ground quickly. Walking is practically and physically beneficial, but it has also, for artists and thinkers like Nietzsche, been intimately tied to creation and philosophical thought. Letting one’s thoughts wander, thinking on one’s feet, arriving at a conclusion—these are no simple figures of speech but reflect a type of mental openness that can be achieved only on the move. In the words of the eighteenth-century philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, “I never do anything but when walking, the countryside is my study.” The history of philosophy is largely the history of thought in transit. Of course, many philosophers came to rest in order to write, but this was, at most, a perching, a way to faintly mark the ground that had been covered. The Buddha, Socrates, Aristotle, the Stoics, Jesus, Kant, Rousseau, Thoreau—these thinkers were never still for very long. And some of them, the truly obsessive walkers, realized that wandering can eventually lead elsewhere: to the genuine hike. This is the discovery that Nietzsche made in the Alps.

At the age of thirty, he was still strong enough to dream of the ascent: “To climb as high as any thinker has ever climbed, into the pure icy Alpine air, where no fog rises to veil things over and where the general constitution of things expresses itself in a rough and lapidary fashion, but with the greatest intelligibility!” Hiking, unlike most vocations, is work with its own immediate reward, and its unpleasant aspects are often the most advantageous. The dull ache of lactic acid building in your quads and calves slowly reminds you that flesh—your flesh—is still alive. The control that one has over the pain is strangely affirming: Can you make it to the next rise, to the next outcropping of rocks? Life is often painful or bothersome, but the hiker, at the very least, gets to determine how he or she is meant to suffer.

Four miles into my “hike” to Isola, I slipped out of my sweaty flip-flops, toppled backward, and tore most of the skin off my heel. Hobbling back to Splügen, I snuck into a barn on the outskirts, spread out my sleeping mat, and bedded down for the night. I’d have to patch myself up and resume my search for the Antichrist tomorrow. For Nietzsche, I consoled myself, the point was not about avoiding or even conquering suffering: he recognized, like so many philosophers before him, that suffering was a fundamental fact of human existence. But the ascetic response to suffering was to understand it as a complaint about life. My challenge—the challenge Nietzsche raises—was to embrace life with all its suffering. When he wrote, at the very end of his career, “Have I been understood? Dionysus versus the Crucified,” he meant to show that suffering does not refute life as we experience it but must be welcomed, embraced, in exactly the same way we welcome and embrace happiness. In fact, Nietzsche often sounds as though happiness is at best a kind of secondary goal. In Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Nietzsche’s most famous character, having spent his life in the mountains, concludes: “Happiness? Why should I strive for happiness? I strive for my work.”

I spent two weeks in the hills around Splügen, acquainting myself with the joys of moving and the discomfort of standing still. The days were glorious, and they flew by. The nights lasted forever. Boredom, stiffness, sunburn—as soon as I stopped walking, everything caught up to me. I should have been exhausted, but I wasn’t. All I wanted was for the sun to rise so that I could be off again. “All truly great thoughts,” Nietzsche informs his reader in The Twilight of the Idols, “are conceived while walking.” To a young philosophy student, the simple correlate followed: the more walking the better. Most of the demanding trails through the Alps aren’t really trails at all. Just faint whispers marked by scuffs in the earth and misplaced stones. Here it is possible to realize the hidden essence of walking—that where to go, and how to get there, is entirely up to you. “Each soul,” Emerson wrote in his lecture “Natural History of the Intellect,” “walking in its own path walks firmly, and to the astonishment of all other souls, who see not its path.” There is a fearful liberty in this, and it is, as I found out, difficult to keep one’s footing. But once you begin to hike, it is extremely hard to ever fully come to rest.

* * *

IN HINDSIGHT, I KNOW I should have been more terrified of the mountains. Instead, after days of hiking around Splügen, I tried to conquer them. As the crow flies, Sils-Maria, the small village where Nietzsche wrote Thus Spoke Zarathustra, was only thirty-one miles away. But crows don’t fly between Splügen and Sils-Maria. They go around Piz Platta, the highest point in the Oberhalbstein Alps. At 11,129 feet, the mountain can be seen on a clear day from a plane flying two hundred miles away, but as you enter the foothills of the Alps, the truly monstrous peaks are obscured by merely sublime ones. I purchased a light coat, a headlamp, and a walking stick, which I thought would be more than sufficient to get me there. Just to be safe, I bought a compass and a map to keep me pointed in the right direction—I planned to blaze a shortcut through the mountains—and a sleeping bag in case it got a little cold. Then I walked, scrambled, and climbed for fifteen hours, straight toward Platta, straight into the darkness.

I’d never camped in the backcountry before. The sun sank behind the peaks to the west, and the temperature dropped. The night would be, I could already tell, more than a little cold. Why hadn’t I stayed on the goddamn mule track? Quickening my pace, I looked for some semblance of shelter, but high above the tree line, shelter is woefully scarce. In the end, I found a depression in the granite face—calling it “a cave” would be an exaggeration—and bedded down for the night. Darkness descended. I’d brought matches but forgotten to gather wood along the way.

Calm down: there was nothing to be afraid of. I’d not seen another human being since I’d cut off the path in the morning. This meant that no one would find my body, but it also meant that no one would kill me in the night. Plus, the Swiss are not a murderous people. There was nothing to be afraid of. The only sign of life had been the occasional marmot and the intermittent sound of cowbells far below. There were maybe a hundred lynx in the Alps, and more than enough sheep in the valleys to keep them sated. The wolves and bears, I thought, had been wiped out decades ago. There was nothing to be afraid of. A few stars kept me temporary company but then vanished behind clouds that blanketed the mountains. I was finally, as I’d often suspected, perfectly alone.

There it was: utter blackness—the “nothing” that I was afraid of. In the beginning, according to Nietzsche, man “was surrounded by a fearful void—he did not know how to justify, to account for, to affirm himself; he suffered from the problem of his meaning.” I turned my headlamp on and shined it full power into the night. The beam stretched out, dissipated, and vanished. “Once upon a time,” Nietzsche writes in On Truth and Lies, “in some out of the way corner of the universe … there was a star upon which clever beasts invented knowing … After nature had drawn a few breaths, the star cooled and congealed, and the clever beasts had to die.” To work so hard, to burn so bright, and then to be snuffed out without warning or explanation—this was the idea that haunted Nietzsche as he set off into the Alps.

I bore down inside the sleeping bag, but my ears and face throbbed as the wind picked up. When the morning arrived, I was still awake. I barely remember how I got back to Splügen, but I know it took me two solid days. Frostnip or windburn left a scar on my earlobe—it remains, until very recently the only sign that I’d actually made the mad trip.

* * *

AFTER THAT NIGHT, nothing frightened me, and I longed for depth and height. A week later I walked and hitchhiked the fifty—not thirty-one—passable miles from Splügen to Sils-Maria and took up residence at the Nietzsche-Haus, the boardinghouse where Nietzsche summered in the 1880s. It is nestled in an outgrowth of ancient fir at the base of a foothill. Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra is the story of a mountain man. “Having attained the age of thirty,” the narrator explains, “Zarathustra left his home and the lake of his home and went into the mountains.” But by the time Nietzsche wrote these lines, he’d flirted with, and nearly succumbed to, the danger of absolute isolation. Zarathustra is a hermit, true enough, but he also secretly craves companionship. As the chapters unfold, he shuttles between the wild solitude of the high caves and the ordered life of the towns below. The point was not permanent escape, but rather to get a breath of fresh air on the peaks in order to be alive among his companions in the towns on the valley floor. This was no simple task, as it meant preserving individualism in the midst of society, interacting with others without being absorbed by the group.

Of course, at the age of nineteen, I had no idea how to manage such a feat, opting instead for solitude and the void.

Today, the first floor of the Nietzsche-Haus is a museum, a mix of contemporary art and Nietzschean artifacts: his original death mask, photographs, and letters written during his stay. Above the museum are three bedrooms that can be rented by the scholars and artists who come to Sils-Maria for inspiration. A small scholarly workshop on Nietzsche and the paintings of Gerhard Richter had ended, and the attendants vacated the Haus, so I was given my choice of rooms. Obviously I picked the one closest to Nietzsche’s—a raw-paneled bedroom with a single bed, a desk, and a lonely table lamp. When the sun set, the entire house, save for that lamp, slowly went dark. I spent the early evenings in the halls of the Nietzsche-Haus, contemplating the Richters that had been left behind on the walls: shimmering photos of skulls overlaid with splatters of paint. “Perish in pursuing the great and the impossible”: the words haunted these pictures. The painter had followed Nietzsche in making Sils his home away from home, and this is what he’d found.

Thirty-one days dilated, compressed, and slipped away. I stopped eating and sleeping. My hair grew shaggy and my pants loose. My mother, on the one occasion that I called her, observed that I sounded a “little off,” which is the Calvinist way of saying “completely insane.” She wasn’t entirely wrong. Living with Nietzsche can have this effect. When you starve or overwork a body, it will eventually die, but before that, the adrenal glands give off one last burst of superhuman energy in a final attempt to stay alive. In my last week in Sils-Maria, I came as close as I ever have to understanding Nietzsche’s claim, “I am no man. I am dynamite!” Evening after evening, wide-awake, no longer even hungry, I returned to my desk, to my Zarathustra. At the first sign of light I’d make my way to the trails behind the Haus and do my best to embody him.

At one point in this philosophical poem, Zarathustra asks Life: “Ich bin der Jäger: willst du mein Hund, oder meine Gemse sein?” “I am the hunter: will you be my hound or will you be my kill?” This is a question I could never answer. Gemse is often understood as “kill,” but the more literal translation is “chamois”: strange, elusive animals, mountain goats that I imagined still dwelled in the high country above Sils-Maria, subsisting on the spare, almost nonexistent vegetation above the tree line. They were strong and solitary and sure-footed. In the fall of 1888, during his last visit to Sils-Maria, Nietzsche was awakened in the predawn as his landlord slipped out to hunt them in the shadowy hills. At the time, reflecting on the writing of Twilight of the Idols, one of his darkest, most enigmatic books, Nietzsche admitted, “Who knows! Perhaps I too was out hunting chamois.”

I did my best to continue the hunt and searched in vain for these Pan-like creatures: reading at night, scrambling toward the cliffs during daylight. Half of me was drawn to the radiant peaks, to the mirrored sunlight that graced the surrounding hills, but as the days passed, I began to feel, first faintly and then with growing force, a fascination with the depths that can be found only in the mountains. Some of the most dramatic summits, I learned, are the best places to view the gorges and chasms of life. Exploring Nietzsche’s life—vibrant and productive—is also to confront his recurring desire to escape it. He lived in the face of a persistent temptation to die. “It is not in our hands,” Nietzsche writes in The Twilight of the Idols, “to prevent our birth but we can correct this mistake … the man who does away with himself performs the most estimable of deeds.” There is, indeed, something respectable about doing away with oneself, about taking control of time’s evanescence. I was terrified of slipping away unconsciously, departing before I knew it.

To fast is to regulate life, to put it on a short leash, to do away with oneself slowly with premeditated accuracy. It is protracted suicide. At some point in the lingering days of August, a month before my twentieth birthday, I decided my fast was taking too long. In the rocks behind Nietzsche’s summerhouse I laid my plans. I could intensify the fast, but that would, I already knew, have unforeseen effects. I’d pass out, and some good Samaritan would take me to the hospital, where other good Samaritans would pump me full of IV fluids and discharge me with the thoughtful suggestion to “take it easy.” Pills would work better, but I didn’t have any. Buying a gun in Switzerland was not an option for an American kid. Slitting my wrists seemed self-indulgent and melodramatic, like something a real teenager would do. I’d seen a nylon rope in the first-floor closet of the Haus. Gasoline and a match, maybe. All of it seemed incredibly clichéd, but also more than theoretically possible.

For a surprising number of people, the most frightening part of suicide is the idea of not succeeding. The outcome seems preferable to life, but the deed is difficult and very risky. When I summited Corvatsch, I’d seen a crevasse that would probably suffice, but the “probably” continued to worry me. Nietzsche contemplated this sort of nothingness during his stay in the Alps. As he wrote his Zarathustra, he measured one’s strength by the willingness to stand face-to-face with these forbidden possibilities: “He who seeth the abyss, but with eagle eyes, he who with eagle’s talons graspeth the abyss: he hath courage.” These are Zarathustra’s words—hopeful, brimming with power—not Nietzsche’s. Nietzsche would be steadfast, but also more vulnerable, more human, on the brink of these dangers. In the New Testament, the void is described as the place where monsters and demons live; by the thirteenth century, Christian mystics began to conceive of the abyss as the mystery of the sublime Godhead. Whatever it is—demon or God—it is waiting for you. Nietzsche insists that “if thou gaze long into the abyss, the abyss will also gaze into thee.”

The chasm on Corvatsch was narrow, six feet wide, and maybe two hundred and fifty feet to the bottom. In my last days there, I slept outside, next to a giant boulder on the glacial plain in the Val Fex. And I visited my abyss often, pitching stones over the edge, sounding the depths, trying to calculate the exact height by how long the rocks took to smash against the boulders below. One hundred feet? Two hundred? I could never figure it out. If I went headfirst, it would work, or I would break my spine and never walk again. More likely, I’d succeed—but not in the way I intended—by bleeding out slowly. Self-inflicted pain was one thing, but dying in some botched attempt seemed to defeat the purpose. So I waited. Yet the idea was always still there when I awoke.

Obviously, perhaps luckily, I chickened out. On what was supposed to be my last evening in Sils-Maria, I broke down and ate. I made my way up a small rise behind the Nietzsche-Haus to a hulking hotel that continues to strike me as one of the grandest buildings I’ve ever entered. I had six hundred dollars left—a largesse born of Spartan living—and I spent more than half of it at dinner. The courses—all six of them—were minuscule. But they added up, over the course of three hours, to a great deal. So did the small glasses of wine that continued to appear and numb my sense of guilt and embarrassment. At the end of the night I succeeded in exiting the grand foyer without tripping or vomiting. I’m not exactly sure how. And back at the Nietzsche-Haus, tucked into its now warm and inviting privacy, I finally slept. And slept and slept—it was almost noon when I awoke. I’d missed my bus to Turin, but on some level I was relieved. “Companions, I need,” Zarathustra admitted, “and living ones—not dead companions or corpses I carry wherever I go. But living companions I need who follow me because they wish to follow themselves—and to the places whither I wish to go.” Perhaps I’d go to Turin next time. And next time, I wouldn’t come alone.


Copyright © 2018 by John Kaag

Frontmatter map copyright © 2018 by Jeffrey L. Ward