Published Humanitas, Volume XVI, No. 2, 2003

Appropriating the Mask of Apostasy

Every philosophy also conceals a philosophy; every opinion is also a hiding place, every word a mask.

In his later writings, Friedrich Nietzsche often reflects on what he considers to be the significance of his philosophy, especially since it had not received serious academic interest at the time, except, that is, among a coterie of close friends and admirers. The quote above is just such a self-reflection, which comes near the end of Beyond Good and Evil (1886). The quote appears in aphorism 289, in which Nietzsche, who at this time was fond of referring to himself as “the hermit of Sils Maria,” describes the silently concealed “philosophy” of the hermit as “more profound, deep and dangerous” than it appears on the surface: “his concepts themselves at last acquire a characteristic twilight colour, a smell of the depths and of must, something incommunicable and reluctant which blows cold on every passer-by.”1 The one who “has sat alone with his soul day and night, year in year out, in confidential discord and discourse” encounters the cold incommunicability of an abyss, “an abyss behind every ground, beneath every foundation.”2 The act of representing this abyss in writing, claims Nietzsche, is an act of concealment: the thinker masks the abyss with words. As a lover of this mask, Nietzsche adopted a variety of mytho-philosophical personae during the fifteen-year period of his active writing life, beginning with his Dionysian self-personification in his earliest work, the Birth of Tragedy, to his Zarathustrian personification in his last works. Just prior to his total mental collapse, Nietzsche developed a penchant for describing his writings as “dynamite” (which had only recently been invented); looking back on his writings in Ecce Homo, Nietzsche quite literally believed that he had effectively demolished—at least as far as intellectual integrity is concerned—the ideological foundations of Christianity and Platonism—which he considered to be the primary forces of devolution in modern Western culture.

It goes without saying that Nietzsche’s use of the metaphor of dynamite to describe his writings was prescient. Whether it was with the sartorially plumed-out Nazi brass who milled around the porcine-figured Elizabeth at the Nietzsche Archives, or with all the Franz Kafkas of Europe writing through the silence of caffeinated nights, the “explosion” was a historical fact. It echoed, re-echoed, and continues to echo, even when only a faint or haunting ringing in the ears. Such is it heard, although, as it is generally acknowledged, something else occurred along with the echo: Nietzsche’s celebrated attack on the foundations and overall project of Western culture coterminously self-implodes into a morass of philosophical confusion and ineffectuality. Quid pro quo, Nietzsche, in his Herculean struggle against the myriad of cultural forces he considered harmful to the healthy human soul, adopts the same (albeit metamorphosed) ethical and philosophical strategies he so vehemently criticizes in his opponents. The unfortunately most telling example of this is his de rigueur ethic of resentfulness, an ethic that he himself so loathes in “ressentiment morality.” As a perceived victim of the moral and psychological abuses of nineteenth century Euro-Germanic Christian culture, Nietzsche, unfortunately, embraced the Old Story: “I was abused; ergo, I can abuse.”


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