The Age of Atheists: How We Have Sought to Live Since the Death of God (5 page)

BOOK: The Age of Atheists: How We Have Sought to Live Since the Death of God
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We must make a “Dionysiac affirmation,” “stand in a Dionysian relationship to existence,” “select to live only those instants that we would be willing to live with over and over again, in infinite recession.” In this way we will be saved—saved from fear.

In Nietzsche’s new world, without a beyond or a hereafter, life has no purpose other than to live in the grand style, using the will to power to achieve an intensity of experience such that we would like those intense moments to go on and on and on.

All this was as heady as it was dangerous, and a lot is lost in translation, for Nietzsche was a superb stylist of the German language. That language, that style, go some way toward explaining why the world of 1883 picked up on his aphorism—that God is dead—so quickly and so wholeheartedly, even enthusiastically. But it was not the whole picture.


A. N. Wilson calls doubt “the Victorian disease” and Jennifer Michael Hecht, in her history of doubt, says the period 1800–1900 was “easily the best-documented moment of widespread doubt in human history.” It was, she says, the century of “doubt’s bid for a better world.” “The best-educated doubters felt that the time for doubting religion was over: it was time to start building something in which one could truly believe, a happy new
world. They guessed that it would be a better world because the money and energy once given to religion would be devoted to generating food, clothing, medicine, and ideas. They also thought that they might see farther than ever before, now that their vision was mended.”

Owen Chadwick, who was regius professor of modern history at Cambridge and onetime president of the British Academy, proposed in his Gifford Lectures and subsequently in
The Secularization of Europe in the Nineteenth Century
(1975) that doubt’s bid for a better world involved two parallel processes—a social process and an intellectual one. There were, as he put it, two kinds of “unsettlement” occurring throughout the nineteenth century, “unsettlement in society, mainly due to new machines, growth of big cities, the massive transfer of populations; and unsettlement in minds, rising out of a heap of new knowledge in science and history, and out of the consequent argument.” And perhaps more important, the two unsettlements merged easily. The crucial twenty years when this “merger” took place, he pointed out, were 1860–80, exactly the time leading up to Nietzsche’s publication of


It is important to conclude this introduction with four qualifications. First, that if we look around, and read our histories of the long twentieth century, we find that by no means everyone has or has had this apocalyptic fear of the death of God, as epitomized by, say, Dostoevsky. In 1980, James Thrower published an account of what he called “the alternative tradition,” the rejection of religious explanations in the ancient world. The German sociologist Wilhelm Dilthey said that everyone has a “metaphysical impulse,” in that we all have within us a theory, however inchoate or incoherent, about the world and our place in it, and about what metaphysical forces may or may not exist. But it would be wrong to say that
is troubled by the problems that vexed Dostoevsky and Nietzsche so much. Many people
troubled by these issues, and troubled deeply, but by no means everyone.

Second, Callum Brown has recently given us a new narrative of secu
larization. In
The Death of Christian Britain: Understanding Secularization 1800–2000
(2001) he introduces the notion of “discursive Christianity,” a form of religious identity not captured by the usual sociological categories. Discursive Christianity shapes an individual’s personal identity, the private—even secret—self, which influences morality, personal behavior (such as saying grace before meals), speech and dress, expectations, the sort of subtle behavior captured in oral histories. Brown argues that Britain remained a Christian nation until the 1960s, when it collapsed spectacularly, to become thoroughly irreligious. People did not turn to other forms of belief; rather, they stopped regarding themselves as religious.

Brown’s statistics are impressive but a number of comments may be made. First, something similar was observed in the United States in the Pew survey report mentioned earlier: there, current religious faith was described as “mushier” than in the past. Either way, these results flatly contradict the claims of those who argue “God is back.” No less important from our point of view, they do not affect this book’s argument. Whatever the exact trajectory of secularization, of the collapse of belief in God, the individuals discussed within these pages clearly felt—and feel—that God is indeed dead.

Third, Brown’s view overlaps to an extent with the theory of the French analyst Olivier Roy, who in
Holy Ignorance: When Religion and Culture Part Ways
(2010) argues that a parallel process has been recently taking place alongside secularization. Thanks to globalization, religions have become divorced from their cultural homelands—“deterritorialized.” Christianity is no longer exclusive to Europe and the Middle East, Hinduism to India, or Islam to the desert heartlands, but all are now more or less worldwide.

Consequently, the cultural attributes that once formed an integral part of religious identity and practices have less and less place. Arabs will refer to “Muslim culture,” for example, by which they mean family-related attitudes and practices, segregation of the sexes, modesty, food habits and so on, whereas by “Islamic culture” is meant art, architecture, the practices of urban life. In order to circulate in a global context, a religious entity must appear universal; for the message to be fully grasped, it must be disconnected from a specific culture as traditionally understood. “Religion
therefore circulates outside knowledge. Salvation does not require people to know, but to believe.” As a result, as they have become “de-ethnicized,” religions have become “purer,” more ideological and, therefore, at the same time, more fundamental. They are, in a very real sense, based more on ignorance than knowledge, Roy says, and, to that extent, and in reply to what Charles Taylor says about secular lives, these religions are thinner.

These various strands come together to show why Nietzsche was the phenomenon he was, why his remarks about the death of God ricocheted around Europe in particular so resoundingly, and why what he said is still so potent today. Although there had always been
people who didn’t believe in God, and although Doubt with a capital
had been growing since the middle of the eighteenth century, it was only in the 1880s that, again as Owen Chadwick put it, the “great historical revolution in the human intelligence” became clear to all who took an interest in these matters, and that the act of faith was no longer seen “to fit the experience of men.” Since then, whatever the adherents of the God-is-back thesis may say, people have continued to lose faith, and religion is evolving in ways that increasingly suggest a rearguard action.

This leaves us with one issue, the fourth qualification, which is no less important. It is that science, for all its great reputation as the institution that has the capability to acquire all kinds of truth, and despite its undoubted successes, has nonetheless left behind a widespread “sadness that [it] is not fitted to offer truths about the moral being
and that therefore . . . perhaps truths about the moral being are not to be obtained

However many people have faced up to the fact that we are now living in a world without God, and are troubled by it, just as many have found (until very recently) science wanting as a source of life’s meaning. The intertwined nature of these two elements has been in general overlooked, but the link is inescapable, as we shall see, time and again, and has been critical in determining how we have tried to live our lives since Nietzsche wrote what he wrote.

Recalling G. K. Chesterton’s observation that “when people stop believing in God, they don’t believe in nothing—they believe in anything.”


The Avant-Guerre: When Art Mattered


The Nietzsche Generation: Ecstasy, Eros, Excess

he greatest irony of Nietzsche’s life—far greater than
being held up at the printer by 500,000 hymnals—was surely the fact that he exploded onto the intellectual and cultural scene when he was already insane, catatonic and knew nothing about what was occurring. It was only in the 1890s that he came to the attention of significantly large audiences.
Until that point, he had not been without influence—Steven Aschheim tells us that both Gustav Mahler and Viktor Adler were inspired by Nietzsche, perhaps as early as 1875–78. But this influence was piecemeal and it was not until the 1890s that some sort of “confrontation” with Nietzsche became virtually obligatory.

His fame spread internationally very quickly, but of course the concern with his ideas was more intense in Germany than elsewhere. Every would-be academic or intellectual was expected to have a “position” on Nietzsche, or the “Nietzsche problem” as it was referred to, and among the middle classes in Germany, Nietzsche evenings became commonplace—social gatherings accompanied by music and spoken texts.

As mentioned in the introduction, part of Nietzsche’s appeal lay in the lyrical power of his language, but it wasn’t only that. The Germans, many of them, were proud of Nietzsche: he had German roots and was addressing what many people thought were specifically German problems. His opponents stressed his “Slavic” way of thinking and played down his
, his Germanness.


Throughout the nineteenth century there had been endless arguments about what actually was and was not German (its borders did keep changing), and Nietzsche was press-ganged into this debate. During the 1890s and thereafter more and more people began to adapt his Germanness and the Nietzsche-German relationship into an ideology. By this account, Germanness was an exclusive precondition for truly understanding him and what he was saying. Here, for example, is Oswald Spengler on Nietzsche:

“Goethe’s life was a full life, and that means it brought something to completion. Countless Germans will honor Goethe, live with him, and seek his support; but he can never transform them. Nietzsche’s effect is a transformation, for the melody of his vision did not end with his death. . . . His work is not a part of our past to be enjoyed; it is a task that makes servants of us all. . . . In an age that does not tolerate otherworldly ideals . . . when the only thing of recognizable value is the kind of ruthless action that Nietzsche baptized with the name of Cesare Borgia—in such an age, unless we learn to act as real history wants us to act, we will cease to exist as a people. We cannot live without a form that does not merely console in difficult situations, but helps one get out of them. This kind of hard wisdom made its first appearance in German thought with Nietzsche.”

Carl Jung was no less impressed. He viewed Nietzsche as a development beyond Protestantism, just as Protestantism was itself an outgrowth beyond Catholicism. Nietzsche’s idea of the Superman was, he believed, “the thing in man that takes the place of the God.”

Notwithstanding the enthusiasm of these and other luminaries, it was the youth and avant-garde of the 1890s who made up the bulk of Nietzsche’s followers. This had a lot to do with the state of the Kaiserreich, which was perceived then to be both spiritually and politically mediocre. To these people, Nietzsche was seen as a pivotal, turn-of-the-century figure, “a man whose stature was comparable only to Buddha, Zarathustra or Jesus Christ.”
Even his madness was endowed by supporters with a spiritual quality. For here was Nietzsche like the madman in his own story, someone who had been driven crazy by his vision and the alienation of a
society not yet able to comprehend him. The German Expressionists had a fascination with madness for its allegedly liberating qualities, as they did for all extreme forms of life, and they identified Nietzsche as both a spokesman and an exemplar. Opponents dismissed him, quite wrongly as it turned out, as a “degenerate” who would “rave for a season, and then perish.”

Despite the divisions he aroused, his popularity grew. Novels and plays tried to capture and dramatize his already dramatic ideas. People all over Europe started to have “intoxicating” Zarathustra experiences. Le Corbusier had a
(a Zarathustra “experience” or “insight”) in 1908. Nietzschean concepts like the
will to power
entered the vocabulary.
Richard Strauss’s tone poem
Also Sprach Zarathustra
was premiered in Frankfurt-am-Main in November 1896, the most famous but not the only major artwork stimulated by Nietzsche—Mahler’s
Third Symphony
was another, originally entitled
The Gay Science

The glossy illustrated magazine
featured Nietzschean poems in his honor but also printed drawings and sculptures of him, seemingly whenever they got the chance. Between 1890 and 1914 his portrait was everywhere, his bushy mustache becoming a widespread visual symbol, making his face as famous as his aphorisms. From the mid-1890s, encouraged by the Nietzsche archives (under the control of his sister), “Nietzsche-cult products” were made available in generous amounts, a move that would certainly have maddened him had he been capable of such feelings. Hermann Hesse was just one well-known writer who had two images of Nietzsche on his study wall in Tübingen. His face was also a popular device on bookplates, one image showing him as a latter-day Christ, with a crown of thorns. The working-class press appropriated his image as a familiar and succinct way to mock the capitalist commercialization of culture.

Some even adopted what they called Nietzschean “lifestyles,” the most striking example being the designer/architect Peter Behrens. Behrens designed his own “Zarathustrian” villa as a centerpiece of the experimental Darmstadt artists’ colony. The house was adorned with symbols such as the eagle, and Zarathustra’s diamond, which radiated “the virtues of a world that is not yet here.” Behrens surpassed even this in the German pavilion he designed for the Turin 1902 Exposition. In a surreal cavern,
light flooded the interior in which the industrial might of the Second Reich was on display. Zarathustra, cited explicitly, progresses toward the light.

Bruno Taut (1880–1938), an Expressionist architect, became a prominent exponent of a cult of mountains that emerged and was associated with Nietzsche. Taut’s “Alpine Architecture” attempted to envision an entire chain of mountains transformed into “landscapes of Grail-shrines and crystal-lined caves,” so that, in the end, whole continents would be covered with “glass and precious stones in the form of ‘ray-domes’ and ‘sparkling palaces.’”


In a similar vein was the Zarathustrian cult of
, “the longing to escape the crowded cities and to feel the pristine mountain air.” Giovanni Segantini, a painter and another enthusiastic Nietzschean, specialized in views of the Engadine, the mountain region that inspired Nietzsche when he was writing
Thus Spoke Zarathustra
. So popular did his work prove that pilgrims and tourists flocked to these mountains: “The
—the experience of being alone—was transformed into a mass business!” The flourishing of a Nietzschean kitsch industry, which would have horrified Nietzsche himself, was another ironic indication of his popularity among the “philistines.” Paul Friedrich’s play
The Third Reich
was one of several that put Zarathustra onstage, in this case clad in a silver-and-gold costume and a purple coat, a golden ribbon in his blond hair and a leopard skin flung insouciantly over his shoulder. At times, people worried that the Nietzsche cult was outdoing Nietzsche himself. In 1893, Max Nordau wrote about the Nietzsche Jügend—the Nietzsche youth—as if they were an identifiable group.

As time went by it became increasingly clear that Germany, and to a lesser extent the rest of Europe, was now populated by Nietzsche generations—in the plural. Thomas Mann was one who recognized this:

“We who were born around 1870 are too close to Nietzsche, we participate too directly in his tragedy, his personal fate (perhaps the most terrible, most awe-inspiring fate in intellectual history). Our Nietzsche is Nietzsche
militant. Nietzsche triumphant belongs to those born fifteen years after us. We have from him our psychological sensitivity, our lyrical criticism, the experience of Wagner, the experience of Christianity, the experience of “modernity”—experiences from which we shall never completely break free. . . . They are too precious for that, too profound, too fruitful.”

Nietzsche was in particular looked upon as a new type of challenge, paradoxically akin to the forces of socialism, a modern “seducer,” whose advocacy was even more persuasive than the “odious equalizing of social democracy.” Georg Tantzscher thought Nietzscheanism fitted neatly the needs of the free-floating intelligentsia, trapped as they were “between isolation and a sense of mission, the drive to withdraw from society and the drive to lead it.” In his 1897 book on the Nietzsche cult, the sociologist Ferdinand Tönnies accused Nietzscheanism of being “pseudo-liberational.” People, he said, “were captivated by the promise of the release of creative powers, the appeal to overcome narrow-minded authority and conventional opinions, and free self-expression.” But he condemned Nietzscheanism as superficial, serving elitist, conservative and “laissez-faire functions” that went quite against the social-democratic spirit of the age.

A little later, in 1908, in
The Nietzsche Cult: A Chapter in the History of Aberrations of the Human Spirit
, the philosopher Wolfgang Becker also appeared puzzled that so many “cultured luminaries” were attracted to the Nietzschean message, but he agreed with Mann that it meant different things to different people. To the young, Nietzsche’s analysis seemed “deep”; but the German colonial officials in Africa employed his
ideal practically every day, as they felt it was suited perfectly to “the colonial mode of rule.”

The sociologist and philosopher Georg Simmel also took his color from Nietzsche. His central concept,
, the ideal of “distinction,” owed everything to Nietzsche. Simmel looked upon
as the defining quality by which individuals “could be separated from the crowd and endowed with ‘nobility.’” For Simmel, this was a new ideal stemming from the dilemma of how to create personal values in a money economy. Nietzsche had encouraged the pursuit of specific values—
, beauty, strength—each of which he said enhanced life and which, “far from encouraging egoism, demanded greater self-control.”

Marxists thought that Nietzscheanism nakedly served capitalism, imperialism and afterward fascism, and that Nietzscheans were no more than the ultimate in bourgeois pseudo-radicalism, never touching on the underlying exploitation, and leaving the socioeconomic class structure intact.

People liked to observe the irony that Nietzsche was dead long before God, but Aschheim maintains that he was simply “unburiable.” “Nietzsche was not a piece of learning,” wrote Franz Servis in 1895, but a part of life, “the reddest blood of our time.” He has not died: “Oh, we shall still all have to drink of his blood! Not one of us will be spared that.”
As this book will show, he was right.

Even the choice of Weimar as the location of the Nietzsche archive was intended to emulate—if not surpass—the similar shrine of that other self-styled protector of German spirituality, at Bayreuth. Nietzsche’s sister, Elizabeth Förster-Nietzsche, and her colleagues played a deliberate role in the monumentalization and mythologizing of the philosopher. The place was no mere archive but a house of creative powers. For example, his sister sought to create an “authorized” Nietzsche, her main object being to “depathologize” her brother, and in so doing remove the subversive from his ideas, making him—as she thought—“respectable.”

The most grandiose and monumental of plans—much more so than the archive—came from the more enlightened and cosmopolitan adherents. In 1911, for instance, Harry Graf Kessler, the Anglo-German patron of the arts and author of
Berlin in Lights
, envisaged building a huge festival area as a memorial, comprising a temple, a large stadium and an enormous sculpture of Apollo. In this space, intended to hold thousands, art, dance, theatre and sports competitions would be combined into a “Nietzschean totality.” Aristide Maillol agreed to build the statue, using none other than Vaslav Nijinsky as the model. André Gide, Anatole France, Walther Rathenau, Gabriele d’Annunzio, Gilbert Murray and H. G. Wells joined the fund-raising committee. The project failed only when Elizabeth Förster-Nietzsche withdrew her support in 1913.

Until the First World War, Nietzsche exerted a wide influence on the arts. However, the Great War, as we shall see, totally changed public attitudes toward Nietzsche and the impact of his ideas.

Probably, Nietzsche’s most explosive and enduring impact was on
the intellectual, artistic and literary avant-garde—his invitation “to
something new, to
something new, to
new values” was emblematic of what Steven Aschheim also calls the “Nietzschean generation.” Nietzsche gave point to the avant-garde’s alienation from the high culture of the establishment.
The two forces he favored were radical, secular self-creation and the Dionysian imperative of self-submersion. This led to several attempts to fuse the individualistic impulse within a search for new forms of “total” community, the redemptive community, a theme that recurs throughout this book.

BOOK: The Age of Atheists: How We Have Sought to Live Since the Death of God
9.42Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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