“There will be time, there will be time
To prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet.”
– T.S. Eliot, The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.
As part of my English literature course I do a module about Modernism. This is the period from 1910 or so to 1939 or so where everyone was getting big ideas about how to make it hard for other people to read things. This often included foreign languages (English, French, Italian, Greek, Latin and Chinese, thanks Ezra Pound) and since the burst of revelation in lots of scientific fields at the end of the 19th Century, also included a lot of new and difficult concepts.
The one that everyone seems to have the most trouble with (as it is the one we are reminded of SO MUCH in lectures) is anything to do with Nietzsche. Whether or not the difficulty arises from not knowing how to spell the name and thus not having any good notes, I’m not sure, but here we go.
This is Friedrich Nietzsche. He was as mentally disturbed as his moustache is impressive, and he was misunderstood as much as he was mentally disturbed. However, having a Nazi for a sister, who edited his works after his death, did also not help this second matter.
Unfortunately Nietzsche has a bad, only just improving in the last forty years reputation because the aforementioned Nazis read his books and interpreted them as one might interpret WALL – E about the perils of zero gravity space travel.
However, during Modernism Period, Hitler was not the biggest bastard emerging from the ruins of Europe. No, that was Lenin. So Nietzsche’s works were viewed as absolutely revolutionary, tapping into the rising current of atheism emerging from The Origin of the Species, Psychoanalysis, and the now very real hell of World War One. After all, why would a benevolent God wipe out a whole generation of young men from all over Europe? It was Nietzsche who coined the phrase ‘God is Dead’, and in its stead he advocated the rise of a great class of men – the Overmensch.
Most people start smelling Nazi ethnic cleansing right about here and so did Hitler. Nietzsche’s downfall in his thought was, perhaps, his immense misunderstanding of the class system. He came from a line of clergymen and as such was on top of the pile for much of his life. He did not get that his supposition wherein those from a lower socioeconomic class but were strong and talented could rise to the upper class, and those in the upper class who were weak and dull would go to the lower class, was absolutely absurd. Human nature is far too selfish for this to at all work, unless there was some sort of Brave New World sort of system lurking about. (cough cough)
How did one strive to be an Overmensch though? You do not wake up one. I doubt Nietzsche himself would have been very pleased with the thought of one just spontaneously emerging. No, part of the backbone to Nietzsche’s ideas was that of the mask. A weaker man could create a mask of the strong and confident man, and through this, become that strong and confident man. It’s a nice idea which for some people is very effective – If you want to become something, why not just will oneself into becoming it?
Obviously this is a lot easier than it sounds and this is the problem. To do this does require a reserve of will power that most people simply do not possess. To that end, considering it as an analogy of a mask before one’s face, we none the less will find it difficult to really see the face of this mask. We’re looking out from it, and we will only be able to clarify it in a mirror once we have grown into it. In short, we may be changing ourselves, but we may not like what we are changing into. Nietzsche would argue that would be the weaker self talking, but what if it is our friends and family? No man is an island, though Nietzsche himself very nearly was.
Nonetheless, the idea of the mask was a lingering obsession of some modernist writers. Yeats, certainly, as with Pound, and evidenced by his lines up there, T.S. Eliot too.
Having read that poetry I have to wonder; Has Nietzsche’s mask disseminated into common thought? Or do we still regard the idea of changing faces, either implicitly or explicitly stated, a taboo of a Machiavellian order…