Nietzsche Dreams of Detroit

Philosophy and Literature 16 (1992): 244-49.

Denis Dutton

Imagine if, contrary to the received view, Nietzsche did not stop writing after his breakdown in 1889, but had secretly committed to paper yet another book during his time in an asylum in Jena. Imagine further that this book not only put his thought in a new light, but also contained confessions of Nietzsche’s various sexual liaisons, including his incestuous relations with his sister. Sound too good to be true? Ach, du liebe Zeit! — it is. But let’s award full marks to the Amok Books for giving this little scam one more trial. My Sister and I, allegedly by Friedrich Nietzsche (Amok Books, $9.95 paper), first appeared in 1951 in English, the original German manuscript having ‘disappeared’. The translation was purportedly by the Nietzsche scholar Dr. Oscar Levy, who also wrote an introduction to the book, endorsing it as authentic. I say purportedly, because Levy had actually died four years before this; his daughter denounced the book and Levy’s involvement in it as a complete fabrication.

My Sister and I did manage to elicit an intrigued and favorable review by a librarian in the Saturday Review of Literature before the axe fell. Writing in the Partisan Review (May/June 1952), Walter Kaufmann pointed out mistakes in the introduction which no one with Oscar Levy’s command of Nietzsche would have made and uncovered discrepancies in the book which would render it the oddest of Nietzschean texts. Within a few years after Kaufmann’s review the book dropped from sight, though I note that its publisher, Seven Sirens Press of New York, was claiming it was in its ninth printing in 1953. (I’d like to know the size of those press runs.) Behind the book looms one Samuel Roth, the apparent owner of Seven Sirens. He seems to have been involved in several strange publishing schemes, to have spent time in jail, and to have been publicly denounced, for reasons not made clear here, by a committee of intellectuals that included Croce, Einstein, T.S. Eliot, Hemingway, Hamsun, Hofmannstal, D.H. Lawrence, Thomas Mann, Maurois, Pirandello, Bertrand Russell, Valéry, and Yeats.

Readers of this new edition of My Sister and I can learn about this because Stuart Swezey and Brian King, who I guess are Amok, have had the good grace to include in their introductory material full reprints of all of the documents so far alluded to, including two reviews by Kaufmann and a stinging letter by Oscar Levy’s daughter. They also print a brave attempt of Professor Walter K. Stewart of California Lutheran University to place the text in the most favorable light. Swezey and King are convinced My Sister and I is authentic, and their presentation of so much relevant material, pro and con, shows an honesty as admirable as it is unusual. They regard as their enemy those stultifying pedants who would see Nietzsche’s thought “ground into bland scholarliness”.

Okay: but is this book by Nietzsche? No, it is not. Stewart does not succeed in his defense of the text against the objections originally voiced by Kaufmann in 1952. If it’s true, as he says, that each one of Kaufmann’s objections can be answered, then he ought to go ahead and answer each of them. Here is a sample of two oddities in the text that Kaufmann noticed and that especially struck me. Nietzsche writes, “If only the Americans would work up a really healthy interest in my books, an interest strong enough to require a lecture course given by me in fascinating places like Detroit, Chicago, New York or San Francisco....” Now spot the city that doesn’t fit. That’s right — how can we seriously imagine Nietzsche using Detroit to head a list of “fascinating” American cities in 1890? Henry Ford was then just an engineer working for Detroit Edison, horseless carriages were still years away, and Detroit did not yet have a world reputation. Equally anachronistic are Nietzsche’s remarks about Marx and Marxists. Or how about this: “Wagner once told me he placed me in his heart between Cosima and his dog, in other words between two bitches”. Besides being witless, this little joke cannot even be formulated in German. The German manuscript of this book did not disappear, one surmises, because it simply never existed. (Kaufmann also catches Nietzsche making another joke that depends on a mistranslation in the King James Bible; later Jacques Barzun said it was purloined from his Berlioz.)

Swezey and King suggest that Kaufmann’s antagonism might in part have stemmed from the sexual content of My Sister and I. I doubt it. Nietzsche reports that his sister crawled into his bed on Saturday mornings to play with his “genitalia”, that she treated them as “her special toys”, and that for years after he couldn’t think of beauty “except in terms of her eyes or her damnably wonderful fingers”. Weird, to be sure, but still fairly mild stuff for a self-styled Antichrist. As for having gone to bed with Cosima Wagner, that just strikes one rather more improbable than shocking.

It isn’t sex that is the problem with My Sister and I. The librarian, A.K. Placzek, who wrote about it in the Saturday Review came closer to the target when he said that if it is a fraud, “it is the most skillful artistic hoax since the Van Meegeren Vermeers”. The parallel is more precise than he realizes. Whoever wrote the book (Kaufmann years later said that a minor writer named George David Plotkin confessed shortly before his death to having written it for Roth “for a flat fee”), it was a person steeped to some considerable extent in Nietzsche. Since there is no German manuscript to go by, we cannot analyze Nietzsche’s style, but the English at least in many stretches seems Nietzschean. The difficulty is that My Sister and I is so mind-numbingly flat, so banal. This is a Nietzsche who seems strangely influenced by Kahlil Gibran, or perhaps it’s Rod McKuen singing in the bathos. It’s a Nietzsche whose grand pronouncements are too sentimental, even the maudlin. “I am only one voice in a chorus of millions of voices, one thought amidst thousands and thousands clamoring ponderously to be heard above me, a heart of flesh in a universe of flying comets and meteors....” “As I grow older I am more and more fascinated by ideas and less and less attracted by people”. (Nietzsche as a people person.) “My religious faith has never been replaced by any faith worth mentioning”. “I wonder if I would have hated Christianity with such ardor and abandonment if I had not surrendered so completely to its blandishments in the blameless days of my childhood”. “This is the fantastic paradox of life: we must dangle from the cross, crucified between the two thieves of freedom and necessity....” (Aw, come on.) Of his sister: “Even as the watchman who keeps guard over the purple towers of a city she kept guard over the purple towers of our passion”. (Purple’s the color, all right.) It might be argued that Nietzsche was a sick man by the time he wrote this and therefore could not match his earlier work. But it is precisely the lack of any crazy obscurity whatsoever in My Sister and I — its plodding, boring intelligibility — that gives it away. For Kaufmann the book “sounds neither like the great aphorist nor like a madman, but like a fourth-rate contemporary writer”.

Setting the whole of this book against the real Nietzsche is in fact like setting the whole of van Meegeren’s vapid oeuvre against Vermeer’s. Another analogy comes to mind. About twenty years ago a British clairvoyant and piano teacher named Rosemary Brown received a series of newly composed pieces from dead composers (more recently her messages have been from John Lennon, who calls for world peace). Of the many works she transcribed there is one small composition by Liszt which has a real plausibility, an authentic sound (as, perhaps, with one or two entries in My Sister and I). But it was sad to see that the other composers on “the other side” — Beethoven, Mozart, Schubert, Chopin, etc. — were generally able only to produce the most inane, salon imitations of the music they wrote in life. Like the Nietzsche presented here, they have become mere shades of their former selves.

But don’t take my word for it: get the book and decide for yourself. Amok Books also publishes a guide to “the extremes of information in print”. It’s an illustrated catalogue of over 3500 titles, including CIA torture manuals, Satanist manifestos, nudist colony guidebooks, UFO abduction accounts, creating a false ID, necrophilia and gay truckstop sex, and how to keep a human head alive. Maybe.

Copyright © 1992 Johns Hopkins University Press. All rights reserved.