Cynicism, the “Highest Achievement on Earth” – Nietzsche on What Makes a Great Book


Since he was so cheeky and loved to upset his German readers, Nietzsche always loved to reflect on how wonderful he was.   He did this because he wanted to create a space in which his voice, despite its being despised, could weigh in on any subject he wished to discuss.  It was, in his view, his satirical cynicism that put him in a position to battle with anyone he deemed a “worthy opponent.” In a section of Ecce Homo entitled “Why I Write Such Great Books,” Nietzsche reflects on what makes a good book.

Before he gives us his final word, however, he lets us know how frustrated his critics are with him and how, in turn, how disappointed he is with books that other, esteemed Germans, write:

I have some notion of my privileges as a writer; in a few instances I have been told, too, how getting used to my writings “spoils” one’s taste.  One simply can no longer endure other books, least of all philosophical works. (Genealogy of Morals and Ecce Homo, 263)

In the most daring and arrogant manner, Nietzsche tells the German reader that the world that he is speaking from is higher than theirs.  It is a “distinction” to enter it:

It is a distinction without equal to enter this noble and delicate world – one must not by any means be a German; it is after all a distinction one must have earned.  But whoever is related to me in the height of his aspirations will experience veritable ecstasies of learning; for I come from the heights that no bird ever reached in its flight, I know abysses into which no foot ever strayed.  I have been told that it is impossible to put down one of my books – that I even disturb nightly rest.  (263)

After noting how incredible his writing is he tells us why it is so lofty; namely, because it achieves the heights of cynicism:

Altogether, there is no prouder and at the same time subtler type of book: here and there they achieve the highest achievement on earth, cynicism; they have to be conquered with the most delicate fingers as well as the bravest fists.  (264)

Nietzsche goes on to describe, metaphorically, the physiognomy that one must need to be a great writer.  One needs a “cheerful digestion”(264).  The irony of this claim is that Nietzsche, in his cheeky cynicism, seems more bitter than cheerful.  However, he suggests that his bitterness is cheerful because, when he angers his opponents and makes them cynical about their own world, he is happy.   His hatred of his critics is cheerful in the sense that he finds all of their criticisms and comments about his work laughable.

I have one question:

After all his ranting is over and after he has spread more cynicism in the world and crowned himself the solar king (which Michel Serres associates with madness) what is left after the book (and the author) that destroys all other books?

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