All Pasts: Interview with Lance Olsen

Compared to other great philosophers — Socrates forced to kill himself, Descartes holing up in Sweden — Friedrich Nietzsche received scant attention during his life. Ever since his death, however, it seems that scholars just can’t argue enough about him. Reviewing the latest Nietzsche biography last August in Harper’s,William Gass remarked that “in the literature about [Nietzsche], it is true that all the angles are argued, and the philosopher who preached of multiple perspectives must now suffer each passing point of view.”

Although by some measures Nietzsche may be a tired subject, Lance Olsen’s fine new novel, Nietzsche’s Kisses, is far from a dull exercise in the familiar. Part of what helps Olsen inject new energy into a familiar subject is that his book is written from Nietzsche’s perspective. But not just that: Nietzsche’s Kisses consists of the philosopher’s final thoughts as he lay bedridden in a sanatorium on the eve of his death, raving and hallucinating, not to mention urinating all over himself.

Olsen is known for telling strange stories in unconventional ways, and in Nietzsche’s Kisses he does not disappoint. With little warning, this book’s rich, sometimes oblique, prose jumps from twisted first-person images of the sanitarium to third-person vignettes of various episodes from his life to second-person stream-of-conscious rants. The sum of this is both a fictive biography and a compelling rendition of what the last day of anyone’s life might be like.

Nietzsche’s Kisses
by Lance Olsen
Fiction Collective Two
February 2006, 230 pages, $15.95

Nietzsche’s Kisses begins at 5 pm, as the bedridden Nietzsche thinks “I can no longer feel my fingers and I can on longer feel my feet … It appears as if my limbs simply evanesce into air as they extend away from me.” With Nietzsche’s body virtually gone and his mind a mess, we are informed that his sister will soon be bringing visitors.

The philosopher’s relationship with his sister, as well as the reason she is caring for him and displaying him to the outside world, are all central matters that are explained in due time, but for now the narrative turns to a more immediate concern: what does it feel like to be hallucinating in bed on the eve of your death? Olsen answers this question with an elegant metaphor, putting Nietzsche into a waking dream where he believes himself to be lost in a pitch black, infinite attic:

“Friedrich expected a tight crawl space. Instead, the obscurity creates a sense of extensiveness . . . He could just as well be standing in an open pasture beneath a starless night sky . . . Friedrich gropes forward for what seems like two or three minutes without coming into contact with a single object. . . . The need to piss unwinds into a distinct, stubborn fact.” (50-1)

This attic scene is Nietzsche’s best attempt to make sense of his situation; similarly, the rest of Nietzsche’s Kisses is the story of one great but decaying mind trying to make sense of a life. This is a challenging, episodic approach, but the book, abetted by a series of sterling vignettes, remains an engrossing read.

Nietzsche is painted as pathologically egocentric, a man who sternly adheres to the belief that he really is his own best company, but this is balanced by the inevitable sadness and sacrifice that such a dutiful way of life requires. Olsen’s Nietzsche may repeatedly reflect that “he loves his own company because he had never met better,” (25) but such a thought is always twinned with one that sighs at the solitude such a belief necessitates. Moments after making that reflection, Nietzsche realizes that “other people make him intensely lonely.” (26)

Nowhere is this more acutely felt than in Nietzsche’s relationship with his family. His mother repeatedly berates him for leaving his job as a professor to do nothing with his life (nothing except write brilliant books that no one will read–until after he dies). It doesn’t help either that Nietzsche’s mother gushes over his sister’s successful husband, the rabid anti-Semite Bernhard Förster who made his fortune baiting working class Germans against Jews. This is all the more sad because Nietzsche and his sister, now estranged, were once painfully close. Nietzsche recalls an idealized childhood in which his loving sister was ever so proud of the glowing remarks written by teachers on his essays.

By showing us how Nietzsche’s philosophy was the foundation of both his greatest pride and his deepest pain, Olsen transforms the philosopher from a titanic historical figure to someone we can relate to. He reveals to us the difficult choice that any artist must make peace with: either giving in to the desire to be normal or sticking to your own course. He also probes the line between being a self-styled maverick celebrated for your independence and being an outcast. Making Nietzsche’s thoughts (or in Olsen’s idiom, his kisses) the fulcrum around which these questions turn shows how intimately felt Nietzsche’s philosophy once were. It’s a poignant reminder that there once dwelled a human being behind the aphorisms now so clichéd that they’re even on t-shirts.

Still, if Olsen draws back the curtain on Nietzsche’s soul, he’s also careful to provide a wealth of reminders that the philosopher was awfully different from us. While relating Nietzsche’s horror at severed limbs during the Franco-Prussian war, Olsen tells us that Nietzsche saw “a large charred torso, the head and legs of which had entered the realm of irrational numbers.” (114-5) That quote is but one of many instances in which Olsen successfully gets inside Nietzsche’s head. The cumulative effect is a book that has a distinctly Nietzschian feel.

Nietzsche’s Kisses ends with Nietzsche “no longer merely a flesh-and-blood being. He is a cause.” (191) This marks the beginning of Nietzsche’s ascent, his transformation from a person into an icon. It is a fitting, if not ironic, note to end on because Nietzsche’s Kisses does just the opposite, transforming the icon to flesh-and-blood. Along the way, Olsen not only weaves in a number of Nietzsche’s ideas, but also uses an aesthetically pleasing fragmented structure to make a book that is as smart as it is engaging.

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The novel you published before Nietzsche’s Kisses was 10:01, a book that used a feature film as a metaphor for postmodern life and that took place entirely in a movie theater in the world’s biggest mall. It seems like a big jump from that to Nietzsche. How did you move from writing about malls and multiplexes to the last day in the life of a 19th century German philosopher? Do you see any connections between the two books?
Although Nietzsche’s Kisses appeared after 10:01, I actually wrote it before. So the ostensible chronology is really one of those odd flukes of that alternate universe called publishing. Still, that you say Nietzsche’s Kisses and 10:01 seem to have very little in common with each other in terms of form, character, or setting is evidence I’m keeping the pledge I made to myself twenty years ago as a writer: never step into the same narratological stream twice.

I’ve been fascinated by Nietzsche’s thought even longer — ever since taking a philosophy course on existentialism as an undergraduate at the University of Wisconsin back in the mid-’70s. In fact, the third story I ever published was entitled “Friedrich Nietzsche’s Birthday Party.” I met him again in a poststructuralist theory course I took as a graduate at the University of Virginia in the early ’80s, taught him now and again since then, took a closer look at him in 1999 for no particular reason, and fell in love once more with his fierce intelligence. When I began to look into his life, I found it every bit as engaging as his philosophy of destabilization: his deeply conflicted relationship with Wagner; his sister marrying one of the leaders of the anti-Semitic movement in Germany; his love affair with Lou Salomé, a student of Freud’s as well as an ardent feminist.

Despite the fact that there are, as you say, huge differences between Nietzsche’s Kisses and 10:01, I think something does unite them: their interest in how human consciousness functions. They’re all about secret histories and the movement of mind rather than, say, speedy plot and things blowing up. They don’t want to work like a lot of novels do these days — as rough drafts for movies.

In this book you don’t hide Nietzsche’s enormous ego — more than once he thinks to himself how he really is the best company he could wish for. There’s also a great scene where his landlady comes upon him dancing naked in his room and without missing a beat he invites her in. Talk about confidence! But in contrast to that, you also pose Nietzsche as incredibly lonely, including scenes that highlight his failed attempts at love and his outcast status in his own family. What was your basis for this interpretation of Nietzsche?
The general scenes and sense you’re talking about came from the biographies and critical studies I read and what I could discover several years ago on an extended trip I took through Germany, Switzerland, and Italy tracing Nietzsche’s life steps in various ways. The striking thing about his character is the tremendous gap between his raging, shockingly relentless intellect, on the one hand, and his sad, shy, sickly, solo existence, on the other.

In this book you depict what may be the most well-known incident in Nietzsche’s life: his mental breakdown when he puts his arms around a horse being whipped. You couch his crisis as a sudden realization that he can’t be sure anything is real. He screams at the horse whipper “This isn’t happening!” And he links the whole scene to a memory of his friend Paul Ree committing suicide. How did this scene develop as you wrote it?
What fired my imagination most while writing were the gaps in the historical record begging to be filled. We’ve all heard about the whipped horse, for example, but no one knows precisely what went on at that instant, especially from Nietzsche’s point of view. Historians can tell you what happened and on what day it happened and perhaps something about the larger forces that impinged on the happening. But the only fiction writer can offer the why of the happening, what it might have felt like, smelled like, tasted like. By doing so, he or she reminds the world of the fictive underpinnings of all pasts, including those we hold in our own recollections.

For me, one of the most intriguing aspects of this book was that it’s all taking place in Nietzsche’s head, and on the last day of his life his head wasn’t exactly in the best shape. How are these two facts influencing his recollections throughout the book?
I structured Nietzsche’s Kisses in chapters divided into triads: the first part told in the first person, the second in the second, the third in the third. The first-person sections take place, more or less, in real time — that is, during Nietzsche’s last insane night on the planet. The second-person sections are comprised of his stream-of-consciousness hallucinations. The third-person sections are his attempts at memory, stabs at trying to think through his life. In the last chapter the triadic structure collapses into itself. Everything remains on shaky existential ground because what the reader is really experiencing isn’t so much recall as the ultimate unfurling of a consciousness, how one human enters his final hours.

This is a book very aware of how the mind and body work together, or don’t. Throughout Nietzsche’s life you make his indigestion stand out as an ongoing problem. When he’s bedridden, his consciousness is mercilessly invaded by a need to urinate. And then there’s these stream-of-conscious sections written in the second person, each of which is named for a different body part. Could you talk a little about how the body is influencing the mind in Nietzsche’s Kisses?
Nietzsche — the world’s Nietzsche, mind you, and not just mine — was obsessed with his body, which abused him through most of his life. He wrote passionately about the lightness of being, about the joys of dance, the Dionysian pleasure to be had in music. But the truth was — and, again, this is the sort of thing about his character that rivets me — he didn’t, couldn’t, fully embody his own philosophy. He was constitutionally unable. His mind wanted to fly in one direction. His body dragged in another.

I think that throughout the book you’ve done a good job of conveying, in an understated but distinct way, what a strange guy Nietzsche was. There’s some great material, like the aforementioned scene with him dancing naked, the “concise, well-argued marriage proposal” that he wrote to one unfortunate victim of his attentions, and a very sad Christmas with Nietzsche, his mother, his sister, and her proto-Nazi fiancée. Where’d you dig this stuff up, and did you have to embellish much?
Each scene you mention exists in a very sketchy form in one biography or another, and that sketchiness was my delight: how does one put flesh on what arrives as gray, grainy, historical static? So, yes, I embellished greatly. Also, there are absences in the biographies — jumpcuts in time, for instance, or minor players who appear as no more than stickish figures, or silences buoying among the logic of events. The fun is in the fattening out, the connecting of disparate dots into a cogent, coherent, believable whole. Writing historical fiction, I learned, is a sub-category of constraint writing, and constraints almost always — and counter-intuitively — open up possibilities rather than shutting them down.

In what ways were you thinking about the line between fact and fiction when you wrote this book?
For me, Nietzsche’s Kisses is as much about that blurry line as it is about, say, Friedrich Nietzsche’s biography, or his madness, or his death. What I wanted to explore was how postmodern historical fiction announces pastness as a story continually being rethought, re-visioned, rewritten. That one can only write a past that wasn’t in fact the past, much the same way that one can only write fictive presents that are constantly only about their absences. If science fiction teaches us, not what the future will be like, but how the future will remain permanently unknowable, then historical fiction executes a similar function with respect to past and memory.

Last, toward the end of the book, it becomes apparent that just as Nietzsche’s ideas are finally catching on in intellectual circles, his sister is slowly shaping his documents to reflect the proto-Nazi anti-Semitism that she believed in. She was in a position to do this because she was in charge of the archive of his writings in Weimar, Germany. It’s established fact that Hitler did indeed honor Elisabeth, but there’s been some controversy over whether or not Nietzsche’s sister played an active role in perverting his legacy. Why did you come down on this side of things?
Simply put, I suppose: the disparate dots connect better that way.