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Instead of Mathematics a lesson about Nietzsche

In reference to 'Thus failed Zarathustra to speak'

When taking mathematical lessons at the University of Heidelberg, it seemed that all these abstract numbers numbed my mind. It left me without a clear sense for reality. How to explain that?

After the teacher by the curious name 'Schreckenberger' (frightening mountain) had written down some mathematical equation on the blackboard, he would demand from us to find the most elegant proof and not get lost on what he labelled as 'Oxenweg' ('cumbersome tour') because made up by many detours and obscure calculations.

In looking around at my fellow students at that time, it seemed that some of them grasped much better the high degree of abstraction, while others showed in their faces that they had simply given up in trying to understand the mathematical equation.

(There comes to mind some literary descriptions like the one by Robert Musil about 'Zögling Törless' or a young student attempting to grasp the 'infinite number' and not succeeding. Robert Musil himself had dealt with Ernst Mach, a philosopher attempting to deal with precision as a term which can equally apply to feelings.)

The teacher insisted we should try to explain the equation to someone sitting next to us in the street car on the way home. If he understands what we were talking about, with certainty we had grasped the equation.

Mathematics dispels dishonesty, Hegel did not. Instead of revealing his lack of understanding of mathematics, Hegel tried to silence his dishonesty and entered speculation making his philosophy into such a destructive system.

Even if there is no valid proof for self-understanding, philosophy could help. After Breuwer others like the intuitive Dutch school tied to develop a framework for reflections to let numbers dance free from any coercion.

But not knowing this angle, we felt no longer at ease about our tasks ahead. The teacher sensing our dilemma, said all his lessons were for the wind, if we did not capture the difference between practical and moral lessons!

Again we did not comprehend what he meant. Perplexed we listened with open mouths to the next difficult, if not very strange question.

For he asked which of the straight paths would bend off by itself? We looked at each other and drew merely blank faces. We searched for an answer, but before anyone of us could find one, the teacher said emphatically: “None!”

Such a method served a purpose. His way of joking made visible our secret wishes or what we imagined to be one day. In order to do that fully, the teacher put aside the lesson of mathematics and turned instead to the moral side of the equation by bringing up Nietzsche!

Without waiting to know if we had ever read „Thus spoke Zarathustra“, he narrated that there had lived a genius in cave high up in the mountain, but one day, he felt the time had come to descend down to the village below for he knew the people awaited him to come and to speak to them about truth.

We were not sure if our teacher wanted to insinuate something with that story. Certainly some of us had dreams about being one day someone great, of importance. And since we were all afraid of public speech, we naturally exaggerated here a bit and promised to ourselves that we would stand up one day and hold such a speech to save, if possible, the nation, if not the entire world.

Only afterwards we understood that the teacher had wished to warn us that behind such a dream or projection there resides an unknown hierarchy as between leader and people. Such one-sided relationship would become evident in critical times when fear was the strongest.

As far as the story goes, Zarathustra left his cave and made his way down the slope. On the way down he passed by bushes which followed his steps like silent witnesses. Striding along and convinced of himself, he made an unforgettable impression upon every tree, flower, bird or fence or anyone else who happened to see him. His face said it all. He simply knew now the time had come to talk to the people waiting at the market place to hear another voice set apart from usual politics.

For these were hard times, but no politician wanted to name clearly the issues. Thus all were anxious to hear, what he, Zarathustra, had to say about these times.

After he had entered the market place where people stood shoulder to shoulder, he did not hesitate for a second and went over to the elevated platform to speak. While climbing up, he saw their anxious faces and thought his part what they expected of him. Once atop from where he could overlook the crowd, he raised his hand to signal that he wanted to begin. Immediately the crowd went silent.

But then something strange happened. Just when he wanted to say the first words, his mind went blank save for one expression of reassurance: 'don't be afraid!'

How come he remembered only now what the angels in the Bible had said when they appeared to the frightened shepherds who had gone down on their knees? He thought just for a moment about this strange coincidence, and then he knew he will not speak for nothing else came to his mind. He waited for a moment and saw how everyone down in the crowd was as speechless as he was, only they did not know as of yet of this similarity.

He thought of a trick: not to say much but rather refer to obvious things. It did not work. He remained as before unconvinced. Instead he became more and more a puzzle to himself. And fear started to creep up his spine like a shadow growing rapidly with the setting sun.

Afterwards he could not recollect what he had stuttered last, perhaps a few words thrown like desperate glances into the thin air into which everything vanished.

He did not wait long but rushed down from the podium to disappear as quickly as he had come. It was the last time the village people heard of him again.

The teacher went on to allude to Nietzsche as suffering from something similar. For this philosopher was not understood by anyone at his time. Out of despair he fled to Turin and there something happened. Daily he went to the street market, and always to the same stand for vegetables. That had a particular reason. For the market woman selling potatoes, salads, carrots understood him.

She was the only one – compared to all those academics, or the ones at home. Always she had a friendly smile for him. She sensed his pain.

Just recently he had applied for a job at the University of Athens. When he received the ‘no’ per mail, it hurt him the most. Especially Greece, the country of his ideals, it was the closest to his heart.

How could such a ‘no’ be explained? No one understood him except for her.

A lot is revealed in a tragic play. Equally in the mirror of his words. It became clear he was heading rapidly towards his own downfall.

In vain he still tried to evoke some empathy for his self. But either he or poetry succeeded to rescue him from such fate. For once health and sickness are separated from one another, according to Deleuze and Guattari, then the one cannot be perceived by the other. That leads to short circuits in the mind. And nothing thereafter can be articulate. Nietzsche's mind must have become blank around this time. Nothingness had become his only world!

All his thoughts seemed to smash into a huge wall of no understanding.

Equipped with self irony, Nietzsche was capable of hiding his failure. For a long time behind his recognition of power in a metaphysical form. That was never understood by the Academics of his time. However, still today Nietzsche can pull many into the gravitation of his thoughts, and especially those who wish to understand life differently, that is not conventionally and yet end up in nothingness like Nietzsche himself.

A lost being, mentally speaking, is not merely helpless, statically speaking, but continues to act out of despair as if completely helpless. When faced by the defeat once realizing to be incomplete, failures are made to appear more complete than what they are in reality: shortcomings, or never understood encounters with others.

In the case of Nietzsche, there has to be added to all of this most likely the outcome of a failed love or worse he never made such an experience as being in love and living it fully.

The story goes that instead of being Wagner’s assistant and thereby close to his daughter, Wagner preferred that he remains as professor in distant Stuttgart. Wagner knew people would listen to a professor, but not to an assistant. He made Nietzsche into his mouth piece for his music and then added to that an ideological component by influencing Nietzsche so much, that he started to propagate Wagner's anti-Semitic position. Once Nietzsche succumbed to that, it ruined his academic reputation. Once banned from the academic world, he never regained a new position at any other university.

Why Nietzsche did what he did, who knows what fears plagued him?

It can be assumed Nietzsche knew about the suffrage of the young Werther. The danger of Romanticism was known then by all poets: suicide. This is especially the case when poetry cannot sustain love, and a woman prefers to marry not a poet, but a practical man like a carpenter or farmer. Survival is linked after all with the practical necessity to be able to earn through one's own work sufficient money to be able to sustain a whole family. In the case of Nietzsche, that was never possible.

After his speech he gave in Stuttgart, Nietzsche lost his composure. He fled to Turin and stayed there all alone till he became very sick. Once his sister brought him back to Weimar, he ended up as a life model sitting the museum she had created around him. He sat in a shop like window and stayed in such a position for hours. The artist Herbert Distel felt by looking back upon his life for ten years Nietzsche must have gone beyond life while not being completely dead.

Simply said, a conclusion by the professor of mathematics would be that at home one plus one makes two counts and holds as a simple equation. Hence he advised us students when going over any calculation, one should be sure that everything is correct.

8.12.2003 (revised 31.3.2012)

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