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Garborg and Nietzsche
By Eivind Tjønneland

Nietzsche has not been completely restituted after World War II. Most Norwegian philosophers still keep him at arm's length. Of course, this tendency was even stronger immediately following the war, as it was important to emphasize the difference between the Nazi's Nietzsche and our national spiritual and cultural leaders Ibsen and Bjørnson. A.H. Winsnes wrote about "Ibsen vs Nietzsche" (1946), followed by Francis Bull's essay titled "Bjørnson vs Nietzsche" (1947). Rolv Thesen, who had published the monumental three-volume Garborg biography before the war, also addressed Garborg's relationship to Nietzsche, but without protecting the writer ideologically. Twenty years later, when Harald Beyer discussed this issue in "Nietzsche and Scandinavia" (1958-1959), he maintained that Thesen's article "Arne Garborg's Meeting With Nietzsche" (1937) most probably was the definitive text on the subject. But none of these sources examine in any great depth the content of the various presentations of Nietzsche that inspired Garborg.

Garborg's only lengthy text on Nietzsche was published in the magazine Syn og Segn in 1895 and was heavily focused on Nietzsche's experience of the death of God. The fact that the young Nietzsche lost his childhood faith became a basis for all his subsequent projects. He faced a loss of meaning that had to be restored. The loss of meaning and search for new meaning has been one of the main themes of Norwegian fiction in the 1990s. The main character in Erlend Loe's Naiv.Super, Dag Solstad's Professor Andersen, Jon Fosse in "Gnostic Essay" all talk about the lack of meaning. But Nietzsche's Zarathustra had already proclaimed a simple solution to the problem: "if life is without meaning, let us give it meaning ourselves". This philosophy inspired enthusiasm in the brooder Garborg: "These are most profound words of wisdom, and perhaps the very words needed at this day and age."

Through his encounter with Nietzsche in 1890, Garborg overcame his depression and melancholy - for a while. In the novels Tired Men (1891) and Peace (1892), which represent high points in his work, he attempted to write his way out of his melancholy. The novels deal with aesthetic and religious decadence respectively. Decadence is lack of vigor, to be "broken inside, driven in all directions by various whims and sensations". Decadence sets in when culture and Christian morals tame the human beast; "when it no longer could frolic on the open fields of external war, it turned inwards, against itself, tearing itself up and apart with remorse, self-torture, self-contempt, shame".

Like everyone else, Garborg took an interest in Nietzsche following the debate between the literary critic Georg Brandes and the philosopher Harald Høffding in the magazine Tilskueren in 1889. In 1890 Garborg translated a small volume on Nietzsche written by the Swedish author Ola Hansson from German into Norwegian. In the introduction, Garborg focuses on Nietzsche as an alternative to some of the outdated ideas of the time: "We, in danger of getting mired down in the present, and who pursue a type of democracy that turns to mediocrity because it becomes an end in itself and forgets that the purpose of democracy is to pave the way for the new aristocracy: intellectuals, free human beings, - will benefit greatly from airing our minds in the Hurricane of Ideas known as Friedrich Nietzsche."

Crying "fascism" every time someone promotes inequality and aristocratic ideals is no longer useful. The question is whether the ideals are played out on the political or cultural field. If inequality and heroism are made political ideals, this must be criticized. The debate between Høffding and Brandes was in fact about the borders between politics and culture. But defending equal rights does not mean that all are equal in all respects or that they should be. Working for economic equality and cultural diversity, as recently proposed by the author Kjartan Fløgstad, is commendable. The current trend is the opposite.

In a letter to the Norwegian painter Kitty Kielland dated August 15, 1891, Garborg writes: "This is the poor democracy: that everyone shall suffer the same. My democratic ideal requires that all – as many as possible for the time being – shall have it (...) as good as possible". Towards the end of his life, Garborg returned to the contrast between democracy and aristocracy: "To be personally a complete (but quiet) aristocrat while simultaneously being a true democrat, seeing the humanity in the common people (...) that is being a true (over-)man, - something I more and more see clearly in the purest form in Goethe."

Hansson barely hints at the biographical background for Nietzsche's frenetic criticism of Christianity: "His daily atmosphere, which pierced his soul, was characterized by Christian piety and the petit bourgeois; and this must be kept in mind if you want to understand the painful rage later directed at Christianity and the ideals of the bourgeoisie." However, this viewpoint was not followed up during the presentation of Nietzsche's work. Hansson waves the banner of Nietzsche's morality of masters as an alternative to the cultural decline. When Hansson makes a diagnosis of his own day and age, we do not know whether it is him or Nietzsche talking. What is certain is that the text reaches a rhetorical climax:

"Reluctance, disgust with life, weariness and contempt of man, like a creeping fungus, devours the very marrow of the generational backbone and penetrates into the most noble parts of the organism. (...) The disease attacks even science and flows through its veins as a sneaking paralysis; English narrow-mindedness and French feminism copulating and breeding the weaklings of 'modern ideas' (...)".

Hansson also has no limitations as to the areas where Nietzsche's ideas should be applied: "The fundamental ideas presented by Nietzsche are among those that can be applied to all areas of life and culture." But this was the main point of contention in Brandes' and Høffding's discussion about Nietzsche, where Høffding contrasted democratic radicalism with Brandes' aristocratic.

Not only did Garborg translate Ola Hansson, he also wrote an article in the magazine Samtiden in which he repeats the main elements of Hansson's presentation. The above quote is presented without any comments. Democracy does not have a high status with Ola Hansson as it "is the last offshoot of the plebeian culture that assumed power in the guise of Christianity". That's why he longs for "the blonde Master", the new Zarathustra, to "rise like the dawn across the ocean".

According to Garborg, he was inspired by Ola Hansson's presentation of Nietzsche, not Brandes'. However, on June 22, 1890 he confesses to Bolette C. Pavels Larsen that "Brandes on Nietzsche is very good; I devoured it". However, one month later he dismisses Brandes in a letter to Ola Hansson: "for the brochure on Friedrich Nietzsche, my deepest gratitude! I had read Brandes on the same topic without deriving any real benefit; now I finally feel that I understand the great German (...) I even have an idea for a new novel that I want to write!"

By waxing ironical about "tired men", Garborg was able to use Nietzsche in the struggle against the decadence and paralysis he was so familiar with in himself. And it was not just the mind that was aired in Nietzsche's "Hurricane of Ideas". In a tremendous outburst of lyrical prose at the beginning of the essay on Nietzsche, Hansson compared the German philosopher with the ocean. Nietzsche's writing was "eternal health, the generational salt and sourdough, the bath out of which humanity forever will rise rejuvenated".

Garborg repeats this in the article in the magazine Syn og Segn five years later. The heroic Nietzsche is a breath of fresh air clearing away the weaklings. "And his ridicule of those who are weary of life, those who are sick and tired of it all, those who hate and slander life and still cling to it, of lack of willpower and potency, this unmanliness spreading in this day and age, - this is a ridicule salty and fresh like the ocean, a veritable spa for weak wills and bent backs, - followed by a thrashing with twigs, as needed."

Garborg exorcises his own decadence using Nietzsche as the exorcist. But during this process, not least through reading Lou Andreas-Salomé's book on Nietzsche from 1894, he arrives at a more complex understanding of Nietzsche. Contrary to Brandes and Hansson, Salomé put suffering at the center of Nietzsche's philosophy. It is written in Thus Spoke Zarathustra: "Feel pain!" Then the mind suffers, and thinks how it may put an end to its suffering- and that is why it is made to think." Suffering and understanding are intertwined. "What does not destroy me, makes me stronger", goes the saying in Götzen-Dämmerung. Nietzsche's philosophy is based on a masochistic aesthetics of production. Christian masochism returns as demonic dialectics in this kind of thinking. The drive to hurt yourself becomes part of the instinct of self-preservation. Nietzsche is a "religious genius" reopening the wounds as they start to heal. "He needed suffering if he were to live and grow". Nietzsche lost his childhood faith early on. But the subsequent religious surrogates themselves acquired a religious element; "in great men, he sought restitution for God", Garborg repeats after Salomé. If you accept that the death of God results in loss of meaning which must be filled with new meaning, you are stuck in a religious way of looking at the world. Much of the thinking concerning decadence or "the decline" follows this blueprint.

The insight that heroic critique of decadence itself sprang out of decadence, was lacking in Brandes and Hansson, but is very evident in Andreas-Salomé. Thus, in Garborg's essay on Nietzsche, his position as a free thinker was undermined by religion. The discovery of the religious Nietzsche was the beginning of the end for Garborg as a radical intellectual.

Eivind Tjønneland is an associate professor at the Department of Scandinavian Languages and Literature at the University of Bergen. He had a busy last year after writing an essay where he encouraged Norwegian authors to bring about a fourth radical intellectualism.