Classic Essays

Parasites of Culture

juliusHow the small feed on the great

“Mit euch, Herr Doktor, zu spazieren,

Ist ehrenvoll and bringt Gewinn.”

— Goethe’s Faust

Julius Frauenstaedt (1813-1879)

IT WAS NOT a great event in the history of diplomacy and promotion. The Frankfurt newspapers of July 24, 1846, did not bother to report, nor was any other attention given to, Julius Frauenstaedt’s (pictured) first visit to Arthur Schopenhauer. Without special fanfare the bedraggeled house tutor showed up at the modest doorstep of the reclusive philosopher. Frauenstaedt had arrived in Germany with a wealthy Russian family, but for all purposes he was what might be described as an intellectual drifter, an occasional journalist, an irregular university student and an habitue of literary salons. Germany of that period was rich in such types.

Frauenstaedt, of Jewish ancestry, came from Bojanomo, Russia, to study philosophy and theology in Berlin. He was following a scent — the scent of fame. Although Schopenhauer was almost unknown in Berlin, Frauenstaedt read his masterwork The World as Will and Idea in preparation for his own psychological work on religion. A chapter praising Schopenhauer as a “deeply penetrating genius” was published in the Young Hegelian leftist journal Hallische Jahrbuechern. Pining for even the slightest mention, Schopenhauer was highly gratified.

After he had visited Schopenhauer several times and exchanged many letters with him, Frauenstaedt became for all practical purposes a fulltime, professional disciple. Pouring through the journals and books in the Berlin library, Julius diligently searched out every mention of the Master, who eagerly awaited any word that signalled his rising fame. Insatiable, he drove Frauenstaedt harder and harder. For his one-man clipping service and his journalistic eulogies, Julius was rewarded with the titles of “trumpet” and apostolus activus, militans, strenudus, acerrimus. Nevertheless, when the disciple once arrived at the Master’s door unannounced, Schopenhauer personally informed him that he was not at “everyone’s disposal” at all times of the day and night. The rootless Frauenstaedt swallowed his pride and went on with the work. In the end, Schopenhauer made him his literary executor, a job which included editing his complete works.

The greatest contribution of Frauenstaedt to Western philosophy consisted of letting people know about Schopenhauer when the regular academic channels were closed to him. To this end he wrote a number of widely read articles and pamphlets. Also, at a critical moment in the philosopher’s career, when his works had failed to cover the publisher’s costs, the disciple served as middleman to find another publisher for a third edition of The World as Will and Idea.

Schopenhauer was one of those odd writers who considers every sentence perfect just the way he wrote it. Never tiring of driving this point home to Julius, he thundered, “My curse on anyone who in future editions of my works consciously alters the slightest thing, be it a paragraph or even a word, syllable, a letter, a punctuation mark!”

Upon the Master’s death, Frauenstaedt immediately published a collection of Schopenhauer excerpts, which were rather meaningless, trite and out of context. The book, however, was quite salable and provided Julius with a neat profit. As for the Complete Works, less than fifteen years after Frauenstaedt had brought out the first edition, an investigation by several scholars found, with the help of manuscripts and handwritten pages preserved in the Berlin library, “innumerable omissions and defacements: additions from the hand of the Master are left out; when included they are presented in a mutilated, incorrect form and out of context.”

Kuno Fischer, one of the great Schopenhauerian scholars, added:

Frauenstaedt carried on a business that was for himself comfortable and lucrative, but for Schopenhauer readers was useless, worthless and counterproductive …. This was the Frauenstaedt so praised as apostolus activus, who knew far better how to exploit the work of the Master than to edit it! Blinded by his flattery and busybody servility, Schopenhauer had far overestimated the service that he had rendered in promoting his work.

Few significant events, historical or even cosmic, are isolated. Frauenstaedt had become a prominent example of cultural parasitology before he moved in on Schopenhauer. He had earlier attended the classes of Friedrich Schelling and, without Schelling’s permission, had printed and sold his own notes of the Berlin philosopher’s lectures. Schelling, who was already an august academic dignitary surrounded by his own circle of sycophants and flatterers, registered shock and disgust at the house tutor’s wheeling and dealing, calling it “rotten, beggardly bookselling [buchmacherei].”

GeorgeGeorg Brandes (1842-1927)

Nietzsche called him a “culture missionary.” There is no question that a breakthrough in Nietzsche’s philosophical career was made when Georg Brandes (Georg Morris Cohen, pictured) gave a series of lectures on Nietzsche in Denmark. But Walter Raleigh, professor of English literature at Oxford, had his own ideas of the “Danish” literary critic:

“There is nothing to Brandes: he’s just a Continental Jew Culture-monger. He does not know what poetry is. Keen about his sawdusty creed, namely rationalism, progress, enlightenment — all perfectly abstract.”

Yet Brandes was known everywhere. When he came to New York in 1914, police had to use force to disperse a crowd of culture buffs trying to crash the Comedy Theatre where he was lecturing on Shakespeare. It was he, not the struggling, unknown writers of the day, like Nietzsche, Strindberg, Ibsen, Kierkegaard and Dostoyevsky, who hogged the limelight. In retrospect it is obvious that, while Brandes did mention the existence of these authors, he selected from their works only the fragments which, though now considered among the poorest of their writings, fitted his own ideological bias. By the way he treated these geniuses, one wonders whether he was trying to advance their careers or bury them. It was Brandes who promoted the outrageous idea that the 19th century, with the exception of the glorified Heinrich Heine, was barren of all culture whatever.

All Brandes’ critical efforts were built on the fragile assumptions of European liberalism. Réné Wellek in his History of Modern Criticism declares that the central topic of Brandes’ work is the conservative reaction against the enlightenment of the 18th century, and the overcoming of that reaction. German Romanticism was his literary enemy number one. Wellek characterizes Brandes’ literary dogma as follows:

Literature is judged by asking whether it “puts problems to debate,” whether it contributes to progress, to political liberalization, to religious free thought and to sympathy for modern science and its deterministic and evolutionary doctrines …. The straight march of progress is assumed at every point. For instance, speaking of Scott, Brandes deplores that “seen from the pinnacle of our time” Scott had not yet achieved “the liberation of personality from tradition.” His reputation has declined quite justly because he “remained untouched by the evolution of the whole of modern science.” … Brandes conceived of criticism as exhortation and propaganda. “Criticism moves mountains: mountains which are called belief in authority, prejudice, and dead traditions.” He always asks one question: did the writer contribute to the victory of liberalism, agnosticism, and the scientific outlook?’ Was he “progressive”?

Of Dostoyevsky Brandes wrote to Nietzsche:

He was a great poet, but a repulsive fellow, completely Christian in his feelings and at the same time sadique. His morality was what you baptized slave morality.

Brandes devoted most of his attention and praise to those who now appear to be the less talented Russian writers of his day, for instance, Lermontov. Wellek writes:

Lermontov’s liberalism, his defiance of conventions, and his romantic pessimism spoke to Brandes’ deepest sympathies. Pushkin, on the other hand, left him cold.

It is the same, adds Wellek, with writers of other traditions, “On the plane of ideas he sympathizes only with Kierkegaard’s anticlericalism.” Shakespeare’s worst play, in Brandes’ view, was Hamlet.

reePaul Rée (1850-1901)

Brandes compared Nietzsche with Kierkegaard, Eduard von Hartmann, Duehring and Paul Rée. All but one of this group have made significant and enduring contributions to Western philosophy. Brandes’ inclusion of Paul Rée (pictured) in this select company can only be described as a form of racial nepotism.

Since Brandes was in the foreground of cultural promotion, he was able to approach writers as a critic who already had a claim to fame, as one whose good graces and friendship would naturally be welcomed. Rée and Frauenstaedt, on the other hand, had to bow their heads in a posture of submission. Only in this pose were these rootless drifters able to crash the literary salons of Europe.

A word concerning these salons is in order to illustrate the seedy, promiscuous and superficial character of those who hover at the margins of culture. The most famous of Germany’s fin de siècle “salon keepers” were the Jewesses, Henriette Hartz and Rahel Varnhagen. Other salons were tied to specific towns and familiar houses which served as stopping-off places for the touring culture vultures. In essence, the salons were sinkholes of inexhaustible gossip and bragging that passed for the last word of intellectual prowess. They also served as way stations for the perpetual stealing and trading of wives, some saloneers gaining and others losing in the exchange.

The few talented people coming into contact with the salons were either revolted or corrupted. They either retreated to their previous hermetic isolation or stood by mutely as their hopes and ideals sank out of sight in a sea of sex and literary opportunism. The young Schelling, a man of the greatest promise, was dragged away by the wife of Schlegel and never heard of again until most of his creative life had passed. Schlegel too wasted away.

There were others of minor or nonexistent talent, mostly young artists and writers on the make, for whom the salons were a second home, where a steady diet of backbiting and petty intrigue whipped them into a froth of vapid bohemianism. One of these pre-Jerry Rubin hippies was Paul Rée.

Ree’s philosophy, which he tortuously expounded in several unpublished books, can be reduced to two basic ingredients — atheism and a groaning anti-Christianity. For the rest, he was a simple psychological reductionist. One Nietzsche biographer describes Rée in this fashion:

Having arrived at the insight that the world was “meaningless,” his mind seems to have been paralysed by the idea. It was the end, as well as the beginning, of his philosophy. For Rée, the senselessness of existence was a source of despair; for Nietzsche, on the contrary, it became the ground of freedom. “What would there be to create if gods — existed?” Zarathustra exclaims. This state of mind was beyond Rée’s contemplation.

Together with Rée and Lou Salomé, a Russian “free spirit,” Nietzsche visited the lake district of northern Italy. Here and there, on a hill or an island, was a church or chapel. For Lou and Nietzsche these churches were beautiful creations in harmony with nature and their environment. For Rée, who could not wait to escape, they were ugly because they signified religious superstition and oppression.

Rée was the son of a wealthy North German property owner. He was inclined to philosophy but, at the wish of his German father, studied law. After the Franco-German war, however, he began once once more to pursue his original interest, studying philosophy in Halle and publishing anonymously a small volume of aphorisms under the title Psychologische Betrachtungen. Through this work he gained the friendship of Nietzsche.

H. F. Peters in his biography of Lou Salomé describes Rée as follows:

All acquaintances of Rée praised his amiability and magnaninity. He was modest and possessed a sense for light ironic humor. His rather tender, round face, in which the nose was the most prominent feature, made him appear rather fat and squat, an impression that was emphasized by his hefty body. In appearance he was unprepossessing and there surrounded him an aura of sadness even when he appeared outwardly to be cheerful. He was a Jew and suffered under a sharp and almost diseased self-hatred. Lou, who was to show him well, wrote that it was frightening to see how Rée’s composure disintegrated upon mention of his heritage.

Rée was one of only three students who attended Nietzsche’s lectures on classical philology in 1872. Most of Nietzsche’s students had deserted him in the controversy surrounding The Birth of Tragedy. Rée was only twenty-three at the time. Like Frauenstaedt he sensed incipient disorder, academic controversy and philosophical iconoclasm, the three elements that had just brought Nietzsche into a bitter and irreconcilable conflict with the academic establishment.

Rée met Nietzsche again at the house of Malwida von Meysenbug, a 19th century women’s libber. Mawilda is described as a matchmaker of sorts, to whom Rée was “almost a son.” The suggestion was made that Nietzsche, Paul and Lou Salomé, Mawilda’s friend, should live together platonically and the plan was put into effect. Then Lou and Paul simply and without any ceremony “ditched” the third side of the triangle.

It is perhaps symptomatic of Nietzsche’s social ineptitude that he was so attracted to Lou Salomé. There are some men who are attracted only to married women, from whom they are shielded from any close involvement; others are attracted only to intellectual women. It was Nietzsche’s pitfall to ignore ordinary women and search out the liberated bohemian types, only in the end to be deserted and crushed.

Rée’s influence on the great romance of Nietzsche’s otherwise solitary life could only be described as interference. Nietzsche, obviously destined to be a bachelor, was always on the wrong foot with women, and it could be argued that he understood little if anything about the people, male and female, with whom he had direct contact. He was as ignorant of particular human lives as he was brilliant about life in general. Therefore Paul Rée cannot be condemned for consigning Nietzsche to bachelorhood. What Rée did do was aggravate the situation and turn what might have been a private grief into a very open and humiliating grief. Thus, far from being a friend to Nietzsche, Rée fanned all his pathetic delusions, built up his fantasy world and megalomania, all the while laughing at him and writing in letters to others that the philosopher was crazy.

Inner Side Of History

When a man, say a politician, emerges from obscurity he begins to attract hundreds and even thousands of followers, adherents, friends and “advisers” whose sole vocation is to share the limelight with someone greater than themselves. The moment the photographers’ lights flash, there are little men in the background peeking over the politician’s shoulders. Later when the “leader” is elected they will form an all but impenetrable ring around him. All the politician’s pronouncements, all his decisions and declarations will be sifted through them. He cannot move across the room without them trailing along, describing to one another every detail of the event and passing the information down through a chain of subordinates until it finally reaches the public. Scrutinizing every detail of his life and coaxing him into a daily ritual of their devising, they finally become his personality, and by decisions arrived at within their own group they can destroy him and replace him with someone else. This was as true of the scribes and priests of the Pharaoh as it is true today.

These Men Behind the Scenes ride the waves of the present, which like sea waves dissipate on the beach and disappear into the sands of time. What remains for posterity is little more than a king’s list, the oldest form of the written document. Later scribes began to add scraps of information, such as “he was a good king” or “he was a bad king.” Further down the line homilies were composed to praise the king for treating his subjects so kindly. This type of literature still persists. But the important point is that in spite of the overwhelming historical events with which he has been associated or which he has influenced or directed, posterity will know next to nothing of the “great man.” This, even more than the inevitability of biological extinction, troubles the scribes, priests and other middlemen who surround him.

There is a politics of politics, the arena where middlemen vie among themselves to get close to the chief. There is also the politics of immortality.

It was Hegel who said that thinking is the inner side of history. Perhaps this explains the paradox that philosophers, who tend to be reclusive and out of the public eye most of their lives, survive longer in the memory of the educated public than prominent politicians and statesmen.

The world of the politician is political. The world of the philosopher who aims to keep his name alive is also political. The philosopher is often personally withdrawn, the opposite of the politician, who likes to mix in crowds and who does not mind the pushing and shoving of journalists, toadies and well-wishers. Nevertheless, like anyone else, even the most obsequious political upstart, the philosopher likes praise. Often lonely, he easily becomes a feeding ground for a certain kind of literary fungus. Also, as an introvert and one shy about asking special favors, he is in need of a promoter or go-between.

In the instance of the philosophers here mentioned, a symbiotic relationship developed between them and three parasites who, although virtually total mediocrities, achieved a certain immortality denied to most politicians and scientists. No one knows the identity of the minor and even major advisers of many great kings and emperors, but historians of philosophy know the names of Frauenstaedt, Brandes and Rée. Dragged from their graves, they once more prance and clown on the same stage where strut such giant figures as Nietzsche and Schopenhauer.

* * *

Source: Instauration magazine, March 1977

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