All Too Human

Books had become Johnny’s main obsession. The world of ideas seemed more real to him than the prison cell where he spent most of his time reading, effectively escaping into his imagination.

He had a parole hearing scheduled for the next morning and he wanted a new book to read, something that would distract his mind from obsessing on the future. Would he have enough free time to read on the outside, he worried, how would he support himself?

“I’ve got just the book for you,” the prison libarian told him: “Listen to this: ‘The essential element in the black art of obscurantism is not that it wants to darken individual understanding but that it wants to blacken our picture of the world and darken our idea of existence.’ Guess who wrote that.”

“Who?” Johnny responded.

“Nietzsche, ‘Human, All Too Human,’ written in 1878, some of his best writing. And he wrote a lot of good stuff.”

“Good stuff, huh? Can you be more specific?”

“You have to read him to understand what I’m talking about. Everybody who reads him gets something different. Because he makes you think for yourself.”

“How can he make you do anything?”

“Well, yeah, first you need to open your mind and start reading, of course. He can’t make you do that. But once you start reading and thinking about what he’s saying, it’s like looking at the reflection of your soul in a mirror.”

“I’m not sure I want to look at my soul,” Johnny said: “But, okay, I’ll give it a try, thanks.”

In his cell, Johnny slowly scanned through the beginning pages of the book until his attention focused on the words:

. . . I commend my personal experiences particularly to the ears and hearts of those who are burdened with some sort of ‘past,’ and have enough spirit left still to suffer from the spirit of their past . . . above all . . . I commend them to you whose burden is heaviest, you rare, most imperiled, most spiritual, most courageous ones who must be the conscience of the modern soul and as such must possess its knowledge, in whom is concentrated all that exists today of sickness, poison and danger . . . whose lot it is that you must be sicker than any other kind of individual because you are not ‘only individuals’ . . . whose comfort it is to know the way to a new health, and alas! to go along it, a health of tomorrow and the day after, you predestined ones, you victorious ones, overcomers of your age, you healthiest ones, you strongest ones . . .

Johnny’s over-burdened conscience had imperiled his mental and spiritual health for as far back as he could remember. As he marked the page and closed the book, he felt a new confidence surging.

During the parole board hearing, one of the nine panel members asked: “What book are you holding in your hands?” Johnny held the book with its cover showing, and the member said: “Human, All Too Human. I’m impressed.”

The final tally came up five to four in favor of parole. The board granted him a conditional furlough to a downtown halfway house. If he held a job and stayed out of trouble for six months, he could move a step closer to personal freedom.

He signed-out from the halfway house early on the first morning to go looking for a job. After going to the university bookstore to purchase his own copy of Nietzsche’s book, he found a restaurant in which to eat breakfast. When he applied for a dish washing job there, the owner came out to interview him.

Noticing the book, the owner said: “What are you reading?”

Johnny held it up for him to see, and said: “I just started reading it but, so far, it’s a really good book.”

The owner silently stared at Johnny for a moment, and then said: “You look like a sober and intelligent guy, why do you want to work in my kitchen?” When Johnny explained his legal situation and promised to do a good job, the owner said: “I’ll give you a try. Don’t let me down.”

During an afternoon break, less than a week into the job, Johnny sat in a remote area of the restaurant’s basement warehouse reading aloud from Nietzsche’s book, listening for additional meaning as the words passed through his ears:

. . . The strongest knowledge, that of the total unfreedom of the human will, is nonetheless the poorest in successes. For it always has the strongest opponent, human vanity . . .

He closed the book, and said: “I don’t get it. Without free will we’d be mindless automatons. We don’t have total freedom, no, but neither do we have total unfreedom. And that’s not my human vanity speaking, it’s my will to life.”

“Who are you talking to?” the restaurant’s owner said as he came down the steps from the kitchen.

Johnny jumped to his feet, and replied: “I’m talking to Nietzsche, sir. I sometimes get the feeling he’s listening to me. It’s just my imagination, I know. Yet I believe Nietzsche intended to have such an effect, like he’s there and he’s talking directly to you.”

The owner silently stared for an instant, and then responded: “If you can break away from yourself, we could use your help in the kitchen.”

The owner’s sarcasm irritated Johnny. He thought about moving on; but he needed the employment to satisfy his parole conditions and he didn’t feel qualified for anything more than washing dishes and disposing of garbage.

He preformed his physical labors with Nietzsche’s words, “total unfreedom of the human will,” still lingering in his mind. Memories from his criminal past entered his consciousness and he thought about robbing the owner or maybe kidnapping his children and holding them for a ransom. But he rejected these thoughts from his consciousness by the free expression of his will; and, in the process, he disposed of Nietzsche’s total-unfreedom theory, he believed.

He kept the book out of sight and he no longer read aloud in the restaurant’s basement warehouse. He decided instead to read a passage every morning before going to work and then analyze it from memory while engaged in his physical labors. To begin, he randomly selected a short aphorism entitled, “Knapsack of the metaphysicians.” He read it through once before separating its logical elements.

. . . Those who boast so mightily of the scientificality of their metaphysics should receive no answer; it is enough to pluck at the bundle which, with a certain degree of embarrassment, they keep concealed behind their back; if one succeeds in opening it, the products of that scientificality come to light, attended by their blushes: a dear little Lord God, a nice little immortality, perhaps a certain quantity of spiritualism, and in any event a whole tangled heap of ‘wretched poor sinner’ and Pharisee arrogance . . .

Nietzsche’s sarcasm, along with the restaurant owner’s sarcasm, reenforced Johnny’s pessimistic mood. “Scientificality of their metaphysics?” he wondered aloud: “Isn’t that a mutually exclusive, contradictory dichotomy?” He scanned through the book and found another short aphorism, “Incurable.” Again, he read it through once before separating its logical elements.

. . . An idealist is incorrigible: if he is thrown out of his heaven he makes an ideal of his hell. Let him be disillusioned and behold!—he will embrace this disillusionment just as fervently as a little while before he embraced his hopes. Insofar as his tendency is among the great incurable tendencies of human nature he is able to give rise to tragic destinies and afterwards become the subject of tragedies: for tragedies have to do with precisely what is incurable, ineluctable, inescapable in the fate and character of man . . .

Johnny laughed, and said: “Makes an ideal of his hell? Oh, now I get it. Nietzsche’s actually a comedian.”

He arrived at work that day in a better mood as a result of his new interpretation of Nietzsche’s persona. The restaurant owner’s sarcasm no longer bothered him. Instead, he found it rather witty.

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3 Comments on “All Too Human”

  1. missgypsy Says:

    The only thing I didn’t like about this, was when it ended! I love that you chose a criminal and further more that you made him above normal intelligence.

    Although the wording was heavy, it wasn’t the heavy that turned me off. Some of it went over my head BUT, I wanted to understand which made me read several parts over again. It was a good excercise for me as i tend to be a lazy reader. Proving that your style of writing is able to capture a person’s attention, I guess that’s what i’m trying to say.

    I love that you delve into the human mind so deeply!


  2. “All Too Human” is a fragment taken from a longer work. The ending is abrupt because it’s not really an ending. Most of the fiction pieces posted on my blog are similarly taken from ongoing stories. I’m trying to dress them up a little to stand alone as short stories for the blog, using my already existing work as a source. Since I started this blog I haven’t done much new writing. I’ve been reading through WordPress looking for clues as to what people are liking. I’m looking forward to writing some stories with a new approach, aiming for shorter and more self-contained.

    I’m not surprised that you felt some of it went over your head. Nietzsche tends to have that affect. He’s a unique character in the history of ideas. Everyone, it seems, interprets him in their own way. I’d rank him, in term of being misunderstood and misquoted, up there with Jesus and Karl Marx. It’s partly because of his distinctive style, displaying a fondness for metaphor, irony, and aphorism. But also, he was a brilliant thinker with an impressive, inspiring vision.

    Nietzsche lived from 1844 to 1900. He held a tenured professorship in classical philology at a major university in Germany while still a young man: something unheard of at the time. During that period, classical philologists in Europe had rediscovered the ancient Greeks through the writings of epic poets like Homer. Hellenism became a passion for many poets and other intellectuals in Europe and around the world. Nietzsche’s take on Hellenism, the poets, and the playwriters differed from the prevailing view of the other leading philologists.

    In “Homer and Classical Philology” (1869), Nietzsche wrote: “It must be freely admitted that philology is to some extent borrowed from several other sciences, and is mixed together like a magic potion from the strangest liquids, metals, and bones. It may even be added that it likewise conceals within itself an artistic element, one which, on aesthetic and ethical grounds, may be called imperatival—an element that acts in opposition to its purely scientific behavior.”

    Neitzsche believed the ability to participate in forms of art became lost when people started seeing things too soberly and rationally. Along with the loss of the participation mystique aspect of art and myth, much of our ability to live creatively in optimistic harmony with the sufferings of life has also been lost.

    In “The Birth of Tragedy from the Spirit of Music” Nietzsche explains how the Greek spectators, looked into the abyss of human suffering and affirming it, passionately and joyously. And, in doing so, they affirmed the meaning in their own existence. They knew themselves to be infinitely more than the petty individuals of the apparent world, finding self-affirmation, not in another life, not in a world to come, but in the terror and ecstasy alike celebrated in the performance of tragedies.

    According to Nietzsche, Euripides reduced the use of the chorus and was more naturalistic in his representation of human drama, making it more reflective of the realities of daily life. While Socrates emphasized reason to such a degree that he diffused the value of myth and suffering to human knowledge. For Nietzsche, these two intellectuals are the beginning of the end to the highest civilization on Earth, so far.

    Unfortunately, Nietzsche became ill and had a mental breakdown in mid-life. It eventually cut his career much too short. Yet he did managed to publish quite a lot of his work. Human, All Too Human marks a turning point in his style of writing. What comes afterwards is more ambigious and pessimistic, lending itself to being sliced and diced by the Nazis, giving Nietzsche a bad rap he doesn’t deserve, I believe.

    I’ll follow up on this story with some future posts: to clarify, hopefully. Thanks for reading it and commenting.


  3. “Ancient Inspiration” is a continuation of “All Too Human” with a gap in between: which goes to show how well I thought ahead in putting the blog together. It’s a work in progress.

    I first introduced Johnny Gee in “Freelancer – On the Run.”

    In “Ancient Inspiration,” after traveling around the world with Rosemary Royce promoting social and economic reforms, Johnny purchases a resort area in an isolated mountain valley where he intends to operate a permanent festival site with a primeval orientation, celebrating the cultivation of herbs and vines. Along with music, dance, and other trance inducing techniques, there will be ritualistic utilization of intoxicants to remove inhibitions and liberate participants to a more primal, natural state. As its central event, there will be theatrical performance of tragedies and comedies.

    For the first production, Johnny begins with Euripides’ “The Bacchae.” It’s about the immortal god of the grape, Dionysus, who, after traveling throughout the eastern world, returns to Thebes disguised as a blond stranger to vindicate his mother, Semele, whose family refuses to believe that he is a young god, the son of Zeus. They think she lied to cover for the true, mortal father.

    As the ecstatic Dionysian retinue enters the city, the music and dance of the god-intoxicated female celebrants overwhelms the local female population, driving them into a wild ecstatic frenzy. Even some of the men join in with them.

    In the original play, Dionysus punishes his cousin, King Pentheus, the whole royal family, and all the people of Thebes, except for one blind prophet. He punishes them all because they will not worship him or give him libation.

    Johnny makes a major change in the play by having the king and his people relent, giving Dionysus the recognition and worship he desires. In doing this they avoid all the destructive scenes, allowing them to focus on intoxication and ecstatic frenzy.


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