From Liberty Street: A Dialogue

John Turner

Dr. Samuel Johnson and Friedrich Nietzsche meet at a pub called "The Willing Mind," in a land where no one in this land can go, if he wishes to remain a resident here.

Nietzsche is sitting at a small table in the rear, looking glumly at the floor.

Dr. Johnson: "What, sir, drinking alone? This is unsociable."

Nietzsche: "I always drink alone."

Dr. Johnson: "And, what can be the reason for it?"

Nietzsche: "I drink alone because no one wishes to drink with me. I am hated by everyone I know."

Dr. Johnson: "Come, sir, this cannot be the case. You are in some sort of funk, or other."

Nietzsche: "It is true. All men hate me, and I hate them as well."

Dr. Johnson: "Well, sir, console yourself. If it is true it is because our creator has decided to make men detest one another so they can love him all the better."

Nietzsche: "Our creator, as you call him, can neither make men love nor hate because our creator is dead."

Dr. Johnson: "Sir, were we still in the land we have left, I would take a great long pole and bang you alongside the head for saying so. But since we are here in 'The Willing Mind,' a place amply endowed by our creator, my heart is in a more melting condition."

Nietzsche: "Yes, we are here. And what are we to do here, except to turn ourselves into swills?"

Dr. Johnson: "That, sir, is as you choose it. The creator in his wisdom has decided to let men make themselves into just as big fools here in this land of plenty as he did in the land of scarcity from whence we came."

Nietzsche: "And why do you suppose he did that?"

Dr. Johnson: (sighing) "Ah, sir, the ways of the Almighty are inscrutable."

Nietzsche: "Indeed they are. It is what men like you always say to explain the horrendous condition in which men find themselves. It is the text that keeps them from taking their lives in hand, and making themselves something other than the pitiful wights they have always been.  It keeps us from recognizing that God, like the self-indulgent egomaniac he is, has tired of us and run away to other playthings."

Dr. Johnson: "My friend Boswell would say, sir, that you are bitter indeed."

Nietzsche: "I heard that your friend, even here in the land of the immortals, has died of excess in women and drink."

Dr. Johnson: "I regret it, sir, but I am afraid it is true. There are limits even to the patience of the infinitely forgiving."

Nietzsche: "What do you expect to get from this infantile prattle about the creator? One would think that here, with an endless supply of port, you would be ready to give it up."

Dr. Johnson: "And I would sir could I rid myself of the question where the port comes from."

Nietzsche: "It comes from the same place everything else comes from, out of the eternally recurring past which rolls over us again and again. This very conversation, we are doomed to have a million times again."

Dr. Johnson: "If we have had it a million times before, sir, I don't remember a single one of them"

Nietzsche: "Of course you don't. If you did, it wouldn't be recurring. It would have something added to it."

Dr. Johnson: "Talk of this kind, sir, is the talk of babies, mere words thrown out by boys for the pleasure of thinking themselves clever."

Nietzsche: "And, if we are to have no other pleasures, why not have that?"

Dr. Johnson: "There are many pleasures, sir, for those not so foolish as to think themselves wiser than the creator."

Nietzsche: "I don't think myself wiser than he is. I merely find myself to be present when he is assuredly absent, and, that, from my point of view, affords me a certain superiority."

Dr. Johnson: "Come, sir, don't you see that it is the reality of the creator which allows us now to look into the world from whence we have come?"

Nietzsche: "And what do we see when we look into it? A bigger pack of fools than we were."

Dr. Johnson: "I had thought, sir, that we could never come to agree on anything. And, again, I am wrong."

Nietzsche: "I would think you could also see that if there were a god, he would teach humans, with all their idiotic praying, perhaps just a tiny something every other century or so. But you see he's not around to do even that."

Dr. Johnson: "The Almighty, sir, does not reward prayers with wisdom, but with contrition of heart to teach men they have no power to save themselves."

Nietzsche: "If they don't, no one else is going to do it, certainly no ridiculous god so wrapped up in self-contemplation he can't give them a passing thought. Humans have gained one tiny insight since our time. They call such self-absorption staring at one's belly button."

Dr. Johnson: "That, sir, is simply attempting to comprehend the creator in terms of our own condition. It is futile, but understandable. Men do the best that they can do."

Nietzsche: "This is exactly where you are wrong. Men do not do the best they can do. It is closer to the truth to say they do the worst."

Dr. Johnson: "You are hard on our kind, sir."

Nietzsche: "I am hard on them because I want them to lift themselves out of their misery."

Dr. Johnson: "You said you hated them, sir. If it is true, misery is exactly the place you should wish them to be."

Nietzsche: "I hate them as they are, not as they might come to be."

Dr. Johnson: "But, sir, you see, you could not wish them to better themselves unless you had some fondness for them. I do not see you going round writing hundreds of pages in an attempt to help mosquitoes better themselves. You are content for mosquitoes to be themselves, so long as they don't try to drink your blood."

Nietzsche: "That is because I am not a mosquito. If I were I should be trying to lead them to more delicious nectar."

Dr. Johnson: "And so, sir, we find you to be a moralist, whether of the human or the mosquito variety."

Nietzsche: "I detest the word."

Dr. Johnson: "But that, sir, is because you detest yourself. You are not content to find that in your heart you wish humans to live well, and in the evening to have a warm fire and a glass of port to comfort them."

Nietzsche: "I want nothing of the sort. I want them to live among the icy crags, indifferent to every wind."

Dr. Johnson: "But, sir, this is folly. Men were not meant to spend their lives with icicles in their linen."

Nietzsche: "Yet that is exactly, what they do, because they lack the courage to lift themselves."

Dr. Johnson: "I see, sir, that we will not resolve our differences this evening. But perhaps you will drink a glass of port with me nonetheless?"

Nietzsche: "I suppose so."

Dr. Johnson: "And, so sir, even in your degraded human condition, you are humane, which every man who thinks well, as you have done, must be in the end.

Nietzsche: "I thank you for saying I have thought well. It's a thing I like to hear, even if it is not said sincerely."

Dr. Johnson: "Ah! We all love flattery, even when we don't believe it. But we will sit and talk tonight and perhaps by morning you will come to see whether I believe my own words, or no, and I to know whether I can find greater sense in yours."

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Harvard Square Commentary, February 19, 2007