by Hugh Gilmore
As they grew up, I advised my two sons that there are two things needed for a happy life: a love relationship and work that satisfies. I failed to warn them, however, that these two blessings can sometimes clash.
This memory returned after reading John Kaag’s newest book, “Hiking with Nietzsche” (2018). Kaag is a philosophy professor at The University of Massachusetts Lowell, and young and dedicated enough to try to live by the philosophical principles he professes. His first book, “American Philosophy: A Love Story,” was my personal choice as Book of the Year in 2017. (If you can’t get that column online, I’ll send a Word file to you – just write.)
In “AP: A Love Story,” Kaag pursued the pioneering American philosopher William James, who asked, “Is life worth living?” And if so, what kind of life made it worth living? While he studied and sort of stalked James, Kaag was a transcendentalist. And a hiker. And camper. And given to fits of Spartan-like self-denial and stamina in pursuit of his goals.
Oh, and single. More or less. He was estranged from his wife after years of mutual dislike. While on a self-started project trying to save an abandoned library of rare philosophy books, he enlisted a colleague to help him. A female colleague. She too was recently emerging from a rotting marital cocoon. She was a lot of help to him. Alone in the woods. Lots of camping out. You get it?
Except that he’s a romantic, existential quester. And she’s all method. That is, she’s a Kantian (his word). A scholar of Immanuel Kant, she’s unlike him: She’s clear, logical and self-assured. She has methods for deriving her decisions and reasons for living by them. As a quester, he believes there’s a means by which one can stress the body and mind to achieve a mental/moral/physical state that is receptive to wisdom, like the holy men of old. He seeks a state where there is no conflict between his divided selves. His approach requires study, physical hardship, self-denial and isolation from the herd of humanity.
“Hiking…” begins with the couple married and parents of a 3-year old daughter, Becca. They both have jobs as philosophers. They have each other. They have their little darling.
But why is Kaag so thin? And such an insomniac? And wearing a hole in the carpet with his nervous pacing. Carol (his wife’s name when not being referred to as “The Kantian”) suggests they take a family trip to the Alps. Thereby he can retrace the steps he took at 19, and single, when, Nietzsche books in hand, he followed the trail of the great Romantic/Mystical master. That trip, made in his youth, was stimulating, but left him unfilled. Parts of it he yearned to return to, as he needed to finish what had been so long left undone.
So they go. Yes, the family will go. Not to seek the Holy Wise Hermit on the mountain – Mom and Becca are bringing the Holy Wise Man – Daddy John – along. Once settled in Switzerland, Kaag will finally be let off leash to run up into the mountain passes, retracing Nietzsche’s old paths, (and Kaag’s too) as he seeks to finish his personal assimilation of Nietzsche. And lay his own past self to rest.
The book is highly entertaining, stimulating, thought-provoking and informative – if you can be a good, strong and patient reader while you walk along with Kaag. (It’s not an easy hike.) At many points, he’ll stop and point to a rocky crag and tell you what Nietzsche said and thought there. Same, too, with other sites and other philosophers, poets, artists, musicians (Wagner was his guru for a while) and novelists. Especially Herman Hesse (“Steppenwolf,” “Siddhartha”).
On this family “vacation,” John deliberately starves himself. He comes close to a nervous breakdown, goes off his mood meds, almost submits to his own desire to die or at least play with death – all to get into a mental state that allows him feel the words of the man he wants to doppelgänger.
He gets some of what he’s after, but along the way he steps in sheep manure, slips, falls, gets cut and passes out several times. Worst of all, one day he promised the family he’d be back from his Nietzsche hike just after lunch … a dangerous thing to do when you’re trying scramble up the Alps seeking enlightenment. He found an overhanging ledge and cave he remembered from his youth and lay there in a light drizzle, the gorgeous alpine scenery below, and succumbed to his need to ponder and dream – at last. Ahhhh.
Only the sun had set by the time he emerged from his reverie. He’d missed lunch. And dinner! Ah, but he had such insights and messages to tell. He stumbled down the mountain in the dark and found his way home. Family. Home! Home. Family! At last!
“‘Where the f#$! have you been?’ said the Kantian.” Not waiting for an answer, she handled Baby Becca over to the Philosopher of the Mountains and left the room to tend to her own work.
“Papa, I have to pee,” said the Philosopher’s Daughter.
I shifted the time sequence of Becca’s plea, but remained true to the story. Herr Nietzsche, by the way, never married.