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A View of Life: Nietzsche, Kierkegaard, and the Novel

From: Philosophy and Literature
Volume 33, Number 1, April 2009
pp. 167-183 | 10.1353/phl.0.0039

In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

A View of Life:
Nietzsche, Kierkegaard, and the Novel


"My general task," Nietzsche scrawled, in the margins of his own copy of Cervantes's Don Quixote: "to show how life philosophy and art can have a deeper and affinitive relationship with each other."1 This enigmatic inscription commands a second reading not only because it seems to articulate the thread that links many of Nietzsche's philosophical projects together, but also because of the very book in which it appears. The book is not a lofty tome of Schopenhauer's philosophy, as might be expected, but a mere novel: a fact which suggests that the novel itself was the art form that precipitated reflection on the relation of art to what Nietzsche calls here "life philosophy." In this essay, my aim is to deepen critical understanding of the novel's influence on Nietzsche and Kierkegaard, the two philosophers who are widely considered the fathers of existentialism. By means of a comprehensive overview of the novelistic reading and writing of these thinkers, I will show that both Nietzsche and Kierkegaard were profoundly influenced by the literary form of the novel and by its techniques for representing consciousness, subjectivity, and worldview.

My focus in the analysis that follows is on the question of why Nietzsche and Kierkegaard read novels, and not on the more specific question of what they gained from particular novels. Isolating form from theme has three main advantages. First, it elucidates an important aspect of the intellectual context for these philosophers that has received little scholarly attention, namely the issue of why Nietzsche and Kierkegaard were drawn to fictional novelistic prose and how this literary form [End Page 167] affected their philosophy. Second, it allows the "deeper . . . affinitive" relationship between existentialist philosophy and the novel form to emerge, revealing the way in which existentialism and realism in the novel share a distinctive stylistic approach to the understanding of lived experience. Finally, it illuminates an intellectual precedent for the work of later existentialist thinkers such as Heidegger, Sartre, Beauvoir, and Camus, who drew increasingly on novelistic forms as both vehicle and inspiration for their philosophy.

There are no previous studies devoted entirely to the novels read by Nietzsche and Kierkegaard, despite the fact that Nietzsche lists Stendhal and Dostoevsky as two of the greatest influences upon his thinking and that Kierkegaard's first published work is the review of a novel. Why did Nietzsche read the works not only of "philosophical" novelists like Stendhal, Dostoevsky, and Tolstoy, but also of Eliot, Twain, Sterne, and Flaubert? Why did Kierkegaard's interest in the "life-view" of the individual crystallize through his reflections on Hans Christian Andersen's novel Only a Fiddler? How did both of these existentialist thinkers link the task of connecting life and philosophy with their reading of novels, and how is their reading of novels related to their attempt to write philosophy in novel and increasingly novelistic ways?

These questions lead us to address anew the issue of how philosophy and literature are related in a way that is not simply thematic or allegorical. Furthermore, they ask us to take into account the importance of the novel to thinkers whose work has primarily been studied in the context of other "serious" philosophical texts, despite the stylistic and formal affinity of their work to the novels they read. As Thomas Brobjer points out in his recently published work on Nietzsche's reading habits and intellectual sources, Nietzsche's Philosophical Context: An Intellectual Biography (2008), none of the standard works on Nietzsche comment on his reading or library despite the fact that his private library has been more or less preserved in its entirety.2 Brobjer's work is the only large-scale study of Nietzsche's reading to date; however, it limits itself to "the philosophical influences on Nietzsche," even as it acknowledges that he "often was influenced by some who cannot conventionally be regarded as philosophers: by authors and literary critics" (NPC, p. 3). Although Brobjer mentions several of these authors and critics, even noting some of the marginalia found in these texts, he places them largely in the context of influences upon Nietzsche...