At 37, confronting the dullness of adult life, philosopher John Kaag looks for inspiration in the life and writing of one of the heroes of his youth, Friedrich Nietzsche. Twenty years before, Kaag had been into Nietzsche in the way young people can be into writers and artists: utterly.
The summer before his senior year of college, Kaag traveled to Basel, where Nietzsche had been a professor, and from there retraced Nietzsche’s escape into the Alps. When he arrived in Sils-Maria, Kaag stayed in the Nietzsche-Haus, where Nietzsche had lived for years and wrote some of his best-known books, and began slipping into an inspired madness. “Evening after evening, wide awake, no longer even hungry, I returned to my desk, to my Zarathustra. At the first sign of light I’d make my way to the trails behind the Haus and do my best to embody him.”
Sleep-deprived and starving, the young Kaag stood over a chasm and contemplated leaping. He would survive his 20s and 30s in part by shifting his attention to more tempered philosophers. But when his daughter asks about the frostbite scars the Alps left on Kaag’s ear, his wife (“a philosopher who loathed Nietzsche”) suggests he revisit Nietzsche.
With age on his side, Kaag is expected to withstand the potency of Nietzsche that looms over younger readers. But Nietzsche demands to be taken personally. And the older Kaag shares with his younger self the desire to see himself in Nietzsche (as well as Zarathustra). He has himself in mind, too, when he writes about Schopenhauer, “He could have easily followed his parent to the grave, but instead he, like Nietzsche, like many fatherless sons, decided to dedicate himself to the fathers of philosophy.”
Kaag’s return to Nietzsche’s writings culminates in a family trip to Sils-Maria. There, Kaag reverts to the self-destructive behavior of his youth and finds himself stretched between full immersion in all things Nietzschean and his commitments to his family. This struggle is where much of the book’s narrative tension lies. Kaag maintains that tension carefully to allow for a parallel biography and insightful reading of Nietzsche. Even readers disinclined toward philosophy will be engaged by the philosopher as Kaag presents him.
But while the book serves as an entry point to Nietzsche’s writing, its real success is as an embodiment of one of his core ideas — and one that you needn’t have read his works to appreciate: the imperative of becoming who you are. Kaag takes this challenge seriously and makes a sincere go at meeting it.
Call it philosophy. Call it memoir. This is a book with verve. Read it at the risk of being drawn in to your own becoming.
Scott F. Parker is a writer in Montana. His essay collection, “A Way Home,” was recently published by Kelson Books.
Hiking With Nietzsche
By: John Kaag.
Publisher: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 255 pages, $26.