Feet of Clay, by Terry Pratchett

My on-going complete Discworld re-read goes on…

I was really eager to review this one the moment I finished it. Then I didn’t, because of Stuff. Now I have that frustrating feeling I get when I know there’s much more to say than I can actually remember right now…

I suppose we could start by noting that this book moves the ‘City Watch’ sequence firmly into series territory, effectively completing the trilogy begun in Guards! Guards! and continued in Men at Arms. Perhaps it’s worth pointing out here that in the first thirteen books (up to and including Small Gods), you can only really say that six of them continued sequences, and two of those are debateable (Equal Rites was about Esk, not Granny, and neither Lancre nor the other witches appeared, so Wyrd Sisters is only tangentially a follow-up; similarly, Mort was about Mort, with Death only a secondary character, so Reaper Man could be said not to be a follow-up – it’s actually got an almost better claim to be a sequel to Moving Pictures, but the Faculty are only a B-side plot in both of them). Of those 4-6 repeats, 3 of them were Rincewind books, and one wasn’t even intended to be part of the main sequence at the time. None of the books other than The Light Fantastic were outright sequels. In the next 13 books, however, eleven or twelve are follow-ups (you could use the same Mort/Reaper Man argument to say that Soul Music is an original, since both its lead characters are new), and even the one inarguable original (The Truth) began life as a Watch novel, repurposed to a debateable degree of sucess and featuring cameos from the Watch cast.

So we’re comfortably into a stage now where rather than expanding his world Pratchett is settling in. I think I’ve said before that I find this a big problem with later Discworld books… but it’s certainly not an issue here. Maskerade and Feet of Clay continue to deepen and explore their setting, which has not yet become ossified to the point of becoming restrictive and over-familiar. Instead we get the best of both worlds: a setting, and characters who are familiar and yet still have more to show. Both books may lack the sheer genius of Pratchett’s best entries (which in my opinion, so far in the series remain Small Gods and Lords and Ladies), but they have a really impressive solidity to them and a thoroughgoing fineness of quality.

Particularly worthy of mention in Feet of Clay (and again reminiscent of Maskerade) is the sophistication of the plot. The novel has to interweave four different plot threads – if you count major character arcs, it’s at least five and maybe six – all in the space of (in my hardback copy) less than 300 pages. The only thing more amazing than how tightly and proficiently Pratchett is able to do this is how much more tightly and proficiently Pratchett is able to appear to do this.

Because one problem with this book is that it doesn’t really work. It’s all set up as an intricate little plot, but really (as often in Pratchett) it’s a bunch of tangentially related stories that don’t, in the end, wrap up anywhere near as tightly as they should. One reason why Pratchett is a brilliant author, however, is that to a large extent he’s able to get away with this by making it seem as though everything fits together perfectly and isn’t entirely reliant on immense coincidences. It’s a sort of narrative legerdemain that almost takes the breath away just by itself. This is all one story… even if, when you try to get down to explaining, logically, how and why everything connects, it all seems a bit tenuous. I remember it as being brilliantly plotted, and once I forget the little details that crop up when you’re actually reading it, I’m going to go back to remembering it that way again in no time at all.

It’s hard to overstate how good a writer Pratchett is at this point. I was immediately struck by his brilliance when I opened the book: this, dear reader, is how you begin a novel. There are five scenes in the first twelve pages. In those five scenes, Pratchett establishes the tone of the book, establishes a complex setting both in general and in some of its parts (although of course the reader would benefit from having read earlier works, Pratchett does make sure to be accessible to first-time or forgetful readers – another reason for his commercial success), sets up what looks like the main plot, sets up two or three subplots while he’s at it, delivers a brilliantly effective character study of a lead character, sketches out efficiently and enjoyably two or three other important characters, gives us some distinctive vignettes of lesser characters, dazzles us with witty turns of phrase, inspires us with intriguing aphorisms… and is funny, too, and yet also menacing and serious.

Pratchett ought to be taught in class as an example of how to write. He may not perhaps be the world’s most literary author, either in his prose style or in his depth and originality of content, but he’s unimpeachably good at the raw business of telling a story well. That’s often overshadowed by how badly some of his stories go off the rails and out of all control… but while his early works seemed naive in their plotting, by this stage in the sequence his failures are all the fault of his own o’erweening ambition. The only thing standing in the way of him writing a brilliantly crafted story is his own need to push the boundaries of what’s possible in a book of this length and style. As a result, we get books (and this is by no means the worst of them, not in the slightest) that perch on the edge of working and rely to varying degrees on the goodwill of the reader not to quibble with them too much. Fortunately, Pratchett is extremely good at generating goodwill… (which is why I really like Reaper Man. Logically speaking, it’s an utter mess of a novel, a novel that could be taught in class as a demonstration of how not to tell a coherent story, and yet for me it works… in part, I have to recognise, just because I really want it to).

Like, for instance, those first five scenes. What I didn’t notice at the time is… they’ve got nothing to do with one another. There’s a seemingly random exchange between two people, which is intriguing but tells us nothing. There’s a little bit about nothing at all to do with anything, just a descriptive passage about the nature of the world – light-hearted but interesting. There’s a brief passage about a different person dying, which is obviously a Bad Thing, and played very earnestly (but strangely). There’s a whole run of pages about another man having his morning shave and reflecting on newfound matrimony – psychological and sombre, but ending with some menacing levity. There’s a nice man writing a letter to his mother while feeding his dog some sausages in a café – gentle mood, overtones of irony. After that it’s off for a dialogue between a murder victim and Death, which is mostly played for laughs but is obviously quite serious in content – and could be tied back to the earlier death scene, except that the tone is entirely different – and then some jokey scenes about job interviews and police work and so forth. This is a mess! This shouldn’t work!

At yet it does. If you’re not concentrating, you don’t notice that these scenes have nothing to do with one another in content or in style. Quite the contrary – it all feels as though it makes sense, like a grandmaster carefully setting out the pieces one by one.

In the end, I think he’s bluffing (if you’ll forgive my mixing my sporting metaphors). Pratchett does enough to sketch out his plot in its essentials, and he makes it all feels as though it makes sense, but… well, if any other author tried to present that as the solution to a police procedural, the reader would not be buying. But fortunately, trying to be critical of Pratchett novels is like trying not to buy one of Mr Dibbler’s famous meat pies. No matter how much your mind tries to tell you that there’s only one rational response to this, your body ends up eating a sausage-inna-bun and wearing a pink sombrero…

Another thing that struck me while reading this novel was the political ambiguity Pratchett indulges in. Now, Pratchett may be the world’s best example of an author with mass, cross-demographic appeal. He’s read by children; he’s read by academics. He’s read for a quick laugh and for a moving experience. He’s read by women and by men. He’s read, above all, by a really vast number of people. And this should immediately make people pay attention and ask what it is exactly about Pratchett that makes his appeal so broad. And there are a lot of parts to that answer, and some of them I don’t know; but here’s one that came to me when reading this book:

Politics need not be a problem for his readers. More than that, politics can be an asset for him in selling his books. Which politics? Any politics!

If, like me, you’re a liberal, you probably see Pratchett as a liberal. I mean, just look at him from a feminist point of view, for a start: he hasn’t just created some of the best female characters in fantasy, he’s written entire books with almost entirely female casts and nobody has even noticed because it feels so natural when he does it. His books are constantly embracing ethnic diversity, both in their casts and explicitly in their pages – Feet of Clay more so than most, with Vimes even delivering a scathing attack on the Sherlock Holmes school of deduction on grounds of bigotry, pointing out that any attempt to draw such rapid deductions about people from little evidence relies on a bigoted and close-minded assumption about the uniformity of life (in fact he calls the Holmes idea “an insult to the glorious variety of human life”, which is about as strong and direct as Pratchett’s writing gets). People are far too wonderfully varied to calculate.

And yet I wonder whether, if I were a conservative, I wouldn’t see Pratchett as a fellow traveller too. Take the occasional race-based humour, for instance: I find this a little awkward, particularly when it’s clearly based on real-world racial stereotypes, but I’m quick to defend him, as everybody is. That’s just a silly little throwaway joke – more a pastiche of racist humour than an actual jibe! That’s not a joke at all, it’s a parallel and a commentary on the history of race-relations that uses real-world stereotypes to set up an assumption that he can then challenge… That’s just a joke about some liberals taking themselves too seriously. I mean, clearly he’s one of us, look at all the good stuff he says!

But I do wonder how many Daily Mail readers might, for instance, read Pratchett’s skewering of anti-discrimination pressure groups (the Campaign for Equal Heights makes ridiculous claims of discrimination, but it’s OK since it’s made up entirely of local humans, with actual dwarfs largely ignoring it) as, well, a normal right-wing attack on Political Correctness Gone Mad, rather than, say, a passing swipe at the zealotry of a minority of liberal individuals who, as it were, believe more in the church of liberalism than in its faith. Do those readers view Vimes – who is, frankly, underlyingly a bigot, but who supports liberalism to some degree thanks to a combination of pragmatism, general empathy, and a bloody-minded desire to spite the rich and powerful that leads him to favour underdogs even if they are from some disliked minority – as an unproblematic hero, rather than the good but compromised, complicated hero of an out-of-date generation? Do they view Carrot, then, as a pleasant but naïve idealist? Do they take the way that Pratchett’s minorities, despite facing persecution and sometimes violence, almost always prefer to just grumble through by themselves without outside assistance, as a model for how real minorities ought to behave?

It’s one thing to engage in dog-whistle politics. Pratchett sometimes seems to be blowing dog whistles for both the right and the left… and I say that not so much to criticise him (although I did feel that the Jewishness of the golems was played up a little bit too much, given the importance of the only-care-about-money-and-contracts aspect of golemness to the plot), but rather to admire his dexterity. I don’t know if he does it intentionally or if he’s just that conflicted/complicated, but Pratchett manages effortless, almost unnoticeably, a display of saying-what-they-want-to-both-sides that most professional politicians couldn’t dream of emulating! He’s the Bill Clinton of fantasy authors… (err… talking there about Clinton’s broad appeal, ambiguity, and incredible charisma, rather than, you know, the other… stuff).

So anyway. Where does that all leave us with Feet of Clay?

In the heat of the moment, a little bit frustrated. It was so close to being genius, but very slightly wasn’t.

On the other hand: it’s so close to being genius. You get a mystery (several mysteries in one, I guess) that isn’t top-drawer but that is intriguing and generally satisfying (and I have to say, I was very impressed with Pratchett that I didn’t realise the solution to the poisining mystery until it was revealed, despite it being, in hindsight, really obvious). You get plenty of comedy. You get political and social issues (and despite what I’ve said above, this is perhaps the most overtly liberal of the Discworld novels). And you get a whole heap of character development stuff. There’s even good material for Sergeant Colon!

Adrenaline: 4/5. Not quite as explosive as some entries, but effectively tense throughout.

Emotion: 3/5. Not as high-stakes emotion-wise for the characters… but the characters are so strong, and so empathic, that you can’t but invest in their progress.

Thought: 4/5. Clever plotting, plus Issues. Not exactly ground-breaking, but a good thoughtful book.

Beauty: 4/5. Pratchett’s writing is a delight, and there are also some really striking scenes here.

Craft: 5/5. Seems strange giving top marks given that I think the plot is deeply flawed – but the details of the plotting, the prose, the composition, the direction of the attention, the humour, the character work, the descriptive vividity, the multilingual puns (Pratchett can drop jokes for the lowest common denominator and for those fluent in Latin with equal ease – or, in the case of Vetinari’s family motto, for those fluent in Latin and also familiar with mid-20th century American politics*). (Dear lord, how many people on earth are erudite enough to make that ‘Rats chamber’ joke?). Everything is just of such a high quality I can’t but give it full marks.

Endearingness: 5/5. Funny, likeable, fun, impressive. And plenty of time with really likeable character.

Originality: 4/5. The parts are, of course, taken from elsewhere, but it’s all put together in a really interesting and unique way.

Overall: 6/7. VERY GOOD. Could almost have been brilliant, but I didn’t feel it was quite there. Nonetheless, it’s a seriously good book! Comparing this one with Maskerade, the two are very close in quality, imo – I think the difference comes down to whether you prefer a little more outright comedy, as in Maskerade, vs a little more complexity and character work in Feet of Clay. Personally I’m going for Feet of Clay, but I think it’s a toss-up. They’re both a small step behind Small Gods and Lords and Ladies, but it is only a small step.

*Rudolph Potts, baker: quod subigo farinam. That one still sets me giggling!

Fool’s Assassin, by Robin Hobb

If anyone wants to know my thoughts on Hobb’s earlier novels, look over here.

Some people will read Fool’s Assassin and say: but there was no plot! 4/5ths of the book was pointless filler! We didn’t get to the real story until the end!

That makes sense, although I’m not sure how those readers made it through all the previous installments of Robin Hobb’s cycle, since she’s never exactly been known for all-out high-octane action novels.

But my reaction was in any case exactly the opposite: 4/5ths of the book was maybe my favourite book of all time, and then it all got shunted aside because the author or her publishers thought this new trilogy needed to prove it was still epic fantasy.

It’s hard to say too much about the plot. My principle is not only to try not to spoil the books I review, but also not to spoil previous installments in the series more than necessary. Since this is now Book 14 in the cycle construed broadly, and Book 7 in terms purely of the history of FitzChivalry Farseer, that’s a lot of plot to avoid mentioning! But I think it’s safe to say that the beginning of this trilogy – like the beginning of Tawny Man – finds our favourite assassin a little out of the loop, more concerned with domestic issues surrounding his country home than with grand affairs of court or with the fate of the world.

And I’m OK with that. Gosh darnit, I’ve read through six hefty tomes of Fitz constantly being distracted from the demands of his private life by the exigencies of world-saving, and now to be honest I’d be quite happy just reading three books of the man sitting around, hanging out, having tea with people, deciding which clothes to buy, whatever.

Of course, Robinh Hobb is not a bad plotter. She’s at worst an OK plotter, and at times an excellent one (much of The Liveship Traders, for instance, felt meticulously devised). But in all her work, it’s the characters who have interested me – the personal drama, and above all the relationship drama. The plot has been there to force the characters into action, to create that drama. But now, to be honest, I rather felt as though this time the plot was getting in the way of the drama: there’s more than enough real excitement in Fitz’s life now to do without the big picture for a bit. I’m not normally somebody who likes soap operas, but after six volumes, I think we all deserve a little bit of guilty pleasure. I know that Fitz sure as hell does…

But let’s not get too caught up with that. This is only the first book of the trilogy, assuming Hobb can keep it to a trilogy this time (the two volumes of The Rain Wild Chronicles each had to be split in two, and the final volume of Tawny Man before that was truly gargantuan, right up there at Jordan/Martin length; no disrespect to Hobb, who does a lot better at this than many other fantasy writers, but I wouldn’t be surprised if this somehow bulged out to four books rather than three). Two books from now perhaps I’ll be wowed by this new plot, and look back at the calm times of Fool’s Assassin as more than sufficient wallowing-in-life for one trilogy. But being torn away from that… right now, that hurts a little.

And it’s not just my taste in tone at issue here. I also think there are elements of the Big Picture that don’t so far look like they work that well. Most importantly, this new series seems to be challenging the whole mythology of the cycle to this point. Don’t get me wrong: I loved how Tawny Man challenged The Farseer Trilogy thematically. I was excited by how The Liveship Traders challenged Farseer mythologically, and… well, contented enough more or less with the mythological additions in Tawny Man. But I worried that The Rain Wild Chronicles was making Fitz’s story and its mythology obsolete, and now again everything changes in this new trilogy, it would appear. Change is good, of course, but we also need stability in order for things to matter to us: turn things on their head too many times and we lose our sense of which way is up and which is down and start to just get seasick. It also wearies the mind and diverts the attention to the mechanisms behind the machine: plot twists, when too frequent, start to seem exploitative, manipulative. The thrill of revolution yields to the monotony of mere rotation.

The other big problem with the book – and in places connected to my issues with the Big Plot – is that several characters, particularly Fitz, are required to be utter idiots.

Now, Fitz has never been the sharpest man around. Part of the charm of his story has always been that between common sense, good luck, good friends and hard work, he’s managed to win out despite not being some perfect hero, and that includes not always being the smartest guy around. Hobb usually does very well at depicting this – it can be hard to write a character who’s less intelligent than much of the audience without making him look like a buffoon. And I should be clear that for the most part she still succeeds at that here. Indeed, age has made Fitz wiser, and experience has honed his thought and observation. He’s actually capable of some pretty keen deductions. In fact, in this book he’s quite smart.

Which makes it even more clunking when there are four or five things that Fitz must be able to realise, or at least consider the possibility of, yet remains clueless of for plot reasons. Sure, you could argue that in some of these cases he’s not so much stupid as willfully ignorant, refusing to consider certain things – but I don’t think Hobb does a great job of showing him refusing to consider them, making it instead look as though he just never for a moment imagines them. It’s not the sort of boneheaded stupidity that ruins the plot – which would progress in a very similar way even if he were a bit smarter – and it is just about conceivably within the limits of Fitz’s demonstrated ability to overlook things. But it does feel like something of a blemish.

But let’s not get too carried away. Much of the rest was sheer brilliance. The early parts of the book convey a clear sense of how Fitz has grown up as a result of his prior experience – a maturity that will no doubt frustrate many readers who long for the younger, more impulsive version – and deliver a pay-off that justifies, in my mind, the controversial ending to the prior trilogy. Seeing Fitz in a calmer, more domestic setting rounds out his character in a new and satisfying way. And yet the book is far from uneventful or serene. Quite the contrary. Although there is little formal plot for the majority of the book, a great deal of incident occurs, displaying how Fitz has changed, the nature of his relationships, and perhaps most impressively the changing world around him. The Six Duchies are no longer the place where Fitz grew up – Hobb skillfully conveys the extent of the social changes in the wider world in a subtle way, without blinding us with improbably rapid and attention-grabbing shifts.

And then there’s the emotion. For one thing, there are elements of happiness here, perhaps even contentment, that are moving in their own right and that magnify the impact of the things that go wrong (oh, things go wrong – this is a Fitz novel, remember?). Underneath the happiness, however, Fitz remains deeply scarred by his past experiences, and particularly by two big changes that occured in the last trilogy (it’s particularly effective how those scars have changed his opinions on one topic, without him even noticing, in a way that would have been anathema to the younger Fitz); later wounds re-open those old injuries and push him to the very brink. Fool’s Assassin is a powerful depiction of a man attempting to hold himself together, to not let the poison within him damage the good things that he has – and like all internal battles there is a certain narcissism to this, a naïve assumption that the world will wait passively for him to deal with his own issues – if, indeed, he accepts that those issues even need to be dealt with at all. Even when everything is going well, Fitz is a man predisposed to melancholy, and in this book the series finally begins to consider that Fitz may not not just be a battered unfortunate tossed around by fate, but may also (in part as a response, in part perhaps by nature) have serious issues with depression. There is a strong feeling that even when Fitz is calm and happy, he is having to work hard at being calm and happy. He continues to be prone to melancholy reflection, he continues to have a strong vein of (often justified) paranoia – a paranoia that he has to work against so hard that he at times becomes wilfully naïve – and above all he continues to have serious issues with trust and intimacy. The happy place in which he begins the book is not the secure happiness of a man floating in calm water, but the desparate happiness of a man holding with all his strength onto a lifeboat. Fitz has not so much dealt with his demons as assembled an array of shields and flotation devices around him. Inevitably, some elements of that defence are going to be threatened by the end of the book, and he is not going to respond well to this. The problem is, how can a half-drowning man react to the loss of part of what supports him without dragging the rest of his support down into the water with him?

It’s nuanced, brave, and powerful writing. There were multiple occasions when my eyes misted up, and at least one when I cried – but the emotion is not all negative, either. There’s both darkness and light in this book, tragedy and triumph. By the end, Fitz has been put into a very interesting – and very dangerous – place, and I think that he’s probably more unpredictable going into the next two books than he’s been at any time in the sequence (except possibly at the end of Royal Assassin). This could all end well; this could all end very badly.

Unfortunately, while I understand what Hobb was trying to do, the point where Fitz’s personal plot intersects the big-P Plot at the end of the book just didn’t seem believable to me. I don’t know why, exactly, but it didn’t. Suffice to say that Fitz acts impulsively (shock spoiler!) in a way that intellectually makes sense in hindsight, given his trajectory over the book, but that did not quite ring true to me in the moment.

One final problem with the book – a problem that may disappear retrospectively, depending on what happens next – is that many of the characters built up around Fitz in the Tawny Man books are absent here, or at least so invisible as to be virtually absent. I don’t mind this conceptually – after all, the whole point of Hobb’s cycle is perhaps the inevitability of change – but it did feel like a wasted opportunity at times. Hopefully, however, Fitz’s being thrust back into the world of Big Plots by the end of the novel will let us see some more of those characters, and how they too have changed over time.

In their place, however, we have other relationships for Fitz, both positive and negative. I think it’s a fair trade, as in many ways these are more important and more interesting relationships. One, in particular, is in my opinion the most important and interesting of all Fitz’s connections, particularly in the later parts of the book; meanwhile, new characters are introduced and set up what could potentially be very intriguing relationships in the following volumes.

A big part of what makes this book so good, though, is that I really don’t know what’s coming next (it seems strange to me to even imagine that this story is going to take only two more books! We’re still the equivalent of about 300 pages into Fool’s Errand, and the plot ahead of us looks much, much larger). Hobb here, particularly before the Big Plot arrives, has reached a point of utter disregard for the clichés of the genre, and thus it is impossible to predict what happens. There are so many red herrings here – or perhaps there are none, and everything will matter in the end. The point is, I still can’t tell. It’s impressively true to life: we don’t always know “this is a person who will be important”, “that backstory will be relevant”, “I should make note of this for later!” and so on. So Hobb gives us a forest of potential plot threads, some of which will doubtlessly go nowhere. But because the narrative focus is so tightly focussed on Fitz as a character, this is not frustrating: it’s not a waste of time, because we get to spend time with Fitz. How Fitz reacts to things is the story, is the point of the things that go on around him – at least, that’s the point right now.

Hobb has always been a character-focused, and in particular a relationship-focused writer; Fool’s Assassin, for the first four-fifths of it at least, is the most Hobbish book yet in that regard. It’s her most literary book. And I think that’s why I got frustrated when some slightly-silly-sounding epic fantasy business burst in toward the end. Can’t we just get all this over with quickly and go back to what matters?

That, I suppose, is her point. I want to get back to what matters – but the plot is going to change everything. And that hurts, because every change is a loss. But then if there hadn’t been this sort of change before, we’d never have gotten the status quo that I want to investigate more fully… it’s been an increasing theme of Hobb in recent books that we never get the change to stop the ride, and to some extent it feels like this whole book is a demonstration of that. Most obviously, the book itself does not stop in one place for long: this single book probably lasts longer, in internal chronology, than either of the two preceding trilogies (if you exclude the very early childhood chapters of Assassin’s Apprentice). We keep waiting for it to settle on the one time-period that ‘counts’, that ‘matters’ – but they all do!

The greatest triumph of the book, however, may be the most shocking – so shocking I have some reservations about mentioning at all, even though it’s not a spoiler in the traditional sense. And that is: it’s not all about Fitz. More, it’s not all by Fitz. Fitz remains the primary POV character, but we also, particularly later in the book, begin to get chapters from a second POV. This will no doubt enrage some Fitz fans, but I felt it worked exceptionally well. Indeed, I think perhaps it worked too well – by the end, I was actually getting a little frustrated with having to go back to Fitz chapters… I can only hope we see a lot more of this character’s POV in the next two books. The introduction of this POV also makes me wonder what Hobb’s long-term plans are: is she signalling that stories can continue in Fitz’s part of the world even without Fitz in them, perhaps beyond the point where Fitz is forced to retire? More worryingly, we must surely consider the possibility that this new POV will allow Fitz to be killed off at the end of the trilogy… or even partway through it. Given how powerfully moved I’ve been by other losses throughout these books, I’m really not sure how well I could cope with that.

So, I guess I’ve run out of things to say. The bulk of this book is probably my favourite and almost certainly the best of Hobb’s novels (though it would feel staggeringly pointless to a new reader – it makes Tawny Man seem standalone by comparison), thanks to its generous pace, fine prose, psychological complexity and power, and unpredictability. Then some stuff happens. I’m almost entirely convinced that that stuff happening makes this a worse book than it would otherwise be; on the other hand, Fool’s Assassin is not a standalone psychological novel, it’s the first volume of an epic fantasy trilogy, and what happens nearer the end is essential to setting up the plot of the remaining two books. It’s just a shame that, in the moment, it feels so incongruous. I hope, however, that in hindsight it all make sense.

That’s the hope that everyone will have to have, I think. Hobb said before this book came out that she was writing the story she felt needed to be told, not the story that her fans necessarily wanted – and boy does it look like that might end up being true. Of all the modern authors I can think of, Hobb perhaps comes closest to that ideal of writing without pandering to her fans, and to a large extent she’s been rewarded for that courage with the loyalty of those very fans, who have accepted and admired her independence. I suspect that this new trilogy will be challenging to many, however. I can only hope that fans – myself included – continue to give her the benefit of the doubt that she has so richly earned. Either way, despite the gentle pacing of this first installment, it’s very clear by the end of this book that, whatever exactly is coming next, we all need to hold on to our hats.




Adrenaline: 4/5. Gripping. Docked a point for its length and slow pace: I loved it, but I know that many more impatient readers will find it too much of a challenge in this regard. You really need to get into the right mindset for one of these later Hobb novels.

Emotion: 5/5. Well obviously. Incredibly powerful, at least after you’ve spent 15 years with this character. For context, this is only the second book I’ve given a top mark to in this category (after The God of Small Things).

Thought: 4/5. Not that much abstract rumination, but a tricksy plot and some important themes mean you’ll need to engage your brain fully.

Beauty: 5/5. Career-high prose supports a beautiful depiction of the good and the bad in life, with many exquisite moments along the way.

Craft: 4/5. As suggested above, there are a few minor clunky issues around the edges. But overall it’s wonderfully skilfull in plot, in prose, in character, in scene composition, in everything.

Endearingness: 5/5. Yes, I ended a bit frustrated. But to be fair, that’s because the frustrating bits were at the end. Now that the memory of that frustration has faded just a little, what I loved about the book has risen back to the top of my memory, and my word there was so much that I loved. Does this topple Golden Fool as probably my most-loved book? Not for now – but maybe only because I need to wait a while and read again before I feel comfortable saying that.

Originality: 5/5. At the end, we get some suggestions of a more traditional epic plot, and I worry that this may end up feeling too much like a re-run of past books – but for now that’s a worry for the future. As it is, there’s no way you could ever confuse this book with any other – it’s even distinctive among Hobb’s Fitz novels.

Overall: 7/7. BRILLIANT. OK, yes, despite my reservations around the ending, I still can’t avoid saying that this is Hobb’s best book yet. It’s a true masterpiece, and its flaws are only visible to me because the rest of it is so superb. There’s a quote on the front cover (and incidentally, what a beautiful front cover it is! The gloriously shiny UK cover that is, not the US one with the Fantasy Guy In Cape on it) by George R.R. Martin of Game of Thrones fame: “Fantasy as it ought to be written”. I honestly can’t disagree. If more fantasy was written like this, the genre would not be so deprecated by those outside it; I’m encouraged to see this recognised by reviewers – the Telegraph, for instance, calls it ‘high art’ that ‘transcends the fantasy genre’. Again, no disagreement here.

The Rider, by Tim Krabbé

Only when there are arguments for something can there be arguments against it.


Cyclists are strange people. They say things like “The Rider is a book about cycling”, or “I guess maybe you can’t fully appreciate The Rider if you’re not a cyclist”.

Nonsense. The Rider is not about cycling. The Rider has got nothing to do with cycling.

What is it about? You could say, “it’s about obsession”, “it’s about insanity”, or “it’s about religion”. Those descriptions would all be accurate, but also pointless, as they’re all pretty much synonymous with being about cycling.

More informative would be to say that The Rider is about about the human condition. This would also be true, but it would also be missing the point. This is about something more important than life or death, being and time, meaning and identity. This is about the most important thing of all: cycling.

No, not ‘cycling’, that suggests something abstract, general, a worldwide practice, a pastime, an industry, a culture. This is a book about a person riding a bicycle.

There are a lot of ways to approach this book. If you don’t know anything about professional road cycling, for instance, this book tells you a lot about it – not just about the technicalities and the famous names, but about the soul of the sport. The soul the sport wants to have, at least – but then, that’s the soul of the sport, wanting to have a soul. This is the sort of book that might baffle outsiders, might send them away in confusion or horror; it’s also the sort of book that might seduce them, might convert them, might make them fall in love, or discover that they are in love with something they didn’t think they cared about at all.

But I think the more important thing is this: this is a book about a human being attempting an endeavour. It’s an endeavour that in one way is easy enough that the story is not all about the impossibility of the task. If your endeavour is to fly a spaceship to the moon, for instance, or be the first man to climb the Eiger, or to keep all your crew alive and escape from Antarctica in three small open rowing boats with little food and no means of navigation, then your story, while fascinating, is not really a story about you. It’s a story about something impossible, and all the ways it’s impossible, and how it was done nonetheless, and you are little more than a mirror of that impossibility, your despair and your triumph reflections of the awe-inspiring impossibility of the world. Your task is to be implacable, to be the immovable object that the world cannot distort, the irresistable force the world cannot resist. There’s little room for human foibles in a story like that.

The Rider isn’t a book like that. The Rider is a book about a high-level amateur bicycle race in the south of France in the 1970s. In it, the protagonist, in the course of a number of hours, must ride a bicycle relatively quickly over some small hills. At one point, it begins to rain. This is all far from being impossible.

On the other hand, if your endeavour is too simple, too easy to achieve, or even just too momentary in its achievement, there is little to talk about. Your story becomes not the story of what you did, but the story of why you did it, how you prepared to do it, what you felt about it afterwards.

This isn’t a book like that either. A bicycle race of this kind shows us man at the very limit of what he can do, pushing himself right to the edge, to the far extremities of the potential of his body and the last redoubts of his faculties of mind.

The Rider is a book about limits. Neither the calm, sleepy waters within the limit, nor the impossible, inhuman void beyond the limit, but a book about the limit itself, a book about the borderlands. It’s about the man – and about the absence of man.

It’s a book about a bike race.


To get right down to the prosaic business of the facts, The Rider is a book about an amateur cyclist, Tim Krabbé, who has taken up racing late in life (at 29, and the book is set some years later) but discovered considerable talent for it. Enough talent, at least, to be able to compete in some major amateur races, and not purely as a hanger-on.

This is the story of the biggest race of his year, the fictional Tour de Mont Aigoual, in the Cévennes. It begins shortly before the race, and ends shortly after the race. We follow the experiences of Krabbé through the race.

That’s what it’s about. But it’s also about more than that. Krabbé talks to us about his thoughts – sometimes primitive, reactive images and barely formulable impulses at the limits of thoughts, other times more loquacious rumination about life, the universe, everything, and also cycling. Along the way, he provides illustrations from his own past, his own thoughts, and from cycling history.

So it’s a fun read about a sporting event – it’s not a personal test, it’s an actual race that he wants to win (and wants others to lose), and so narrative tension is present automatically. Will Krabbé win? If not, who will? It’s a basic and effective structure. It’s also a book about cycling, as Krabbé explains elements of road racing to us in case we don’t understand what’s going on, and illustrates them with famous anecdotes from history, particularly from the Tour de France. And on some level it’s also a book about the beautiful yet uninviting, peculiar, landscape of the Cévennes.

And yet it’s so much more than that.

This book could be literature. It could be literary fiction. Certainly, it should hold its head up high in at any dinner reception it attends with literary novels. It has its share of tricksiness: Krabbé, for instance, is a fictional narrator invented by the author, the amateur cyclist Tim Krabbé, and is not an entirely reliable narrator (something he comments on himself). It’s charged, in an easy and unposturing way, with continental concepts of postmodernity and semiotics, absurdism and situationism – although it never uses those terms. It has no shortage of reflection on the nature of human existence and the foibles of the mind.

Only I don’t think it wants to be literature. “Literature,” says the narrator, “is baloney”. This is about something much more important than literature: bicycle racing.

At its heart, this is a novel of irreconcilable dualities and the moments when they are reconciled – it is the literary equivalent of pushing two magnets together like-to-like, against the field.

It is about reality, human reality, lived human experience – about authenticity, real life stripped away of myths and fantasies. In the race, there is no time for fantasy, no energy for myth. Everything else in life, all the worry, the happiness, the intellectualisation, becomes stripped away into moments of raw physical being, into moments of will. “I am transformed into my body”, we are told at one point.

And yet it is also how precisely these moments of reality are most surrounded by fiction. Everything about cycling is a fiction. Krabbé’s fantasies and daydreams, from childhood through to now; all those myths of the Tour and the Giro – true, false, unsubstantiated, confused (and the most completely true story of the lot and verified by all records and witnesses is the one story that is outright impossible). Better than true, perhaps; myths more true than reality. The magical thinking – Anquetil moving his bidon (water bottle) from his bike to his back pocket because he thinks that reducing the weight of his bike will make him go faster. The riders, Krabbé tells us, are minds, and bodies and bikes are just the tools they use – and these minds are strange, irrational creatures who must be pushed on by mythologies of their own invention.

Fiction and truth, together in the same place at the same time.

Body and mind. Never are the body and the mind more divided: the mind wills and the body refuses. And yet precisely in the division, the unity becomes clear. The mind thinks what the body feels, and the body does what the mind wills: the unbreakable linkage between the two is never more clear than now. The mind is not free because it is one with the body; the body is not allowed to be free, because it is one with the mind. Dualism and monism, together at the same border-point.

Honour and violence. Riding, Krabbé tells us, is like humanity without the degrading influence of civilisation. It is brutal, it is merciless. In road racing, when you see your enemy on his back, you kick him to death. It is ruthless, it is calculating; it is professional.

And yet all that matters is honour. All that matters is passion. Sometimes all that matters is hatred. There is winning, and there is winning with honour, and only one of them matters, and everyone knows which one: both of them. Krabbé gives us the story of Coppi and Bartali riding each other out of the World Championship:

Kübler and Clemens left the peloton: Coppi and Bartali looked at each other. Dupont, Ricci and Schotte left the peloton: Coppi and Bartali looked at each other. Caput, Teissière and Lazaridès left the peloton: Coppi and Bartali looked at each other. Schulte and Ockers left the peloton: Coppi and Bartali looked at each other.

When the peloton at last consisted only of Coppi and Bartali, they looked at each other and climbed off, both of them satisfied, we might assume, with a success sweeter than the sweetest second place.

Krabbé doesn’t give us the other half of the story, six months later at the Tour de France, when Coppi’s bike broke and Bartali waited with him for a replacement before helping him chase – and then on stage 16, on the road to Briançon, Coppi and Bartali attacked together on the Izoard, and when Bartali puncture, Coppi waited for him, and when they came into Briançon together, Coppi let the older rider win the stage, because it was his birthday. Krabbé doesn’t give us that particular story, but that side of the sport is not left out either.

How can a sport that prides itself on its amoral, obsessive ruthlessness be so proud also of its irrational codes of honour, its moments of pointless self-sacrifice?

It turns out I’m not the first to talk about this. Here’s Roland Barthes in his essay on the mythology of the Tour de France:

The Tour possesses an ambiguous ethic: certain knightly imperatives constantly mingle with the brutal demands of the pure spirit of success. It is an ethic which cannot or will not choose between the commendation of devotion and the necessities of empiricism.

Do you know the story of why Coppi was still in that race? He hated Bartali so much that their team (the Tour having national teams in those days) was almost falling apart, and their manager, the great cyclist Binda, could barely keep them both together. Coppi had already given up quarter of an hour of race time as the result of a sulk. Eventually, on that stage where Coppi needed a new bike, it boiled over. Why wasn’t Binda right behind Coppi with a spare? Binda was surely favouring Bartali, who had won the Tour the year before. Coppi would not compete unless he were the absolute master of his team. Binda desparately explained that he was not being partial, indeed that he was really on Coppi’s side, and he had only been absent at that moment through bad luck. Coppi would not, could not, accept that argument. Coppi was going to quit.

At that moment, a blind man walked into the room with a dog. Nobody knew who he was, and he made no introduction, but spoke directly to the two men who had been arguing alone, as though he knew who they were, and what they were doing there. The blind man said that he had bought a dog and had named it Fausto (Fausto being Coppi’s name, although at that time he was really ‘Il Campionissimo’, ‘the Champion of Champions’). The blind man further swore that he would never betray his dog, and proclaimed that he knew that the dog could never betray him.

The omen delivered, the blind man walked out of the room. Coppi accepted Binda’s apology and stayed in the race. And that’s why they rode together on the road to Briançon, and why Coppi let Bartali win.

The day after that, on the 17th stage, they rode together again. Again, Bartali had a puncture. Again Coppi waited. Again Bartali punctured. This time Coppi did not wait. This time, Coppi instead chose to win the Tour de France. He attacked his fallen teammate, the defending champion, his teammate who was ahead in the ranking and who was going to win the Tour if Coppi only stayed with him. Coppi didn’t stay with him; instead, he won the Tour himself.

Coppi and Bartali, the two halves of the soul of Italy. Faustino and Il Pio – the little devil and the holy one. Coppi the rationalist, the modernist, the atheist, the adulterer, the pioneer in doping, the ruthless winner-at-all-costs, except when he wasn’t; Bartali who prayed as he rode, who was blessed personally by three Popes and had taught one to ride (his wedding was celebrated by a Cardinal and was also blessed by a Pope), Bartali declared Righteous Among Nations for risking his life to save Jews from the Holocaust, Bartali over whom the local priests brought out the children to sing canticles as the Tour rode past, Bartali the clean and fair and honourable rider. Bartali the narcissist, the braggart, the paranoid obsessive. The angels on each shoulder of cycling, and both of them insane.

Krabbé doesn’t tell that story either. But he does tell others.

Life and death. When he gets on his bike, Krabbé takes his life in his hands – and then throws it into the hands of chance. Storming down mountainsides into oncoming traffic at over 60kph… it doesn’t take one mistake, it takes one piece of bad luck. Even on the flat, injury and even death are only a moment away. The rider cannot ride unless he accepts that he might die: before the race, Krabbé throws his street clothes onto the back seat of his car and thinks that they will remain as they have fallen until he picks them up again, or until the authorities pick them up if he has died. The rider must ride without fear, without any regard for his own life. And yet at the same time, this is when his life is most precious to him. He prizes his life and his desparation to live is all that keeps him from dying – the rider who isn’t concerned with safety may be a great rider, but not for very long. So once again the book is about the limit – riding both terrified and fearless, without caution and without recklessness.

There’s a saying in the bible: If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple. In the original context, this is Jesus talking, but in the context of the novel it could just as well be cycling. In this way the book is indeed also a book about obsession, or insanity.

Except it’s not really insanity. Krabbé is not mad. He does things that other people might consider mad, even things that even he considers mad, out of love for his sport, but we’re in his head and he’s not irrational. He’s articulate and insightful. It is simply that he is living in a world slightly at an angle from ours: his language, his gestures, do not make sense to us, nor ours to him. The famous first paragraph of the novel:

Meyrueis, Lozère, June 26, 1977. Hot and overcast. I take my gear out of the car and put my bike together. Tourists and locals are watching from sidewalk cafés. Non-racers. The emptiness of those lives shocks me.

[Note, incidentally, the vital use of determiners right from the beginning - the car, but my bike. Swap those two determiners around and you change nothing about the economics, but everything about the psychology.]

He does not understand us; we do not understand him. The Rider is therefore a portrait of a form of life; one reason it is such a great book is that by the end, some of us will understand what he means by that – even those of us who aren’t cyclists.

[Another word there: 'shocks'. I know it's unwise to rest too much on a word that is, after all, translated, but I'm going to anyway. One non-cyclist reaction to The Rider is that it is an arrogant book that says that non-cyclists are inferior. But read that sentence again. He does not say 'those lives seem appallingly empty', or 'the emptiness of those lives disgusts me', but 'the emptiness of those lives shocks me'. I think that we should not read this as defending Krabbé's arrogance, or even necessarily as imputing any sort of conscious arrogance, but rather as an attempt to get across the isolation of an obsessive pursuit. To Krabbé, it is self-evident that lives without cycling are empty, not self-evident intellectually, but a truth embedded in his faculty of sight. He sees them as as empty. But at the same time that sight shocks him. A truly arrogant man would not be shocked by the emptiness of the lives of others - he would take it for granted. 'Of course everyone else has an empty life compared to mine - I mean just look at me, compared to them!'. But Krabbé expects himself to be like others, and others to be like him: it comes as a shock that the lives of others are empty, that they have allowed them to be so empty. So he is a man not comfortably superior but trapped uneasily between two worldviews that he cannot abandon and cannot reconcile: on the one hand the ordinary human conviction that we are all alike in some fundamental way, and on the other hand the clear evidence that other people, non-racers, are living lives that he cannot but regard as empty, and as inconceivable and shocking for having been chosen despite their emptiness. In a way, I think perhaps that being shocked by the Other is the only truly respectful response to difference. Disgust, hatred, rejection; or harmony, negotiation, solidarity, equanimity; or even emulation and praise: these all presuppose an integration of the Other into our own worldview, they are all ways in which we find a place for the Other, judge the Other, and whether we find it inferior, our equal, or even our superior, all these require on a prior level that we consider all these things commensurable with ourselves. We cannot do anything with our encounter with the Other until we resolve our impressions of the Other into something that is commensurable with the Self. Which, of course, in many ways they usually are, since, well, we are all human and we do share an astonishing amount with one another. But the true Other, perceived truly as Other, must begin by provoking an existential surprise, an incomprehension, a visceral shock, that things could be in such-and-such a way: and then we recover our breath and say 'of course, this does make sense if we only realise that these are primitive people who lack our sophistication', or perhaps 'of course, this all makes sense when you realise that compared to them we are backward and foolish!', or still again on occasion 'of course, we must understand that despite their differences they can still be dealt with as equals, once their differences have been taken account of, because we share much and the existence of superficial differences does not refute that fundamental family tie, nor imply a moral inferiority or superiority' - but Krabbé's rider instead remains simply trapped within an inescapable condition of shock, a shock that cannot be resolved: he does not claim to understand how other people can live without racing, nor why he cannot. And why does Krabbé say this at all? Because he too wishes to provoke in us this condition of shock. And some readers recover from their shock, resolve their shock, and say "what a wonderful and important life this life-of-the-racer must be! Of course our lives seem empty to him!"; and others say "how dare he say such a thing? What a flawed character he must have, how blinkered, how narcissistic!" and in this way respond to him in exactly the way they believe he is responding to them. He says that they are full of emptiness, and so they say that he is full of nothing but hot air. But I think the desired reaction is simply: shock. He does not understand us; we do not understand him. We are, after all, living within different forms of life. Remember Wittgenstein's insight that it is only when there is a shared form of life that there can be a shared language, a shared understanding: when the way of life differs sufficiently, our words become incommensurable. Krabbé is the lion that speaks, that we do not understand, and the shock of that encounter is only amplified because that lion is not a lion but an intelligent, ordinary, middle-aged Dutchman with a harmless weekend hobby, who the rest of the week is able to live among humans probably without anybody noticing that he is different. After all, perhaps he may be obsessed, but it is a sociable and unremarkable sort of obsession, the sort of obession that is private and that allows its bearer to 'pass' in mixed company. Indeed, a part of the power of the novel is from the suggestion that the Wittgensteinian lion is not merely unremarkably human, but may in fact be a part of, or an interpretation of, a great many people. I think it's important to note that Krabbé is not unaware of how his Other is experienced by others, both professional cyclists and the general public - how some idolise him by imposing their own meaning his actions, while others disregard him. Others try to put meaning onto what he does, just as he tries and fails to explain their lives to himself - and indeed, it is far from clear that Krabbé as a man is entirely able to explain to himself the nature and reasons of Krabbé the rider. But these attempts at imposing meaning are doomed to failure - what gives meaning has no meaning in itself.]

I’m not a cyclist, but I am a fan of professional road racing. It would be nice to think that if I’d read The Rider ten years ago I might have become a cyclist myself – certainly it’s a book that could be life-changing for some, and not only in such superficial ways. But I know that wouldn’t have happened. Ten years ago I despised all forms of physical activity, particular anything involving endurance. My memories of compulsory cross-country running are enough of a data-point for me to know just how badly I’d have done if I’d taken up the bike.

But I am, I suppose you might say, a voyeur of interesting madness. I feel the same way, for instance, about religion: I’m not a religious man, but I find religion interesting precisely because of the way it can get perfectly rational, perfectly intelligent people to act in a way that simply does not make sense to an outsider. The Rider is in this way a book about a religion, complete with its own mythologies, dogmas, authorities, episcopacies, rituals, its own paraphernalia.

                And nothing is better for a firm and solid faith than being in the wrong.

And perhaps the most important borderline is the line between self and nothingness. There is a pervading sense throughout The Rider that for Krabbé cycling is a kind of death, longed for in a way without any depression, but rather in the mystical way that some religious welcome death, welcome death as a liberation from the bounds of self, a unity with God. The rider dissolves into the ride, the mind into the body, the self into the whole, consciousness into the divine goddess that is suffering. It is, in a literal sense, a kind of ecstasy, and as unsettling as all forms of ecstasy are for observers.

And yet even as the self sinks away, the self rises to new heights. It is precisely in and around this ecstatic liberation from the self that the entire world is subsumed into the self, that the self is raised up above the world, above itself, becomes limitless. In more prosaic terms: just as Krabbés connection with the real is also an entrapment within layers of mythology, so too his self-abnegation is an act of hubris. Krabbé is hubristic, he is narcissistic, he is selfish, he is self-obsessed, both his ruthlessness and his grandiloquent flights of fantasy speaking to a sense of self that is freed from all bounds in a way we suspect he cannot replicate in any other part of life. Self and selflessness – not only co-existing, bu co-dependent. It’s hard not to think here of Schopenhauer’s dictum that the will to cease to will is itself a willing, and that in the case of the suicide that will not to will is the strongest and most powerful will of all, a will so strong it can out-will all other will, even itself. So too Krabbé’s implicit will to escape himself is itself the strongest and most unconstrained expression of his self – it is, after all, he who wishes to escape. The paradox lends the enterprise a tantalising desparation, an existential frustration, that is only matched by the serenity that it simultaneously generates.

I view my wrists, stretched out in front of me to the bars, straight as ramrods. They’ve become so tanned, almost black in the wrinkles. The little hairs lie next to each other in wet rows, pointing away from me. I find my wrists incredibly beautiful.

But this isn’t a literary novel. There’s not a single middle-aged college professor and literary novel writer contemplating having an affair. Instead, there’s a bike race. And that’s a big and important difference, because on the one hand, a bike race is inherently dramatic in a way that sitting around thinking about stuff is not, and because, on the other, a bike race does not allow itself to be be second in an author’s affections. This is not a novel about human existence illuminated by a bike race. This is a novel about a bike race, in which human existence is fuel to be taken up and spent, human existence is the turbulence, the epiphenomenal excresence, of the spinning of the wheels. All there really is is the race.

To return to practicalities – and despite the vagaries of the above, this is a practical book – The Rider is a short novel (probably a novella, in truth), told in a series of mostly short, disconnected paragraphs. Many begin with a distance, the location in the race:

                Kilometre 111-112. A cold, wet forest is growing up around me.

For the most part, the story is told in terse, clipped, simplistic sentences. Sometimes fragments of sentences. It take a little while to get into, I found, because it doesn’t seem very sophisticated. It seems hard to believe these brusque reports of distances and terrain, gear-changes and muscle pains, can possibly sustain the interest. They more than do. As the race goes on and we get closer to the finish line, the methodical staccato of the words becomes gripping, even engrossing. It is, first and foremost, a good fun read.

I should of course also give some space to the negative. This is difficult in this case, as for the most part the only things it fails to excel in are things it does not really attempt. The one thing I will say is that sometimes, a few times, a sentence seems inelegant, as though it’s gotten caught in the spokes and stretched out a little further than it can spring back. It’s never confusing, but now and then it is a little rough. It’s also the case that throughout there isn’t quite enough poetry in the language, the sentences do not sing as they should – as the thoughts contained in them demand. It’s a little like hearing a symphony through a thin wall, the melodies all there but everything somehow dampened down. Part of this may be the intentionally straightforward style, that rarely allows for purples excess, but mostly I think that it’s a problem of the translation.

The Rider, you see, is actually De Renner, a novel in Dutch. For the first 24 years, you had to learn Dutch to read it (or only 18 years if you were Danish); this didn’t preclude its becoming a cult novel, and a national classic (the Dutch Foundation for Literature says it “is to Dutch literature what Paris-Roubaix is to bicycle road-racing: a royal classic… the definitive abc of sports, an encyclopedia, a literary masterpiece, an adventure novel and bicycling odyssey all rolled into one”… a “little miracle”), but may perhaps explain why it is not yet universally known in the English-speaking world.

The translation to English was finally made by Sam Garrett and published in 2002. Garrett does not write poorly, and in any case not knowing Dutch I can’t tell you what is Garrett and what is Krabbé; indeed, this is a prize-winning translation, and that must have taken some doing, since I suspect that this sort of writing is deceptively difficult to translate well. However, while no doubt Garrett is an excellent writer for a freelance journalist, he’s not as renowned a writer in English as Krabbé is in Dutch, and there are times when it feels as though maybe the original might have had a little more sparkle than the perfectly serviceable translation does, and, as I say, there are a handful of sentences in the book that seem just slightly inelegant to me. That said, it should be noted that the translation is appropriately sensitive to the subject matter: cycling is a subculture rich in jargon, which Garrett translates where appropriate and leaves untranslated where appropriate.

[Incidentally, if you’re looking for a book to read while learning Dutch, I suspect this may be a good one to try: rich enough to be rewarding, yet simple enough to probably not be too hard to understand]

The only other thing I might say is that the book has no doping in it. I’m not someone who insists that every story about bicycles should wear a scarlett letter on its forehead, but this is actually a story where some mention of doping would have been appropriate to its themes. It’s believable to me that nobody in a high-level amateur race like the Tour de Mont Aigoual (or is it an extremely low-level professional race? I guess the race is professional, in that there’s prize money, but the riders are amateurs, in that the prize money is woefully inadequate and they all need day jobs) would be popping pills in the seventies… but I find it difficult to believe that nobody would have talked about them, tried them, heard someone say something about them. This was, of course, more than a decade before the miracle of EPO, and probably before blood-doping was being widely used – certainly before it was outlawed – but it was in an era of steroids and corticosteroids, and many of the legends Krabbé tells us were from the era of rampant amphetamine use. Top riders were sanctioned, there were protests by riders against testing, some riders (most prominently Anquetil) publically argued for doping. People had been using horse-pills, snake-oil and magical coloured water since the bicycle was invented, and surely in a peloton of enthusiasts like this there would be some rumours about it all. But there is no mention of it. There is no mention of it in the legends either, even the legends that are all about doping – he treats The Fall of Rivière as a story about a fall, for instance, and omits the whole ‘so high he lost the ability to squeeze his own brake levers’ element of the tale. Even Simpson isn’t treated as an opportunity to discuss drugs. The one reference to Merckx’s multiple positive tests is oblique, dainty, almost as though he found the idea of mentioning doping explicitly, even when everyone knew about it, somehow distasteful.

It’s a shame not because it detracts from the book, but because it detracts from the discussion around doping. So often debates on doping are polarised into two extreme positions: ‘all doping is cheating, anything done by a cheater is invalid and worthless’; ‘doping is just a part of the sport (of all sports) and doesn’t really matter, in fact it should probably be legalised’. The Rider feels like a book that could have found a place for doping somewhere between those extremes – or, more in keeping with the book, found a place for it at both incompatible extremes simultaneously. Of course we can’t blame Krabbé, writing in 1978, for not addressing the hot topics of 2014, and nor could we expect an unflinching exposé of drug-taking in sport that took on and exposed the big names of the era. But it is, and was, a shadow at the edges of the sport, and it seems a shame that a book all about the edges could not have at least hinted at its existence.


That’s all I can think of to say against it. Other than that, it’s a fantastic book, it really is. A literary masterpiece that will be read for the next hundred years, as a review-blurb on that Dutch Foundation website says – and I know that blurbs come cheap, but that’s a blurb so golden that even if it’s taken at half-price it’s still worth something. In fact, whimsy leads me to revisit that description of it as the Roubaix of Dutch literature – Paris-Roubaix is indeed known as ‘The Queen of Classics’, and perhaps that’s going too far for The Rider. But in cycling, the greatest and most historic races are known as the Classics, and the five Classics traditionally considered the greatest among them – the long, fast, early Milan-San Remo (‘La Primavera’), the vicious cobbled hills of the Ronde van Vlaanderen (often known simply as ‘De Ronde’, the Flemish equivalent La Tour), the murderous and ancient Ardennes hills of Liège-Bastogne-Liège (‘La Doyenne’), the exhausted late-season Italian heights of the Giro di Lombardia (‘La Classica delle Foglie Morte’), and of course Paris-Roubaix itself (‘L’Enfer du Nord’, the hell of the North) – are known by a different name: the Monuments. I’m not sure I’d call The Rider the Queen of all the Classics, but I’d be happy to call it a Monument. Like many monuments, it’s become a little overgrown, a little hard to find, most tourists pass it by, and it is tended only by a relatively small club of devotees – at least in the English-speaking world. But it will be around for a long time, and it’s well-worth the detour.

If nothing else, the whole thing comes in at under 150 pages…


Adrenaline: 5/5. No, this isn’t a flawless, heart-bursting thriller. But I don’t think I could expect more excitement from a book: over 150 pages, and 150 kilometres, Krabbé gradually builds up one of the greatest depictions of the tension of great sport, and never lets his philosophical side distract him from telling a good story.

Emotion: 3/5. I suppose if there’s a flaw, it might be that, being so in the moment, there is relatively little time for emotional response. The passions are running high enough that this isn’t a real defect, but we aren’t given the space to wallow in them that might make the book extraordinary in this dimension.

Thought: 5/5. You may accurately object that this isn’t the most sophisticated philosophical treatise on the nature of being, the paradoxical dichotomies of existence, and the characteristics of the postmodern life. This would be true. It is, however, as good a treatise on these subjects as you could expect from a novel. Endlessly quotable, and I suspect endlessly re-readable.

Beauty: 4/5. Stunning landscapes, both of the Earth and of the soul, and some appealing turns of phrase. Docked a point because the prose itself is not actually that exceptional, stylistically.

Craft: 5/5. I could dock that point again here – the prose isn’t perfectly constructed, at least in translation. But I think there’s enough brilliance here to let me ignore that for a moment. The prose is good, the images and expressions remarkable, the development of character impressive. What perhaps is most striking, however, is the way that Krabbé is able to intermingle fact and fiction, the moment of the race with the legends of the sport and Krabbé’s own biography, along with a sizeable dose of outright fantasy, and yet still have something that fits together perfectly, never feeling scattered or at odds with itself.

Endearingness: 5/5. It’s a cult classic. The ‘cult’ part of that should suggest the depth of adoration this book has provoked in so many people. I’m not sure I do outright adore it, but I’m a bit in awe of it, and the only reason I won’t continually be re-reading it is for fear of wearing it out. This may not exactly be what I normally think of as comfort reading – it’s not very comfortable, for one thing – but there are many times when I’m feeling down and it’s pouring rain that I might want to remind myself of this novel.

Originality: 5/5. It’s not just the best novel about cycling, it’s the novel about cycling. Nothing else comes close (or such at least is the general opinion), and you can see why. It’s a novel that is utterly and essentially about cycling and could not be about anything else, but that is at the same time about something entirely different – and it does what it does in a way both universal and yet utterly specific and unique.

Echo: 1/2. I don’t normally give a score for this, so people may have forgotten what I mean; this is OK, as I’ve never really known. This is the score for the way that some books make you feel when you’re not reading them. Oddly, this is perhaps the opposite of most of these ‘echoey’ books. Most of them drive you to your knees with this great incomprehensible void, the absence the book has made, a numbness to the world; The Rider is more a call to action, a stirring of the soul, a trumpet-noise where other great books engender a great silence.

Overall: 7/7. BRILLIANT.
Adding up those numbers makes The Rider the best book I’ve ever reviewed. Is it? I’m not sure. Let’s put it this way: I wouldn’t stake much of value on this really being the best book I’ve read in the last five or six years. But on the other hand, confronted with the proposition “this is the best book you’ve read in the last five or six years, isn’t it?”… well, it’s hard to really find a way to argue with that suggestion. Perhaps I am being too generous. Perhaps my little impulse to maybe for the first time award something 8/7 is just a madness of the moment. But even if all that’s true, I can’t avoid thinking that this is, at minimum, a brilliant book, and at a minimum one of the best books I’ve ever read.

And just to remind you all: it’s 150 small pages and take only a few hours to read. And maybe this review should have all been a lot shorter and more to the point: if you haven’t read The Rider, go read The Rider, right now. Some of you will love it, some of you will just be baffled by it, but whoever you are and whatever you read you haven’t read The Rider until you’ve read The Rider.

That, in the end, is why De Renner has been a cult classic since 1978. It’s not because it’s a brilliant book, although it is, but because it’s the only De Renner. It’s a solitary monument to a certain way of life, a way of being, and in being that it is ensured a place in the cannon of literary significance. Many books are other books, their virtues coming from being better at being that book than any of the other books that also try to be that book. There’s nothing wrong with that. Some of the greatest books are like that. But there is always an element of interchangeability about them. De Renner, I suspect (not having read all other books ever written), is not interchangeable with anything else. It is, by itself, one (small, perhaps, and strange, maybe) part of the nature of humanity.

Or, more to the point: there is no excuse for not having read The Rider other than not having heard of it. You have now heard of it. Go read it.


Discworld Re-Read Update

A housekeeping issue here…

I’m reading through the entire Discworld cycle in order. At least, that’s the theory. Right now, however, a couple of complications have arisen.

First, there’s Interesting Times. I can’t read this, because I can’t find it. This is galling. I know where it was six months ago (because I had to find it) and  I know I moved it to somewhere it wouldn’t get lost when the time came to read it. Inevitably, this has resulted in it getting lost now that it’s time to read it. This is… galling. I know it’s around here somewhere, but I’ve also looked everywhere it could be, and it isn’t anywhere of them. Bah humbug.

So I skipped that, temporarily and read Maskerade, and I’ve just finished Feet of Clay. What’s next?

Well, technically, Hogfather. Now, second complication: I read Hogfather the year before I started this re-read, and I already have a review up on my blog. I’m not sure I want to reread it again so soon. Maybe I do? I don’t know. Right now I’m thinking I don’t.

If not, that means the next book is Jingo. But I don’t want to read Jingo now, because I’ve just read Feet of Clay! Two Watch books in succession might be a little much, I think. So that means it’s on to The Last Continent… but I don’t want to read a Rincewind book when I haven’t yet read Interesting Times. It’s one thing to go a little out of order when the books are unrelated, but it doesn’t feel right to fail to read chronologically even within a single ‘sub-series’. So does that mean I’m reading Carpe Jugulum next, then?

That would make sense. But that would mean skipping three books in a row, in addition to Interesting Times… that doesn’t seem right!

So. Not sure what to do right now. This could all be solved if I could just find that darned copy of Interesting Times…

Reading Nietzsche: On the Genealogy of Morals (9)

Part of my ongoing project to carefully re-read On the Genealogy of Morals and offer some commentary as I go. In this part, we’re dealing with the First Essay, section 12.


Here we begin with one of N’s more famous quotes:

What is it exactly that I find so totally unbearable? Something which I cannot deal with on my own, which makes me choke and feel faint? Bad air! Bad air! It’s when something which has failed comes close to me, when I have to smell the entrails of a failed soul!

What a tosser. But philosophically, what is interesting here is the way that Nietzsche has moved from plain appraisal of things in their own right toward the concept of his inferior beings as ‘failed’. This is important, because failure implies an intent, a proper aim – to call a thing a failure means first holding it up against some ideal and then assuming the the actual was somehow meant to be the ideal.

What might Nietzsche say about that if he were willing to criticise himself? Well, fortunately for us he discusses this exact thing in Twilight of Idols, as the third step in his ‘history of an error’ (where in context ‘the true world’ is an ideal contrasted against reality):

The true world — unattainable, indemonstrable, unpromisable; but the very thought of it — a consolidation, an obligation, an imperative.

(At bottom, the old sun, but seen through mist and skepticism. The idea has become elusive, pale, Nordic, Konigsbergian)

This is what Nietzsche is doing as regards ‘failed souls’ – the criticism of them as failures necessitates an ideal that imposes an obligation, even if it’s only an aesthetic obligation.

Of course, what he is also doing is defining the self not through the self but through the other…

But if there are heavenly goddesses who are our patrons, beyond good and evil, then from time to time grant me a glimpse, just grant me a single glimpse into something perfect, something completely developed, happy, powerful, triumphant, from which there is still something to fear! A glimpse of a man who justifies humanity, of a complementary and redeeming stroke-of-luck of a man, for whose sake we can hang onto a faith in humanity!

Huh. Nietzsche goes all Heiligenstadt on us… he also becomes even more no-saying an life-hating than normal. What, the whole of the human species stands then in need of some justification? This great and many-splendoured and unparalleled flower of the tree of life lies summed up and measured and condemned by a merely human intellect and now must in some way be justified? Has Life then strayed so badly that it is not merely painful or distateful, in some way that could still allow us to rejoice in its elements, but so that it is actually in need of justification? Something that requires justification and yet has none is something that would better not to be at all. How can any flaws then outweigh the immeasurable virtues of any part of Life? Does a man dying of thirst complain that the water he is given to drink tastes brackish, is too warm, fails to smell of summer grass and fresh-cut fruit? Perhaps he does – but does he, can he, then exclaim that the water must justify its existence, that without a sufficient excuse the water ought not to exist? And if we berate nature and say that it requires some justification, why would nature pay any attention to us? Has its exuberance and joy so weakened that it allows itself to be subjugated to the petty and myopic and grandiloquent demands – be this waydon’t be like thatjustify yourself – of Herr Nietzsche?

Of course, you may not see the world this way; I’m not sure I do. But it is Nietzsche who teaches us the glories of life, the absolute necessity of saying yes to life; and yet at every turn we see him separate himself from life and cry out a resounding no.

Europe’s fate lies right here—with the fear of man we also have lost the love for him, the reverence for him, the hope for him; indeed, our will to him.

I can see elements of a point here. Indeed, things we fear often inspire awe, or reverence, and they in turn can inspire love, and faith. But are these the only routes to love? Is Nietzsche not adopting here a slave’s mentality? Our masters are so mighty they can kill us – how glorious and wonderful are the masters! Nietzsche, who wants philosophers to stand tall, to command, prefers himself to crawl and hide among the crowd, begging for someone to push his face into the dirt, a slave soul who yearns for a master because he cannot comprehend himself without a master to define him. What a pitiable creature. And he prefers to say that his demands to be dominated, his attempts to strongarm other men and force them to stand above him on a pedestal, are efforts born of love for others? Ressentiment! Ressentiment and false humility! And is he not indeed loving only one part of mankind? And a part, at that, that he does not believe exists? He takes his purported and impossible love of a terrifying man who no longer lives (if he ever did) as reason to despise mankind as it actually exists. Oh, there is no love in this, except perhaps self-love.



A long section that brings in one of N’s most famous metaphors: the eagles and the lambs.

That the lambs are upset about the great predatory birds is not a strange thing, and the fact that they snatch away small lambs provides no reason for holding anything against these large birds of prey.

Why not?

And if the lambs say among themselves, “These predatory birds are evil, and whoever is least like a predatory bird, especially anyone who is like its opposite, a lamb— shouldn’t that animal be good?” there is nothing to find fault with in this setting up of an ideal…

A clever argument: whoever is least like our enemies is a good person. I think it’s hard to deny that many people do think like this. But of course the problem with these genealogical arguments is that they concern the is, not the ought – even if we take them at face value. It’s true that being disliked by lambs is not inherently a reason to hold anything against the eagles… but likewise, the fact that the lambs dislike the eagles for their own reasons is not a reason for us to dismiss the reasons the lambs give for holding something against the eagles. Nietzsche tries to delegitimate rival views by suggesting ulterior motives, but this does nothing to address the views themselves.

I suspect also that Nietzsche isn’t being honest when he says that there’s nothing to find fault with here… given how vituperous he was in earlier sections about the monstrous villainy of it!

… except for the fact that the birds of prey might look down on them with a little mockery and perhaps say to themselves, “We are not at all annoyed with these good lambs. We even love them. Nothing is tastier than a tender lamb.”

No doubt which side Nietzsche sees himself on here… but he doesn’t just leave it as a conflict of tastes:

To demand from strength that it does not express itselfas strength, that it does not consist of a will to overpower, a will to throw down, a will to rule, a thirst for enemies and opposition and triumph, is just as unreasonable as to demand from weakness that it express itself as strength.

Here we see the ideology of the lambs as not just self-interested but as “unreasonable”. But I think Nietzsche is treading onto dangerous ground here. First, the standard of reasonableness is itself a value that must be questioned; and second, this implies an essentialist view of the world in which things simply are what they are. But this essentialism is something that it is difficult to sustain from a Nietzschean perspective. Finally, we can of course argue with his definition of strength, which equates strength with the actions of warrior barbarians – even taking strength on its own merits, we must surely observe that everywhere the wild and the dangerous is penned in and domesticated by the orderly and the civilised, not merely through psychological poisoning or through genetic dilution, but through force and strength. How then can we equate strength with the blond beast?

What follows is a vital section that I’ll quote in full:

A quantum of force is simply such a quantum of drive, will, action—rather, it is nothing but this very driving, willing, acting itself—and it cannot appear as anything else except through the seduction of language (and the fundamental errors of reason petrified in it), which understands and misunderstands all action as conditioned by something which causes actions, by a “Subject.” For, in just the same way as people separate lightning from its flash and take the latter as an action, as the effect of a subject, which is called lightning, so popular morality separates strength from the manifestations of strength, as if behind the strong person there were an indifferent substrate, which is free to express strength or not. But there is no such substrate; there is no “being” behind the doing, acting, becoming. “The doer” is merely made up and added into the action—the act is everything. People basically duplicate the action: when they see a lightning flash, that is an action of an action: they set up the same event first as the cause and then yet again as its effect. Natural scientists are no better when they say “Force moves, force causes,” and so on—our entire scientific knowledge, for all its coolness, its freedom from feelings, still remains exposed to the seductions of language and has not gotten rid of the changelings foisted on it, the “Subjects” (the atom, for example, is such a changeling, like the Kantian “thing-in-itself”): it’s no wonder that the repressed, secretly smouldering feelings of rage and hate use this belief for themselves and basically even maintain a faith in nothing more fervently than in the idea that the strong are free to be weak and that predatory birds are free to be lambs:—in so doing, they arrogate to themselves the right to blame the birds of prey for being birds of prey.

It seems to me that there are three key theories here. First, Nietzsche does away with the subject, and indeed with the object – all that exist are actions. The self, a fiction, is shaped by its actions, rather than its actions being chosen by the self. This is a big idea for the 19th century, but the passage of time has leant more and more support to it, through scientific experiments as well as through philosophical considerations, and Nietzsche gives some compelling metaphors and explanations of this myth. But, second, he believes that this entails some sort of determinism: things are what they are, and are not free to be otherwise. This is more than just denying the reality of the subject: after all, if freedom is defined through the choices of subjects, and subjects are themselves defined through their actions, then subjects, even if not ‘real’, will still be ‘free’ to act this way or that, provided that their actions are not entirely determined (there will be no other ‘freedom’ to contrast this freedom with and against which to find this freedom wanting). Nietzsche’s leanings toward determinism show up elsewhere too, as in his famous doctrine of eternal return; but are they really convincing? To take him at face value we must accept physical determinism, and then must rule out any sort of compatibilism that allows both freedom of will and physical determinism. Moreover, taking words like ‘freedom’ themselves at face value, it seems hard to deny that humans have immense powers of plasticity within them, and are able to change their natures to an unparalleled degree – so even if we do not believe that their changes are the result of free will decisions, they are still free to change. Finally, Nietzsche also makes the assumption that we cannot be blamed (or praised – the section goes on to depict the opposite side of the matter) for things we did not choose. But this seems tendentious, and out of character for Nietzsche. After all, can we not say that this is an excellent eagle, or that an excellent lamb, or this a thoroughly admirable piece of architecture? Why then shouldn’t we be able to praise an individual? And if perhaps ‘blame’ is too tied up in notions of free choice, why should that be an important thing, why would the move toward other terms of disapprobation be significant? After all, the ‘slave morality’ has been equally promulgated by those who do not believe that evil is the result of free choices.

…what that amounts to, coolly expressed and without bias, is essentially nothing more than “We weak people are merely weak. It’s good if we do nothing; we are not strong enough for that”—but this bitter state, this shrewdness of the lowest ranks, which even insects possess (when in great danger they stand as if they were dead in order not to do “too much”), has, thanks to that counterfeiting and self-deception of powerlessness, dressed itself in the splendour of a self-denying, still, patient virtue, just as if the weakness of the weak man himself—that means his essence, his actions, his entire single, inevitable, and irredeemable reality—is a voluntary achievement, something willed, chosen, an act, something of merit.

Aside from the comments above, there are three points to bring out here: first, the confirmation that Nietzsche is indeed talking about essential natures; second, the explicit contrast being action (strength) and inaction, ‘not doing too much’ (weakness); and third, the objection to how the weak portray themselves.

The second point may allow him to find some root for his essentialism: it’s conceivable that we might hold a coherent view in which exact qualities were not essential, but that raw quantities, degrees of action, were essential, and indeed objective. In practice, however, it requires Nietzsche to define rather conveniently which actions are actions and which actions are not actions… since of course we can hardly, objectively, say that 19th century society was inactive. Indeed, industrial society in some important senses did more than centuries of happy bloodletting in earlier times.

The third point, combined with the determinism, may remind us of stoicism. Stoics believed that physical events were predetermined, and that all we had power over was how we felt about them – thus, they preached emotional disengagement from the world. We cannot stop our children from dying, for instance, so we must simply learn not to care. Now of course the details of this are utterly inimical to Nietzsche, but he does often seem to be falling into the stoic division between what happens and what we think about it. We cannot blame a person for their behaviour, nor praise them, since that’s just their essence – but it certainly seems as though Nietzsche is willing to praise and criticise on the grounds of what people think about behaviour, and how they describe behaviour. But Nietzsche has no metaphysical grounds for making this distinction. What we think, what we say, that’s (in the absence of any belief in the soul/subject) just as determined as what we do. So why is it so unreasonable to criticise Aryans for raping people, yet perfectly reasonable it seems to criticise peasants for being proud of their non-violence? Nietzsche seems to be trying to have it both ways: put his own favoured things beyond criticism, but leave the things his enemies do as fair game. [Indeed, the whole fact of his writing these books, and the passionate, rhetorical, persuasive efforts he makes in doing so, belie his fatalism]

Reading Nietzsche: On the Genealogy of Morals (8)

Part of my ongoing project to carefully re-read On the Genealogy of Morals and offer some commentary as I go. In this part, we’re dealing with the First Essay, section 11.



Hmm. Maybe writing a 5000-word essay on each paragraph isn’t going to be a sustainable pace…

Section 11 is also a long and important section, but a little less in need of close study. It begins by giving us the title of this essay: N. compares master and slave moralities and their use of terms, with the masters dividing ‘good’ from ‘bad’, and the slaves dividing ‘good’ from ‘evil’. The nature of what ‘good’ is being opposed to gives different values of ‘good’, and it’s an important point that in a complex culture we may be dealing with multiple systems of ethical valuation at once, and that the same term may mean different things depending on which system we are employing. Nietzsche goes further, however, and argues that ‘good’ in the sense of ‘not bad’ is precisely what is meant by ‘evil’ – only ‘reinterpreted’ and ‘seen through poisonous eyes’.

Why is this? Well, Nietzsche’s actually quite charitable. Despite calling their perspective ‘poisonous’ and tainted by ressentiment, he nonetheless essentially concedes that this view is entirely justified and understandable, because the nobles are, fundamentally, wankers. At least toward the slaves.

And this is one of N.’s more troubling passages, because he says of his noble master race:

…the same good men who are kept within strict limits by custom, honour, habit, thankfulness, and even more by mutual protection, through jealousy inter pares, and who demonstrate toward one other such resourceful consideration, self-control, refinement, loyalty, pride, and friendship – towards the outside, where the strange world, the world of foreigners, begins, these men are not much better than beasts of prey turned loose. There they enjoy freedom from all social constraints. In the wilderness they make up for the tension which a long fenced-in confinement within the peace of the community brings about. They go back to the innocent consciousness of a wild beast of prey, as joyful monsters, who perhaps walk away from a dreadful orgy of murder, arson, rape, and torture with an exhilaration and spiritual equilibrium, as if they had merely pulled off a student prank, convinced that the poets now once again have something to sing about and praise for a long time to come. At the bottom of all these noble races we cannot fail to recognize the beast of prey, the blond beast splendidly roaming around in its lust for loot and victory. This hidden basis from time to time needs to be discharged: the animal must come out again, must go back into the wilderness – Roman, Arab, German, Japanese nobility, Homeric heroes, Scandinavian Vikings – in this need they are all alike.

He phrases this in national and racial terms – the master race invading the homes of the inferior races in order to rape and murder them and steal their possessions – but the same presumably holds true of class conflicts to some degree (as the Japanese mention confirms). We might presume then that to the extent it does not happen within the master’s own society (Roman plebs were not ‘joyfully’ tortured in the streets by their ‘roaming’ senators), this is because the slaves are the possession of the masters, and thus fall within their own fearful contracts of non-aggression.

It’s strange, incidentally, that N sees his master race as being so dominated by fear – the only thing that transforms them from pure beasts into civilised men is fear of one another, and elsewhere and repeatedly Nietzsche longs for more people worth fearing. Is a civilisation born of mutual fearfulness and timidity really so aesthetically appealing? He, of course, considers it in terms of a civilisation where people are to be feared – where they are strong, healthy, wild, joyously prone to orgies of rape, murder and torture – but the reverse of this is a civilisation where everybody is enslaved by their fears – where they are weak, constrained, contorted by external bonds, stunted. I’m not sure N has really thought this through sufficiently.

It goes without saying that this is one of the passages that really boosts the Nazi interpretation: they simply took him at his word that the animal must come out again, and let the blond beast room around for loot and glory – murdering, burning, raping and torturing – against the ‘inferior’ races of the east as ‘joyful monsters’.

And N is hardly doing himself any favours on this score. I don’t believe we are meant to entirely admire these joyful monsters – but in his desire to shock, he has put his adulation of monstrosity front and centre, and relegated (so far) any criticism of these people to implications and tangential subclauses.

Of course, N is clear in one respect about why he wouldn’t agree with the Nazis: he hates Germans (one can’t but wonder if this loathing of his own race is a sublimation of his own resentments and self-contempt, now that super-Nietzsche is determined only to praise himself). And indeed immediately after that passage he clarifies as regards modern Germanhood:

The deep, icy mistrust which the German evokes, as soon as he comes to power, once more again today—is always still an after-effect of that unforgettable terror with which for centuries Europe confronted the rage of the blond German beast (although there is hardly any idea linking the old Germanic tribes and we Germans, let alone any blood relationship).

Then again, even here we can see the agreement with the Nazis, who were merely one step less pessimistic and one step more proactive than Nietzsche. They, after all, did agree that the German race had become polluted and contaminated (‘blood-poisoned’ as N puts it elsewhere) – they just haven’t given up ‘hope’, and believe that with enough genocide and eugenics they can get back to the ‘blond beast’ once again – and in doing so impose an unforgettable terror!

Anyway, Nietzsche goes on with a cute theory that the bronze age (as the Greeks described it) and the homeric age of heroes are the same time period described from two perspectives: that of the nobles and that of the peasants. For the peasants, this time is “hard, cold, cruel, empty of feeling and scruples, with everything crushed and covered over in blood.” We should note that Nietzsche doesn’t dismiss this perspective: it’s just the necessary flip side to the admirable presence of murderers and rapists noble warrior spirits.

He then contrasts two views of civilisation, but this time he does not rate them equally. On the one hand, civilisation has produced an admirably domesticated pet out of the wild beast of mankind. But Nietzsche dismisses this view. Instead:

These people carrying instincts of oppression and of a lust for revenge, the descendants of all European and non-European slavery, of all pre-Aryan populations in particular—they represent the regression of mankind! These “instruments of culture” are a disgrace to humanity, and more a reason to be suspicious of or a counterargument against “culture” in general!

Again, to a reader living after the 20th century, the idea of labelling the descendents of ‘all pre-Aryan populations’, en masse, as a ‘disgrace to humanity’, a ‘regression’, is exceptionally distateful. And who can read this ‘counterargument against “culture” in general’ without remembering the words of the (Nietzsche-following) Nazi playwright, Hanns Johst:

Barbed wire is barbed wire! I know what I’m up against…. No rose without a thorn!… I know that rubbish from ’18: fraternity, equality, freedom, beauty and dignity! I shoot with live ammunition! When I hear the word ‘culture’, I release the safety-catch on my Browning!”

While it is hardly convicting evidence against Nietzsche as regards his influence on the Nazis, I do think it’s good to bear in mind, if we are tempted to dismiss Nietzsche’s rhetoric as mere hyperbole, the clear cultural ties involved. Nietzsche almost immediately became a symbol for a German avant-garde that prized youth, action, energy, affirmation, violence, and bloodletting – a generation of playwrights who (like Johst, or Bronnen, whose Parricide celebrates the murder of a father by his son as an expression of youthful action-at-all-costs in opposition to the conservative peaceability of the former generation) later developed their sentiments into propaganda for the Nazis. It’s easy to read Nietzsche’s violent words and great excesses of rhetoric as merely a poetic style, not to be taken literally – but in the context in which he wrote, and the context in which his audience first heard him, he would likely not have seemed particularly extreme at all – peculiar, no doubt, in some of the uses he made of his passion, but (notwithstanding the odd flourish) I don’t think that he can simply be dismissed as not being serious. Certainly he was read as being serious, and similar sentiments (if not his precise philosophy) were later put into effect in a very serious, and cataclysmically violent, way.

Not that it was only the Germans, of course. It’s hard to imagine, really the sheer insanity, to modern eyes, of respectable culture around the turn of the last century. Rupert Brooke springs to mind, encoruaging his friends to join up for WWI, in no illusions about their prospects: “The world’ll be tame enough after the war, for those who see it. Come and die. It’ll be great fun!” On the same conflict, from a distance but while preparing for his own intentional martyrdom, Patrick Pearse (another man who liked to compare himself favourably to Christ, revelled in his outsider status, and complained of the blood-poisoning of the Gael by an inferior race) opined:

It is good for the world that such things should be done. The old heart of the earth needed to be warmed with the red wine of the battlefields. Such august homage was never before offered to God as this, the homage of millions of lives given gladly for love of country.

Pearse too complained of the ‘emasculation’ of society and of pernicious female influence, and argued that only bloodshed of some sort could restore the manhood of the world. Indeed, almost anything could be justified as long as it involved killing:

I should like to see any and every body of Irish citizens armed. We must accustom ourselves to the thought of arms, to the sight of arms, to the use of arms. We may make mistakes in the beginning and shoot the wrong people; but bloodshed is a cleansing and a sanctifying thing.

The details of the cause may differ (Nietzsche was no great nationalist), but across Europe a sentiment hung heavily that bewailed the ‘old heart’ of the world, or as Brooke put it a ‘world grown old and cold and weary’, and called for action, beautiful, senseless, preferably violent action, to light that spark once again.

Nietzsche, writing a few decades before Pearse and Brooke, explains what is so terrible about the world today:

…who would not find it a hundred times better to fear if he could at the same time be allowed to admire, rather than not fear but in the process no longer be able to rid himself of the disgusting sight of the failures, the stunted, the emaciated, the poisoned? Is not that our fate? Today what is it that constitutes our aversion to “man”? – For we suffer from man. There’s no doubt of that. It’s not a matter of fear. Rather it’s the fact that we have nothing more to fear from man, that the maggot “man” is in the foreground swarming around, that the “tame man,” the hopelessly mediocre and unpleasant man, has already learned to feel that he is the goal, the pinnacle, the meaning of history…

N takes our fear of men as indicating some great quality about them – the lack of fear shows that men are only to be despised. But it’s not clear, once the first adolescent rush of restlessness has passed over us, why this is meant to be particularly compelling. There is, of course, a certain lure always about danger… but it’s a lure that is strongest for those who remain at a distance. Those surrounded by danger often long even more strongly for safety and peace – while some who have known terrible fear may admit an occasional creeping and subrational nostalgia, few of them would really prefer to go back to living in terror and mortal danger. Nietzsche talks of fear and danger with all the bravado of a career academic. It does not seem clear that this flows from the usual preoccupation with life and affirmation – while certain types of avoidance of violence are perhaps self-stunting products of timidity, it hardly seems as though this applies to all dignified and peaceful men. Or coming at it from the other side, is it true that the tame men Nietzsche hates are not to be feared? Hardly. The tamest men of all, the English, were at that time completing their subjugation of a quarter of the globe. That era produced the defence of Rourke’s Drift, and the Antarctic expeditions of Scott and Shackleton. They charged blindly and selflessly into bloody death in their millions in WWI, and later still, more men, even tamer men, bombed Dresden and Hiroshima. Nothing to fear? Hardly!

Reading Nietzsche: On the Genealogy of Morals (7)

Part of my ongoing project to carefully re-read On the Genealogy of Morals and offer some commentary as I go. In this part, we’re dealing with the First Essay, section 10.



The slave revolt in morality begins when the ressentiment itself becomes creative and gives birth to values: the ressentiment of those beings who are prevented from a genuine reaction, that is, something active, and who compensate for that with a merely imaginary vengeance.

I’m going to stick with ‘ressentiment’ here because it’s become traditional; to be honest, though, I don’t see why this meaning won’t fall easily under (albeit a broad) understanding of ‘resentment’, and certainly I don’t see why this of all words Nietzsche uses is deemed most in need of a new item of vocabulary – indeed, I think that what is happening here is that commentators have taken the excuse of Nietzsche’s continually-displayed penchant for eruditely using French word as an excuse to mythologise Nietzsche, to distance his theories from the world of conventional language, and hence to distance them from criticism in plain terms.

But anyway, what Nietzsche says here is so important that I’m going to be quoting a big chunk of this section. First, as we’ve seen, we re-iterate that the values of altruism stem from hatred, and from weakness – from the inability to respond to conflict with pure violence, and hence the need to respond in poisonous intellectual ways. But now finally Nietzsche gets down to details on how this process works, and what the important distinctions are:

While all noble morality grows out of a triumphant affirmation of one’s own self, slave morality from the start says “No” to what is “outside,” “other,” to “a not itself.” And this “No” is its creative act.

This, on closer inspection, is very interesting, for what N. does not point out: the fundamental unity of these perspectives. Again we may remember Schopenhauer’s four possible orientations of desire: toward one’s own weal, toward one’s own woe, toward another’s weal, and toward another’s woe. Schopenhauer thus creates a two-dimensional picture of human motivations. Nietzsche reduces this to a single axis, and in the process assumes a remarkable degree of universality in human motivation: either you are praising yourself (and hence contemptuous of others by comparison), or you are filled with hate of others (and hence proud of yourself by comparison). Both sets of people have surprisingly similar patterns of attitude toward self and other – in effect we are left with a sort of doctrine of double effect, in which what matters is not who the person favours and disfavours, but who the person is focused on, and the polarity of that primary focus. This insistence on a fundamental difference between two things that might appear the same, or as perfect mirror images, again recalls, and may originate in, Schopenhauer, who insists that positive and negative are not mirror images of one another. In Schopenhauer, this allows him to say that only suffering (negative feeling) is real, and that pleasure does not exist at all, but is only a period in which suffering is absent; Nietzsche uses it to insist that hating one thing (negative attitude) is not the same as loving its opposite. Hatred is qualitatively different. For one thing, it is hatred – and we should admit here that hatred is only a symptom, what Nietzsche is now talking about is rejection itself – it is rejection that is the source of creation. Rejecting what is, we create what has not been until now. The contrary attitude of affirmation is inherently sterile.

One way in which this is not double-effect, of course, is that there is no effect involved. In the principle of double effect, the value of an action depends on which of its consequences was the reason for performing the action and which are only tolerated side-effects; Nietzsche, on the other hand, is categorising orientations by which component intentionality is motivating, with no inherent reference to consequences. Again, the contrast can be seen by comparing this view to that of Schopenhauer: Schopenhauer’s taxonomy assumes that people are oriented toward desired consequences, weal and woe (though his view is not ‘consequentialist’ in the technical sense), but Nietzsche’s view assumes that people are instead oriented toward evaluation of themselves and others.

It must also be pointed out in passing here that Nietzsche is avoiding Schopenhauer’s conclusion (that only altruism is moral) primarily by ruling inadmissable Schopenhauer’s attitude of compassion, the orientation that leads people to seek the weal of others. Not only is Nietzsche moving from seeking weal to affirmation, but he omits entirely the whole possibility of a primary orientation toward affirmation of others. [Although it’s true that Nietzsche is not necessarily (though I believe he is in practice) presenting the two systems of morality here as the only possibilities]. He assumes from the beginning that everything is either affirming self or rejecting other, which means that any other-oriented attitude, such as love, must by his definition be an expression of hatred.

This transformation of the glance which confers value—this necessary projection towards what is other instead of back onto itself—that is inherent in ressentiment. In order to arise, slave morality always requires first an opposing world, a world outside itself. Psychologically speaking, it needs external stimuli in order to act at all—its action is basically reaction.

This makes the point clearer: although we may see the value of these values most clearly in rejection vs affirmation, the more important functional characteristic is the direction of the sentiment. ‘Slave morality’ is oriented toward the other – indeed, slave morality begins by creating the concept of the Other, and then reacts toward that.

The reverse is the case with the noble method of valuing: it acts and grows spontaneously. It seeks its opposite only to affirm its own self even more thankfully, with even more rejoicing— its negative concept of “low,” “common,” “bad” is merely a pale contrasting image after the fact in relation to its positive basic concept, thoroughly intoxicated with life and passion, “We are noble, good, beautiful, and happy!”

The master morality has no Other, only a vague awareness of things that fail to be Self, the awareness of which provokes further self-affirmation, not because the non-Self is hated, but because awareness of its differences from the Self solidify the master’s sense of who he is. What Nietzsche does not spell out is the opposing process in slave morality: presumably, the slave morality has no Self, but only a non-Other that defines the Self through its emptiness, a Self defined by the silhouette of the Other, an Other that creates the Self as a ‘pale contrasting image’ of itsother.

When the noble way of evaluating makes a mistake and abuses reality, this happens with reference to the sphere which it does not know well enough, indeed, the sphere it has strongly resisted learning the truth about: under certain circumstances it misjudges the sphere it despises, the sphere of the common man, of the low people. On the other hand, we should consider that even assuming that the feeling of contempt, of looking down, or of looking superior falsifies the image of the person despised, such distortions will fall short by a long way of the distortion with which the suppressed hatred, the vengeance of the powerless man, assaults his opponent—naturally, in effigy.

Nietzsche identifies the slave’s intellectual war against the master as a form of assault by effigy, itself an interesting concept. Wittgenstein talks at length about effigies – the burning of an effigy, he says, need express no propositional beliefs about causality, no belief in magic, but rather is an action, a gesture, intended to express a certain feeling in a ritualised way. Language itself, he suggests, is a similar ritual: words can stand as effigies of the objects of our intent. So too, Nietzsche makes thought, belief, morality, into a world of effigies, not rational, but driven by the sublimation of desires we cannot act out toward the true intended targets. It’s worth remembering how deeply indebted Freud was to Nietzsche (or, perhaps, how indebted they were to certain common originations of thoughts – one of Freud’s closest confidants and intellectual collaborators was the same Salomé who earlier in her life had shared her views with Nietzsche ten hours every day).

We might, however, question how easily Nietzsche himself is slipping into Othercentric ideas in this passage. Has he not gone from a nobility who direct the force of their feeling toward themselves, aware of others only as a pale reflection of themselves, to a nobility who actively despise, contemn, and look down upon the Other? The translation may be relevent here – the German verachtete can apparently be given the more neutral English translations of ‘disdain’ or even just ‘disprize’, and its use in idioms suggest it is often much softer in implication than the strong English ‘despise’. Nonetheless, I think this is a very valid objection to Nietzsche: even if we accept that there is nobility in self-love, a self-love that knowledge of the non-self only magnifies by making the nature of the self more clear, does this really entail any negative emotions at all toward the non-self? Why must we assume that this is a zero-sum game?

In fact, in contempt there is too much negligence, too much dismissiveness, too much looking away and impatience, all mixed together, even too much of a characteristic feeling of joy, for it to be capable of converting its object into a truly distorted image and monster. For example, we should not fail to hear the almost benevolent nuances which for a Greek noble lay in all the words with which he set himself above the lower people—how a constant form of pity, consideration, and forbearance is mixed in there, sweetening the words, to the point where almost all words which refer to the common man finally remain as expressions for “unhappy,” “worthy of pity”…

Here Nietzsche seems to be aware of the complaint I just raised, acknowledging that self-love is primarily narcissistic, rather than contemptuous, dismissive rather than despective. He even is willing to say that the nobles show consideration for, and forebearance toward, the slaves: the effusive joy of their self-love spills over into benign tolerance. Yet still, his language is far from neutral here. On the other hand, we should always bear in mind in this part of his essay that he is discussing here the great noble races of history – not necessarily his ideal man.

I’d also like to make a suggestion here, before we go too much further: Nietzsche is a hypocrite. This isn’t exactly news, and I suspect that at times Nietzsche would agree, but I think it’s worth reminding ourselves of. The clear and superficial hypocrisy here is in the contrast between Nietzsche’s view of self and other, action and reaction, and his own philosophical project: Nietzsche sets out, explicitly and in deed, to attack his rivals and demolish their intellectual edifices, while leaving it to future generations to begin construction anew. Nietzsche as a philosopher is therefore a perfect example of the hate-filled, ressentiment-powered reactive slave morality, that acts out of rejection of others, not of love of self. Oh, sure, he repeatedly tries, and tries too hard, to convince us that he adores himself, but by and large his work is a great big ‘No!’, a reaction thatfrom the start says “No” to what is “outside,” “other,” to “a not itself.” And this “No” is its creative act.

A potentially deeper hypocrisy, or at least tension, comes in his shift from Schopenhauerian goal-oriented attitudes to his own evaluative attitudes. Isn’t that also a case of moving from a spontaneous action to a mere reaction? Evaluation, even affirmation, is passive, relies upon a non-self to evaluate, and when it takes the form of self-affirmation, does it not make the Self itself into an Other to be judged and found, in this case, pleasing? Perhaps the implication of self-othering may be gotten around by pleading the limitations of language, saying that affirmation is not a judgement but only a poor description of this sort of effusive, joyous response. But it is still a response – it is still a reaction. Whereas goal-oriented attitudes can be truly active. Schopenhauer’s, it is true, were not – because he identified only suffering as real, the desire for good is only a desire to negate a portion of the world, to escape the world, to react to the world and say ‘no’ to it. Indeed, I do wonder how much of Nietzsche’s assumption that reaction and Other-consideration are inherently negative is simply a failure to see how deeply Schopenhauer’s assumptions have set their roots into his sometime follower, simply an unquestioned assumption that in an evil world all positive reactions to the world amount to a negation and a rejection of things. But this is not integral to the concept of willing a certain outcome. While Nietzsche’s objection applies to what we might call limited or circumstantial or telic desires, it does not apply to atelic desires, the desires that aim in a certain direction without having any specific destination in mind, any specific change to accomplish. The desire for happiness, if defined in a positive way and not merely as surcease from pain, is one such atelic desire – it need have no end, and so, being impossible to fulfill, it is not a mere reaction to the current state of the world. Wanting to be a millionaire, wanting all the money in the world – those are reactive desires, that depend upon a perceived lack. But wanting to increase your hoard of money – that is not reactive, as it applies just as equally to the pauper as to the millionaire. We may even say that telic desires may indeed be seen as reflections of rejection – something wrong in the world that needs to be addressed – but unfullfillable, atelic desires are in this light seen as effulsions of love, a desire for a thing motivated by love for that thing, not any belief that obtaining it will address some other lack.

Incidentally, his description of the noble ethos involving pity for the untermenschen seems quite at odds with his remarks elsewhere on the despicability of pity.

The “well born” simply felt that they were “the happy ones”; they did not have to construct their happiness artificially first by looking at their enemies, or in some circumstance to talk themselves into it, to lie to themselves (the way all men of ressentiment habitually do). Similarly they knew, as complete men, overloaded with power and thus necessarily active, that they must not separate action from happiness—they considered being active necessarily associated with happiness… this is very much the opposite of “happiness” at the level of the powerless, the oppressed, those festering with poisonous and hostile feelings, among whom happiness comes out essentially as a narcotic, an anaesthetic, quiet, peace, “Sabbath,” relaxing the soul, and stretching one’s limbs, in short, as something passive.

Two distinctions made here: between happiness in yourself and happiness relative to others, and between active happiness – Nietzsche often seems to use the word ‘joyous’ for this – and inactive happiness, which we might think of as quietness or serenity. Both are interesting distinctions, but the last is a little weak. We can see in hindsight why Nietzsche thought this important – because Schopenhauer’s happiness is the latter, a surcease from suffering, and Nietzsche wanted to rebel against his teacher. But Nietzsche gives no real reason why joy is better than contentment; what’s more, we may question the rigidity of this dichotomy. I’m thinking here of the pleasures of, as N. says, stretching one’s limbs, in a comfortable chair, in front of a fire… having been labouring outside in the rain. Nietzsche I think would see this as a paradigm ‘anaesthetic’ happiness, a relief from discomfort, and on a causal level this is accurate. But it seems to me there is a great difference between the anaesthetic comfort of rest after labour, which almost rejoices in the gentle aches, the deep chill, the sullen but not unmanageable weariness of the muscles, and the narcotic comforts of unbridled sloth: a difference in feeling, in neurochemistry, and in associated behaviour. If this is so, perhaps Nietzsche is wrong to focus on the mere action-polarity of the happiness, rather than on the broader comfort: perhaps the noble man would indeed like to rest his limbs after a long day in the saddle (crushing the skulls of the untermenschen beneath his jodhpured heel), and perhaps the problem of the slaves is not that they want rest, but that they continue to want rest even when they have been freed from their labours.

While the noble man lives for himself with trust and candour… the man of ressentiment is neither upright nor naive, nor honest and direct with himself. His soul squints. His spirit loves hiding places, secret paths, and back doors…. A race of such men of ressentiment will necessarily end up cleverer than any noble race. It will value cleverness to a completely different extent, that is, as a condition of existence of the utmost importance; whereas, cleverness among noble men easily acquires a delicate aftertaste of luxury and decadence about it…

This should remind us that Nietzsche sees himself as a clever man: his admiration in this essay for the noble man of action is therefore not monochrome.

The ressentiment of the noble man himself, if it comes over him, consumes and exhausts itself in an immediate reaction and therefore does not poison. On the other hand, in countless cases it just does not appear at all; whereas, in the case of all weak and powerless people it is unavoidable. Being unable to take one’s enemies, one’s misfortunes, even one’s bad deeds seriously for very long—that is the mark of strong, complete natures, in whom there is a surplus of plastic, creative, healing power, as well as the power of oblivion… Such a man with a single shrug simply throws from off himself the many worms which eat into other men.

Because the noble men are simple creatures, they almost lack the ability to resent, to hold grudges, to feel guilty – Nietzsche describes them very much as beasts, although it is interesting that he identifies the power of forgetting as a positive power.

We can see here, of course, Nietzsche’s seminal influence on Freud, who would take this contrast – between the healthy, active, man whose bad passions pass quickly and the unhealthy man in whom resentment, guilt, fear and so forth fester unexpressed like puss trapped within a boil, poisoning the psyche like a sepsis of the soul. Indeed, even the image of ‘repression’ suggests Nietzsche’s idea that the weak and unhealthy possess greater ‘depth’, the depth into which repressed feeling are pushed down… the depth that Nietzsche suggests it is repression itself that creates.

I’m also unable to overlook the similarities with the broader 19th century romanticisation of the middle ages, in which noble warriors were indeed portrayed as masters of this ‘oblivion’, this inability to take evil seriously. As a reader of fantasy novels, I’m aware that this sentiment is at much of the root of modern fantasy – even the modern wisecracking grimdark antihero is a descendent of this. But it’s expressed more directly early on – in Tolkien, for instance, the strongest of the Valar (his archangels) is Tulkas, who could almost have been written by Nietzsche:

In the midst of the war a spirit of great strength and hardihood came to the aid of the Valar, hearing in the far heaven that there was battle in the Little Kingdom; and Arda was filled with the sound of his laughter. So came Tulkas the Strong, whose anger passes like a mighty wind, scattering cloud and darkness before it; and Melkor fled before his wrath and his laughter, and forsook Arda, and there was peace for a long age.


Greatest in strength and deeds of prowess is Tulkas, who is surnamed Astaldo, the Valiant. He came last to Arda, to aid the Valar in the first battles with Melkor. He delights in wrestling and in contests of strength; and he rides no steed, for he can outrun all things that go on feet, and he is tireless. His hair and beard are golden, and his flesh ruddy; his weapons are his hands. He has little heed for either the past or the future, and is of no avail as a counsellor, but is a hardy friend.

Tolkien conceives of Tulkas as ‘the good side of violence’ – good, in that he has the unflinching courage and strength of will to face evil and not despair, nor negotiate. Where Tolkien and Nietzsche part is that Nietzsche seems reluctant to accept that there is ever a bad side to violence. Part of this may be their relative life-histories: Nietzsche spent a brief period as a medical orderly in the Franco-Prussian War, which seems only to have enhanced his adulation of warriors, whereas Tolkien spent six months at the Somme, seeing both his comrades and his old friends from home killed around him, and where he quickly discovered that among the officers, rather than noble teutonic warrior-spirits, “gentlemen are rare… and even human beings are rare indeed”. Perhaps this experience is why, much later, he had his character Faramir explain: “I do not love the bright sword for its sharpness, nor the arrow for its swiftness, nor the warrior for his glory. I love only that which they defend.” Nietzsche is far more interested in the shinyness of the swords and armour. Tolkien, on other hand, rapidly grew weary of what he called “the dull backwaters of the art of killing”.

The same idea of the laughing warrior is also seen in Chesterton, another romanticist. His poem “The Last Hero” (1901), for instance, exemplifies this trope, particularly in this verse:

The wind blew out from Bergen to the dawning of the day,
They ride and run with fifty spears to break and bar my way,
I shall not die alone, alone, but kin to all the powers,
As merry as the ancient sun and fighting like the flowers.
How white their steel, how bright their eyes! I love each laughing knave,
Cry high and bid him welcome to the banquet of the brave.
Yea, I will bless them as they bend and love them where they lie,
When on their skulls the sword I swing falls shattering from the sky.
The hour when death is like a light and blood is like a rose, –
You never loved your friends, my friends, as I shall love my foes

Or again in his masterpiece, The Ballad of the White Horse, where first he echoes Nietzsche’s adulation of the Celts (but recognises the dark as well as the light):

For the great Gaels of Ireland
Are the men that God made mad,
For all their wars are merry,
And all their songs are sad.

And then puts his views into the mouth of a pagan ‘big youth, beardless like a child’:

“For Rome was given to rule the world,
And gat of it little joy–
But we, but we shall enjoy the world,
The whole huge world a toy…

Doubtless your sires were sword-swingers
When they waded fresh from foam,
Before they were turned to women
By the god of the nails from Rome;

But since you bent to the shaven men,
Who neither lust nor smite,
Thunder of Thor, we hunt you
A hare on the mountain height.”

Before he is politely told by his elders to shut up, because while “boys must need like bellowing”, serious men have more serious attitudes. The other leaders of the Danish army, in order of advancing age, then give rather less healthy explanations for their violence – Ogier’s (Old he was, but his locks were red / And jests were all the words he said / Yet he was sad at board and bed / And savage in the fight) rage against gods and world - “the barest branch is beautiful / One moment, while it breaks – in defiance of death, and old Guthrum’s despairing need to simply take his mind off mortality:

“Strong are the Roman roses,
Or the free flowers of the heath,
But every flower, like a flower of the sea,
Smelleth with the salt of death.

“And the heart of the locked battle
Is the happiest place for men;
When shrieking souls as shafts go by
And many have died and all may die;
Though this word be a mystery,
Death is most distant then.

“Death blazes bright above the cup,
And clear above the crown;
But in that dream of battle
We seem to tread it down.

“Wherefore I am a great king,
And waste the world in vain,
Because man hath not other power,
Save that in dealing death for dower,
He may forget it for an hour
To remember it again.”

Anyway, I think I’ve become sidetracked here… Back to Nietzsche:

Only here is possible—provided that it is at all possible on earth—the real “love for one’s enemy.” How much respect a noble man already has for his enemies!—and such a respect is already a bridge to love. . . . In fact, he demands his enemy for himself, as his mark of honour. Indeed, he has no enemy other than one in whom there is nothing to despise and a great deal to respect! By contrast, imagine for yourself “the enemy” as a man of ressentiment conceives him—and right here we have his action, his creation: he has conceptualized “the evil enemy,” “the evil one,” and as a fundamental idea, from which he now also thinks his way to an opposite image and counterpart, a “good man”— himself! . . .

We may be reminded here, for instance, of the mediaeval Christian attitudes toward Saladin. And we also see Nietzsche finally making explicit what I suggested earlier: that for the slave morality, the ‘Self’ is only an ‘opposite image’ of the real reality, the conception of the Other.