Book review: Hiking with Nietzsche, by John Kaag

Detail from the cover of Hiking with Nietzsche, designed by Dan Mogford
Detail from the cover of Hiking with Nietzsche, designed by Dan Mogford
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When he was 19 and studying philosophy at Pennsylvania State University, the academic John Kaag was offered a sort of unofficial travel bursary. “My advisor pulled some administrative strings,” he recalls, “and found a way for me to escape. At the end of my junior year he handed me an unmarked envelope – in it was a cheque for three thousand dollars.” At the time, Kaag was studying Nietzsche and his US contemporary Ralph Waldo Emerson, so his advisor suggested he should use the money to travel to Basel, where Nietzsche wrote his first book, The Birth of Tragedy. However, when the young Kaag arrived in this most mind-numbingly well-ordered and efficient of Swiss cities, he realised – much more quickly than Nietzsche did – that the place wasn’t for him: “I woke the next morning before daybreak, went for a long run in order to confirm my suspicion that Basel was utterly soulless... and made for the train station.”

Just as Nietzche had done, when the young Kaag escaped from Basel he headed for the mountains: first to Splügen and then to what had by this time become known as the Nietzsche-Haus in Sils-Maria, where the philosopher had produced some of his most influential work.

In fact, Kaag first attempted to make the 31-mile, as-the-crow-flies journey between Splügen and Sils-Maria on foot, but nearly did for himself in the attempt. An impromptu overnight camp high in the mountains left him with frostbite, so he ended up hitchhiking instead. The weeks he subsequently spent at Nietzsche’s former residence proved hardly less perilous: under the spell of the great man’s book Thus Spoke Zarathustra, in which he encourages readers, among other things, to “grasp the abyss,” Kaag took to fasting, embarked on ever-more taxing expeditions into the mountains and hiked many times to the edge of a crevasse high on Piz Corvatsch – his very own abyss, into which he frequently considered throwing himself. In the end, as he puts it, Kaag “chickened out,” but his experiences in Sils-Maria stayed with him, and in Hiking with Nietsche, the now-36 year-old philosophy professor returns to the site of his earlier existential crises, this time with his second wife, Carol, and their young daughter Becca in tow.

What follows is, on one level, a fantastically well-written and engaging primer on Nietsche’s life and work, and, on another, a searingly honest odyssey into the author’s psyche, by turns fascinating and frustrating.

Like Nietzsche, Kaag lost his father when he was four. “Nietzsche’s died,” Kaag writes, “mine abandoned his family.” Perhaps because of this, Kaag is particularly acute in his analysis of Nietzsche’s relationship with his influential surrogate father, Richard Wagner, the breakdown of which was at least part of the reason for his flight to the mountains. Perhaps this obsession with fatherhood also explains why he so frequently tries to see his relationship with his daughter through the murky lens of Nietzschean thought. In some instances this can throw up interesting ideas, but at others it can feel clunky and forced.

Kaag also has an unfortunate habit of emphasising the danger he is in at fairly frequent intervals. True, he’s hiking what sound like some fairly sketchy mountain trails all by himself far from the nearest hospital, but at the same time he’s not exactly Alex Honnold free soloing El Capitan. By the time you’ve heard him opine that “anywhere in the Alps can be dangerous,” explain that one particularly exposed section of trail has “no railings or safety nets” and express admiration for his wife’s ability to “stand close and witness a loved one take a risk” as he prepares to, well, go for a walk, you might start to wish he could be a shade more British and stiff-upper-lipped about it all.

Still, happily for all concerned his frustration that his middle-aged “search for the Übermensch had become a family affair – brimming with tender moments, routine tasks and playdates” is eventually replaced with the reassuring conclusion that “becoming who you are” as Nietzsche instructs isn’t “about finding a ‘who’ you have always been looking for” but rather “selfhood is made in the active, ongoing process, in the German verb werden, ‘to become.’”

Ultimately, this is the story of a man finally laying to rest his Nietzschean obsession and his Nietzschean impulses. Back at home in the United States, he writes: “I longed for another trip to Switzerland, if only to let Basel redeem itself.” - Roger Cox

Hiking with Nietzsche, by John Kaag, Granta, 255pp, £14.99