30 October 2006

The Last Post? *

Tell me what is a thought, and of what substance is it made?
Tell me what is a joy, and in what gardens do joys grow?

—William Blake [1]

The man in the bookshop at Shannon leans back in his chair, eyes closed, feet propped on the desk, hands clasped, an open book face down on his lap. Limp kiwifruit skins litter a plate on the desk. The smell of old books.Little shag gular fluttering
He wakes as I slide the door open.
“I was just having a little doze,” he says, smiling.
I ask whether he has a copy of Thus Spake Zarathustra and his face lights up.
“Oh yes,” he says, “I usually have a couple of copies.”
He walks to the back of the front room, crouches and begins to look through a row of aged books. He frowns, seemingly perplexed that he can’t find a copy, but then extracts a volume from the row.
“Ah, this is the only copy I have at the moment.”
We talk a bit about Nietzsche, and it quickly becomes apparent that he shares my low regard for the great philosopher. I suspect we could natter all afternoon but I’m keen to keep moving. I buy the book, half wondering whether it’s a waste of money but I'm nagged by a feeling of obligation to read something of Nietzsche’s original work rather than slandering him solely on the basis of secondary literature.


At Williams Park the little shags now have chicks—strange, reptilian little animals. The light there is too harsh, too contrasty, so I carry on to Burdan’s Gate. But there, also, the hard, flat light and incessant wind stymie my intention to photograph. I retreat to the car and sit for a while, thinking of things I've seen earlier in the afternoon as I drove South. Somewhere near Tokomaru I saw cattle in a roadside field. One beast reclined on the ground, feet tucked under—but it was the curve of its neck I noticed. It had its head turned back so it lay against its shoulder, facing back. Something about the curve of the neck, the long swell of muscle under the skin. The poise of the head.

Soon after, I'd passed an old, gnarled Lorina Harding & Nigel Gavin at the Celticmacrocarpa, hardly even tree-like in its form, distorted by accidents and weather and perhaps a history of ill considered pruning. One of the big main branches curved in the exact form of the steer's neck; the swell of muscle appeared in the form of the wood beneath the bark. Even the same colour—the weathered silvery-grey of a charolais cross echoed by the bark of a Monterey cypress.

But no one calls them that here. They’re always macrocarpas. I wonder who first called them that consistently, and why, and when. Cupressus macrocarpa. When I was a child, discovering the world at McCormack’s Bay, macrocarpas were old trees where herons roosted and possums called at night and the darkness under low branches fostered too much imagination.


Why is Nietzsche held in such regard? Some call him a genius; he’s widely quoted, usually with awe; the literati relish dropping his name into a conversation, and he’s often referred to as one of the great philosophers of more recent times. Yet, his philosophy—if it can be called that—seems more assertion than reason; more diatribe than argument. I suspect much of the idolising arises from his skill with rhetoric—his ability to form such powerful aphorisms that to deny them is to appear weak and simple-minded. Take, for example, his statement that:

Most thinkers write badly because they communicate not only their thoughts but also the thinking of them.”

It's clever and powerful. However, like so many of Nietzsche’s claims, it's largely bullshit. And, since he deemed it unnecessary—in fact, undesirable—to justify his aphorisms, I won’t attempt to justify my claim that this example is bullshit; instead,Lorina Harding at the Celtic I’ll simply point out that in my experience, poor communication of thoughts more often results from the failure to communicate the thinking of them.

Admittedly, and certainly, some of what he had to say has merit. I think here of one of his more famous aphorisms:

A very popular error: having the courage of one's convictions; rather it is a matter of having the courage for an attack on one's convictions!!![2]

True. His idea of eternal recurrence—live your life as if you're destined to relive that exact life over and over, for ever—can hardly be surpassed as a guiding principle. I'm also very much in agreement with his exhortations to embrace life intensely, to welcome the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune because they offer the opportunity for growth. While I don’t share the intensity of his disgust at the attitude that would shrink from adversity and take refuge in servility, I do prefer courage as a response. But there's a world of difference between turning adversity to your advantage and actively seeking it at the expense of joy. Moreover, courage takes many forms: many more than Nietzsche’s narrow view, which seems heavily weighted towards violence, oppression, deceit, and exploitation. For example, true compassion can require great courage—it's one of the ways it differs from pity or sympathy—yet Nietzsche considered compassion a weakness. The idea that one human being might desire that another will find joy seems not only incomprehensible to him, but repugnant.


My friends visit for lunch, bringing their month old baby and pumpkin pie, and the kind of conversation and understanding that delights me. After the pie we sit on the verandah and talk. Emma, soon to turn three, comes over and leans against me, using me as a buffer between the others and herself, her shyness struggling with her curiosity.

My friends leave. Next door, Olive and Trev’s visitors drive off and the grandkids' parents prepare to leave. Carly and Emma run over and sit, one on each side of me on the verandah steps, talking simultaneously, making the most of their last opportunity for the weekend. I can't get a word in edgeways.

Being trusted by children. There’s as much delight and joy in that as in anything I know.


It’s tempting to characterise Nietzsche as being at the far end of an attitudinal spectrum with the Dalai Lama at the other; however, although I suspect Nietzsche would have appreciated this and probably considered it a spectrum of greatness, the Dalai Lama would probably dismiss the idea as a dualistic illusion. Moreover, I’m sure he would feel genuine compassion for Nietzsche. This, of course, would have driven Nietzsche insane if he hadn’t already been so for the last 11 years of his life.

I'm left struggling to understand why a person who considered women should be “playthings of the warrior”, most of the human race as “bungled and botched” and their wellbeing meaningless, and who compared them (us?) to apes [3], should be revered as an intellectual genius. Moreover, the pervasive dualism in his attitudes—exemplified by his contrast of Apollonian with Dionysian attitudes towards life—seems, to me, shallow; the opportunities for exploring how to combine those approaches to live a better life are wasted. My best guess is that he’s admired for two main reasons: his rhetorical brilliance, and his sheer audacity—his willingness to declaim against conventional, and mostly reasonable, beliefs. In my opinion, only the first deserves respect, and neither makes him a great philosopher.


Grey, drizzly rain; the mountains behind Levin receding in successively lighter silhouettes. Finally, nothing. Perhaps these were the mountains Zarathustra cameMuscovy duck portrait down from; mountains that give birth to legends. Mountains of myth, mountains in the mind. I wonder what our society today would be like if we all followed Nietzsche’s principles? In effect, I suppose I’m loosely applying Kant’s categorical imperative [4] as a test of Nietzsche’s philosophy—but Nietzsche considered Kant’s views absurd and dismissed him as unimportant. Typical, and it does nothing to show Kant was misguided. To the contrary, the little I know of the categorical imperative suggests it’s a useful tool for assessing the value and consistency of a philosophy, and, unfortunately for Nietzsche, it suggests the outcome of applying his teachings would be highly depressing. For example, if we all acted as if compassion were a weakness and the suffering of most of the world’s population as justifiable if it produces even a single great man, then what kind of world would we live in? Not one in which I’d like to live.


Wellington's about to be blown out to sea. Spray from the harbour gusts like squalls of rain across the waterfront; several times I'm almost lifted off my feet. But in the shelter of the canyons of the main business area the wind can't maintain its ferocity and resorts to being merely annoying. I make my way back to the car in the late afternoon, luckily avoiding the heaviest of the real rain which began an hour or so ago. A woman in her late 60s, perhaps her early 70s crosses the street with me, and after a particularly vicious wind gust, we strike up a conversation—the familiarity of shared adversity. She wonders whether she’s met me before; my face looks familiar, she says. I explain I'm not local; mention the Pohangina Valley; shake my head when she asks if I’ve been to Teachers’ College. She smiles and says I look like a tramper. You got that right, I say. She doesn’t elaborate, so I don’t know what gives her that impression but suspect it's the gradually moulting down jacket, the day pack, and the weatherbeaten disarray.

There's a fierce joy in foul weather. I think that kind of feeling may have been part of what gnawed at Nietzsche.


Back in the valley; a warm afternoon; the last clouds disappearing. A strange evening. I drove into town not long before dusk, and everything had an odd, hazy look—like an imminent fog. Down South, a bank of cloud hung over the Tararua Range, the world vanishing into the blank haze. Almost apocalyptic but without the trumpets and horsemen. For all my criticism of him, I think Nietzsche would have understood this feeling. Whether he'd have longed for the trumpets and horsemen is another matter—contentment seemed not to figure in his thinking. Perhaps he considered that a vice, too? Perhaps he thought dissatisfaction's necessary for growth, or, rather, that satisfaction hinders it? Maybe I'm misrepresenting him, but if I'm not, I'm pretty sure he's wrong. And if he's right, well, it's hard to see the point of a life. That, I think is the root of much of my dissatisfaction with his perspective; it's the feeling that it leads nowhere I'd like to be; a life lived as he advised would be an unpleasant and dissatisfied life.

I prefer the life I'm living.

1. from Blake's Visions of the Daughters of Albion. Many thanks to Debbie Lee for this gift.
2. from Nietzsche's
Works, 1920-1929, Volume XVI, page 318

3. I'll point out that I don't necessarily consider “apes” to be a pejorative term, although some of their habits are particularly unpleasant. But in this sense at least, Nietzsche was a man of his time. “What is the ape to man? ” he wrote, “A laughing-stock, a thing of shame. And just the same shall man be to the Superman: a laughing-stock, a thing of shame. ” from Nietzsche's Thus spake Zarathustra.
4. Loosely stated, the categorical imperative states you should act as if what you're doing should be a universal way of acting in similar circumstances. Although it resembles the Golden Rule, it is not the same. The Wikipedia article's a good starting point.

Photos (click the smaller photos to enlarge them):
Little shag (kawaupaka, Phalacrocorax melanoleucos) gular fluttering (it gets hot sitting on those nests. his is how they keep cool). Williams Park, Days Bay, near Eastbourne.
2 & 3. Nigel Gavin and Lorina Harding at the Celtic last Tuesday. Magnificent music. I didn't know they were playing until I arrived as they were setting up; after hearing just a few snippets and phrases of songs I abandoned my intentions of going to a movie. I had the camera with me; the lighting was appalling for photography (dim and red) and I pushed everything to the limits.
4. It's been good weather for ducks lately. A muscovy at Williams Park. I trust I won't look like this by the time the journey's over.
5. Woolshed, No. 2 Line, Pohangina Valley. Playing with the postprocessing.
6. Another in the series of the Wellington coast at dusk, Burdan's Gate, near Eastbourne.

* That's likely to be it for a while, as I fly out early tomorrow morning. I had intended to write more before I left; in particular, I wanted to do something about how I photograph, including the post-processing, but that will have to wait. However, this is only a last post in the sense that all time is contingent; I trust it won't be the last in any absolute sense. Take care, and look after each other.

Photos and words © 2006 Pete McGregor


Anonymous said...

You're still there!
Didn't you say something about leaving?

herhimnbryn said...

Phew! P. Yours the first blog I read at 4.30am ( thanks to the hound needing to go out, I'm wide awake).
After reading this post I think....'my, he's travelled so far and he hasn't left yet.'

I want to say much, but must read again ......I want to sit down with a cup of Lapsang and take it all in, revell in the words and images.
Am looking forward to the experience. Catch you later!

MB said...

Here's to compassion, or at least striving for it. Thanks for another post that will be mulled over. Beautiful photos as ever. Bon voyage!

robin andrea said...

Oh my, Nietzsche and beautiful photographs in the same post. I don't know if my brain can hold them simultaneously. I read, but my eyes are drawn to the musicians' faces, to the third eye on the muscovy's bill, to the description of the cow's neck. I am reminded of a deer that was lying outside our fence the other day. I couldn't take my eyes off of her. She curled her head and chewed on something, and for a moment there was perfect grace. I think of Nietzsche, and I think of a line from an old Jefferson Airplane song, it doesn't mean shit to a tree.

Pete, safe journey to you. I'm looking forward to how you see the world. Be well on your travels, my friend.

Pam in Tucson said...

All good graces go with you on your journey, Pete. Safe trip and happy times. We'll look forward to your return.

Avus said...

Hell, Pete - I don't know how you do it! All those deep reflections and great photos - especially when you are off on your travels tomorrow (today now?).

I agree with you about Nietzsche - anyone who was revered by the Nazis needs careful examination in my book (they loved his stuff about the Ubermensch).

I, too, am looking forward to the "Pete's eye" view of your travels.

Keep safe, be happy.

will said...

Hi Pete,
...let me know when you are around...
I might also be on the move to somewhere. ;-)
...could be that we have a drink there than - as you said - I owe you one.

Anonymous said...

Today, you left
Behind, I stayed
watching you getting in the plane.

I feel lonely, today


zhoen said...

Most philosophers should have, instead of pontificating, cultivated and sincerely earned the trust of three year old girls.

KiwiSoupGirl said...

Thanks so very much for blessing us all with this delightful gem before your departure. I do not know how you do it, either....such beauty and fodder for the mind and soul...! My delight was complete seeing Nigel and Lorina in your sights...both musical acquaintances of mine here. And exceptional musicians, undoubtedly. Also - wonderful human beings. :-)

May compassion and joy be your companions on your journey - nay, wherever you go!

Stay safe and well - I join everyone in looking forward to hearing of your experiences.

bev said...

Thanks for the thoughtful farewell piece, Pete.
A good journey to you, and may you see and find many interesting and wonderful things.
Be well.

Clare said...

Take good care Pete. Look forward to the resumption of your posts, as I always do. And as another philosopher said..

"Happy Trails to you, until we meet again."

larry said...

Nietzsche might have considered himself more artist than philosopher. ‘Zarathustra’ is, for example, a piece of fiction. I wonder about the value of putting Nietzsche on a pedestal labeled ‘philospher,’ which serves to project a set of expectations, perhaps inherently false, about truth and beauty and virtue and all that rot. Art can work in odd ways—take irony for instance—but the meaning of art is built, I think, from the materials in the experience of the viewer/reader; thus, interpretation is inherently subjective. On the other hand, there has been extensive, thoughtful criticism—not all positive—about the historical sense and later significance of Nietzsche’s writings.

To reject Nietzsche’s writings because they were championed by some Nazis, as Avus might be suggesting above, would be like rejecting oxygen because the Nazis breathed it. Let us please give more air to ideas than that narrowness.

I’ve always enjoyed reading Nietzsche because he spurs my thinking. Difficult thinkers, including those with whom we disagree, can possibly take us to places that need more exploration.

May you have good travels and find good ideas, Pete.

butuki said...

Man, Pete, you have a way of exacting serendipity out of other people's lives. This last post coincided perfectly with my own struggle with this new life I have just stepped into, in which every day now I am asking myself serious questions about what constitutes a life of joy and worth. This new job and location I am in already, in just two weeks, has challenged my sense of independence and dignity, with some power issues in play that I have little respect or patience for. I thought of you last night, your ideas and your committment to living in your own way, when thinking about my own doubt about if I have done the right thing coming here. What gave me hope was remembering that I am always, always free to choose the direction I want to take and that if I don't want to live a life of fearing other people's demands or stances, I have merely to not give in to them too easily. It is part of the fierce joy of walking in storms that you feel. A storm makes all things equal, it doesn't matter your status or social identity or preconceptions about others... a storm will blow all your vanities away. And that is where my heart lives and where I hope to find the stability of my own life. I can survive the indignities and frustrations of what other people want of me or think of me by remembering that I am free to walk away.

As to Nietzsche, I haven't read enough of him to make any meaningful comment. Just, as my German mother once noted to me about reading Freud, how he might say thing translated into English and what was actually said in German is often diametrically different. My mother insists that many modern day psychiatrists do not understand what Freud actually meant because they didn't read him in his own languag, through the cultural prism of the German outlook and the nuances and feelings of the German language. Perhaps Nietzsche carries some of that, too.

I must head off to classes, but I'll write again later.

Avus said...

For Larry:
I think I said "careful examination", rather than outright rejection

sylph said...

"There's a fierce joy in foul weather."
Amen to that. and being trusted by small children always makes my day.
I wonder, what was the movie you might have seen that evening?

herhimnbryn said...
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herhimnbryn said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
herhimnbryn said...

Ok...so many typos in the last two comments I made. Start again Susan, start again!

I came back and re read P. I sat with a glass of peppermint tea and absorbed your words.

So much Pete, so much. But you know what stays with me as I potter round the garden? The graceful curve of an animal's neck and the instinctive trust of a small child.

Travel well Pete.

Anonymous said...

...come on bloggers...
Was that all you had to comment?

AscenderRisesAbove said...

found you through simply wait blog; beautiful photos throughout!

pohanginapete said...

Thanks everyone. Thanks for the thoughts, the musings, the ideas, the good wishes. It's frustrating not having the access to photo processing software, nor to sufficient time to answer in detail — but I am photographing, and I am writing. Writing a great deal, and not just descriptions of what I've seen and done. It's something I love about travelling: that it seems to encourage ideas so readily. If it continues, I'll have more material than I know how to deal with by June next year.

I'm off to Uttaranchal (Indian Himalaya, immediately West of Nepal) early tomorrow morning. The snow will be well down by now, so I might not be able to get as far in as I'd wished, but wherever I get will be good. I don't know how long I'll be there, but it doesn't matter.

Larry and Avus: Nietzsche's works were apparently edited and heavily selected by his sister, and she should shoulder much of the responsibility for his work being associated with the Nazis. He himself was scathing of anti-semites. It does seem understandable why some of his ideas appealed to Hitler, but I do agree with Larry that it's no reason to dismiss him, In fact, Avus's call for "careful consideration" seems entirely appropriate. I could say more, but I'm running out of time... And no, I'm not fence-sitting, I think you're both right!

Sylph, the movie was "The Devil wore Prada". I saw it on the flight to Kuala Lumpur, and wasn't impressed.

Anonymous: Is that you, Will? Crikey, if those comments aren't enough, what is? They seem to cover the whole range; I deeply appreciate them.

Stay well and look after each other.

Pete :^)

Avus said...

Pete - have you ever thought of taking up mediation?

will said...


pohanginapete said...

Avus: Ha! Well, I am heading for Rishikesh tomorrow. No, wait, that's meditation... ;^)

Will: My apologies. Guess you get that pint back :^) BTW, I'm amazed they let you take those photos of the whaling.

Anonymous: my comment still stands. I don't really understand your point.

Peregrina said...

Maybe Anonymous was just encouraging those of us who hadn't made a comment on this post to make one, and those who had to keep the debate going?

Good to hear from you, Pete. I'm off to get the atlas out. Keep travelling happily.

Schwelmo said...

Hi Pete! Good to hear you arrived safe in India! Hope you find time to post at least 1 or two pics while you were traveling....and I would appreciate if you collect some vegan recipes ;-)
Take care!

Schwelmo said...

are travelling...bloody English!