The alpine valley of the Upper Engadine, stretches eight miles from the Maloja Pass, on the edge of the northeast Italian border, northeast, across three crystal-blue lakes – Sils, Silvaplana, and St Moritz – and terminates in the hotel-studded city of St Moritz, the mecca of the rich and famous. We weren’t rich or famous, and we weren’t going to St Moritz, but rather to its more modest sister town, Sils-Maria, the one-time home of the German iconoclast Friedrich Nietzsche. It was his place, perhaps his only place, in his words: ‘my proper refuge and home.’
The car was quiet. Our six year-old daughter Becca had fallen asleep, and Carol and I were alone with the lake, the mountains, and a blessed moment of calm. I’d fallen in love with her in the White Mountains of New Hampshire, a hidden place where we’d escaped two marriages that really deserved to die. The road construction ended and we picked up pace as we rolled toward Silvaplana. After the switchbacks of the Julier Pass at 7493 feet, the stretch between Silvaplana and Sils-Maria was a welcome relief. It curves gently around the lake, which, as I remember it, was ruffled by the wind. But today, it was perfectly still, creating a perfect aquamarine table on which the mountains were firmly set. When the glaciers flowed through these valleys in ice ages, they excavated the land and over time, the water filled in the massive depressions that were created. How many rains, day after day, year after year, did it take to fill such a lake?
I caught sight of the wooded hills above Sils-Maria and, over the trees, the white turret of the Hotel Waldhaus. It had been sixteen years since I’d last visited Sils-Maria, or for that matter, thought about Nietzsche, and I had an uncanny sense of homecoming.
‘Oh, my,’ Carol shivered and let out a muffled gasp, ‘God.’
Nietzsche once lamented that, ‘God is dead,’ that we moderns had entered an age when belief in divine was next to impossible. On this day, God was alive and well in the Engadine: he snuck through clouds and emanated from the water and converged where the light met one’s eyes. I couldn’t see it from the car, but I knew what traced the edge of the road we were traveling: a walking path that I often frequented in my youth, the same one that carried Nietzsche to his Zarathustra. When he walked this trail, skirting the water, Nietzsche wrote that he frequently wept ‘not sentimental tears, but tears of exultation.’ When you read Nietzsche in a library or coffee shop, it is possible to misinterpret this as hyperbole or the ravings of a madman. But not here. There is no such thing as hyperbole in the Alps. ‘The intensities of my feeling’ he claimed, ‘make me shudder and laugh aloud.’
On the opposite shore of the lake, on a small outcropping of grass, sits a single pyramidal stone. I remembered it as shoulder height, although I now know it is considerably larger, almost twice the size of a man, mirroring, in miniature, the surrounding mountains. When I first saw it, I tried, unsuccessfully, to climb it. This rock is, perhaps, the best reason to read Nietzsche. It is, I am sure, the one and only reason I agreed to return to Switzerland after so many years. ‘Now I shall relate the history of Zarathustra,’ Nietzsche prepares his reader in Ecce Homo. Continuing, he explains: ‘The fundamental conception of that work, the idea of eternal recurrence, this highest formula of affirmation that is at all attainable, belongs in August 1881: it was penned on a sheet with the notation underneath “6000 feet beyond man and time.” That day I walked through the woods along the lake of Silvaplana; at a powerful pyramidal rock not far from Surlej I stopped. It was then that this idea came to me.’ The idea, commonly known as the ‘eternal return’ asks us to imagine that every action, every decision, every trip we take in life will be taken again, innumerable times. Are our decisions and trips worthy of an infinite repetition? That is the question that Nietzsche wants us to answer.
When I was nineteen, I traveled to Sils-Maria in search of Nietzsche’s Ubermensch – a type of superhuman ideal who would be able to shoulder the responsibility of the eternal return. I thought the only actions worthy of taking and repeating were the strenuous variety, driven solely by the strength of one’s individual will.
I stayed at the austere – some might say, genuinely Spartan – Nietzsche Haus, the museum-cum-hotel that was once the philosopher’s summer home. It was and remains one of the cheapest places to stay in the. It is a hostel of sorts, but this makes it sound far more raucous than it actually was. The first floor of the Haus is a gallery for the paintings of regional artists (when I was there the smudged skulls of Gerhard Richter were on display) and for photographs of the writers who had come to Sils-Maria to pay their respects to Nietzsche: Neruda, Hesse, Mann, Rilke. The five rooms on the second floor of the Haus, down the hall from an impressive library of Nietzscheana, are reserved for ‘scholars,’ interpreted broadly as any bookish pilgrim willing to talk in hushed tones for a week and pay fifty dollars a night to sleep next to a philosophical legend. On my first visit, I was by far the youngest.
One night, a small group of travellers congregated in the common kitchen in the basement to talk about their daily treks: through the gentle rolling hills of the Laret, which prickles with pine and opens out to the high meadows of the Fex Valley, across the wide glacial plain that leads to the snow and ice of Alp Mout Slevas at 7000 feet. This was one of Nietzsche’s favorite trails in his later years when he struggled continually with his health. Most pilgrims stopped there. But most pilgrims weren’t nineteen.
In my beat-up runners, I turned north to the alpine lake of Lej Sgrischus which mirrored Piz Corvatch, the quintessential Nietzschean peak at 11,300. He summited the mountain at least once on the opposite face, on a well marked trail that I’d hiked in the previous days. It had seems almost too easy at the time. I am sure it was this thought that had led me to Lake Sgrischus. There’s no direct trail from the lake to the summit on this side of the mountain, but I remembered Nietzsche’s instructions: ‘There is in the world a single path where no one can go except you: whither does it lead? Do not ask but go along it.’ So I did.
By the time twilight arrived, 2000 feet of gravel and ice separated myself from the lake below. I couldn’t make it back there, much less to the Nietzsche Haus, before dark. So I stopped and decided I’d stay put for the night. Without a tent or a sleeping bag, ‘staying put’ can be rather – well – disconcerting. The night descends and you are left all by your lonesome in an unforgiving world. It’s not heroic, but it is frightening. On my way to the Nietzsche Haus I’d tried to cut a similarly misguided trail across Piz Platta and was lost for two days.
This time was slightly different. It was premeditated. I knew – basically – where I was. I knew – basically – what I was doing. This time, I had a hat and gloves. I just wanted to experience the disorientation and exposure again. To see if I could face my fears. Nietzsche’s writings are all about ‘exposure,’ drawing oneself out into the open and revealing the parts of a person that are typically off limits. There is obvious danger in this. Experienced rock-climbers talk about a different kind of ‘exposure’ with a distinct mix of admiration and horror, and they should. The division between mountain rock and open air, like all boundaries, is precarious and unstable. There is a sort of deadly triumph in confronting it. Quoting Ovid, Nietzsche writes, ‘Nittimur in vetitum.’ Strive for the forbidden.
I know: this doesn’t sound strenuous – just stupid. Many people have scolded me for being so very irresponsible. ‘You could have died,’ they say. Maybe, but I was pretty safe. Their real mistake though, I think, lies in their misunderstanding of the meaning of ‘responsibility,’ at least in the Nietzschean sense of the word. Most of our ‘responsible’ lives are so measured, so constrained, so tame, that we typically live by way of autopilot. We don’t need to choose the paths we take. Most of them are prescribed to us beforehand, which is to say that we are not responsible for them at all. At best, we are partially responsible, as Cormac McCarthy says in his Blood Meridian, ‘pursuing as all travelers must inversions without end upon other men’s journeys.’ All pilgrimages have this inverted, repetitive quality, but Nietzsche urged us to make our own way as best we can.
And this was my rather juvenile attempt.
Still, after all these years, I still see something worthwhile in this stunt performed above the Nietzsche Haus. Indeed, I have repeated it many times. It might have been stupid, but it was my stupidity, and this moment of ownership was novel, and maybe even a little powerful. It was ill-advised, but it was free, or at least freeing. We all die, it is only a matter of when and how. We get to decide. There is something rather important about choosing where to exeunt and when to stay put. Looking back, I would do it all again. And again.
John Kaag is the author of Hiking with Nietzsche: Becoming Who You Are, available now from Granta Books.