At the age of 14, I sat in the cavernous balcony of the Stanley Theatre in Jersey City, waiting for the science fiction movie with the odd title to begin. The house lights went down and I settled deeper into my seat, ready to begin the familiar, beloved ritual.
The screen was completely dark. Slowly I became aware of a strange, deep bass rumble coming from the enormous Dolby speakers on the walls. The floor itself, the seats, were vibrating. On the screen, the camera was panning up over the dark side of the moon. Three brass notes sounded, rising; the music suggested infinite distance and enormous possibility. On the screen, Earth broke above the curve of the moon, and an enormous orchestral outburst slammed me back into my seat. As the fanfare continued, I experienced something I’ve never experienced since: the hair on the back of my neck and my arms stood up. I had to know what this music was, what it meant. The subject was not open for discussion. It was an obsession, you understand.
My investigations took me to the King Kullen record store in one of the sleazier neighborhoods of midtown Manhattan, where I bought the sound track for 2001: A Space Odyssey. I played that LP until it became unplayable, its uneven grooves reamed smooth by the needle. The liner notes told me that the piece that possessed me had an odd title, in a language I didn’t recognize: Also Sprach Zarathustra. The liner notes explained that it was composed by Richard Strauss as homage to a book with the same strange, incomprehensible title, written by some man with an equally comprehensible name. How exactly should I pronounce that name? Nye-chy? Nitch-key? Nysh?
Another (warning: bad pun ahead) odyssey to Manhattan secured me a copy of The Portable Nietzsche, which contained Zarathustra and several other works. And so I started reading.
Let me be clear: had it not been for Nietzsche, I would have wound up just another dead junkie in the low, dangerous, feral neighborhood where I grew up. I damn near wound up that way anyway, which is a whole other story. I have a t-shirt that reads, “Friedrich Nietzsche Saved My Soul.” People tell me how witty and totally post-modern it is. I tell them I'm dead serious.
Miraculously, I escaped to a small Jesuit college, where I majored in Philosophy and went head-to-head with the priests, full of the sort of tedious, humorless sincerity that only Humanities undergrads can muster. Nietzsche led me and my college peers to Camus and Sartre, and we all styled ourselves as engaged, indignant Existentialists, determined to change the world or at least change a few lives. You were either a Camusien or a Sartrean, and your life wasn’t worth a plugged franc if you got caught after dark on the Sartre gang’s turf with a copy of L’Etranger in your back pocket. We all wrote boatloads of philosophy, but in the spirit of our heroes we also wrote novels and plays and short stories. All of what we wrote was completely awful, of course, full of trite, portentous bathos and strident poseur bravado. What the hell; we put our hearts and souls into it, and we lived and wrote like we meant it.
You know the next chapter: life got in the way, as it always does, and I got waylaid, sidetracked, stopped ... for 30 years. And then one day five years ago, I found myself working on a software development project far from home, driving hours to and from work in the dark. With nothing in front of me but the cone of headlight, and no radio stations that far out, my quotidian mind slowed down and finally became quiet for the first time in decades. And that’s when I heard the little voice. Lethargically at first, as if struggling to wake from a long, drugged sleep, and then with increasing urgency, the small still voice said: Become who you are! At that moment, I felt something slip. It was a sensation, an actual physical sensation of a deep slippage inside my head. Something broke free, some great inner dam gave way and ideas poured through the breach and into my mind. An enormous flood of ideas, each demanding not only that I pay attention to it, but that I help it on its way out into the world.
And so, this blog. A place in the world for those ideas that are unlikely to grow into full-fledged essays, or books. I write constantly now, and am having some modest success in placing my work. But this place here, this is the place for the runts of my litter, my beloved runts.
So I found my way back, at the end, to Philosophy, to all of it, and when I’m grinding out the miles on the treadmill at my gym I wear my t-shirt proudly. And in March 2007, I made an important pilgrimage, and stood at the head of the “Nietzsche Trail” in the mountaintop Hobbit village of Eze, the trail he walked up and down every day when he was writing Zarathustra. Standing there, I finally understood Nietzsche’s poetry of the great heights, his poetry of over-coming and under-going.