I often tell my students that philosophy saved my life. And it’s true. But on that first trip to Sils-Maria—on my way to Piz Corvatsch—it nearly killed me. It was 1999, and I was in the process of writing a thesis about genius, insanity, and aesthetic experience in the writings of Nietzsche and his American contemporary Ralph Waldo Emerson. On the sheltered brink of my twenties, I’d rarely ventured beyond the invisible walls of central Pennsylvania, so my adviser pulled some administrative strings and found a way for me to escape. At the end of my junior year he handed me an unmarked envelope—inside was a check for three thousand dollars. “You should go to Basel,” he suggested, probably knowing full well that I wouldn’t stay there.
Basel was a turning point, a pivot between Nietzsche’s early conventional life as a scholar and his increasingly erratic existence as Europe’s philosopher-poet. He had come to the city in 1869 as the youngest tenured faculty member at the University of Basel. In the ensuing years he would write his first book, The Birth of Tragedy, in which he argued that the allure of tragedy was its ability to harmonize the two competing urges of being human: the desire for order and the strange but undeniable longing for chaos. When I arrived in Basel, still a teenager, I couldn’t help thinking that the first of these drives—an obsessive craving for stability and reason that Nietzsche termed “the Apollonian”—had gotten the better of modern society.
The train station in Basel is a model of Swiss precision—beautiful people in beautiful clothes glide through a grand atrium to meet trains that never fail to run on time. Across the street stands a massive cylindrical skyscraper, home to the Bank for International Settlements (BIS), the most powerful financial institution in the world. I exited the station and ate my breakfast outside the bank as a throng of well-suited Apollos vanished inside on their way to work. “The educated classes,” Nietzsche explained, “are being swept along by a hugely contemptible money economy.” The prospects for life in modern capitalist society were lucrative but nonetheless bleak: “The world has never been so worldly, never poorer in love and goodness.”
According to Nietzsche, love and goodness were not realized in lockstep order but embodied its opposite: Dionysian revelry. His life in Basel was supposed to be happy and well-ordered, the life of the mind and of high society, but upon arriving, he fell into a fast friendship with the Romantic composer Richard Wagner, and that life was quickly brought to an end. He’d come to Basel to teach classical philology, the study of language and original meanings, which seems harmless enough, but Nietzsche, unlike many of his more conservative colleagues, understood how radical this sort of theoretical excavating could be. In The Birth of Tragedy, he claims that Western culture, in all of its grand refinement, is built upon a deep and subterranean structure that was laid out ages ago by Dionysus himself. And, in the early years of their friendship, Nietzsche and Wagner aimed to dig it up.