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Friedrich Nietzsche’s Coffee Morning

Stephen McKenzie records a (mostly) friendly meeting between Friedrich Nietzsche, Khalil Gibran and Diotima of Mantinea.

What if Khalil Gibran and Friedrich Nietzsche walked into a café and sat down at a small table together? What if they were friends, at least occasionally – whenever they recognised their human closeness – and enemies, at least occasionally – whenever they didn’t?

Two postgrad students in a large Australian city. One is obsessed by Khalil Gibran, the influential Twentieth Century Lebanese mystical poet and author of The Prophet. The other is fascinated by Friedrich Nietzsche, the famous and greatly misunderstood Nineteenth Century German philosopher and author of Thus Spake Zarathustra. The students know each other from a previous stint in drama school where both were enthusiastic method actors. Perhaps unsurprisingly, they tend to over-identify with the subjects of their studies. Recently emerged from the university library, they are sitting awkwardly in an obscure coffee bar waiting for more coffee and clues, yet neither of them realizes how connected the subjects of their studies actually are to each other. Similarly, neither Nietzsche nor Gibran, these once wonderfully eclectic lovers of wisdom, realized what it really is that brings them, and all of us, together – their love of love.

Friedrich: So what have you wasted your time doing this morning, Khalil?

Khalil: Being a real student for once – discovering why and how people are people, via philosophical poetry and poetic philosophy. I started re-reading my hero’s masterpiece. Did you know that The Prophet only sold fifteen hundred copies the first year it was published in the 1920s, but has now sold well over twenty million copies? That must mean it speaks to something inside an awful lot of people. I learned a lot more about cognitive psychology this morning than I have learned in years of what I normally study there – for instance, how and why most of us can remember a phone number with seven numbers in it but not one with eight numbers. That’s probably why we can’t understand our world anymore. It’s too complicated!

Friedrich: Most of the people in this world have never understood what’s really worth understanding. But I’ve always been a student. I’ve been officially studying philosophy for years, and unofficially studying and living it for even longer. I don’t study philosophy because it helps me understand the world or the people in it. I study it because it helps me understand myself.

Khalil: As your best – or at least your only – friend, I can truly say that you ought to stop studying yourself and start studying anything else. It’s making you too introspective, too analytical, too keen to find answers rather than be the answer. Why don’t you just let go of your intellect and allow yourself to experience a deeper reality that you can rest in – and experience as it is, rather than always wanting to know what it isn’t? It suddenly became clear to me this morning that the words of The Prophet aren’t put together to construct an argument, but just arise from a deep place, to remind us of what we think we have lost, yet still really have – our deep human freedom, our divine connection!

Friedrich: Ach, quatsch! Nonsense! We don’t live on this planet to listen to invisible angels singing the song of seductive sirens. We live on it to sing our own song: to triumph over, or at least resist as long as we can, the demons in our own minds, and in everyone else’s minds. We can become supermen, and superwomen, by finding who we really are, the only way we can – the hard way. What doesn’t kill me makes me stronger!

Khalil: Forget not that the earth delights to feel your bare feet and the winds long to play with your hair! The timeless within you is aware of life’s timelessness. And knows that yesterday is but today’s memory and tomorrow is today’s dream.

Friedrich: You have your way, I have mine. As for the right way – the correct and only way – it does not exist. Sometimes people don’t want to hear the truth because they don’t want their illusions destroyed.

Khalil: Some say, ‘Joy is greater than sorrow’, and others say, ‘Nay, sorrow is the greater.’ But I say unto you, they are inseparable.

Friedrich: You do sound like a prophet – of a new and foolish age! An age that has bought twenty million copies of your foolish love book, and nothing like as many copies of my real human prophecy you stole its idea from – Thus Spake Zarathustra!

Khalil: Maybe we’re not as different as you think. Maybe none of us are as different as we think. People say that I must have been a mystical fraud, whatever that is, because I drank myself to death at the age of forty-eight, after saying stuff like “Your pain is the breaking of the shell that encloses your understanding”, and “Even as the stone of the fruit must break, that its heart may stand in the sun, so must you know pain”, and “could you keep your heart in wonder at the daily miracles of your life, your pain would not seem less wondrous than your joy…”

Friedrich: (Taking a loud slurp of his double espresso) Yes – and people slandered me by saying I was a philosophical fraud, whatever that means, after I died of syphilis, or so they claimed, at the age of fifty-five. Truly, after saying stuff like ‘God is dead’, I became a misinterpreted lover – of fate, life, and a woman who didn’t love me back. But the individual has always had to struggle to keep from being overwhelmed by the tribe. If you try it, you will be lonely often, and sometimes frightened. But no price is too high to pay for the privilege of owning yourself.

Khalil: Sometimes it’s hard being human – especially a philosophical human! You pray in your distress and in your need; would that you might pray also in the fullness of your joy and in your days of abundance!

Friedrich: Yes… whoever fights monsters should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster. And if you gaze long enough into an abyss, the abyss will gaze back into you.

Khalil: So what do we take home from our separate lives, and from our coming together?

Khalil’s and Friedrich’s mutual friend Diotima joins them at the table. Her hero is her namesake, the Diotima of Mantinea who according to Plato’s Symposium was the teacher of the immortal Socrates. She is currently a student of dentistry.

Diotima: Hi guys!

Friedrich: Hi Diotima!

Khalil: Diotima, you’re the only one of us who’s smart enough to know what’s really worth knowing – such as how to fix peoples’ pain. What’s the answer? What are we really here for?

Diotima: You spend your days and nights trying to see the philosophical light, and don’t realize what’s getting in the way – your own shadows! But you already know the only thing you really need to know. The only thing that any of us needs to know is that our lives are love stories, and no love story is really over until its heroes and heroines find their way back to love. To quote you, Khalil, at your best –

“When love beckons to you follow him, Though his ways are hard and steep. And when his wings enfold you yield to him, Though the sword hidden among his pinions may wound you. And when he speaks to you believe in him… if in your fear you would seek only love’s peace and love’s pleasure, Then it is better for you that you cover your nakedness and pass out of love’s threshing-floor, Into the seasonless world where you shall laugh, but not all of your laughter, and weep, but not all of your tears.”

And to quote you Friedrich, at your best and worst –

“And those who were seen dancing were thought to be insane by those who could not hear the music… We love life, not because we are used to living but because we are used to loving… Whatever is done for love always occurs beyond good and evil.”

And to quote me, because to really know other people we need to really know ourselves:

“For God mingles not with man, but through Love.”

Friedrich stands peremptorily, glares at them both, and strides off in an angry silence.

© Dr Stephen McKenzie 2021

Dr Stephen McKenzie is a Senior Lecturer & Online Course Developer in the Melbourne School of Psychological Sciences at the University of Melbourne.

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