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Nietzsche as Old and New Myth: A Review of D. Harlan Wilson’s Nietzsche: The Unmanned Autohagiography  

By Michael Templeton


Chapter 22 of D. Harlan Wilson’s Nietzsche: The Unmanned Autohagiography is devoted to an explanation of Slavoj Žižek’s claims regarding Nietzsche, the author/narrator quoting: “Nietzsche was repeatedly reinvented throughout the twentieth century: the conservative heroic proto-fascist Nietzsche became the French Nietzsche and then the cultural studies Nietzsche.” The author/narrator cannot help himself from appropriately referencing Žižek’s Violence, and this chapter-long digression—an “autohagiography” of the “Great Nietzsche”—leads him to conclude that the German philosopher “is more cartoon than man now.” How appropriate since there is no philosopher on earth right now who is more of a cartoon of himself than Žižek, whose ideas seemingly circulate more in internet memes than in anything else, who’s plagiarized himself to the point where one can simply dismiss him as being nothing more of an ineffectual, far-too-public intellectual.

In any case, Nietzsche: The Unmanned Autohagiography unfolds through chapters that resemble Nietzschean aphorisms but are also nothing like them. And what of this “unmanned autohagiography.” Wilson’s Nietzsche tenuously ties the concept to autofiction, which it then proceeds to deny. Chapter 54 offers a digression on hagiography, with a mini-digression on the emergence of the autohagiography that begins “in the fifteenth century, around the time that Vlad the Impaler became a vampire named Count Dracula.” Said hagiography was written by Andrei Icon—a play, one might imagine, on the name Andrei Rublev, the famed Russian painter of icons. This autohagiography was ultimately attributed to “a bottom-tier, nondenominational demon” and “an explosion of autohagiographies didn’t ensue.” What has ensued over the past century is an industry built around the idea—as opposed to the reality, if we can speak of such things—of a contemporary Nietzsche who is as much action figure and internet meme as he ever may have been a philosopher.

Wilson’s autohagiography is “unmanned,” yes, because the Nietzsche of today oozes out of the digital slime. Search the name online and watch how the little algorithms that know us better than we know ourselves swamp your social media with quotations, images, an endless array of online sites to buy merch—it crowds out everything you thought you were all about. And what/who is this Nietzsche that the algorithm just plastered all over your Face-X-stagram-tok? He is the Patron Saint of Nihilism, of course. The one who said all that cool hardcore shit like “God is dead” and the later bizarre writings caused by general paresis, or syphilis of the brain. He is the Bobblehead Saint of Bad News for all you young and intense emo types (does emo even exist?), the necessary precursor to someone arguably more despairing philosopher, like E. M. Cioran.

So is Nietzsche: The Unmanned Autohagiography autofiction in disguise? Like Nietzsche, Wilson himself shifts the conversation away to something else as soon as you hit upon a point. And that may be the point. As James Reich, who wrote the introduction, writes: “The Madman, whose name is D. Harlan Wilson [not Neet-chee], would suffer none of this. Thus, he became what he is.” Which is to say, he invented the unmanned autohagiography. But what is this thing again? Says Reich:

Does it mock the vogue for “autofiction,” a term that does not need to exist? The Faculty are restless at this! They have been tricked into believing that the author is dead, but there he is, or there she is: emerging like Lady Lazarus into the writing she isn’t supposed to have had any hand in!

But this is not the author at all, is it? It is something altogether different: a narrative voice, a persona, a simple mind game designed to fool us into thinking we are learning something about Nietzsche when we are really just being led along a dead-end of the Human Stain Department. Or, another possibility raised by Reich: “Is this not a hagiography of the autohagiographer, this D. Harlan Wilson?” Or does it even matter, since the point is to keep following the point wherever it moves?

As you make your way through the book’s “an-aphorisms” that function as chapters, you will encounter Lacan and Kristeva, musings on the idea of grand narratives, scholarly studies of Nietzsche and his life, a few digressions on Nietzschean philosophy, an explosive alcoholic episode I found too close to home to enjoy, and more besides, like near the book’s end, where the reader is addressed:

Hello! I’ve forgotten what this book is about. This always happens. I mean, it’s about Nietzsche, kind of, but beyond this topical marker, the book doesn’t seem to be about much of anything or anybody. That said, there are distinct themes, voices, sleights of hand, etc., all of which we might call “deliberate” and “purposeful,” if not “methodical,” “systematized,” and “altogether preemptive.”

Nietzsche: The Unmanned Autohagiography is all of these things and none of them at the same time because the book refuses to ever be systematically classified. Its point keeps moving, and that is the point. When talking about dismantling grand narratives, we are talking about postmodernism, and we are all sick to death of post-everything. What now is not post when everything is always-already post-core or something like that, complete with a hashtag and some twenty-something admins? What difference does any of it make—an authentically Nietzschean sentiment. We have found the Abyss, and the Abyss does not care, which makes the Abyss that much more of an Abyss.

Ultimately, what makes Nietzsche: The Unmanned Autohagiography so compelling is how Wilson dangles all of this before you without ever letting you have whatever it is that gives it all meaning. You need to do that yourself. And nothing constrains you, except, perhaps, you. This is not an assignment, and there is no reason at all why you need to make any of this square up with Nietzsche. Make it square up with anything you want. Or don’t make it square up at all, which is what I suggest. Leave it all dangling like textual delirium tremens, complete with hallucinations and seizures, if you can manage such a thing. If anything is to be learned, it’s found in Chapter 37 of the book: “Dead authors are the only illusionists capable of writing new myths.” And this is what Wilson, who’s very much alive, has done: written a new myth. Go and do likewise!


  • Michael Templeton is the author of The Chief of Birds and the forthcoming Impossible to Believe. He has published articles and essays on contemporary culture and numerous works of creative nonfiction.

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