To Glorify His Majesty, King Squirrel I

by John Holbo on October 5, 2015

So I’m reading As If: Modern Enchantment and the Literary Prehistory of Virtual Reality, by Michael Saler. When up pops a quote from the Julian Young biography of Nietzsche, referencing a passage by Nietzsche’s sister, which reads:

My brother and I … created an imaginary world of our own in which tiny china figures of men and animals, lead soldiers, etc., all revolved round one central personality in the shape of a little porcelain squirrel about an inch and a half high whom we called King Squirrel I … It never for a moment entered our heads that there is nothing regal about a squirrel; on the contrary, we considered that it had a most majestic presence … this small king gave rise to all sorts of joyous little ceremonies. – Everything that my brother made was in honour of King Squirrel; all his musical productions were to glorify His Majesty; on his birthday … poems were recited and plays acted, all of which were written by my brother. King Squirrel was a patron of art; he must have a picture gallery. Fritz painted one hung round with Madonnas, landscapes, etc., etc. A particularly beautiful picture represented a room in an old monastery in which an old-fashioned lamp burnt in a niche and filled the whole apartment with a quaint glow.

Now we know the true meaning of ascetic ideals! It all goes back to that picture in a picture; that room in the old monastery with the old-fashioned lamp! All for King Squirrel I! All of Nietzsche’s philosophy, in honor of King Squirrel I! Such pathos of distance. Lone squirrel, so small, so high. Lone squirrel wanders in his art gallery.

As Nietzsche writes in the Prologue to Genealogy:

But the fact that today I still stand by these ideas, that in the intervening time they themselves have constantly become more strongly associated with one another, in fact, have grown into each other and intertwined, that reinforces in me the joyful confidence that they may not have originally developed in me as single, random, or sporadic ideas, but up out of a common root … For that’s the only thing appropriate to a philosopher. We have no right to be scattered in any way: we are not permitted to make isolated mistakes or to run into isolated truths. By contrast, our ideas, our values, our affirmations and denials, our if’s and whether’s, grow out of us from the same necessity which makes a tree bear its fruit—totally related and interlinked amongst each other, witnesses of one will, one health, one soil, one sun.—As for the question whether these fruits of ours taste good to you —what does that matter to the trees! What concern is that to us, we philosophers! . . .

As Zarathustra teaches: “Only through esteeming is there value, and without esteeming the nut of existence would be hollow.”

King Squirrel I is not amused by hollow nuts of existence.

From Daybreak:

This too is tolerance. -‘To have lain a minute too long on the glowing coals and have got a little burned – that does no harm, to men or to chestnuts! It is only this little bit of hardening and bitterness which will let us taste how sweet and soft the kernel is’. – Yes! That is your judgment, you who intend to enjoy these things! You sublime cannibals!

Nietzsche will feed himself to King Squirrel I – who is also … himself! We await das Ubereichhörnchen!

All this supports my contention that Nietzsche was crucially influenced by Bullwer-Lytton’s Devereux:

A miniature of Oliver Cromwell, placed over the chimney-piece, forcibly arrested my attention.

“It is the only portrait of the Protector I ever saw,” said I, “which impresses on me the certainty of a likeness; that resolute gloomy brow,—that stubborn lip,—that heavy, yet not stolid expression,—all seem to warrant a resemblance to that singular and fortunate man, to whom folly appears to have been as great an instrument of success as wisdom, and who rose to the supreme power perhaps no less from a pitiable fanaticism than an admirable genius. So true is it that great men often soar to their height by qualities the least obvious to the spectator, and (to stoop to a low comparison) resemble that animal* in which a common ligament supplies the place and possesses the property of wings.”

*The flying squirrel.

The old man smiled very slightly as I made this remark. “If this be true,” said he, with an impressive tone, “though we may wonder less at the talents of the Protector, we must be more indulgent to his character, nor condemn him for insincerity when at heart he himself was deceived.”

“It is in that light,” said I, “that I have always viewed his conduct. And though myself, by prejudice, a Cavalier and a Tory, I own that Cromwell (hypocrite as he is esteemed) appears to me as much to have exceeded his royal antagonist and victim in the virtue of sincerity, as he did in the grandeur of his genius and the profound consistency of his ambition.”

“Sir,” said my host, with a warmth that astonished me, “you seem to have known that man, so justly do you judge him. Yes,” said he, after a pause, “yes, perhaps no one ever so varnished to his own breast his designs; no one, so covetous of glory, was ever so duped by conscience; no one ever rose to such a height through so few acts that seemed to himself worthy of remorse.”

I am convinced Nietzsche is having a dark, uncharacteristic moment of doubt concerning his uncommon liege, King Squirrel I, when he quotes Cromwell – without attribution! – in “Schopenhauer as Educator”:

There are, to be sure, countless paths and bridges and demi-gods which would bear you through this stream; but only at the cost of yourself: you would put yourself in pawn and lose yourself. There exists in the world a single path along which no one can go except you: whither does it lead? Do not ask, go along it. Who was it who said: ‘a man never rises higher than when he does not know whither his path can still lead him’?

But how can a man rise above himself unless he is, in effect, a flying squirrel. Hence no man?

Melville meditates on the self-same Bullwer-Lytton passage, in The Confidence-Man (chapter 14):

For how does it couple with another requirement — equally insisted upon, perhaps — that, while to all fiction is allowed some play of invention, yet, fiction based on fact should never be contradictory to it; and is it not a fact, that, in real life, a consistent character is a rara avis? Which being so, the distaste of readers to the contrary sort in books, can hardly arise from any sense of their untrueness. It may rather be from perplexity as to understanding them. But if the acutest sage be often at his wits’ ends to understand living character, shall those who are not sages expect to run and read character in those mere phantoms which flit along a page, like shadows along a wall? That fiction, where every character can, by reason of its consistency, be comprehended at a glance, either exhibits but sections of character, making them appear for wholes, or else is very untrue to reality; while, on the other hand, that author who draws a character, even though to common view incongruous in its parts, as the flying-squirrel, and, at different periods, as much at variance with itself as the butterfly is with the caterpillar into which it changes, may yet, in so doing, be not false but faithful to facts.

As Nietzsche also wonders: how can we be true to ourselves without that tell-tale (dare I say tell-tail!) inconsistency that is the mark of truth – also, of the squirrel?

Finally, William James responds thoughtfully to all this, entering into a dialogue with Bullwer-Lytton and Nietzsche, without mentioning them by name (thanks for the reference, Josh!):

The resultant metaphysical problem now is this: Does the man go round the squirrel or not? He goes round the tree, sure enough, and the squirrel is on the tree; but does he go round the squirrel? In the unlimited leisure of the wilderness, discussion had been worn threadbare. Every one had taken sides, and was obstinate; and the numbers on both sides were even. Each side, when I appeared therefore appealed to me to make it a majority. Mindful of the scholastic adage that whenever you meet a contradiction you must make a distinction, I immediately sought and found one, as follows: “Which party is right,” I said, “depends on what you practically mean by ‘going round’ the squirrel. If you mean passing from the north of him to the east, then to the south, then to the west, and then to the north of him again, obviously the man does go round him, for he occupies these successive positions. But if on the contrary you mean being first in front of him, then on the right of him, then behind him, then on his left, and finally in front again, it is quite as obvious that the man fails to go round him, for by the compensating movements the squirrel makes, he keeps his belly turned towards the man all the time, and his back turned away. Make the distinction, and there is no occasion for any farther dispute. You are both right and both wrong according as you conceive the verb ‘to go round’ in one practical fashion or the other.”

Does the man go round the squirrel, or does the squirrel go round the man?

There is no more fundamental question, regarding the philosophy of Nietzsche. Or any philosophy. Nothing less than the nut of Being risks being forgotten here, in the nut-hoard of Becoming, until the spring of thought melts the winter snow drifts of complacency.



phosphorious 10.05.15 at 11:08 am

There’s a “Bullwinkle-Lytton” joke in there somewhere, but it’s too early in the morning, and I haven’t had my coffee yet.


Fiddlin Bill 10.05.15 at 11:18 am

Once there was a simple child’s candy, the Squirrel Nut Zipper. In the depths of the Reagan reign, a band called the Squirrel Nut Zippers was born. Coincidence?


Anderson 10.05.15 at 11:50 am

Guess I’ll pick up that Unbeatable Squirrel Girl anthology I saw yesterday, after all.


max 10.05.15 at 11:55 am

I have to say – this was an exceptionally squirrelly post.

[‘With Squirrel and I.’]


max 10.05.15 at 12:00 pm

Also, was this a German King of Squirrels or was he more of a Roman? (In which instance it should have been King Squirrelicus. One would think.)

[‘Is having acorns rained down upon one’s head anything like being hit by the lightening of inspiration?’]


John Holbo 10.05.15 at 12:01 pm

The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl is awesome.


oldster 10.05.15 at 12:45 pm

when Eichhörnchen I decided to put his rule to a plebiscite, he ran on the slogan “Egg Corpse Oaktree!”


oldster 10.05.15 at 1:09 pm

can’t imagine why my last went into moderation.


ZM 10.05.15 at 1:26 pm

I have now spent considerable time watching YouTube clips of Flying Squirrels, I don’t know why you think they are so unusual. This clip is the most fitting as the Discovery Channel person says the flying squirrel is the superman of the forest ;-)


John Holbo 10.05.15 at 1:30 pm

“I don’t know why you think they are so unusual.”

You can argue with me, but you can’t argue with the squirrel of Being. The squirrel of Being don’t lie.


mistah charley, ph.d. 10.05.15 at 2:21 pm

About acorns:

In his memoir Boyhood with Gurdjieff (1964), Fritz Peters recalls experiences he had growing up in association with the teacher and master G. I. Gurdjieff. In the 1920’s, Gurdjieff had established the Institute for the Harmonious Development of Man at a chateau outside of Paris, France. Peters was a young boy of eleven and served as a houseboy to this enigmatic man.

On one occasion, Gurdjieff told Fritz to look out of the window, where there was an oak tree, and asked him how many acorns there were on the tree. Peters responded that there were likely thousands. Gurdjieff then inquired as to how many of those acorns were likely to become oak trees. The boy guessed that perhaps five or six might, or maybe not even that many.

Gurdjieff then explained the essential nature of his teaching by comparing it to the possibilities that Nature provides:

“Perhaps only one, perhaps not even one. Must learn from Nature. Man is also organism. Nature makes many acorns, but possibility to become tree exist for only few acorns. Same with man – many men born, but only few grow. People think this waste, think Nature waste. Not so. Rest become fertilizer, go back into earth and create possibility for more acorns, more men, once in while more tree – more real man. Nature always give – but only give possibility. To become real oak, or real man, must make effort. You understand this, my work, this Institute, not for fertilizer. For real man, only. But must also understand fertilizer necessary to Nature. …”

“In west – your world – is belief that man have soul, given by God. Not so. Nothing given by God, only Nature give. And Nature only give possibility for soul, not give soul. Must acquire soul through work. … Even your religion – western religion – have this phrase ‘Know thyself.’ This phrase most important in all religions. When begin know self already begin have possibility become genuine man. So first thing must learn is know self …. If not do this, then will be like acorn that not become tree–fertilizer. Fertilizer which go back in ground and become possibility for future man.”

[end of quote from Peters quoting G]


mistah charley, ph.d. 10.05.15 at 2:25 pm

To say a bit more about G’s “many men born, very few grow” – this reality is expressed in the fact that in Yiddish the term for “adult human” is used, not as a neutral descriptive word, which would apply to all the members of the human race over a certain age, but as a term of praise – to quote Wikipedia:

Mensch (Yiddish: מענטש mentsh, from German: Mensch “human being”) means “a person of integrity and honor”.

…In Yiddish, from which the word has migrated as a loanword into American English, mensch roughly means “a good person.” A mensch is a particularly good person, like “a stand-up guy”, a person with the qualities one would hope for in a dear friend or trusted colleague….

During the Age of Enlightenment in Germany the term Humanität, in the philosophical sense of compassion, was used to describe what characterizes a “better human being” in Humanism. The concept goes back to Cicero’s Humanitas and was literally translated into the German word Menschlichkeit and then adapted into mentsh in Yiddish language use. In Modern Israeli Hebrew, the phrase Ben Adam “Son of Adam” (בן אדם) is used as an exact translation of Mensch.


Anderson 10.05.15 at 2:57 pm

Holbo has made an ontological breakthrough of the 1st magnitude!

We now have the answer to Heidegger’s question?

“How does it stand with Being?”


When one walks down a woodpath, only then do the squirrels become manifest.


John Holbo 10.05.15 at 2:57 pm

Ha, this is funny. Everyone’s comments are getting stuck in moderation. The moderation AI thinks pseudo-squirrel erudition = spam.


nnyhav 10.05.15 at 4:19 pm

I could be bounded in a nutshell, and count myself a king of infinite space, were it not that I have bad dreams.


phenomenal cat 10.05.15 at 5:54 pm

“How does it stand with Being?”


This actually sounds about right for our present ontological dispensation.

So I guess the question becomes who among us dares to gaze upon the visage of King Squirrel I?


oldster 10.05.15 at 6:56 pm

Part of the backstory here has to be the fact that young Friedrich and his sister were denied entry into the imaginary kingdom of the Bronte sisters, aka Gondal. Eichhörnchen I was also expelled, which made him even Angria. The young Nietzsches wrote an indignant manifesto and submitted it to Mischmasch, but the young Dodgsons rejected it for publication. Thus was set in motion Friedrich’s life-long antipathy towards the British race.


Theophylact 10.05.15 at 7:18 pm

A squirrel to some is a squirrel,
To others, a squirrel’s a squirl.
Since freedom of speech is the birthright of each,
I can only this fable unfurl:
A virile young squirrel named Cyril,
In an argument over a girl,
Was lambasted from here to the Tyrol
By a churl of a squirl named Earl.

— Ogden Nash


Neville Morley 10.05.15 at 7:53 pm

Sciurus Rex, surely?


Glen Tomkins 10.05.15 at 8:07 pm

It’s a lot easier to find nutshells in the Iliad than an Iliad in a nutshell.


anon 10.05.15 at 8:21 pm

“In the depths of the Reagan reign, a band called the Squirrel Nut Zippers was born. Coincidence?”

No, that band was born in the depths of the reign of Clinton the First. Fair mistake, I’ve tried to forget the 90s, too.

The lyrics to “Hell” were pretty great: “Teeth are extruded and bones are ground,
then baked into cakes which are passed around.”


mistah charley, ph.d, 10.05.15 at 8:24 pm

Note: The Great Books in 60 Seconds series is written to introduce readers to the major ideas of significant books in the Western cannon. In about a minute of reading, you can familiarize yourself with the major themes and ideas of important works. Of course, these posts aren’t meant to be a substitute for actually reading the works themselves.


Nick 10.06.15 at 1:29 pm

Well, one could argue that this quote foreshadows Nietzsche’s sister’s founding of an Aryan colony deep in the wilderness of Paraguay as well.


Niall McAuley 10.07.15 at 9:10 pm

When I was ten, we used to have acorn fights at school, all furiously throwing pine cones at each other (and missing).

Calling pine cones acorns was the style at the time, among ten-year-olds.

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