Nietzsche in Shapes and Colors: A Book for Philosophers of the Future

Theresa Vishnevetskaya is the author of a new children’s book on Nietzsche, called Nietzsche in Shapes and Colors. Described on Amazon as a “book of vivid collages and simple poems [that] introduces children to a philosopher who valued play and imagination,” the book has recently received attention from Daily Nous, among other places. Although the author of the book is listed as Dr. Hålla Dagdrömma, this is a pseudonym created by Theresa to provide a Kierkegaardian spirit to the work.

The idea of writing a book which explains Nietzsche to children is not something many people—Nietzsche scholars included—would think of.  How did you come up with the project?

The importance of play.

I am a visual artist and a mother who reads a lot to my children. After many trips to bookstores and libraries, I began to notice that most current children’s books were lacking inspiration and creativity. They were boring to read and my kids got little out of it.

I happened to be reading Nietzsche at the time, and I made a connection between the mediocre, conformist children’s books and Friedrich Nietzsche. I remembered in Beyond Good and Evil, the quote where Nietzsche says, “A man’s maturity: that is to have rediscovered the seriousness he possessed as a child at play.” This is when I thought of creating a totally unique book for children that treated Nietzsche’s ideas in a serious manner, while still managing to engage children at their level.

According to the book’s listing on Amazon, this book was first published in Sweden in 1974, though you say this is a bit of “Kierkegaardian mischief” on your part.  What is the reason for the pseudonym and false history?

As an artist, I have always been fascinated with creating art objects that look as if they are authentic and commonplace…just not in our reality. Coming up with the character and background of Dr. Hålla Dagdrömma was a fun exercise and my intention was to amuse readers, especially Swedes because if you know Swedish you would see the jokes right away. i.e. Dagdrömma translates to “Daydreaming” and so on. (Side note: I am half Swedish so I think that gives me carte blanche!)

In looking at the book’s images, one is struck by the beautiful abstract pictures that comprise it.  How were those images created, and why chose them to accompany descriptions of Nietzsche’s ideas?

The illustrations are large format collages I created by cutting and assembling paper by hand, inspired by Russian avant-garde constructivist Aleksei Kruchenykh.

I personally feel that abstract pictures allow children to more actively use their imagination as opposed to a picture that is presented to them in a straightforward manner. Abstract images can have multiple or even personal meanings to the individual. When planning out the book, I would focus on one concept for each layout and try to imagine what sorts of images might cue that idea in a primordial sense.

Theresa’s depiction of Naturalism.

For example, in my illustration for Naturalism: God is represented as a floating empty circle in the left hand corner. Another circle sits on the ground, but instead of being empty, there is a center with a circle, resembling an eyeball. Nature is represented by both the plant above the ground and the centipede-like form below the ground. The centipede imagery is meant to be a little unnerving and signifies the repulsive part of nature that human beings tend to deny.

Nietzsche himself was a big fan of art (saying famously “In music the passions enjoy themselves”).  Did that have an impact on the design of the book and the images you chose to accompany it?

Yes, very much so. With Nietzsche in mind, I wanted to stay true to my artistic vision. This would be a “Nietzschean children’s book.” There would be no cute animals. In fact, there would be nothing cute about it. For this reason, I knew it wouldn’t be a book for the masses, but I felt that it was the right way to approach it. I also know that many adults don’t give children credit for their ability to understand sophisticated ideas. Children have the capability to make complex connections if we make the right introduction. If you don’t believe me, watch a 4-year-old melt iron-ore in Minecraft.

What message (or messages) do you want children to take away from the book? 

I would prefer if children don’t take any specific message away from the book. If anything, I hope the book acts as a starting point for children to ask some interesting questions.

In my experience, people approach Nietzsche with significant preconceptions (which are often misconceptions).  Many only know him from his claim that “God is dead.”  Was correcting myths about his philosophy one of the things on your mind while you were writing the book?  If so, how did you approach this goal?

Of course, I was aware of preconceptions that people may have. I thought that maybe if someone had these preconceived myths about Nietzsche, they may be curious enough to open this book, and then be surprised by how relatable the content is. Sometimes, I think that I make Nietzsche out to be too cheerful, but Nietzsche definitely has a humorous side. I would be very pleased if someone who happens upon my book, then goes to the philosophy section and picks up The Gay Science or Thus Spoke Zarathustra on a whim.

Describe the reception the book has received so far.  Did anything surprise you?

I have gotten many positive responses from the philosophy and academic community, which is a great honor.  But the fact is, I raised the money myself to manufacture the book and I’ve sold so many that my inventory is running dangerously low. Aside from Amazon, I only distribute to stores that are within a 2 mile radius of my house. So the biggest surprise is how well people in general have responded to this odd book. It’s my goal as an artist to inspire others, so I hope I will have the opportunity to continue to do so.

Does this project of making philosophies, and philosophers, interesting to children strike you as something we should be doing more of in society?

Yes, absolutely. I am somewhat familiar with the debate on the topic of teaching children philosophy. My personal belief (based on my experiences with my own 4-year-old and 2-year-old) is that children, even small children, have a great propensity for philosophical thought. Sure, they lack the formal vocabulary to express complex feelings, but those same feelings are still there, just in a primitive form. What adults have in vocabulary, children have in unbiased raw ideas. They have a fresh outlook on the world. They aren’t bogged down by day-to-day inertia. There is a freedom to being a child. They have yet to understand the world completely, so their perspective is totally unique.

Nietzsche even says, “A man’s maturity: that is to have rediscovered the seriousness he possessed as a child at play.” That pretty much says it all.

Theresa Vishnevetskaya is an artist and writer. Besides Nietzsche in Shapes and Colors, she makes animatronic installations and dolls. She lives in Chicago with her husband, a film critic, and their two children. She once waited in line for nearly four hours to get David Lynch’s autograph, and she would do it again. You can find her on Facebook.

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8 thoughts on “Nietzsche in Shapes and Colors: A Book for Philosophers of the Future

  1. As somebody who has published a book on Martin Heidegger, I’m constantly caught up in ‘The Heidegger Controversy,’ which has recently reached the point that certain philosophers have advocated purging Heidegger’s works from the philosophy departments, due to Heidegger’s involvement with German National Socialism, aka Nazism. I confess that my response to those critics sometimes resorts to the argument that Nietzsche was far more influential on National Socialism than Heidegger (who was never taken seriously by the Nazis), and I confess I have a very hard time taking Nietzsche’s theories of the master race and the slave races seriously as philosophy. (Not to mention the whole Zarathustra/Superman nonsense!) I am aware there are many counter-arguments to the “Nietzsche is a Nazi!’ argument, like blaming the Nazi reception of Nietzsche on his sister, or arguing that Wagner’s anti-Semitism was never really endorsed by Nietzsche, and so on. But I also confess that when I read this post, I wondered about the wisdom of teaching Nietzsche to children (as a prelude to indoctrination in Nazi philosophy?), and I also wondered how you would explain Nietzsche’s very obviously anti-democratic, clearly biological-racist, and arguably proto-fascist theories to those children. Would you simply ignore them, and wait until the children discover them years later (with what reactions)? Or would you attempt to explain them, and risk misunderstanding? I’d be interested to know how you respond to these problems, and maybe your response would also be applicable to ‘The Heidegger Controversy.’ Thanks.

    • Hi Eric,

      I understand what you’re saying. From my experience reading Nietzsche, I never personally interpreted his writings as being proto-fascist or anti-democratic. I’ve always felt they were geared towards the individual or the self within the larger human experience. Any philosophy that deals with this can be politicized.

      • Thanks for your reply. Yes, certainly, you are entitled to read Nietzsche whatever way you like. But the regrettable fact is that the Nazis read Nietzsche somewhat differently than you do, and maybe I do, and the Nazis did consider Nietzsche the Nazi philosopher par excellence. And I’m afraid there is ample evidence in Nietzsche’s texts to support that view (the aforementioned master race/slave race stuff, for example). Whether the Nazi interpretation of Nietzsche is the correct interpretation is also certainly debatable, and I’m always willing to hear the counter-argument. But I’m also afraid that when we promote a philosopher’s views, we have to be self-conscious about what we’re promoting, and responsible for its consequences. When I published my book on Heidegger, I wasn’t really aware what a wasp’s-nest of controversy I was getting into, and I do think the controversy over Heidegger’s Nazism is overblown. Critics typically ignore the possibility that Heidegger might have learned something from his episode as a would-be Nazi philosopher (the Rektorate period), and might have himself critiqued his earlier position in his later philosophy (esp. “Overcoming Metaphysics”). But I certainly wouldn’t say that critics don’t have the right—and even the responsibility—-to challenge the political implications of philosophical views, especially when they have the dangerous consequences that Nietzsche’s or Heidegger’s views had in the Nazi Holocaust or Jewish Shoah. Unfortunately, Nietzsche probably could not foresee how his ideas would be used by the Nazis, or to criticize himself, as I’d say Heidegger did. But I’m also still afraid that certain of Nietzsche’s ideas are, in fact, very compatible with Nazism—his philosophy of ‘the will to power,’ for example—and I can’t be sure Nietzsche would have actually regretted the use that the Nazis made of his ideas. So, without of course denying your right to hold whatever views you like regarding Nietzsche’s philosophy, I’d like to suggest that it’s worth looking at those of Nietzsche’s writings that do have sinister applications, and considering the implications of your own positions in that context. As I also have to consider the implications of my espousal of Heidegger’s later philosophy, which I consider anti-Nazi (as also, in some senses, anti-Bolshevik, anti-American, anti-Western, anti-democratic, and anti-modern etc.), while also compatible with Eastern spirituality, post-modenist philosophy, and contemporary ecological thought, without denying its earlier complicity in Nazism.

  2. Since I am on record as calling Nietzsche a Nazi, I’d like to make one more comment to clarify my position. I think Nietzsche’s madman was correct in saying that “God is dead! and we have killed him, you and I…” because even Christians no longer really believe in God, or follow Christian morality (The Gay Science). But I think Nietzsche was wrong about the consequences of that event, and didn’t take it quite seriously, despite the Zarathustra/Superman nonsense (Thus Spake Zarathustra). The Nazis, however, took Nietzsche very seriously when he said Christianity (and Judaism) were slave moralities, not suitable for a master race with the will to dominate Europe (Preface to The Birth of Tragedy), who wanted to be Nietzschean supermen. And so, at Auschwitz, Buchenwald, Treblinka, etc., the Nazis set out to destroy Christian-Jewish morality by desecrating its most sacred concepts (God, the soul, human dignity etc.), thereby showing that the German master race could confront the destruction of all higher values (The Genealogy of Morals) and still preserve the superior immorality its will to power. For two or three thousand years, Judaism and Christianity had attempted, often clumsily and brutally, to impose a higher morality on the human species; but when Nietzsche (Doesteoevksy et al) declared that project a failure, Western Europe plunged into the world of “nothing is true, everything is permitted” (Nazi Germany) or “everything is true, nothing is permitted” (Stalinist Russia). Or vice versa. And the results were: Auschwitz and the Gulag.

    Nietzsche, of course, didn’t live long enough for Nazism, and so doesn’t get blamed for it. Heidegger does, and, I think, takes the rap for Nietzsche, even though Heidegger was Nietzsche’s worst (best) critic. Heidegger was briefly converted to Nietzscheanism during his early Nazi period, then decided that Nietzsche’s philosophy of the will to power, like Nazism, was not the solution to the problem (The Death of God, the decline of Christian morality, the collapse of Western Europe, etc.), but the problem itself. Nietzsche’s philosophy, Heidegger thought, was the culmination of Western metaphysics as completed metaphysics (i.e., completed nihilism), and it was Western metaphysics in its completed (nihilistic) form which brought about the technocratic apocalypse of World War II (“the desolation of the earth through metaphysics”). During WWII, Heidegger gave lectures on Nietzsche which were heard by his students as a critique of Nazism; and after German’s collapse (and Heidegger’s denazification trial), Heidegger wrote “Overcoming Metaphysics” which is both a scathing critique of Nietzscheanism, and one of the best analyses of Nazism that exist (with Adorno’s Minima Moralia). Heidegger thinks that unless Western Europe and the non-Western world get past the destruction of the earth by Western metaphysics as the will to power, the wholesale ecological cataclysm foreboded by WWI & WWII, Auschwitz and the Gulag, and Hiroshima and Nagasaki will become a global catastrophe. He may be wrong about that, but I’d wait until we get through the next four years before making any bets.

    Heidegger, of course, didn’t argue that we shouldn’t read Nietzsche, or that Nietzsche should be purged from the libraries. He wrote some great articles on Nietzsche (“Nietzsche’s Word: God is Dead”), and even his “destruction” (Abbau) of Western (Nietzschean) metaphysics (which is where Derrida’s deconstruction takes off) presupposes (as does Derrida) a thorough reading of Western metaphysics. And I, of course, am not arguing that children shouldn’t read your book. Just that we (children) should know what we’re reading, and how to read it: that is, self-consciously, self-critically. Which is sometime difficult for we children, especially without a god to save us.

  3. I like very much the last comment which cautions one on how to read Nietzsche. Interpretation is everything and we must be well aware that Nietzsche was NOT A NIHILIST, but rather advocated a philosophy that persists in two parts, the first of which is connected to nihilism and to Derrida’s form of deconstruction but the second, the second must be connected to a generative life-affirming philosophy. Otherwise you are only getting half of Nietzsche. Derrida too alluded to this second movement which goes beyond deconstruction though he was always very circumspect about it.

  4. Questions for Jake Fobean: Yes, Nietzsche identified ‘European nihilism’ with the socialist democratic society he despised, although there are certainly elements of nihilism in Nietzsche, don’t you think?. But isn’t there a danger that the ‘generative life-affirming’ philosophy you mention (what is sometimes called ‘vitalism’) is precisely the Social Darwinistic, biologistic, racist philosophy that the Nazis liked so much in The Will to Power?

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