Influence of typewriter on Nietzsche’s prose style!

Sometime in 1882, Friedrich Nietzsche bought a typewriter—a Malling-Hansen Writing Ball, to be precise. His vision was failing, and keeping his eyes focused on a page had become exhausting and painful, often bringing on crushing headaches. He had been forced to curtail his writing, and he feared that he would soon have to give it up. The typewriter rescued him, at least for a time. Once he had mastered touch-typing, he was able to write with his eyes closed, using only the tips of his fingers. Words could once again flow from his mind to the page.

But the machine had a subtler effect on his work. One of Nietzsche’s friends, a composer, noticed a change in the style of his writing. His already terse prose had become even tighter, more telegraphic. “Perhaps you will through this instrument even take to a new idiom,” the friend wrote in a letter, noting that, in his own work, his “‘thoughts’ in music and language often depend on the quality of pen and paper.”

“You are right,” Nietzsche replied, “our writing equipment takes part in the forming of our thoughts.” Under the sway of the machine, writes the German media scholar Friedrich A. Kittler, Nietzsche’s prose “changed from arguments to aphorisms, from thoughts to puns, from rhetoric to telegram style.”

From Nicholas Carr’s essay in Atlantic — Is Google making us stupid? Link via Stackoverflow.

By the way, the essay is a must-read piece of the week! Have fun!!

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18 Responses to “Influence of typewriter on Nietzsche’s prose style!”

  1. tercero Says:

    Hmmm…interesting post- a much appreciated nietzshe refrence! thank goodness the world still has something in it for philosophers and the like. Thank you for enlightening a stranger-

  2. gaddeswarup Says:

    Carr’s article is interesting but I am with ‘crazyfinger’ on this:

  3. Guru Says:

    Dear Swarup,

    Thanks for the pointer; I see that Abi also has linked to a related blog post by Seth Finkelstein which puts the piece in perspective.

    However, I do find the idea that the medium can influence style to be appealing.

    Further, for those of us who read up scientific and technological materials online, even if it be a couple of pages of an article that we read, we do form deep inter-connections that Carr seems to form only when reading hard copy books.

    But, on the whole, a nice and though provoking piece, surely!


  4. tercero Says:

    I agree- i remember attempting to read exceprts of schoepenhauers the world as will and representation and I just simply had to print it out because i coulnd’t handle 20 something pages online…besides, I would just like to add the benefits of underlining, highlighting and making notes on actual paper…thier is nothing like a physical medium you can interact with all the senses…although i dont know if you would be smelling or licking paper, but hey, whichever way you processs the information is fine by me

  5. Ed Caruthers Says:

    Two scholarly web sites I visited said that Nietzsche used the typewriter very little, due to damage in shipping and more damage by an ignorant mechanic, and not for any philosophic writing. Is this one of those stories that seems true because of its life on the web?

  6. Guru Says:

    Dear Caruthers,

    Here is a website, which seems to be the homepage of a book on the typewriter used by Nietzsche; so, I do not see any need to doubt the veracity of the story.


  7. Ed Caruthers Says:

    Thanks, Guru, for providing another web site showing that Nietzsche used the typewriter very little.

    “The interesting story begins in February 1882, when Nietzsche enthusiastically exchanges pen and inkwell for the first mass-produced typewriter. The handling of the technical writing tool proves, however, to be difficult and demands of Nietzsche besides “patience, tact and fine fingers”, more attention than his pen. Because the writing speed falls far short of the slow handwriting, Nietzsche ends the experiment “TYPEWRITER” after 6 weeks already”

    I don’t doubt that Nietzsche had a typewriter, just that it influenced his style in the way Carr claims.

  8. Guru Says:

    Dear Ed,

    I also see that there are some web resources which indicate that he wrote very little using the typewriter; see this comment for example:

    according to Stephan Günzel and Rüdiger Schmidt-Grépály, Nietzsche typed 15 letters, 1 postcard as well as 34 bulk sheets (including some poems and verdicts) with his ‘Schreibkugel’ from Malling Hansen in 1882.
    The comment goes on to give a link where these typescripts can be seen.

    It also seems to be true that Nietzsche did make a comment about the influence of writing material on writing in his letter to composer Paul Gast.

    Finally, Frederich Kittler’s Discourse Networks 1800/1900 does seem to discuss the influence of the typewriter on Nietzsche’s writing.

    Thus, it is not just the online resources.

    So, the question now boils down to the following: is six weeks of use of the typewriter to write near about 50 pages sufficient to have a perceptible influence in Nietzsche’s style? Having read neither the originals, nor the scholarly pieces that stem from them, I am not able to categorically answer it one way or other. However, from the materials presented (namely, the letter of Nietzsche and the book on his writings), I do see that it could be so.

  9. Alone Says:

    Carr’s point is echoed by “The Dumbest Generation”, whose main point is, simply, that kids have access to more information than ever, but lack any wisdom. Furthermore, it promotes “tribes” and groupthink.

    This is evident in medicine as well, where docs “read” only the latest articles– which are almost always reviews– and never the primary sources themselves.

    However, the internet can’t make you stupid_er_. The real problem is that a generation of people grew up without any useful/rigorous/broad education, and then are deluded by the net into thinking that they are actually smart– they are unaware of how ignorant they are.

    The Dumbest Generation is Only The Second Dumbest Generation.

  10. Phylogenetic Thinking, Man’s Archaic Mode of Thought « Thoughts of an Errant Mind Says:

    […] Mechanization of words and the removal of their individuality, as marked by our handwriting, means, additionally, the staticness of language is tightened up: and if we invent a word, or use a wrong word, the computer will catch us on it and we often follow suit. […]

  11. Propecia Says:

    Just wanted to comment and say that I really like your blog layout and the way you write too. It’s very refreshing to see a blogger like you.. keep it up

  12. Ruwe ideeën over de toekomst van de media | Nogiets Says:

    […] het geval was (het is historisch niet uitgemaakt of hij het machine daadwerkelijk gebruikte, toch is de vraag […]

  13. Free Programming Books | Agnoiologist Says:

    […] post one or two lines instead of sitting down and thinking. Not all writing is equal. Just as the typewriter changed Nietzsche, Twitter is changing me. Funnily enough, it’s also pushing me to a punchier, more aphoristic […]

  14. Peter Ulrik Röder Says:

    Nietzsche did not use the typewriter for writing any serious stuff.

  15. thisispartof Says:

    Reblogged this on thisispartof.

  16. “I would like to thank a number of typists…” | unstablepraxis Says:

    […] doubtless changes the kind of work that scholars produce. The media scholar Friedrich A. Kittler has argued with reference to Nietzsche (one of the first writers to use a typewriter) that the machine […]

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