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
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?
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.
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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