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Zarathustra Goes to Hollywood: On the Postmodern Reception of Nietzsche
If you should ever get around to writing something about me ... have the good sense, which unfortunately no one has yet had, to characterize me, to "describe" me — but not to "evaluate" me. ... It is not at all necessary, not even desired, that one thereby take sides for me; on the contrary, a dose of inquisitiveness, as if before a strange plant, with an ironic resistance would seem to me to be an incomparably more intelligent stance toward me.
— Nietzsche, letter to Carl Fuchs, July 29, 1888
In truth, we are relativists par excellence, and the moment relativism linked up with Nietzsche, and with his Will to Power, was when Italian Fascism became, as it still is, the most magnificent creation of an individual and a national Will to Power.
— MUSSOLINI, "Relativismo e Fascismo"
Crossing the Rubicon
In 1888 the breakthrough Nietzsche had long been searching for at last seemed at hand. It had been a remarkably productive year in which he completed five books: The Case of Wagner, Twilight of the Idols, The Antichrist, Ecce Homo, and Nietzsche contra Wagner. The public acclaim he had long sought finally began to materialize. The Danish scholar Georg Brandes gave a series of lectures on Nietzsche's philosophy — the first of their kind in any land — that met with resounding success: over three hundred listeners regularly crammed the tiny lecture hall. Suddenly, Nietzsche's name was on the lips of all Copenhagen. At about the same time, Nietzsche began a lively exchange of letters with the Swedish dramatist, August Strindberg, who took to signing all his correspondence with the injunction, "Read Nietzsche!" Inquiries about his philosophy began pouring in from all corners of the globe. A princess from St. Petersburg — described by Nietzsche as "one of the foremost women of Russian society"— displayed a keen interest in his work. An American journalist proposed writing a detailed essay on his philosophy. Even Nietzsche's publishing fortunes, which had been consistently atrocious (his books rarely sold more than one hundred copies, and often Nietzsche himself had to underwrite publication costs), began to take a turn for the better.
Corresponding to this unexpected upturn in his fortunes, an eerie euphoria began to pervade Nietzsche's letters. Berated and scorned throughout his productive life, Nietzsche felt his genius had been belatedly recognized. In his mind, minor details of his daily life in Turin began to take on world-historical meaning. Turinese from all walks of life responded to him, he claimed, with the utmost reverence and solicitude. When Nietzsche dined out, waiters ensured that he received only the finest cuts and the largest portions — at a discount! Nietzsche's growing megalomania — simultaneously moving and pathetic — is well captured in a December 1888 letter to his mother:
All in all, your old creature is now an immensely famous person. ... I have real geniuses among my admirers — today no other name is treated with so much distinction and reverence as mine. You see that is the best trick of all: without a name, without rank, without wealth, I am treated here like a little prince, by everyone, down to my peddler woman, who will not rest until she has found the sweetest of all her grapes for me.
Shortly thereafter, the floodgates burst and Nietzsche's delusions of grandeur knew no bounds. In a letter to his sister, he claimed to hold "quite literally, the future of mankind in the palm of my hand." To the musicologist Carl Fuchs he declared that since the old God had abdicated, "I shall be ruling the world from now on." To his longtime friend and former University of Basel colleague Franz Overbeck he wrote, "I am working on a memorandum for the courts of Europe, with an anti-German league in view. I mean to sew up the Reich in an iron shirt and to provoke it to a war of desperation." On New Year's Eve 1888 he wrote to the composer Peter Gast, unambiguously alluding to the state of his sanity, that he had crossed "the famous Rubicon." There followed a postcard to Strindberg in which Nietzsche declared he was ordering a convocation of princes in Rome and having the young German emperor shot. (Strindberg's response, "Dear Doctor! It is a joy to be mad!") Partly cognizant of his own dementia, Nietzsche signed these final delusory missives, "Dionysus" and "The Crucified."
Then came the dramatic final breakdown. On the morning of January 3, 1889, Nietzsche left his Turin apartment to find a cab driver mercilessly beating his horse in the Piazza Carlo Alberto. Nietzsche shielded the horse, swooned, and crumpled to the pavement. Overbeck, who had just received another outlandish letter from Nietzsche (in this one, Nietzsche declared that he was having all anti-Semites shot), rushed to Turin to retrieve his deranged friend. Arriving by train, he found Nietzsche hunched in a corner of his apartment, clutching the proofs to Nietzsche contra Wagner, trembling uncontrollably. Nietzsche rose to embrace his friend, began sobbing hysterically, and then collapsed, at which point, Overbeck, profoundly shaken by the manifest deterioration of his friend's condition, also lost his composure.
What was it that pushed Nietzsche over the brink? Contemporary diagnoses suggested he was suffering from tertiary syphilis. But at the time symptoms such as Nietzsche's were often misinterpreted, and the original diagnosis has never been definitively confirmed. There may well have been compelling physiological reasons for Nietzsche's "crossing the Rubicon," as he insightfully put it. But Nietzsche was also a victim of his own megalomania. In the end his lifelong persecution complex — he once prophesied that his teachings would be understood only fifty years later — simply metamorphosed into delusions of grandeur.
Nietzsche thought of himself as a new prophet or savior in an entirely literal sense. He perceived his writings not as "literary works" but as "declarations of war" directed against Europe's reigning spiritual crisis. He viewed himself as a "battlefield" on which the next two hundred years of European history would play themselves out. To him the figures of Zarathustra and Dionysus were not mere metaphors. He was Zarathustra and Dionysus, the prophets of the "Superman" and "eternal recurrence." Even the god-complex to which Nietzsche succumbed during his final days in Turin (as he wrote to Burckhardt: "Actually I would much rather be a Basel professor than God, but I have not ventured to carry my private egoism so far as to desist from creating the world on his account") was only one step removed from his typically exaggerated self-characterizations of the 1880s. To be misunderstood, pilloried, and crucified was a fate he expected — even if, in the end, such clairvoyance made that fate no easier to bear. Ultimately, this enormous tension between his own grandiose expectations and the benign neglect of his work ("They all talk of me ... but no one thinks of me! This is the new silence I learned; their noise about me spreads a cloak over my ideas.") proved insupportable. It broke his spirit and, tragically, pushed him to the breaking point.
Anyone who has seriously examined Nietzsche's reception in recent decades cannot help but be struck by the strange occlusion of the political dimension of his thought. Instead, we have Nietzsche the aesthete: a Kulturmensch and dedicated stylist, the contemporary of Baudelaire, Flaubert, and Mallarmé. That on several occasions he vigorously Renounced l'art pour l'art as a form of warmed-over romanticism seems to have mattered little. In this way, the myth of the "unpolitical" Nietzsche was born — a strange development in the case of a thinker who, during the last five years of his life, plotted the outlines of a major work entitled The Will to Power.
A fascination with "power" (Macht) was Nietzsche's way of bidding adieu to the juste milieu of European liberalism. Whereas Tocqueville, despite his aristocratic prejudices, believed that democracy was inevitable and that, consequently, the best course of action was to adapt, Nietzsche fought against this eventuality tooth and nail. His training as a classicist convinced him that greatness was the province of an elite and that meritocracy was synonymous with mediocrity.
In Ecce Homo, Nietzsche famously described himself as "the last antipolitical German," yet this phrase has often been misconstrued. It was Nietzsche's way of rejecting the vulgar Machtpolitik pursued by the statesmen of contemporary Europe, Bismarck included. Yet it left Zarathustra's alter ego with other options. Thus in the 1880s his political thinking would culminate in the notion of "Great Politics," a doctrine he associated with the empires of Rome, Athens, and Napoleonic France. Nietzsche was an apostle of cultural grandeur, but he was also a dogged defender of power, cruelty, and the warrior ethos as personified by several of history's more sanguinary tyrants: Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar, and Napoleon. The problem for interpreters who seek to aestheticize (and thereby, as it were, anesthetize) Nietzsche's doctrines is that, as the following quote from the Nachlass shows, in his mind conquest and cultural flourishing went hand in hand: "The new philosopher can arise only in conjunction with a ruling caste, as its highest spiritualization. Great Politics, rule of the earth, are at hand."
Of course Nietzsche was anything but a systematic thinker, and the result has been the predictable hermeneutic feeding frenzy that has always surrounded his work. Nevertheless, "will to power" and "great politics" were mainstays of his later thought. Any attempt to interpretively brush these concepts aside risks distorting Nietzsche's central philosophical intentions.
From Machtpolitiker to Aesthete
One might readily debate the high point of Nietzsche's cultural influence. Most of the twentieth century's great philosophers — Heidegger, Jaspers, Foucault, and Habermas — have felt compelled to take a stand, pro or contra, in relation to his thought. But there can be no debating the low point. On November 2, 1933, Germany's new chancellor, Adolf Hitler, paid a ceremonial visit to the Nietzsche Archive in Weimar. There to receive Hitler was the administrator of the estate, Nietzsche's sister Elisabeth, who had systematically altered its contents, suppressing documents and forging others, to make Nietzsche out to be the German nationalist and anti-Semite he was not. (In 1885 Elisabeth married the anti-Semitic publicist Bernhard Förster, whom Nietzsche loathed. A year later the couple emigrated to Paraguay to found an Aryan utopia, Nueva Germania. Four years later Förster was accused of embezzling funds from his fellow colonists and promptly took his own life.) Mein Kampf never mentions Nietzsche's name. Nevertheless, following Hitler's visit, he was posthumously canonized as the philosophical inspiration behind Nazism. Unlucky in life, Nietzsche was in many ways even unluckier in death. In his 1952 book, The Destruction of Reason, the Marxist philosopher Georg Lukács confidently asserted, "Nietzsche foreshadowed in the most concrete fashion possible Hitler's fascist ideology." In 1981 the influential German news magazine Der Spiegel ran a cover story, featuring pictures of both Nietzsche and Hitler, with the provocative headline: "Hitler Perpetrator, Nietzsche Thinker."
After the war, efforts to ensure Nietzsche's rehabilitation commenced. The English-speaking world will long be in the debt of philosopher Walter Kaufmann, whose skillful editions and translations made Nietzsche's writings widely accessible. Yet, ultimately, Kaufmann's Nietzsche is remarkably un-Nietzschean. In his translations and commentaries, we are presented with a Nietzsche who is a cultured European, rather liberal and uncontroversial — all in all, a Nietzsche who resembles a mildly dyspeptic Voltaire. Missing in this account is the Nietzsche who "philosophized with a hammer," who proudly described his works as "assassination attempts," the apostle of "active nihilism" who believed that if contemporary Europe was collapsing, one should give it a final shove.
In the wake of Kaufmann's liberal Nietzsche, a different rehabilitation strategy began to take hold. The new approach — the "postmodern Nietzsche" — could not have been more different than the Nazi understanding of Nietzsche as an apostle of power politics. According to this new interpretative tack, Nietzsche's work was emphatically apolitical. In this reading Nietzsche appeared as a detractor of metaphysics, a convinced relativist, and something of an aesthete. Thus emerged what one might call the "perspectivist" Nietzsche: the Nietzsche who once proclaimed that "there are no facts, only interpretations," that "there is only a perspectival seeing, only a perspectival knowing"; the Nietzsche who, in The Will to Power, famously mocked the idea of objective truth with the assertion that "Truth is a kind of error without which a certain species of life could not live."
Allied with this image of the perspectivist Nietzsche is the view of Nietzsche as an aesthete preoccupied with questions of "style." As Nietzsche remarks in The Gay Science: "One thing is needful. — To 'give style' to one's character, a great and rare art! It is practiced by those who survey the strengths and weaknesses of their natures and then fit them into an artistic plan." Here, Nietzsche advocates "self-overcoming": to the world-weary "last men" of the fin-de-siècle (who remained, in his view, "human, all too human") he counterposed the Superman — resolute, high-minded, and, if necessary, cruel. In the aesthetic or literary understanding of Nietzsche, however, self-overcoming is detached from its usual context in his work, the theory of "the will to power." Instead, it becomes independent, emphasizing life as a process of incessant and directionless self-transformation. Since the self is inherently a fiction, the only genuine end of self-transformation is aesthetic: to perpetually overlay the groundless self with "style" for the sake of making it ever more attractive and interesting. It is in this spirit allegedly that Nietzsche, in The Will to Power, characterizes the world "as a work of art that gives birth to itself." "We possess art," Nietzsche goes on to say, "lest we perish of truth."
In the postmodern reading, Nietzsche is reduced and reconfigured to suit the needs of a blasé, post-philosophical (post-humanist, postindustrial, post-Freudian — take your pick) culture, in which rarely is anything momentous or important at stake. We are offered a domesticated and "presentable" Nietzsche, who would perhaps make for a good companion on a long train ride. Here is a Nietzsche whom even Richard Rorty, a self-described "postmodern bourgeois liberal," could wholeheartedly embrace.
In recent years the postmodern reading of Nietzsche has become canonical. Correspondingly, more substantive, less trivial approaches to his philosophy have become anathema. We owe these developments primarily to the influence of the French Nietzsche. The enthusiastic reception of Nietzsche's work has been perhaps the singularly most important development of postwar French intellectual life. In Modern French Philosophy, Vincent Descombes describes the momentous shift in French intellectual life from Marx to Nietzsche. "Burning the idol venerated until now, this generation denounced the dialectic as the supreme illusion, from which it sought to free itself through recourse to Nietzsche." Within a period of ten years — the 1960s — an intellectual community whose philosophical mainstays had been Descartes, Kant, and a Hegelianized Marx converted en masse to a Zarathustrian standpoint of "active nihilism." Only recently, with the emergence of a robust and indigenous neoliberalism — a perspective well-represented in Luc Ferry and Alain Renaut's Why We Are Not Nietzscheans — has the intellectual tide begun to turn.
In one of the great ironies of modern European intellectual life, at the precise moment Nietzsche had become persona non grata in his native Germany, he was anointed and apotheosized by French poststructuralism. The reasons for Nietzsche's sudden and remarkable currency are complex. In part they pertain to the rapid delegitimation of France's traditional philosophical models, associated with a Cartesian "philosophy of the subject," following the ignominious collapse of the Third Republic. In the postwar period the paradigm of existential Marxism, as propagated by Sartre and others, seemed to offer hope for intellectual and political renewal. Yet following the 1956 Soviet invasion of Hungary — and Sartre's apologetics on behalf of the regime (although Sartre vigorously condemned the invasion, he insisted that the Soviet Union's socialist character remained essentially unaffected) — these hopes quickly disintegrated. Thereafter, French intellectuals perceived both existentialism and Marxism as politically and intellectually compromised, expressions of a bureaucratic world society whose twin ideological expressions, capitalism and communism, were viewed merely as two sides of the same coin.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Seduction of Unreason"
Copyright © 2004 Princeton University Press.
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Table of Contents
Preface to the Second Edition, xi,
A Note on Giorgio de Chirico's "Song of Love", xliii,
Introduction: Answer to the Question: What Is Counter-Enlightenment?, 1,
PART I. The German Ideology Revisited,
1. Zarathustra Goes to Hollywood: On the Postmodern Reception of Nietzsche, 27,
2. Prometheus Unhinged: C. G. Jung and the Temptations of Aryan Religion, 63,
3. Fascism and Hermeneutics: Gadamer and the Ambiguities of "Inner Emigration", 89,
Political Excursus I. Incertitudes Allemandes: Reflections on the German New Right, 129,
PART II. French Lessons,
4. Left Fascism: Georges Bataille and the German Ideology, 153,
5. Maurice Blanchot: The Use and Abuse of Silence, 187,
6. Down by Law: Deconstruction and the Problem of Justice, 220,
Political Excursus II. Designer Fascism: On the Ideology of the French New Right, 256,
Conclusion: "Site of Catastrophe": The Image of America in Modern Thought, 278,
What People are Saying About This
“Absolutely entrancing. . . . [A] wide-ranging yet subtle consideration of the intellectual’s abiding fascination with absolutism. . . . [A] perceptive, compelling and invaluable document.”John Banville, Irish Times“An indispensable book. . . . [A]nother important installment in what has become one of the major intellectual enterprises of our time: Richard Wolin’s principled defense of liberalism against its most sophisticated enemies.”Adam Kirsch, New York Sun“[A] lively, learned, and wide-ranging work.”Choice“[A] superb book. . . . In this tour d’horizon, as deep as it is wide, Wolin refuses to be impressed by the glamour of extremity. He shines light into many dark corners where intellectual fraud, self-deception, and hauteur passed for liberty during a murderous century. Talk about genealogy! Unreason will never be the same.”Todd Gitlin, Columbia University