There is creative reading as well as creative writing.
– Ralph Waldo Emerson
How to Read Nietzsche Like a Non-Nietzschean
Sometimes it’s said that we’re all “Nietzscheans” now. From cultural studies to literary theory, or from postmodern polemics to continental philosophy, Nietzsche’s ideas aren’t so much studied as presupposed; they’re part of the deep grammar of those disciplines, part of the furniture. These days, disquieting Nietzschean insights like, for instance, perspectivism (the idea that “there are no facts, only interpretations”) have come to seem commonplace. At the same time, we’ve surely lost sight of what makes much of Nietzsche’s thought intellectually unpalatable. Nietzsche is often repackaged as a radical thinker by an academic establishment a little in love with its own notions of radicalism. Yet ideas aren’t widely lauded as “radical” until they have already undergone a certain degree of diffusion, even dilution. In Nietzsche’s case, the paradox plays out like this: We are only too eager to make Nietzsche a name that connotes “opposition,” but as a result we fail to formulate any opposition to him. We celebrate Nietzsche for being anti-everything, but why is there no anti-Nietzsche?
That is, perhaps obliquely, what Walter Kaufmann’s book, Nietzsche: Philosopher, Psychologist, Antichrist achieved to answer. To begin with that problem — to read Nietzsche without having to deal with the anxiety of influence — one must first ask why it hasn’t been asked. What is it about Nietzsche’s work that rules out resistance? How has his thought come to function as – as some philosophy professors say today – the “limit-philosophy” of our time? Reading Walter Kaufmann’s work, one can detect a brilliant move of locating this limiting quality less in some abstract aspect of Nietzsche’s thought than in his rhetoric. We all know how Hollywood movies induce us to relate to their heroic protagonists, or how novels compel us to identify with their characters. Nietzsche’s rhetorical strategy likewise invites us to occupy a position that is utterly artificial but made to appear irresistible. Consider, for instance, the well-known quote from Ecce Homo: “I am not a man, I am dynamite.” Who, when reading these words, has not felt the sudden thrill of something explosive within themselves? Who hasn’t appropriated some of that spirit, that energy that Nietzsche attributed only to himself?
This is how many of us read when we read works of literature; in Nietzsche’s case we make the mistake of adopting it as an approach to philosophy. Indeed, Nietzsche’s philosophy is structurally similar to fiction, since it relies on eliciting the “right” response from its readers, by making that response its own rhetorical reward.
So, in a way, Nietzsche plays on our narcissism. His writing compels us to read for victory. Nietzsche always admired the Homeric hero, set on a circular journey of self-discovery. Yet the reader is the real hero of Nietzsche’s narratives, enticed into seeing himself as uniquely receptive to their radical arguments. We want to be just like Nietzsche – or, at the least, we want ourselves to be what Nietzsche talks about when he says “higher men” – and Nietzsche knows this, which is why he encourages us to join him in enjoying allegorical forms of strength, superiority, and self-expression. Faced with a choice between man and Superman, we naturally want to relate to the latter, even if Nietzsche’s Ubermensch is as unreal as any literary character.
But if that’s the case, how can readers resist the temptation to take Nietzsche’s bait? Because rejecting Nietzsche is never easy. The problem is this: If Nietzsche’s golden rule is “one must be victorious” – which is to say: one must, like Nietzsche, be dynamite, be beyond good and evil – then surely to read Nietzsche critically would still be to read for victory, only this time over Nietzsche. That is, attempts at literary critique can’t help but be circular; all our attempts to abandon Nietzsche simply bring us back to him.
The most startling realization that I gathered from reading this book, among others, is that in order to sidestep Nietzsche’s strategy is to read him like a non-Nietzschean. True, dubious as it may seem, this consists of entertaining a sort of thought experiment, although it’s far from an arid theoretical exercise. To read Nietzsche like a non-Nietzschean is not to reject his arguments but to willfully accept them, even at their most reprehensible. If Nietzsche wants to write about rising above the herd or rejecting Christian morality, then he’s welcome to. Only, in following his flights of fancy, we’re not to fall into the trap of identifying ourselves with his metaphorical Ubermensches and Higher Men. Rather, we must allow ourselves to be the victims of these texts. We should identify with the slaves, the sick, the psychologically weak and unfit, the defeated, at all times turning Nietzsche’s arguments against ourselves. In this way we can depart from Nietzsche “without having to meet him again,” reading for victory neither with nor over him but only ever over ourselves. To read Nietzsche like a non-Nietzschean is to refuse to collude in a fiction of intellectual elitism, superiority and dominance.
Of course, if we take this attitude, reading Nietzsche will make us feel like dirt, reminding us of our weakness and mediocrity, our irremediable exclusion from the life that is possible only for those who are healthier, and more powerful – reminding us of our being human, all-too-human. This self-defeating attitude is more than a masochistic game, however; it’s a fruitful starting point for a revolutionary “politics of failure.” Over all, the idea here is to not become one with the herd – to not become one of Nietzsche’s herd of delusional, self-proclaimed Nietzscheans – but to follow ourselves, thereby “overcoming” Nietzsche without being “Nietzschean.”
According to Nietzsche, the Superman is to man as man is to ape. Thus, if one endeavors to undo Nietzsche’s philosophy of superiority, if one endeavors to untangle oneself from his “mind fuck” of linguistic mind games – thereby “overcoming” his texts and becoming “superhuman” in the process – one must learn how to be an ape first.
The Nietzsche of Walter Kaufmann
That said, thus far I have shared the generally accepted ideas about Nietzsche without bothering to winnow the chaff from the wheat, thus generating misreadings – or incomplete readings – of some of the most abstruse passages of his work. With Nietzsche: Philosopher, Psychologist, Antichrist, I am now convinced, or perhaps almost so, that the Nietzsche Kaufmann discovered comes closer to the “Nietzsche” than the various images and idols which, accepted by layman and professional alike, have blocked a fuller understanding of Nietzsche’s thought. Kaufmann, with outstanding scholarship and patience, strips off Nietzsche layer after layer of external misinterpretation and apparent internal inconsistencies to present us with a new, more readable, more “accessible” Nietzsche. So much so that I’m inclined to propose this book to be a “test case”: if the academe in general receives it well, then there is hope that the dreadful romanticism into which existentialism has degenerated will soon recede; then there is hope that instead of the vague Nothings and ambiguous Absoultes that now fill, or rather empty, academic heads and chairs in many philosophy departments, the “Dionysian enlightenment” that Nietzsche wished for will prevail.
With sound and searching scholarship with which Kaufmann dispels the romantic clouds gathered around Nietzsche’s teachings and clarifies the radical change in the meaning of Dionysus, he explodes the Darwinian connotations of the Ubermensch, the racial fantasies about the “blond beast,” and the myth of Nietzsche’s hatred of Socrates. In an incisive confrontation with Kierkegaard, Nietzsche’s ambivalent attitudes to Christ, Christian morality and Christendom, are divested of their shrill and hectic aspects which were intended to shock his contemporaries, and a more rational appreciation of Nietzsche’s psychological insights and value preferences is achieved. The doctrine of Eternal Recurrence – the bete noire of Nietzscheans and anti-Nietzscheans alike – is given a careful examination which shows its continuity with the thought of the early Nietzsche, its close relation to the Will to Power and Ubermensch conceptions, and its foundation in basic experiences of Nietzsche.
The most extensive treatment in the book is reserved for the doctrine of the Will to Power. Its development from germinal stages to its final version is carefully traced and thus once more the surprising continuity of Nietzsche’s thought is established. The psychological and metaphysical aspects of this doctrine are purged of the crude interpretations given them by racists and evolutionists alike. It is, after all, the artist, the philosopher, and the saint who, having sublimated their passion, have reached — according to Nietzsche — the highest level of power, which is that of self-mastery, of self-overcoming. In an analysis of the “value theoretical” implications of the Will to Power doctrine, Kaufmann shows its internal consistency. If power is the ultimate standard, how then can one evaluate different kinds of power without clandestinely introducing another “more ultimate” standard – a problem that has its parallel, for instance, in the distinction between higher and lower pleasures.
Kaufmann also presents us Nietzsche’s relation to Dostoevsky and Heine, Hegel and Kierkegaard, Kant and Rousseau. The new Nietzsche who emerges from these pages is one whose leitmotif is the “theme of the anti-political individual who seeks self-perfection far from the modern world”; a Nietzsche who “tried to recapture more than anything else … the spirit of Socrates”; a Nietzsche close to the experimental and rigorous spirit of science; a Nietzsche whose Will to Power is not a metaphysical thesis a la Schopenhauer, but an inductive inference on the basis of observation; a Nietzsche who admires Socrates, the gadfly, and Goethe, the classic man, and who abhors romanticism; a Nietzsche who deliberately makes himself a European and who despises German imperialism and racism; a Nietzsche to whom self-discipline, self-overcoming, is the highest good, and who loathes the “blond beast’s” abandon to passion and power over others. This is the Nietzsche of Walter Kaufmann. It is a Nietzsche somewhat closer to the sober and scientific philosophy of the Anglo-Saxon scene than to the metaphysical and romantic tradition of Germany.
But could it really be that the prevalent interpretations of Nietzsche as a romantic irrationalist, power metaphysician, blond beast Dionysus, are nothing but distortions due either to actual misinterpretation (as in the case of pervious mainstream Nietzsche interpreters and polemicists), or to Nietzsche’s own misleading expressions? It could be, but I doubt it; and I personally find Kaufmann’s book a few asides which seem to me to come closer to the truth than his “official” picture. In these asides Nietzsche is a man whose “frenzied vehemence … seems far from the majestic and the mature repose of … Socrates or Goethe.” In discussing Nietzsche’s admiration for the death of Socrates, Kaufmann states:
Nietzsche’s general failure to equal his hero could hardly be illustrated more frightfully than by his own creeping death.
Is not Nietzsche “the decadent philosopher who cannot cure his own decadence but yet struggles against it?”; the romanticist who hates the romanticist, the sentimentalist who resents sentiment? At the very end of the book, Kaufmann compare Nietzsche, not with Socrates, but with Aclibiades: Nietzsche
… fell so pitifully short of Socrates’ serenely mature humanity that his very admiration invites comparison with the mad, drunken Aclibiades in the Symposium who also could not resist the fascination and charm of Socrates.
I feel that what Kaufmann rightly argues against is the irationalist, romanticist misinterpretation of Nietzsche’s doctrines. On the other hand, what he wrongly scoffs at is the insight that it is an irrationalist, romanticist “state of being” – to use Kaufmann’s phrase – that motivated Nietzche’s philosophy. It is not out of his own “inner strength and well-being” that Nietzsche idealizes Socrates in Goethe, but out of the knowledge of, and contempt for, his own decadence and romanticism. He is an Aclibiadean Socrates, a sick, split-up, un-Goethean Goethe. Thus there is some truth in the prevalent Nietzschean image, but it is, to say the least, one-dimensional. It projects the romantic style of Nietzsche’s philosophy into its classic content. Kaufmann, on the other hand, shows us the Socratic, Goethean content of Nietzsche’s doctrine but underplays his un-Socratic, un-Goethean style. Yet, by giving us this more unfamiliar side in so thorough and superior a fashion, Kaufmann has indebted us to him enormously. He has permitted us now to gain a fuller version of this romantic ant-romantic, this irrationalist rationalist, this decadent prophet of the Ubermensch, the great and miserable Nietzsche.