Friday, October 23, 2009

Walter Kaufmann's "Nietzsche: Philosopher, Psychologist, Antichrist"

In grappling with Nietzsche's ideas, Kaufmann appreciates fully his experimental style. He writes:

The elusive quality of this style, which is so characteristic of Nietzsche's way of thinking and writing, might be called monadologic to crystallize the tendency of each aphorism to be self-sufficient while yet throwing light on almost every other aphorism. We are confronted with a "pluralistic universe" in which each aphorism is itself a microcosm. Almost as often as not, a single passage is equally relevant to ethics, aesthetics, philosophy of history, theory of value, psychology, and perhaps half a dozen other fields.

Despite Kaufmann's appreciation of this "pluralistic" style, he wants to piece together Nietzsche's aphorisms and show his thinking is coherent and systematic. This program goes against not only his style but also Nietzsche's criticism of philosophic systems as a way of stopping thought. Kaufmann sees Nietzsche's perspectivism as a method by which he arrived at his positive doctrines (such as the will to power and eternal recurrence), and not as a more radical critique of philosophical thinking. So the experience of reading Kaufman on Nietzsche is very strange. You are grateful for his clear exposition of Nietzsche's ideas, but keep feeling he is missing the point.

On Nietzsche's perspectivism, S turns me on to Alexander Nehamas' Nietzsche: Life as Literature. I hope to read that soon because its aestheticist thesis sounds instinctively right to me. As Hazlitt has it, the language of poetry is closely aligned to the language of power. Nietzsche's will to power is directly related to the will to create, or re-create. Max Cavitch, in his American Elegy: The poetry to mourning from the puritans to Whitman, makes a passing reference to Nietzsche's debt to Emerson's Over-Soul for his idea of the Over-Man. Nietzsche did make a reference to Emerson somewhere in his writings; I should try to find it. The connection between Nietzsche and Emerson, Nietzsche and Goethe, points towards Nietzsche's Romantic precedents, though he is heavily critical of the German Romantics such as Schiller.

Besides its Romanticism, the Protestantism of Nietzsche's self-overcoming also appeals to me. S calls it, perhaps unintentionally derogatorily, self-help. That label minimizes the abyss we all face after the death of God: nihilism. Or to put the problem positively, what should we live by. Eternal recurrence may or may not be a cosmological doctrine in Nietzsche's book, but it seems to me a noble ethical ideal. Amor fait. To love one's fate enough to desire the recurrence of one's exact circumstances. I can't desire that at the moment (what a waste my twenties appear to me), and that gives me ethical, and creative, work to do. "You shall become who you are" is how Nietzsche put it in The Gay Science.

At the end of his chapter "Morality and Sublimation," Kaufmann summarizes beautifully Nietzsche's ethical views:

Our impulses are in a state of chaos. We would do this now, and another thing the next moment--and even a great number of things at the same time. We think one way and live another; we want one thing and do another. No man can live without bringing some order into this chaos. This may be done by thoroughly weakening the whole organism or by repudiating and repressing many of the impulses: but the result in that case is not a "harmony," and the physis is castrated, not "improved." Yet there is another way--namely, to "organize the chaos": sublimation allow for the achievement of an organic harmony and leads to that culture which is truly a "transfigured physis." 

The will to power also offers an alternative to the Darwinian will to survive, which has always struck me as too minimalist an explanation. The will to survive may explain why we have a thumb, but I would rather know why Shakespeare wrote the works he did, and not Ben Jonson. It's a stretch to claim that the writing of The Tempest is fundamentally a matter of survival. More likely, as Prospero reminds us, it is a matter of power, and its surrender.

As Nietzsche himself wrote in The Genealogy of Morals of the will to power:

. . . the material upon which the form-giving and ravishing nature of this force vents itself is man himself, his . . . animalic . . . self--and not . . . other men. This secret self-ravishment, this artists' cruelty, this pleasure in giving form to oneself as a hard, recalcitrant, suffering material--burning into it a will, a critique, a contradiction, a contempt, a No--this . . . work of a soul that is willingly divided against itself and makes itself suffer--this whole activistic "bad conscience" has . . . been the real womb of all ideal and imaginative events and has this brought to light an abundance of strange new beauty and affirmation--and perhaps beauty itself.--What would be "beautiful" is contradiction had not first become self-conscious, if the ugly had not first said to itself: "I am ugly"? 

1 comment:

Shropshirelad said...

In the theory of natural selection the will to survive matters less than the force of chance. The stray cosmic ray knocking one strand of DNA out of alignment so another can take its place, meaning a longer neck or keener eyesight. The will to power will only take you so far in basketball if you are a dwarf. It only took Ben Jonson so far in playwriting.

The Death of God is one of those events in European intellectual history that I think has been oversold. In English jurisprudence there is a precept known as habeas corpus. I can point to a place on a map where Nietzsche is buried, but not God. I do not raise this point to be frivolous. God is an idea. And ideas are hard to kill. Though, as Auden pointed out, men endlessly try:

...Ideas can be true although men die,
And we can watch a thousand faces
Made active by one lie:

And maps can really point to places
Where life is evil now:
Nanking. Dachau.