Nietzsche: Life as Literature by Alexander Nehamas. Harvard University Press, $17.95.
August 19, 1986        

Henry James aspired to be "one of those on whom nothing is lost." It is, even in principle, an impossible aspiration. Beyond a certain point, depth and breadth, originality and comprehensiveness are inversely related. This is the fact of finitude the root of tragedy: to see deeply into anything, one must be blind to a great deal. Unlimited receptivity, perfect negative capability, may in the end be disabling, even for an artist. James is himself a poignant example.

A very few writers have, however, attained something like James's ideal-- none more so, I would say, than Nietzsche. In his intellectual testament, Ecce Homo, Nietzsche described his work as "a critique of modernity." Every important strain in 19th-century European culture-- classical antiquity, Christianity, the Enlightenment, German idealism, Romanticism, science, socialism, feminism, even Orientalism -- played an essential part in that critique. Of course Nietzsche did not do impartial justice to each of these; more often, sublime injustice. He could, after all, hardly afford even the pretence of impartiality. Others -- Aristotle, Aquinas, Leibniz, Hegel -- had likewise mastered nearly every aspect of contemporary thought and achieved a kind of synthesis. But each of these was more or less in harmony with his age. Nietzsche was in radical opposition to his. He was at once the foremost interpreter and the foremost antagonist of his-- our -- civilization. His encounter with modernity was a war; the record of that war is an epic; the hero of that epic is Nietzsche.

A hero of consciousness, a "representative destiny" (Karl Jaspers): this is how Nietzsche has appeared in every subsequent generation. But the terms of his influence have altered. The first form of that influence was the image of Nietzsche the prophet the diagnostician of nihilism and herald of its overcoming. Nietzsche was perhaps not the first to recognize that everything previously held capable of giving meaning to history -- in a word, "God,"-- could no longer be believed in. But he perceived the consequences of that fact with unprecedented clarity and faced up to them with unprecedented seriousness. In the most advanced ideologies of his time -- egalitarianism, positivism, nationalism -- he claimed to see just so many attempts to evade those consequences, to retain the metaphysical and moral superstitions that only the freest spirits could do without. Nietzsche proposed to teach, not through a doctrine but by his example how to live without illusions -- how to live under the volcano. And to live well: "He who, prompted by some enigmatic desire, has, like me, long endeavored to think pessimism through to the bottom ... he who has really gazed with an Asiatic and more than Asiatic eye down into the most world-denying of all possible modes of thought -- beyond good and evil and no longer, like Buddha and Schopenhauer, under the spell and illusion of morality-- perhaps by that very act, and without really seeking to, may have had his eyes opened to the opposite ideal: to the ideal of the most exuberant, most living and most world-affirming man, who has not only learned to get on and treat with all that was and is but who wants to have it again as it was and is to all eternity, insatiably crying out da capo not only to himself but to the whole piece and play ... ." Nothing lost, nothing negated: the ideal of the "superman."

This is the Nietzsche that Thomas Mann called "a personality of phenomenal cultural plenitude and complexity, summing up all that is essentially European"; that looms in the immediate background of Freud, Rilke, Gide, Shaw, and Lawrence; and that others carelessly mistook for, or cynically distorted into, a proto-Nazi. But since Nietzsche's time, the center of gravity of Western thought has shifted from history to language, from Kulturkritik to structuralism. For better or worse, Nietzsche the prophet is out of fashion today, while Nietzsche the philosopher has cone into his own. To put this distinction another way: Nietzsche the psychologist, the "immoralist," the Antichrist, seems less interesting to most contemporary phi1osophers and literary critics than Nietzsche the epistemologist, the theorist of knowledge and language. As one of his contemporary interpreters has written, Nietzsche, like his postmodern successors, "teaches us not how to live but how to read."

The latter, formalist mode is less obviously heroic than the earlier, world-historical one. But nihilism has its epistemological form, which must also be overcome. To show how Nietzsche accomplished this, and in doing so to trace the deep structure of modernity's various nihilisms and Nietzsche's various heroisms, is the aim of Alexander Nehamas's Nietzsche: Life as Literature.

Nehamas poses an apparently peripheral question: why does Nietzsche write aphoristically, hyperbolically, and in such a variety of genres? Most of Nietzsche's readers probably assume that this is an accident of temperament or else a symbolic rejection of order and coherence, which do not, Nietzsche claims, characterize the world and therefore should not characterize philosophical writing. But there is more to it than that. In the course of answering his initial question Nehamas evolves a wonderfully subtle and ingenious interpretation, one that hints at Nietzsche 's almost unrivalled capacity to teach us "how to live" as well as "how to read."

Consider the reactions that Nietzsche's hyperbole typically produces: a defensive indifference, which clams that nothing serious and philosophical could possibly be said in such a style; active indignation and hostility; or uncritical discipleship. This is the same range of reactions evoked by Nietzsche's antipodes and lifelong antagonist, Socrates; and not accidentally, since both were intensely personal thinkers, with designs upon the lives of their readers/listeners. But Socrates's characteristic trope is litotes: ironic, self-effacing under statement. Socrates's style tends to make him, as an "author," invisible; Nietzsche's makes him insistently visible. The reason for this antithesis is that Socrates introduced theory into ethics. He was the first to claim that reasoning could produce moral judgments of impersonal, universal validity-- "dogmas" in the ancient, nonpejorative sense. This seemed to Nietzsche the most fateful and disastrous innovation in the history of thought, and he devoted his whole career to showing that pretensions to objective moral truth, i.e., to dogma, invariably mask that most personal of motives, the will to power. One of his tactics in this struggle was to develop a style that, in direct opposition to that of Socrates, was so personal and figurative as to be virtually incapable of syllogistic paraphrase. Nietzsche's fundamental proposition, his "perspectivism," holds that all theories and values are individual perspectives and that the world, like a work of literature, can be interpreted equally well in different, even incompatible ways. His style enacts that proposition.

Nietzsche's perspectivism rests on his critique of the metaphysics of identity. Traditionally, most philosophers believed in an abstract and universal human nature, which gave to each human being an immutable identity. This identity, or self, underlay the individual's diverse attributes and actions. In one form or another, this distinction between the universal and the individual, the self and its attributes, has appeared throughout the history of philosophy: spirit and matter, essence and accident, substance and property, soul and body, reality and appearance, thing-in-itself and phenomenon. And everywhere it appeared, belief in a universal human nature has been the basis of belief in a universal human morality, valid unconditionally, at all times and places, for all human beings.

That belief had been under attack since 14th-century nominalism. The radical phenomenalism of Hume, revised by Kant, had weakened it gravely. Nietzsche undertook to deliver the coup grace and to produce new answers, not dependent on metaphysical fictions, to the perennial questions: what is "truth"? what is a "self"? what is the "good"?

Nietzsche approached these questions by trying to dissolve the categorical distinctions that had, in each case, structured the traditional answers. In the case of truth, these were "fact" vs. "interpretation," "objective" vs. "subjective," and most obviously, "true" vs. "false." Nietzsche argued that there are no simple "facts," i.e. that the world has no features that are prior to and independent of every interpretation (a view now fairly standard among philosophers of science); that every interpretation is crucially influenced by the goals and temperaments of those who devise it; and that every general theory must involve sweeping simplifications and logical compromises or else sacrifice comprehensibility and relevance to ordinary life.

As for the "self," Nietzsche showed that "intellect" and "will" are not separate faculties, which somehow exist apart from thoughts and volitions. What's more, thoughts, volitions, and emotions are themselves complex, continuous processes, indissoluble from their objects and effects. So much, then, for the "soul" and for metaphysical personhood; a self is a set of interconnections grouped together by an interpretation. Or, in one of Nietzsche 's countless arresting phrases, "a 'thing' is the sum of its effects."

Most famously, Nietzsche argued that judgments about "good" and "evil," like all other valuations, are historical through and through. In a sense roughly comparable to Marx's critique of ideology, Nietzsche claimed that a morality is one group's preferred way of life masquerading as an obligatory way of life for all groups. He even wrote the history of one successful masquerade: his "genealogy" of Christian morals, which aimed to show how the underclass of the ancient world had rationalized its submission into a morality of submissiveness.

If one accepts this stringent reductionism, then our familiar conceptual landscape with its handy signposts, like "thing," "mind," and "virtue," is no longer recognizable. The world as Nietzsche describes it would seem to be a place of complete epistemological and moral fluidity, containing nothing absolute or unequivocal. It is as though, to paraphrase Dostoevsky, if metaphysics does not exist, everything is permitted, in discourse as well as deed.

But it is not at all clear how we could live in, or even make sense of, such a world. And so Nietzsche has been suspected of paradox. If every general view is no more than an interpretation, the expression of an individual perspective, then what is the status of this view itself--is it "true"? How, precisely, can there be actions without agents, effects without things? And how can Nietzsche criticize existing morality except, at least implicitly, in virtue of some positive morality of his own, which would then, by his own argument, be as arbitrary and dogmatic as those he is criticizing? Doesn't Nietzsche's methodological reductionism undermine itself?

Nehamas shows that it does not, provided we recognize that Nietzsche conceived of the world as formally equivalent to a work of literature, of interpretation as literary criticism, and of persons as literary characters. Nietzsche's "negative" achievement was to demonstrate that the world could not be understood metaphysically. His "positive" achievement was to demonstrate that it could be understood aesthetically. His solutions to the traditional problems of philosophy became intelligible if we rephrase those problems in this way: What is a "true" or "correct" interpretation of a work of art? What is the "identity" of a literary character? What makes a character "good" or admirable?

If persons do not have natures and things do not have essences, then the world does not have a single, uniquely real, "ontological" structure that underlies mere appearances. That is, the world is indeterminate. Just as the complete family tree of any person would include every other person who has ever lived, the complete causal history of any event would include everything that has ever happened. Every person has an infinite number of possible family trees and every event has an infinite number of possible causes. Which family history or causal sequence is "correct" depends on our purposes in asking for it.

How then, in Nehamas's account, does Nietzsche imagine that we construct usable definitions and explanations? By composing narratives. "The unity of each thing, that thing itself, is to be found in the genealogical account that connects one set of phenomena to another. It is to be found in a narrative of the way in which the later set can be seen as the descendant -- not as a development, manifestation, or appearance-- of the set that came earlier. Genealogy is Nietzsche's alternative to ontology."

A genealogical narrative is fictive, constructed; it does not pretend to reflect the ultimate nature of things, since there isn't one. Its success, like that of literary criticism, depends on revealing the maximum number of interconnections in a text or situation with a minimum of forcing. This, according to Nietzsche, is true of interpretations generally.

It is also true of lives. In The Gay Science Nietzsche writes:

"One thing is needful. --To "give style" to one's character -- a great and rare art! It is practiced by all those who survey the strengths and weaknesses of their nature and then fit them into an artistic plan until every one of than appears as art and reason and even weaknesses delight the eye. ... In the end, when the work is finished, it becomes evident how the constraint of a single taste governed and formed everything large and small. Whether this taste was good or bad is less important than one might suppose, if only it was a single taste!"

Here is Nehamas's gloss: "A person consists of absolutely everything one thinks, wants, and does. But a person worthy of admiration, a person who has (or is) a self, is one whose thoughts, desires, and actions are not haphazard but are instead connected to one another in the intimate way that indicates in all cases the presence of style. A self is just a set of coherently connected episodes, and an admirable self, as Nietzsche insists again and again, consists of a large number of powerful and conflicting tendencies that are controlled and harmonized. Coherence, of course, can also be produced by weakness, and one-dimensionality. But style, which is what Nietzsche requires and admires, involves controlled multiplicity and resolved conflict."

In other words, exactly the same qualities that make an interpretation successful-- breadth, consistency, piquancy, richness of texture -- make a character admirable. Just as the world has no ontological structure that makes a single type of interpretation "true," it has no moral structure that makes a single type of character "good." Instead Nietzsche 's model for the world is the self-contained unity of a work of literature. There are "good" (well-constructed) and "bad" (poorly constructed) characters in fiction, but they are not for that reason "good" and "evil."

"Style" is, however, a purely formal criterion. Does Nietzsche really mean to praise, say, Richard III equally with his beloved Goethe just because both personalities were the work of "a single taste"? Can't he affirm any specific moral qualities, or is that disallowed by his perspectivism? Nehamas 's answer is equivocal. Nietzsche "thinks that admirable people are one and all what he calls 'individuals.' But the very notion of an individual is one that essentially refuses to be spelled out in informative terms. To give general directions for becoming an individual is surely as self-defeating as is offering general views when one believes that general views are all simply interpretations." Or, one may add, as futile as offering general directions for creating a work of art.

Nietzsche could not, without self-contradiction, theorize about his ideal way of life; that would have been to fall back into the dogmatism of Socrates and the rest of the philosophical tradition. But he could not simply abandon philosophy for literature without leaving that dogmatism intact. His solution to this dilemma was to embody his philosophical views in a character, whom he implicitly commends to his readers. This character strove for and attained "style" in Nietzsche's sense by fashioning an extraordinary multiplicity of materials -- literary forms, dictions, subject matters -- into a complex, idiosyncratic unity. He illustrated Nietzsche's amor fati or fatalism, by accepting and turning to his own advantage such grievous misfortunes as wretched health, a mistaken early choice of career, and an equally mistaken early choice of mentor. And he placed himself beyond good and evil by becoming deeply admirable-- or at least widely admired -- in the very process of repudiating every morality known to him.

"Nietzsche's texts do not describe but, in exquisitely elaborate detail, exemplify the perfect instance of his ideal character. And this character is none other than the character these very texts constitute: Nietzsche himself." This character, "Nietzsche," is not the sickly, lonely, high-strung man who wrote Nietzsche's works, but the fascinating and terrible voice that speaks them. Nietzsche's "Nietzsche" is like Plato's Socrates, a supremely influential figure who is also a fictional creation-- only in Nietzsche's case, self-consciously so.

This account scarcely begins to suggest the subtlety and rigor of Nehamas's interpretation. Nietzsche: Life as Literature is about as good as academic philosophy gets. Still, the radical formalism of Nehamas's approach has its disadvantages. For one thing, it risks leaving the impression that Nietzsche was tremendously but merely, clever. Karl Jaspers observed that Nietzsche "did not so much think his problems as suffer them." Of course no interpretation can reproduce the incomparable pathos of Nietzsche's writing. But the spareness and dispassion of Nehamas's prose makes for an especially sharp, sometimes frustrating contrast with the abundance and vivacity of Nietzsche's. Although this is hardly Nehamas's fault, it seems worth pointing out, if only to remind readers that Nietzsche was a great artist as well as a great philosopher.

He was also--there's no ignoring it--a prophet. I don't mean this in the customary sense, which tends to highlight such predictions as "For when truth enters into a fight with the lies of millennia, we shall have upheavals, a convulsion of earthquakes, a moving of mountains and valleys, the like of which has never been dreamed of. The concept of politics will have merged entirely with a war of spirits; all power structures of the old society will have been exploded--all of them are based on lies: there will be wars the like of which have never yet been seen on earth. It is only beginning with me that the earth knows great politics." This Nietzsche is perhaps understandably (perhaps regrettably) neglected nowadays. I mean the Nietzsche about whom Freud said that "he had a more penetrating knowledge of himself than any other man who ever lived or was likely to live" and that "his premonitions and insights often agree in the most amazing manner with the laborious results of psychoanalysis."

To me (and also, I would guess, to Nehamas), the summit of Nietzsche's achievement is the essay on asceticism in The Genealogy of Morals. There are several fine pages on this essay in Nietzsche: Life as Literature which say virtually everything important about it--except that its central enigma has since received an answer, or the outlines of an answer. Nietzsche argues that the apparently life-denying ascetic ideal is actually life-preserving, since the guilt it invents as an explanation for human suffering shields people from the unbearable recognition that suffering has no explanation. But some of the language in which Nietzsche describes asceticism suggests that a part of this seemingly inexorable suffering may have been an explanation after all, though one that was not available to Nietzsche. The ascetic spirit, he writes, "springs from the protective instinct of a degenerating life." The victim knows that he is "suffering from himself in some way or other," and senses obscurely that he must seek the cause "in a piece of the past; he must understand his suffering as a punishment." But unable either to exorcize or to ignore this "piece of the past," he tries to "deaden, by means of a more violent emotion of any kind, a tormenting, secret pain that is becoming unendurable, and to drive it out of consciousness at least for a moment." At its most extreme, this deadening turns into a fantasy of annihilation: "this horror of the senses, of reason itself, this fear of happiness and beauty, this longing to get ay from all appearance, change, becoming, death, wishing, from longing itself -- all this means -- let us dare grasp it-- a will to nothingness. Nietzsche's portrait of the sick soul anticipates "in the most amazing manner" one of those "laborious results of psychoanalysis": the theory of pathological narcissism, which charts the transformation of "a piece of the past"--infantile rage and terror -- into something uncannily like the "deadening" Nietzsche describes. And there is another striking premonition in one of his phrases about the ascetic ideal: "life wrestles in it and through it with death and against death." Life Against Death, perhaps the most original and fruitful interpretation of Freud, is deeply indebted to The Genealogy of Morals and is, in a sense, also an essay on asceticism.

Nehamas does not do entire justice to Nietzsche the psychologist. But then, every perspective must leave something out. Nietzsche: Life as Literature is, along with R. J. Hollingdale's superb Nietzsche (1973), the best study in English. Fittingly, given its subject, it illustrates the continuity between making interpretations and making art. Of "Nietzsche," Nehamas writes:

"This character does not provide a model for imitation, since he consists essentially of the specific actions -- that is, of the specific writings -- that make him up, and which only he could write. To imitate him directly would produce a caricature, or at best a copy-- something which in either case is not an individual. To imitate him properly would produce a creation which, making use of everything that properly belongs to oneself, would also be perfectly one's own--something which is no longer an imitation."

Nehamas has imitated "Nietzsche" properly. He has produced something weighty, clomplex, distinctive -- in its way, a work of art. Not, like Niezsche's, a Masterwork, but unquestionably something with "style."