Daniel Came (ed.) Nietzsche on Art and Life – Review By Nicholas Birns

9780199545964In the first chapter of this interesting if inconsistent anthology, Bernard Reginster argues that not only did Nietzsche augur a shift in emphasis from the work of art to its creator, but that life for Nietzsche is beautiful “because it essentially involves the confrontation of suffering, and because the outcome of that confrontation is essentially uncertain” (36). Thus, Reginster concludes, “the inestimability of the value of life is a condition of the very possibility of its affirmation” (37). Reginster expresses, with particular pathos and eloquence, one of the most striking properties of Nietzsche: When he stands for something, he is always also in the process of giving something up or undermining the very act of standing for something. Though Reginster writes in a lucid and accessible manner far from the deliberate obscurities of postmodernism, I would nonetheless associate the posture he takes here both with the “New Nietzsche” of Jacques Derrida or Paul de Man in the 1970s and with more specifically dedicated Nietzscheans such as Alexander Nehamas. But, though Nehamas is mentioned several times in this anthology, de Man and Derrida never are. These omissions, combined with the fact that Brian Leiter is mentioned, make this anthology seem a bit too committed to Nietzsche taking certain positions. Daniel Came, in his introduction, seeks to distance himself from Leiter’s most nominalistic and analytic tendencies, seeking to combine ethics and aesthetics. But Came states that his anthology’s emphasis is “practical-existential” (5), and though Came is no doubt right that these are the terms on which Nietzsche himself sought to operate, one still might have some reservations about this. This is not just because we still, after all, might need theory, but because a practical-existential emphasis risks pinning Nietzsche down to a discernible position when it may be, as Reginster suggests, that Nietzsche is simply hard to pin down.

This becomes an issue in the second to last essay in the book by Aaron Ridley. Ridley states that Nietzsche is one of the few philosophers to speak meaningfully about music, but then, quite bluntly, says Nietzsche “got it wrong” (232) about Wagner’s Parsifal. This raises several questions. Can we ever get it right about a certain work? Does a work of music have an objective meaning, apart from what the listener hears? Did Nietzsche ever mean to get it right about Wagner? Were both his initial enthusiasm and his later loathing deliberate aesthetic poses? Most importantly, what is the referent of “it” in Ridley’s sentence? Does the us of “it” here assert a work can ever have a determinate meaning? These concerns also apply when Ridley defends Nietzsche, for instance defending the later Nietzsche’s somewhat astounding preference for Bizet over Wagner by saying the way Bizet is “oblivious to the allure” (233) of the beyond is itself a meaningful stance towards the beyond. This is well said, but treats Nietzsche’s late rejection of Germanic profundity for French cerebral amusement as a hyperbolic and deliberately preposterous gesture, not entirely meant to be a serious aesthetic proposition.

Ridley’s essay is followed by one by Roger Scruton, the noted conservative thinker. The very inclusion of Scruton in an anthology with very few Continental or theoretical figures itself is a sort of statement, even if few of the other contributors take Scruton’s anti-Nietzsche line. Scruton condemns Nietzsche’s denunciation of Wagner for decadence, stating that, in today’s era of Lady Gaga, Wagner’s decadence seems tame. One might respond by saying that, in these days of Trump and Brexit, Nietzsche’s anti-progressive tendencies, if he can be reduced to those, seem tame. Scruton’s disdain for rock and roll blinds him to how both his critique of Lady Gaga’s spectacle and Nietzsche’s critique of Wagner has a fundamental kinship with strands in rock aesthetics, such as punk rock’s fundamentally Nietzschean denunciation of 1970s soft rock and art rock. But, even though Nietzsche and much else might be hard to pin down, one thing is for sure: one does not expect a discussion of punk rock from Roger Scruton.

Came’s own essay argues that one cannot really deduce an aesthetic morality from Nietzsche’s writings, that aesthetic morality indeed necessitates witnessing and attending to certain acts of immortality that, even though one would not wish to emulate them, do sufficiently call us out of our normal state of unwatchfulness as to be in the moment. This suggests that when we read Nietzsche we should have to pay attention, not always following him but always being mindful of what he says, without reducing him to a check-the-boxes thinker: Nietzsche’s ontology, Nietzsche’s epistemology, Nietzsche’s aesthetics, and so on. A dedicated reader of Nietzsche senses, I think, that all the above categories are somewhat gossamer, that Nietzsche as a writer and thinker is continually evading them. Thus I am not convinced, for instance, by Adrian del Caro’s assertion that Nietzsche was “bound to condemn” (160) Faust as a Romantic hero, even though del Caro’s postulation of a subterranean kinship between Goethe’s hero and Nietzsche’s Zarathustra is provocative; or by Christopher Raymond’s claim that there is such a thing as a “Nietzschean view” (75) of Greek tragedy, as even Raymond admits that Nietzsche substantially changed his mind after he wrote The Birth of Tragedy, and even though few would dissent from Raymond’s sense that Nietzsche alone cannot be a normative guide to Greek tragedy; or by A. E. Denham’s sense of “ Nietzsche’s real advance over Schopenhauer’s aesthetic psychology” (198), even though Denham interestingly argues that the Nietzsche-Schopenhauer relationship is more complex than it appears. Sabina Lovebond, on the other hand, is able to entertain a social and anti-social Nietzsche at the same time. This seems to me a more promising direction, to see Nietzsche as offering a series of baffling yet uncannily heuristic inconsistencies. Came’s anthology gives us a practical, near-at-hand Nietzsche for the twenty-first century; but I still feel that even though the “new Nietzsche” is now quite old, its conceptual day is not yet done. That Nietzsche never quite knows what he thinks and that we certainly do not either, may be his most valuable asset.