Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Not Nietzschean

Time to ramble on about Nietzsche again.

An English-speaking reader of Nietzsche cannot avoid Walter Kaufmann. As (one of) the most prolific translators and commentators out there, Kaufmann has basically delivered Nietzsche to the English world. I have limited myself to his translations for reasons of verbal and aesthetic consistency (i.e. it looks good on the bookshelf) and am finally wading through his own extended treatment, Nietzsche: Philosopher, Psychologist, Antichrist.

Now, Kaufmann never considered himself a Nietzschean and vocally disagrees with him on many matters, not least of all that of writing style, and yet his description of that style is right on. Kaufmann asks whether Nietzsche in fact falls into the decadence of his age, as described in The Case of Wagner:
That life no longer resides in the whole. The word becomes sovereign and leaps out of the sentence, the sentence reaches out and obscures the meaning of the page, and the page comes to life at the expense of the whole--the whole is no longer a whole.
While this decription may superficially apply to Nietzsche's aphoristic style, Kaufmann argues that all of these experiments (Versuche) are distinguished by their existential quality. Nietzsche took on only those problems which seemed to threaten his very life and would attempt to answer them simply by living them; one need only look to his relationship with Wagner for an example of how Nietzsche's philosophical convictions shaped his life. His existentialism 'saves' his writings from the atomistic problem of decadence for, quite simply, life does reside within the whole. His own life resides in the whole of his work.

Kaufmann defends Nietzsche from accusations of deliberate incoherence and contradiction by invoking existential unity, but then he turns around and suggests that Nietzsche's failure to systematize his thought has prevented the probable truth of his hypotheses from being established. In other words, he is willing to use "existentialism" (not really as a philosophical school but rather as descriptive of a particular type of personal commitment) to show Nietzsche's consistency, but is not willing to admit the possibility of existential truth. I don't understand how one can speak of substantiating existential claims in any way other than through a similar existential commitment to the problem. If one is not compelled by Nietzsche's writing then one won't be compelled by a systematized version of his thought, unless one did not understand Nietzsche at all to begin with. I will allow that "unless". We humans need some structure to make sense of things, so I understand the pedagogical need for a more systematic approach to Nietzsche's body of work, but the system won't substantiate the hypotheses. Only the continued life of the whole, and living of the whole can do that. Does that make any sense?

Kaufmann is not Nietzschean. Neither am I, but there's not much at stake in that. I'm not sure why one would be Nietzschean and I don't know why Kaufmann bothers to say so much, especially considering his subsequent likening of Nietzsche to the prophet Hosea - "Sometimes prophecy seems to consist in man's ability to experience his own wretched fate so deeply that it becomes a symbol of something larger." Although I trip over the word "symbol" a little, this seems a fair assessment of both Hosea and Nietzsche. Kaufmann would hardly call himself "Hosean" or "not Hosean" and yet he still seems determined to make a school or an "ism" out of Nietzsche. Curious.