Being Hart on Nietzsche—Part 2

Here continues from Part 1 Hart’s reflections on Nietzsche in Beauty of the Infinite. Each part in this series continues immediately from the end of the previous part and follows the text in BOI (92-127) I’ve omitted only footnotes; all emphases in the text are as they appear in BOI. The section toward the end on wine (oinotheology) is priceless. Enjoy!



The priest rules. For all its claims to have abjured violence, the church was from the first, even before it enjoyed political power, a structure of coercion, of in fact the greatest of imaginable tyrannies. Not that the exercise of tyranny, as such, is any indictment in itself. Nietzsche’s later writings, after all, espouse a vision of the world as nothing other than the will to power, a cosmic “pathos” constituted from innumerable quanta of force existing in “relations of tension” (WP, 338-39), “a monster of energy, without beginning, without end…a play of forces,” boundlessly fecund, abundant, contradictory, and recurrent, serving no end but its won Dionysian creativity and destructiveness (WP, 549-50), of which every efficient force in the world – natural, “moral,” or other – is one or another aspect (BGE, 47-48). What Nietzsche despises in the particularly Christian expression of this will, however, is its sheer reactivity, its want of creativity, its empty grasping for control, and its pusillanimous longing to sill the turbulences of life. Christianity may allow the invalids created by its palliating spirituality certain mild but consoling expressions of power – acts of benevolence, gestures of condescension (GM, 135) – but it simultaneously depresses any impulse toward higher forms of life. And while Nietzsche insists that the sublimation of the will to power – through sacrifice, discipline, internalization of law – is a necessary moment in power’s creative expansion, he sees nothing in Christian asceticism, morality, or priestcraft but a depraved mockery of this sublimation, a dissimulation, a refusal to acknowledge the church’s true motives, and an expression of craven ressentiment directed against those possessed of “free spirits.” Even if, indeed, all effects are shapes assumed by the incalculably various will to power, even if what one calls will, thought, and act are only artificially isolated moments within a far greater process, one must still recognize Christian faith as the will to power at its most vulgar and debased: power representing itself as the refusal of power, as the negation of strife, as the evangel of perfect peace – only in order to make itself stronger, more terrifying, more invincible.

All very bracing rhetoric. But when one steps back from the flow of Nietzsche’s polemic, one becomes uncomfortably aware of a certain stress at the heart of this critique, a fissure of contradiction constantly displacing the center of the Nietzschean narrative to one or the other side (bridged, perhaps, by a furtive irony, which refuses to take too seriously the claims it impregnates); at one and the same time an edifice of “truth” is in the process of being dismantled and erected. One can scarcely deny, to begin with, the appearance of a seemingly unreflective naturalism in Nietzsche’s thought, prompting him to employ such words as “life,” “instinct,” and “nature” with a casual assurance that belies his own acute awareness of the cultural contingency of all “truths”; and one might justly wonder whether the life he celebrates is anything more diverting than the upward thrusting of an empty will, blind and idiotic, to which he has arbitrarily ascribed (in an ebullition of romantic enthusiasm) such qualities as richness, vitality, and creativity. One is often sorely pressed to hear the ironic tone that will indicate to the attentive ear that discreet juncture where an apparently absolutist metaphysics reveals itself as an intentional and exotic feat of fabulation. If Nietzsche’s vision of nature – of being – is simply that of the pagan (Heracleitean, Epicurean, etc.) αγων κοσμικος, if the “life” of which he speaks is essentially appropriation, injury, and overpowering, then of course ontic difference appears in Nietzschean narrative as opposition and contradiction; indeed, difference is appreciably different precisely in the degree to which each force resists, succumbs to, or vanquishes another force: an ontology of violence in its most elementary form. Not that this is in any sense a startling observation, nor does it somehow tell against Nietzsche’s position; it merely renders dubious the antimetaphysical rigor of his arguments. Can any degree of ironic distance make the Nietzschean critique any less “metaphysical” than what it attacks? Or, rather, can that critique sustain itself with any force or durability unless it stakes itself upon the “truth” of the narrative it invokes? And is then the nostalgia of Janus, at the last, unconquerable? This is a question probably of more interest in retrospect, from the perspective of Nietzsche’s postmodern disciples (those who hope to reject not only metanarratives but narrativity as such, with its “closure” and hierarchy of meaning), than it could ever have been for the man himself. But it is also a question that cannot simply be ignored as a humorless concern with “literal” readings, because even if one grant that Nietzsche is entirely conscious of his doubleness of tone, this in no way alters the truth that in posing an ontology of violence against the Christian narrative, the advantage that Nietzsche seems to have gained turns out to be, ultimately, only as compelling as any other aesthetic preference. There would be no objection to this, of course, if it were not for Nietzsche’s habit of treating his preference as a more honest, less resentful, less arbitrary, and more truthful account of reality; Nietzsche’s post-Christian counternarrative (which is itself perhaps occasionally tainted by resentment rather than honesty) cannot be denied its power and its appeal, but it should be recognized not simply as critique but as always already another kerygma. Between Nietzsche’s vision of life and an agon and the Christian vision of life as creation – as a primordial “gift and “grace” – there is nothing (not even the palpable evidences of “nature red in tooth and claw”) that makes ether perspective self-evidently more correct than the other. Each sees and accounts for the violence of experience and the beauty of being, but each according to an irreducible mythos and a particular aesthetics. A battle of tastes is being waged by Nietzsche, and the metaphysical appears therein as a necessary element of his narrative’s completeness; the difference that is immediately noticeable, however, between the Christian and Nietzschean narrative dynamisms is not that the former is indisceptibly bound to the metaphysics of identity and presence, but that the latter is simply more disingenuous regarding the metaphysics it advances.


Of course, Nietzsche would hardly be inconvenienced by such a complaint; truth is always a metaphorical pleating within the fabric of language, he might airily reply, a transposition of meaning from one context to another in an endless series of interdependent tropes, an appearance of proximity to “being” achieved by an ever more devious play of semantic remotion; and his strategy, in all good conscience, is one of suasive exhortation: he means only to urge, at times with magnificent indifference to fine distinctions, the forcefulness of his own metaphors. It matters little, for instance, that the rhetorical flourish of his facile equation of Christianity with Platonism is burdened by no small measure of philosophical imprecision, so long as his story has the power to persuade. Nonetheless, it is well to note that Christian thought can exculpate itself of this charge with comparable rhetorical aplomb; if nothing else, the metaphysical implication within the aesthetic denunciation is, in this case, difficult to sustain, if for no other reason than the demonstrable (and historically significant) truth that, while Christian thought early on often adopted a “Platonic” language for its theology, it also found itself moved radically to change that language. It is even arguable that Neoplatonism, in the early centuries of the church, had already altered the Platonic ontology in a slightly “Christian “ direction by substituting for the merely specular relationship between the apparent world of chaotic materiality and the ideal world it imperfectly imitates a relationship of emanation, such that all being “belongs” to the multiplicity of nous in its contemplation of the One (as Plotinus would say); for Plotinus, after all, “the infinite” (το απειρον) had already ceased to be a term of philosophical opprobrium, a synonym for the indeterminate and formless, and become a term for the positive plenitude of the goodness of the One. In any event, one approaches Plato’s realm of the forms through abstraction from the world of particularity and difference, but something had fundamentally changed by the time Christian theologians began to identify their absolute with the infinite, to equate goodness, truth, and beauty with the whole of being itself, and to introduce into their understanding of Godhead the language of relation, responsiveness, and creativity. Whether or not the “Platonism” patristic theology found congenial to its aims had already begun to unburden itself of the Platonic χωρισμος and to exorcise from itself the specter of a “bad infinity,” Christian thought, insofar as it appropriated a Neoplatonic morphology of being, transformed it in accord with its own narrative; what remained then was a formidable collection of concepts and terms, now integrated into a more generous scheme of signification and rendered analogous by another, radically more transcendent analogate. When Christian thought defined the Trinity as a coequal circumincession as opposed to a hierarchy of diminishing divinity, the Neoplatonic story of substantial emanation – and with it, the last trace of an ontological space of the simulacral – became meaningless; if the beauty of material existence is not merely the overflow of a self-enclosed, strictly unitary, and entirely spiritual beauty into the confining channels of material deformity, but is the unnecessary, untrammeled, and contingent expression of a divine delight that is always already “differential,” created difference is loosed, as univocally good in its creatureliness, though it is analogically imparted; and when Christian thought replaced the identist and substantial analogy Platonism presumed between the world and “God” with a genuinely ontological analogy between creatures who own no substantial claim on being at all and a God who is the utterly transcendent and absolutely immediate actuality of any being’s existence, every form of metaphysical reasoning had to be recast. Even the Neoplatonic thought of the infinite as an excess of perfection in a state of divine and monadic simplicity came to be radically surpassed by a Christian account of the infinite (which Gregory of Nyssa first gave coherent shape). To regard creation as the gift of yet another difference is not to treat this world as merely a distinct and inferior reality from which one is obliged to flee in order to attain to the absolute, but is rather to see finitude as embraced by and containing the grace of the infinite; for classical Christianity it would perhaps be less proper to speak of “another world” than to say, quite simply, that the world is infinitely greater than one might expect, in one’s less reflective moments. Were this not so, Christian tradition would not have been able to sustain the biblical affirmation of creation’s goodness, to speak of creation’s participation in the good (Frederick Copleston is quite justified in objecting to Nietzsche’s habit of describing Christianity in terms proper to Manichaeism), or even to have described creation – including human art and virtue – as belonging to the gloria Dei. Christian “truth” is more spacious – it must be – than the “truth” of Platonism; the Christian Logos must be conceived of as containing all of creation and history within itself – without despoiling creation of its differences and reducing ontological contingency to a condition of impoverishment and distortion – and so is, as Karl Jaspers perceptively phrases it, “open to the alogon”; which is to say, on the one hand, that the world is comprised by God’s being and so can be known only in particular perspectives, and on the other, that absolute truth is God himself, who is transcendent of the world and in whom being and the infinite are one, and so cannot e grasped at all save in the series of perspectives that, in themselves, are still apophatically denied to possess any ultimate purchase on the divine. As created being is the analogical expression of the infinite Trinity, it “corresponds” to its source not through an inanition of the simulacral and particular, in order to converge upon the ideal, but by way of its own motion of differential excess, as the expressive rhetoric of an infinitely responsive and differentiating God. Thus it is scarcely clear whether the Christian tradition or the Nietzschean critique is demonstrably more “idealist.”


But, again, all this serves to overburden Nietzsche’s diatribe with critical scruples; in speaking of Christianity as popular Platonism, Nietzsche is not making a metaphysical or hermeneutical claim; he is simply expressing his repugnance for an ethos that denigrates the senses, strives against the instincts of the flesh, and defers ultimate value to the realm of spiritual “reality” alone: the ethos of “castratism,” the cult of death. Nietzsche’s Dionysus, by contrast, supposedly unites in himself the strongest impulses of spirituality and sensuality; an emblem of the most pious godlessness, he represents enmity against every faith that distracts life from itself, in all its wasteful, extravagant, contradictory magnificence. (And here, lamentably, Nietzsche’s callow apostrophes to “Life” sound notes that will echo down the plangent corridors of a whole century’s literature of puerile paganism, from A. C. Swinburne and Havelock Ellis to Gore Vidal.) Still, even within these limits, it is not altogether certain how far Nietzsche’s rhetoric can credibly be taken, for however just his condemnation of pious otherworldliness may be – and the church has seen no end of it – it is the unambiguous renunciation of gnoticism, and not the paradoxical renunciation of classical Christianity, that would correspond most nearly to his account. Indeed, no one familiar with late antiquity and the world in which the gospel was first preached can be unaware that a prevailing spirit of otherworldliness had long been moving inexorably through the empire: not only Gnosticism, but every variety of etherealizing devotion, mystery religions, Eastern esoterica, mystical Platonisms, and the occult; the contempt for the flesh expressed by Valentinus, Ammonias Saccas, Plotinus, the Mithraic mysteries, or even the sanctimoniously ungroomed Emperor Julian was more bitterly world-weary than any of the exorbitant expressions of spirituality to which the church fell prey. One may agree with Nietzsche that this atmosphere of acosmic and incorporeal religiosity defames the world, and one may acknowledge that it infected every institution and spiritual aspiration of its age, including those of the church; but one should also recognize it as first and foremost a pagan phenomenon: a growing awareness, within an increasingly pluralistic and cosmopolitan empire, that the pagan cosmos was a region of strife, in response to which one could adopt only the grammars of empire or spiritual retreat, and an increasingly fashionable tendency to elect the latter. Christianity suffered from the contagion in some considerable measure, but was also able to resist it as paganism could not, because it had at its disposal means for renarrating the cosmos from the ground up. But Nietzsche may serve as a reminder that the church did not always entirely free itself from the lingering residue of paganism: its otherworldliness, its inability to see the beauty of creation without succumbing to the pain of being, its terror before a world of violence; the joyous, sacrificial communality and heroic agape of the desert fathers could not entirely resist the invasion of an occasionally exsanguinating spirituality; the model of Simon Stylites and his kind was too eagerly admired by a populace that tended to understand his spiritual achievement in terms of a spectacle, as a feat of impossible endurance and abnegation of the self. But it was also into this crepuscular world of transcendental longings, of a pagan order grown weary of the burden of itself, that the Christian faith came as an evangel promising newness of life, and that in all abundance, preaching creation, divine incarnation, resurrection of the flesh, and the ultimate restoration of heavens and earth: a faith, moreover, whose symbols were not occult sigils, or bull’s blood, or the brackish water and coarse fare of the ascetic sage, but the cardinal signs of fellowship, feasting, and joy: bread and wine. There was in such a faith an undeniable assault upon pagan values: a certain very Jewish subversion, a rejoicing in the order of creation as gift and blessing, an inability to grow too weary of the flesh, an abiding sense of the sheer weightiness – kabod – of God’s glory and the goodness of all that is; but it is a subversion that Nietzsche does not grasp from the perspective of his rather adolescent adoration of pagan harshness, and so his story grows shrill and unbalanced. If Christian culture were simply spiritualist, if it endorsed an ethos like that of the Corpus Hermeticum or the libretto of Parsifal, Nietzsche’s indictments of Christian “castratism” would command great force; but for all the cunning and psychological inventiveness of his genealogy, it fails at every juncture to accommodate the complexity of what he wishes to describe. The orthodox doctrine of creation out of nothingness, and its attendant doctrine of the goodness of creation, led the church (more radically even that Neoplatonism) to deny to evil any ascription of true being, to define it not as an essence or positive force but as mere negation, reaction, a privation of the good (στερησις αγαθου), a perversity of the will, an appetite for nonbeing – but no objective thing among things: all things had to be affirmed, and with equal emphasis, as God’s good creation.

And surely there is something almost tediously wrong in asserting that Christ’s crucifixion has ever figured in Christian tradition as a repudiation, rather than ultimately an affirmation, of the fleshly life Christ was forced to relinquish. “Verily I say unto you, I will drink no more of the fruit of the vine, until that day that I drink it new in the kingdom of God” (Mark 14:25; Matt. 26:29; Luke 22:18) – wine clearly appears here as the perfect and concrete emblem of the beauty of creation and the joy of dwelling at peace in the midst of others: not the wine of Dionysus, which makes fellowship impossible, promising only intoxication, brute absorption into the turba, anonymity, and violence, but the wine of the wedding feast of Cana, or of the wedding feast of the Lamb. In fact, if I may be permitted an excursus, it is conceivable that a theological answer to Nietzsche could be developed entirely in terms of the typology of wine. After all, the wine of Dionysus is no doubt of the coarsest vintage, intended to blind with drunkenness rather than enliven whimsy; it is fruit of the same vine with which Dionysus bridged the Euphrates, after flaying alive the king of Damascus, so that he could conquer India for viniculture (so we know from Plutarch, Pausanias, Strabo, Arrian, Diodorus Siculus, and others); and of the same vine for which Lycurgus mistook his son Dryas when driven mad for offending the wild god, causing him to cut Dryas down for “pruning” (as Homer Apollodorus report); the vine that destroyed the pirates who would not bear Dionysus to Naxos (so say Homer, Apollodorus, and Ovid); it is the wine that inflamed the maenads to rend Pentheus limb from limb, led by his own mother Agave (as Euripides and others record); the wine repeatedly associated with madness, anthropophagy, slaughter, warfare, and rapine (one need consider only the Dionysian cult at Orchomenus – with its ritual act of random murder – and the story of the daughters of Minyas – frenzy, infanticide, cannibalism – from which it sprang). The wine of Christian Scripture, on the other hand, is first and foremost a divine blessing and image of God’s bounty (Gen. 27:28; Deut. 7:13; 11:14; Ps. 104:15; Prov. 3:10; Isa. 25:6: 65:8; Jer. 31:12; Joel 2:19-24; 3:18; Amos 9:13-14; Zech. 9:17), and an appropriate thank offering by which to declare Israel’s love of God (Exod. 29:40; Lev. 23:13; Num 15:5-10; 18:12; 28:14; Deut. 14:23; 15:14; 18:4); it is the wine that “cheers the hearts of gods and men” (Judg. 9:13), to be drunk and shared with those for whom nothing is prepared on the day holy to the Lord (Neh. 8:10), the sign of God’s renewed covenant with his people (Isa. 55:1-3), the drink of lovers (Song of Sol. 5:1) and the very symbol of love (7:2, 9; 8:2), whose absence is the eventide of all joy (Isa. b040bdf6a85abdc79048cf93bb03ccc924:11); it is, moreover, the wine of agape and the feast of fellowship, in which Christ first vouchsafed a sign of his divinity, in a place of rejoicing, at Cana – a wine of the highest quality – when the kingdom showed itself “out of season” (John 2:3-10); the wine, again, forsaken with all the good things of creation, when Christ went to his death, but promised to be drunk anew at the banquet table of his Father’s kingdom, and from which – embittered with myrrh – he was forced to turn is lips when on the cross (Mark 15:23; Matt. 27:34); the wine, finally, whose joy is imparted to the church again, and eternally, with the fire of Pentecost (Acts 2:13), and in which the fellowship of Christ and is flock is reborn with every celebration of the Eucharist. Of course, Nietzsche was a teetotaler and could judge the merit of neither vintage, and so it is perhaps unsurprising that his attempts at oino-theology should betray a somewhat pedestrian palate.

At the very least, though, one might ask of Nietzsche some recognition that the doctrine of resurrection could never be reducible to a simple doctrine of the immorality of the soul, of a spiritual essence yearning for liberation from the prison house of the flesh, but must be an assertion of the belief that from the divine side of the world of God’s making will be shown to be worthy of his eternal affirmation. Or a recognition that the eschatological vision described by Paul in the eighth chapter of Romans describes the ultimate revelation of God not as a destruction of this world in favor of heaven, but as the world’s transfiguration and glorification. And given the most venerable strain of Christian soteriology, which understands Christ’s cross and resurrection as the conquest of death and the return of his invincible life, it is questionable how far the terms of Nietzsche’s opposition between the mythologies of Christ and Dionysus can credibly be taken; and questionable whether the Deleuzean embroidery upon this typology does not prove a bit threadbare and vulgar: Does the suffering of Christ confirm being’s guilt while the suffering of Dionysus proclaims its innocence, or may one exercise some subtlety here and see in the cross and resurrection of Christ the story of life’s unjust suffering (that is, the injustice of a violence that crucifies), and of a justice hat cries out for the salvation of what lies in bondage, and reveals itself as a deathless love of creation’s fullness? This crude dualism, between a suffering that condemns life and another that hallows it, ignores the multivalency of both narratives; or rather, it leaves unquestioned the life Dionysus affirms and entirely fails to see what life is raised up with Christ. Simply said, Dionysus’s affirmation is a curse pronounced on life, while Christ’s renunciation affirms the whole of creation.

As for Nietzsche’s contention, in On the Genealogy of Morals, that the idea of a soul, an abiding subjectivity lying behind the actions of the nobles – the ravening birds of prey – was the invention of the imaginations of the weak upon whom the nobles visited their spoliations, and who wished to believe in a moral interval, an intermediate ground between agent and action at which they could direct their reproaches, it is unlikely that it can bear very close scrutiny. Milbank can be credited with the most inspired riposte to this story: no leap of fancy, he observes, is required for the slave to reprehend the master; there is no need for a “metonymic” displacement of moral judgment onto a permanent “self,” because within “noble” actions there is always already a metaphoric tension. The wild warrior of primitive, tribal societies did not simply resemble the eagle or the lion, but actively imitated them, took them for totems; noble naturality was already a cultural invention, the mimetic piety of man-becoming-eagle. Perhaps, then, the slave has merely seen the truth of metaphor, and so is entirely justified in denying the necessity of noble aggression or the inevitability of life’s boisterous violences, and equally justified in choosing another story, woven from a more pastoral tropology, whose grammar depends not upon the romance of strength and acquisition but upon the primordiality of love. Milbank also notes that Nietzsche is little interested in the codes that were already written into heroic society, but imagines the order of that society (rather fantastically) as consisting in the compromises arrived at between powerful men, in the prime of their animal exuberance; and he suggests, further, that another genealogy of subjective interiority might more plausibly locate its origins in the fanatical self-referentiality of heroic culture.

(to be continued)

AC (The Anti-Christ)
BGE (Beyond Good and Evil)
EH (Ecce Homo)
GM (On the Genealogy of Morals)
TI (Twilight of the Idols)
WP (The Will to Power)


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