Being Hart on Nietzsche—Part 3

FN5See Part 1 and Part 2 of Hart’s extended reflections on Nietzsche from Beauty of the Infinite (92-127). In this Part 3, Hart continues:

One should probably ask whether the phenomenalistic monism of Nietzsche’s account of noble naturality is not still as firmly wedded to a subjective essentialism as Christian thought could ever be. When, after all, one likens the unfettered power and uncomplicated immanence of the noble in his action to the indivisibility of lightning and the lightning flash, the felicity of the image veils a fairly obvious intellectual crudity. Lightning, as it happens, possesses very little in the way of linguistic ambiguity, and any given flash has a very particular and uninvolved history; but one need only consider the linguistic, social, and political complexity of human existence, the historicity and metaphorical provisionality of every human “essence,” to recognize in the martial virtues of the noble not simply an original and natural phenomenon, but an effect – and a stage effect, at that. Were the noble warrior simply his own phenomenon, an immediate expression of himself, present to himself in the event of his “unveiling,” what would he be other than an egological substance? Where there is no distinction between action and identity, where no moral space intervenes, is this not still the concrete reality of a self, invariable and absolute, the Cartesian ego transposed into a phenomenalist key? A moral interval is characteristic of a metaphysics of the “self” (of a Cartesian soul) presumably because it is thought of as an interval that can be traversed “backwards,” in order to find that fixed terminus a quo whence moral action proceeds and so to alight upon a simple substance of self-present identity; the reproaches of the slave are meant to arrive at an agent, to whom actions are exterior and accidental, and in whom there is no division between what he is and how he is: an agency immediately at hand – unwritten – within the interiority of the soul. The inward space of Cartesian reflection still remains an “exterior” apprehension of the manifold, from which thought retreats to fall back upon the indivisible substance of an unquestioned and monadic identity, inseparable from the action of thought. Is it not obvious that his account of the self is just as irredeemably “identitial” from the very ease with which Nietzsche can construct analogies of resemblance: lightning, eagles, lions…? A “phenomenalized” substance, a soul brought to the surface of time and space, is still a pristine essence, in which identity vibrates as a single note of absolute presence. And a self that is called “event” rather than “substance” is at least as mythical as an enduring subjectivity. If what one refers to as the subject is in truth a series of happenings rather than a substratum of identity, one still indicates a substance: one that exists as the univocally reiterated moment of self-presence, and as an identifiable sequence of concrete eventuations of identity; it is even a substance to which one may point, a causal and phenomenal insistence, a concatenating presentation of self, neither retaining nor protaining, but whole and complete in its repetition. One catches a hint in Nietzsche’s language of the most substantial metaphysical “substance” of all: Did not Augustine, for example, speak of God as being without accidents (De Trinitate 5.3), who is what he has (De civitate Dei, and did not Aquinas, in keeping with tradition, deny accidents to God because such constitute the potential of becoming other than what he is (Summa theologiae 1.3.6)? What exactly, after all, is the “moral” interval that Christian thought imagines the soul to possess, if not precisely an interval, an opening or delay, where will doubles back upon itself or divides, where thought hesitates between identity and difference, where desire pendulates from delight to delight (“delectatio quippe quasi pondus est animae,” as Augustine says; “delectatio ergo orinate animam”), and where the self finds itself always subject to the bearing over (μεταφερειν) of metaphor? Is it not such an “interiority” merely an intensity, an inward fold of an outward surface (to misappropriate Deleuzean terminology), a space of interpretation, where the self’s “plot” may be rewritten? One might argue against Nietzsche that only an essential self could be immutable and resistant to renarration. The special pathos of the human is one of ubiquitous metaphor, the condition of being always an interpreted being, never to be traced back to a place prior to culture or language, to a state of nature and simple presence; there is always in the action of the person a formidable absence of the person; an “otherwise” within presence, even the instincts of the flesh, upon which Nietzsche places so great an emphasis, are curiously inadequate in delineating the shape of the human – “totemism” is born with human “nature.” In the end, for all his efforts tot liberate the subject from the labyrinthine metaphorics of the soul, Nietzsche can at best merely prefer the kids of animals that the “noble” chose to imitate.


This is of no small concern: part of our current postmetaphysical orthodoxy is the certitude that Christian “theism” and the idea of the self are the two poles of a single onto-theological myth; the subject whose death postmodernism announces, who reconstructs the world from its own original position in Descartes’s Meditations, who is at once the proprietor of Kantian freedom and the hostage of the carceral society’s therapeutic scrutiny, supposedly descends from the “subject” that makes its debut in such texts as Augustine’s Confessions and De Trinitate and that allegedly stands at the heart of the Christian narrative as the Archimedean point from which the sublimity of “difference” can be constantly displaced, the citadel of selfhood from which chaos may be held at bay; the self of modernity, so the story goes, is Hellenism’s nous or pneuma, enriched by the Christian language of the imago Dei and sin, now serving as simultaneously the rational surety of the world and an instrument of social tyranny. This story wants for subtlety. There have been many “selves,” many “souls,” in the history of the West, describing no continuum but one that is largely semantic; nor does any “postmodern” inclination of thought, inherited from Nietzsche, accomplish anything but the invention of yet another species of subjectivity. It is even questionable that Nietzsche succeeds at being a more radical critic than classical Christian theology of the idea of an invariable spiritual essence; this is not to deny the prominence traditionally enjoyed within Christian culture by talk of the self or soul, nor certainly to deplore it, but from certain vantages within the Christian tradition Nietzsche might appear somewhat retrograde. True, for Nietzsche there is no single self revealed by the creative and interpretive disclosures of the genealogist or the psychologist, but only a mortal, subjective multiplicity, a social organization of drives and affects, habits, qualities, and velleities (BGE, 20-21); even the simplest intentionality is a surface, concealing more than it shows, a symptom (BGE, 44). In a sense, thought, this merely repeats the Platonic metaphor, which makes of the soul a polis, an image of the “truth” that also appears outwardly in the world: a multiplicity whose strife must be vigilantly governed, lest it fall prey to the chaos that lies about on every side (an image serving, for Plato, as simultaneously a psychology and a politics). For Nietzsche, of course, there is obviously no self-sufficient rational faculty – no philosopher-king – to bring the disorder of the self into a uniformly organized and stable commonwealth, but only an endless series of conflicting passions (an Ephesian, rather than an Eleatic, interiority). Yet, predictably, the flight from metaphysics is described metaphysically: intention is a surface, a symptom, because Nietzsche too must find depths within depths, a changeless substrate of anarchic and autotelic will to power that, like Dionysus, is rent into innumerable fragments without ceasing to be one indestructible essence. It is difficult to see, in fact, in precisely what sense the twin practices of Nietzschean genealogy and Nietzschean psychology do not tend toward a metaphysics of the self that, far from dismantling subjectivity, merely brings it to rest upon a different foundation or “motive.” When, for instance (to choose among hundreds of examples), Nietzsche asserts that a popular pious adoration of saints is really only an admiration for the clarity of the saint’s expression of the will to power, the intensity with which he manifests our shared desire for dominion (BGE, 65), it seems all to obvious that this narrative of power has become an excuse for avoiding the testimony of the surface. One enters here into Nietzsche’s confessional, not to be absolved of sinful motives, but to be judged for the hypocrisy of failing to acknowledge them; there is no end of therapeutic terror in this place. Of course, it may well be that the saint fascinates a lust for power every bit as much as he or she convicts hearts of their want of charity; there are many dark and devious motives for many things, as desire is invaded in every quarter by sin; but desire is neither simply sin nor simply will to power. The saint may also evoke a quite blameless response to the type he or she at once embodies and varies; the saint, as an opening upon or interpretation of the form of Christ, may simply draw the gaze of the one who looks on into another radiance, another ambit of vision, a different aesthetic of being, in which one finds some measure of liberation from the self and its baser impulses; many lights and colors play upon the surface of the saint. Nietzsche’s apparent subtlety at such points invariably turns out to be surpassingly reductive and rhetorically monochrome: his is a constantly reiterated fiction of a second, inward, inverted gaze, a furtive and feral circumspection within each gaze, doubling its intent; he is compelled always to find a second, more interior, more fundamental motive. But if one stays at the surface of things, at least temporarily, and entertains the radical notion that most things are superficial, other perspectives appear: there may be a latent desire for power that the saint stirs into renewed longing, but the saintly form also embraces powerlessness and self-donation, the motion of charity, the love of the neighbor; and one can understand the saint and oneself according to this grammar; the saint’s portrait may occupy many frames, and may transfigure the eyes that gaze upon it. Neither what appears in saintliness nor what moves others to admire it can be grasped by so simple and mechanical a psychology as animates Nietzsche’s science of the soul. Nietzsche, though, cannot rest content with the ambiguity and richness of the surface; he must imagine instead an interiority of invariable disposition, by which the surface may be uniformly explained: as symbol, symptom, lie. But surfaces are always more complicated than “depths.”

What, indeed, is the Christian understanding of the soul? What is the imago Dei, and how does it resemble God? There is no entirely adequate answer to such questions, but any of worth will look nothing like the “subject” lost in the ruins of modern metaphysics. For example: the tendency to take Augustine as in some sense the father of the modern subject and the most perfect exemplar of the onto-theologian proceeds from a fairly maladroit exegesis of texts like the Confessions and De Trinitate, one which finds in their pages simply the story of God and the soul, two discrete substances whose mutual regard insures the meaningfulness of being as a whole. If this reading were essentially correct, one would expect to find in either text Augustine’s discovery of a stable subject, an appropriable identity present to itself, a singularity transcendent of time’s motion; there would have to be some still point at which, in traversing the inward interval, one finally arrives; but this is precisely what Augustine never discovers. The interiority that opens up in the Confessions possesses no center in itself, nor does it depend upon an idea in relation to which it is a shadow tormented by its simulacral drift; instead it is an infinitely revisable, multiplicity, self-contradictory text, whose creaturely contingency is restless in its longing, founded in nothing, and open to what it cannot own by nature. Memoria appears for Augustine – even in this fairly early text, written when the language of Neoplatonism still sprang easily to his lips – not as Platonic anamnesis, but as an open space filled with more music than it can contain, constantly “decentering” itself, transcending itself not toward an idea it grasps or simply “resembles,” but toward an infinite it longs for despite its incapacity to contain the infinite desire. To cross this “moral” interval is not the transcend the accidental so as to arrive at the substantial, but is rather perpetually to transcend any fixed identity: a transcendence which is always more transcendent, an infinite scope within the self that no self can comprise, and to which the self belongs. The imago Dei is not simply a possession of the soul so much as a future, a hope; the self forever displaced and exceeded by its desire for God is a self displaced toward an image it never owns as a “substance.” Thus, within himself Augustine finds no place to stand, nor does he glimpse above him a higher self, an idea that serves as the ontological treasure stored up for him in heaven, guaranteeing his identity; but he does see a light that embraces him as it shapes him – without need – as a vessel of its glory. Even in De Trinitate’s most “metaphysical” moments, the image of God is precisely that which cannot be fixed and cannot lend stability to a unified “ego,” because it is a trinitarian image, whose plurality does not correspond to “hierarchical” aspects of the soul (this is a Christian, not a Platonic soul), but rather illuminates the soul as an interdependence of equally present but diverse energies, and so leaves the self in a state of circumvolving multiplicity. The very meaning of the Confessions, after all, depends upon an understanding of the particular life, the particular self, as always reinterpretable; the soul is a story that can always be retold, subjected to new grammars, converted. The Christian understanding of the soul is, of necessity, dynamic, multifarious, contradictory; no one more profoundly expressed this dynamism than Gregory of Nyssa, for whom the soul could be understood only as επεκτασις, an always outstretched, open, and changing motion, and infinite exodus from nothingness into God’s inexhaustible transcendence (in Kierkegaardian terms, repetition). Theology need feel no pangs of conscience in this matter; for while Nietzsche simply draws a quasi-Platonic picture of the self as polity (or, as the case may be, anarchy), the Christian tradition substitutes for the Platonic soul something still more dynamic: an openness of the “self” before infinite being and infinite novelty.


Really, it matters little whether Nietzsche was still a metaphysician, as Heidegger saw him, or just an irrepressibly mercurial mischievous ironist, because irony has always been a contour within the metaphysical (what did Plato believe?). The will to power is only a story, perhaps, but so is every metaphysics; and even as a story, its plot has often a poignantly dialectical logic. Nietzsche’s able advocate, Deleuze, has assured us that “For the speculative element of negation, opposition or contradiction Nietzsche substitutes the practical element of difference, the object of affirmation and enjoyment….The empirical feeling of difference, in short hierarchy, is the essential motor of the concept, deeper and more effective than all thought about contradiction.” But this is by no means clear. To begin with, one should be suspicious of any “empirical feeling” that stands identifiably prior to the code (the metanarrative) employed to describe it. And while Nietzsche may dispense with such notions as the thing-in-itself or the “soul,” he nevertheless clings to an equally naïve belief in the essential event, the transcendent event of power present in all the universe’s finite transactions: hence, a Christian repudiation of power must turn out to be the strategy whereby power assumes an unprecedentedly potent form. The will to power necessarily remains hidden within, and is indeed advanced by, its own negation. This is metaphysics tout court, more crudely monistic than Hegel’s, and no less dependent on the circular myth of negation. There is, in the Nietzschean cosmos, a perpetual deployment of violence against violence: early on he imagines this in terms of the simple dialectical opposition of Apollo and Dionysian violence, a violence that is a creative dynamism and the engine of its own multiplication (thus dialectic and identity emerge from one another). It may be true that Nietzsche has little taste for the grosser manifestations of power (though his views here know their vicissitudes), and it may also be the case that the truly Dionysian will is harsh only in order to create and is most harsh with itself, but this in no way mitigates the violence that sustains this ontology: difference originates always as opposition, and the genealogist of morals (as Foucault has said) must inevitably discover in history a series of dominations and subjugations (ontology and historicism here run inextricably together). It may be, in fact, that Nietzsche does not intend to be a vulgar monist; the world of his philosophy is not “one thing” – love, hate, war, peace – and cannot be comprehended from any one perspective (GM, 118-19). But at the same time, he cannot countenance the suggestion that the Christian exclusion of violence from original or ultimate reality is an intelligible or even honest philosophical position: it must be the querulous dissemblance of the man of ressentiment, there cannot be a repudiation of power immediately transparent to itself because “This world is the will to power – and nothing besides!” (WP, 550). Difference cannot be sustained simply within a relationship of love; there is no perfect openness before the other, nor very much real openness at all except what is left open as a ruse or broken open by force. This is the magisterial metaphysics that for Nietzsche uniformily validates the world’s multiplicity of values, its always deeper and invariable truth; and he reserves such special acrimony for Christian morality because its language has tried to subvert the game – the agon – that sets the rules of that multiplicity.

Of course, Nietzsche is quite correct: as Celsus understood, Christianity did indeed subvert the language of noble virtue, especially insofar as the latter presupposed the necessity of strife and honored strength for its own sake; Christianity, in its origins, perversely refrained from the celebration of acquisition and dominion. But this much, for all the church’s frequent failure to embody the good it proclaims, theology has never sought to hide: when Nietzsche says that every civil state is created and maintained by violence (GM, 86-87), or that cruelty lies at the base of society and culture (GM, 64-69), he asserts nothing that is not already present in Augustine’s account of the civitas terrena as a city founded upon violence, indeed upon fratricide (Rome being the paradigm of all secular politics). For Augustine, though, this genealogy of culture remains a thoroughly historical observation; another city can be imagined, enacted, even experienced in the midst of a history alien to it, a history known to the church as sin: originally unnecessary and of a secondary order or reality. For Nietzsche, though, it describes nature’s patrimony to humanity, the inexorable advance of the ubiquitous will to power. In the end, what the theologian should probably most deplore in Nietzsche’s thought is that it simply is not nearly historicist enough.


However, when all of this has been said, little has been achieved. Once one has demonstrated that Nietzsche proceeds from a fairly foundational set of premises, that he is a metaphysical fabulist and that his metaphysics is circular, one has made only a very small advance against his position. It is true that the element of irony does not make metaphysics less metaphysical, but an irony entirely conscious of itself proves remarkably resistant to any bad conscience; it can slough off the surd of metaphysical assurance without inconveniencing itself or impeding metaphysical invention. To expose the Nietzschean metaphysics is not yet to bring his critique to a halt; one has merely seen behind one of his tricks, grasped the logic of his initial moves, but one has not reached the end of his game, because it is with just this sense of the inadjudicability of contradictory narratives that Nietzsche begins. Here, at least, one must agree with certain contemporary readings of Nietzsche, over against Heidegger’s, and recognize the metaphysical moment in Nietzsche as prolegomenal to the aesthetic (and so, finally, as itself aesthetic). Nietzsche has yet to be outstripped in philosophical irreverence, even by his most loyal intellectual heirs, in the matter of “truth’s” subservience to evaluation. Nietzsche is engaged principally in identifying an aesthetic disposition, a critical vantage, from which to wage a war of stories; he wishes to overcome the Christian narrative but never imagines he has “proved” it meaningless. This is why one does not confront Nietzsche’s full case “against the Crucified” unless one turns to the books of the 1880s, in which the critique of Christianity becomes more obviously an act of artistic imagination. Where Nietzsche is most convincing, and where his treatment of Christianity cannot be factually gainsaid, is where he portrays the church’s faith as a telling of the tale of being to which he is implacably opposed, I place of which he intends to tell another story. There is nothing facetious in saying that it is a cutting critic of the Christian aesthetic that Nietzsche is most effective. In general, Christian thought has understood as well as Nietzsche that truth cannot be decided by pure and disinterested reason (as if there were such a thing), but must be allowed to disclose itself as rhetoric, persuasion, narrative form; the evangel makes its appeal to the heart and eye, and has no arguments profounder than the forma Christi. Nietzsche’s account, apart from its aesthetic challenge, is one the church can either dismiss or even accommodate in its own understanding of itself: any tradition that enjoins constant skepticism regarding its own most basic motives, that insists on an almost merciless cognizance of its own hypocrisies, and that habitually convicts itself of its chronic inability to comply fully (or even meagerly) with the mission given by its “founder” can entertain the possibility that its history has in some sense been a sustained apostasy from itself, a will to vengeance more often than charity (the world “ressentiment” cannot but strike a responsive chord in a Christian conscience). What the church should not be able to abide, tough, is a rhetorical assault on the form of Christ (no matter how often it has perpetrated moral assaults of its own), nor can it very well suffer any insinuation tat it enjoys no true historical continuity with or access to the life and teachings of Jesus of Nazareth and these are the strategies that distinguish Nietzsche’s line of argument in his most rhetorically brilliant attack on the Christian tradition, The Anti-Christ.

Brilliant, that is, but not invincible: Nietzsche’s own acuity and subtlety make his task in this text difficult. For while he has no difficulty reading Christian history according to his narrative of the will to power, the figure of Christ remains, for him, somewhat elusive of this story. He mounts, therefore, a two-pronged attack, on the one hand asserting that Christianity as a whole constitutes a contradiction of Christ’s actual evangel and, on the other, depicting Christ himself as someone whose teaching was necessarily ineffectual, a supreme decadent, detached from reality and preaching dreams. The immediately obvious weakness of The Anti-Christ are in many cases those of late nineteenth-century German Protestant biblical scholarship, with which it seems reasonable to suppose Nietzsche had some acquaintance (hence his portrayal of Christ as principally a moral teacher, a gentle soul, proclaiming God’s fatherhood and the brotherhood of man, but not as the apocalyptic prophet of the Gospels, or the whip-wielding rabbi driving money changers from the temple, or even really a first-century Jew). But this should not distract one from the more durable aspects of Nietzsche’s portraiture, nor from the occasional force of his aesthetic assessment of the figure of Christ in the Gospels. What is most astonishing about The Anti-Christ is that Nietzsche makes no attempt therein to argue that the ministry of Jesus can, like the ministry of the Christian church, be treated as a covert strategy of the will to power; if his Jesus is moved in any way by this will, it is only in its most rarefied form: not as a crude desire to dominate, expand, or acquire, but as an overwhelming sense of the presence of eternal bliss in the present moment, of universal reconciliation with God, and of the solidarity of all men in a fraternity of mutual love and forgiveness. Nietzsche never gives the slightest indication that he does not take entirely seriously Christ’s own repudiation of power; he seeks only to demonstrate that such repudiation belonged to a way of life that was incommunicable and flawed, blighted at the roots, incapable of entering into history or of changing the conditions of human existence.

(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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