Different Stories

David Hoy

  • Nietzsche: Life as Literature by Alexander Nehamas
    Harvard, 261 pp, £14.95, January 1986, ISBN 0 674 62435 1

In the Birth of Tragedy Nietzsche maintains that life and the world are justifiable only aesthetically. The world is to be understood the way an artwork is, and life can become an artwork. If life depends on art rather than art merely reflecting life, the claim is not merely that artists live the best life. The paradigm is the work of art and not the historical, biographical artist: Der Mensch, says Nietzsche in section one, ist nicht mehr Künstler, er ist Kunstwerk geworden. If Nietzsche later abandons the Schopenhauerian elements of his early view about the relation of art and life, he continues to think, according to Alexander Nehamas, that life can be fashioned into literature. The historical author is less important than the literary artwork, and the world is itself like a literary text. Texts demand interpretation, and we find out about anything, including ourselves and the world, the way we come to understand aesthetic texts: through interpretation. Interpretation is itself a form of literary self-fashioning.

Although the ingenious project of this book is to apply Nietzsche’s theory to Nietzsche himself, the book is considerably more than another example of the fine Nietzsche scholarship being produced by the generation of younger Anglophone philosophers benefiting from the work of Walter Kaufmann and Arthur Danto. Anyone at all interested in Nietzsche will certainly want to read it. Nehamas’s reading of Nietzsche is, however, an example of a more general method of literary and philosophical interpretation which he has worked out independently. In ‘The Postulated Author: Critical Monism as a Regulative Ideal’ (Critical Inquiry, 8, 1981), he argues for the necessity of reconstructing an author of whatever texts are being interpreted, but the author is a product more of the interpretation of the texts than of the life of the individual inhabiting the world. Other articles consider the further thesis that the world is itself an interpretative construct not so radically different in character from a literary text. Using the best of both the Anglo-American and the French approaches to philosophy, he assiduously avoids philosophical exaggeration in developing his novel theory of interpretation. This book on Nietzsche is thus an example of a ‘genealogical’ method that anyone could apply to any text and author.

Nietzsche is a privileged case because his writings are the source of central tenets of this genealogical method. Nehamas sets out to reconstruct the literary character I shall designate as ‘Nietzsche’, using quotation-marks when there is need to keep the constructed author distinct from the historical Nietzsche. We are not to imagine that the claims about what ‘Nietzsche’ believes entail that Nietzsche believed them, although the difference fades into insignificance. The ‘Nietzsche’ that Nehamas reconstructs is the author as postulated in the writings themselves. Presumably the ‘real’ Nietzsche intended his readers to postulate this ‘Nietzsche’ and not some other one. I would think, however, that since the ‘author’ is postulated through an interpretation not of the artist’s life but of the texts, questions about whether the biographical artist intended that interpretation rather than others are not relevant or constraining. The question that is more to the point is how much postulation the texts can bear. Is more than one postulated author possible, and does every interpretation need to construe the texts as the result of a single authorial voice?

Nietzsche has himself inspired the response of post-structuralist, deconstructionist theorists that a text supports incompatible readings that are equally acceptable, the differences between them being undecidable. This ‘critical pluralism’ can be supplemented with an attack (as by Foucault and Derrida) on the claim that the author has any authority over the polysemy of the text. In contrast, Nehamas defends both the postulated author and the regulative ideal of critical monism: the theory that practical interpretations aim at an ideal but always only hypothetical interpretation that would identify the meaning of the text by making all its features intelligible and coherent. He cites Nietzsche’s own thought that no matter in how many different directions a philosopher’s thought seems to go, it must be evidence of ‘one will, one health, one soil, one sun’. I read Nehamas’s book as arguing that Nietzsche’s texts can reconcile the merely apparent conflict between the methods of critical pluralism and critical monism. Since Nehamas is arguing for the coherence of Nietzsche’s writings, the intention may be to evince the final triumph of critical monism. But since the book also defends Nietzsche’s perspectivism, the view denying that we can aspire to anything more than one among many possible perspectives, I shall contend here that it leaves behind the debate between monists and pluralists through its demonstration that there is no inconsistency in holding that interpretations can be said to be at once correct and always revisable.

The analogy that best captures not only the scope of Nehamas’s project but also the subtlety of the issues he is analysing comes from his claim that Nietzsche is playing Plato to his own Socrates. Like Nietzsche himself, Nehamas is by training and profession a specialist in ancient Greek thought. A philosopher with a PhD from Princeton and now teaching at the University of Pennsylvania after several years at the University of Pittsburgh, Nehamas is in good position to show that ‘Nietzsche’s’ hostility to Socrates masks a deeper Socratic influence on Nietzsche’s literary project. Some readers are sure to object that the analogy is stretched insofar as there was a real Socrates, however much Plato refashions him, whereas Nietzsche invents ‘Nietzsche’. But since our evidence for Socrates’s existence is derived from texts by other authors, Nehamas could respond that we lack direct evidence for distinguishing the real from the textually postulated Socrates.

However far the analogy can fairly be pressed, there is no doubt that Nehamas makes judicious use of it while weaving apparently incompatible strands of Nietzsche’s thought and style into coherent fabric. Constructing the character ‘Nietzsche’ who could have authored all these conflicting texts allows Nehamas to work on the assumption that all Nietzsche’s writings, even the ones he chose not to publish, form ‘a coherent and understandable whole’. Recent French philosophers reflecting on Nietzsche have come to the contrasting conclusion that this holism is destroyed by Nietzsche’s style and by his notion of perspectivism. Perspectivism insists that any view (including perspectivism itself) is only one among other possible interpretations. The post-structuralists challenge the inference that since texts have authors, any worthwhile work must have a unity that interpretation has an obligation to reconstruct. Critical pluralism results, since the text comes to be seen as having multiple meanings that resist interpretative efforts at making them cohere.

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[*] In Essays on Aesthetics: Perspectives on the Work of Monroe C. Beardsley, edited by John Fisher (Temple University Press, 1983).