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.

Nehamas’s unusual move is to go along with separating the text from the historical writer, and also with accepting perspectivism, but then to deny that critical pluralism follows. Nehamas does not press the point in this book, but he defends critical monism in ‘The Postulated Author’. His view there is that interpretation necessarily aims at an ideal account of the text in which all the questions about that text would be answered, and all its features explained. He observes that the ideal is only regulative since we could never reach it, and cannot sensibly speak of accounting for ‘all the features’ of anything. What is important to Nehamas is avoiding the relativistic conclusion that all interpretations are equally good. Some interpretations are better than others, he thinks, because they answer more questions, and thus more closely approximate the ideal interpretation answering all the questions.

Perhaps he overestimates this idea, for deconstructionist critical pluralists could respond that they produce ‘better’ interpretations than critical monists since they open more questions by virtue of their discoveries of polysemy and tension in texts. Furthermore, I would have thought that since we do not understand the notion of answering all the questions, and since we could never reach the ideal of doing so, then we could not rationally or intelligibly aim for this ideal, any more than we could rationally try to find the last value of a transcendental number like π which has no last value. Moreover, if the idea of answering all the questions is not understandable, I am not sure that questions can be counted in such a way as to allow us to show definitively that one interpretation answers more questions than another. In any case, this quantitative measure is not compelling if some interpretations may ask fewer but better questions than others. Nehamas succeeds in interpreting Nietzsche because he answers several central questions about Nietzsche’s ideas. He himself never maintains that these are all or most of the questions that could be asked, or even that they are more than others have asked. I do not see how interpreters could demonstrate such claims, even if they tacitly believed them.

Such issues are circumvented in the Nietzsche book where Nehamas confronts the problem between pluralism and monism by establishing as Nietzsche’s solution a position accommodating both stances on interpretation. Nehamas contrasts the monist assertion by Walter Kaufmann of an underlying unity in Nietzsche’s aphoristic, fragmented style, with the radical pluralist readings by Jacques Derrida and Sarah Kofman, who see pluralism and indeterminacy not just in Nietzsche’s oeuvre but in each aphorism and fragment. Nehamas argues that the aphoristic style is only one among different styles that Nietzsche uses, but that a single authorial voice speaks through this stylistic plurality. Like Socrates, Nietzsche needs to get the attention of his audience, and as a writer rather than a speaker he must resort to stylistic rather than dialogical means.

Style is part of Nietzsche’s philosophical project and not a merely ‘literary’ device because Nietzsche does have something to say to his audience. Although ‘it often seems as if the aim of Nietzsche’s writing is to construct ideas that grip the imagination without giving it anything to grasp in return,’ Nehamas sees Nietzsche as sharing with Socrates a serious concern to improve the moral quality of life. Whereas Socrates resorts to irony, or saying ‘too little’, Nietzsche relies on hyperbole, or saying ‘too much’. But each seriously believes his own interpretation.

Of course, Socrates does not believe that his view is merely an interpretation, whereas Nietzsche’s perspectivism asserts that there is nothing more than interpretation. Perspectivism is the antidote to the dogmatism Nietzsche sees in Socrates’s effort to present his views as unconditionally authoritative not simply for himself, but for everyone. The Socratic challenge to perspectivism is to explain why the perspective of a morally repulsive person is not as acceptable as any other perspective. For Nehamas Nietzsche’s response does not make the mistake of forgetting perspectivism and constructing an exclusive model of the best life. The Nietzschean critique of morality comes down to an objection to morality’s absolutistic claim to be an unconditional code that everyone must adopt over every other aspect of life. Instead of offering a positive set of values as an alternative to the traditional moral code, Nietzsche constructs a literary character, ‘Nietzsche’, who represents, according to Nehamas, ‘both someone we can admire and someone we need not want to be,’ and who, ‘though beyond morality, is not morally objectionable’.

Not only do we not need to want to be like ‘Nietzsche’, we cannot have such a want. ‘Nietzsche’, is a literary character, and Nehamas maintains that characters are not individuals but types: ‘Oedipus does not have a (universal) character; he is a character, which we may recognise as (part of) our own,’ he writes in ‘Mythology: The Theory of Plot’.[*] If Nietzsche had described his ideal, he would have undermined his perspectivism. By showing rather than saying, by exemplifying rather than describing, an instance of an ideal life, dogmatism is avoided since Nietzsche is not asserting that this is the only possible exemplification. Furthermore, no individual could possibly duplicate this character, since to be a true individual is to be ‘different from the rest of the world’, and ‘there are no principles that we can follow in order to become, as Nietzsche wants us to become, unique.’

Nehamas thus weaves Nietzsche’s perspectivism together with what he calls Nietzsche’s aestheticism, the idea of transforming oneself into a work of art. Of course, the question of whether one can imagine as a literary character a philosopher who tried to hold to such notions as perspectivism, aestheticism, eternal return and amor fati is different from the question of whether the ideas can all be held without incoherence. A character like Faust suggests to me that the postulated philosopher would be a better ‘literary’ character if this web of beliefs turned out to be fatally flawed. Since Nehamas argues that the ideas really do form a coherent whole, I think his reading depends more on whether Nietzsche is a successful philosopher than on whether ‘Nietzsche’ is a successful literary character.

Discussing the various philosophical ideas, Nehamas is unsurpassed in his ability to construct arguments that ‘Nietzsche’ could plausibly have used. A postulated author is a construct Nehamas uses to avoid anachronism in ascribing meanings to texts, and thus he can reasonably ascribe these arguments to ‘Nietzsche’ even if the historical Nietzsche is admitted to have been ‘intellectually unable to engage in long, sustained argument’. Certainly Nietzsche benefits from having such a skilled philosopher as Nehamas interpret his writings.

Nehamas divides Nietzsche’s ideas into those that are about the world and those about the self. The world is not at first understood by Nietzsche as being like a text: this thought follows only after Nietzsche moves away from thinking of the world as possessing any features that are ‘in principle prior to and independent of interpretation’. Certainly there are passages in Nietzsche suggesting that he thinks of the world as being different in principle from all the possible ways that the best theories we could ever produce would construe it. This ‘transcendent perspectivism’ or ‘metaphysical realism’ is, however, a paradoxical form of scepticism. To say that all theories are false is to say nothing since the word ‘false’ becomes as vacuous as its contrasting term. Nehamas argues cogently that Nietzsche’s perspectivism is better stated as selecting from or simplifying the world rather than as falsifying it. Perspectivism does not entail relativism since a perspective can be said to be correct in many respects, even if some central beliefs happen to be misconceived and eventually need to be revised. To say that any interpretation will leave out an indefinitely large amount of information is not to say that perspectives cannot correct themselves. This self-correction can take place ‘immanently’ or ‘internally’ through consideration of everything the interpretation says or does not say about the world. There is no need to posit the world as being metaphysically alien to the interpretation. The world is alien to us only if we think of it as something that could finally be grasped only as the sum of ‘ “every” possible point of view’. Projecting a God’s-eye point of view that is no longer a point of view is not merely useless but unintelligible.

By abandoning the ideal of completeness, Nehamas manages to salvage both the pluralist contention that interpretations are always revisable and the monist insistence that they aspire to coherence as well as truth. As the opposition between pluralism and monism falls away, the interpretation of the world becomes no more problematic, but also no less so, than the interpretation of any text. The point is not that Nietzsche is saying that the world is a text, and therefore there are as many meanings of it as there are interpretations. This relativistic thought would follow only if two complete but conflicting interpretations could be produced. As long as two different readings are admittedly selective (and thus perspectival), they could correct their differences through the development of another reading that would resolve any conflicts from yet a different perspective. Nehamas’s move is thus to show that giving up the ideal of the complete interpretation does not entail falling into relativism, since relativism itself is intelligible only on the incoherent assumption of the ideal of the single, final, complete interpretation. Beyond a particular perspective there are only more perspectives. The mistake is to infer from this meta-belief that we are faced with the ‘neither/nor’ of claiming an aperspectival perspective or assuming that anything goes.

Perspectivism is a meta-belief because the recognition of the partial and interpretative character of one’s own perspective does not enter our specific projects. Perspectivism combats the contrary meta-belief, nihilism. Nihilism is the hasty inference that ‘if some single standard is not good for everyone and for all time, then no standard is good for anyone at any time.’ A mistaken belief about the nature of interpretation, nihilism is an incorrect assessment of the failure of the dogmatic insistence that one’s interpretation is not a simplification in any respect, ‘that it is the only possible or correct mode of proceeding’. Dogmatism is what falsifies, not perspectivism, because dogmatism conceals from itself its own potential for being revised, and its own openness.

This contrast between dogmatism and perspectivism, while abstract, is not without implications for practice. Perspectivism can claim to be the more empirical of the two, because with its recognition of its own revisability, it can insist that a condition of any healthy, ongoing research programme is that it honestly recognise the specific ways in which it is defeasible. These Nietzschean virtues of health and honesty, as well as the courage to remain open even to distressing alternative perspectives, are metaphors for the process of interpretation. As personal virtues, they have the potential fault of making the adoption of perspectives seem a matter of conscious decision and personal choice. Nehamas correctly combats any such suggestion of voluntarism, and insists that ‘perspectives cannot be adopted at will.’ I assume, then, that an interpretation is embedded in a form of life, and change in one is impossible without change in the other. Interpretations have to be worked out over time, and can be understood only as growing out of and addressing the needs and concerns of a larger community and tradition of interpreters.

By stressing Nietzsche’s critique of the idea of the self, Nehamas also succeeds in avoiding the voluntarism that often creeps into explanations of what Nietzsche means by creating one’s own values and becoming what one is. Ordinarily the world is construed as the object to be interpreted, and the self as the subject doing the interpreting. However, the question ‘who interprets?’ gets as different an answer from the Nietzschean perspective as the question about what is to be interpreted. If what is being interpreted is, like a text, not some thing-in-itself with an existence independent of its interpretation, but something that comes into being only in and through interpretations, then the interpreter’s identity is also internal to and indissociable from the particular interpretation. Nietzsche’s hyperbole makes this point by suggesting that the agent or the interpreting subject is only a fiction, and the deed or the interpretation is what is real. But an action without an agent makes as little sense as an agent without actions, so some role has to be allowed in our discourse for the self. Nehamas recognises this role and at the same time eschews the mistake of treating the self as a substance.

The issue is focused by the challenge of understanding Nietzsche’s conception of ‘how one becomes what one is’. For the traditional understanding of the self the phrase is paradoxical because if one already has a self, then it is not clear how one can become what one is already. For Nietzsche the apparent paradox results instead from his denial that there is any such thing as the self, at least when the self is conceived as a fixed essence, or as a potency that becomes actual, or even as something formed early on in life which then awaits its own self-discovery and liberation. If the self is not given or hidden in any of these ways, then there is nothing one can become. There may not be any sense in which one is anything at all since the idea of the doer being separate from its deeds has to be given up along with the idea of there being a thing-in-itself that is somehow independent of any object as perceived.

Nehamas clears away the paradox by distinguishing two problems that Nietzsche runs together. The question about the numerically single identity that makes my acts the actions of a single agent is different from the question about whether there is a coherence among these actions that could make them attributable to a unified self. The body is the common ground that can somehow account for the numerical identity of the single subject, but the singleness of the body is for Nehamas only a necessary and not a sufficient condition for the unity of the self. The unity of the self cannot come about mechanically or arbitrarily, but requires the agent to come to an understanding of this unity, and then to act to promote it. For Nehamas the understanding of the unity of the self is achieved by constructing a narrative that gives a maximally inclusive and coherent account of one’s life. Since ‘different narratives can generate quite different events,’ becoming what one is requires an active self-fashioning. But this self-fashioning must be more than a simply private matter, for self-deception would be all too easy if the self’s narrative did not have to reflect others’ perspectives on it as well. The self is thus neither simply discovered nor invented. The self is not discovered if it is not an object that is somehow given in advance. And it is not invented since the prior events of one’s life represent data that cannot be varied, although the significance of the data is subject to reinterpretation. Achieving a unified self depends on arriving at a self-interpretation which integrates the multiple aspects of one’s experience into a single account. This integrative process aims at a coherent, but never completed whole, with no constant elements, or even a determinate number of them.

The final test of this ‘never-ending integration’ is the thought of eternal recurrence. Becoming what one is requires one to learn to will backward (through the backward causation of narrative), and to come to want rather than to resent all that one has done and experienced. Nehamas’s interpretation itself integrates Nietzsche’s central notions by showing how they all flow naturally into one another, even if they do not conceptually entail one another. The interpretation of eternal recurrence is a crucial link, and many Nietzsche scholars may pick it out as the most original part of Nehamas’s book.

The difficult task that Nehamas sets himself is to prove that recent writers on Nietzsche such as Danto and Ivan Soll are wrong to think that eternal recurrence is a matter of indifference. While my future experiences in another cycle of my life are not of concern to me in this life, Nehamas thinks this point misconstrues the thought of eternal return. The doctrine is neither the cosmological claim that my life will recur in identical fashion, nor the psychologically indifferent claim that my life may so recur. Nehamas argues that the claim has nothing to do with cosmology, and is instead the assertion of a conditional: ‘if anything in the world recurred, including an individual life or even a single moment within it, then everything in the world would recur in exactly identical fashion.’ One virtue of this analysis is that the connection between the doctrines of eternal recurrence and the will to power is shown. Will to power is a claim about the world, and is roughly the thought that everything hangs together with everything else. Eternal recurrence cannot be understood apart from Nietzsche’s doctrine of the interconnectedness of all things. Nehamas maintains that Nietzsche’s view is not only that ‘if any property were different, its subject would be a different subject,’ but also the stronger view that ‘if any object in the world were at all different, then every object in the world would also be different.’ Given the related rejection of the self as a substantial subject, the self is also a feature of the world. The doctrine of eternal return thus accepts the consequences of being a self in a world characterised by the strong interconnectedness implied by the doctrine of will to power.

Nehamas’s rendering of eternal recurrence as a conditional changes interpreters’ conception of the function of the thought. The other cycles become irrelevant in theory, and our lives as we live them now become all that is practically significant. Psychological indifference to eternal recurrence is impossible because the conditional implies that there are only two alternatives: either I accept some part of myself and therefore affirm everything in my life, or I reject some part, and therefore I reject my entire life and the world as well. Between these two alternatives the case for affirmation is the stronger one, and the thought of eternal return thus leads naturally to the life-affirming attitude of amor fati. After seeing that one’s life is a whole that is unified to such an extent that no part could be otherwise without the life becoming that of an entirely different person, amor fati results when one learns that one would desire everything in one’s being to recur if anything were desired to recur. ‘Being, for Nietzsche,’ Nehamas thus suggests, ‘is that which one does not want to be otherwise.’ Nietzsche’s paradigm case for an ideal self-fashioning was Goethe, but Nehamas thinks that Proust is an even better exemplar of the Nietzschean method of self-fashioning. In Proust the distance between life and the literary narrative of the life becomes insignificant. All the details of the narrated life take on an almost infinite significance because without any one of them the story would be a different one, about a different character.

Nehamas thus shows how the thought of eternal return is not simply an arbitrary one that occurred to the historical Nietzsche in a moment of inspiration, but one that is naturally connected to his other concepts. To think that Nietzsche failed to realise that one possible consequence of the thought of eternal recurrence was psychological indifference to it thus underestimates the interconnectedness that Nehamas has revealed. Of course, readers may remain philosophically indifferent to ‘Nietzsche’s’ hypothesis. In some sense, eternal return implies that this is our only life, since our lives would in no way be different if they were to recur. But if the same self-affirmation could follow from accepting that this is our only life, one could reasonably conclude that the hypothesis of eternal return is unnecessary and unparsimonious, and one would not need to entertain the conditional of eternal recurrence with its strong thesis of the extreme interconnectedness of things. Furthermore, this philosophical indifference would probably lead to the unravelling of the connection between Nietzsche’s conception of the self and the world. If the self is created through a narration that can alter the significance of events to such an extent that different events result from different narratives, then there is no reason to think that only one such story could be told about any given character. Being able to tell different stories about oneself does not thereby make one seem to be a different person in each case.

Disagreements with Nietzsche would not, however, constitute disagreements with Nehamas, or with his attempt to read the texts, in their best light. On the contrary, such philosophical disagreements will now be clearer thanks to the success of this constructive reading. Since we can no longer think about the relation of life and literature, or the nature of understanding and interpretation, or the naturalistic formation of the self, without contending with Nietzsche’s influence, Nehamas’s portrayal of a sensible ‘Nietzsche’, if that is not a contradiction in terms, will be indispensable for any further thinking on these topical issues. Nehamas has applied his own theory of interpretation, and he has postulated an integrated, coherent ‘Nietzsche’ to whom no future reader of Nietzsche can remain indifferent.

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