In this latest dialogue between philosopher and Nietzsche scholar Babette Babich and ‘outsider philosopher’ Chris Bateman, we discuss Nietzsche himself, the difficulties of some of his texts, and the challenges his philosophy raised – and continues to raise.
Chris Bateman: I originally read Nietzsche to argue against him, but ended up falling for his charms... well, except for his Zarathustra, which I find immensely tedious. There’s a charm to Nietzsche’s prose that seems to benefit from shorter forms, a style that in some respects is closer to blogs than to books as such.
Babette Babich: May I begin by saying that I think you are very right to have issues with Zarathustra! This is simply for substantive reasons (this is, in part, in addition to its prolixity, the reason no one has successfully managed to write a version of it for the stage – this does not mean that folks have not tried, indeed there are operas no less, only that they are not ready for prime time, and I do not think they ever will be – much less to manage to make a film of it). What films we do have, for better and usually for worse, tend to be movies like Nietzsche Wept, which is to be sure largely about Freud and Jung and more saliently about Nietzsche and Lou about which pairing there continues to be no end of speculation: was there a relationship? Did they kiss? Did they not kiss? But Zarathustra is a non-starter and for good reason. Not only is there no theme as such (and to be fair: Nietzsche himself announces that this is ‘a book for everyone and no one’) but almost nothing ‘happens’ except for a few trips here and there, and true to the title, speeches here and there, including extended lists of the content of the same speeches.
CB: I could take the speeches if they were as engaging as the discussions in, say, The Gay Science... but nothing in Thus Spoke Zarathustra holds my attention at all.
BB: Well, The Gay Science, of course, is the literal wrapper for Zarathustra. But Zarathustra is hardly where the action is, even the roads of eternity past and present colliding, with a dwarf for good measure, does not match the demon and the moonlight, with an hourglass, to tell the same story in The Gay Science. Hermann Hesse’s Siddhartha would be Die Hard with Alan Rickman just by comparison, just where Thomas Mann’s Magic Mountain might be equated with Harry Potter. Adding to the screenwriter's challenges, there is a tedious lot of Zarathustra sleeping going on, sometimes for days and days, as the late David Allison always liked to point out, rather like Andy Warhol’s Sleep. To use an awkward gaming metaphor (please forgive me for violating your expert field) Zarathustra is like a philosophical version of Myst (I warned you it would be a violation…).
CB: Ha, that works for me on a number of levels. Myst succeeded because it made the new technology – CD ROM drives – work to its advantage. Zarathustra seems to rely on the rising undercurrent of opposition to Victorian Christianity in a not dissimilar way. Both for me come up short. For what Myst attempted, I preferred earlier, simpler forms; for critique of Christianity, nothing beats Kierkegaard, in part because he actually cares about the topic. Do you see a videogame adaptation of Nietzsche’s most famous book as something viable?
BB: I think it could be worked out, especially if folks might take seriously the argument I make that Zarathustra descends into hell, literally, and visits the underworld. I read the ‘Overhuman’ as an exact counterpart to this underworld, whereby we turn out already to be overhuman, if only we might live up to our upright position on the living earth, if only we might stop living in the past of regrets and disappointments, get beyond or over our constant self-preoccupation, transcend past resentments against slights real or, above all, imagined. But, the version of Zarathustra I have in mind is a true to the book version. In fact folks have made some efforts in the direction of which you speak – and thus they exist but like operatic versions of Zarathustra, most are (perhaps deservedly) forgotten. To be sure, an admired friend of mine, Eric Steinhart, who teaches out in New Jersey, very enthusiastically analytic (sometimes even I am enthusiastic about things analytic, say, when the enthusiasm is for Graham Priest) once wrote in the early days of Hypertext a Zarathustra hypertext. (Let me note here that the Nietzsche scholar Paolo D’Iorio did design and put on line an actual hypertext, which is currently in use and a bit flatter, as such things always turn out to be. Thus there are all manner of ways to access Nietzsche, none of which feature the flash that one might have hoped for. D’Iorio created a database technology and publishing platforms use part of it and add obstacles to give one less for more, as publishers do. (Here I am a fair fan of Gary Hall’s Pirate Philosophy, but that is another story).
CB: I read and enjoyed that… it encouraged me to start making use of creative commons for book publishing.
BB: For his part, Eric’s hypertext venture turned into a discussion of Nietzsche’s style rather than a videogame, and a discussion without hermeneutics (because analytic) which produced a straight vanilla book in which what he ultimately published was a discussion of hypertext rather than an actual hypertext. This outcome was not, I think owing to Eric’s limitations – although an Apple devotee, he can code, as Friedrich Kittler and David Berry and Ian Bogost and above all, you yourself would rightly underscore the importance of code – but because (and I did try to tell Eric this when he started...) there was in the case of Nietzsche’s Zarathustra no ‘there’, there and hence nowhere to go (Steinhart, like most readers of Zarathustra does not follow the Lucianic coordinates that, as I happily suggest, might have taken him literally, and interestingly, to hell and, this is why it subplot, more Hellhound than Dante’s Inferno, is why it might be cool, but to make that work, one has to read Lucian). So Steinhart wound up writing a nice, if analytic, take on Nietzsche. But in the case of Zarathustra, not even Super Mario, Lara Croft, nothing like World of Warcraft. In fact, uncharitable sorts might think of Zarathustra as little more than a pre-beta version of Angry Birds.
CB: ‘How to Philosophize with a Catapult’...
BB: Yes! But, note that I am trying to encourage counter-examples – I really do think a discussion of Zarathustra in hell would be interesting and I have written on this – but a video game might yet be possible, especially including levelling up (and I am reminded by Tracy Strong that Zarathustra is structured like a Bildungsroman, hence it would seem that there should be Mario-type video game possibilities!) More soberly, I should add that I remain a fairly careful reader of Nietzsche’s writings just to the extent that I read Nietzsche not as an incidental classicist but first and foremost as a classicist, hence I have been able for more than a quarter of a century (that’s the veteran in me) to read Nietzsche as a scientifically oriented philosopher, where the themes of antiquity (tragedy, eternal recurrence, Dionysus, etc.) are not mere window dressing bits, just where (I love quoting Hugh Lloyd-Jones on this matter, in Germany I quote Karl Reinhardt, in Italy, Gherardo Ugolini, to begin to name other, more recent names) Nietzsche did not fall into classical philology by mistake and he was excellent at what he did, even if he, alas, still remains on the other side of ‘normal science’ in his own field. In addition, because the referent is still Zarathustra and Nietzsche literally echoes Diogenes Laërtius’ reference to Zarathustra to begin his own genealogical reflections on Philosophy in the Tragic Age of the Greeks, one really has to read Zarathustra via Nietzsche’s Diogenes Laërtius and not less via Lucian of Samosta, but I also take Nietzsche’s caveat to the reader of the book literally and not simply because Nietzsche sets that warning into his title but because, to punch the point home, he sandwiches the book as a whole between two bits of The Gay Science, before Book 5, and thus after Books 1-4.
CB: I’m a great fan of The Gay Science, which I often have cause to cite. However, despite the apparent influence of Nietzsche’s work, it seems to me he has also avoided having tangible impact in the academy outside of inspiring Foucault. As Alasdair MacIntyre suggests, Nietzsche represents a kind of necessary counter-position that must be argued against, but Nietzsche ‘wins by default’. Would you agree with this? What would you say is the biggest aspect of his work that scholars have failed to engage with?
BB: I think I can agree with this initial appraisal of his ‘impact’, but this is a very complex (Foucault takes only homeopathic amounts of Nietzsche) and carefully weighted question, as then and as you just noted, you observe MacIntyre’s recognition of Nietzsche as what you characterize as a “necessary counter-position that must be argued against” but which, as you continue to point out (quoting MacIntyre), ‘wins by default’. You then ask another all-guns-blazing question: what is ‘the biggest aspect of his work that scholars have failed to engage with?’
Now, everything you say is exactly right, even the order of the dependent questions here is spot on. Nietzsche has had almost no impact on professional, university academic philosophy not to speak of professional, university Classics. You could not be more correct. Indeed, it is a corollary to this that nearly everyone takes themselves to be able to read and teach Nietzsche, from professors with seemingly other specializations to first year grad students and newly minted PhDs. Thus (for one example, among many) Robert Ackerman, a philosopher of science specializing in experimental scientific method responded to the general request among grad students in his department at Amherst clamouring for a course on Nietzsche, not by hiring a Nietzsche specialist to this end, (‘though he was chair and could have done so), but simply by stepping up to the plate himself. The result was the (more aptly titled than its author may have supposed), Nietzsche, A Frenzied Look.
BB: Indeed! I am quite taken with MacIntyre’s reading of Nietzsche but I also find his strategy intriguing. MacIntyre does not give everything away and he is a consummate stylist, if in the Anglo Saxon mode where one of the features of consummate style is that one does not notice it (this would be a key difference between MacIntyre and Stanley Cavell, among other things to be sure). Here to my mind, you have offered us one of the better articulations of that stylistic prowess because MacIntyre, a little like Nietzsche’s own strategic positioning of Zarathustra between books IV/V in The Gay Science, interrupts his own After Virtue with Nietzsche – and he does it twice, with two dilemmas, two questions, as Nietzsche put it, ‘with horns.‘ Brilliant!
CB: I massively underestimated how much After Virtue had influenced me when I first read it, although I immediately admired MacIntyre’s historical breadth. Yet I found myself coming back to his work again and again, and reading various other works less well known too. I adore Three Rival Versions of Moral Enquiry, which is another book in which Nietzsche plays a key role. MacIntyre lays out the Thomist tradition that he identifies with and positions it against the Victorian Encyclopaedists, with their unity of knowledge, and positions them against the Genealogists of knowledge, for whom Nietzsche is the founding figure... And (keeping with your idea of the importance of classical philology to Nietzsche), this is neatly presented as the Encyclopaedists attempting to displace the Bible as the canonical text, and Nietzsche responding with an attempt to discredit the entire concept of canon – and this has become the default position, even if the very notion of university – as Nietzsche himself bemoans, “No genuinely radical living for truth is possible in a university” – is impossible if that is accepted, which is quite a price to pay if MacIntyre is correct to suggest Nietzsche ‘wins by default’.
BB: I think whenever I teach on this – and I always do – or when I lecture on it (as I recently spoke on the dynamic between MacIntyre and Nietzsche in Heidelberg) that if Nietzsche’s lyric poet extraordinaire, the 7th century BC Archilochus, knows how to ‘do it,’ as it were, “lightning-struck,” all esoteric Dionysus, “with wine,” MacIntyre does it with disjunctions, as a very analytically formed fellow, one who knows Manchester, MacIntyre taught there, very importantly for him, just as you yourself are there today. For MacIntyre, Nietzsche or Aristotle is set square in the centre of After Virtue, which he concludes with Nietzsche, Tolstoy, or St Benedict – and MacIntyre deserves his own discussion! Because you are right, because MacIntyre is right: Nietzsche does win ‘by default’... But I would argue that this is a set-up, massively styled, whether deliberate or not, and not because the counter-position dissolves.
CB: Which is a key point, and the potential opening of a can of tangents, because the very notion of the Encyclopaedia (which I argue against in Wikipedia Knows Nothing) pre-supposes a prescribed set of correct answers. And acknowledging the problems with this way of understanding knowledge need not (and contra a common reading of Nietzsche) dissolve all claims to truth. MacIntyre seems to have a grip on this issue, and he seems to have won it from the time he spent reading Nietzsche, even though there are clearly other more influential forces at work in his philosophy.
BB: Now for just this reason your book, Wikipedia Knows Nothing is on my syllabus for (and needed just given the context of) Philosophy and Digital Media. The issue of the Encyclopaedia is one that needs more exploration but to return to MacIntyre, I think that his years at Boston University among philosophers of science (I spent some time among them as well when I was a student) has him aligning from the start of his study those questions that cannot logically be properly resolved, excluding as they do exclude common terms, and now we are back again to your original question [back in the first Babich and Bateman dialogue] and the problem of analytic and continental claimants. For today, there can be no doubt that it is analytic philosophy that has won by annexation and the colonialist tactic of denying a voice to others, or even any recognition of difference between stylistic approaches, whereby and effectively a simple place at the table is denied to the other. Thus the other remains an outsider forever and, for me, what philosophy loses thereby is far too much ‘intellectual capital’ (as Nietzsche names it) along with the capital of the heart and spirit, not to mention excitement, even joy – and that is not a good thing.
The dialogue continues next week: An Analytic Lamp-post