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Columbia University Press
Dialogue with Nietzsche:

Dialogue with Nietzsche:

by Gianni Vattimo, William McCuaig


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780231132411
Publisher: Columbia University Press
Publication date: 01/23/2008
Series: European Perspectives: A Series in Social Thought and Cultural Criticism Series
Edition description: New Edition
Pages: 272
Product dimensions: 5.70(w) x 8.70(h) x 0.80(d)
Age Range: 18 Years

About the Author

Gianni Vattimo is emeritus professor of philosophy at the University of Turin and a member of the European Parliament. His books with Columbia University Press are Christianity, Truth, and Weakening Faith: A Dialogue (with René Girard), Not Being God: A Collaborative Autobiography, Art's Claim to Truth, After the Death of God, Dialogue with Nietzsche, The Future of Religion (with Richard Rorty), Nihilism and Emancipation: Ethics, Politics, and the Law, and After Christianity.William McCuaig is the translator of Books, Banks, Buttons, and Other Inventions from the Middle Ages, by Chiara Frugoni, and Vattimo's Nihilism and Emancipation.

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Dialogue with Nietzsche

By Gianni Vattimo


Copyright © 2000 Garzanti Libri s.p.a.
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0-231-13240-9

Chapter One

Art and Identity On the Relevance of Nietzsche's Aesthetics

Much of the debate taking place today on Nietzsche's thought and its possible relevance arises out of a basic problem: how should we read his reversal of Platonism? For in overthrowing Plato, Nietzsche rejected western metaphysics in the archetypal form from which (as far as he and his major interpreters, especially Heidegger, are concerned) all of its subsequent development had flowed. This problem is also the best place to begin a discussion of how a Nietzschean aesthetics might be configured and its possible relevance today. Indeed, when it comes to aesthetics, the connection to Plato turns out to be particularly illuminating and significant, for on the question of art, it seems clear-to me at least-that Nietzsche's reversal of Platonism is not, as Heidegger at bottom believes, a partial one that leaves unchanged the dichotomies and oppositions (sensible versus intelligible, appearance versus reality, and so on) established by Plato but rather that it goes right to their core and radically contests them.

At the threshold of western aesthetics stands the famous condemnation of imitative art delivered by Platoin The Republic. This "condemnation" was refuted, beginning with Aristotle. But the western tradition moves for the most part within the alternatives established by Plato, not questioning them but covering them up and concealing their origin, and its reception of this one is a case in point. Plato formulates his thesis in The Republic, books 3 and 10. The part of it most often adduced and discussed is the metaphysical argument about the distance that separates the image produced by the artist from the idea created by God (Rep. 10.597b), which downgrades the work of art to the status of a copy of a copy, with the pedagogical corollary that to know and enjoy a copy of a copy is to move further away from the world of ideas. But Plato's main emphasis is always on the opposition between the true Being (or being true) of the ideas and the character of the artistic image as appearance (as phantasm, specter, eidolon, semblance, simulacrum, Schein ...). This entails the hierarchical subordination of sensible knowledge and the emotions to intellectual knowledge. In the dialogue Io, Plato adds another line of argument to the aesthetic position taken in The Republic: the rhapsodist and the poet are not "technicians," they do not speak with well-grounded knowledge, and the only possible source of their utterance is a mysterious force that inspires them, a divine madness. This is generally read as a statement that simply parallels The Republic: imitation is condemned in the Io not on the basis that it makes copies of copies but because it is an activity that cannot be fitted into a rational framework. The third book of The Republic takes yet another tack: dramatic imitation is deprecated because it entails the identification of the imitator with base and unworthy persons or attitudes (Rep. 3.395d ff). But apart from this "moral" line of argument, taken up again in book 10 with the one about a copy of a copy, there is a more radical and global thread of argument that links the discourse of the Republic to that of the Io in a more coherent fashion. The impossibility of defining poetry as a techne, which is the conclusion of the Io and may be considered as a prelude to the "condemnation" in the Republic, counts heavily against art primarily because it flouts the division of social roles.

But perhaps, I said, you would affirm it [the imitative, that is, the dramatic, type of poetry] to be ill-suited to our polity, because there is no twofold or manifold man among us, since every man does one thing.... If a man then, it seems, who was capable by his cunning of assuming every kind of shape and imitating all things should arrive in our city, bringing with himself the poems which he wished to exhibit, we should fall down and worship him as a holy man and wondrous and delightful creature, but should say to him that there is no man of that kind among us in our city, nor is it lawful for such a man to arise among us, and we should send him away to another city, after pouring myrrh down over his head and crowning him with fillets of wool.

It is true that right after this Plato appears to limit his condemnation once again to imitations that lead to identification with what is most low and vile. But these lines allude to a more general and fundamental reason for condemning imitative art, a reason already adduced earlier in very explicit terms:

And to still smaller coinage than this, in my opinion, Adimantus, proceeds the fractioning of human faculty [a moment before it had been agreed that not even the poets themselves are able to produce good imitations, either tragic or comic], so as to be incapable of imitating many things or of doing the things themselves of which the imitations are likenesses.

In the Platonic vision of the state, "there is no man of that kind ... nor is it lawful for such a man to arise"-a man, that is, who evades the logic of the division of labor. The division of labor corresponds to an essential character of human nature. There is no man capable of stepping outside himself and sinking into other roles, other individualities; if it appears that there is, it happens only in the realm of imitation and poetic fiction. But this weds the condemnation of imitation as fiction and as a copy of a copy to the "technical" argument of the Io by establishing a nexus between the true reality of human nature and the division of labor. For that matter, in the Io itself this nexus is clearly articulated: the reason it is impossible to define poetry in technical terms is the fact that the appearance it produces causes the poet and the rhapsodist themselves, prior even to the listener, to be transported outside themselves, so that it is no longer they who are disposing words and images according to rules, but words and images that are disposing of them. Thus poetry presents itself, in our experience of it, as a sort of autonomous power of appearance, or-we might say-of the signifier, a power that manifests itself precisely by transporting us beyond the bounds of our "real" condition. This is why it cannot be theorized and reduced to rules as a techne can.

The irreducibility of poetry to the model of the division of labor in this last sense is thus rooted in the fact that poetry, as we experience it, is per se, constitutively, a negation of the division of roles, a violation of the essential segmentation of human nature. Even when he does narrow his condemnation of poetic imitation by sparing the narrative and mixed genres (on which, however, he sets moral restrictions concerning the kinds of persons and states of mind they may represent), Plato's essential model of poetry is always dramatic representation, the kind that transports individuals outside themselves. It is only because narrative and mixed poetry also ultimately imply transport outside oneself (the rhapsodist referred to in the Io sings and narrates but does not actually do tragic or comic theater), that it is necessary to set moral restrictions on the type of events and personages they can represent. Even the "natural propensity" of the poet for the sphere of the emotions rather than for the intelligent and composed character has more to do with what we might call the ecstatic or disidentifying essence of poetry than it does with his desire to please the audience. The intelligent and composed character, "always similar to himself," is not easy to imitate or readily graspable. Poetry, which is above all an experience of disidentification on the part of both poet and audience, prefers to seek its objects of imitation not in the world of the ever-the-same but in the realm of the changeable and the various: not in the zone of the intelligible but in that of the sensible.

It is not possible here to present a complete reconstruction of Plato's aesthetics with reference to this "theatrical" concept of imitation as disidentification, nor to discuss, as one ought, the problematic relationship between madness and the transport produced by poetry and artistic appearance, and the forms of ecstasy and mania that Plato includes with a positive valence in his description of the voyage of the soul toward the ideas (as in the famous passage from Phaedrus, 265b, where the poetic inspiration of the muses is one of the four forms of divine delirium, the others being the prophetic, the mystical, and the amorous). My aim is solely to emphasize that a decisive component of the all too well known Platonic condemnation of poetry and art is the connection, first clearly theorized by Plato, between poetic and artistic appearance on the one hand, and disidentification, transport outside oneself, and the breakdown of the ordered division of social roles on the other. The subsequent tradition has mostly obscured this connection (though this affirmation too would require separate documentation): isolated from its disidentifying power, the appearance produced by poetic or artistic imitation could be justified as an auxiliary instrument of knowledge or moral education (this starts with Aristotle); while ecstasy, cut off from appearance, or related exclusively to an appearance already depotentiated and made subservient to truth, was developed in its "positive" valence only, as a mode of access to the deep structures of the metaphysical order that also sanctions and guarantees the division of social roles and the identity and self-continuity of individuals above all else. Before Nietzsche, perhaps only Kierkegaard had revived the spirit of Plato's argumentation, in his theory of aestheticity as a stage of existential discontinuity; and Kierkegaard fully endorsed the Platonic condemnation,

The concealment of the link between aesthetic appearance and disidentification, a concealment that culminates in Hegel, may properly be regarded as one aspect of the forgetting (of Being?) that, according to Heidegger, constitutes metaphysics. Naturally to characterize metaphysics primarily through its concealment of the art-disidentification nexus, as Nietzsche does, is a far cry indeed from the spirit of Heidegger's theses. Perhaps it even sheds light (with "Being" placed in parentheses and followed by a question mark) on their permanent metaphysical nostalgia. To recall the forgotten Platonic nexus between aesthetic appearance and the negation of identity and social roles is what the Nietzschean aesthetics is all about. I am far from claiming that we may speak of "the aesthetics of Nietzsche" as a coherent, unitary, and easily discernible whole. But even the questions that such an expression immediately provokes form part, or characterize the content of the problematic "Nietzschean aesthetics." The main reason for this is that the outline of the aesthetic problem grows progressively more blurred as Nietzsche's thought moves from The Birth of Tragedy, which is still a book "on aesthetics," to the reflections on art and artists in Human, All Too Human, and on to the notes in the Nachlass and "the will to power as art." There is only one satisfactory way to account for this: my hypothesis is that Nietzsche's original model of aesthetic experience was narrowly based on the problem of tragedy and the word-music relationship and that it evolved as his critique of Platonic-Christian metaphysics and the civilization grounded on it grew more radical. When he was a young man, his belief in "the art of our works of art" had gone hand in hand with his faith that tragedy was being reborn in the Wagnerian musical revolution. But as his critique expands, it draws art into the same field of force as metaphysics, morality, and religion: art too is an aspect of nihilism, one of those phenomena to which by now we have severed our ties. Yet if it is clear in Human, All Too Human and his subsequent writing that the art of our works of art cannot be the model, or even the point of departure, for a new tragic civilization, it is no less clear that art as it has been determined in the European tradition has an ambiguous character and that not everything in it is destined to perish with the devaluation of the highest values. That is why art still features so prominently in the works of Nietzsche's maturity, from Zarathustra to the late notes for The Will to Power. The fact is that a Dionysian ember still glows in art, despite all the mystifications and moralizing misinterpretations that Nietzsche lays bare in his analysis, and the renewal of tragic civilization depends on fanning it back to life. "Incipit tragoedia" is the heading of the last aphorism of the fourth book of The Gay Science, in which Zarathustra is first proclaimed.

Yet everything said to this point still concerns the "philological" problem of defining a Nietzschean aesthetics-the problem of isolating a nucleus of propositions regarding art in Nietzsche's thought and establishing their relationship with his other doctrines and their development. From the perspective that interests me here, it is less important to achieve such a reconstruction than it is to sharpen our focus on the characteristic connection, explicitly theorized in full as early as The Birth of Tragedy, between aesthetic appearance and the negation of identity.

There is a strong analogy, at the level of description, between the phenomenon of the tragic as defined in The Birth of Tragedy and poetry as characterized by Plato in the Io and The Republic. In Plato poetic imitation is interpreted primarily in terms of its production of appearances (imitations, copies of copies), and then, more profoundly, in terms of its producing escape from identity. The decisive intermediate link between these two poles is the point that the poet's occupation cannot be made to fit into a strict model of the division of labor. Likewise, in Nietzsche's book on tragedy the production of aesthetic appearance (the world of the beautiful Apollonian forms) is traced back to the Dionysian impulse, which can only be defined as the impulse to negate identity. The devotee of Dionysus is consumed by the horror and ecstatic rapture that result when the principium individuationis (the principle that each individual is himself alone and stands permanently apart from all the others) is violated. For him

not only is the union between man and man reaffirmed, but nature, which has become alienated, hostile, or subjugated celebrates once more her reconciliation with her lost son, man.... Now the slave is a free man; now all the rigid, hostile barriers that necessity, caprice, or "impudent convention" have fixed between man and man are broken. Now, with the gospel of universal harmony, each one feels himself not only united, reconciled, and fused with his neighbor, but as one with him, as if the veil of Maya had been torn aside and were now merely fluttering in tatters before the mysterious primordial unity.

The heart of the festivals of Dionysus consisted almost everywhere "in extravagant sexual licentiousness, whose waves overwhelmed all family life and its venerable traditions." Nietzsche distinguishes between the "barbaric Dionysian" of the original Thracian founders of the cult and the "Hellenic Dionysian," and although the remark quoted refers exclusively to the former, within a few lines he asserts that at a certain point similar instincts penetrated to the core of Greekness as well. The Dionysian is actualized when man is reconciled with nature and with the rest of mankind in primal unity. This can only come about through a violent break with the "venerable traditions" on which society is built, above all the principium individuationis and all it entails.


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Table of Contents

Preface     IX
Translator's Note     XIII
Abbreviations and Translations     XVII
Nihilism and the Problem of Temporality     1
Nietzsche's Vision of the World     24
The Problem of Historical Knowledge and the Formation of the Nietzschean Idea of Truth     40
Philosophy as Ontological Activity     60
Nietzsche and Contemporary Hermeneutics     73
Nietzsche, the Superman, and the Spirit of the Avant-garde     83
Art and Identity: On the Relevance of Nietzsche's Aesthetics     96
The Wisdom of the Superman     126
The Two Senses of Nihilism in Nietzsche     134
The Gay Science     142
Daybreak: Thoughts on the Prejudices of Morality     157
Zarathustra     167
Nietzsche, Heidegger's Interpreter     181
The "Italian" Nietzsche     190
Nietzsche, 1994     196
Notes     209
Bibliography     235
Index     239

What People are Saying About This

Alan D. Schrift

Poised between the Heideggerian and French readings, Gianni Vattimo's reflections on historicism, nihilism, philosophy, and culture present Nietzsche as a thinker decisive for both the present and the future. Vattimo's dialogue, which spans almost forty years, will engage both Nietzsche scholars and anyone interested in twentieth-century European philosophical culture.

Christa Davis Acampora

Gianni Vattimo is surely one of our greatest living philosophers. This exciting translation helps us to appreciate the breadth of Vattimo's interests and the depths of his insights.

Babette E. Babich

This fine translation of Gianni Vattimo's Dialogue with Nietzsche refreshes readers' appreciation of Vattimo's consistently insightful contributions to Nietzsche scholarship and his rich engagement with the European philosophical tradition.

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