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Reflections on Staten’s Nietzsche’s Voice

I recently finished reading Henry Staten’s book Nietzsche’s Voice, a book I found both richly suggestive and frustratingly ethereal. This is the last book I will have a chance to read before resuming classes and hence reading primarily for academic purposes. I shall try to make time on weekends to continue reading and writing about Emerson’s essays (and hopefully to slot some fiction reading in there as well), but on the whole I anticipate that my activity here will greatly slow down in the coming months. As such, I think it is worthwhile to post a few thoughts about Nietzsche’s Voice as a conclusion to my recent set of reflections on Nietzsche.

Staten adopts what he calls a “psychodialectical” reading of Nietzsche, something he says he learned from Derrida’s reading of Rousseau in Of Grammatology. Psychodialectical reading, as Staten describes it, requires tracing the flow(s) of libidinal energy in Nietzsche’s texts. I am not sure that Staten makes a strong case for thinking of this energy specifically as libidinal, but in any event the reading he produces is interesting. He is primarily concerned to look at those areas where Nietzsche takes ambivalent, oscillating attitudes: toward asceticism, toward pity, toward suffering, toward life, toward affirmation, toward eternal recurrence, and so on. He delineates different “moods” (for lack of a better word) in which Nietzsche writes: at times he moves in one bold direction, at times he shrinks away from what he elsewhere praises. For example, Staten discusses Nietzsche’s relation to part-whole relations:

It is as though Nietzsche’s original nostalgia for a lost unity of all beings, his desire to be restored as a part to the whole, were invertible into the desire to become the whole by expanding to incorporate all the other parts. In either case, there is a restored totality. But, in one case, self-identity is retained; in the other, the self dissolves, its boundaries are permeated by the being of others, countless others, or the self explodes, is dispersed into an infinitude of bodies and roles. (150)

This captures a fundamental oscillation that Staten finds in Nietzsche: Nietzsche praises the self that constantly overcomes itself, dissolving its own boundaries, but equally recoils from this self-dissolution, at times trying to preserve self-identity.

Tracing out such oscillations and connecting them to specific moods (and thereby interconnecting the various ambivalences) is, in my reading, the primary task of the book. It is richly suggestive in that it teaches a way of reading Nietzsche that is fruitful, that provides a way of understanding why Nietzsche’s corpus does not function clearly as a unity. Moreover, it does this without simply condemning Nietzsche for inconsistency: it tries to understand why someone would undergo just these movements of thought. While it has its share of critical moments—mostly expressed through tone, not argument—the book is primarily characterized by sympathetic neutrality: it is primarily descriptive, not evaluative. (I do not mean to criticize by saying that Staten’s criticism comes through mostly in tone rather than argument. His task is not to criticize Nietzsche, but to understand him in a new way. It is simply the case that Staten at times cannot help hinting at his own evaluations.)

Besides this rich suggestiveness, however, is a frustrating ethereality: it is incredibly difficult to pin down, at times. It traces out these ambivalences in great detail, but then almost seems to leave them be. It hints at an overarching structure, but this is difficult to find. For instance, the one-sentence conclusion to the penultimate chapter (“Pity and Love”) reads: “The ambivalences, chiastic reversals, double investments, and so on that we have traced in Nietzsche’s text follow from the paradox of this telos that is the undoing of all teleology” (169)—a fascinating suggestion, but one that isn’t clearly, explicitly substantiated by the text. Too much attention is given to the tracing, as it were, and not enough to the following. As such, I feel that what I have primarily learned from this book is not anything specific about Nietzsche, but simply a method by which I might come to learn something about Nietzsche. But perhaps this is more valuable than a definite interpretation in any case. I certainly intend to incorporate some of Staten’s methods into my future Nietzsche reading.

I do want to look at one concrete suggestion Staten does make, toward the very end of the book. My starting point is the following passage:

When the eternal recurrence is first announced in The Gay Science, when the demon comes to announce it, to explain that you will have to live this life over and over “innumerable times more,” with “nothing new in it” but always the same pains and joys in every minute detail, why is it that he comes “into your loneliest loneliness” to announce it? Isn’t it because it is this, the loneliest loneliness itself into which the demon comes, and not the repetition of specific events of suffering, that is the essence of the unbearability of the eternal return, so that when Nietzsche/Zarathustra thinks of reliving his life innumerable times what he thinks of is the eternity of an absolute solitude where no human voice ever reaches? (183)

These two sentences illustrate the power of Staten’s method of reading. I have long been captivated by Nietzsche’s notion of the eternal recurrence, writing about it (or at least around it) with some frequency here (some uses being more legitimate than others), but I readily confess to a still-stunted understanding of it. One way in which this this understanding was until this morning stunted is that I had hardly at all considered the significance of the thought being presented as coming in one’s “loneliest loneliness.”

Staten’s reading is powerful here because it shows why this detail is crucial. Nietzsche writes in different moods: in some moods he is full of good cheer (for instance, at the start of Twilight of the Idols), in others he is lonely. Nietzsche’s works are also full of references to times that are associated with different moods and energy levels, and much of the dramatic action of Thus Spoke Zarathustra follows Zarathustra’s shifting moods. Nietzsche praises his notion of “gay science” and writes in Twilight of the Idols that “Nothing succeeds in which high spirits play no part” (foreword). Maintaining such high spirits in the face of gloominess, loneliness, and suffering is one of Nietzsche’s great tasks, and so a reading of Nietzsche that traces out changes in Nietzsches “spirits” and the conditions (loneliness, company, etc.) in which these changes occur is, by Nietzsche’s own lights, essential. In the case of the eternal recurrence, the fact that its announcement comes in Nietzsche’s loneliest loneliness means that Nietzsche’s act of affirmation must come in his loneliest loneliness—he must, as Staten says, affirm a seemingly unbearable eternity of loneliness.

This may also help resolve some of the issues I raised in my string of posts on Nietzsche’s The Anti-Christ (linked above). In the first of these, I discussed Nietzsche’s 1886 preface to Human, All too Human, in which he discussed his creation of the free spirits. This, he said, stemmed out of loneliness (among other things): he created his free spirits out of loneliness. They did not exist, so Nietzsche invented them to keep him company and raise his spirits—in short, they helped make his loneliness bearable, something he could affirm. (This understanding gives a central place in Nietzsche’s thought to the eternal recurrence, a place I think is justified but which could be and is disputed.) The same, one might think, happens with Nietzsche’s claim to be born posthumously.

The reason this might help me resolve my questions about The Anti-Christ is that I suspect—though I have not yet done the work (and for reasons mentioned won’t have time to anytime soon)—that tracing out the flows of energy in Nietzsche’s text as he brings up the free spirits, the Hyperboreans, and the “very few” will shed light on their roles and interrelations. When he invokes them, what is he acting on or reacting to? How do they modulate his moods? In my posts I went part of the way to addressing the first of these questions, but did not achieve any firm resolution. Perhaps there is none to be had—Staten’s method of reading did not often, in his own case, lead to clear resolutions that I could find—but an understanding of the tensions will nonetheless deepen my appreciation of Nietzsche.

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  1. 2013/08/24 at 08:03

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