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Staten, Nietzsche, Emerson

2013/08/24 1 comment

While reflecting on Staten’s Nietzsche’s Voice, I suggested that a strength of the book is how it traces out ambivalences and oscillations in Nietzsche’s works. I included a quote from Staten in which he suggests that Nietzsche in one mood advocates a self-overcoming in which the boundaries of self-identity dissolve, but in another mood recoils from this possibility and tries to preserve those boundaries. I still think this is a strength of the book, but writing about Emerson last night reminded me of a thought that I have long toyed with that suggests that Staten might be missing an underlying unity to Nietzsche’s thought on this point. Here I want to go some small way toward fleshing out—though not resolving—this worry.

The worry begins with my secret belief that Emerson and Nietzsche are the same soul in distinct bodies. Whenever I read their work in close proximity I am always surprised by the frequency of Nietzschean comments in Emerson and Emersonian comments in Nietzsche. One of the areas in which I have most seen this overlap is in their views on selfhood. So I want to reflect briefly on Emerson, and then suggest that if Nietzsche’s views on the self can be treated in a similar way (and I think there is a reasonable likelihood of this), then perhaps Staten has failed to see a certain unity to Nietzsche’s work.

In my post last night on Emerson, I wrote this: “One aspect of Emerson’s philosophy is that, in our moments of creative self-overcoming (which are also our moments of self-reliance), we grasp a universal truth…” That is, Emerson sees the self as most firmly defined at precisely the moment when the self is overcome. Self-reliance implies staying within one’s own boundaries, relying on one’s own intuition, not following social conventions, etc.—in short it requires a well-defined self set apart from others, for how can one stay within one’s own boundaries if such boundaries are not clearly defined? And yet when Emerson discusses the activity of the self-reliant person, this activity is precisely self-overcoming, self-transcendence. Emerson likens the activity to drawing a circle around oneself. Given time, this circle becomes constraining and a wider circle must be drawn, exploding the boundaries of the older one. This metaphor lets us see that Emerson is working with two notions of the self, which shows how Emerson can simultaneously praise self-reliance—staying within the boundaries of the self—and self-overcoming—exploding beyond those boundaries. The boundaries of self-reliance, the boundaries within which we are to stay, are those of the new circle, of the self formed in the activity of the genius. The boundaries of self-overcoming are those of the old circle, the remnant of past genius that, once the initial act of genius is past, becomes a source of self-imitation equally inimical to self-reliance as the imitation of others.

That is, Emerson is on the one hand working with a notion of the self in a more traditional sense, though he theorizes this in a different manner than is usual. On the other hand, he also develops a notion of the self that is constituted precisely in the activity of genius, in “shooting the gap”, a self that does not pre-exist and direct this activity but rather forms alongside it. Thus we can see the coexistence of self-formation and self-dissolution in the activity of genius. I will further add that Emerson always connects this activity to the grasping of a single, universal Truth, to a participation in the “oversoul”. In this way, the activity of genius stretches beyond the confines of the organism to something more universal, another sense of self-dissolution, of the erasing of boundaries between self and others.

What I want to suggest, but not argue for right now, is that Nietzsche may well be doing something similar. The same retreats into oneself, the same fortification of boundaries around oneself that keep others out, occurs as frequently in Emerson as in Nietzsche, albeit perhaps more often in his journals than in his essays. A psychodialectical reading of Emerson thus could, I think, produce precisely the pattern found in Staten’s reading of Nietzsche: the same ambivalences and oscillations. But while there are oscillations of mood, there is an underlying unity of thought. To see self-reliance and self-overcoming as in tension, as competing possibilities, is to miss the overall movement of this thought.

The similarity between Nietzsche’s thought and Emerson’s on this point is one of the reasons that I have my hypothesis about the sameness of their souls. I am writing this from memory and so cannot cite specific passages, but the general strain of Nietzsche’s thought—an extreme individualism coupled with an equally extreme critique of the very unity of the individual—is in accord with what I have traced in Emerson. This leads me to suspect that, while Staten is no doubt picking up on very real changes in the mood of Nietzsche’s texts, he is perhaps incorrect in taking them to reveal a Nietzsche unable to decide just what he wants. In different moods, Nietzsche may be emphasizing distinct aspects of his views on the self, but they might nonetheless be distinct aspects of a single coherent view.

This post ought to convince no one, for I have not substantiated this suggestion anywhere close to sufficiently. But I hope it at least motivates the question, which will certainly feed into my future reading of Nietzsche.

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Reflections on Staten’s Nietzsche’s Voice

2013/08/21 1 comment

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.