It seems, then, that Posnock wanted another book, something more prescriptive and assertive. But a presentist study, of that type anyway, was never the goal of American Nietzsche. Ratner-Rosenhagen’s historicism could never satisfy Posnock’s not-so-rhetorical question: “Who got Nietzsche right?” The book asserts, in essence, that this question can’t be answered. Nietzsche’s thought was plastic; it could be transformed in the heat of one’s passions and imagination. Nietzsche’s writings are too vague to give solid ground, to provide transcendence. This will never satisfy philosophers, historians, and earnest readers who seek ultimate truths. Then again, mere historical thinking never really satisfies those who put history solely in the service of the present.
As always, I don’t see the need to vex you good people with my maladroit musings when I can simply point to the already-existing thoughts of smarter people and better writers, both types of which happen to be contained, conveniently enough, in the singular form of my friend Arthur. This is from a recent email correspondence with him on a similar topic (the Bloom being referenced is Allan Bloom, author of The Closing of the American Mind):
As for relativism, Nietzsche, at least, does not take value to be completely arbitrary (undifferentiated and neutral with respect to its pragmatic effects), and unlike many who claim him (paradoxically!) as an authority (doesn’t Zarathustra say “Only when you deny me will I return to you”?), he takes the breakdown of absolutism as a call to create values, to choose one value as better than another (healthier, more life-enhancing) without a metaphysical safety net. This is not the same thing as cultural relativism; it represents a change from a concept of value as something pre-established and discovered to something (quasi-artistically) created or invented. To defend cultural relativism is, again, a self-contradiction, because it elevates that value above its opposite. It creates a value without admitting or being aware that this is what it is doing. But Nietzsche is quite clear on this subject: “Man is the value-making animal.” We are always making values and value judgments whether we know it or not. We can’t help doing so, though we can deceive ourselves infinitely as to what we are doing when we do so.
This brings me to the problem of Nietzsche, the problem of using his writings to justify a moral, political, or philosophical doctrine of any kind. The problem is that there is no Nietzsche; there are only Nietzsches. What makes his thought (if that’s the word for it) a double-edged sword is that it bares its own contradictions and doesn’t try to synthesize or in any way gloss over them. Bloom decries the fact that we Americans are such happy-camper nihilists who, unlike Nietzsche (he claims), aren’t terrified by the abyss staring back at us: we photoshop a have-a-nice-day face on the monster. But the Nietzsche who is oppressed and horrified by the abyss of nihilism is just one Nietzsche. The other Nietzsche (or one of the other Nietzsches) celebrates the noon-tide of affirmation instead of lamenting the midnight of nihilism. The closest he comes to squaring this circle or resolving this contradiction between the negative and positive aspects of the post-metaphysical condition is to picture the resolution poetically as Zarathustra biting off the head of the serpent that has grotesquely lodged itself in his mouth.
If you dismiss Nietzsche as a philosopher because he seems to revel in contradiction, if you dismiss him as a brilliant manic-depressive who passes off his mood-swings as prophetic insight or philosophical doctrine, you are probably missing the point. Nietzsche is fully aware that his contradictions are unresolved, he refuses on philosophical principle to resolve them philosophically. This makes him a kind of intellectual anarchist more closely related to the Emerson he greatly admired than to the Heidegger who proved himself a charlatan by writing a ponderous two-volume tome “explicating” the philosophical doctrines of Nietzsche. Nietzsche always places his thought at the boundary of a system, the point where in Goedel’s logic the system breaks down into either incompleteness or self-contradiction. He is the truth-telling Cretan Liar. As Deleuze says, the systems of Marx and Freud lived and died by the double-edged sword: their ambition was to found institutions, and they thus became just two more lawgivers in a series of lawgivers. History has passed them by. Nietzsche’s thought remains vital by the same token that it remains perhaps just barely coherent enough to be useful at all. It is almost pure anti-institutional, open-ended experimentation opposed, finally to all institutions, all laws, all codes.
Any attempt to reduce Nietzsche to a set of philosophical doctrines also runs up against the question of literary style, or rather, literary styles. No one in the history of philosophy since Plato wrote as poetically as Nietszsche, and this is fitting, since Plato (and the half-literary-character Socrates) is his arch-enemy: one measures one’s strength by the strength of one’s foes. “Plato is boring.” Who but Nietzsche would have the nerve to say something so baldly and briefly? It is a kind of insider’s joke to those alert to the paramount importance in Nietzsche of style. What it means, unpacked, is that Plato went on a bit, was too blandly urbane and concatenated. He should have written in aphorisms, like Heraclitus. The point of the aphorism is in how briefly and pointedly it says what it says. Implicitly it models the truth or things, the look of things, as aphorism-like: punctual, untimely, nervous, leptic, indifferent to discursive explication, reveling in paradox.
But the aphorism is just one of his stylistic tricks: there is also Biblical parody, dialogue, essay, confession, verse (The Gay Science), the foreword and afterword as modes of self-revision keeping the growing, transformative and provisional edge of thought exposed to the air and alive. In other words, the rapid and unpredictable changes in his styles is at least as important as any individual style he employes at any given moment. In this regard Nietzsche is in the Cynic tradition of serio-comic meta-philosophy, of writing that mocks the premises and personalities of philosophers. Lucian’s mock-philosophical writings are vital precursors of Nietzsche’s agile, mercurial stance. His seriocomic play of styles internalizes Aristophanic comedy (think of The Clouds and the parody of Socrates) as a kind of philosophical method. The method is in part to foreground how the medium straddles the message. The “content” cannot be separated from the form.
From this point of view Bloom’s lamentation over the fact that Americans don’t lament enough over the epistemological abyss is not so much false to Nietzsche as one-sided in emphasizing just one among his many aspects, stances, or, most subversively, perhaps, his philosophical moods.