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Leaving the Elevator
Kathleen Marie Higgins
Nietzsche, Philosophy, and the Arts, ed. Salim Kemal, Ivan Gaskell, and Daniel W. Conway; xv & 351 pp. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998, $69.95.
In Nicholas Roeg's fine but under-appreciated film Insignificance, Einstein asks a Cherokee elevator operator if it is true that in the Cherokee worldview, wherever you are is the center of the universe. The elevator operator tells him that this is true, but adds that it is hard to remember in an elevator. A similar situation prevails with Nietzsche scholarship. Nietzsche urges his readers to ecstatic states and the apotheosis of the everyday world. Yet this is easy to forget amidst the scholarly debates that engage his interpreters.
This tension is inherent to the enterprise of Nietzsche, Philosophy, and the Arts, that of examining the aesthetic character of Nietzsche's understanding of philosophy. At times the conceptual character of a book of philosophical essays threatens to produce forgetfulness of the dynamic immediacy of the aesthetic on Nietzsche's account. On balance, however, the book avoids succumbing to this threat, both because conceptual discussions so often point to the more immediate, and because of the clear enthusiasm the papers display toward their topics.
The scope indicated by the title of the book is vast, and the volume includes quite a range of discussions. Some, such as Ernst Behler's paper on the philosophical motivations of Nietzsche's use of irony, seek to analyze Nietzsche's aesthetic approach to his philosophical project across the range of his works. Others turn a new gaze toward particular [End Page 204] books. This is the case in Aaron Ridley's paper, which makes the interesting claim that the role of the artist is crucial to the analysis of On the Genealogy of Morals, which is usually not interpreted as one of Nietzsche's more aesthetic texts. Ridley draws attention to Nietzsche's argument that the artist should not succumb to the temptation to try to affect in the world by making art that is straightforwardly political. The most important kind of artistry is that of transforming and interpreting the world, a kind of activity that is fundamental to being alive. Ridley believes that Nietzsche trivializes ordinary art because the most important art occurs in the soul, and that this is the explanation for his seeming dismissal of the artists that he discusses explicitly in Genealogy.
Despite the diversity of topics and approaches within the book, certain recurrent themes link several of the papers. The nature and importance of Nietzsche's conception of the Dionysian is a central issue for certain of the contributors. Martha Nussbaum, while insisting that Nietszsche is just plain "wrong about Euripides" (p. 36), considers his analysis of Dionysus an illuminating entrée to Greek tragedy, and even to Euripides' Bacchae. Nussbaum emphasizes the kinship between the Apollonian and the Dionysian, arguing that sensuality as embodied in Dionysus is "not unintelligent," and opposing the Dionysian to the intellectually blind will of Schopenhauer with which it is often associated. Nussbaum's Dionysian is almost well mannered; the sexual energy at the root of Nietzsche's concept is, she contends, "disciplined as well as joyful" (p. 54).
Nietzsche's account of the Dionysian, according to Nussbaum, is offered as an alternative to Schopenhauer's pessimism in the wake of finding no intrinsic meaning in the world. "We do not have to choose between belief in god and empty chaos," according to Nietzsche (p. 59). Instead, we can delight in the fact that we ourselves create order, an aspect of our condition that we celebrate through art. Great art gives us "a clue as to a way (or, indeed, many different ways) in which life might be embraced, and the body seen as a sphere of joy" (p. 60). Nietzsche's Dionysus is an apotheosis of the erotic, understood as subtle and transfiguring; and this vision offers an antidote to the self-hatred promoted by the "Catholic" doctrine of original sin and the related denigration of sexuality, still...