There are epochs in which the man of reason and the man of intuition stand side by side, the one fearful of intuition, the other filled with scorn for abstraction, the latter as unreasonable as the former is unartistic.Friedrich Nietzsche1
Go in fear of abstractions.Ezra Pound2
In “A Tory Philosophy,” published in The Commentator in five installments between April and May of 1912, T. E. Hulme criticized Friedrich Nietzsche for his tendency towards romantic abstraction. “In him you have the spectacle of a romantic seizing on the classic point of view because it attracted him purely as a theory, and who, being a romantic, in taking up this theory, passed his slimy fingers over every detail of it.”3 A few months prior to writing “A Tory Philosophy,” Hulme had elaborated on these concepts in his notorious essay “Romanticism and Classicism,” in which he heralds an age of “dry, hard, classical verse” whereby “even in the most imaginative flights there is always a holding back, a reservation. The classical poet never forgets his finiteness, this limit of man. … He never flies away into the circumambient gas.”4 Contrary to Hulme’s accusation, however, Nietzschean vitalism does recognize and affirm human finitude, the dying body, as a challenge to Christian spiritualism. In the famous aphorism “The Heaviest Burden” from book four of The Gay Science, for example, the seemingly romantic notion of the [End Page 255] eternal repetition of the same functions as a thought experiment through which to realize and affirm the imposing limitations of suffering and powerlessness. The “thought,” or possibility, of an eternal return could “crush” the subject unable to “transform.”5 The great Übermensch Zarathustra, who descends from his cave in the clouds, reminds us of such powerlessness when he writes, “The will cannot will backwards.” In his self-genealogy, Nietzsche invokes his notion of “amor fati” by writing, “Granting that I am a decadent, I am the opposite as well.”6
Each of these instances exemplifies both Nietzsche’s theorizing of subjectivity as a dynamic and mutable fiction and his resistance to the abstraction of subjectivity into a fixed, stable, and limitless concept as promoted by Christianity. While Nietzsche most fully develops this existentialist phenomenology that privileges intuition and sensation over conceptualization and metaphysics in his middle and late periods, the structural dynamism that shapes his philosophy is already evident in his much earlier essays on language and aesthetics, “On Truth and Lying in a Non-moral Sense” (written in 1873, published in German in 1896) and The Birth of Tragedy (published in German in 1872 and in English in 1909).7 While “On Truth and Lying” would have been considerably less well known at the birth of imagism, The Birth of Tragedy, anticipatory of “On Truth and Lying,” had been translated into English and would have been read even by those with limited or no access to the original German. And while it is widely acknowledged that Hulme, Pound, and the circle of writers associated with The New Age were familiar with Nietzsche, no thoroughgoing study of this relationship as it regards imagist poetic form has yet been undertaken.8 This article maps Nietzsche onto a genealogy of such form in a way that contrary to Hulme’s reading above foregrounds the immanence of “classical” linguistic dynamism, what Pound calls a “sort of metaphor,” in Nietzsche’s aesthetic writing.9 The vitalist, sensationist overtones of Nietzsche’s understanding of metaphor as “an image which takes the place of … something he can really see before him as a substitute for a concept,” I argue, provides a vital context for historicizing not only Hulmean polemics but also Pound’s turn from imagism to vorticism.10
In “On Truth and Lying,” Nietzsche questions the referential stability of language by positing that a lost “primitive world of metaphor,” the world of myth and art, has been displaced by modern, ossified metaphors that proclaim truth. In their distorted sense of literary history, Hulme and Pound complained similarly about the modern state of metaphor. While metaphor was integral to what Hulme calls an “intuitive language,” its use in poetry, he and Pound contended, had...