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Dionysian Modernism: A Contradiction in Terms?

Robert Gooding-Williams gives his book on Nietzsche's Thus Spoke Zarathustra the title Zarathustra's Dionysian Modernism (ZDM). One might question whether the very idea of Dionysian modernism is not oxymoronic. "Modernism," suggesting a break with tradition, necessarily requires a shape that contrasts with what has gone before. In most formulations, modernism moves away from a set vision of the world (often endorsed, if not proposed by, traditional religion) to one that is different. And this is the sense of modernism that Gooding-Williams has in mind. As he understands it, modernism calls for an innovative break with the past. On the other hand, Dionysus is a god who is the apotheosis of chaos. The tidy project of modernism—the cleanliness of negating determinate features of the past—seems at odds with Dionysus' rather formless character. Moreover, Dionysus is a god of antiquity. The gesture of appealing to him suggests a return to earlier resources. In what sense is Dionysus compatible with modernism?

Gooding-Williams analyzes Z in a way that emphasizes this tension and Nietzsche's attempt to resolve it. He sees Nietzsche as treating modernism as a philosophical problem, a problem because it is not clear that one can make such a break. Nietzsche, as diagnostician of the harms wrought by previous values, wants to create new values. Indeed, he sees the creation of new values as imperative if the current cultural crisis in values is to be overcome. Nietzsche identifies that crisis with his slogan "God is dead." God, the former basis on which values were constructed in the Western world, is no longer presupposed by Western culture. But if Western values now lack this religious support, their status becomes subject to question. Nietzsche welcomes the current situation, in which traditional values are no longer presupposed, for he thinks many of these values have been harmful, literally undermining human health. But cultures and individuals need values in order to live. If the old values are no longer the bedrock of society, we need to [End Page 47] create new ones. The issue, then, becomes, can we legislate new, healthier values? Zarathustra seeks to demonstrate that new value creation is indeed possible.

Gooding-Williams reads Z as something of a thought experiment on Nietzsche's part. The book examines the challenges faced by the would-be creator of values. One difficulty is how to maintain the commitment to create new values. According to Gooding-Williams, Zarathustra initially confronts this difficulty by adopting a stance of defiance in his effort to break with radition, but this very posture interferes with his ability to be affected by passional chaos, the source from which new values could come. This is where Dionysus fits into Gooding-Williams's account. Dionysus is the apotheosis of the cauldron of bodily passions. Traditional values, based on Platonic philosophy and Christian teaching, have denigrated the body and attempted to subdue these passions. Yet, says Gooding-Williams, according to Zarathustra's theory of value creation, "the body is a field of passions and, as such, the primary bearer of human culture" (ZDM 18). In their rejection of the body and its passions, traditional values have actually opposed the ground for all earthly valuing, which is the human body itself. In order for Zarathustra to reawaken his own passionate ground for valuing, however, he must become receptive, a condition that his aggressive defiance toward the past precludes.

A second challenge for the potential creator of values has to do with the cultural climate. Zarathustra's caricature of "the last man," the person so concerned with his own comfort that he aspires toward nothing, describes the condition of much of modern society. The strategy of the last man, geared as it is toward self-protection, is inimical to fervent involvement in anything. A society full of last men is incapable of generating new values because they lack the passionate basis for doing so. Indeed, Nietzsche sees many of the conditions of modern society as passion-eradicating. This raises the question of how Zarathustra could propose new values that would actually...


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pp. 47-60
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