The Journal of Nietzsche Studies 25 (2003) 105-106
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David Toole, Waiting for Godot in Sarajevo. Boulder: Westview Press, 1998. 448 pp. $36.95.
David Toole has written a provocative book. On an academic level, the wide-ranging erudition and tight argumentation would impress any scholar. However, to respond to this book simply as an academic exercise would be a grave misunderstanding of its purpose. This book confronts the fact that "we live now not in a world fueled by Enlightenment dreams of unity and peace and progress but in a fractured, fragmented world of endless and often escalating conflicts" (3) and acknowledges that far "too many corpses lie strewn across the terrain of the last three centuries" (3). Drawing heavily on Nietzsche's work, this book explores the philosophical and theological underpinnings of that incompatibility.
Toole begins his reflections with the provocative image of Susan Sontag's 1993 decision to stage Beckett's Waiting for Godot in Sarajevo. For Toole, this performance represents an aesthetic overcoming of the tragedy of war. Toole uses this performance to recapitulate a tripartite debate concerning the nature of the world and the possibility of attaining political and personal meaning in the world. The major figures in this debate are: Friedrich Nietzsche, John Milbank, John Howard Yoder, Alasdair MacIntyre, and Michel Foucault.
Toole describes his project by asking a very Nietzschean question, "the question about what suffering might mean, if indeed it means anything at all" (xiv). Toole has clearly read widely and carefully in Nietzsche's works. He helpfully elaborates on the different kinds of nihilism that Nietzsche discusses: incomplete, complete, active and passive. He also underscores the often-overlooked optimism of Nietzsche's thought. Toole argues that Nietzsche's understanding of nihilism, both his own nihilism and the nihilism of nineteenth-century Europe, is not the end point of his philosophical project. Rather, it is a stage on the way to an aesthetic overcoming of that nihilism. Following Nietzsche, Toole explores the possibility of reading human tragedy as an occasion to overcome through aesthetic creation. To illustrate how overcoming does not entail denying or rejecting or avoiding that tragedy, Toole draws upon an array of literary sources: Birth of Tragedy, Euripides' Bacchae, Beckett's Waiting for Godot, Norman MacLean's Young Men and Fire, and Ian McMillian's Orbit of Darkness.
Toole then turns his critical gaze to Nietzsche's numerous critics. He rightly notes that the criticism of Milbank, Heidegger, MacIntyre, and Gillespie have a two-part strategy. Each "renarrates the intellectual history of the west in order to undermine Nietzsche's own narration of the development of nihilism" (38), and they see Nietzsche as the ultimate nihilist, not as one who seeks to move beyond nihilism actively. Toole spends one lengthy chapter outlining Milbank's Augustinian postmodernism and locates many tensions within it. He observes that "the difference between nihilism and Christianity remains an open question in Milbank's text" (84). His [End Page 105] treatments of Heidegger, Gillespie, Yoder, and MacIntyre, though less detailed, are equally balanced and insightful.
Toole argues that to understand fully the possibility of human meaning within the world, it is necessary to turn to Foucault. Foucault provides a political dimension to the tragic nature of experience. Though Toole provides a lengthy discussion of Foucault's early works such as Madness and Civilization, the later works are more central to his purpose. He appropriates Foucault's notion of strategies, tactics, and techniques of resistances from Discipline and Punish. Here and elsewhere, Foucault offers hints as to how the poet might enter the political realm. For example, Foucault asks, "What is it that enables people there, on the spot, to resist the Gulag, what makes it intolerable for them, and what can give the people of the anti-Gulag the courage to stand up and die in order to be able to utter a word or a poem?" 1 Toole characterizes this question as "inherently theological" because it "leads us in the same direction as the analysis of language, that leads us beyond ourselves toward the mystery that...