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  • The Flame of Eternity: An Interpretation of Nietzsche’s Thought
  • Scott Jenkins
Krzysztof Michalski. The Flame of Eternity: An Interpretation of Nietzsche’s Thought. Translation from the Polish by Benjamin Paloff. Princeton, NJ-Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2012. Pp. xiv + 231. Cloth, $39.50.

The subtitle of this book is potentially misleading. The book is not a typical interpretation of Nietzsche’s thought, but rather a series of reflections on time and human existence that take Nietzsche as their starting point. Throughout The Flame of Eternity, the nine chapters are referred to as essays, which seems appropriate since they are diverse, somewhat self-contained, sometimes personal, and arguably inconsistent. The subtitle of the original Polish edition (2007) also describes the contents of the book as essays, and it is unfortunate that this terminology was not retained. I cannot comment on the merits of the English translation more generally, though I can say that Paloff’s English is clear, lively, and a pleasure to read.

Michalski presents Nietzsche as a philosopher whose writings express deep truths about our existence. One of those truths is, paradoxically, that our concepts cannot express deep truths about our existence. On Michalski’s reading, Nietzsche is not engaged in the traditional philosophical activity of using concepts to construct potentially true theories about this or that, theories that might be contrasted with other, false theories. Instead, Nietzsche aims to make us aware of the limitations of theoretical activity and the knowledge it creates. These limitations are both epistemic and practical—we cannot articulate the deep truths about our lives, and no conceptual activity satisfies the fundamental needs of human life.

This approach to Nietzsche raises all sorts of methodological questions that Michalski would likely answer through appeal to our lived experience. While Michalski does not describe his approach as phenomenological, he often appeals to distinctive human experiences to ground his investigations. The appeal to experience is supplemented by Michalski’s view that Nietzschean terms such as ‘overman,’ ‘will to power,’ ‘eternal recurrence,’ ‘life,’ and ‘courage’ are not concepts but “meta-concepts” that refer to aspects of “the limit of knowledge,” or perhaps entities beyond this limit (197). This notion of a metaconcept is hazy, but the idea seems to be that Nietzsche’s writings possess a distinctive power to direct our attention to aspects of our existence that cannot become objects of philosophical theory. Elsewhere Michalski states more straightforwardly that he regards metaphor as essential to Nietzsche’s project (122).

At times this emphasis on lived experience sheds light on Nietzsche’s thought. Michalski’s account of “On the Vision and the Riddle” from Thus Spoke Zarathustra succeeds in showing that Nietzsche takes some features of time to be manifest only from a standpoint within a [End Page 140] human life (181–84). Sometimes Michalski’s approach results in implausible readings, as when he reads Nietzsche’s remark that life is will to power as concerning only the quality of our lived experience, and not at all the nature of living things generally. In pursuing this reading Michalski also misuses passages from Nietzsche’s writings. For example, a late discussion of nihilism begins with the claim that life, for Nietzsche, is a will to the thinkability of all beings, while Zarathustra actually uses this formula to characterize the will to truth, not life itself (191).

Unsurprisingly, The Flame of Eternity is at its best when it focuses on the most poetic elements of Nietzsche’s writings, such as life portrayed as the feminine object of Zarathustra’s love. Michalski illuminates Nietzsche’s characterization of life as a series of masks (146) or mere appearances (173) that shimmer and gleam (187), though again, the connection with will to power is strained. Less enlightening is Michalski’s novel account of eternal recurrence as a “meta-concept” concerned with the quality of time, not with its quantity or shape (189). These interpretations of will to power and eternal recurrence combine in Michalski’s image of our existence as flickering and ungraspable, but somehow complete at every moment—a flame of eternity. This, Michalski claims, is the content of Zarathustra’s wisdom, something nonconceptual that is manifest in Zarathustra...


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pp. 140-141
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