- On Nietzsche by Georges Bataille
New York: State University of New York Press, 2015. 349 pp. isbn: 978-1-4384-5859-5. Hardcover, $95.00.
This is an expanded edition and new translation of Bataille’s Sur Nietzsche, which was written during the final months of the Nazi occupation of France in 1944. Bataille’s book offers a highly unorthodox appreciation of Nietzsche. Stuart Kendall, the translator, comments on the startling heterogeneity of the book and incisively describes it as an “assemblage,” being at once commentary, chronicle, diary, lecture, and meditation. Kendall thinks the preface of the work situates it as a work of social and political philosophy or, at the very least, as an anti-fascist work “written under conditions of enemy occupation, which is to say as a book written as a covert act of war” (viii). He notes that a band wrapped around the book’s first edition read “at the antipodes of Fascism.” The book contains the famous appendix on “Nietzsche and National Socialism,” in which Bataille deftly and powerfully unties Nietzsche’s thinking from its Nazi appropriation, noting that Nietzsche sets himself against anti-Semitic pan-Germanism: “Nietzsche was the least patriotic of Germans and the least German of Germans when all is said” (284). It is clear, though, that Bataille has no desire to put Nietzsche to serious social and political work; this is not a text that reads Nietzsche as a political philosopher. Indeed, in one of his notes for the text he writes, “Political Nietzscheanism is absurdity itself ” (337). For Bataille, Nietzsche’s teaching of the dangerous life—“of lucid, unbound, contemptuous humanity”—is alien to public struggles and instead concerns itself with solitaries who have seceded from society (285). In fact, Bataille is hostile to any effort to enlist Nietzsche for a “cause,” political or otherwise, and sees his thinking as “situated beyond the necessary and common concerns that decide politics” (284). Instead, Nietzsche’s questions are said to center on tragedy, laughter, suffering, and the free mind, including the extreme states the human mind can attain.
Nonetheless Kendall sees the work as “profoundly political, though in a paradoxical way” (x). He is correct to note that Bataille’s political objective in the book is a curious one, being both obvious and obtuse: on the one hand, it seeks to recuperate Nietzsche’s texts and purify them of their National Socialist contamination; on the other, it locates [End Page 128] in Nietzsche a politics beyond politics, that is, a move to transcend the sphere of political parties altogether and to represent the “party of life” (as Nietzsche has it in EH “Books: BT ” 4). Kendall thinks Bataille uses the following arresting phrase to capture this idea of what can be called a negative community: “the community of those who have no community” (xv). We might, then, describe Bataille’s text as negatively political in that it seeks to rescue Nietzsche from political misappropriation not only by the Nazis, but by any political program. As Bataille puts it, “it is frightful to see reduced to the level of propaganda a thought that remains comically unemployable” (6).
Bataille also casts doubt on using the text The Will to Power to support a political appropriation of Nietzsche. For him, the will to power is an equivocal doctrine, and the sketch of action as well as the temptation to elaborate a goal and a politics in The Will to Power are said to “lead only into a maze” (13). Indeed, instead of reading Nietzsche as a philosopher of power Bataille wishes to read him as a philosopher of “evil”: “He justified his hatred of the good as a condition of freedom itself” (8). For Bataille, Nietzsche’s fundamental problem is both a broadly existential one and a cultural one, namely, “that of the whole man” (9). Noting Nietzsche’s observations on the fragmentary character of modern human beings (albeit not the enigmatic remarks in “Of Redemption” of Z II, where Zarathustra declares it his aim and art to unify all that is fragment, riddle, and dreadful chance), Bataille shows an original appreciation of...