Philosophy: Dialogue with Nietzsche by Gianni Vattimo
Posted on Thursday, 21 August 2008 @ 00:00:00 by tim milfull
Donna Hancox writes:
Reviewed by Donna Hancox
In an effort to set up characters as quickly as possible, many contemporary filmmakers use props such as posters for bands on a bedroom wall, or particular books on the bookshelf to signal something important about the character to the audience. Invariably, a book by Nietzsche on the shelf is shorthand for sociopath. The audience assumes the character probably has a superman complex, and believes he or she is above the moral laws of society. Enough, I say! Nietzsche continues to be one of the most fascinating, yet misunderstood philosophers of all time. Every literate amoral murderer from Hitler to Loeb and Leopold is said to be influenced by Nietzsche. Perhaps they were, but the influence comes from a profound misreading of his work.
Gianni Vattimo’s new exploration of Nietzsche, Dialogue with Nietzsche is a lucid and refreshing book that goes some way to dispelling a number of the prevalent and dangerous misconceptions about Nietzsche, and his philosophy.
There are a number of factors surrounding Nietzsche’s life that must be considered when interpreting his work. In 1889—eleven years before his death at age fifty-six—Nietzsche was diagnosed as insane. The roots of his mental illness are still uncertain, some biographers believe syphilis caused Nietzsche’s madness while others claim he suffered from dementia. For some, this diagnosis throws into confusion the period when he tipped over from being a brilliant and original philosopher, to a time when the work becomes the result of mental illness. However, the most important fact here is that Nietzsche’s incapacitation meant that his sister Elizabeth became the guardian of his work. Elizabeth was married to a prominent leader of the German anti-Semitic Party, and through her editing, the anti-Semitic Party, and subsequently the Nazi Party of Germany, was able to find passages in Nietzsche’s writing to support their own views. Nietzsche’s own disapproval of the anti-Semitic Party is well documented.
Dialogue with Nietzsche is a collection of essays, which is both a strength and a weakness.
Each of the chapters, or essays, is completely self-contained; as such, they present a satisfying examination of a particular aspect of Nietzsche’s work. However, there is a certain randomness to this collection. Vattimi states in the preface that this text is ideally designed to be read in relation to two of his other books, which may account for the sense there is something missing in this book. For me, what was missing was an introduction to Nietzsche; as though a conversation has begun and you struggle to work out who it is you are conversing with. This made me feel as though I were playing ‘catch-up’ as I read. And I am someone with reasonable understanding of Nietzsche. Nonetheless, Vattimo does wrestle with major aspects of Nietzsche’s philosophy in a robust and inspired manner.
The concepts of nihilism and the superman (or ubermensch) are two of Nietzsche’s most famous theories, and also the two most misinterpreted ideas in 19th-century philosophy. Only Freud is more misquoted or misunderstood. Vattimo points out that Nietzsche’s discussion and examination of nihilism is not necessarily a call to, or a celebration of the concept, as is so often believed. Rather, he was critical of nihilism and its capacity to diminish the experience of living. For Nietzsche, nihilism is something one goes through, an inevitable falling away of the ties of family or society that force one to either recover and grow, or wither with apathy, after this crisis. It is not a philosophy for living. Nietzsche considered himself someone who had ‘passed all the way through nihilism and emerged on the other side’ (134). This was also a concept very of the time for Nietzsche, and was, in part, a critique of direction in which he saw Europe heading.
The concept of the superman is discussed in an essay called ‘The Wisdom of the Superman’. Here, Vattimo mitigates the sinister interpretations of this idea, and presents it as the thought-provoking exploration of the human psyche it is. Nietzsche, although increasingly relevant—his predictions about mass mediocrity ring eerily true—does not sit easily with our modern approach to a world that seeks out simple solutions to complicated problems—people are labeled in the media as good or bad; you are either with us or against us—and eschews the discomfort of residing in the grey areas. Nietzsche constantly calls us to embrace the contradictions of the human experience.
Amongst other things, Nietzsche is notoriously difficult to understand. His writing is willfully confrontational and moves mercilessly away each time the reader tries to pin down exactly what he is saying. However, he is also enormously influential, and his ghost runs through the writing of Foucault, Derrida, and Deleuze. Nietzsche's ideas have inspired bad films (Murder by Numbers), great films (Rope) and countless wrongheaded translations that have found their way into popular culture. It is too easy to reduce Nietzsche to a couple of famous quotes and inflammatory philosophies. Dialogue with Nietzsche is not an especially easy book to read; only those serious about Nietzsche would persist with it, but it is an insightful, considered and demanding book. Just as a dialogue with Nietzsche should be.
Dialogue with Nietzsche
by Gianni Vattimo
Columbia University Press (distributed in Australia by Footprint)