Review: Peter Bergmann, Nietzsche: The Last Apolitical German

Whatever Friedrich Nietzsche had in mind when he conceived the ideas of the Eternal Return and the Superman, it was not — one can safely assume — the contemporary transatlantic shuttle of the postmodern professoriate, invoking his name as it plies the trade routes of tenure and influence in the Sargasso Sea of the very late 20th-century university. Nietzsche’s Superman, for whatever one might want to say about him, was the individual capable of shaping a world, and therefore the world of others, as an artistic project of individual law-giving, a kind of aestheticized Moses without the “lie on life” of transcendence, and monotheism. Nietzsche was himself an individual conversant with three millenia of culture: his writings, filled with historical polemic against the developments of his own time, including specific political developments, show at each turn an engagement with the entire tradition he was attempting to overthrow. One wonders what the author of The Birth of Tragedy (1871) or The Genealogy of Morals (1887), filled as they are with a whole historical assessment of Greek and Roman antiquity, would make of the productions of the contemporary Nietzsche industry, which seems to specialize in turning Nietzsche’s polemical brilliance, written “for the future” from a desire “to phiosophize with a hammer” into an abstract philosophical or literary discourse in which all the sensuous engagement of Nietzsche’s writing with history and his own time is turned into the turgid language of a hermetic cenacle engaging little beyond contemporary academic fashion. If this is the future Nietzsche was writing for, he underestimated the capacity of the “last man” to appropriate his thought for the “passive nihilism” he was trying to exorcise.

It is easy, indeed too easy, to make fun of these developments. On a deeper level, it is also clear that, on the eve of the centennial of Nietzsche’s descent into insanity in 1889, he has triumphed, and at the moment he sets the tone for contemporary culture as his great 19th-century counterpart, Marx, recedes into at least temporary eclipse. Indeed, the ease with which Nietzsche has, through the contemporary obsession with discourse, insinuated himself right into the heart of certain currents of contemporary ‘Marxism” is not the least of his successes.

Habent sua fata libelli -books have their fates — and the history of Nietzscheanism after Nietzsche would be, as the author of the book currently under review says, the subject of a vast study in its own right. Over the past century of his real fame and influence, Nietzsche has been taken up as the philosopher of a certain fin-de-siecle anarchism, left-wng expressionism, Prussian militarism, aestheticized technocratic nihilism, and (the final ignominy for someone who spent much of his life denouncing both German nationalism and anti-Semitism) invoked by friend and foe alike as a forerunner of Nazism. After World War II, Nietzsche was rehabilitated in France through existentialism, and in the US by a slower and more complex process. Finally, through the international mediation of Foucault, the same Nietzsche who said “when you go to women, don’t forget the whip” has even become the (often unacknowledged) source of some currents of contemporary feminism. The most recent, and in some ways most intriguing stage in this history is the reintroduction of Nietzsche to Germany from France, through the arrival en masse of a wave of translations of authors such as Foucault, Deleuze, Derrida, Bataille, Klossowski, and Blanchot. It is undoubtedly here (where, a decade ago, Nietzsche’s assimilation to the right was contested by almost no one) that his current ascendancy at the expense of Marx is most striking.

In this climate, the appear- ance of Peter Bergmann’s book on Nietzsche is a welcome shift of focus. Most influential postwar books on Nietzsche, such as those of Jaspers, Heidegger, Klossowski, or Thomas Mann’s transposed portrait in Dr. Faustus, have understandably dealt with Nietzsche in philosophical-aesthetic terms, clearing the way for the Parisian Nietzsche who triumphed in the 1960s and 1970s, often unrecognized, through Foucault and Bataille. Bergmann’s book is not an attempt at a new interpretation, but a modest effort to show the very real historical and political conjuncture in which Nietzsche became Nietzsche, a context all but forgotten and dismissed as trivial in most of the contemporary discussion. More specifically, Bergmann’s book is an attempt to show the meaning of Nietzsche’s self-conception (from his 1888 autobiography) as the “last anti-political German.” (Regrettably, this phrase is often misquoted as the last “unpolitical” German, totally distorting its sense.)

Bergmann situates Nietzsche in an historical position between the last attempts (such as that of Kierkegaard) to remain “anti-political” from a religious viewpoint, and the wholesale transposition into mass politics of a Nietzsche-influenced concept of the “mythic” by figures such as Sorel. Bergmann is, I think, faithful to Nietzsche in seeing the latter’s struggle as one of culture against politics, seeing one growing or receding at the expense of the other. To make his case, he takes the reader through the little-known aspects of Nietzsche’s life: the sudden death of his father (a country pastor) in the wake of the revolution of 1848; his involvement in the events surrounding the unification of Germany in the 1860s, culminating in his participation (as a medic) in the Franco-Prussian war; his presence in Basel during a strike wave with anarchist overtones followed by a widely-publicized congress of the First International; his reaction to the Paris Commune. Bergmann brings out Nietzsche’s disillusionment with Wagner and Wagnerianism, culminating in his disgust at the Bayreuth Festival of of 1876, as the turning point in which he saw the hue and cry about a national cultural revival ostensibly crowning national political unity for the empty sham that it was. Particularly effective is Bergmanns “generational” situation of Nietzsche as the sole figure of indisputable international significance to emerge in German thought and culture between 1850 and 1890, underscoring in effect how far ahead of his time he was. The author traces the debacle of Nietzsche’s academic career after the professional uproar over his book, The Birth of Tragedy, in the early 1870’s. He shows Nietzsche’s actual knowledge of the “socialism” he denounced through his works to have been mediated through specious figures such as Eugen DUhring, the anti-Semite populist who enjoyed a brief period of influence in the SPD before beginning a long odyssey to the extreme right. Nietzsche unfortunately never really had the occasion to engage the polemical opposite of his own stature in the late 19th century, Karl Marx. Through his ties to Malwida von Meysenbug and Lou-Andreas Salome in the 1870s and 1880s, he was made aware of Herzen, the Russian intelligentsia in exile and its populist concerns, thus giving him another glimpse (if equally distorted) of the international revolutionary milieu of the late 19th century. Bergmann has written a solid monograph making Nietzsche into a real historical figure dealing with real historical developments, largely forgotten in the backdrop to the current international preoccupation with Nietzsche’s thought.

The problem with Bergmann’s book is not any lack of attention to the subject he proposed to address; it lies rather in the very limits of this kind of historical monographic approach to a figure of world historical importance like Nietzsche. It is perhaps unfair to criticize a book for not doing what it does not propose to accomplish. But perhaps one can criticize it for not proposing to accomplish something which, while transcending Bergmann’s problematic, actually flows from it, and requires it, namely the explanation of why, 100 years later, Nietzsche is still so important. The proponents of the totally abstract and philosophical-aesthetic Nietzsche now dominating the scene, who are as generally uninterested in the real historical and political context of Nietzsche’s time as they are in their own, will not be brought up short by Bergmann’s book. For all the important material it makes available, its problem, for the wider discussion today, is that it is too specific. This is not the author’s fault; it is the problem of the whole approach to intellectual history in which his book is situated, a problem that opened the floodgates for the often historically and philosophically ignorant “post-modernism” now sweeping all before it.

The post-modernists have done for Nietzsche what “Western Marxism” did for Marx: they have turned him back into a mere philosopher. The post-modernists have made “their” Nietzsche by stripping him of different “masks,” the “masks” of a specific view of the meaning of philosophy after Heraclitus, of tragedy after Sophocles, of Judaism and Christianity, of the appearance of Renaissance virtu, of the French moralists, of Napoleon, of German Idealism, of Bismarck’s Reich, of Wagner, nationalism, and anti-Semitism, and finally of the modern world of science, positivism, democracy, socialism, and feminism which he excoriated in his mature period. What is left for the post-modernists, when all this fades away, is a rejection of three millenia of “logocentrism.” Such a view, while not in itself “wrong,” is what made it possible for Nietzsche to become all things to all people, and ultimately to be snugly absorbed into exactly the world of scholars “knitting the socks of the Spirit” (to use his phrase) he abhorred. Nietzsche was about world renewal. That is why, in the dead culture which, in Kenneth Rexroth’s words “continues to move in the way a dead frog twitches on a live wire,” we still find Nietzsche so contemporary. To see Nietzsche’s “anti-politics” against the backdrop of his own time in a way that does justice to his stature as a world-historical figure, it would be necessary to see Bismarckian (and Wilhelmine) Germany for the world-historical watershed that it was. The country and the epoch that gave the world Marxian communism, social democracy, the first attempt at a welfare state, and finally fascism has to be grasped at the appropriate level of significance if its specific individuals of stature such as Nietzsche are to be located politically, or “anti-politically,” in a meaningful way. Otherwise we cannot understand why “Marx vs. Nietzsche” is to a large extent the question lurking behind a significant part of the international discussion today. Bergmann’s book, as we noted, does not set out to answer this question, yet his specific monographic material will be indispensable for anyone who does. Ultimately, it remains only a prologemena to answering the question of Nietzsche and politics, which is still with us.