The anti-Christian Nietzsche invented his own funny kind of faith, argues Phil Hoad
Nietzsche Against the Crucified by Alistair Kee, SCM Press, El 5
FRIEDRICH NIETZSCHE probably wouldn't have found it funny, but reading this new study on the train one morning, I had to laugh. Sitting in the window seat was a Muslim woman, clad head to toe in black, reading the Koran and listening to Islamic chanting on her Discman. And here I was next to her reflecting on the strident teachings of the most aggressive opponent of organised religion in the last 200 years. Irony defined.
But there's also a problem with such an easy opposition. Popular postmodernism — a petri dish for outbreaks of smug irony like mine — has made Nietzsche a byword for bludgeoning atheism; not as fatal a misreading as the Nazi hatchet job, but distorting all the same. This oversimplification, most famously achieved through the philosopher's own pronouncement that God is dead, has become widespread. Postmodem theorists, meanwhile, lionise the Basel Professor-turnedDionysian acolyte as the father of their trade, with his precocious attacks on objectivity and centralised morality.
In Nietzsche Against The Crucified, Alistair Kee makes a persuasive case against both postmodern standpoints: he argues that Nietzsche's critique of religion in fact stemmed from his insatiable need for faith and that as a result post-war theorists cannot, if they are truly rigorous, claim the philosopher as a kindred spirit.
But this patient argument scarcely seems possible when you scan the basic tenets of Nietzsche's thought. Its central pillars — the death of God and with Him any touchstone for objective truth, beauty and morality — are indeed central concerns of the postmodernists. Kee spells this out in his resume which fills seven of the twelve chapters — a slightly superfluous summary done more penetratingly by others.
Kee, though, adopts a pleasingly wide-ranging approach, cross-referencing analysis of the philosophy with biographical details. The eclectic style, while occasionally skidding into smug glibness (Kee notes that while Nietzsche advocated the lifeaffirming values of "barbaric" peoples, he himself "could hardly have put his leisure time activities as 'ravaging and carousing' "), makes for good reading and, moreover, begins to yield results.
Biographical criticism is frowned upon by those who maintain that the death of the author followed on directly from the death of God, but, ironically, the approach focuses Kee on what he sees as the key theme of Nietzsche's life, ecstatically expressed in the climactic moments of his philosophy: faith. Kee observes that the philosopher's work was an attempt to construct a new faith, following disillusionment with his family's Lutheran beliefs in early adulthood. The rejection is obvious to anyone with even the barest knowledge of Nietzsche's life. But Kee diligently pieces together a picture of the philosopher's self-forged alternative, even being bold enough to claim that it gave this tortured, migraine-wracked recluse some measure of joy.
Nietzsche's overarching world view found its mantralike expression in the concept of eternal recurrence — a highly esoteric concept extremely well delineated by Kee. The idea, a nebulous mixture of cosmology, physics and ethics, hit Nietzsche unbidden while he leant on a "mighty pyramidal block of stone" mid-stroll. The ethical aspect stipulated that one should live one's life as though it were to be repeated eternally.
It's an ambiguously expressed idea that runs through the philosopher's work, and that Kee presents it with such clarity is to his credit. More boldly still, he later goes on to link the inspirational insight with Nietzsche's fascination with the divine. This fascination led him to speculate on the characteristics of a noble God: Dionysian, acquiescent with the true nature of the world and thus worthy of worship.
Though this disturbing form of faith wrought by Nietzsche was radically different from the Christian, Kee continues to stress that it is the raw fact of faith that was important. The philosopher in fact admired Jesus Christ as one who also pursued his own destiny and portrayed him as "the noblest human being" and a worthy opponent. He only abhorred the crucified image of Christ and the attendant creed of submission — to which the title of Kee's study alludes.
Kee sensibly avoids facing off the two belief systems, instead honing his exposition of Nietzsche with a sharp jab at cultural theory. Borges, another writer who might have objected to his appropriation by postmodernism, notes that we create our influences as much they create us; it is this sort of wilful retrospective misread ing of Nietzsche that offends in this study.
According to Kee, Nietzsche has only been half-read: his critique of morality has been absorbed, his attack on objectivity nervously rubberstamped, his psychological acuity admired and his mercurial command of language applauded. But the optimistic drive towards faith that was the true, affirmative meaning of his work is apparently entirely absent from postmodernism. All we are left with, says Kee, is an empty feat of cultural categorisation, the "Egyptianism" derided by Nietzsche.
/S KEE BEING a bit too hard on postmodernism? Possibly: some theorists are more positive than others, seeing potential for "play" in the nihilistic situation foreseen by the philosopher. The postmodern project, though, is rapidly reaching its sell-by date, currently directionless and mired in a fog plagued by will o' the wisp irony.
Nietzsche's self-help solution was a little more extreme than the Chicken Soup for the Soul variety; he proposed the Superman as the bridge out of this swamp. This toughlove remedy is hard to countenance. Perhaps it was even too tough in the end for its originator. Regardless, Kee's clear-headed reading of Friedrich Nietzsche is a vital reminder of the faith-driven dynamism that our culture so usually lacks.