'I am not a man, I am dynamite'

Peter Sloterdijk, Nietzsche Apostle

Semiotext(e), MIT Press, 104pp, £9.95, ISBN 9781584350996

reviewed by Stuart Walton

Peter Sloterdijk's Nietzsche, celebrated here in the transcript of a talk given in Weimar on the centenary in 2000 of the German philosopher's death, is first and foremost the iconoclast of language, which is to say of classical philosophical discourse. Standing at the dawn of humanity's plunge into irrationality, he is also the end-result of a tradition of self-assertion that expressed itself through the hubris of nations with regard to their own cultures, and their belligerent intentions towards their rivals, before devolving to the individual level, where it described an arc from the amour-propre of the Enlightenment through Romantic self-interest to the psychological narcissism of the 20th century. He is the last philosopher to write before the modernist crisis of language, which he did so much to help bring about.

In the opening section of the study, Sloterdijk speaks of the hidden, but no less hubristic, tradition of rewriting the Gospels. In the ninth century, the Franconian divine Otfrid von Weissenburg sketched out one of the earliest anticipations of the European Reformations when he translated the Gospels into the Frankish vernacular, so that ordinary people might hear the good news at first hand. Importantly, however, he recast them as five books rather than the canonical four, so that, by corresponding to the five senses of humanity, they could be made to address their recipients through the immoderation of their earthly sensuality. Around 1810, Thomas Jefferson produced an intricately worked redaction of the Gospels for plain-thinking Americans, a work that amounted to skipping over the sillier pronouncements of the Saviour, and concentrating on the good bits.

Nietzsche, an enthusiastic reader in his youth of Ralph Waldo Emerson, much of whose 1841 essay 'Self-Reliance' sounds eerily premonitory of the sage of Sils-Maria, derives some of his bombast from the mature style of Schopenhauer, and much of his heretical energy from the rebels and outcasts of the evangelical tradition. His final texts – Twilight of the Idols, The Antichrist, Ecce Homo – are among the most febrile shouts of liberty in the philosophical lineage, but they are marked by the paradox of their author's consciousness of his own unfeasibility. Sloterdijk defines Nietzsche's hubris as 'hetero-narcissism', the heroic affirmation of whatever there is of otherness in the self. The magnum opus, Thus Spoke Zarathustra (1883) is 'a book for everyone and no-one', as its subtitle has it, making at once a call to the whole of humanity while recognising that there is literally nobody who could possibly heed it, no ideal reader to follow the author into the happiness of voluntary exile beyond the fringes of Christendom.

For this journey to the far shores and on, interrupted by his own collapse into insanity in Turin in 1889, clutching for pity's and fury's sake to the neck of a beaten carthorse, he is recognised as having foreseen the disconnect in the coming century between thought and reality. 'Is modernity not defined,' Sloterdijk posits, 'by a consciousness that was ahead of the monstrousness of facts, for which discourses about art and human rights only ever consist in compensation and first aid?' No form of discipleship could emerge from such a fractured consciousness, for all that Nietzsche's work is driven throughout by the polemic force of manifestos. He yearns to turn the ridiculous of an error-strewn intellectual tradition into the experiential sublime, so that the sublime might yield to freedom. Just before the calamity, in November 1888, he wrote to his critical champion Georg Brandes that 'the highest elevation you will find anywhere on earth [is] cynicism', which was the tool that allowed him to convict a Christianised western ethics of its vapid mendacities, its soul-crushing timidity, and yet simultaneously, his work is full of affirmational exclamatory outbursts, a tone in which he pours affection on his failing self, the shattered health and regular migraine reducing him to decomposing senescence in his forties.

Nietzsche's work was notoriously appropriated after his demise, first by his ravingly antisemitic sister, Elisabeth, and then by the Nazi Party. Not many thinkers whose work enjoyed favoured status under the Third Reich survived the encounter. Spengler and Heidegger just about made it through (though whether deservedly is still open to contention), but there was always far too much of embarrassment in Nietzsche for Goebbels and his ideologues to stomach. The anti-nationalism, the contempt for German cultural backwardness, the hatred of philistinism and militarism, and his overriding contempt for a mass politics driven by resentment: none of that found its way into the nocturnal torchlight rallies. And yet, in what proved to be only one of the phases of his own eternal recurrence, Nietzsche's work was recuperated anew by the leading lights of the Frankfurt School, post-structuralism and deconstruction, who saw in its ruthless identification of the perceptual error that has infected nearly all consciousness since evolution's dawn, its recognition of the false conceptualities triggered by an identity-thinking based on the human species' imperative of self-preservation, not to mention its self-referential rhetorical techniques, the very lingua franca of modernity.

None of which has made the chance of an apostolic Nietzscheanism, despite Sloterdijk's title, any likelier. There may be appreciation societies, but there are no exponents as such. They went the same way the Dionysians went in late antiquity. We may just about class ourselves as Emersonian non-conformists, he contends, but not Nietzschean free spirits. Unable to ascend explosively from the grim utility of our lives, we remain human, all too human. The openness to experience that Nietzsche preaches, however, the ecstatic welcoming of every tidal wave of suffering for the sake of the droplet of once-in-a-lifetime pure pleasure that sometimes follows them, won't quite die away as an anthropological ideal. Indeed, despite the threnodies of ideology-critique and Frankfurtish critical theory, it could be said that a wholly administered mass society has only sharpened the yearning for a spirit-filling happiness it has otherwise done so much to persuade its clients to forget. 'Without surprise life would be a fallacy,' runs Sloterdijk's peroration and, in a nice epigram, '[t]here must be something in the world that is faster than causes.'

What there might be that is quicker on the draw in our half-starved souls than the dreary rigour of causality is the impulse to utopia. Sloterdijk doesn't quite say so, but among the speculative exemplars of which Nietzsche is the last – and he is the last of so much – he is the last utopian. This is both the galvanising energy and the anticlimax of his thinking. His prescription for an all-conquering, fear-free individualism is less of a stretch from the Victorian liberal individual than is often officially allowed. 'In the part [of his conduct] which merely concerns himself, his independence is, of right, absolute. Over himself, over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign.' 'In its horror of sensuality, it [Christian morality] made an idol of asceticism which has been gradually compromised away into one of legality.' '[S]ociety has now fairly got the better of individuality; and the danger which threatens human nature is not the excess, but the deficiency, of personal impulses and preferences.' It would admittedly be a hard sell to offer John Stuart Mill as an early Zarathustrian, but the full-dress pomp of the sovereign individual in his 1859 manifesto On Liberty only needs to be cleansed of the piety of respect for others to gain admittance to the sunlit land where idols have crashed from their pedestals and the spirit basks in hot noontide wanting nothing, for the world is perfect just as it is.

Nietzsche of course wouldn't have had Mill in the house. Clambering along Alpine paths in the Upper Engadine, he felt himself gulping the cold clear air of a more bracing liberty than Victorian constitutionalism ever dreamed of. His work attempts, by turning philosophical language itself into a series of ballistic detonations, to spring the jubilant self from its prison-cell. It was for this reason that he declared, 'I am not a man, I am dynamite'. 'We must picture the author who ceases a happy person,' suggests Sloterdijk, tiptoeing away from the rhapsodist's lapse into silence. The other last thing Nietzsche was was the last Nietzsche.