“… to save Nietzsche from a reading of the Heideggerian type.” – Jacques Derrida
Left, right, and center: all seem drunk on cheap piss-takes of Nietzsche. The alt-right have their own bad readings of Nietzsche, the familiar tropes of which those on the left are by now acutely aware. But by no means does the left have its own house in order, in terms of offering an improved interpretation.
This article’s first purpose is to offer an alternative portrait of Nietzsche, as a cat-loving, space communist, meme queen. Its second purpose is to critique poor readings of Nietzsche, “of the Heideggerian type” (as Derrida cautions against), which have seemingly become common currency for low-hanging intellectual fruits, on both the right and the left.
Indeed, one of Derrida’s main philosophical preoccupations was to envision a joyous and affirmative Nietzsche, rubbing against the grain of the predominantly pessimistic readings common to both sides of the political divide in post-WWII French academia. Today, readings of Nietzsche evidently no longer belong strictly to the academic milieu, having trickled down into both left and right wing populist discourses (for better or worse).
First, a note: any one interpretation of Nietzsche is necessarily fragmentary. Nietzsche’s “fragmentary” writing is a stylistic choice that also reflects his perspectivist philosophy—briefly, his view that all perspective is necessarily both plural and partial (which is not to say, relative, since ‘relativism’ about truth still requires the idea that there is some ‘truth’ in relation to which meaningful propositions are relative, even if only negatively so). What makes this crucial to bear in mind is the fact that Nietzsche’s late writings and legacy were irrevocably corrupted by his sister’s cruel and opportunistic manipulations. Nietzsche’s sister, Elisabeth Förster-Nietzsche, became his de facto estate manger and caretaker, after Friedrich, in 1889, suffered a grave mental breakdown from which he would never recover.
Elisabeth and her husband, Bernhard Förster, were each prominent antisemitic, far-right intellectuals in their own right. Bernhard was a popular antisemitic agitator, who committed suicide in 1889 after his failed venture to found a new Aryan ‘Fatherland’ in Paraguay. In 1894, five years after Bernhard’s death and her brother’s mental breakdown, Elisabeth founded the first Nietzsche Archives, in order to curry favour with the self-styled intellectuals of the various racist and populist groups that would eventually agglomerate together to form the Nazi Party. She accomplished this by chopping and changing Nietzsche’s words, through both posthumous publications and new editions of previously published works. So successful was her campaign that, upon Elisabeth’s death in 1935, Adolf Hitler attended her funeral.
Some readers will take issue with even this cursory sketch of Nietzsche. “You’re presenting him as the victim,” perhaps they will say, “but, isn’t it obvious that Nietzsche was a raving antisemite, and a rampant misogynist?”.
The answer? Well, not really, no. As far as Nietzsche’s alleged antisemitism goes, there are at least as many passages in which Jews are praised and Germans lambasted for their ‘ape-ishness’, as there are passages where he uses the former as an example to critique the negative politics of ressentiment. For instance, in On the Genealogy of Morals (1887), Nietzsche writes that the Jews possess “an unequaled popular-moral genius: one only has to compare similarly gifted nations—the Chinese or the Germans, for instance—with the Jews, to sense which is of the first and which of the fifth rank.”
His point is that, having emerged from the negativity of ressentiment—in short, from stifling hatred of one’s oppressors, which Nietzsche also refers to as, “slave morality”—the Jews achieve a kind of sublimation of the implied moral hierarchy between they and their oppressors, resulting in a ‘transvaluation of values’ (i.e., the cancelation of the oppressor/oppressed binary) and a futuristic “synthesis of the inhuman and superhuman”. This “synthesis” should be understood as a collapse of highest and lowest (superhuman/inhuman), which indicates an overcoming of moralistic value schemes and an overturning of oppressive binaries and power hierarchies. Nietzsche closes the above cited fragment after praising the French Revolution as an historical example of transvaluation and future synthesis, effectively arguing that European Jewry has come closer to producing a revolutionary morality of the future—that is, to overcoming morality itself—than any of the so-called ‘proper’ European tribes.
Regarding Nietzsche’s misogyny: as in the case of antisemitism above, it turns out that such allegations are only tenable on the basis of a fragmentary reading that takes itself to ‘get’ the whole picture. First, it is worth mentioning that the women who were closest to Nietzsche personally (beyond his parochial mother and sisters, whom he resented beyond resentment) were already some of the most vocal critics of the charges of misogyny laid against him during his lifetime. In her memoir, Ida von Miaskowski, a contemporary and friend, describes Nietzsche’s conduct towards women as, “so sensitive, so natural and comradely.” Lou Andreas-Salomé (to whom Nietzsche once proposed) claimed that he regarded genius to be a feminine trait, and that his own ‘spiritual nature’ had a feminine aspect to it. Indeed, Nietzsche asks, in the opening of the Preface to Beyond Good and Evil (1886):
“Supposing truth is a woman—what then? Are there not grounds for the suspicion that all philosophers, insofar as they were dogmatists, have been very inexpert about women?”.
My intention here is not to fully absolve Nietzsche of his often problematic views around women. However, we can (and should) dig a little bit deeper. After all, it is a little hard to square the pastel portrait above with the aggressive intonation of a man who also wrote, “[w]oman is not yet capable of friendship: women are still cats and birds. Or at best cows.” On a careful reading, I argue, what Nietzsche is, emphatically, not doing here, is denigrating women. Indeed, Nietzsche produces an entire virtual bestiary dedicated to metaphorizing his thoughts on women (and men). Indeed, one even feels that what appears here as a throwaway line about women being “cows” is actually dripping with irony, entangling an image of nourishment and pregnancy with one of cruel domestication by man.
Virtual bestiary aside, Nietzsche’s most frequent usage of animal imagery comes in the form of his depictions of women as cats: either as housecats, or larger, predatory cats—especially tigers. (Men, by contrast, are regularly figured as dogs or mules—or, at best, apes.) The idea is that women, to Nietzsche’s mind, are less domesticated than men—less indoctrinated by morality, and more than a little bit wild, despite all appearances of etiquette and propriety. In Beyond Good and Evil, he writes, “woman is essentially unpeaceful, like a cat, however well she may have trained herself to seem peacable”; further on, he adds, “woman” conceals “the tiger’s claw beneath the glove.”
Simply put, Nietzsche regards domestication, bourgeois morality, and the peacable life of civil society, as negative values: signs of a degenerate society, propping itself up on the emptiness of etiquette. Crucially, for him, the cat symbolizes both the unfortunate fact of domestication, and the promise of a grace and ferocity, unbeknownst to existing bourgeois, civil society. Nietzsche ironically effaces one of his most (in)famously decontextualized misogynistic comments—from Thus Spake Zarathustra (1883), as intimated to Zarathustra by an elderly woman whose path he crosses, “Are you visiting women? Don’t forget the whip!”—at a later stage in the book, where he writes (in the voice of another female character), “Zarathustra! Do not crack your whip so terribly! Surely you know: noise kills thought”. If there is anything in Nietzsche’s philosophy that can rightly be called ‘sinful’, the cardinal sin would be that of ‘killing thought’.
Here, Nietzsche’s use of irony masks a painfully sincere moment of self-criticism. The pair of apparently contradictory statements, above, begin to make sense when triangulated by a third. In mid-December, 1882, Nietzsche writes in a letter to Lou Salomé (after the two permanently parted ways): “a brain with the beginnings of a soul […] The character of a cat—the predatory animal which pretends to be a domesticated animal.” Writing through his heartsickness, while working on Zarathustra,Nietzsche evidently turns the proverbial “whip” on himself, for purporting to domesticate the spirit of a woman with whom he was completely enamored. To Nietzsche, this would serve as a testament to his own self-perceived weakness and socially contracted moral decrepitude, which he projects in his writings as the degeneracy of a patriarchal and bourgeois German civil society.
Nietzsche’s attitudes towards women and misogyny in every way reflect his attitudes towards Jews and European antisemitism. Nietzsche imagines a future in which oppressive binaries (like man/woman, civilized/uncivilized) no longer exist—or, at least, no longer function as power hierarchies or as value systems—and his way of doing this is to take up divergent and mutually contradictory textual positions, thus ironically neutralizing the very value systems presupposed by either position independently. Elsewhere, Nietzsche praises the one who, “like cats and robbers / is at home in the wilderness,” and prophesies that our “wild cats must have become tigers” before the history of oppressive morality can finally be overturned.
Bad readers of Nietzsche mistake their fragmentary readings for a complete view. If anything, it is this—the mistaking of partial perspectives for universal ones—that Nietzsche is most consistently critical of: the priestly cult of moral reason, dogmatism in all its forms. Far from misogynistic, Nietzsche reads much more like a post-gender, queer feminist. Far from antisemitic, he reads much more like a communist.
“But wait,”—the insistent bad reader of Nietzsche interjects—“how can Nietzsche be a communist, when the Übermensch is nothing if not an ur-fascistic tyrant, contemptuously ruling over ‘lesser’ humans as wolf to sheep?”. Again, this turns out to be a wildly one-sided account. Incidentally, those who have most emphasized the fragmentary character of Nietzsche’s writing (following Klossowski) have also been those who broke the most ground in reading him as a communist.
Georges Bataille imagined that the malaise Nietzsche experienced in his own cultural and historical milieu could only have been swept up and transformed into a powerful enthusiasm for the ‘superhuman’ advancement of the Soviet Union in the years following the Russian Revolution. Though Bataille perhaps bent the stick too far in some of his own positive appraisals of Stalinist economic policies, his analysis of Nietzsche depicts the latter as a “literary communist,” of more or less direct comparison with Jesus Christ. Blanchot, a close friend and contemporary of Bataille, interpreted Nietzsche’s fragmentary philosophy as indicative of an unparalleled freedom of thought “to come”: the thought of a future utopian community, in which individuals grasp themselves as parts of an open and incomplete social totality, rather than as self-contradictory liberal subjects (as in America and Western Europe) or as divided automatons in a complete and closed totality (as in the former Soviet Union).
Notably, Bataille and Blanchot were no mere pedants. Bataille was an engaged antifascist activist in Paris during the war (whose peculiar form of activism attracted him to secret societies and the occult). Blanchot, at significant risk to himself, acted as a go-between for Jewish friends and colleagues in the camps and their families, such as in the case of his close friend Emmanuel Levinas, whose family Blanchot also helped keep hidden. Yet literary and cultural production remained key in the politics of each, which each understood with primary reference to Nietzsche.
For Bataille, what haunted Nietzsche most of all was the loss of human sovereignty. The best way to recapture sovereignty, he thought, was through artistic production. Art allows us to recapture some fraction of lost intimacy, rebelling against alienation under capitalist modernity. What makes a work of art a singularact of expression, and not just something inauthentic and rehashed, is its confrontation with nihilism (the nothingness of God, of culture). By making this nothingness into a something, the work of art reinvigorates our ability to make something sacred. The passion of the artist is to the artistic product as the passion of Christ is to religious iconography. For Bataille, this insight reveals the hidden meaning of both the death of God and Nietzsche’s man of the future, Christ and the Antichrist: art is passion, made objective and observable; hence, it is suffering, made intimate.
Only sex and death come close to describing the states of extreme intimacy and intensity one reaches while totally immersed in aesthetic experience. Hence, we become, as Bataille often puts it, “in time what the tiger is in space.” The “tiger in space” here represents an affirmation of life and desire suspended over the abyss, over nothingness, and the “time” Bataille invokes is simply the empty time of the future, the “to come” of our future sovereignty. For Blanchot, there is a double-meaning to the fragmentary character of the latter’s thought, which is deeply evocative of our current cultural situation, living among the ruins of late capitalist postmodernity. In addition to the open-ended idea of a community “to come,” Blanchot interprets the affirmation of the future made by Nietzsche’s Zarathustra as an act of generative “refusal,” one that I make, “[a]s if my survival was something necessary.”
The French word that Blanchot uses for “refusal,” (refus) means both an act of refusal, as well as being among refuse, being in the ruins. Zarathustra’s refusal is a generative refusal, reconstituting the promise of the future from among the broken fragments of an alienated culture. This is a practice of reading as much as it is of writing, for Blanchot—or rather, for the production of material and cultural goods in general. In what he terms, “fragmentary writing,” we affirm the future by suspending ourselves out over it as something uncertain, creating so as to hold open future interpretations that both affirm and deny our intentions. One creates as if it was necessary to survive the disaster [dèsastre]: Blanchot’s motif for the ambivalence of the future, which fractures the oppressive unity of history and the present (‘dèsastre’ is also a double-entendre, des astres, meaning, ‘for/of the stars’).
Through Blanchot and Bataille, we have glimpsed an unrelentingly communistic reading of Nietzsche. This reading thinks of culture as a medium of contagion, where artistic production intimately connects us with others, and where the open affirmation of the future and generative refusal of oppressive binaries and power hierarchies are also crucial. Contagious artforms, tigers in space, emancipatory cat-imagery… Taking our cue from the logic of memes as exemplary of fragmentary writing, par excellence, we would require but one final element in order to round out our alternative interpretation of Nietzsche.
It is at this stage that I must situate my own “fragmentary” reading, which dawned on me epiphanously upon revisiting the following passage. Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari summarize their critique of Heidegger’s philosophical oeuvre, below, in an argument which can only be boiled down to, Nietzsches on synthesizers in space:
“Let us recall Nietzsche’s idea of the eternal return as a little ditty, a refrain […] a sound machine […] If this machine must have an assemblage, it is the synthesizer […] The synthesizer, with its operation […] has taken the place of the ground in a priori synthetic judgment: its synthesis is of the molecular and the cosmic, material and force, not form and matter, Grund and territory” (“1837: Of the Refrain” in A Thousand Plateaus).
I translate: Kant’s theory of judgment (“a priori synthetic judgment”) can no longer by grounded by a territorial concept of the “ground” (Grund, a philosophical term of art, for Heidegger); meaning, our intuitions of space and time, our entire grid of intelligibility for making sense of the world around us, cannot be grounded in some specific place (for instance, a certain rustic cabin in the Black Forest, famously romanticized by Heidegger, who made it the center of many hikes taken to reflection and discussion of philosophical problems). Heidegger understood Nietzsche’s concept of “the eternal return” as eternal recurrence of the same, a recognition at once both profoundly nihilistic, and woefully nostalgic for any shred of an authentic past, anything that is not mere repetition. Deleuze, on the other hand, understands it as the return of difference—repetition, for Deleuze, repeats differently each time, never returns exactly as it was before.
Thus, although in an important sense, the future does not belong to us, we can still affirm the future, precisely by acting as a “synthesizer” of difference: by assembling a plurality of different forms and never assimilating them to a ground, but always letting them remain different in an open and incomplete social totality. To be an affirmative, Nietzschean “synthesizer,” is to assemble difference in the cosmos: in other words, to be a space communist.
At long last, Nietzsche can be claimed by the left as a cat-loving, space communist, meme queen: his post-gender, post-hierarchical philosophy of the future affirms by holding itself out over the nothing, a process by which our products contagiously spread the open promise of the future. Surely this is a joyous affirmation, if there ever was one (it is, after all, the brainchild of a logic of shitposting and memes, done almost entirely for the lulz).
There is, however, a serious political intervention underlying all this joyous affirmation of play. Just where Derrida appears inclined to offer his resounding endorsement to joyous Nietzschean affirmation—as opposed to Heideggerian pessimism and nostalgia—he ultimately defers signing off on the closure of the serious task of dwelling on nihilism. ‘One must find common ground’, he says, between the gravity of nihilism and affirmation of the cosmic. Similarly, we must seek to find a common ground between cat-loving, space communist, meme queen Nietzsche, and a more grave reflection on the political problems that nihilism continues to pose today.
By now, we are abundantly familiar with the fascistic tropes one finds in the alt-right’s readings of Nietzsche (which are no different from those employed by the Nazis before them). Improving our capacity to be critical of this right-wing discourse is, doubtlessly, of continuing importance. But we are less critical of the bad, ‘Heideggerian readings’ of Nietzsche still circulated by the populist left. These bad readings remain on the left what they have always been on the right: namely, attacks on freedom of thought, and on difference in general. They are, as Derrida would attest, negations of joyous affirmation, thinly veiled pessimism and nostalgia, which are fundamentally not oriented towards an open future, but towards a tragic past.
This is not intended as a critique of left-wing populism as such. Still, some scholars who have carved out comfortable livings for themselves by writing on the topic seem at best ignorant, at worst hypocritical, cashing in on more or less obtuse critiques of one of the key institutions otherwise supporting them: namely, the modern university. A specter of hypocrisy haunts certain left-wing populist rhetorical strategies, with respect to the modern university: namely, in regarding capitalist institutions as such as fraught with internal contradictions along the lines of class, race, gender, etc., while at the same time regarding the university as such as strictly elitist. The perpetuation of half-baked ideological assaults on difficult to understand thinkers does no service to the new left agenda, and the slurry of hatchet jobs, right and left, on thinkers widely studied in humanities departments, reads like nothing less than so many thinly-veiled assaults on those departments—and those that work, in, and against, them.
Finally, the deeper problem with the left’s bad reading of Nietzsche is that it fundamentally fails to engage with the critique of nihilism, ceding the entire space of this discourse to the alt-right and forces of neofascism. By making ourselves the unwitting stooges of unoriginal hack jobs on Nietzsche, themselves already recycled from the detritus of Nazism, we also become complicit in perpetuating the specter of Heidegger’s Nietzsche, of pessimistic nihilism.
The response to pessimistic nihilism is not simply to paper over it with hopeful optimism, rooted in the past, but rather, what Nietzsche called, ‘affirmative nihilism’. There is a growing socialist humanism today, yet we continue to inhabit the profoundly nihilistic cultural landscape of the ruins of late capitalist postmodernity; the political nihilism of de-politicizations and neoliberal economization; the racialized, colonial and gendered nihilism of unitary ideals of progress; the religious nihilism of theocratic post-9/11 national identities and the never ending war on terror. In order to become the socialism of the future, this rich soil of humaneness must counter self-destructive refusals with generative refusal. Nietzsche:
“We of the present day are only just beginning to form the chain of a very powerful future feeling, link for link—we hardly know what we are doing […] To others it appears as a sign of stealthily approaching old age, and they see our planet as a melancholy invalid who wants to forget his present condition and therefore writes the history of his youth […] if one could finally contain all this in one soul and crowd it into a single feeling—this would surely have to result in a happiness that humanity has not known so far: the happiness of a god full of power and love, full of tears and laughter, a happiness that, like the sun in the evening, continually bestows its inexhaustible riches, pouring them into the sea, feeling richest, as the sun does, only when even the poorest fisherman is still rowing with golden oars! This godlike feeling would then be called—humaneness” (Nietzsche, The Gay Science, §337).
What gifts has this solar Nietzsche to bestow us? What lessons have we learned to receive? A little more Dionysian affirmation, and a little less nostalgia and pessimism; a little more freedom of thought, and a little less dumping on dead philosophers. After all, if we on the left have learned anything from heaping dirt upon the graves of dead philosophers—as the capitalist class has done unfailingly to Marx at any whiff of market errancy or labour unrest—it is that the higher one piles the dirt, the longer grows the shadow of the specter that will haunt us…
Especially in the form of dank memes. In the future, therefore, when anybody approaches you with stale readings of Nietzsche, ‘of the Heideggerian type’—right, left, or center—may you confidently repudiate their claims, joyously affirming that “Nietzsche is a cat-loving, space communist, meme queen.” Then, may you direct their attention towards this meme: