Nietzsche, Art and the Neo-Hegelian Commitment
Interview by Richard Marshall.
Andrew Huddleston is the philosopher who broods on Nietzsche and in so doing finds a Nietzsche interested in culture and politics, a Nietzsche who is dangerous, elitist, not clearly an ethical skeptical anti-realist and who thought life and art should be more entwined than they are. Huddleston also broods on aethetics and aesthetic value, authorial intention, Geuss’s ‘Art and Theodicy’, Nietzsche and Wagner and the philosophical issues of absolute music. This one isn’t humming a simple tune, but finding a way to do the neo-Hegelian art jive once more. Slam on your Parsival and get your throwback on …
3:AM: What made you become a philosopher?
Andrew Huddleston: During my first semester as an undergraduate, a wonderful course on Adorno in the Music Department piqued my interest in philosophy, and I started to take some classes in the Philosophy Department. The sort of philosophy I then got on to studying was very different, but I found the questions intriguing and found I had an affinity for the clear way of thinking and writing the subject involved. But music, art, and literature were really more at the center of my intellectual concerns, and I wanted to think about questions in aesthetics and about the sort of existential questions that the works of art I cared about most were raising. When I was studying abroad my junior year at Cambridge, I had supervisor who made a strong impression on me. He was retired at this point, and I was his only student. He and I would spend hour after hour, well beyond the appointed period for the supervision, talking about many things, but virtually nothing from any official philosophy syllabus—instead talking about Wagner, Mann, Rilke, Nietzsche, among others, about heady questions and ideas that seemed to me to matter so deeply, but most of which didn’t fit neatly into the academic discipline of philosophy.
Don’t tell Nietzsche this, but it was one of those afternoons, when we had been listening to the sublime Knappertsbusch 1962 recording of Act III of Parsifal that I really decided I wanted to try for an academic life. My inspiration was less toward being a philosopher specifically, and more toward being an intellectual and humanist, but you can’t get a PhD in that. For various reasons, I thought at the time that graduate study in Music or German or History or Comparative Literature wouldn’t be feasible or fitting. So I decided, to some degree faute de mieux as academic disciplines went, that I would study philosophy. Although I had some facility with and interest in philosophy, I didn’t feel an overwhelming pull toward the subject of philosophy as such.
When I got back from studying abroad, I did more work on Nietzsche, and began writing a thesis on the philosophy of music. After I graduated, I took a gap year and applied to graduate school. I was thinking that the Committee on Social Thought at the University of Chicago might be the best fit, given my wide range of intellectual interests. To my surprise, I ended up deciding to go to Princeton instead. By the time I got to graduate school, I had studied relatively little philosophy, probably less than everyone in my cohort, some of whom seemed to live and breathe philosophy. I graduated from college having taken some very good classes and done well in them, but with, I think, the minimum number of courses for a major in philosophy, rather an odd position for someone in philosophy graduate school, let alone in a top program. I felt rather out of place the first semester of my first year, and wondered if I had made a mistake, but had one tremendous friend in particular and had some supportive mentors who encouraged me. Princeton ended up being a great place for me to do graduate work. I caught up quickly enough with core philosophy and began to feel more at ease with philosophy as an academic discipline.
I love thinking, teaching, and writing about all sorts of philosophy. But I have to say, in the interests of honesty, that thinking of myself as a “philosopher” (a thought your question prompts) still gives me a little alienating twinge of the uncanny, of being at home yet not quite being at home. On an intellectual level, I enjoy the challenge of presenting and working through arguments and reconstructing historical texts in a careful and rigorous way—the bread and butter of philosophy. But what got me into philosophy, and what I care about even more, is something that seems (rightly?) more peripheral to the discipline—namely, little glimmers of insight—the kind that we can also get from the great art, literature, film, and music that is trying to say something profound and illuminating (or at least thought-provoking) about the human condition, without being able to mount an argument to back up what it says. That’s part of the reason I love Nietzsche so much. He was exceptionally good at this sort of thing.
3:AM: Nietzsche is a big interest of yours. You take issue with him as an anti-political individualist though. The idea of Nietzsche as having any interest in culture and politics has largely been dismissed, especially since the Nazis, so can you first sketch out why you arguing that he was interested in culture and politics is controversial.
AH: In the post-war period, Walter Kaufmann did an important service in helping to rehabilitate’s Nietzsche’s tarnished reputation. But the image of Nietzsche he presented was very much that of the self-cultivating individual, who escapes to the mountains away from the miasma of the surrounding culture. This image has continued to exert a considerable influence in anglophone Nietzsche scholarship, where it has often been held that his interest is just in the excellence of a few great individuals. Although most everyone will agree that Nietzsche is interested in culture at least insofar as he is a sharp diagnostician of the cultural scene, they don’t take the promotion of a flourishing culture to be a central good by the lights of the mature Nietzsche. Julian Young’s important book Nietzsche’s Philosophy of Religion chipped away at the individualist reading. My own reading is in a similar vein, though I focus on culture as the collective enterprise, whereas Young focuses on community. On my reading, Nietzsche held that a magnificent, strong culture was as important as a few great individuals, if not more so.
For anyone working on these topics now, events of 20th century history loom large, and some might see the Nazis, on this front, as having tried to put Nietzsche’s ideas into action in fashioning themselves as the Germanic inheritors of the Greco-Roman culture of the past. Think, in this vein, of all that neo-classical triumphalist architecture of Speer. They wanted to make a resplendent culture, in part by aestheticizing the political sphere, in that famous description due to Walter Benjamin. Nietzsche despised the nascent German Reich under Bismarck, despised power politics, and would have despised the Nazis. But his celebration of excellence, achievement, strength, and splendor, including when these come at the expense of ordinary morality, can leave him uncomfortably close to some ideas that took a hugely nasty turn—a turn, I again stress, that he wouldn’t have supported.
Some philosophers who study historical figures want a Great Philosopher who says (or can be interpreted as saying) only things the interpreters would themselves endorse, or more or less endorse. In the case of Nietzsche, this can lead to a focus on those aspects of his thought that are in safe dialogue with contemporary debates in meta-ethics, action theory, philosophy of mind, metaphysics or what have you. Much of the important work on Nietzsche in being done here. I see the appeal of such an approach, and sometimes take it up myself. But with several of Nietzsche’s most provocative views, I don’t do this, and this also makes my work controversial for philosophical audiences. I’m fine ending up with a Nietzsche who doesn’t intersect neatly with contemporary concerns. It is by engaging with this sort of work that we expand our horizons about what philosophy can be. I’m also fine ending up with a Nietzsche who says things that are repellent to me—and to most of us. If we domesticate Nietzsche too much, and turn him into a nice liberal humanist, we misrepresent just how cavalier he was about the prospect of people being trampled underfoot, metaphorically if not literally.
For me, Nietzsche is a fascinating and sometimes dangerous figure, with many fascinating and sometimes dangerous ideas, and I want to understand him (and them) better. Some want to do this through situating him very much in his milieu, understanding intimately the sources he was reading, and so on. This is important scholarship. But my own concern is somewhere between this historicist contextualization and the more purely “philosophical” approach that works toward elaborating Nietzschean doctrines with contemporary relevance. I see myself as a kind of advocate, setting out a good reconstruction of the philosophical ideas, and working through some of their implications, but ultimately in the service of giving us a more interesting Nietzsche to think about—constrained, of course, by the texts we have before us to work with.
3:AM: What makes you think that the individualistic Nietzsche is wrong?
TH: Nietzsche certainly celebrates excellent great individuals, so in that sense, there is nothing wrong with the individualistic Nietzsche. But I think this view of Nietzsche is incomplete and potentially misleading. Flourishing collectives are just as much the object of his concern as great individuals. He is not someone who has one highest good. And as often with interpretations, things are never starkly one way or the other. When we look at Nietzsche through a more collectivist lens, lots of aspects of his thought come into an interestingly different focus. Or so I try to show.
3:AM: For you then it’s because of the need to keep society and culture thriving that we need the elite human isn’t it? How extreme is Nietzsche when it comes to elitism – did he sanction slavery for example?
AH: This cultural thriving is one reason for the great individuals, but it is not the only reason. That way of couching things makes it sound as though the value of great individuals is merely instrumental, in the service of society and culture. I think they are also valuable for their own sake. Moreover, to the extent that they do contribute to a wider culture, their contribution is as much constitutive as causal. Having great individuals is itself a way for a culture to flourish.
Cultures and individuals, on my reading, are reciprocally interdependent. Which isn’t to say that a great culture will necessarily have great individuals, or that great individuals can only exist in a great culture. It is instead to say, among other things, that individual greatness is partly by dint of certain social conditions.
Among the conditions that Nietzsche points to is the existence of “slavery in some sense or other” (a phrase of his from Beyond Good and Evil). He doesn’t mean just chattel slavery here. He means by it those who create the material and spiritual conditions that make cultural flourishing possible. By his reckoning, most professionals (including university academics) would count as slaves too. Many people who read Nietzsche have a tendency to think they are part of the elite Nietzsche is speaking about, whereas very few of them would make the cut. Nietzsche would think most of them are really pathetic. I don’t, for example, think of myself as falling into the Nietzschean elite. I’m not nearly creative enough, and this is what Nietzsche cared about, perhaps more than anything else.
So, yes, Nietzsche was an extreme elitist. Some people try to pretend otherwise, but this is just a gross distortion of his thought, even of his essay “Schopenhauer as Educator,” sometimes cited as a place where the elitism is less pronounced. One distinctive line I take on Nietzsche is that he holds that this “slavery” is not merely instrumental in the service of great cultures and individuals, but is, in certain cases, actually in the interest of the slaves themselves. They are ennobled by it, and find their highest “dignity” (and maybe even their only real dignity) in this servitude, even if they are unaware of this and take no satisfaction in it. Speaking as someone very likely to count as a slave, I find this view disturbing, but there are ways in which it is intriguing too.
3:AM: Brian Leiter says that Nietzsche thought that morality hampered the elite and therefore hindered a thriving culture as well. You think that this isn’t right don’t you? So how should we read Nietzsche’s views about morality?
AH: First of all, I don’t see Leiter as making that additional step and claiming that in hindering an elite, morality thereby hinders a flourishing culture—at least not explicitly. He really just talks about morality’s deleterious effects on a elite cadre of higher individuals.
I agree with Leiter that morality has hampered great individuals in various ways. I would say that it has also hampered great cultures. (Perhaps Leiter wants to agree on this point too…) But I think we shouldn’t be too monolithic about things. Particularly when we construe morality in the broad way Nietzsche does, not just as a narrow series of rules, but as a more diffuse orientation toward life and the world, we see that it has also contributed to the flourishing of an elite and the flourishing of culture in a number of ways, and Nietzsche is alive to this dimension as well.
I myself think we shouldn’t pin Nietzsche’s objection to morality solely on its bad effects, on either individuals or whole cultures. This makes it look as though the problem with morality is just something causally downstream from it. But I think the objection that Nietzsche is leveling is actually more thoroughgoing than this. Nietzsche, in my view, regards the evaluative compass of Judeo-Christian morality as out of whack: What should be celebrated, it denigrates. And what should be denigrated, it celebrates. This is not simply to say it is false, but rather to say it is downright perverse, at least by the lights of Nietzsche’s preferred values.
3:AM: So do you think Nietzsche regards the flourishing culture and the elites he approves of as having genuine evaluative standing? Wouldn’t that make him some sort of value realist – which would be out of keeping with what many Nietzsche scholars believe wouldn’t it?
AH: It’s a difficult question. I don’t think there’s really much decisive textual evidence here. Nietzsche’s alleged meta-ethics has been a huge topic of study in recent years. He has in effect been attributed every major position under the sun.
My own view is not that he is a realist. It’s instead that it’s far from clear that he is the skeptical anti-realist that people have sometimes imagined. Many philosophical readers want Nietzsche to be pronouncing on meta-ethics and are invested in recovering a meta-ethical theory from his texts. Certainly he talks about the status of values. But is this discussion offered as a contribution to meta-ethics? This is too hastily assumed. In the key passages, it is just not clear whether Nietzsche is talking about the nature of value and values as a genuinely axiological category. His point, as I prefer to read him, is more sociological and anthropological. It is that the things now regarded as having value, and the value systems that have thus far been ascendant, are contingent human creations, due to various social, historical, and psychological forces. Whether these values and valuations themselves have value is a separate question, and Nietzsche separates them in the “Preface” to the Genealogy when he says he will be reflecting on the “value” of our “values.” The status of that former category of value just mentioned is not something he, to my mind, clearly addresses at all, in the sense of offering a meta-axiological theory about it.
However, even if one did take the key passages from Nietzsche to be addressing a distinctively meta-axiological kind of question—a possible reading, I admit—it’s still not clear Nietzsche is a skeptical anti-realist, simply from the fact that he says, as he does, that values are, in some sense, created. This would implicitly attribute to Nietzsche the basically Platonic assumption that values would only be real if there weren’t any human contribution to them—if they were, say, eternally-existing, mind-independent entities. But this is not a very Nietzschean assumption.
3:AM: How did Nietzsche connect life and art?
AH: He certainly thought they should be more connected than they are. For Nietzsche, the model of the great life is the great work of art. This is an important theme from Alexander Nehamas’s work. It comes up in his Nietzsche book, as well as in his Sather lectures, published under the title The Art of Living. I think the idea can be given a more collectivist cast as well. In the Untimely Meditations, for example, Nietzsche writes of culture as being the “unity of artistic style in all the life expressions of a people.” Nietzsche, in several works, and right up to end of his career, compares the great culture to the work of art too. He thought of both individual lives and whole cultures as potentially able to realize aesthetic values.
In suggesting that life be thought of in this way, Nietzsche’s point is not to suggest some sort of stark dichotomy between aesthetic values and ethical values and to side with the former. Nietzsche continually blurs these lines. His point is largely about how great individuals and great cultures are valuable— partly just for being the resplendent things they are. The virtues and characteristics that they manifest are not just narrowly aesthetic ones. But they are valuable for their own sake, which is why the comparison with works of art is particularly helpful.
For someone who was so interested in the arts and the aesthetic, Nietzsche wrote very little that amounts to a systematic treatment of questions in aesthetics. The closest he comes is in The Birth of Tragedy. In the dedication to Wagner, he talks about their shared sense that art is the “true metaphysical activity of this life.” In his work to follow, we get beautiful (if often wooly) passages describing aesthetic phenomena, and of course continued discussion of Wagner. But he is not very interested in a systematic treatment of the kinds of questions that are the central fare of philosophical aesthetics, even of the Continental sort one gets in, say, Hegel or Schopenhauer.
3:AM: You’re interested in art and various philosophical issues that arise. One is the question about whether artistic value is purely found in the aesthetic value or whether there might be art value found elsewhere. Before discussing your thoughts on this could you sketch what we’re to understand by the term aesthetic value? Is this a question that arises for someone opposing aesthetic consumerism? Do you oppose that and if so why?
AH: I don’t think there is a widely-agreed account of what aesthetic value is, and this is part of the challenge in these debates. I think of aesthetic value as the value associated with the experience of engaging with and appreciating art (and other sorts of artifacts and entities). One key feature is that these experiences are valuable for their own sake.
“Aesthetic consumerism” is a rather jokey term I came up with because I thought much writing on this topic was too focused on the experiential side of things. It focuses on the value of certain appreciative experiences, or in the disposition in the objects to give rise to such experiences, where the value is read off from the potential experiences. I don’t think this is the exclusive locus of distinctive value when it comes to the arts, because it is too focused on “the consumer” and his or her experience.
3:AM: So is there an art value over and above this? Is achievement value a live option?
AH: Yes, whatever we call that experience-centered value, there is, in my view, important value in art beyond this. Values are instantiated in the creation of art through the sort of skill and accomplishment involved. I think this has as much claim to being thought of as an artistic value as does the value we as audiences get or can get out of the art. Nietzsche makes a similar point in passing in the Third Essay of the Genealogy when he notes (somewhat unfairly, given their concern with the phenomenon of genius) that Kant and Schopenhauer focus on aesthetics from the point of view of the spectator alone.
If we focus on aesthetic value, in the sense of the term above, we can’t really explain why artworks are valuable for their own sake. Some in these debates seek to explain why artworks are valuable for their own sake, by noting that the experiences they give rise to are valuable in this way. Then they act as if they have thereby explained why art works are valuable for their own sake. This seems to me to be a confusion. They have only actually explained why art works are valuable for our sake as appreciators.
As I see it, one way in which artworks are valuable for their own sake is in virtue of the achievements that they themselves constitute. The experience and appreciation of the achievement is of course also valuable, and valuable for its own sake, but it is not why the achievement is valuable for its own sake, when it is.
3:AM: You’ve also written about authorial intention. But there you seem to downplay the significance of the artist, denying the importance of authorial intention. Why is that?
AH: Intentionalism has made a big comeback in analytic philosophy of art. Now some people act as though it’s a dogma of commonsense that one must interpret an artwork constrained by what its creator intended, or by our best hypothesis thereof, or at least constrained by the intentions successfully realized in the finished work. I’m not disputing the idea that we often are and should be interested in such things. But I think it can also be worthwhile to bracket many of these considerations and interpret the work without paying any heed to certain intentions, especially when it comes to deep, rich, interesting works. I’m a pluralist here. There are a variety of good and legitimate critical projects. Why confine ourselves to forms of critical investigation that fetishize the historical individual who produced the work? It can also, for instance, be interesting to understand works of art as products of the society around them, independently of thoughts about their creators’ particular intentions. It can be interesting and illuminating to look at works through various other non-intentionalist lenses as well.
3:AM: Hegel saw art as having a ‘supreme task’ and you’ve recently engaged with this via Raymond Geuss’s notion that Hegel’s ‘supreme task of art’ is connected to his theodicy. Can you first sketch what Geuss’s idea is here and why it may seem to be a view that defends the status quo.
AH: Geuss’s piece “Art and Theodicy,” where he develops this idea, is perhaps my favorite paper in aesthetics, and it should be read much more widely than it is.
This connection between art and theodicy is not one that Hegel explicitly makes himself, but it is a helpful way of thinking about his aesthetics. Insofar as he sees art as a form of “Absolute Spirit,” its highest project, like that of religion and philosophy, is one of helping us comprehend the world around us, and in doing so, to see that this world as a place in which we might be “at home.”
This is not to say that all art does this all the time. But the idea would be that art at its best is in the business of attempting this. For Hegel, art, given its sensuous medium, can never carry out this task in an adequate way; that falls to philosophy, in particular, Hegelian philosophy.
As Geuss sets things up in the paper, he nicely juxtaposes Hegel with Adorno. Whereas for Hegel art will try to reconcile us to the world, by showing us that it is basically a good place where we can be at home, for Adorno art will do the opposite, presenting the world as one worthy of our dissatisfaction. That can seem to leave little scope, on Hegel’s view, for art (in its highest calling, anyway) to have a socially critical role.
3:AM: You think by looking at comedy this idea that Hegel’s approach is conservative is complicated don’t you? So is your view that Hegel’s view is much more critical than the Geussian picture supposes?
AH: I think Geuss’s basic schematic comparison of Hegel and Adorno is a helpful first approximation, but that the reality is actually more complex. Not all of the art that Hegel thinks of as acting in its highest calling is concerned just with reconciling us to the world. Comedy (and here Hegel has in mind “Old Comedy”) is a case in point. It is bitingly critical of the society around it and shows that the society doesn’t live up to the ideals that it should be (ideals that are in some ways implicitly there already). I think we can see important glimmers of this in other aspects of Hegel’s aesthetics as well.
3:AM: Nietzsche was for a time a Wagnerian. What drew them together initially?
AH: He speaks of the music as something that had a tremendous effect on him, and clearly it did, though there is evidence that he was slower to warm to some of it than he lets on in his retrospective remarks. I think Nietzsche was also drawn by the magnetism of Wagner’s personality and by the tremendous ambitions that Wagner had for the renewal of culture. Nietzsche very much shared that project.
3:AM: Was it anti-Semitism that drove them apart or were they divided over aesthetic and cultural-philosophical issues as well?
AH: There were a lot of factors in play, but I think it was mostly that Nietzsche felt smothered by Wagner’s personality. Wagner was a domineering presence in his life. At one point, for example, he wrote to Nietzsche’s doctor telling him that Nietzsche’s health problems were exacerbated by his overly frequent masturbation. There were cultural and philosophical disagreements too. Wagner remained very taken with Schopenhauer, and Nietzsche distanced himself from him. And Nietzsche saw the Bayreuth Festival as rather a let down. It was not the rebirth of the ancient tragic festival, but just a place for the monied elite of Europe to swan around and be seen.
On the issue of anti-Semitism, Wagner was certainly an anti-Semite, as is evident in his vile and flatulently verbose prose writings. Nietzsche was certainly an anti-anti-Semite. Whether this makes him a philo-Semite is another matter. I find the Genealogy, particularly Essay I, really uncomfortable in its remarks about the Jews. Clearly, he’s up to some complex rhetorical things here, when he suggests Christianity is a product of the Jews. As my colleague Ken Gemes has stressed, one thing Nietzsche is doing here is reminding anti-Semitic Christian Germans that their religion is thanks to people they hate. And Nietzsche himself praises the Jews as a tough, quasi-noble “race” and has a certain fascination with what they’ve managed to do. Nonetheless, the tone of his remarks in places leaves me with a sense of lingering disquiet.
3:AM: Does absolute music have content and what does this tell us about music and art?
AH: Let me first say, as an aside: The history of ‘absolute music’ is a fascinating one. Sometimes this concept is investigated ahistorically by philosophers, but I think it’s also interesting to look at it through a more historical lens, to do a sort of genealogy of this notion. How has such music been understood and received? The musicologist Mark Evan Bonds has written two fascinating books about the subject. We need more genealogies like this in aesthetics. Kristeller writes about the modern institution of the arts, and Lydia Goehr has written about the rise of the “work concept” in music. Speaking as a Nietzschean, I think it would be nice to have more things in this style.
But back to the question you’ve asked: I think there’s one issue about how we should appreciate this music and then another issue, with a somewhat more metaphysical flavor, about whether this music has content.
What is meant by “content” here? I mean the idea that there might be something of extra-musical significance that the music is about, some point of contact with extra musical reality, beyond the fairly uncontroversial examples, such as the basic emotive features (the music’s being sad) or representations in the music of canon shots, birds calls, and that sort of thing. Could music, without aid of text or program, have this sort of content (philosophical, socio-political, and so on)?
First, even if music didn’t have content in this strong sense, it might still be fruitful to appreciate it in content-involving ways by bringing imagination to bear, by exploiting various extra-musical metaphors, and so on. A number of philosophers have written well on how this might transpire. So formalists, if they mean to be championing a certain kind of formalist listening practice, need not just to show that music has no content, but that listening to it in these content-involving ways is somehow inappropriate. In my view, these modes of content-involving listening are self-evidently worthwhile, and the formalist has done nothing to convince us that his way is the only right way to listen, rather than just one among several ways.
Now the question with a deeper metaphysical cast to it is whether music has content. I don’t think it is persuasive to argue against this by noting that music is not representational. Even in paradigmatically representational arts (painting, literature), the most important content is not directly represented either. We are left to work it out from what is there. I think the difference with music is one not of kind, but of degree. Convincing a die-hard skeptic about musical content is a fool’s errand, though. My point is more to show that those who believe in content in music are not necessarily the gullible dupes that are sometimes portrayed as being by certain formalists.
What does thinking about content in absolute music tell us about the arts? Speaking from my own perspective, I find myself in a bit of bind. I love music most of the arts, but I am also what might be described as a neo-Hegelian in aesthetics. By that, I mean that I think of the greatest art as bringing us into contact (or at least making a good attempt to bring us into contact) with significant truths about extra-artistic reality—if not some truths about some metaphysical domain, then truths about human experience and the social and political world around us. This needn’t be a crass didacticism, of course. I have in mind something far more subtle and reflective.
Yet it can be difficult to see how music and other abstract and non-representational arts could possibly fit this bill. So the challenge is to explain how these arts do so—perhaps through a content shining through the form, or something of this sort. Another option is to give up on the neo-Hegelian commitment, and see these arts as valuable for setting our faculties in a kind of “free play,” giving us some kind of aesthetic pleasure or some such. Don’t get me wrong; I think this is valuable too. But I think of it as ultimately something of lesser significance. And that perhaps displays a philosopher’s bias. Such grandiose views about the arts are rather passé and frowned upon now, but on this point I relish being a throwback.
3:AM: And finally, are there five books that you could recommend to the readers here at 3:AM that would take us further into your philosophical world?
AH: Hmm. I’ve mentioned a few books in passing already, so I won’t repeat those suggestions.
Lesley Chamberlain, Nietzsche in Turin
I’m recommending this book as one of my 5 instead of something by Nietzsche himself. Of course, read Nietzsche too! My favorite book of his is On the Genealogy of Morality, but where to begin with him really depends on one’s interests, background, and temperament. And read the best of the philosophical secondary literature on him too. I’m recommending this book of Lesley Chamberlain’s, because many of your readers interested in Nietzsche may not come across it otherwise. This is a book about Nietzsche’s final year of sane life, when he was in Turin. Chamberlain is a superb writer. Hers is a deeply moving account that really gives one a sense of Nietzsche the man.
The Selected Poetry of Rainer Maria Rilke, trans. Stephen Mitchell
This is my pagan bible, the Duino Elegies most of all. Many, even artistically sensitive people, find Rilke off-putting or impossible to engage with. There’s something rather too earnest about him for their taste, and I think many mistake this for objectionable sentimentality. Rilke could certainly be sentimental. But at his best, he reaches a level where art speaks to the needs that religion can no longer fulfill, at least for atheists like me. We too must grapple with our inevitable mortality, and what is even more difficult still, with the fact that many of the people we love will die before we do. For me, the illusory consolations of Christianity offer no comfort. Rilke (at least the mature Rilke) thinks we should stop pining after a beyond. We should take all that energy and love that has been squandered on God and heaven, we should accept that we and those we love will be “endlessly dead,” and we should find the magic and beauty in our transitory life on earth. Rilke is often poorly served by English translations, but this one by Mitchell (the translation on facing pages with the German) is tremendous. He takes some license, but some of his turns of phrase are even better than Rilke’s German. They seem more Rilkean than Rilke himself.
Nomy Arpaly, Unprincipled Virtue
This is a book in moral psychology, which is a side interest of mine, but not really my main area. It’s an excellent piece of philosophy. It’s also—and this is the main reason I chose it—a marvelously written book. For me, these two things are often not independent. Good prose is not just a colorful glitter to put on the surface of cooly-argued ideas to make them more entertaining to read. Here the writing is part and parcel of the ideas’ fundamental expression, so astute is the observation of human psychology.
Alexander Nehamas, Only A Promise of Happiness: The Place of Beauty in a World of Art
This is a wonderful book about beauty, its place in our lives and its place in art. It is a humane, reflective book—conversational in tone, but profound, philosophically-rich, and thought-provoking. It’s a genre that is difficult to do well, and a form of thought that the scholarly journal article, given the disciplinary demands of Wissenschaft, has a difficult time being at home in. I once overheard a distinguished philosopher speak disparagingly about ideas that weren’t published in a peer-reviewed journal. This medium, he said, keeps us rigorous and honest. I’m all for reading and writing things in that basic mold; it’s basically what I do (and reasonably well, I hope)! But I think it would be a real shame if we lost this more essayistic style, as one important kind of voice in the range of things that philosophy comprises. Given why I personally got into philosophy, why I care about it, and what I hope to bring to it, if I never venture into this and say something worthwhile and insightful in this broader humanistic format, I’ll have been a real disappointment to myself, whatever other good philosophy and scholarship I’ve done. It’s early days, and so far I’ve just dabbled my toes in the water, but the Nehamas book remains a model for me of how one does this with real skill, not to mention philosophical rigor and honesty.
Raymond Geuss, Outside Ethics
This book has some really sparkling essays in it. The essay that gives the collection its title, and the ones on Adorno, are my favorites. I take them as exemplary, when it comes to what the history of Continental European philosophy can be. Geuss writes with pristine clarity and gives an able exposition of the figures and ideas he is writing about. Admirably, he doesn’t confuse his ideas with theirs. Yet he keeps a certain critical distance even still. Without trying to force these figures artificially into contemporary debates, he nonetheless brings out their continuing philosophical significance, in a way that allows us to broaden our ideas about what philosophy might be, about the kinds of questions it might ask, and the ways it might answer them.
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First published in 3:AM Magazine: Sunday, January 31st, 2016.