Aaron Ridley. Routledge Philosophy Guidebook to Nietzsche on Art
New York: Routledge, 2007. xii + 181pp. ISBN 10: 0-415-31591-3. Paperback
Reviewed by Thomas Drew Philbeck
Taking advantage of a rather elastic title, Aaron Ridley delivers a work that fits multiple understandings of "Nietzsche on Art." Perhaps as difficult a task as one could attempt with a philosopher like Nietzsche, whose aesthetic disposition stands at the center of any hermeneutical rendering of his life and works, Ridley prioritizes the aesthetic nature of Nietzsche's philosophy rather than attempting to articulate Nietzsche's views about the plastic Arts, in general. He does not shy away from the difficulty of the task and is quite upfront about its complexity, as Nietzsche as a special case for whom doing philosophy was often a work of art in itself. His examination includes Nietzsche's portrayal of the origins of aesthetic production, exemplified by the concept of the Dionysian, as well as Nietzsche's philosophy as Art, via the production of philosophical themes such as the Eternal Recurrence, which he locates in Nietzsche's philosophy qua artistic literature, Zarathustra. And, as one would expect, Ridley is articulate, witty, and acute in his attention to Nietzsche's ostensible contradictory perspectives, as well as critical of the lack of systematicity in his delivery of conclusions. Surprisingly, however, he utilizes these usually tolerated surface level contradictions in order to critically disassemble and refute much of Nietzsche's aesthetic production as intellectual confusion. Succinctly put, the text is not your average 'guidebook' to a philosopher on Art. If it were, however, it would not be consistent with what we have come to expect of Ridley's innovative and striking style. Nor would it have been nearly as interesting to follow and engage.
One does not usually anticipate the conclusions of a putatively introductory text about Nietzsche's conception of, or relationship to, Art to describe Dionysian 'becoming' as "a travesty of the intellectual conscience," nor to discover the Eternal Return of the Same deconstructed as a conflated and "hopelessly unsatisfactory" sham. But Ridley does exactly this. He challenges status quo and perfunctory readings of Nietzsche, and demands that one pay careful attention to the pieces of the puzzle to see how, and if, they fit. Along this line, most of the text is a ferreting out of Nietzsche's positions by coming to terms with his perception of Art as a philosophical tool. The text does not attempt to provide the generation of Nietzsche's thoughts or propositions toward Art as a phenomenon, but instead historically examines his aesthetic countenances and perspectives as they develop throughout his career, beginning with The Birth of Tragedy. In Ridley's words, his reconstruction of Nietzsche's philosophy of Art is necessarily "developmental and contextual," and, except for placing Wagner at the end, he faithfully follows the trajectory of Nietzsche's productive career throughout his discussions.
Ridley is at his best in his pedagogical presentations of the central components of Nietzsche's publications. He adeptly manages their running internal commentaries, which require an artistic interpretation of the philosophical process. He consistently draws from various sources in Nietzsche's body of work in order to expose the shortcomings of Nietzsche's themes, especially where they are insufficiently consistent or clear. Clarity of explanation, on the other hand, is Ridley's primary strength, especially where he produces digestible descriptions of Nietzsche's philosophical themes. This ease of exposition will certainly be a help to those looking to this text for an explication of Nietzsche and the importance he placed on art as part of his philosophy. Unfortunately, the term 'guidebook' is somewhat misleading here, since Ridley delivers much more than this. Usually, the term appeals to newcomers or non-specialists as a source for a standardized analysis from where one might begin an appreciation of a particular topic. Ridley's pitch, however, while providing a clear historical reading (in the Nietzschean sense), spends much time discrediting Nietzsche's themes and amending competing views about his disposition toward aesthetics and, thus, requires a certain amount of prerequisite familiarity in order to pass judgment.
In fact, the text reads, admittedly by the author, like a critical companion to Julian Young's Nietzsche's Philosophy of Art. As such, it is succeeds admirably in providing consequential alternatives to Young's text on a variety of issues, though perhaps not always sufficiently potable for a more interrogative audience. As previously stated, Ridley follows a 'developmental and contextual' approach though, more importantly, he does so via a historical methodology, which may be dubious when it comes to interrogating Nietzsche's existentialist themes. Though critical of Young, Ridley acknowledges that Young provides "the other side of a (sometimes implicit) dialogue" and encourages his readers to examine Nietzsche's Philosophy of Art in order to gain a wider perspective on the issues. He also acknowledges that Young "has more on Schopenhauer" than he does, while he retains more information about Wagner and Zarathustra. From a critical vantage point, however, the paucity of Schopenhauerian foundational investigation appears to affect the position of some of Ridley's criticisms, especially those that deal with Nietzsche's struggle with the traps of metaphysics, and his understanding of Nietzsche's Dionysus as a product of Romanticism.
Admirable for its rebelliousness in the face of a century of slowly increasing veneration for Nietzsche, the text beguiles as it elides rather important foundations of Nietzsche's thought. Nevertheless, the consequences reveal themselves as Ridley attempts to reconcile the appearance of metaphysical claims from a philosopher whose intention, as Heidegger once wrote, was to bring metaphysics to an end. Most of Ridley's notable criticisms of Nietzsche stem from an examination of the texts that employs Nietzsche's use of Idealist language against his evident wishes to dissolve metaphysical foundations for phenomena. The general structure of his attack, in each section of the text, is to determine how one might possibly read Nietzsche, then to show that his language and his intentions do not unite seamlessly, and then to accuse Nietzsche of some form of confusion, ultimately rendering Nietzsche's philosophical insights victim to his own hypocritical intellectual dishonesty. This is all somewhat tenable, but it must be said that it appears, in some places, to miss the point. Indeed, Ridley often accuses Nietzsche of not having a clear point. Nietzsche may have even agreed, but Ridley's conclusions do not necessarily follow. It is one thing to deconstruct a text, find parts of it unclear, and then to render it incomplete, unsatisfactory, or perhaps useless, though interesting. It is quite another thing to attempt to place oneself in the position of the author and to examine his attempts at constructing meaning from his perspective.
There is certainly enough between Nietzsche's 1868 essay "On Schopenhauer" and his 1874 essay "On the Uses and Disadvantages of History for Life" to contextualize his outlook toward what he gleaned from Schopenhauer and to recognize the difficulties of articulation that he acknowledges later in his 1886 "Attempt at Self-Criticism." Nevertheless, sympathy does not excuse fuzzy thinking, and if Nietzsche falls short here, then it is Ridley's duty to point it out. But it is not clear that Nietzsche's positions are as fuzzy as Ridley perceives. For instance, Ridley employs Nietzsche's adoption of the principium individuationis from Schopenhauer to demonstrate that Nietzsche traps himself within nebulous notions of metaphysical levels of a Dionysian universe while simultaneously attempting to eradicate them. On the surface, it may seem this way, but a further look at Nietzsche's relationship to, and understanding of, Schopenhauer reveals a much clearer conception, on Nietzche's part, of his intentions, if not vocabulary. It is granted, even by Nietzsche, that his language is delimited by metaphysics, though he is not confused, but attempting to overcome a problematic in the foundation of communication. The modality of the Dionysian interrupts this capacity playing havoc with expression of any kind. For Nietzsche, the only suitable response was necessarily an aesthetic form that represents our fundamentally non-rational non-reflective engagement with the world.
Ridley recognizes the principium individuationis as a Schopenhauerian hand-me-down, and equates it with 'the principle of sufficient reason', though later clarifying that they simply 'go together.' With this understanding, Ridley argues that Nietzsche's reliance on this principle reveals that he is positing a level 'logically prior' to a stable world of representational content. What appears to be missing here is Nietzsche's understanding of Schopenhauer's unresolved problems with the principium individuationis, as well as his adjusted recognition of it as a form of discrimination between modes of unity and individuality rather than levels to a metaphysically structured reality in general where Dionysian unity and essence exist in Lego fashion somehow supportively beneath or below selfhood. Attacking metaphysics from within the framework and entrenched vocabulary of Idealism that overshadowed much of the nineteenth century certainly had its pitfalls, as does the ongoing consideration of the metaphysical properties of language. Nevertheless, the principium individuationis is a problem that Nietzsche firmly recognized that Schopenhauer had not resolved and conceived of somewhat differently form Schopenhauer, even at an early stage. Nietzsche does not appear to have considered it as one of the transcendental constituents of Reality, but rather as moment of division in the modes of 'being' and 'becoming'.
Ridley initiates the text with the bold proclamation that Dionysus "is an arresting example of German Romanticism at its headiest." The presumption here is carried throughout the text. That is to say, Ridley's stance is that Nietzsche's early philosophical perspective is not differentiated from the Romantic vision except perhaps in scope. Such premises do little justice to the important aspects of Schopenhauer's break from Romanticism and Kantianism, nor Nietzsche transformation of Romantic notions into original ones. Ridley is quite correct in his assessment that Nietzsche felt Schopenhauer remained too much a Kantian. This does not mean, however, that Schopenhauer did not differ nor that the areas in which he differed are somehow inapplicable to Ridley's arguments. Nietzsche defends the early parts of The Birth of Tragedy against charges of Romanticism, dispelling Romanticism as 'the most un-Greek of all possible art forms'(ASC). Such a defense stems not from late judgments looking back at his career, but from the understanding that transformed Dionysus from a Romantic notion to begin with, and Nietzsche expresses as much. By the writing of The Birth of Tragedy, Nietzsche is already surpassing his initial appreciation of Schopenhauer, already somewhat dissatisfied, but Schopenhauer's twist away from the Romantics remains with Nietzsche until the end. Schopenhauer's maneuver through Kantian dualism via his materialist critique of the principle of sufficient reason is the tipping point from Romanticism to an existentialist perspective and a foundational one for Nietzsche. He seizes it and begins to expand its notions, sizing it up to his philological interests, his primary field at the time of the publication of The Birth of Tragedy. He and Dionysus are anti-Romantics, as is Schopenhauer, precisely because they are materialists, though it must be said that what materialism meant to them in the nineteenth-century is not fully commensurable with our present understanding. It is enough, for this review, to note that for Nietzsche, there is no Dionysian world behind the world any more than there is a Platonic 'Real' World behind an 'Apparent' one. To deconstruct Nietzsche's views by attributing to him some form of this confused outlook, misconstrues his philosophical perspective as it is generally understood. Nevertheless, Ridley's critique points well to Nietzsche's lack of systematic tidiness as well as a, more or less, nonexistent explication of his terminology. It seems right that Nietzsche should bear the responsibility of this, and Ridley's critique holds him to task.
The most intriguing and captivating parts of the text are Ridley's dissatisfactions with metaphysical readings of Nietzsche. He elaborates upon the 'Bipartite' reading of The Birth of Tragedy and rejects a strong metaphysical thesis in favor of a psychological one, though he reserves some space for a possible 'weak thesis' that can be characterized as metaphysical. Ridley acknowledges many of the previously mentioned points about Schopenhauer and Nietzsche's understanding of him, even going so far as to say ⌠Nietzsche seems skeptical that there is even a noumenal world,÷ but again regards Nietzsche as being confused about the matter. His favor toward a psychological thesis for The Birth of Tragedy goes somewhat toward refuting the metaphysical thesis, though his rendering of the psychological thesis does not align completely with Nietzsche's intention of the term. When Nietzsche discusses the psychology of the tragic poet, he certainly means the poet's first person engagement with the world, i.e. the emotive and lived experience, but not the poetic articulation of it to the self. This contrasts with the notion that appears to be the basis for Ridley's understanding of psychological, which portrays the Dionysian as an intellectual posture over and against the world as opposed to a mode of existence and engagement that stands contrary to an intellectually reflective one. After all, if the psychological simply equates with the intellectual, then any psychological thesis would necessarily be a metaphysical one. Ridley does not involve himself in the nature of Nietzsche's rendering of these modes, probably rightly, as they are certainly contentious. Instead, he deftly handles these sink holes for argument, important or unimportant as they may be, with personal comments foregoing judgment in favor of leaving possibilities open.
What Ridley argues well is Nietzsche's conception of art as 'counter-measure', or rather a channeling mechanism, for our response to the arbitrariness and meaninglessness of cosmic forces that govern the universe. Not surprisingly, however, Nietzsche's conception of art as a response to life is bifurcated, as well. Naturally, in The Birth of Tragedy, Nietzsche quotes his favorite pre-Platonic metaphor for the striving of the universe, the Heraclitean 'playing child,' to exemplify the capricious and disinterested 'becoming' of the cosmos. Ridley capitalizes upon Young's "brilliant diagnosis" that the loss of individuation is a search for metaphysical comfort, thus framing Dionysian 'becoming' as a form of intellectual dishonesty in regard to his attempt to overcome metaphysics. The mistake here seems to be, for both Ridley and Young, to think of the sublimity of the cosmos as the object of fear from which one hopes to escape or as something to which one can identify intellectually. Nietzsche employs the 'playing child' example precise to show that one needn't consider becoming fearful or evil, but unbiased and impersonal, as a child is with his toys that die one moment only to be immediately reborn for the next game. Instead, it is the loss of individuality that is fearful, though the loss of it provides an experience that is unexpected. It is the fear of death that marks the fear of the loss of individuality, not the overwhelming nature of the sublime. Art, in both the Romantic sense and the Dionysian sense, does makes life bearable for Nietzsche, though in different modes. When impersonal natural forces reveal our mortality, we can either hide our eyes behind the art of representation and impoverishment, divert ourselves in some way, i.e. via metaphysics, which is commensurate with Christianity and Romantic Art in Nietzsche's eyes. Or, we may throw ourselves into the abyss, embracing our mortality and thus live fully, artistically. There is no escape from calamity or fear. One must feel it fully in order to participate in 'becoming'. Again, Nietzsche's position here is not predicated upon an intellectual posture toward 'becoming', but an experiential one. Intellectual dishonesty can only occur where there is a system of thought. The modalities of 'being', and 'becoming' are neither intellectual nor systematic in their concern for 'psychological' engagement with the world. It seems clear, in Nietzsche's view, that it is either/or. Nevertheless, Ridley concludes that the "Dionysian art of 'becoming' emerges, in a very striking way, as a truly excellent example of precisely the kind of art that Nietzsche labels, and condemns, as, 'Romantic'."
While there is much to wrangle with in this text, much that arrests the reader, therein lays the appeal. While it is obvious that this author finds a great deal of the text's conclusions disputable, it has the effect of drawing the reader into the debate as has just been demonstrated, making the text a fertile agonistic space. This attribute must be granted to Ridley's style. Whether or not one agrees with Ridley's perspective or adheres to his arguments, the presentation of Nietzsche's philosophical contributions as 'travesties,' 'dishonest fantasies,' and what would be worst of all to Nietzsche's ear, 'Romantic,' demand engagement from the reader. In this respect, the text is recommended for those who want to see how different interpretations of Nietzsche's foundations ultimately affect an orientation toward his entire body of work. In addition, a large portion of the text examines Nietzsche's interaction with the, at the time, new scientific views of the world and the hollow ringing of a mechanistic cosmos for which art serves as necessary savior. All in all, Ridley's text is rich with ideas, no matter which side one takes.
With conclusions that jolt, Ridley's instigation has an overall positive effect, and is refreshing in an environment where the standardized readings become all too common and monotonous. One can certainly enjoy Ridley's arguments for their candidness and their ability to point the finger at the shortcomings and confusing parts of a philosopher's work that have often been glossed over or construed to minimize their incoherence. One should not be fearful of challenging giants, and Ridley certainly is not. Whatever position one takes, and Ridley forces his readers to choose, one can be sure that he has elevated the category of 'guidebook' beyond the introductory. Whether or not this tactic will have the effect he desires will undoubtedly rely upon the disposition of the readers and the types of information that they are hoping to receive. But there is no question that he has supplied a competing philosophical interpretation of Nietzsche's relationship to Art that is recommended to everyone with a passion for the subject.
New York Institute of Technology