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Alice Gonzi, Zarathustra a Parigi: La ricezione di Nietzsche nella cultura francese del primo novecento

Roma: Aracne, 2012, 361 pp. ISBN: 978-88-548-4502-2, Paper €20

Reviewed by Alberto Giacomelli

Alice Gonzi’s Zarathustra a Parigi analyzes the complex reception of Nietzsche’s work in French culture between 1877 and 1930. In the first chapter, she shows how French academic philosophy, generally of neo-Kantian orientation, and the Wagnerian circles in Paris in this period did not consider Nietzsche a canonical philosopher, but rather stigmatized his thought and minimized its importance. As early as 1891, Téodor de Wyzewa, in his F. Nietzsche, le dernier metaphysician, praised Nietzsche as a writer while criticizing him as a radical nihilist and pessimist. Although authors such as Daniel Halévy and Fernand Gregh treated Nietzsche as a philosopher of health and joy as well as a promoter of optimism and amor fati, against decadent culture, others, including Wyzewa, Ernest Seillière, Max Nordau, and Michel Bréal, referred to him in terms of immorality, “cruelty [cruellisme]” and illness and Andrè Gide rejected the idea of a Nietzschean “psychopathological philosophy.” Gonzi rightly emphasizes that the ambiguities of these first interpretations of Nietzsche’s thought in France were due to the lack of adequate and complete translations and to “mythologizing-biographies” promoting the “Nietzsche-legend” (Ernst Bertram, Nietzsche. Essai de mythologie, 1918, translated into French in 1932).

While authors such as Alfred Fouillée and René Berthelot situated Nietzsche in the cultural climate of Romanticism, his political stance was also significant. The French socialist Left rejected “undemocratic nietzschean aristocracy” and endorsed the anti-fascist interpretations of Georges Bataille and Henri Lefebvre. Several anarchist authors treated Nietzsche as a critic of the middle class, hostile to the state and morality, and linked him to Michail Bakunin and Max Stirner. Victor Basch in particular argued that there was nothing more opposed to Nietzsche’s idea of the Übermensch that the fascist celebration of brute force (L’individualisme anarchiste, 1904). In this context, Gonzi undertakes to explores the similarities and differences between Nietzsche and Stirner, observing that the reactionary circles of the French Right welcomed Nietzsche as an enemy of progress, a fierce critic of democracy and equality and an admirer of aristocratic genius and hierarchical societies. With the outbreak of World War I and the rekindling of French patriotism against Germany, however, interest in Nietzsche declined: the German soldier was labeled “a good disciple of Zarathustra” and Nietzsche’s thought was interpreted as a glorification of German imperialism, responsible for the war.

Particularly interesting in this first chapter is Gonzi’s analysis of Marcel Proust’s Recherche and his simplified and even caricatured image of Nietzsche. While Proust’s most important philosophical reference was probably Arthur Schopenhauer, Nietzsche remains a constant undercurrent in the Recherche, both in Proust’s sensitivity to artistic poiesis, as opposed to philosophical theoria, and in the idea that the truth of life consists in art. The dual, philosophical and literary nature of Nietzsche’s and Proust’s writings and their critical views of the idea of the substantial ‘self’ allow Gonzi to establish deep parallels between them, and at the same time to reject the idea that the Recherche treats Nietzsche’s thought only superficially or polemically. Proust seems instead to have used irony to mock the forced French interpretations of Nietzsche of the time.

The chapter ends with reference to the important works of Henri Lichtenberger, Charles Andler, Jules De Gaultier, Gide, Bataille, Paul Valéry, and Gilles Deleuze, as well as to Daniel Lesuer’s novel, Nietzschéenne, of 1908, the story of a young woman living according to Nietzsche’s ideas that raised the question of the relation between his thought and the feminine.

In the second chapter, Gonzi examines Nietzsche’s criticism of traditional values, as based on the distinction between pessimistic, or decadent, and Dionysian nihilism. She discusses Nietzsche’s critique of Kant’s moralism in the light of Jules de Gaultier’s treatment of the problem of history in Nietzsche: according to Gaultier, Nietzsche fully accepts Kantian metaphysical nihilism, or the rational impossibility of knowing God and the soul, and extends this nihilism to all moral concepts, including the categorical imperative. Through the different perspectives of Gaultier, Fouillée, Albert Lafontaine, Georges Palante, Pierre Lasserre, Charles Le Verrier, Jean Bourdeau, Émile Faguet, Berthelot, and Gabriel Huan, Gonzi also analyzes important issues regarding Nietzsche’s criticism of Christianity and asceticism as well as the connection between sin and guilt in terms of Nietzsche’s concern to rehabilitate the love for earthly life against the Christian mortification of the body.

In the third chapter, Gonzi considers French interpretations of the mature phase of Nietzsche’s thought. These interpretations oppose the traditional idea of the soul to the complex notion of a surhomme—a superman, or overman, who rejects all moral and religious beliefs in favor of a revaluation of corporeity and instincts and supersedes the dichotomies between good and evil, truth and error, while saving the concept of beauty. Gaultier underlines how the overman can never be fully realized, since he is characterized by the indefinite tension involved in superseding every achieved state. Gaultier also supplements his account with the necessity of pain and a dynamic conception of being, and Lafontaine appeals to this dynamic conception criticizing Nietzsche’s philosophy as a mere exaltation of brute force and mechanism. Fouillée points out an inconsistency in the notion of the overman—namely, that it cannot be “the meaning of the earth” if the earth itself has no meaning—and claims that the notion of a surhomme implies the need to eliminate the humble and the weak for the sake of a selective egoism. These interpreters therefore considered the idea of the surhomme dangerously comparable to racist doctrines not only from a biological, but also from a social point of view.

Here Gonzi rightly also refers to the French reception of the controversial notion of the eternal return. Gaultier interpreted the overman and the eternal return as two “mythological” interpretations of two physical phenomena, respectively defined as the “acceleration” principle and the “conservation principle.” Conceived in this way, the doctrine of eternal return, as a kind of stasis, would seem to contradict the doctrine of the overman, intended as the embodiment of change and movement. Batault instead tried to show the coherence of the doctrine of the eternal recurrence with contemporary scientific hypotheses such as atomism and mechanism, while Fouillée denied any scientific value to the doctrine.

After analyzing “will of power” in terms of Gaultier’s, Fouillée’s and Lafontaine’s ideas, Gonzi ends the third chapter by considering the debate over Thus Spoke Zarathustra. This “philosophical poem” was praised by Henri Albert, Edouard Schuré, and Gaultier, but was also strongly criticized by Fouillée and Wyzewa, who expressed serious doubts about the originality of Nietzsche’s thought. In their view, he simply replicates the Sophists’ and Skeptics’ arguments, Hobbes’s naturalism, and various themes taken from Diderot, Rousseau, and Schopenhauer. Thus Spoke Zarathustra therefore appeared to French interpreters as both a masterpiece of style and a poetical extravagance.

In the conclusion, Gonzi considers to the relationship between Nietzsche and Wagner, referring to studies by Berhelot, René Girard, Schuré, Wyzewa, and Lasserre, analytically outlines the positions of Lafontaine, Faguet, and Andler on the issue of “Nietzsche’s system,” and considers the Marie-Anne Cochet’s idea of Nietzsche as “a mystic without God.” The book also includes an interesting appendix, in which Gonzi analyzes the relationship between Šestov and Nietzsche, in order to show the Russian influence on his French reception, and analyses Gaultier’s introduction to Šestov’s book, L’idée de bien chez Tolstoï et Nietzsche. For Šestov, although Nietzsche violently rejected Christianity, he was nonetheless the heir of a strong mysticism. The “death of God” therefore need not imply a radical atheism or, as Fondane shows, that anything goes in the name of a superficial immorality, as Karamazov claims in Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov.

Gonzi’s Zarathustra a Parigi thus provides a comprehensive overview of the lively and fruitful debates over the reception of Nietzsche’s philosophy that took place in France in this period, outside academic philosophy. She succeeds in bringing out the fundamental stages of his reception, presenting issues, ideas and suggestions that influenced this crucial period of European history and contributed to the later development of French existentialism and other strands in twentieth-century European philosophy. Zarathustra a Parigi has the merit of opening the current study of Nietzsche’s philosophy to these “new” perspectives, arising from the complexities of its French reception as well as from the Russian trends represented by Šestov, Fondane, and Tolstoy.

University of Padua, Italy