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Damir Barbarić. Im Angesicht des Unendlichen: Zur Metaphysikkritik Nietzsches.

Würzburg: Königshausen & Neumann, 2011. 160 pp. ISBN: 978-3-8260-4677-3.

Reviewed by Maurizio Scandella

This book collects ten separate essays concerned with the problem of the infinite, or eternal becoming, which Damir Barbarić sees as “Nietzsche’s fundamental philosophical intuition” and, indeed, as almost his “only problem” (p. 10; quotations from Barbarić are my translations). Barbarić’s aim is to read Nietzsche as a metaphysician in the classical sense—that is, as a systematic philosopher concerned with reality as a whole, with being and becoming. In this respect, Barbarić follows Heidegger’s lead, although his conclusions differ significantly from Heidegger’s. In order to investigate the nature of the infinite, Barbarić pursues several approaches: he studies and interprets some recurring metaphors in Nietzsche’s work, such as the “silence” and the “night” that follow the sunset of Christianity with its “diurnal” system of values, and the “sea” into which all human knowledge seems to sink in the time of nihilism; he analyzes in detail the meaning and role of specific concepts in Nietzsche’s philosophy, and particularly “Dionysian Rausch,” “Heimatlosigkeit,” the “death of God,” and the “will to truth”; and, finally, he compares aspects of Nietzsche’s thought with that of other figures in the history of metaphysics, such as Hegel, Schelling, and the ancient Greeks. In so doing, Barbarić moves across the whole of Nietzsche’s writings, from the published works to the Nachlass and letters.

According to Barbarić, the primary function of Nietzsche’s notion of the infinite is critical: it shows the limits of thinking and language. The infinite cannot be objectified and understood through the traditional categories of metaphysics, morality, and knowledge, such as “unity,” “subject,” “cause,” “thing,” “soul,” “purpose,” and “will.” Rather, it is experienced through a feeling or sensation, which Barbarić connects with the ancient sense of thaumazein: “Nietzsche considers the soul’s opening in the encounter with the new, the foreign, the unexperienced, and the unknown as the essence of astonishment” (p. 20). This experience is both stimulating and frightening (p. 16), liberating and annihilating (p. 33); the individual experiences its “falseness,” especially that of its consciousness. If the infinite shows the inconsistency of words, should one then conclude that silence is the most true and perfect stage of existence? According to Barbarić, Nietzsche does not simply aim to abandon the realm of the thinkable and the speakable—that is, the realm of consciousness. His main concern is rather to deal with the limit-experience of the infinite (p. 47). But in which terms is it possible to approach such an experience, which is unconscious by definition?

For Barbarić, the answer to this question lies in the interpretation of Dionysian Rausch, which he understands as a state of metamorphic tension with a double nature: on the one hand, productive and creative, on the other, constantly lacking and unsatisfied. The Dionysian expresses life in its purest form: “[f]or Nietzsche, life is overabundance of being that turns itself into its opposite, into nothing, in order to become and to be able to affirm itself in becoming over and over. The last word of Nietzsche’s philosophy is neither for being nor for nothing, nor even for becoming, but rather only for becoming that always overcomes nothing and thereby is” (p. 81). This claim synthethizes Barbarić’s attempt to read Nietzsche as a “metaphysician” while marking his distance from both those interpretations that read him more as a “philosopher of being,” such as Heidegger’s, and those that read him exclusively as a “philosopher of becoming,” such as Deleuze’s. 

This claim also provides a guiding principle for Barbarić’s detailed analysis of the experience of the infinite. At first, this experience seems to be impossible, because the infinite shows itself as a constant change that breaks the unity of the experiencing subject—every single individual appears as something completely new in every briefest moment of time (p. 95). According to Barbarić, Nietzsche encounters here the ancient problems of the ineffability of the individual and the aporias of infinity, discussed by Parmenides and Aristotle. Nevertheless, Nietzsche persists in trying to comprehend the “impenetrable nature” of the continuum, for which it is necessary to measure change by something “still,” if the absolute is to be thought. 

To investigate the origin of this “persisting point,” Barbarić turns to the “Time Atom Theory” fragment of Spring 1873 (KSA 7: 26[12], p. 575 ff.). In this fragment, Nietzsche conceives of sensation not as a simultaneous process, but rather as the result of the action of single sensation-points. Each of these points has a dynamic and reproductive nature, and their essence lies in an original “suspension” or “restraint” of the descent into the chaos of the infinite. In this ambivalence, Barbarić claims, Nietzsche finds a “poetic reason”: every sensation-point “poetizes” persistence in change and thus individuates an intermediary moment between becoming and the lie of being. In this moment on the edge of the infinite, Barbarić sees the first possibility of persistence and thus the possibility of establishing a certain measure of “being” (p. 105). 

According to Barbarić, the reproductive force of sensation-points lies at the foundation of all human faculties—perception, fantasy, memory, and thought—all of which are moments of the “poetic reason” that produces identity in what is necessarily always different. This applies not only to the world, but also to the individual, or subject. It is in the instantaneous feeling of its own self-contradiction, the fundamental experience of the continuum of force that constitutes the individual, that the categories of representation find their origin as “means of protection” against the risk of sinking into chaos. In Nietzsche’s critique of metaphysics the fundamental categories are not, despite of their illusionary nature, fictions to dismiss; rather, Barbarić claims, “their necessity for life is acknowledged” (p. 143). Barbarić’s argument here seems convincing and shows that Nietzsche’s notion of the infinite has not only a critical value, but also a broader heuristic one.

Barbarić’s book will be valuable reading for those interested in the challenges and implications of Nietzsche’s theoretical philosophy. Two aspects are of special interest. First, Barbarić avoids reducing Nietzsche’s philosophy of the infinite to a sort of negative theology, a mysticism of the infinite or of life that would be just another form of the ascetic ideal. Instead, Barbarić reveals the theoretical work Nietzsche undertakes to reach a thought of becoming. Second, Barbarić attempts to understand the complex nature of individuality in Nietzsche’s philosophy. Standing before the infinite, permeated and shaped by the infinite, the individual—and especially the individual will—does not appear as given or simple, a point that is not always adequately acknowledged in debates over Nietzsche’s “individualism”.

Università di Bologna