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Friederike Felicitas Günther, Rhythmus beim frühen Nietzsche

Berlin-New York: Walter de Gruyter, 2008. ISBN 978-3-11-020490-2. Euro 58.00 / USD 81.00

Reviewed by Christian J. Emden

Until fairly recently, Friedrich Nietzsche’s early studies and lectures on rhythm and metre in ancient Greek language and literature, mainly written between 1869 and 1872, have not been discussed in quite the same detail, as for instance, his lecture notes on rhetoric. While both clearly highlight Nietzsche’s interest in connecting his work in classical scholarship with wider philosophical concerns regarding the philosophy of language and the problem of culture, his studies of rhythm and metre are in many ways more difficult for readers without a background in classical studies. Not surprisingly, they were largely treated as a curious footnote to his work on Greek tragedy, and to his wider concern with Greek culture, of interest mainly to classical scholars or Nietzsche biographers. This situation has changed considerably in more recent years, however, when work by James I. Porter and Fritz Bornmann, among others, has generated a broader interest in these notebooks and lectures.  But attention has nevertheless remained focused on Nietzsche as a classical scholar—his theory of the ictus being of particular relevance in this context. It is the great merit of Friederike Felicitas Günther’s recently published study that she widens this perspective considerably, arguing in great detail, and quite convincingly, that Nietzsche’s keen interest in rhythm and temporality is part of a more ambitious anthropologically oriented project: what is at stake here are the temporal and bodily foundations of normative cultural order. As Günther points out, Nietzsche realizes right from the beginning that the question of rhythm and time cannot be limited to language, or even music, but rather is connected to the question of culture itself. The normative structures of cultural order, in other words, can be detected in the latter’s temporality.

Günther’s study is, in short, a fine example of recent German scholarship in the field: philologically precise and clearly argued, elegantly written and displaying an enviable command of both Nietzsche’s texts and their sources. The book falls into two parts, respectively dealing with Nietzsche’s discussion of rhythm in the context of The Birth of Tragedy (1872) and with the way this discussion shapes his emerging critique of European modernity. The modernity’s lack of what he described in his first Untimely Meditation, “David Strauss, the Confessor and the Writer” (1873), as the “unity of artistic style in all the expressions of the life of a people” (UM I:1) emerges as a lack of disciplined order, an order that was supposed to be still present in the temporal consciousness of ancient Greece.

Günther’s book covers Nietzsche’s thought roughly between 1869 and 1876; it provides lucid interpretations of Nietzsche’s work as a classical scholar—mainly focusing on the book on tragedy and related writings—but also critical reassessments of other key texts, from the short essay on “The Greek State” (1871) and the Untimely Meditations (1873-76) to his reflections on Richard Wagner and on Eugen Dühring’s monistic notions of life and science. The argument rightly draws heavily on Nietzsche’s own sources, including August Rossbach’s and Rudolf Westphal’s pathbreaking work on Greek rhythm, Gottfried Semper’s studies on artistic style, and nineteenth-century music theory, from Eduard Hanslick, on the aesthetic side, to Hermann von Helmholtz, on the scientific side. It is the focus on these sources that, together with Nietzsche’s own work during the 1870s, allows Günther to show how a specific period of ancient Greece is able to take shape in Nietzsche’s mind as a counterideal to European modernity—a modernity that, in Nietzsche’s view, needs to be corrected through strategies of disciplining the body, through Bildung, and through rethinking the cultural function of the aesthetic. Indeed, the normative order of culture is as much a question of aesthetics as it is of politics. But Nietzsche’s opposition between ancient Greece and European modernity, Günther claims, also highlights the nature of human individuals as temporal beings, aesthetically reflected in the structure and plasticity of cultural artefacts: poetry, architecture and clothing styles are, like language itself, cultural manifestations of an apperceptive ordering of reality. This temporal aspect of life and culture, as Günther suggests, is for Nietzsche grounded in the human body itself, quasi-physiologically inscribed in voice and motion.

This anthropological dimension of rhythm and temporality becomes particularly obvious in what is perhaps Günther’s most innovative contribution, namely her revision of the relationship between the Apollinian and Dionysian in BT. In contrast to the common misperception of Nietzsche’s celebration of the Dionysian principle—providing, as it were, virtually unmediated access to the will, for instance, through music and ritual—Günther highlights the enormous emphasis Nietzsche placed on the Apollinian: after all, aesthetic experience cannot rely on pure will alone, or on pure feeling and intuition, but it requires structural order. Dionysos, to put it more flippantly, can’t do art. Günther’s detailed investigation into the function of the Apollinian, as shaping the Dionysian experience and giving the latter form, also shows that, for Nietzsche, the central problem of culture was the relationship between flux and permanence, between temporality and fixed order. It is precisely in this respect that Nietzsche’s interest in aesthetic questions stands in the service of a broader philosophical anthropology, and Günther’s study successfully re-evaluates the role of the aesthetic in Nietzsche’s early thought. The study might have profited on occasion from taking into account more English- and French-speaking scholarship—for instance, with regard to Nietzsche’s philosophy of language and with regard to his developing philosophical naturalism; Günther also tends to underestimate the wider implications of her own assessment for our understanding of Nietzsche’s early work. But this book is an important contribution to Nietzsche scholarship in that it critically and comprehensively examines one of the most crucial themes in Nietzsche’s early writings.