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Giuliano Campioni, Der französische Nietzsche

Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 2009. 346 pp, ISBN 978-3-11-017755-8, $77 (paper)

Reviewed by Manos Perrakis


According to an old but no longer current prejudice resulting from the ideological exploitation of his works, Nietzsche represents German culture at its most nationalistic. Considered in this way, the cosmopolitan character of his thought and the various influences he received from other cultures are often forgotten. Against the background of this once widespread notion, Giuliano Campioni seeks to remind us that Nietzsche was a thinker who embraced France and the Latin spirit, not only being influenced by the French moralists and French classicism, but also always keeping a surprisingly close eye on his contemporary France. Indeed, Nietzsche read everything French he could lay his hands on, from philosophy and literature to newspapers and influential journals such as Journal des Débats and Revue des deux mondes.

Thus, it is not difficult to imagine what a Herculean task it was to reconstruct these primary and—mostly—secondary sources, and, most importantly, to weigh and assess the interactions between them in Nietzsche’s thought. As one of the editors of the published catalogue of Nietzsche’s personal library, Campioni has been skillfully performing this task for many decades. Der französische Nietzsche is both an exemplary result and a celebration of his lifelong studies, comprising contributions to seminars and conferences, most from between 1990 and 2000. This is the German translation of a book first published in French in 2001 under the title Les lectures françaises de Nietzsche (Paris, Presses Univ. de France), a title which perhaps better captures its content—it is not an overview of the topic “Nietzsche and France,”  as the German title might suggest.

The “French Nietzsche” unfolds in six chapters, in which Campioni presents important new material on Nietzsche’s French sources. In the first chapter, he criticizes the prejudice according to which Nietzsche was the intellectual antipode of Descartes. Earlier scholarship from both sides of the Rhine was based on a contrast between esprit français and esprit allemande—between French logical clarity, represented by Descartes, and the German heroic mysticism proclaimed by Nietzsche. Campioni insists that such a contrast misrepresents Nietzsche’s intellectual development by focusing merely on The Birth of Tragedy and ignoring his reception and use of Descartes as the model for developing his philosophical method from Human, All too Human onwards. Furthermore, Campioni shows how much Nietzsche’s understanding of Descartes owns to secondary sources, and in particular his readings of contemporary French writers such as Henri Joly, Lefebvre Saint-Ogans, and Ferdinand Brunetière.

The second chapter presents Nietzsche as the antipode of Ernest Renan. Here Campioni underlines the parallels and differences between Nietzsche’s “overman” and Renan’s notion of “devas” (divinities) as aristocratic responses to the crisis of modernity. Beneath the structural resemblance between the overman and the deva, Campioni argues, there is a substantial difference: while Nietzsche’s idea of the overman is a postulate for experimentation and for widening of one’s perspectives in a strictly immanent context, Renan’s concept of devas remains bound to a metaphysical teleological model with Gnostic elements. Moreover, this chapter clearly demonstrates how important not only Richard Wagner and Jacob Burchardt, but also writers such as Ximenès Doudan and Jules Barbey d’Aurevilly were for Nietzsche’s reception of Renan.

The third chapter treats the differences between German culture and French civilization in terms of the estrangement between Nietzsche and Wagner. Campioni shows here how decisive Nietzsche’s attraction to French culture was for his gradual emancipation from Wagner, a fierce opponent of French culture who was, of course, very displeased by the growing Francophile tendencies of his former disciple.

The fourth chapter shows how Nietzsche’s concern with the Renaissance—taken as the inception of the Latin spirit—began with Burckhardt, and further strengthened his bond with French culture. Here Campioni gives a detailed account of how the Renaissance provided Nietzsche with a historical role model for his cultural criticism of the 19th century. The conservative philology of the 19th century, in which a stark cultural pessimism was predominant, saw in the Renaissance an ideal epoch with a harmony and vitality that was lacking in contemporary culture. The Renaissance individual was seen as an heir of ancient Greek civilization and as an ideal that could serve as a pedagogical corrective to the weak mentality of the 19th century individual. Nietzsche’s readings of Stendhal, Hippolyte Taine, and Émile Gebhart, along with Burckhardt, enhanced his positive attitude towards the Latin spirit, and he placed special emphasis on the figure of the poet philologist exemplified by Petrarch and Boccaccio, with whom the “untimely” personas of Nietzsche and Burckhardt—brilliant philologists themselves—could very well identify. The figure of the poet philologist stands for a free individuality with a cosmopolitan character and contrasts with collective subjects such as nation or class, in an era of emerging nationalism.

In the fifth chapter, Campioni concentrates on Nietzsche’s treatment of Romanticism as a seismograph of nihilism and on the lyrical configurations of individuality in the post-God era, the dramatic and theatrical character of which is exemplified in the literary heroes of Lord Byron, Jules Michelet, Victor Hugo, and George Sand. Here not only the will, but also the inability, to act appears as the dominating leitmotiv of Romanticism.

The last chapter concerns Nietzsche’s readings of contemporary French literature, and particularly his treatment of the Parisian novel as revealing the typology of European decadence, a spectrum of reactive forms from brutalism and exoticism to dandyism and naturalism. Thus, Campioni shows how, in Nietzsche’s eyes, minor and major French Romanciers such as Paul Bourget, Pierre Loti, Gyp [pseudonym of Sibylle Marie-Antoinette de Riguetti de Mirabeau, Comtesse de Martel de Janville], Henri Meilhac, Anatole France, Jules Lemaître, and Guy de Maupassant provide the finest instrument of psychological analysis in the late 19th century. In this, the best part of the book, Campioni uses the constellation Nietzsche-Wagner-Renan-Burckhardt as his guide, which proves to be fruitful not only in assessing the interfaces among Nietzsche’s sources but also in drawing out the inner struggles between his ‘German’ and ‘French’ sides.

The great virtue of Campioni’s book is its exemplary philological accuracy, typical of the Italian school of Nietzsche scholarship of which he is one of the most prominent representatives. It meticulously handles an immense volume of material in offering a panoramic view of Nietzsche’s French readings, or what Campioni calls, in a slightly postmodern manner, Nietzsche’s “extratext.” However, one might say that while this panorama is colored in rich hues, it is lacking in clear lines, for which the reader pays too high a cost. Indeed, it often gives the impression that the material was put together rather hastily, without considering the readings in their appropriate philosophical contexts. Thus, although the chapters’ literary titles may sound charmingly old-fashioned, they are also indicative of the book’s loose structure. The absence of an index also cannot go unmentioned—indeed, in such a dense book about the study of sources, it is extremely surprising—and a catalogue of the French books found in Nietzsche’s library, which appears in the French version of the book, would have been a valuable addition.

Despite these structural weaknesses, Campioni’s book will be extremely valuable for Nietzsche scholars and indispensable for those writing on Nietzsche and France. The reader is exposed to a plethora of stimuli and finds solid grounds for further inquiry. Due to the panoramic view it offers, the book may be strongly recommended also to those with an interest in the history of European ideas in the second half of the 19th century.