Gregory Moore, Nietzsche, Biology and Metaphor
Cambridge University Press, 2002. ISBN 9780521024273 236 pages $43.00
Reviewed by Dirk R. Johnson
Nietzsche's connection to the biological theorists of the fin-de-siècle was recognized from the very beginning, even though the precise nature of that relationship remained indeterminate. Despite his works' congruence with the many biological theories abounding at this time, Nietzsche's ideas continue to elude identification with any single theory or group of theories. Even his association with Darwin and his ideas is an open question, despite continued attempts to link the two thinkers (the most recent attempt: John Richardson, Nietzsche's New Darwinism, Oxford 2004). Gregory Moore resists associating Nietzsche with a definitive biological theory or agenda, but he takes a clear position in this debate: Nietzsche was a nineteenth-century thinker whose thought reflected contemporary theories of evolution and degeneration.
Moore's efforts to highlight Nietzsche's affinities with these theorists reflect a trend within recent scholarship to acknowledge Nietzsche's scientific sources and to locate him in very specific contemporary debates. Robin Small's Nietzsche in Context (2001), for example, uncovers Nietzsche's indebtedness to lesser-known contemporaries such as Paul Rée, Eugen Dühring, and African Spir. And Moore points to other works on the fin-de-siècle and its preoccupations with hysteria, degeneration, and decline, which influenced his study. Here, he specifically mentions Sander Gilman, including Degeneration: The Dark Side of Progress (1985) (with J.E. Chamberlin), David Pick's Faces of Degeneration (1989), Elaine Showalter's The Female Malady (1985), Janet Oppenheim's Shattered Nerves (1991) and Mark Micale's Approaching Hysteria (1995).
The question of Nietzsche's "biologism" is an important though complex one. His works are replete with biological references, particularly in his later writings. His philosophy circles around "biological" notions such as weak and strong wills, sickness and health, upwards-striving and degenerating life. Moore quite rightly takes issue with Heidegger, who argued that we remain in the "'foreground' of his thought" if we read Nietzsche biologically (6). Overall, I fully agree with Moore's assessment of the significance of "biologism" for Nietzsche. But the question then becomes: how does one evaluate Nietzsche's position? Is it affirmative? Is it antagonistic? Or is it somehow a combination of the two, essentially "reflective," offering his readers a prism into the culture's preoccupations and fears concerning race, hysteria, miscegenation, and degeneration? Moore argues for the latter view, but I will return to this question later.
Moore has a vast and detailed knowledge of the relevant texts from this period. His intimate familiarity with the arguments of the major players — such as Darwin and Wagner — but also many of the lesser-known theorists (e.g., Féré, Roux, Rolph, Lombroso) allows him to establish links with apparently similar strains of thought within Nietzsche's texts. Whereas Moore focuses on Nietzsche, his work effectively summarizes writings by, among many others, Gobineau on the inequality of races; Nordau on degeneration; Galton on heredity; but also Goethe, Schiller, and Wagner on aesthetics. This familiarity allows him to make a strong case that no demarcation existed between the disciplines but, instead, that major thinkers and forgotten theorists alike were drawing from the same reservoir of vaguely "evolutionary" thought, both before and after Darwin's publication of the Origin of Species, in 1859.
Darwin, his theory of evolution, as well as other nineteenth-century interpretations of his theories, constitute the first part of Moore's study. In these first three chapters, Moore argues that "though some biologists openly proclaimed to be 'Darwinians', their thought often turns out to be little more than what Bowler calls 'pseudo-Darwinian', a blend of Darwinian rhetoric — usually the evocation of the struggle for existence — with attitudes that are in reality a legacy of the pre-Darwinian view of nature" (26). Despite Nietzsche's later claims to be "anti-Darwinian," Moore believes that "far from advancing a radical, coherent and effective critique of Darwin, Nietzsche simply reiterates the many errors and misunderstandings perpetrated by his contemporaries" (55).
Moore drives home his point by examining the writings of Nietzsche's contemporaries who, he argues, remained beholden to Romantic notions such as pre-Darwinian theories of Entwicklung and the Bildungstrieb. The latter concept Moore understands as the inspiration for Nietzsche's will to power: "The will to power is essentially a Bildungstrieb, and is, as it were, an amalgam of a number of competing non-Darwinian theories: Nägeli's perfection principle, Roux's concept of an internal struggle, and Rolph's principle of insatiability" (55). Ironically, Moore concludes, Nietzsche's allegiance to these pre-Darwinian paradigms of evolution reveals that "Nietzsche's evolutionism is more representative of nineteenth-century thought than Darwin's theory of evolution" (55).
In later chapters, Moore examines how idiosyncratic interpretations of evolutionary science by German thinkers impacted the realms of aesthetics and morality, and in turn, Nietzsche's philosophy. The publication of the Origin had "deprived aesthetics of its transcendental foundation," which necessitated a transition from the "nervous physiology of the previous century" to a newer form of post-Darwinian evolutionary epistemology (87). Ernst Haeckel, in particular, the most influential proselytizer for Darwin in Germany, combined Darwinian science with pre-Darwinian concepts of evolution from German romanticism: "His invocation of the Kunsttrieb is typical of the vitalistic undercurrents in much nineteenth-century German biology, and he was by no means the only thinker to delude himself into believing that the new evolutionary world-view lent credence to the Romantic conception of nature as a self-begetting organism with 'artistic instinct [Kunsttrieb]" (90).
The second part of Moore's study is devoted to the writings of the late-century "degenerationists." Here, Moore creates a correspondence between Nietzsche's understanding of décadence and contemporaneous theories of physiological and organic degeneration. While earlier eras had obsessed about decay and decline, "what distinguished the pessimism of the fin-de-siècle from that of previous generations was that the idea of decadence had now become a medical as well as a purely cultural concept" (116). Some interpreters recognize décadence as a late concern for Nietzsche. Moore, however, traces Nietzsche's interest in decadence back to the earliest writings (121). According to Moore, Nietzsche's anxiety about decadence was another reflection of the culture's "profoundly fin-de-siècle attitude towards contemporary social, political and cultural upheavals" (137).
Nietzsche's critique of Christianity must also be placed in the context of the wider cultural critique of Christ and Christian religion. Moore even argues that Nietzsche's "mischievous portrait of Jesus as a degenerate madman" was not original — a host of other writers had presented the Savior in similar terms (148). What did separate Nietzsche from the positivists was his disdain for their attempts to salvage a "secularized Christianity" from their demythologizing accounts (149). Moore concludes with an original reading of On the Genealogy of Morals and The Antichrist. Responding to Wagner and his followers' attempts to "aryanize" Christianity, Nietzsche ironically cast Aryanism as a negative historical force and Christianity as heir to the "nay-saying" Semitic religion (158). But Nietzsche still believed, along with Wagner, that the reversal of nineteenth-century degeneration would need to involve "both a biological and spiritual re-generation," paving the way for some form of "pseudo-eugenical religion of the future" (163).
In a final chapter on Nietzsche and art, Moore shows how Nietzsche equates health with beauty and moral integrity and ugliness with physiological degeneracy, echoing Goethe's famous dictum associating Classicism with health and Romanticism with sickness. Nietzsche's fascination with criminality, on the other hand, mirrored the late-century psychological profiling of degeneration and the criminal mind. Updating Goethe's dictum, Nietzsche transferred this modern sensibility to his analysis of art (172). The Case of Wagner, which alludes to the possibility of Wagner's (sexual) degeneracy, drew from current theories in an attempt to expose Wagner as a degenerate modernist. But it left him vulnerable to the same form of critique: Möbius' "case study" of a now insane Nietzsche showed how Nietzsche himself seemed to fulfill the criteria of décadence he had once ascribed to Wagner (191-2).
Moore's study is well written, lucid and makes a compelling case; however, I have critical reservations concerning his approach to the texts. For one, Moore relies primarily on the notebooks (28), and he draws from both published and unpublished texts interchangeably without much concern for the original source. But Nietzsche often experimented with different perspectives in the notebooks — even going as far as to quote verbatim lengthy passages from secondary sources (for example, from Charles Féré, as H.E. Lampl has shown) — without necessarily identifying with that position in the least. It was the nature of Nietzsche's creative process to refer to and quote passages from his contemporaries while working through to his own position. It is in the carefully crafted published texts, however, that he presents a "polished" version of that material.
Moore rarely adheres to textual chronology. He mines Nietzsche's texts for the concepts and often does not indicate from which period this insight emerged. This process creates the impression that Nietzsche's corpus is static, or that his thoughts on certain issues were fundamental, rather than constantly developing, shifting — or possibly even radically changing — over time. Moore's rhetoric also tends to drift into the language of the degeneration theorists. Since he believes that Nietzsche articulated their concerns, he often conflates their thought and language. In his analysis of the Antichrist, Moore claims that Nietzsche equated Christians with "degenerates" and Christianity with "degeneracy." But this kind of terminology appears in a late polemical text, one with a particular rhetorical strategy, and Moore ignores the numerous examples where Nietzsche tackled the complex phenomenon of Christianity with far greater subtlety. Instead, he takes his late polemical writings, which must be understood on the basis of their polemics, as Nietzsche's definitive word on the subject. In fact, he tends to impress Nietzsche's later preoccupation with décadence onto perspectives from his earlier texts.
By focusing on the wider cultural context of the fin-de-siècle, and Nietzsche's place in it, Moore fails to capture the philosophical novelty of his perspective. Nietzsche's deployment of medical, biological, and physiological terms was not an end in itself, let alone an expression of the culture's views on the "body," but one of his many means to achieve his overriding philosophical goal: to subvert morality. While the degenerationists' implicit moralism informed their analyses — Moore, interestingly, traces "degenerescence" back to the "explicitly Christian thinking" of the "devout Catholic" Bénédict-Augustin Morel (116-17) — Nietzsche's objective was to deny the possibility of any "scientific" measures of sickness, health, and well-being and to show how "moral" statements and values were attempts to impose absolute (moral) truths on ever-shifting physiological states. The central goal of Nietzsche's (physiological) analysis was to expose historical forms of morality and moral judgments — not "pure" specimens of "degeneration," "hysteria," and "decadence" as such.
And yet, what should one to make of the "explosion" of biological and physiological references in the post-1887 writings, where he reveals his fascination with décadence (120-21)? There is a conscious change of style and tone in these writings, whereas Nietzsche's earlier texts had essentially remained free of medicalized jargon. My own hypothesis — and here I most markedly differ from Moore — is that Nietzsche decided to engage in open battle with the late nineteenth-century phenomenon of décadence, which, for Nietzsche, manifested itself above all in the literary-cultural domain. For that reason he was inspired by Bourget, who had used the term in an essay on Baudelaire (120). Nietzsche's fight, now, was no longer against Christianity and morality per se, but against "morbid" expressions of Christianity in the culture of the fin-de-siècle (Wagner, Baudelaire, Tolstoy, Ibsen, etc.).
Nietzsche employs three relevant rhetorical strategies in this final stage. First, he uses the language of décadence to fight against the décadents. In the ultimate ironic move, Nietzsche uses the theories and terminology of the degenerationists to expose Wagner and his circle as the décadents par excellence. Thus Nietzsche, realizing that Wagner's keenest backers and supporters were adherents of these racial theories, turned the tables on them and implicated them in their own theories. Secondly, Nietzsche preempted their eventual attack by "outing" himself as a décadent. By arguing that he, as a décadent, understood décadence in all manifestations, Nietzsche not only reinforced his own expertise on the subject; he effectively neutralized the critique later directed against him.
Finally, Nietzsche, ever the consummate stylist, was keen to prove that, even in matters of style, he could out-décadent the decadents. Bettina Wahrig-Schmidt has shown that the insertion of scientific discursive elements in the narrative texts of the time, a stylistic hallmark of Nietzsche's late style, was typical of literary decadence (438). She quotes from Manette Solomon by the brothers Goncourt:
Ça, un baiser! cette machine en bois! Un baiser, ça? Mais les lèvres, c'est revêtu d'une cuticle si fine qu'un anatomiste a pu dire que leur papilles nerveuses n'étaient pas recouvertes, mais seulement gazées, gazées, c'est son mot, par cet épidermie.
Nietzsche understood that contemporary decadence was not only the inevitable historical consequence of two millennia of Christian morality, but that literary décadence was the only style possible in an age of decadence; the best writers of the time, by that very fact, had to be decadents. For this reason, he identified with, and modeled himself after, the Parisian school of writers, who were then the "purest," most honest practitioners of that literary movement.
Moore's analysis of Nietzsche as a rather straightforward expression of the theories of degeneration and decadence at the turn of the century is entirely plausible, particularly if you extract a consistent and essentialist position on biological concerns from the heterogeneity of his texts. But I believe another interpretation is possible: namely, to recognize Nietzsche's rhetorical strategies in his late polemical works and to evaluate his final position as one of his many "poses," another mask, which allowed him to subvert the phenomenon of decadence from within. Of course, the danger of this strategy was that it could backfire - and that his rhetoric could ultimately be seized upon as a perfect expression of the very phenomenon which he opposed.
Hans Erich Lampl, "Ex Oblivione: Das Féré-Palimpsest," Nietzsche Studien 15 (1986).
Bettina Wahrig-Schmidt , "Irgendwie, jedenfalls physiologisch," Nietzsche Studien 17 (1988).
Robin Small, Nietzsche in Context. Aldershot: Ashgate, 2001.