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Heinrich Detering, Der Antichrist und der Gekreuzigte: Friedrich Nietzsches letzte Texte.

Göttingen: Wallstein, 2010. 230 pp. ISBN 978-3-8353-0635-6. €19.90 (cloth).

Reviewed by Anna Barth

The ambivalent status of Nietzsche as both genius and madman is the greatest myth of modern philosophy. In The Gay Science of 1882, he presented the parable of the madman seeking God and attesting his death (GS 125) and less than seven years later, only a few days before he was admitted to the Basel mental asylum, he wrote to Meta von Salis that “[t]he world is transfigured, for God is on Earth” and signed the letter, “The Crucified” (KGB III:5, 1239). It is not surprising that scholars consider notes like this, penned by the harshest critic of Christianity, as symptoms of Nietzsche’s insanity or pathological megalomania.

However, with this excellent study, Der Antichrist und der Gekreuzigte: Friedrich Nietzsches letzte Texte, the German literary scholar Heinrich Detering takes a very different approach. Detering’s hermeneutics are led by philology, not psychology. That is, he is not interested in providing a medical or psychoanalytic assessment of Nietzsche’s last works and letters, but rather bases his analysis on a close reading of them and on two premises: first, that there is a continuity between Nietzsche’s last published works and the letters and notes of his so-called insanity, and second, that Nietzsche remained fully accountable for his statements. In contrast to many scholars, then, for Detering Nietzsche’s late identification with “The Crucified” is neither a withdrawal of his earlier polemics nor a final act of scorning blasphemy. Instead, Detering argues, it is a “narrative consequence” (p.163) of Nietzsche’s role-playing from The Antichrist and the Dionysian Dithyrambs to Ecce Homo and his last letters. 

In seventeen short chapters, Detering reconstructs this narration, directed against both Christian dogmatics and scientific historicism. The Antichrist is thus taken as fiercely combatting the “life of Jesus” research of Nietzsche’s contemporary theologists, and particularly David Friedrich Strauss and Ernest Renan, who presented Jesus as a teacher of virtue or even as a hero. Detering further points out that Nietzsche’s antichrist is not only an anti-dogmatist and an anti-historian, but also an anti-Wagner. Richard Wagner had proclaimed and practiced a conception of art that was supposed to replace traditional religious systems with an autonomous art-religion. Although Nietzsche shared this idea, his conception also included freedom from resentment, leadership, and glorification—he thus was afraid of being sainted or winning believers (EH “Why I am a Destiny” 1).

According to Detering, after working on his “anti-Bible” through his anti-redeemer Zarathustra, and after dismissing both ecclesiastical Christianity and Wagnerian art-religion, Nietzsche returned to his Jesus-narration in the summer of 1888, when he started working on The Antichrist. This turn appears surprising, since Nietzsche’s earlier statements about Christianity in general and Jesus in particular seemed quite conclusively negative. For Zarathustra, Jesus was a melancholic Hebrew who was exasperated with the good and just and therefore longed for death (Z I 21). And in Beyond Good and Evil Nietzsche portrayed an uncompromising Jesus who frantically demanded to be loved and nothing else: his deep knowledge of love brought forth a contradiction of life, for it made him conceive of hell (to send there those who would not love him), desire to die and invent a God who is nothing but merciful love (BGE 269).

In The Antichrist, however, both Jesus and God are given a new quality. God suddenly appears as the transfiguration of life and not its contradiction (A 18). According to Detering, for the first time after attesting God’s death, Nietzsche thus came to a positive perception of God, even if only ex negatione. Jesus himself appears as a “great symbolist” (A 34) whose symbols (“Son of God,” “Father,” “kingdom of heaven”) are misappropriated by Christianity. By introducing the terms of guilt, reward, and punishment and the promise of the coming kingdom of heaven, Christianity made the Gospel a life-negating “Dysangelium” (A 39). All these terms, related to either the past or the future, are unknown to the Jesus of The Antichrist, who lives in a transfigured world beyond time and history. In revaluing Jesus’ symbols, Detering claims, Nietzsche takes being the “Son of God” to mark the entrance into the feeling of a general transformation and the “Father” to symbolize the feeling itself (A 34). Hence, the “good tidings” are not a moral or dogmatic doctrine, but a way of living (and dying). By Jesus’ demeanor on the cross, Nietzsche’s antichrist demonstrates a transfigured existence, which opens up the feeling of being “immortal” and “in heaven” (A 33). But Nietzsche also questions whether a psychological type like this compound of the sublime, the morbid and the childish (A 31) is still conceivable (A 29). 

The ancient word Nietzsche’s antichrist uses to describe this “incapacity for resistance” and “inability to be an enemy” is “idiot’ (A 29). In contrast to modern usage, Detering points out, Nietzsche’s sense of this term is not pejorative, but a value-free description of an instinctive exclusion of all aversion, all hostility, all bounds and distances in feeling, based on an extreme susceptibility to pain and irritation (A 30). Since, for Nietzsche, compensating one’s weakness with strength is the origin of resentment (EH “Why I Am So Wise” 6), Jesus’ “idiocy” makes him resistant to resentment. By an instinctive amor fati, Jesus thus overcomes his own decadence: he does not resist or defend his rights, nor does he show anger or attribute blame, but he suffers and loves with those who do him evil (A 35). Nietzsche finds a thinker of this paradoxical power of “idiotic” weakness in the Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoyevsky, although scholars agree that Nietzsche is unlikely to have known his novel, The Idiot.

Similar to the revaluation of the Crucified in The Antichrist, although less radical, is the subtle revaluation of Dionysus that Detering observes in the Dionysian Dithyrambs (1888-89). There, Dionysus is no longer described as a truculent God of tragic mystery and inebriation, but as a symbol of vitality and seductive gentleness. The Dionysian and the transfigured existence of Jesus in The Antichrist are thus closely related.

Detering further argues that The Antichrist marks an important step towards Nietzsche’s later identification with Dionysus and the Crucified. For the antichrist is not the person Nietzsche writes about (like Zarathustra was), but the person whose perspective he takes in order to judge Christianity. Thereby, Nietzsche performatively ends the Christian narration by means of its own myth and, at the same time, tells the myth anew, transforming it in the process. Detering thus gives an important clue to how to deal with Nietzsche’s term, “type,” which scholars have often interpreted as referring to an exemplary base form, in a manner that echoes the theological thought of “imitatio Christi.” In contrast, Detering rightly prefers to understand Nietzsche’s use of the term as a prefiguration of fulfillment (p. 111). Hence, he claims, Nietzsche established the antichrist, or himself in this role, as the prefigured fulfiller. 

This conclusion is born out by the fact that Nietzsche alludes to himself with the title of his last published work Ecce Homo. Detering does not perceive this title as a kind of self-ridicule on Nietzsche’s part, as many scholars do, but as a formula of pathos (p. 126) by which Nietzsche relates himself to the “psychological type of the Savior” (A 29) presented in The Antichrist. Accordingly, Detering calls Nietzsche’s autobiography an autohagiography, a term he borrows from Andreas Urs Sommer (p. 114). However, this term seems inappropriate, given Nietzsche’s refusal to be a saint (EH P:2)—his last published book was presumably intended precisely to prevent him from being as misunderstood as the Crucified was by Christianity. But Detering rightly considers Ecce Homo to be the continuation of The Antichrist’s Jesus-narration, since Nietzsche’s self-portrayal borrows many aspects from The Antichrist’s depiction of Jesus. Particularly in the passage about his own suffering (EH “Why I Am So Wise” 6), the closeness between Nietzsche and The Antichrist’s Jesus is apparent. Nietzsche’s later identification with “The Crucified” is thus already inherent in Ecce Homo.

Detering interprets “Dionysus versus the Crucified” (EH "Why I Am a Destiny" 9) as a double antagonism. For him, these controversial last words of Ecce Homo comprise, first, the opposition of Nietzsche’s Dionysian revaluation of suffering (demonstrated by The Antichrist’s Jesus on the cross) to the Christian tradition of the Crucified and, second, the difference between the tragic God of joyful destruction, disrupted and reborn, and the gentle “idiotic” existence of The Antichrist’s Jesus beyond time and history. Hence, Dionysian immortality and amor fati based on the eternal return is opposed to the Crucified’s “immortality” and amor fati based on timeless transfiguration (pp. 89ff.). Detering thus rejects the assertion of many post-structuralist readings of Nietzsche, that the ambiguity of Nietzsche’s last published phrase exemplifies a radical form of “unreadability” (p. 90). For Detering, the dialectics of this double opposition are rather the point of Nietzsche’s new religious narration, the renewal of the Orphic myth of Dionysus Zagreus by the biblical narration of the Crucified and, vice versa, the revaluation of Golgotha by the Dionysian myth. 


Detering concludes that the purpose of Nietzsche’s art-religion is the coalescence of two Western grands recits that had been brought into opposition by Christianity nineteen centuries before him. As a rejection of the heroic German mythology performed in Bayreuth, Detering writes, Nietzsche constructed a “chiastically interlaced myth of the crucifixion of Dionysus and the disruption of Christ” (p. 104). He thus presented his work as the beginning of a new age, in which two narrations would be overcome —namely, the Christian degradation of strength and imputation of sin and the Greek delusions of grandeur and contempt for “idiotic” weakness. And when, in the first week of January 1889, Nietzsche’s “great narration” (p. 161) came to an end, Detering shows how in his notes Nietzsche continued and completed his narration about the Crucified and Dionysus, by coalescing with this double myth. Detering skillfully anatomizes the interlacing of the mythical references in these notes, which are far too complex to be adequately summarized here. 

Detering’s book thus provides an outstanding analysis of the late Nietzsche. His refusal to dismiss Nietzsche’s late writings, and particularly his notes of 1889, on psychological grounds throws a fascinating new light on Nietzsche’s late work. Certainly, this concise but thorough study is not exhaustive, but raises many new questions that both philosophical and theological Nietzsche scholarship should take up. Ultimately, even if Nietzsche’s last letters were written beyond what we would call sanity, Detering’s analysis gives useful incentives to doubt that they were written beyond method. 

Humboldt University of Berlin