Keith Ansell Pearson. How to Read Nietzsche
New York and London: W. W. Norton & Company, 2005. 131 pp. ISBN-13 978-0393328219
Reviewed by Rainer J. Hanshe and Alan Rosenberg
Guidebooks on art, literature, and philosophy are an ever-exploding phenomenon; they are read more perhaps than the actual works of whatever summarized figure, which is one of their significant if not pernicious dangers. Norton's How to Read series is edited by Simon Critchley, professor of philosophy at The New School for Social Research, and includes books on Shakespeare, Sade, Freud, and most recently Derrida. More perhaps than any other figure in the series, Nietzsche presents the greatest challenge and the hardest questions. Recalling Nietzsche's comment that books written "for all the world are always foul-smelling books" (BGE 30) and that "not only writing but also thinking" (Z 1 "On Reading and Writing") will be corrupted once all learn how to read may have made Ansell Pearson bristle when writing it. In the foreword, Critchley notes that the series is based on a simple but novel idea, which is to ameliorate the dearth of often inadequate second-hand introductory books and replace them with intimate encounters with a thinker's ideas. The book is not to be an attenuated compilation of classic ideas, but instead what Nietzsche would refer to as fishhooks, instigating readers to pursue their own discoveries, though accompanied by skilled, to further employ the fishing metaphor, piscators. Ansell Pearson is our Captain Ahab and Nietzsche the whale of whales he is pursuing.
To disrupt customary modes of thought and to think differently is one might say the beginning of thought. Nietzsche, as Ansell Pearson notes in his introduction, continuously provokes us not only into thinking differently but also into thinking the most exigent and discriminating thoughts. It is a philosophy of precipices and summits and through our encounter with such thoughts, Nietzsche seems to want to provoke in us transformations, though he knows much in us is granite and cannot be transformed. What we cannot transform though we must love as fervently as we love our ecstasies, which are not without their degree of pain. In guiding us through Nietzsche, Ansell Pearson elucidates the tasks Nietzsche set for us in each of his texts. To understand such tasks demands that we read Nietzsche a certain way and Ansell Pearson fulfills that demand through becoming a cow, that is, he practices "reading as an art of rumination" (GM P).
To read Nietzsche is not however a placid affair; one must confront the terrifying dimension of his thought and Ansell Pearson does not recoil from that darkness, but boldly explores it. Noting that unlike Aristotle, philosophy for Nietzsche does not begin with wonder but horror, Ansell Pearson commences with a crucial and striking interpretation. Rarely is it emphasized and both analytic and continental commentators often neglect it. The tragic realization is that existence is simultaneously horrifying and absurd, and it is Silenus who utters the crushing assessment that it would have been best for us had we not be born at all, while to die as soon as possible would be the next best thing. Thus begins Nietzsche's battle, which might be characterized as a lifelong agon with Silenus, who perhaps more than Homer, Socrates, or Christ had to be confronted and overcome. For even if Christianity is overcome, Silenus would still remain. He is the fierce specter haunting Nietzsche, whose philosophy in part is an antidote to Silenus' exceedingly nihilistic vision of existence. From this pivot, and it is a decisive one to travel from, the journey through Nietzsche's philosophy is initiated. It is philosophy as sublimity, thus one that requires great courage to live up to. It does not suffer optimists like Socrates but demands figures like Zarathustra or the Übermensch, free spirits capable of confronting the pessimistic dimension of existence and not being overcome by resignation, but loving life in its horrific and questionable entirety.
In ten brief chapters, Ansell Pearson elucidates the major strains of Nietzsche's thought, presenting an overarching and subtle view that manages not to denude the philosophy of its complexity. This is not Nietzsche in 90 Minutes or Nietzsche for Dummies but a guidebook that goads and incites its readers, who are brought into an intimate encounter with Nietzsche. The reader is ably provoked as Ansell Pearson opens up a multitude of questions that even those well versed in Nietzsche will find engaging, sharp fish hooks that one may wish to fight and others that are enticing.
From the horror of existence, Ansell Pearson proceeds to the notion of the free spirit as elucidated in HAH stating "the expression free spirit needs to be heard in terms of a spirit that has become free" (22), emphasizing that, overall, Nietzsche's work is an attempt to generate conditions that enable individuals to make themselves into free spirits; considering however that Nietzsche dissolves the notion of will, the degree to which we are ever free remains a complex question, as does who is able to become a free spirit, for Nietzsche clearly does not believe everyone can become one. To Ansell Pearson, this early concept relates directly to Z, which he regards as offering a new kind of philosophical practice conceived as the art of transfiguration. In GS, Nietzsche defined philosophy as transfiguration. What is not stressed however is that Nietzsche did this to open up ways of thinking differently about the self so that it might be fashioned differently. With new notions of subjectivity and of what humans are capable of becoming, which may mean the very destruction of 'humanity,' how we fashion ourselves is of course completely dissimilar to previous self-configurations. Yet again, if there is no will, the degree to which the self is fashionable is complicated.
There are a plethora of further thoughts that we wish to examine, which is a testament to what Ansell Pearson has accomplished in such a brief book, but we too must be brief. In choosing aphorisms and select passages form Nietzsche's texts to elucidate the tasks Nietzsche set forth for humanity, Ansell Pearson elaborates the shift from metaphysical to historical philosophy, the death of God, experimental modes of thinking, cheerfulness and how suffering is related to it, perspectivism and how Nietzsche forces us to participate in it, the thought of the eternal return as not only a threat but a promise, and the notion of beautiful moments and ultimate beauties, perhaps two of the most intriguing and original parts of the book. Unfortunately, Ansell Pearson does not connect the death of God with Nietzsche's notion of horror, which is a significant parallel to pursue. The most acute and incisive segments of the book are surely Ansell Pearson's critiques, which figure in the main in the last two chapters. One of his primary critiques concerns the issue of meaning, which he claims Nietzsche did not overcome. The problem Ansell Pearson declares didn't need resolving but dissolving. To Ansell Pearson, Nietzsche does not surmount the ascetic ideal through the eternal return, his counter-ideal, for "affirming meaninglessness returning eternally is hardly a solution" (103). Whether this is sufficient basis for his critique is arguable. The eternal return is an affirmation of every joyful event in our lives, too; for Nietzsche, no meaning or reason is necessary for such ecstasy, nor is one necessary for suffering. Further, the tragic pessimist does not seek liberation from truth and terror but rather enters directly into it and through this is intoxicated, discovering even joy in destruction. The will to life is not denied but affirmed in the midst of pain and suffering, which isn't a sign of meaninglessness, but the sign of life itself—the very creation of life, birth, involves sickness, pain, and suffering as well as death. Yet, while Nietzsche diagnosed morality as a danger and problematized it with great ferocity, Ansell Pearson is correct to note that Nietzsche did not problematize meaning as thoroughly. While meaning was of concern to Nietzsche, meaning did not receive the particular and sustained analysis that did morality, or truth. His philosophy of pessimism rules out the desire for meaning as a form of hopeless optimism and knows that whatever meaning is produced is not absolute or eternal but something given and in constant metamorphosis. The Nachlass though does contain fragments of such a critique and it must be kept in mind that Nietzsche's philosophical work was interrupted, thus we cannot write and interpret him as if he left us a complete philosophy. In the end, Ansell Pearson's attitude towards Nietzsche is agonistic, which is precisely the kind of "ironic resistance" (107) one must exercise before Nietzsche. To engage with his thought is to wrestle with him and Pearson's book is an able aid for that task.
CUNY Graduate Center & Queens College, CUNY