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Krzysztof Michalski, The Flame of Eternity: An Interpretation of Nietzsche’s Thought and Espen Hammerm, Philosophy and Temporality from Kant to Critical Theory

Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2012. 231 pp. ISBN: 978-0-691-14346-0. $39.50/£27.95 (Cloth); Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011. 260 pp. ISBN 978-1-107-00500-6. $90.00/£55.00 (Cloth).

Reviewed by Keith Ansell-Pearson.

 

According to Krzysztof Michalski, Nietzsche’s intellectual project, from start to finish, has an overarching and unifying theme, namely a reflection on time, including the passing of human life, the emergence of new things, and the general finitude of existence. For him, then, it is possible to organize Nietzsche’s thought into a coherent whole around the concept of “eternity,” where eternity signifies a dimension of time, indeed, the core of it, its essence and engine. Typically, we think eternity as a refutation of time and of becoming, signaling an infinite prolongation. The author, however, wishes to show that eternity is what can explain the transformation of the present into the past and that it comes to the fore not outside the flow of time but in it.

The book couples this meditation on time as eternity with incisive, original, and, at times, deeply moving accounts of other great philosophical themes, such as love and death. Michalski is particularly brilliant on death, making use of texts from literature as well as from philosophyAs he notes, death is not the next step in life, but a step into the abyss since it is a decisive and radical interruption of the continuity of existence. As he writes in his preface: “Death does not fit what I know; our confrontation with death places us before a wall of incomprehension. Before a mystery” (vii). As a force of disruption, death and love are perhaps comparable: “Death and love reveal the fundamental discontinuity of our bodily presence in the world” (viii). The author locates a moment or an interval in time when everything we are and do is brought into suspense and, in the blink of an eye (the Augenblick), the chance of a new beginning arises. For him, this is what eternity essentially names.  It is what allows for the world to pass and to become, and as such it can be said to characterize our lives in terms of their corporeal reality. Because of the eternity in time we are unable to unite any single moment of life into one, content-filled totality, so that it amounts to a fundamental diversification of a life.  Michalski quotes Nietzsche when he writes that eternal life is not another transcendent life but the very life we live.

In short, the essential feature of a life is that it is marked by discontinuity, and is this not the essential challenge presented to a life? If it is, then why is it so common to regard the essential discontinuity of life as a sickness to be treated? According to Michalski, Nietzsche calls this pathology “nihilism,” locating it in history as science and in science in general, but also in morality and religion: morality seeks to provide a totalizing account of good and evil, while religion takes God for absolute truth. We seem to be creatures who want continuity in our lives but who also prize, on occasion, discontinuity (since we are offered the chance of a new beginning). To think and work through this conundrum we necessarily have recourse to metaphor and Michalski suggests that Nietzsche’s central metaphor is that of fire or the “flame of eternity,” which, as he rightly notes, is an ancient metaphor for comprehending an essential dimension of life, if not its most essential one. Recognition of this can lead to some far-reaching insights, as when the author contends that the desire for the superhuman or overman “is inscribed in the very act of life: it defines life, it is life itself, its constant disquiet, which cannot be quieted” (162).

As is perhaps evident to the reader, Michalski’s study is as much poetic meditation as it is a work of philosophical engagement. In an era of ever more and more academic professionalization of philosophy––which has brought some fine things with it but also a homogenization of intellectual work––this “existential” reading of, and encounter with, Nietzsche stands out as a rarity. With this book we are in the welcome presence of a gifted writer as well as a philosophically literate mind. The book is essentially made up of nine essays, and taken together they provide a series of highly instructive meditations of core existential themes in Nietzsche, such as the meaning of time, love, and death. In addition, the author makes a valuable contribution to our understanding of core doctrines in Nietzsche, notably, the death of God, nihilism, and eternal recurrence. I concur with the author when he contends that Nietzsche is primarily engaged in philosophical therapy. Nietzsche’s philosophy is a rejection of the world around us and an attempt to find a way out of the crisis and an attempt at liberation (albeit a deeply enigmatic one, I would add). For Nietzsche, the author claims, the world is sick and humanity is in need of liberation from a deep malaise, which he calls nihilism. Nietzsche’s philosophy is seen to arise “from rejection, from outrage at the world, and from the pain that the world causes” (14). Furthermore, we will only come to understand the world as it is when we learn to deal with this pain and recognize its power. The essential demand here is that we respond to the problem of nihilism. Philosophy is said to lead us to the overcoming of nihilism and then the emergence of a new life and a new sense and sensibility, and ultimately to “affirmative creation” (15). Although there is much here that I agree with, I wish the author had developed a more nuanced appreciation of Nietzsche on nihilism. For Nietzsche nihilism has multiple meanings and manifestations (there are active, passive, and ecstatic nihilisms, for example); it is not necessarily something to be judged as bad and to lament (it entails a necessary working-through); and it can also work as a valuable “purifying” movement (Nietzsche will at times write in favor of a “contagious nihilism”). In some senses it is necessary perhaps to save Nietzsche from the charge of being a nihilist, but not in all senses. In this book, though, Michalski provides a thought-provoking study of important, if surprisingly neglected, existential themes in Nietzsche, including time, mortality, and finitude.   He is a graceful writer as well as a thinker of subtlety and depth and, as such, an engaging guide to these topics in Nietzsche.

In his wide-ranging study, Espen Hammer seeks to illuminate the philosophy of time in some major currents of post-Kantian thought, including figures such as Hegel, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche (to whom two chapters are devoted), Heidegger, and Adorno. His interest is not in time as an object of metaphysics but rather human existence in time and what it means to exist as a temporal being or agent. Several of the authors he deals with, such as Nietzsche, Heidegger, and Adorno, lament the hegemony of clock-time within modern life, locating within it a homogenizing power that deprives life of any sense of significance. Of course, an essential contrast can be made between Schopenhauer and Nietzsche: where the one offers a melancholic response to time’s passing, even refusing to accept finitude and transience (since they are held not to be truly real), the other builds a thinking of time on the basis of an affirmation and as a condition of any serious notion of “becoming”. But does Nietzsche’s attempt to radically re-think time and desire withstand critical scrutiny? According to Hammer, it does not since, he contends, “The re-directing of desire towards the transient world becomes a narcissistic game incapable of overcoming the problem of nihilism” (9). In short, there is no acknowledgement or recognition of the “other” in Nietzsche and that would serve to disrupt the sovereign certainties and creations of a narcissistic ego as represented, according to Hammer, in Nietzsche’s figure of the Űbermensch. Nietzsche’s philosophy is, therefore, too focused on the value of unhampered creation, especially self-creation. What’s the problem with such a focus, and for which Nietzsche has been roundly criticized on numerous occasions, including by feminist readers of Nietzsche such as Luce Irigaray (in her text The Marine Lover of Friedrich Nietzsche)? For Hammer, Nietzsche’s model of creation is that of the artist who shuns all external authority. The problem with this radical rejection of authority is that it deprives us of any measure by which the creations of the artist-philosopher can be valued, even by himself or herself. This means that the creations of the philosopher-artist, who is a legislative type, threaten to become arbitrary and lacking in historical weight, with the result that the experiences they give rise to risk being empty: “There is no authority behind them with reference to which they can be justified as worthy of our attention and interest” (159). Hammer also has the worry, shared by many readers of Nietzsche, that eternal recurrence has abhorrent consequences: “Is he not asking us to condone moral evil, and indeed even encouraging us to rejoice in its return? [...] I cannot want my own life to return without wanting the world in which my life has unfolded, as well as the history of this world, to return” (158).

Hammer is a serious and instructive reader of key developments in post-Kantian European philosophy and he has an important story to tell about attempts to re-think temporality within this tradition. However, his readings are often quickly executed and I would have liked much more concerted engagements with key figures, such as Nietzsche. Although his reading of Nietzsche is pertinent and thought-provoking in places, it also strikes me as superficially executed (it is often imprecise and even inaccurate: at one point the second of his “Untimely Meditations” is given a date of 1876, while Nietzsche is said to be influenced by Pythagorean doctrine from 1881 onwards when they are already referred to in the 1874 meditation, On the Uses and Abuses of History for Life). He has neither read recent important literature on the key texts that he focuses his attention on, such as Thus Spoke Zarathustra, nor engaged with the most recent contributions on the core doctrines such as eternal recurrence or the politics of agonism in Nietzsche. More fundamentally, he fails to recognize that the main problem he is locating in Nietzsche’s thinking––the crisis of authority––is itself thematized as a major problem within philosophical modernity by Nietzsche himself, notably in Zarathustra, and in ways that he could have more productively engaged with.  Having made this criticism, let me stress the extent to which this is a highly instructive and valuable study of the phenomenon of temporality in Kant and key strands of post-Kantian thought. 

University of Warwick