Nicholas Rennie, Speculating on the Moment: The Poetics of Time and Recurrence in Goethe, Leopardi, and Nietzsche
Wallstein Verlag, 2005 not given; 3-89244-968-6, 359 pp
Reviewed by Keith Ansell Pearson
Nicholas Rennie offers this study on time and recurrence in his three chosen intellectual figures as a contribution to the fields of comparative literature and intellectual history. In particular, he sets out to probe the development of the 'moment' as a poetic motif and theoretical construct in Nietzsche, with Goethe and Leopardi's contrasting poetics of time taken as models for Nietzsche's early negotiations with the problem of the moment in the untimely meditation on history. Indeed, he wishes to go as far as to claim that eternal recurrence in Nietzsche can only be effectively understood by means of his relation to these two literary predecessors, with Nietzsche seen as playing the two figures against one another.
Rennie acknowledges that the history of the motif of the moment in the modern period is a long and varied one, with key contributions being made by the likes of Pascal, Leibniz, and Hume. He suggests that Goethe and Leopardi reformulate, in fact, Pascal's famous wager, in which the ultimate decision over the time of one's life takes the form of a gamble: either we bet on our lives on earth having no significance beyond what they appear to be, or we can commit ourselves to a faith in the possibility of an afterlife that possesses infinitely greater value. This provides us with a contrast between the time of our mortal life, which has the value of a mere instant, and the eternal condition of death or immortality. What is interesting in this conception, in spite of the theological character of the wager, is that the present acquires a special urgency and worth as the site of a transformative decision (as some commentators have noted — Hannah Arendt for example — Nietzsche's thought of recurrence can be construed as a thought about immortality, albeit of an unorthodox kind). As Rennie writes: "The present has no inherent value, but I can ascribe value to it by treating it as the signifier of a future condition of immense importance." We find an echo of this in Nietzsche's construal of eternal recurrence: on the one hand it requires a superhuman creature for its affirmation; on the other, such a thought helps to cultivate such an extraordinary creature. Eternal recurrence is a thought that wants us to have belief in the future, with the superhuman standing for the new Sinn of the earth that is required in the wake of God's death. The wager is required for Pascal because neither empirical evidence nor rational proof of God's existence can be made use of. In both Goethe and Leopardi the wager is appropriated so as to conduct an experiment with the present moment that wagers itself. In Rennie's account, Goethe represents, for Nietzsche, the possibility of revising and endorsing the gamble in Pascal's wager as an act by which the individual radically affirms the strength and unity of his or her subjectivity; by contrast, Leopardi represents an opposing, self-destructive attitude toward the same gamble. If, for Pascal, the wager opens up the possibility of salvation, Leopardi insists that the most logical conclusion of the gamble is suicide.
The study has a number of important and innovative features, not least the attention it bestows on Leopardi (1798-1837), a fascinating figure in Italian letters and romanticism, and also an important figure in modern European thought — sometimes portrayed as the first nihilist — who was read by Schopenhauer and who was endorsed by the early Nietzsche. He was to roundly reject his thinking later on and for reasons similar to his rejection of Schopenhauer's metaphysical pessimism and world-denial. Although the relation between Leopardi and Nietzsche has been the subject of an extensive literature in non-English speaking literature, especially Italian and German, Rennie's prioritising his significance for a full appreciation of Nietzsche contains fresh insights for English-speaking readers. The study is perhaps especially innovative in suggesting that Nietzsche's later theory of eternal recurrence can be fruitfully approached in the context of the concerns and ideas expressed in the untimely meditation of history, and the part of the book devoted to Nietzsche concentrates almost exclusively on it. Like previous research, Rennie maintains that although the essay on history considers the thought experiment of recurrence only to reject it, its question is never, in fact, resolved. Of course, the claim made that the manner in which Nietzsche formulates his conception of time in the Goethian and Leopardian metaphors characterizing the essay on history anticipates his later mature thinking on time and history will be taken to be a highly contentious one by many readers. But I think it is a claim worth taking seriously, even if Rennie's attempt to make the case for it does not, in the end, completely persuade or persuade to the level one would like. The study also sets itself the laudable ambition of seeking to show that in Nietzsche's 'stylized adoption' of Goethe and Leopardi we find a disruption of cliches that have come to haunt the reception of the texts of both. It is one of the most illuminating and richest appreciations of Nietzsche's essay on history I have read for some time, an essay that in recent years has become the subject of pedestrian readings and is in need of enlivenment. Rennie is especially good in showing that one of its primary concerns is with 'the stochastic incoherence of the modern historical consciousness' (p. 324), and he provides many valuable insights into Nietzsche's thinking on chance and contingency. The author succeeds admirably in one of his principal aims, namely, to show in clear and instructive fashion that Nietzsche's engagement with Goethe and Leopardi is indeed crucial to an adequate understanding of the text and subtexts that make up the meditation on history.
Rennie's study will appeal especially to those working in literary history and literary theory. There is plenty of talk of 'empty signifiers' and a 'poetics of non-presence' running throughout the book. However, the matters of genuine philosophical substance that surround Nietzsche's thinking on time (and recurrence) are not adequately dealt with in the study. This is simply because the relevant material is never looked at or, when it is, it is treated too cursorily and strictly in terms of the concerns of literary theory. The author's most important claims and theses fail to persuade simply because the book provides no properly sustained analysis of the key later materials, which is what is needed to ultimately make the argument a convincing one. Whilst the odd aphorism from Dawn and sections from Zarathustra and the Genealogy are made use of here and there, the later texts receive no sustained treatment. Perhaps the most glaring omission is the lack of any reference to, and treatment of, the M III, 1 notebook of 1881, which contains Nietzsche's first sketches of recurrence, including the remarkable first one, and where all the essential philosophical issues to be considered and deciphered are displayed. It is here that Nietzsche first tries out all the different aspects of the thought of recurrence: as a historical singularity, as a cosmological hypothesis, as a replacement for Christian belief, and as a practical incorporating maxim. Nietzsche's first sketch features motifs and movements of thought that have yet to be properly analysed in the literature, and Rennie has the hermeneutical skills to do valuable work here. In my view a tremendous opportunity has been missed. Also omitted from the study are surrounding materials from the period of Nietzsche's development that is of most concern to the ambit of the study, such as the lectures on the pre-Platonic philosophers and the time atom theory fragment of 1873. A treatment of these materials would have added support to the author's claim that at this particular moment of his intellectual development, where we find Nietzsche struggling to clarify and resolve the contradictions between the Goethean moment and the Leopardian one, he is beginning to develop his mature philosophy of time and history. The book makes no attempt to explain or analyse the complex and intricate nature of Nietzsche's intellectual development, including that of his relation to Schopenhauer and in my view no real justification can be offered for treating the meditation on history in isolation from the meditation on Schopenhauer, which is surely equally important for understanding Nietzsche on time, being and becoming, and recurrence. In the book, nothing is made of the determinism and fatalism of the 1878 moment in Nietzsche (volume one of Human, all too Human), of the emergence of the thought of recurrence in 1881/2 and the way this thought attempts to reconfigure determinism and fatalism, of how the tensions between determinism and freedom as they are conceived by Nietzsche are played out in Zarathustra, and so on. These critical points would perhaps not matter if the author did not wish to make such major claims for the interpretation of the essay on history offered in the book.
Having drawn attention to these omissions and lacunae let me emphasize that this is a very rich study and a welcome addition to the literature. Any reader of Nietzsche keen to cultivate a literate and informed appreciation of matters of time and recurrence in Nietzsche's work will greatly profit from reading it.
University of Warwick