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Sandro Barbera and Giuliano Campioni, Il genio tiranno. Ragione e dominio nell’ideologia dell’Ottocento: Wagner, Nietzsche, Renan

Pisa: ETS, 2010 (2nd ed., first ed. 1983). 216 pp. ISBN: 978-884672595-0, € 18

Reviewed by Alberto Giacomelli

Sandro Barbera and Giuliano Campioni’s book, Il genio tiranno (“The tyrant genius”), relates Nietzsche’s philosophy to the thought of Richard Wagner, Arthur Schopenhauer, Jacob Burckhardt, Ernest Renan, and Robert Musil by focusing particularly to the figure of the ‘genius,’ of which figure each chapter considers a different sense or aspect.

    The first chapter deals with the relationship between the genius and the city. Wagner treated the city as the locus of processes of decay and annihilation of the subject, referring particularly to the accelerated rhythms of cities like Paris and how they thus become home to décadents and of the corrupted modern life. Through the artistic experience of Bayreuth, therefore, Wagner aimed to redeem humanity from the slavery and squalor of such “Zivilisation,” recovering the primal harmony between man and nature that it destroys. Schopenhauer, in his Parerga and Paralipomena, similarly describes the city as noisily nullifying the pathos of distance and the peculiar solitude essential to the genius, and even in his earlier The World as Will and Representation he presents the city as a huge masquerade connected with the worship of money. Schopenhauer too appeals to the genius to redeem this condition, claiming that while the common man can be considered a slave of his profession, the work of the genius is rather beyond such practical uses and is noble, since it has an end in itself. Barbera and Campioni show how Nietzsche links these concerns to his own criticism of modernity, in Thus Spoke Zarathustra as in earlier works such as The Birth of Tragedy. Thus they consider Zarathustra’s isolation from the city as an existential choice and an exercise in self-discipline against the “small man” and his lies, and note that the image of the “swamp-city” used in the section “On passing by” echoes that of the “big sewer city” of Paris referred to by Wagner. And even in the earlier Untimely Meditations, Barbera and Campioni claim, Nietzsche sees the genius as a crucial figure in the foundation of a new humanity.

In the second chapter of the book, Barbera and Campioni show how in his Vie de Jésus, Renan describes the figure of Christ as an aristocratic (charmeur) hero and how, while agreeing with Renan’s conception of a Jesus-genius, as a contribution to saving the immediate and sentimental element of Christianity, Wagner rejects Renan’s political vision of a scientific aristocracy built on a mixture between positivism and romanticism. They then show how Nietzsche too engages with Renan’s political project, following Wagner in criticizing its optimistic view of social and scientific progress as a reflection of romantic ideology and its metaphysical foundations.

Then, in the third chapter Barbera and Campioni describe the Wagnerian conception of “absolute music” as a “true dream,” showing how Nietzsche attacks this mythologizing of common life. In such works as Das Kunstwerk der Zukunft and Opera und Drama, Wagner praises Greek tragedy as an example of total work of art (Gesamtkunstwerk), and expresses his desire to revive it. As Barbera and Campioni emphasize, there are also important links between Wagner’s Beethoven and Schopenhauer’s The World as Will and Representation and Parerga in this regard. With this background, they proceed to explain how the Wagnerian belief in the possibility of a new fusion between myth and reality is considered by Nietzsche to be a romantic naïveté.

Interesting here are the authors’ remarks about the connections between Nietzsche’s The Birth of Tragedy and the Schopenhauerian and Wagnerian conception of art: the early Nietzsche agrees with the idea that pain of life can be made tolerable only through art, and particularly by means of the spirit of music, but Barbera and Campioni rightly underline how for Nietzsche the proposed redemption does not have a “nirvanic” value as in Schopenhauer, nor is it the romantic, magical rapture that Wagner claims. For Nietzsche, art rather has a vital value that does not deny life but elevates it and transforms it into something joyful. Barbera and Campioni emphasize how Nietzsche’s criticism of Wagner in this regard is influenced by Burckhardt, who denies the possibility of a comforting culture and rejects Wagner’s naïve aim of consoling the masses through the immediate magic of music. This directs Nietzsche to replace the figure of the genius with that of the “free spirit,” who combats the redemptive value given by Wagner to dream and illusion (“Wahn”) and the supposed capacity of the genius to break through the veil of appearance. Against the “drunkenness” of such romantic ideals, Nietzsche therefore proposes a new figure of the intellectual far from any connotation of genius, or even of humanity.

In the fourth chapter, Barbera and Campioni examine Nietzsche’s complex position regarding positivistic culture. Nietzsche shares with Schopenhauer and Wagner the criticism of “Zivilisation” and the “barbarism” of skilled and mechanical work. In this, he also echoes Renan, who criticizes industrial society for raising generations of little machine men, and aspires instead to a harmonious collaboration of all the sciences under a priestly caste of geniuses. He thus tries to reconcile romanticism with positivism, democracy and aristocracy. Barbera and Campioni show how Nietzsche too sees the alienation of factory work as strictly connected with scientific work, but unlike these other figures does not oppose science and the cognitive value of Aufklärung completely—he rather only criticizes the hyper-specialization that he thinks degrades human unity and vitality.

In the fifth chapter of the book, Barbera and Campioni emphasize the incompatibility between Nietzsche’s cultural project and that of Renan, despite the agreement of the two thinkers over the idea of an aristocratic élite distinguished from the masses and devoted to ruling them. Particularly in his Dialogues philosophiques (1871), Renan does not see the necessity of illusions as revealing a metaphysical void, as Nietzsche does, but rather considers it to justify a complete “theodicy.” Thus, for Nietzsche, Renan’s thought is still consolatory and does not arrive at an honest atheism and, indeed, reflects the Darwinist idea of sacrificing the individual for the species, an idea that obstructs the production of higher types. According to Barbera and Campioni, however, the main disagreement between Nietzsche and Renan in this regard concerns the interpretation of science: Nietzsche recognizes in science the capacity to question, and even to destroy, the faith in metaphysical values, while Renan neutralizes the destructive power of science, and indeed gives it the role of a new religion. Thus for Renan the scientist becomes “the tyrant-genius,” and the science becomes the only possible ethical model, while for Nietzsche—in Thus spoke Zarathustra for instance—the rule of society by scientists cannot be justified because science expresses Christian virtues and promotes deleterious specialization, in opposition to the exaltation of the body and the earth that he wishes for. Nietzsche therefore opposes his own notion of the “artistic tyrant,” able to shape his own life as a work of art and to mold other men as clay, to Renan’s “positivist tyrant.” Barbera and Campioni nonetheless argue that this notion conflicts problematically with Nietzsche’s other claims about human beings as pluralities, in his criticism of the notion of a “tyrannical” subject or agent.

The appendix of the book concerns Musil’s later interpretation of Nietzschean thought. Musil’s novel, The Man Without Qualities, is indeed rich in Nietzschean themes, relating especially to Thus Spoke Zarathustra and Towards a Genealogy of Morals. The characters of both Ulrich and Zarathustra treat science and morality as a schematization and simplification of the world, and Ulrich is a “man without qualities” because he refuses to fix himself in a single profession or character, an echo of Nietzsche’s notion of the lack of fixed subjecthood and the need of experimentation with the self. Barbera and Campioni read Musil as the first interpreter of Nietzsche to treat the notion of ‘will to power’ as a liberating one, but, at the same time, they consider Musil not to abandon the possibility of finding a new metaphysical ground, in presenting Ulrich’s heroic and experimental attitude as mixed with the desire to give a new form to an overly-chaotic present. They also rightly emphasize that Musil does not represent a “single Nietzsche,” a thinker with a single unifying thesis. The character of Walter, for example, is described as the personification of the average and ordinary man, while Clarisse represents the “Dionysian Nietzsche,” drawing upon Klages’s reading—she is therefore not simply “Zarathustra’s ape,” mechanically imitating the Zarathustrian attitude, but rather embodies the deep connections between redemption, irrationalism, and madness that concern Nietzsche in the very last phase of his philosophical work. The appendix concludes with the characters of Moosbrugger and Maingast, Barbera and Campioni underlining the differences between Wagner’s idea of redemption, still linked to a religious conception of compassion, and Zarathustra’s, understood in terms of the innocence of becoming.

Barbera and Campioni’s complex study therefore provides a significant contribution to the comprehension of the philosophical, artistic, scientific, and political debates in which some of the most important French and German influences on Nietzsche and one of his most important twentieth-century interpreters were involved. It offers an original perspective on the philosophical question of emancipation and shows how nineteenth-century thought gradually freed itself from the themes of domination and coercion embodied in the idea of the “tyrant genius.” In particular, in adding to the rich critical literature on the topic of genius, the book develops the original theme of Nietzsche’s criticism of the deification of a “tyrannical” subject and his invitation to instead think of the world as a plurality of forces and of the “will to power” as a liberating will.

University of Padua, Italy