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Monika M. Langer, Nietzsche’s Gay Science: Dancing Coherence

Palgrave Macmillan 2010. xviii+ 288 pp. ISBN 987-0-230-58069-5. Paper, £18.99/US$33.00.

Reviewed by Keith Ansell-Pearson

The Gay Science is an enigmatic book, a book of riddles, including the very nature of the project announced in the book’s title. Just exactly what is “gay” or “joyful” about the exercise undertaken in the book? And just exactly what is the status of its claim to being “science” or “knowledge”? In this commentary on the text Monika Langer does a first-rate job of “reading” the text and opening it up for the needs of the student reader. In a series of close and succinct readings she guides the reader through the book, from the new preface of 1886 to the final appendix of songs. Along the way she illuminates each and every aphorism, offering the reader attentive insights into the core themes of the book—the incorporation of truth, the naturalization of humanity, the death of God, the art and care of the self, amor fati, eternal recurrence, and so on—as well as minor and lesser-known themes such as the Epicureanism of the book. Throughout the study she mines for Nietzsche’s sexism, which she shows is in evidence throughout the book and in its stereotypical conceptions of the female; but this does not, fortunately, prevent her from appreciating the rich accounts of searching for one’s noble self that Nietzsche offers in the book. She is also especially good in showing the importance of the aphoristic form to Nietzsche’s project at this time where it serves to challenge beliefs in univocity, identity, stability, and systematization. She has used Kaufmann’s translation but throughout the book she corrects him on many points of translation, and this is most helpful. She thus shows an admirable sensitivity to Nietzsche’s language and play with words. She is an impressively close reader of the text and of Nietzsche’s thought.

For Langer GS is not a work that lacks careful organization in which it would consist of little more than a disconnected series of aphorisms (as David Allison has claimed). Neither is it to be read, as Kathleen Higgins has it in her innovative appreciation of the book Comic Relief, as structured like a series of loose fragments and in the manner of postcards from a traveller. Taking her cue from Richard Schacht, the author maintains that the aphorisms that make up the book are not as detached and disconnected as the metaphors of “fragments” and “postcards” suggest. This gives us the misleading impression that Nietzsche’s perspective is a disjointed one with the book being little more than a conglomeration of thoughts and impressions.  Citing Kaufmann, who once wrote that while Nietzsche’s books are easier to read but harder to understand than the texts of almost any other philosopher or thinker, Langer approaches GS as one of Nietzsche’s most elusive and difficult texts. If we are to fully comprehend it, she argues, we need to pay very close attention to its “intricate coherence.” In particular she wants to illuminate the interconnected character of many of the aphorisms. She maintains, rightly I think, that the coherence of the book is not that of the traditional scholarly treatise. Nietzsche considered most traditional philosophy, and especially modern German philosophy, boring and set out to enliven philosophical thinking: to give it a “dancing” coherence, where it could be at one and the same time passionate and knowing, affective and rational, and so on. Thus the subtitle of her study is well-chosen and captures thoughtfully something of the essential fundamental quality of Nietzsche’s mode of philosophizing. She notes how Nietzsche’s identification with the medieval lyric poets and poet-musicians signals his break with philosophy’s “academism,” as well as its pretension to possess a monopoly on truth and corresponding devaluation of poetry. In addition, for Langer, Nietzsche is a figure who undermines philosophy’s “longstanding dependence on overarching systems, pure concepts, a priori principles, and logical arguments” (xvii).  Although she states this, there is no extensive exploration in her book of Nietzsche's close relation to traditions within philosophy of materialism and naturalism, both ancient and modern. However, she does focus well throughout the study on a number of selected themes that serve to highlight the philosophical substance of the book. These consist of: (a) the de-deification of nature, morality, and knowledge; (b) the naturalization of ourselves; and (c) the beautification of our lives. In addition, there are helpful insights at various points in the book into Nietzsche’s critical relation to major philosophical figures, such as Plato, Descartes, Kant, and Schopenhauer.

The author does not aim to produce either a definitive or canonical reading of the text, either as a whole or in terms of the way she groups the sections together. She succeeds in providing the student reader with an interpretation of, and engagement with, the text that is highly attentive, incisive, reliable, and that brings out well the many challenges of the book. I have a number of criticisms of the book. The first is that although it is welcome to have every section or aphorism of the book treated and commented upon, this does make for a conciseness in which many key topics are treated far too cursorily and at times this makes for a superficial engagement with the book. Second, the author does not situate the book in the context of Nietzsche’s corpus as a whole, and here I think the student reader could have been given more guidance. Third, she sticks closely to the text and makes no use of the remarkable Nachlass from this period of Nietzsche’s development (admittedly this might have served to distract attention from the published book, which is her main focus). Finally, there is the lamentable fact that she has not read widely in the secondary literature: the selected bibliography at the end of the book amounts to just over one page, and the most up to date references are to works of 2000 and 2001. This means that the student reader is not being directed to a great deal of research that has been done on aspects of the text, including amor fati, eternal recurrence, the figuration of Epicurus, intellectual conscience, Redlichkeit, incorporation, and so on. None of these criticisms, however, should distract from the fact that this is an admirably close, nuanced, and fertile reading of Nietzsche’s text.

University of Warwick