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Paolo D’Iorio, Le Voyage de Nietzsche à Sorrente: Genèse de la philosophie de l'esprit libre

Paris: CNRS Éditions, 2012. 246 pp. ISBN 978-2-271-07457-7. Paper €20.

Reviewed by Emmanuel Salanskis

As its title indicates, this book is a study of the trip Nietzsche made to Sorrento in 1876, after the Bayreuth festival and before the publication of Human, All Too Human. Paolo D’Iorio’s main thesis is that at Sorrento Nietzsche became a true philosopher, abandoning his metaphysics of art together with his commitment to the Wagnerian cause in order to develop his philosophy of the free spirit. D’Iorio collects all of the available documents about the Sorrento trip, from the allusions to his Italian experiences in Nietzsche’s notebooks and subsequent works, to letters to and from his traveling companions and memoires of friends and acquaintances. The chief interest of the book lies in this philological work, which is characteristic of the Italian school to which D’Iorio belongs and will be of use to any scholar who wishes to study the transition from Nietzsche’s Basel years to the “trilogy of the free spirit” that begins with Human, All Too Human of 1878.

D’Iorio’s subtitle, “genesis of the philosophy of the free spirit,” announces a genetical reading of Nietzsche’s post-1876 works, D’Iorio’s methodology aiming at tracing the emergence of important lines in Nietzsche’s thought during his Sorrento trip. Arguments in favor of this approach – and against the accusation of biographical reductionism – appear rather late in the book, with a reference to Mazzino Montinari’s famous statement, “Nietzsche’s thoughts and books are his life” (p. 162). But this conception of the intertwining of Nietzsche’s life and work allows D’Iorio to conceive of certain biographical events as philosophical experiences.

One important example of this is Nietzsche’s experience of hearing Genoa’s night-bells in May 1877, which D’Iorio discusses in chapter 5. Here D’Iorio introduces the more theoretical concept of “Nietzschean epiphanies,” defined as moments of revelation in which Nietzsche perceives new semantic relations with their historical profundity and their future potentialities. Nietzsche’s notes on Genoa’s night-bells are then read as an illustration of this logic, inasmuch as they condense a childhood memory (Röcken’s bells, evocative of the death of Nietzsche’s father), a literary prism (Schiller’s poem Die Glocke and the epilogue added by Goethe after Schiller’s death), and a philosophical reference (Plato’s famous claim that “Nothing human is worthy of being taken very seriously”). D’Iorio convincingly shows that, by adding a “nonetheless” to these evocations of death and vanity in section 628 of Human, All Too Human, Nietzsche questions the inference from the transitoriness of human affairs to their lack of value. Indeed, D’Iorio even follows this important genetical thread through to the “heavy growling bell,” which Zarathustra hears before whispering his doctrine of the eternal return in life’s ear, in book III of Thus Spoke Zarathustra. Thus, the thought of eternal recurrence itself appears ultimately to be Nietzsche’s answer to his Genoa “epiphany.”

However, the word ‘epiphany’ carries several connotations that must be extremely problematic in a Nietzschean context. Admittedly, D’Iorio tries to avoid some of them. But his comparison between Nietzsche and James Joyce creates other misunderstandings: even supposing we could forget the Christian theology of manifestation that seems to haunt the young Joyce’s texts, can we really include Nietzsche among adherents of an aesthetics of the “instant” (p. 170) like Virginia Woolf? This would run the risk of ignoring Nietzsche’s rejection of any kind of immediate certainty or intellectual intuition. Moreover, the axiological suggestions of a term are no trifling matter in Nietzsche's philosophy, since they denote a particular genealogy and determine subsequent cultural effects. One must concede to D’Iorio that concepts are needed to shed light on genetical processes in Nietzsche's work, but the central concept that D’Iorio proposes to this end is a controversial one.

Another important aspect of D’Iorio’s interpretation regards the issue of periodization. According to him, the so-called Wagnerian period of The Birth of Tragedy and the Untimely Meditations actually represents a digression in the development of Nietzsche’s thinking, and the traditional tripartite division of Nietzsche’s work into early, middle, and late obscures the continuity between the young Nietzsche’s reflections and the “philosophy of the free spirit” (p. 88-90). Here, some readers will recognize a stance defended by D’Iorio elsewhere, namely, that Nietzsche kept his true philosophy secret during the Basel years, primarily to avoid an open conflict with Wagner. (See, for example, D’Iorio’s introduction to the French translation of The Pre-Platonic Philosophers, “La naissance de la philosophie enfantée par l’esprit scientifique,” in Friedrich Nietzsche, Les philosophes préplatoniciens, Paris: L’éclat, 1994, pp. 11-49).

But this reading is questionable, both in itself and in relation to the book’s general thesis. Regarding the book’s general thesis, to say that the Wagnerian period was a digression implies that Nietzsche had a philosophy before 1876 – a significant qualification to the thesis that Nietzsche’s stay in Sorrento marks his “Becoming a philosopher,” as the title to D’Iorio’s introduction puts it. Indeed, D’Iorio himself defends another version of the tripartite division he criticizes, one that makes the first period Democritean, rather than Schopenhauerian or Wagnerian. Regarding the reading itself, reducing five of Nietzsche’s published books to a digression sounds unconvincing. Continuities undoubtedly exist between Human, All Too Human and the writings prior to The Birth of Tragedy, but continuities can also be found between Human, All Too Human and The Birth of Tragedy. For example, as D’Iorio himself has pointed out elsewhere, in both Human, All Too Human and The Birth of Tragedy Nietzsche is concerned with the problem of justifying a world of becoming and caducity (D’Iorio, “La naissance de la philosophie enfantée par l’esprit scientifique,” 33, n. 44). Furthermore, given the theme of the book and its genetical aim, one may regret the absence of a more detailed philosophical characterization of the period that begins in Sorrento. D’Iorio seems to put much weight on the idea of a positivistic turn, one of the pillars of the classic tripartite division. Yet it would be important to explain how this positivism can be compatible with a “skeptical philosophy” (117) or why it must raise the question of the value of human affairs (p. 178).

Nonetheless, it must be said that these philosophical difficulties do not prevent the book from being a useful and agreeable read, and its philological precision as a biographical study should be welcomed.

Universidade de São Paulo / Fundação de Amparo à Pesquisa do Estado de São Paulo