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Translation copyright © 2006 Columbia University Press

Originally published as Dialogo con Nietzsche. Saggi 1961 –2000

Copyright © 2000 Garzanti Libri s.p.a.

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The translation of this work has been funded by SEPS

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

Vattimo, Gianni, 1936–
[Dialogo con Nietzsche. English]
Dialogue with Nietzsche / Gianni Vattimo ; translated by William McCuaig.
p. cm. — (European perspectives)
Includes bibliographical references and index.
ISBN 0–231–13240–9 (cloth : alk. paper)
I. Nietzsche, Friedrich Wilhelm, 1844–1900. I. Title. II. Series.

B3317.V359313 2005

Columbia University Press books are printed on permanent

and durable acid-free paper
Printed in the United States of America
c 10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1
chapter 7
Art and Identity
On the Relevance of Nietzsche’s Aesthetics

M u ch of t h e de bate taking place today on Nietzsche’s thought and

its possible relevance arises out of a basic problem: how should we read
his reversal of Platonism?1 For in overthrowing Plato, Nietzsche rejected west-
ern metaphysics in the archetypal form from which (as far as he and his major
interpreters, especially Heidegger, are concerned) all of its subsequent develop-
ment had flowed. This problem is also the best place to begin a discussion of
how a Nietzschean aesthetics might be configured and its possible relevance
today. Indeed, when it comes to aesthetics, the connection to Plato turns out to
be particularly illuminating and significant, for on the question of art, it seems
clear—to me at least—that Nietzsche’s reversal of Platonism is not, as Hei-
degger at bottom believes,2 a partial one that leaves unchanged the dichotomies
and oppositions (sensible versus intelligible, appearance versus reality, and so
on) established by Plato but rather that it goes right to their core and radically
contests them.
At the threshold of western aesthetics stands the famous condemnation of
imitative art delivered by Plato in The Republic. This “condemnation” was re-
futed, beginning with Aristotle. But the western tradition moves for the most
part within the alternatives established by Plato, not questioning them but cov-
ering them up and concealing their origin, and its reception of this one is a case
in point. Plato formulates his thesis in The Republic, books 3 and 10. The part
of it most often adduced and discussed is the metaphysical argument about the
distance that separates the image produced by the artist from the idea created by
God (Rep. 10.597b), which downgrades the work of art to the status of a copy of
a copy, with the pedagogical corollary that to know and enjoy a copy of a copy
is to move further away from the world of ideas. But Plato’s main emphasis is
always on the opposition between the true Being (or being true) of the ideas
Art and Identity: On the Relevance of Nietzsche’s Aesthetics 

and the character of the artistic image as appearance (as phantasm, specter,
eidolon, semblance, simulacrum, Schein …). This entails the hierarchical sub-
ordination of sensible knowledge and the emotions to intellectual knowledge.
In the dialogue Io, Plato adds another line of argument to the aesthetic position
taken in The Republic: the rhapsodist and the poet are not “technicians,” they
do not speak with well-grounded knowledge, and the only possible source of
their utterance is a mysterious force that inspires them, a divine madness. This
is generally read as a statement that simply parallels The Republic: imitation is
condemned in the Io not on the basis that it makes copies of copies but because
it is an activity that cannot be fitted into a rational framework. The third book
of The Republic takes yet another tack: dramatic imitation is deprecated because
it entails the identification of the imitator with base and unworthy persons or
attitudes (Rep. 3.395d ff). But apart from this “moral” line of argument, taken
up again in book 10 with the one about a copy of a copy, there is a more radical
and global thread of argument that links the discourse of the Republic to that
of the Io in a more coherent fashion. The impossibility of defining poetry as a
techne, which is the conclusion of the Io and may be considered as a prelude to
the “condemnation” in the Republic, counts heavily against art primarily be-
cause it flouts the division of social roles.

But perhaps, I said, you would affirm it [the imitative, that is, the dramatic,
type of poetry] to be ill-suited to our polity, because there is no twofold or
manifold man among us, since every man does one thing… . If a man then, it
seems, who was capable by his cunning of assuming every kind of shape and
imitating all things should arrive in our city, bringing with himself the poems
which he wished to exhibit, we should fall down and worship him as a holy
man and wondrous and delightful creature, but should say to him that there
is no man of that kind among us in our city, nor is it lawful for such a man to
arise among us, and we should send him away to another city, after pouring
myrrh down over his head and crowning him with fillets of wool.3

It is true that right after this Plato appears to limit his condemnation once
again to imitations that lead to identification with what is most low and vile.4
But these lines allude to a more general and fundamental reason for condemn-
ing imitative art, a reason already adduced earlier in very explicit terms:

And to still smaller coinage than this, in my opinion, Adimantus, proceeds

the fractioning of human faculty [a moment before it had been agreed that
 Art and Identity: On the Relevance of Nietzsche’s Aesthetics

not even the poets themselves are able to produce good imitations, either
tragic or comic], so as to be incapable of imitating many things or of doing
the things themselves of which the imitations are likenesses.5

In the Platonic vision of the state, “there is no man of that kind … nor is
it lawful for such a man to arise”—a man, that is, who evades the logic of the
division of labor. The division of labor corresponds to an essential character of
human nature. There is no man capable of stepping outside himself and sinking
into other roles, other individualities; if it appears that there is, it happens only
in the realm of imitation and poetic fiction. But this weds the condemnation
of imitation as fiction and as a copy of a copy to the “technical” argument of
the Io by establishing a nexus between the true reality of human nature and the
division of labor. For that matter, in the Io itself this nexus is clearly articulated:
the reason it is impossible to define poetry in technical terms is the fact that the
appearance it produces causes the poet and the rhapsodist themselves, prior
even to the listener, to be transported outside themselves, so that it is no longer
they who are disposing words and images according to rules, but words and
images that are disposing of them. Thus poetry presents itself, in our experience
of it, as a sort of autonomous power of appearance, or—we might say—of the
signifier, a power that manifests itself precisely by transporting us beyond the
bounds of our “real” condition.6 This is why it cannot be theorized and reduced
to rules as a techne can.
The irreducibility of poetry to the model of the division of labor7 in this last
sense is thus rooted in the fact that poetry, as we experience it, is per se, consti-
tutively, a negation of the division of roles, a violation of the essential segmenta-
tion of human nature. Even when he does narrow his condemnation of poetic
imitation by sparing the narrative and mixed genres (on which, however, he
sets moral restrictions concerning the kinds of persons and states of mind they
may represent), Plato’s essential model of poetry is always dramatic representa-
tion, the kind that transports individuals outside themselves. It is only because
narrative and mixed poetry also ultimately imply transport outside oneself (the
rhapsodist referred to in the Io sings and narrates but does not actually do tragic
or comic theater), that it is necessary to set moral restrictions on the type of
events and personages they can represent.8 Even the “natural propensity” of the
poet for the sphere of the emotions rather than for the intelligent and composed
character9 has more to do with what we might call the ecstatic or disidentifying
essence of poetry than it does with his desire to please the audience. The intelli-
gent and composed character, “always similar to himself,” is not easy to imitate
Art and Identity: On the Relevance of Nietzsche’s Aesthetics 

or readily graspable. Poetry, which is above all an experience of disidentification

on the part of both poet and audience, prefers to seek its objects of imitation
not in the world of the ever-the-same but in the realm of the changeable and the
various: not in the zone of the intelligible but in that of the sensible.
It is not possible here to present a complete reconstruction of Plato’s aesthet-
ics with reference to this “theatrical” concept of imitation as disidentification,
nor to discuss, as one ought, the problematic relationship between madness
and the transport produced by poetry and artistic appearance, and the forms
of ecstasy and mania that Plato includes with a positive valence in his descrip-
tion of the voyage of the soul toward the ideas (as in the famous passage from
Phaedrus, 265b, where the poetic inspiration of the muses is one of the four
forms of divine delirium, the others being the prophetic, the mystical, and the
amorous). My aim is solely to emphasize that a decisive component of the all
too well known Platonic condemnation of poetry and art is the connection, first
clearly theorized by Plato, between poetic and artistic appearance on the one
hand, and disidentification, transport outside oneself, and the breakdown of
the ordered division of social roles on the other. The subsequent tradition has
mostly obscured this connection (though this affirmation too would require
separate documentation): isolated from its disidentifying power, the appear-
ance produced by poetic or artistic imitation could be justified as an auxiliary
instrument of knowledge or moral education (this starts with Aristotle); while
ecstasy, cut off from appearance, or related exclusively to an appearance already
depotentiated and made subservient to truth, was developed in its “positive”
valence only, as a mode of access to the deep structures of the metaphysical
order that also sanctions and guarantees the division of social roles and the
identity and self-continuity of individuals above all else. Before Nietzsche, per-
haps only Kierkegaard had revived the spirit of Plato’s argumentation, in his
theory of aestheticity as a stage of existential discontinuity; and Kierkegaard
fully endorsed the Platonic condemnation,

The concealment of the link between aesthetic appearance and disidentifica-

tion, a concealment that culminates in Hegel, may properly be regarded as one
aspect of the forgetting (of Being?) that, according to Heidegger, constitutes
metaphysics. Naturally to characterize metaphysics primarily through its con-
cealment of the art-disidentification nexus, as Nietzsche does, is a far cry indeed
from the spirit of Heidegger’s theses. Perhaps it even sheds light (with “Being”
placed in parentheses and followed by a question mark) on their permanent
metaphysical nostalgia. To recall the forgotten Platonic nexus between aesthetic
 Art and Identity: On the Relevance of Nietzsche’s Aesthetics

appearance and the negation of identity and social roles is what the Nietzschean
aesthetics is all about. I am far from claiming that we may speak of “the aes-
thetics of Nietzsche” as a coherent, unitary, and easily discernible whole. But
even the questions that such an expression immediately provokes form part, or
characterize the content of the problematic “Nietzschean aesthetics.” The main
reason for this is that the outline of the aesthetic problem grows progressively
more blurred as Nietzsche’s thought moves from The Birth of Tragedy, which is
still a book “on aesthetics,” to the reflections on art and artists in Human, All
Too Human, and on to the notes in the Nachlass and “the will to power as art.”
There is only one satisfactory way to account for this: my hypothesis is that
Nietzsche’s original model of aesthetic experience was narrowly based on the
problem of tragedy and the word-music relationship and that it evolved as his
critique of Platonic-Christian metaphysics and the civilization grounded on it
grew more radical. When he was a young man, his belief in “the art of our works
of art”10 had gone hand in hand with his faith that tragedy was being reborn
in the Wagnerian musical revolution. But as his critique expands, it draws art
into the same field of force as metaphysics, morality, and religion: art too is an
aspect of nihilism, one of those phenomena to which by now we have severed
our ties. Yet if it is clear in Human, All Too Human and his subsequent writ-
ing that the art of our works of art cannot be the model, or even the point of
departure, for a new tragic civilization, it is no less clear that art as it has been
determined in the European tradition has an ambiguous character and that not
everything in it is destined to perish with the devaluation of the highest values.
That is why art still features so prominently in the works of Nietzsche’s matu-
rity, from Zarathustra to the late notes for The Will to Power. The fact is that a
Dionysian ember still glows in art, despite all the mystifications and moralizing
misinterpretations that Nietzsche lays bare in his analysis, and the renewal of
tragic civilization depends on fanning it back to life. “Incipit tragoedia” is the
heading of the last aphorism of the fourth book of The Gay Science, in which
Zarathustra is first proclaimed.
Yet everything said to this point still concerns the “philological” problem of
defining a Nietzschean aesthetics—the problem of isolating a nucleus of propo-
sitions regarding art in Nietzsche’s thought and establishing their relationship
with his other doctrines and their development. From the perspective that in-
terests me here, it is less important to achieve such a reconstruction than it is to
sharpen our focus on the characteristic connection, explicitly theorized in full
as early as The Birth of Tragedy, between aesthetic appearance and the negation
of identity.
Art and Identity: On the Relevance of Nietzsche’s Aesthetics 

There is a strong analogy, at the level of description, between the phenom-

enon of the tragic as defined in The Birth of Tragedy and poetry as characterized
by Plato in the Io and The Republic. In Plato poetic imitation is interpreted
primarily in terms of its production of appearances (imitations, copies of cop-
ies), and then, more profoundly, in terms of its producing escape from iden-
tity. The decisive intermediate link between these two poles is the point that
the poet’s occupation cannot be made to fit into a strict model of the division
of labor. Likewise, in Nietzsche’s book on tragedy the production of aesthetic
appearance (the world of the beautiful Apollonian forms) is traced back to the
Dionysian impulse, which can only be defined as the impulse to negate identity.
The devotee of Dionysus is consumed by the horror and ecstatic rapture that
result when the principium individuationis (the principle that each individual
is himself alone and stands permanently apart from all the others) is violated.
For him

not only is the union between man and man reaffirmed, but nature, which
has become alienated, hostile, or subjugated celebrates once more her rec-
onciliation with her lost son, man… . Now the slave is a free man; now
all the rigid, hostile barriers that necessity, caprice, or “impudent conven-
tion” have fixed between man and man are broken. Now, with the gospel of
universal harmony, each one feels himself not only united, reconciled, and
fused with his neighbor, but as one with him, as if the veil of Maya had been
torn aside and were now merely fluttering in tatters before the mysterious
primordial unity.11

The heart of the festivals of Dionysus consisted almost everywhere “in ex-
travagant sexual licentiousness, whose waves overwhelmed all family life and
its venerable traditions.”12 Nietzsche distinguishes between the “barbaric Dio-
nysian” of the original Thracian founders of the cult and the “Hellenic Diony-
sian,” and although the remark quoted refers exclusively to the former, within
a few lines he asserts that at a certain point similar instincts penetrated to the
core of Greekness as well. The Dionysian is actualized when man is reconciled
with nature and with the rest of mankind in primal unity. This can only come
about through a violent break with the “venerable traditions” on which society
is built, above all the principium individuationis and all it entails.
Everything said about the Dionysian applies to the tragic as well—for the
tragic is not the balanced synthesis of the Dionysian and the Apollonian that
a number of explicit statements by Nietzsche appear to suggest. In The Birth
 Art and Identity: On the Relevance of Nietzsche’s Aesthetics

of Tragedy, the Dionysian element is privileged with respect to the Apollonian,

and tragedy is the final triumph of the Dionysian spirit. This view could be
backed up with numerous citations from The Birth of Tragedy itself and oth-
ers from across the entire span of Nietzsche’s career. The latter would show
that tragedy and Dionysus continue to play a major part until Nietzsche ceased
to write altogether, whereas the figure of Apollo disappears. And even in The
Birth of Tragedy, notwithstanding Nietzsche’s explicit intention to maintain
the idea of synthesis (the combination of Apollo and Dionysus generates trag-
edy, just as the duality of the sexes leads to reproduction)13 and thus his bond
with Schopenhauer, the Dionysian is clearly preeminent, more radically origi-
nary. Similarly, in the conclusion to chapter 21, in which he analyzes Wagner’s
Tristan, Nietzsche leaves no doubt as to how the overall effect of tragedy is to
be understood:

Should our analysis have established that the Apollinian element in tragedy
has by means of its illusion gained a complete victory over the primordial
Dionysian element of music, making music subservient to its aims, namely,
to make the drama as vivid as possible—it would certainly be necessary to
add a very important qualification: at the most essential point this Apollinian
illusion is broken and annihilated. The drama that, with the aid of music, un-
folds itself before us with such inwardly illumined distinctness in all its move-
ments and figures, as if we saw the texture coming into being on the loom
as the shuttle flies to and fro—attains as a whole an effect that transcends all
Apollinian artistic effects. In the total effect of tragedy, the Dionysian predom-
inates once again. Tragedy closes with a sound which could never come from
the realm of Apollinian art. And thus the Apollinian illusion reveals itself as
what it really is—the veiling during the performance of the tragedy of the
real Dionysian effect; but the latter is so powerful that it ends by forcing the
Apollinian drama itself into a sphere where it begins to speak with Dionysian
wisdom and even denies itself and its Apollinian visibility. Thus the intricate
relation of the Apollinian and the Dionysian in tragedy may really be symbol-
ized by a fraternal union of the two deities: Dionysus speaks the language of
Apollo and Apollo, finally, the language of Dionysus, and so the highest goal
of tragedy and of all art is attained.14

The two principles, which were compared in chapter 1 to the male and female
elements in procreation, have become brothers here. But their brotherhood
is not in the least one of equals: Dionysus may indeed speak the language of