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THE WORLD AS A WORK OF ART


By Karsten Harries; Karsten Harries is a professor of philosophy at Yale University. Published: January 19, 1986

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NIETZSCHE Life as Literature. By Alexander Nehamas. 261 pp. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press. $17.50.

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THE HUMANITIES have become uncertain of their way: recent EMAIL discourse in philosophy and literary theory suggests that reason has undermined trust in reason; the traditional distinction between SHARE theory and literature, between philosophy and poetry, has blurred. PRINT Such uncertainty has renewed appreciation of Nietzsche's attempt to REPRINTS replace Plato's idealized Socrates, whose life and death celebrated confidence in reason, with his own ideal image of the philosopher, an idealization of himself as a poet-philosopher opening doors to a postSocratic, postmodern culture. At issue is the future of philosophy. Philosophers and anyone interested in philosophy ought therefore to welcome Alexander Nehamas's elegant and challenging interpretation of this ''most writerly of philosophers.'' Mr. Nehamas, who is a professor of philosophy at the University of Pittsburgh, uses two related themes to give unity to his study. The first is Nietzsche's perspectivism: we know no fact independent of interpretation; there is no vision of reality untainted by prejudice TicketWatch: Theater Offers by Email and perspective - but that doesn't mean that one interpretation may not be better than Sign up for ticket offers from Broadw ay show s and other another. Nietzsche's perspectivism helps explain his experiments with different styles of advertisers. writing, which force us to pay attention not just to what is said but to the way it is being (1 OF 45 ARTICLES) See Sample | Privacy Policy said. Instead of excluding himself from his texts, Nietzsche intrudes himself; instead of the MORE IN BOOKS Revisiting a Scholar Unmasked by self-effacement we have come to expect of scholarly writing, Nietzsche constantly reminds Scandal us that his insights are very much his own. Committed to perspectivism, Mr. Nehamas Read More MOST EMAILED RECOMMENDED FOR YOU attempts something of the sort himself. Not that he resorts to Nietzschean hyperbole or tries to match Nietzsche's masterly play with language; but like Nietzsche, he does not let 1 . V ideo: The Race for the Best Picture Oscar us forget that his is only one interpretation, and reminds us of others with which it invites comparison.
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The second theme of Mr. Nehamas's interpretation is Nietzsche's estheticism. Nietzsche is said to look at the world as if it were a work of art (more precisely a literary text), at persons and things as if they were characters or entities in some work of fiction, at our relationship to the world as if it were textual interpretation. This literary model lets Mr. Nehamas present Nietzsche's ''will to power'' (often understood as a theory about nature) as an act of interpretation that gives definite shape to an indeterminate world. It also provides him with a key to understanding Nietzsche's doctrine of the eternal recurrence, which offers ''not a theory of the world but a view of the ideal life.'' That ideal celebrates the person able to affirm all he has done and to re-create himself as the hero of a narrative that, in its perfection, lets us experience every detail as inevitable. For Mr. Nehamas, a good example of the self-creator is the narrator of Proust's ''Remembrance of Things Past.'' Not that the life of this narrator was ever Nietzsche's own ideal. ''But,'' says Mr. Nehamas, ''the framework supplied by this perfect novel which
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THE WORLD AS A WORK OF ART - NYTimes.com

relates what, despite and even through its very imperfections, becomes and is seen to be a perfect life, and which keeps turning endlessly back upon itself, is the best possible model for the eternal recurrence.'' Such perfection, Mr. Nehamas concludes, Nietzsche strove for and achieved. ''Nietzsche's texts therefore do not describe but, in exquisitely elaborate detail, exemplify the perfect instance of his ideal character. And this character is none other than the character these very texts constitute: Nietzsche himself.'' BUT this conclusion puts into question Nietzsche's, as well as Mr. Nehamas's, esthetic view of things. What is the relationship between ''the miserable little man'' Nietzsche was and ''the magnificent character'' he created? Does the creation of the latter rest on a triumphant affirmation of the former? Doesn't it presuppose quite the opposite, a need to escape from life into art? And isn't that escape itself a manifestation of what Nietzsche's Zarathustra calls ''the spirit of revenge,'' a rejection of all that binds us into time - body, life and reality - in favor of their reflections in the mirror of art? To overcome the spirit of revenge, to redeem ourselves in Nietzsche's sense, we must find the strength to accept ourselves as we are, vulnerable and mortal, willing power, yet lacking power. This struggle renders the German philosopher's texts profoundly ambiguous. There is no denying Nietzsche's estheticism, but we must also hear his call for a redemption from the spirit of revenge, a redemption that would overcome every estheticism. We should not forget his sad end when we admire ''the magnificent character'' emerging through the books he wrote. To trade even a miserable life for the grandest delusion is to strike a questionable bargain. And so is to trade adequacy to the many different strands of Nietzsche's texts for esthetic coherence. But just because it runs this risk, this unusually engaging book demands our attention.
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