A Messenger of the Rope: In Conversation with Peter Sloterdijk
By Robert Pogue HarrisonJuly 10, 2019
His books include Critique of Cynical Reason (1983), Thinker on Stage: Nietzsche’s Materialism (1986), The Spheres Trilogy (1998, 1999, 2004), Rage and Time (2006), Nietzsche Apostle (2013), You Must Change Your Life (2009), and Not Saved: Essays After Heidegger (2001).
In 2016, he taught a four-week seminar at Stanford University on the philosophical implications of cynicism, with particular focus on Critique of Cynical Reason, a thousand-page study that has sold more copies than any other postwar book on German philosophy. This interview occurred during that sojourn. This transcript is taken from Harrison’s radio talk show, Entitled Opinions. The full recording is available on the Los Angeles Review of Books's Entitled Opinions channel, here.
ROBERT HARRISON: I have just finished reading your splendid little book Nietzsche Apostle, which was published in English in 2013 but first came out in Germany in the year 2000, on the 100th anniversary of Nietzsche’s death. What exactly do you mean when you speak of Nietzsche as an apostle?
PETER SLOTERDIJK: The answer is quite simple. Nietzsche had very high ambitions, and he asked an elementary question, “Who was the most fateful person in the history of Western mankind?” And the answer he gave — by himself, to himself — was that this person was obviously Saint Paul, whom he took for the real founder of Christianity — the apostle Saint Paul, who invented the apostolic role as such.
So Saint Paul was the most fateful person in history, according to Nietzsche. If it were possible to undo the effects that Saint Paul had created, it would change the course of history. According to Nietzsche, Saint Paul brought genius into resentment. He elevated resentment to a level from which it could become a gospel.
Do you believe that the figure of Jesus is secondary, in Nietzsche’s mind, to Paul?
In a certain way, yes. It’s absolutely not clear whether Jesus in fact had a universalist message. Jesus seems to be an elitist. He talks to those who can understand. Eventually there’s an encounter between the Gospels and the evangelical messages and Greek philosophy. The meeting began in Paul’s writings and was taken up in the fourth Gospel, which was written later. This meeting between Hellenism and the unruly Jewish method made possible what we call Christianity.
Of course, the word gospel means “good news” or “glad tidings.” You make a point of Nietzsche’s claim that he wrote the fifth gospel in his book Zarathustra. Can you speak … about this fifth gospel and the paradoxes at the heart of it? You claim Nietzsche made a great effort to convince himself of the “good news” and to continue believing that he was actually a bearer of good news. He was tormented by the fact that, before you get to any good news, there’s terrible news — dreadful, awful news that he has to bring to humankind.
First of all, the category of “news” is problematic because news, in modern terms, is actuality, whereas those who used it as a term in former times simply meant “message,” or in German, Botschaft. The Greek ἄγγελος is just a messenger. That is important. The connection with time is not yet so clear.
By the way, Nietzsche had not yet studied the so-called “gnostic gospels.” They were discovered later on. The so-called “New Testament” is situated within a broader field of texts. Among scholars, there has been a whole genre littéraire that we call “gospels.” We know of at least 30 to 40 now. And out of this corpus, four survived in the Bible. Saint Mark was the oldest one. But the order was turned around: the editors of the New Testament put Matthew in the beginning, then Mark, then Luke, and the last one is John, the Greek apostle. That is very important, because with John the Hellenization of the Jewish message started.
The “number five” that Nietzsche used to describe his own writings includes his claim that he had done something that should change the course of religious history: he pretended that he had introduced laughter as good news. There is a deep hilarity in wisdom, even if it has to be gained through the long tunnel of sad and horrifying knowledge that belongs to the modern condition. Modernity is all about disillusionment. It is the dawn of a long-protracted darkness. We all live in mist and dust. We cannot have very wide-ranging views because we live in the middle of the dust left by the deconstruction of the metaphysical tradition.
And you believe that Nietzsche knew that we were somehow obliged to live in this dark tunnel for a considerable time to come, and that his gospel is going to speak to us on the other side of these times?
Absolutely. As Nietzsche famously said, “I Am Not a Man, I Am Dynamite.” In Nietzsche’s time, the sound of an explosion was very Helvetic, because Switzerland was the country where the first heroic efforts were made to penetrate mountains and create tunnels — to create new ways to get to the south. That is the metaphysical question for all these northern people, the essential question: how can we win back an easier access to the Mediterranean truths? These tunnels in Switzerland fulfilled an important role in the history of modern culture because they offered the connection.
The connection between Germany and Greece?
Yes, between Germany and Greece especially. The British mostly stopped at the Alps. They were the co-inventors of “Alpinism,” and that might have sufficed for their ambitions. They’re very fond of the so-called “sublime” — the second great category of modern aesthetics. The ocean was already at hand for them; they had it immediately before their eyes.
But the Alps required a certain effort of travel. For Germans, the tunnels that led to the south posed a more essential question: how to regain free access to the truth that lay beyond the Alps, to the Italian truth, the Mediterranean truth, and then to the really big dream-essence?
And in Nietzsche’s case, he had a very direct tunnel to Greek wisdom early in his life. I don’t know how he did it, but he seemed to have the dynamite with him and he bore through the Alpine range right straight to Greece. He bypassed the laborious process that some of his predecessors, such as Hegel, had to go through.
He had a channel — or a tunnel before the channel was built — through his encounter with Richard Wagner, who was in his own way also a tunnel-maker, but not toward the Mediterranean truth but Nordic inspirations. He wanted to see northern gods come back on the tragic scene of German theater. So that is why, in his later work, he created this extremely demanding concept of the Wein Festspiele to replace classical opera. In English, that could be rendered approximately as “sacramental festival.” He intended people to go to these events in the same clothes they would wear to the sacrificial setting of an ancient ritual.
It went even further than the Catholic mass, where the body of the Lord was transfigured and shared with the community. In this, also, a different knowledge of the tools of suffering was to be distributed to an elite audience, a new Germany. So, new music for new ears. That was the formula of these later Wagnerian compositions.
You also authored a book about Nietzsche called Thinker on Stage: Nietzsche’s Materialism. It’s an in-depth analysis and reflection on Nietzsche’s first book, The Birth of Tragedy, which is dedicated to Richard Wagner. He makes a connection between the Greek stage and Wagnerian music. Do you think that Nietzsche had to do some special pleading to make the substantial connection between Wagner and the Greeks? Was there something about Greek tragedy that was not exportable to the northern mists and northern gods of Wagner?
Nietzsche’s encounter with Wagner was really good luck because it allowed him to connect with Hellenistic studies, in which he was a young specialist. That’s where his genius manifested itself for the first time. The encounter with Wagner was lucky because it allowed him to jump directly from Germany and Turin to Athens. He had direct access to the great Dionysian theater in Athens and he was a privileged visitor to that place. From Wagner, he imported the message of a new seriousness for music and culture generally, because the German opera was light opera at the time. It was kind of — what do you call it? — operetta. Today you would say “musical” or the classical opera buffa.
Wagner had learned that the seriousness of heroic music must move away from the entertainment principle. In that, he could connect very easily with the Greek metaphysic of theater. The theater was made to allow a large audience — in an ideal case, the complete male population of a big city — to be present when the suffering of God himself was represented, and to look at the dismembering of Dionysus and see how his suffering recreates the world and makes a new form of social synthesis possible. All experience the same drama. In an ideal case, all would cry at the same moment of truth in this spectacular shared presentation. And from there, people returned home as after a catharsis. This cathartic moment of the Greek drama became very important and remained important for each.
So would you say that the message of Nietzsche Apostle already begins with The Birth of Tragedy, and his thinking about Greek tragic wisdom and Dionysus, and the death of the God onstage, and the meaning of suffering? Is it already announcing itself in that early work?
I think so. He wrote an introduction to the second edition of the book that appeared in his own lifetime — and also in the last lucid days he had. He lost self-control when he was 44 years old. This introduction was eventually seen as the best piece of philosophic prose he had ever written. It’s extremely self-critical, but in one aspect he still has a kind of admiration for the young man who wrote this book. He still pretends that this young author was the first one to ask the question, “What could Dionysus really mean to us?”
His whole life’s work was a huge effort to unfold the meaning of a new encounter with a coming god. That was the attribute that the ancients had already given Dionysus. He was not an inmate of the classic Olympia. He was a non-Olympic god, someone who came from the East, accompanied by a bunch of wild men and women who were almost always drunk and wearing flower crowns on their heads — and he himself was riding on the back of a tiger. So with these images before your eyes, you see this event —
An epiphany, that is.
Yes. Jesus, a god to come. An event. And all the new theology is about the question: “How should we understand the temporal structure of this arrival that pretends, at the same time, to be already a presence?” Something is to come and something is already present. That’s the reason why Nietzsche later became, especially in Zarathustra, the singer of the metaphysics of high noon, because at this stillest hour the sun is in its zenith and the world seems to stand still and is perfect. The god must no longer move. He’s already there and you’ll just hold your breath and try to become a fair witness to the miracle of being —
— to the actual presence of the god, or whatever divinity one is referring to, either Dionysus, or the epiphany of Christ, which is also present and also to come. There is a strange temporality to this.
Heidegger mentioned somewhere that, after The Birth of Tragedy, Nietzsche did not write any more books. He only wrote polemics. The Birth of Tragedy is really his only bona fide book in the sense that it presents an argument. In the later preface, Nietzsche is extremely self-critical, as you say, and he writes of himself that “this author should have sung rather than spoken.” And yet, I have a very different impression of The Birth of Tragedy. I find it an extremely sober, well-reasoned book that lays out evidence toward arguments and attempts to present a rather coherent thesis that can be tested empirically, historically, or philologically. I think that we would have lost a great deal had Nietzsche sung this rather than actually reasoned out the arguments about who Dionysus is, and who Apollo is, and how they come together.
I think that Nietzsche is right to a certain extent when he said, “My soul should have been a singer rather than a writer.”
What he did in his later days was exactly that. It’s something that I sometimes say about my books: that with my ordinary voice I’m a baritone, but as a writer I’m a tenor. That is absolutely the case with Nietzsche.
Heidegger’s remark hits a very sensitive spot, but not to the disadvantage of Nietzsche. When he turns his back on the field of propositional prose, of putting one reasonable sentence after the other, he starts something that can be understood as a maneuver to confront this world history of resentment that is linked to the victory of Christianity as the official religion of the Roman Empire.
So to a certain extent it is true that everything after The Birth of Tragedy was polemical, but it is necessarily polemical, just as all writings of Saint Augustine were not sober writings, but prayers. The modality, or genre, presents just as important a role for understanding the writing as deciphering the original text.
So as a philosopher yourself, may I ask to what extent you consider yourself an heir to Nietzsche? And by heir, I don’t mean a pious disciple, I mean someone who has inherited the thought and the corpus and has metabolized it and given it new life in a new time.
That brings us back to the apostle problem: How can the contemporary author be a messenger without really knowing himself what his message could be? It sounds a little bit weird, yes? As if I were an employee of a postal service that rings at the door and says, “I should have a message for you, but I have forgotten it.”
Well, I know that I find some distinct messages in your work, nevertheless.
That’s true, but we have the — how should I say this? — the labor of experimenting with truth. And finally it condenses into an established corpus of convictions, and convictions are things you can repeat without being bored by what you say. So the apostle discovered the kind of speech that is not afraid of repetition. For purposes of entertainment, repetition is deadly. When it comes to convictions that result from long meditation, new messages can arise and take you somewhere.
Max Brod found a very nice parable that Franz Kafka wrote in his diaries. It goes approximately like this: “They were faced with the alternative of becoming kings or messengers. According to the nature of children, they all wanted to become messengers. Therefore, they ran to each other shouting their meaningless messages, because there were no kings. They would have liked to put an end to their miserable lives, but they did not dare, due to their allegiance to the message.” That is Kafka, and I think that this, in five lines, is the metaphysics of modern communications: everywhere messengers share their voices with each other; very rarely do they have at least a minimal message.
Well, here’s a question about whether a message has to have a king who is dispatching it, whether there has to be a god for whom one is acting as a messenger. Can one be the messenger of something like the predominance of ressentiment — resentment in human modern behavior, mentality, and so forth? Or can one be the messenger of something that worried Nietzsche, which is that our culture, in the modern era especially, is seized and possessed by a will to truth at any cost? Without knowing what we’re doing, we are uncovering one truth after another that shows us that there is really nothing behind the things that we are investigating. This will to truth will end up demoralizing us beyond any hope. These are messages that one can actually deliver to one’s fellow men, without needing a king behind them. Is it not the case?
Yes, that is the case. The problem is how to transform this message into good use. The critical transformation of deception into good use does happen. Nietzsche as a writer of the fifth gospel does it. We have been leaving the era when we lived under the metaphysics of a strong sender. Every important message was supposed to carry a signature of the divine, or at least superior, force. Now deconstruction has happened, though not necessarily under that name. It started at least in the 17th century when Spinoza began mocking what he called historic religions and religions dependent on priests, on these castes of specialists for holy things.
This mockery went on for at least three centuries. Now we have killings in Paris, after the people of Charlie Hebdo were daring enough to print a harmless caricature of Muhammad. So these sender-bound forms of religion, where Allah’s signature is at the end of every document, are fighting with a different kind of message, which is more and more the message of artistic transfiguration of unlivable truths.
Nietzsche can be read as someone who tried to make unbearable truths bearable by instilling a new element of love into the message. This love resembles the older conceptions of ancient philosophical theology that you can find in Aristotle, where God necessarily is that entity most deserving of his own love. The whole truth about philosophical theology is the absolute narcissism of God, and that makes us so critical of Nietzsche. Because, for our tastes, he entered too deeply into that realm of necessary self-love, the realm of the God who reflects on his own godliness. We feel embarrassed when we read Nietzsche’s self-eulogies. We look at them and feel ashamed. One feels a little … ashamed for him. You hardly ever meet a person who has such a high opinion of himself.
You quote a number of passages in Nietzsche Apostle that are extremely embarrassing, but you almost get immune to them because, as you say, we deal with our embarrassment by either putting aside these passages or finding explanations for them, whereby they don’t really mean what they say.
Here’s something that Nietzsche writes in Ecce Homo: “The fact that a psychologist without equal is speaking in my works — this is perhaps the first thing a good reader will realize.” Another passage: “Does anyone at the end of the nineteenth century have a clear idea of what poets in strong ages called inspiration? If not, I will describe it. […] This is my experience of inspiration. I do not doubt that you would need to go back thousands of years to find anyone who would say, ‘It is mine as well.’ […] My Zarathustra has a special place for me in my writings. With it I have given humanity the greatest gift it has ever received.” I could quote many such passages.
You relate this self-aggrandizement to the divine narcissism as well as many other kinds of narcissism. You speak about ethno-narcissism, when the Franks in the ninth century believed that they had to translate the gospels into their own language. There are many other ways in which, by praising God, the praiser is also involved in an act of self-praise. Nietzsche not only unveils that truth but then takes it to an extreme with his own public performances.
From an architectonic point of view, the divine narcissism is the pre-condition of what Nietzsche called his deep idea — that is, the teaching of the eternal recurrence of the same. Both forms of circularity — the circularity of self-reflexive divine narcissism and the circularity of eternal recurrence — have to meet in order to make both of them viable. In the world the same thing always happens, even in huge circles that our individual knowledge never can fully penetrate. But if that is so, the individual who is in the middle of the process, or caught in the process, will be just a grain of dust in an infernal mill that turns eternally.
But in that same full circle, the self-love of Dionysus — who loves himself with the love of a being that knows and creates at the same time — has found a way to combine suffering, knowledge, and creation. If so, both circularities can carry the whole process. And then this megalomaniac discourse becomes a necessary proof for the truth of that essay.
Finally, we do not know if Nietzsche really wanted his theory of the eternal recurrence of the same to be taken au pied de la lettre, or seriously. Because when he introduces this idea, he speaks hypothetically. He says, “How much would you have to become a friend of yourself, and how much would you have to fall in love with life in general, if you were ready to carry this heaviest idea of all thinkable ideas, which is that everything will happen again and you will come eternally back again as the same person?” And if you could say yes to that obscene proposition, that everything should happen again, without the intervention of a “no,” then both these circularities could meet.
But I wonder if some scholars are right to take the theory of the eternal recurrence of the same literally. I don’t think it should be taken literally. It’s a test, as it were. It shows you how far your energies of affirmation can go. He sometimes made very funny remarks about that. For instance, when he said, “I’m very inclined to drop my strongest idea of the eternal recurrence of the same when I imagine my mother and my sister.”
That’s true. When things become specific, it’s more difficult.
In the ontotheological tradition, the divine has been conceived from Aristotle onward as coincident with itself, identical to itself. It is that which must necessarily love itself. Nous has that quality, where it thinks upon itself. In the very last canto of Dante’s Paradiso, he looks right into the Godhead and sees the Trinity smiling to itself, on itself, through itself. So this principle of identity would almost require a kind of divine narcissism. Nietzsche then seems to be very aware of it, and perhaps at certain times suspicious of it.
I’m reminded of one of the first semi-mad letters that he dashed off after his collapse in Turin, when he wrote to Jacob Burckhardt. In his first paragraphs he writes, on January 6, 1889: “Dear Professor, in the end I would much rather be a Basel professor than God, but I have not dared push my private egoism so far as to desist, for its sake, from the creation of the world. You see, one must make sacrifices however and wherever one lives.” This idea that it would be better to be a Basel professor than God seems to me to suggest that there’s something infernal about God’s entrapment within his own megalomania, and maybe a modest Basel professor is somehow more sane than God.
Maybe. But for us it is very hard to conceive a sane God who creates that much inattention. All the great systems of philosophical theology dealt with that inner divine turbulence. Neoplatonism, for instance, is nothing but a huge description of the turmoil that is going on inside the space of divinity. God remains always in himself but he explodes permanently. He recollects the particles of that explosion and brings them back to the center.
The system of Proclus found an amazing afterlife in Hegel’s system. It also is caught in the rule of that absolute circularity. Heidegger tried to reintegrate Nietzsche into the history of ontotheology and to see in him a thinker who explained the two strongest ways the divine will manifests itself: the will to power as science or as technology, and the will to power as art.
Do you agree that in Nietzsche there’s a philosophy of shattering in the Dionysian urge to self-immolation and self-undoing? As you described in the case of the turbulence of God and even in more traditional notions? This urge that Dionysus has — in his moment of presence, his epiphany — very quickly turns into the dismemberment of that god, perhaps precisely because there is liberation from the narcissistic trap in which the divine often finds itself.
Yes, Nietzsche has himself sometimes tried to get out of this full circle. In Ecce Homo, you find amazing passages where he says that he personally, within his own psychological reality, never had will. As a person, he’s not able to say what it means to be really willing this or that. This is a precious hint.
The most beautiful part of Zarathustra, the high noon scene in the fourth part of Zarathustra, is a kind of European answer to the moment of enlightenment of the Buddha under the Bodhi Tree. Nietzsche describes the messenger as a person sleeping in the grass under a tree, and tied to life only through a very thin thread. You must not move. Dionysus is there, don’t even breathe. The world has become perfect. That shows that he’s looking for the moments when he was able to bear the burden of his divine predicament.
At the end of his life, at the end of his thought, he goes back to the Greeks and, on the very last page of Nietzsche Contra Wagner, which he was working on in Turin, he talks about our future: “You will hardly find us again on the paths of those Egyptian youths who endangered temples by night, embraced statues, and want by all means to unveil, uncover, and put a bright light on whatever is kept concealed for good reasons. No, this bad taste, this will to truth, to truth at any price, this youthful madness in love of truth have lost their charm for us. For that, we are too experienced, too serious, too gay, too burned, too deep. We no longer believe that truth remains truth when the veils are withdrawn.” And then he goes on to say: “Aren’t we now, after we’ve been through these depths, coming back to the Greek wisdom? Are we not Greeks, adorers of form, surfaces, colors, tones, everything that has to do with the divine superficiality of appearance?”
When I think of those moments of the high noon, when the world has become perfect, I would like to propose two things to you and see if you agree. One is that the high noon is not just the moment of maximum revelation, it’s also the hour at which there is a great deal of concealment in appearances, precisely because of this excessive brightness and this stillness. It’s when the animals are actually in hiding.
The acceptance of that which does not reveal itself — or that which perhaps you cannot penetrate to the truth of — might be part of the experience of the high noon, or at least an acceptance of the limitation that our phenomenological ways of being in the world bring with them. At the end, does Nietzsche need to renounce this strong will to become the divine, seize the divine, or be in the overwhelming presence of the divine?
Later in Nietzsche’s life, he addresses his future readers. He asks them first of all not to mistake him for something he had not been. That is his first and last hope: not to be misunderstood as the founder of a new religion. “The title I am pretending to is that of a fool or a poet — only fool, only poet.” I think it is a wise decision to take that as his last word when it comes to the question of a self-portrait. Together we arrive at his ambivalence.
The true question can best be interpreted by the hint that the noon, for Nietzsche, is an occasion to repeat the divine siesta after the creation. Two types of stillness come together. There’s an Oriental element in Nietzsche’s reflections. It is the silence of the Buddha who sat three days in deep silence under the Bodhibäume because he had understood there’s nothing to say, nothing to do. Only out of a secondary gesture of pity, he descends and decides to become a teacher. Teaching is always something that is not propelled by a manic mission, but —
Well, we can go back to the Basel professor.
Yes, the Basel professor is a hidden Buddhist.
And a teacher, too.
Teaching is also a form of pity. You see so many people are still living in that bad form of turbulence and are not sufficiently familiar with the double stillness of the European siesta and the Indian meditation.
Zarathustra is a bewildering testament, and Nietzsche had, in Ecce Homo and elsewhere, what some people consider an insane overvaluation of the importance of that work among all his other works. You and I share a love of that book, not for its overt sentimentalities, but because there’s a lot going on under the surface. Can you say how important you believe that one book is in Nietzsche’s corpus?
It is the book in which he marks his coming out as a writer of a new type of autobiography. On the surface, you would say he tries to do something that could only be done by a third person, just as it needed a Thomas of Celano to write The Life of Saint Francis. But I think he wanted to be Celano and Francis of Assisi in one person, and to become the writer of a vita, not a modern autobiography —
So you think it’s more of a vita than a gospel?
Yes, it is closer to the vita — so a saint’s life, the record of a saint’s life. It should be collected within a new volume where modern characters could be brought together. These are reports on heroes and saints who were able to re-appropriate their own work. Derrida, by the way, said that, man is an autobiographical animal, and the very possibility of historiography depends on the human faculty to bring the elements of your life story together and to arrange them in such a way that you get an autobiographical self.
But this is modernism. I think Nietzsche here clings to an outdated and much more heroic form of writing a vita. For instance, these passages on his own work simply reenact the tradition that already existed in antiquity, in which scholars at the end of their lives wrote a book on their books. This is a classic genre. Nietzsche knows that and he takes it up. The most famous example of that, of course, were The Retractions that Augustine wrote when he looked back on his former writings. So there’s a lot of classicism in that Ecce Homo.
Yes, that’s Ecce Homo, of course. But Zarathustra? Here’s another question I want to ask you. I find that when it comes to Nietzsche being a prophet, in some ways he was … blind about what would be the most dominant feature of the coming century, though many people consider him the inaugurator of the 20th century. He has almost nothing to say about the dominance of modern technology in the era to come. Okay, you can say that this was a blind spot in his thinking. In Zarathustra, especially in part four, however, he has a prophetic vision that has to do with our own time. He thinks of the last men. Who is the last man? In what way are the parameters of that last man contained within … for example, the consumerist of our own society, who is complacent?
We’re no longer dealing with the petite bourgeoisie or those 19th-century categories. It’s very much the contemporary citizen as a global citizen, a kind of capitalist of consumerism who does not think beyond the creaturely comforts of this day and the next day. There’s something in his thinking that promises to show us a way to transcend this fatality. European civilization after all these centuries and millennia cannot end in the last men. Or will it?
Here, in Nietzsche, appears a major problem that will occupy humanity in the centuries to come: the question of how to maintain what I call the vertical tension inside the human being. For everything that has to do with verticality, Nietzsche is the specialist coming from the tradition. He discovered this new type of problem — how to maintain the vertical tension if the higher region has been removed. As if Jacob’s Ladder, over which the angel can march up and down should still stand upright without having the support on the upper level. So there is still height, but no support from above. Everything has to be erected from below. The vertical tension has a rocket-like dynamic, a will to growth, and that can be easily expressed in biological terms. You can go back to Goethe, who said that all life is movement and extension, and from here you get to a less megalomaniac conception of growth.
Well, in fact, in Nietzsche Apostle, you speak about his extraordinary genius as a marketer of his own brand. You don’t merely invent a brand that then takes off in the market. What you do is create the market for the very brand that you’re promoting. And Nietzsche created a market for a brand of … I think it’s related to what you’re talking about, the ladder of having realized that — in the regime of the last man, a regime of egalitarianism — there will always be a drive for distinction. He marketed his philosophy as a promise, as a way to understand a need before it even became apparent to the world itself, that there was going to be a need for distinction in this world.
But you also say, somewhat prophetically, that he was promising losers a formula by which they could be on the side of winners. This was also part of his brand. Can you say something about this? When you speak about verticality, are you speaking about this need for distinction in this particular regime?
I think Nietzsche was among the very rare thinkers who had a feeling for the deep connection between moral philosophy and public relations. This can be shown by the subtitle of Zarathustra: Ein Buch für Alle und Keinen — “A Book for All and Nobody.” And I’m convinced that this is Nietzsche’s genius. This subtitle betrays something of his innermost drive. His way of polemics, as Heidegger would put it, was not really polemics. It was teaching, and so it was a kind of “action teaching” — action teaching like Joseph Beuys would call his performances. Nietzsche was a kind of action teacher writing a book for all and nobody, and discovering in so doing the very structure of higher morality.
This kind of morality creates a field of behavior that is not applicable to living populations but traces the horizon for new generations to inhabit. This necessarily has to be a challenge, just as Buddhism was before it was brought out as an Indian form of gospel, as a way of salvation, just as the Christian Gospel was a pure challenge to the pagan environment of the former world. And so Nietzsche designs a horizon for those who in the morality markets of the future will distinguish themselves as individuals who show how the path of humanity can be continued. And in that context, you read this most provocative sentence from the introduction, the so-called prologue to Zarathustra: “Man is a rope between the animal and the Superman,” and you decide if you want to be a successful rope-walker or not. And if you are not successful as a rope-walker — you have nevertheless tried it.
That is the meaning of this philosophical pantomime that concludes the prologue of Zarathustra. He sees the rope-walker who has fallen down, and he says, “You made the danger. Out of danger you made your profession. There is nothing to despise in that, and for that reason I am going to bury you with my own hands.” That is Zarathustra’s message. It’s not success that decides everything. It is the will to remain within the movement and to walk on the rope, if you do not want to remain a part of the masses that are looking up and admiring people doing crazy things.
That’s beautiful because it brings back into play everything that we’ve been talking about. Above all, what is the message? Maybe that’s Zarathustra’s message: being on the tightrope and being suspended between two points, being a messenger without the sender in view, either behind you or in front of you. This idea of living dangerously is a parable for the kind of thinking that your work certainly embodies, in all sorts of ways. It’s a message of dangerous thinking, as you put it.
In Jean Genet, there’s a passage where he said, “Just remain a messenger of the rope.”
A messenger of the rope. That’s a good place to conclude our conversation.
Robert Pogue Harrison is the Rosina Pierotti Professor of Italian Literature at Stanford University. He is the author of several books, among them Forests: The Shadow of Civilization (1992), The Dominion of the Dead (2003), and Juvenescence: A Cultural History of Our Age (2014).
Featured image: Peter Sloterdijk no Fronteiras do Pensamento Porto Alegre 2016 by Fronteiras do Pensamento licensed under CC BY 2.0.
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