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Thomas Heilke, Nietzsche's Tragic Regime: Culture, Aesthetics, and Political Education.

Thomas Heilke, Nietzsche's Tragic Regime: Culture, Aesthetics, and Political Education (Northern Illinois UP, 1998), xv + 215 pp., $32.

This original and thought-provoking work investigates a region of Nietzsche's corpus rarely explored in Anglo-American scholarship: his early formulations of both a theory of political education and a political regime, found in the notebooks of the early 1870s. Uncovering such a lacuna in the literature is itself no small feat, given the extraordinary attention Nietzsche's work has commanded in the English-speaking community in recent years. One challenge Heilke must face at the outset is precisely the worry that previous neglect of this aspect of Nietzsche's thought may have been well-motivated. It is a challenge not entirely met.

The thesis Heilke sets out to defend is that the young Nietzsche, having committed himself to both a skeptical epistemology and an "artist's metaphysics," constructs a deeply romantic vision of a political system (what Heilke calls the "tragic regime") based upon this metaphysics, and that Nietzsche's subsequent outlines for a political education are directed towards bringing this political system into being (7). But this is putting the matter a bit too mildly, for, as Heilke goes on to emphasize, Nietzsche is at this point under the forceful spell of Wagnerian political naivete, and what he hopes to achieve falls nothing short of an aesthetically-driven political and cultural revolution.

Roughly the first third of the book retraces the first step in this revolution: Nietzsche's metaphysical understanding of primordial being (or "life") and the specifically human condition within this broader metaphysical picture. Drawing primarily on The Birth of Tragedy (hereafter, The Birth) and the unpublished essay "On Truth and Lie in an Extra-Moral Sense," Heilke offers a concise reading of how Nietzsche integrates a Schopenhauerian metaphysics (1) into his understanding of Greek tragedy. Heilke begins by situating this metaphysics within Nietzsche's diagnosis of his Zeitgeist (18-27). European culture, in Nietzsche's view, faces a crisis of nihilism resulting from the collapsed authority of the Platonic-Christian tradition. Reaction to this crisis can take one of two forms: "Romantic pessimism," characterized by resignation and weariness; or "Dionysian pessimism," which involves an active, affirmative embrace of existence. It is worth remarking here that this language of resignation versus affirmation, while familiar to readers of Nietzsche, nevertheless calls for considerable elucidation (as Nietzsche himself later saw), (2) and it is disappointing that Heilke does not offer much more than Nietzsche's own descriptions of each of these types of pessimism. More needs to be said about what exactly Romantic pessimism entails, since, on Heilke's view, Nietzsche's political concerns should be read as a direct challenge to it.

In broad outline, the "artist's metaphysics" that Heilke ascribes to Nietzsche takes the following shape. "Life," the primordial ground of the world, is a "raging desire for existence and joy in existence," as well as "struggle, pain, and destruction" (30-31). Human beings cannot, however, cognize this hidden ground of the world: it remains cut off from us due to the inherent limitations of language, which concretize and separate (and therefore falsify) the flux of life (41ff.). Human existence is tragic because we cannot know the essence of the world concealed behind our (linguistic and perceptual) representations, yet we have no choice but to live within these representations (these untruths)--indeed, life would be unbearable without them (56). Nietzsche is thus, in Heilke's estimation, a skeptic. Of course, epistemological skepticism does not go well with a positive metaphysics of human existence, so Heilke must reformulate Nietzsche's metaphysics as "poetry of concepts, a construction of veils and horizons by means of which men may live" (49), not a true account of the nature of the world. This reformulation presents some difficulties for Heilke's interpretation, to which I will return momentarily.

At this point, Heilke's reading takes a provocative and original turn: the mythopoeic metaphysics of human existence presented in The Birth and other contemporaneous writings are interpreted as pat of Nietzsche's revolutionary political thought. The Birth, Heilke claims, is at its heart "concerned with the aesthetic foundations of social and political life" (16). Because this way of approaching The Birth is--as Heilke recognizes--at odds both with Nietzsche's own assessment of the work in his "Attempt at Self-Criticism" and with the apparent focus of the text itself (namely, an analysis of Greek tragic drama), Heilke is forced to infer a great deal about what Nietzsche's political aims in that text are. The general argument that emerges from these inferences is that Nietzsche's analysis of tragedy is at the same time an analysis of what constitutes a healthy political community. Such a community would find its political coherence in the nonrational aesthetic horizons set by tragic drama--nonrational, because Nietzsche's skeptical epistemology precludes a political system erected on a rational foundation (51).

Given his reconstruction of Nietzsche's political aims in The Birth, Heilke spends the middle third of the book developing the second step in Nietzsche's political revolution: the latter's proposed program to bring potential members of his political community around to his vision. The driving idea behind this theory of political education is that the use of icons of the human past, present, and future would help to construct a new world, one which would be purged of the nihilistic despair of Romantic pessimism (180). Nietzsche's pedagogy thus consists of three aspects, each of which maps onto the icons of the past, present, and future. The first, following upon the conclusions Heilke has drawn in the first part of the book, is an education in the Greek model of a healthy life. This education would consist in an immersion in tragic drama in general and the music of tragic drama in particular (81). Philosophy (as an education in how to transform the present) and music (as an education in what the future may hold) will compose the second and third components in Nietzsche's pedagogical triad (55).

For reasons of space, we can only look in any detail at the first component in this triad. Heilke writes, "The power of tragic drama lay for Nietzsche first and foremost in its unique ability to articulate in a communally accessible way the experiences of pain that he looked to as a mutual source of human community" (81). The function of tragedy is to reveal to its spectators the tragic predicament of human existence--namely, that we are rationally cut off from the essence of the world and that we know we must live in untruth as a result--and to do so in a beautiful and powerful manner; in so doing tragedy offers a form of consolation (57). An education in tragic drama is thus the first step in drawing others toward the political regime that Nietzsche felt would be most able to cope with the metaphysical conditions he claimed to be basic to human life.

We should pause here to consider the course that Heilke has set for himself. One natural question that arises at this point is how one could reconcile the skepticism with regard to language and cognition that Heilke finds in Nietzsche's early writings with Nietzsche's proposed political aims. If this skepticism is as thoroughgoing as Heilke claims, and the metaphysics Nietzsche propounds nothing more than a "poetry of concepts" without any claims to truth, then what precisely is the status of Nietzsche's appeal to Greek tragedy (and later, to philosophy and music) as a basis for a political education? Why, in other words, should we want to take Nietzsche's metaphysical poetry about the suffering and contradiction at the heart of the world seriously enough to want to establish a political order on its basis? Why is it anything more than an idiosyncratic expression of his own inner experience? Add these concerns to Nietzsche's concept of "the genius of culture"--someone who can construct out of the materials of history icons and myths that define a political community--and we seem to be left with a disturbing vision indeed. As Heilke himself puts it, "At the least, this seems illiberal and, at the worst, a recipe for some kind of proto-fascism" (73).

The last third of the book describes in some detail the proposed "tragic regime" that Nietzsche sought to establish. Following an illuminating discussion (based on the 1872. lectures entitled "On the Future of Our Education Institutions") of Nietzsche's proposal for an institutionalized educational program which would support his political system (132-39), Heilke turns to a description of this political system itself. Heilke writes that "Nietzsche seems to see politics as a projection of the great individual's personal beliefs, horizons, and commitments" (150). His aesthetic state amounts to an organization devoted to the production and maintenance of such great individuals, those who would artistically establish the "dream images that redeem [themselves] and nature and that are the highest expression of the natural creative principle expressed through man" (154). The many would, like slaves, be forced to serve this goal of the state (156).

Heilke closes with a consideration of how Nietzsche's views developed away from his early revolutionary concern with a "tragic regime." He argues that, as part of his break with Wagner, Nietzsche came to abandon political revolution and to focus instead on the cultivation of independent "free spirits." This is not to say, Heilke insists, that Nietzsche abandoned his life-long project of combating Romantic pessimism through an examination of the conditions of artistic creativity (169). In the end, Heilke views Nietzsche's early, more directly political aims as a grand, if flawed, attempt to fulfill this project.

What should we make of Nietzsche's early political vision, at least as Heilke presents it? Setting to one side the (occasionally troubling) details of the politics to which Nietzsche seems committed, what emerges most clearly from this book is a sense that his youthful political thought--the concepts with which he operated, the general tenor of his arguments, the degree of sophistication of his overall vision--does not approach the caliber of his later work. Heilke bears some of the responsibility for this impression, for his interpretation of Nietzsche's work rests in key places on terms which demand a greater degree of analysis than Heilke affords them. I hinted above at one case of this tendency to leave essential moments in his argument insufficiently developed (Heilke's account of "Romantic pessimism"). Other notable examples include the idea of "culture," which Heilke understands to be "the sum total of the intellectual and aesthetic formations that constitute[s] the horizons for the life of a particular community" (57); the concept of a "healthy" (i.e., nonnihilistic) form of life, which, we are told, is one "that preserves itself well and expands its boundaries" (67); and the absolutely central concept of "political education," which amounts to "the intellectual and psychic equipping of (usually young) people to become functioning members of the polity into which they are born" (3)--in other words, an education in how to live politically.

Citing such examples is not intended to support a scholastic call for greater definitional precision; it reveals, I believe, a hesitancy on Heilke's part to subject Nietzsche's early work to the kind of reconstructive effort that it requires. To take the last example, the vagueness surrounding the term "political education" raises a number of questions for Heilke's interpretation in general. How, for instance, are we to distinguish between political education and political indoctrination? If, as Nietzsche's skepticism apparently requires, we are cognitively cut off from the world, what precisely is left to learn? Heilke's answer--that a political education "will provide the necessary aesthetic foundations for a Dionysian perspective" (135)--requires a more detailed elaboration than he is willing to give.

Of course, this is not to say that the early Nietzsche has nothing of interest to say on matters of politics, nor that Heilke's explorations of Nietzsche's thought are not stimulating and worthy of attention. It is only to suggest that the approach Heilke has taken--an attempt to extract the outlines of a political education and a political regime--yields mixed results, precisely because Nietzsche's thought at this point (and on these subjects) demands more by way of reconstruction. The Nietzsche that Heilke leaves us with is one not quite ready for his public.

Adrian Slobin

Northwestern University


(1) Heilke helpfully separates what Nietzsche does and does not appropriate from Schopenhauer in the last sections of Chapter 2.

(2) Nietzsche takes himself to task for being insufficiently clear about the concept of the "Dionysian" in the "Attempt at Self-Criticism" which he appended to The Birth of Tragedy fourteen years after its initial publication.
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Author:Slobin, Adrian
Publication:Nineteenth-Century Prose
Article Type:Book review
Date:Mar 22, 2000
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