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  •      Steven E. Aschheim

Seeking Nietzsche

Steven E. Aschheim reviews Phillip Felsch’s How Nietzsche Came in from the Cold: Tale of a Redemption

Some books are a delight partly because they are difficult to classify. This certainly applies to Phillip Felsch’s roaming and rich How Nietzsche Came in from the Cold: Tale of a Redemption.  At once, a dual biography set within the turbulent politics and intellectual battles of Fascism and post-war Europe through to our own times, a reception history of reception history, and a meditation on the benefits and downfalls of philology, it is perceptively related through the prism of Giorgio Colli’s and Mazzino Montinari’s gargantuan (and continuingly controversial) project to definitively edit all of Nietzsche’s enormous Nachlass and to present us with a true picture of the philosopher’s work (correcting, they believed, the multiple purported falsifications of his writings, especially by Nietzsche’s notorious sister Elizabeth). Erudite but not stuffily academic, crammed with fresh critical insights and much ironic humor, Felsch has the rare writing capacity to render the reading crackle with excitement.

The main focus of How Nietzsche Came in From the Cold is the second half of the twentieth century. Felsch opines that until the mid-60’s, Nietzsche had more or less been widely ostracized, condemned as the philosopher (or at least the major forerunner) of Nazism and Fascism. While this picture is roughly accurate it would be remiss not to mention that Nietzsche reception had always been—indeed, continued to be, even during the second world war and immediately after—multi-faceted, in dispute and contained widely varying positive as well as damning interpretations. Already in 1950, just to take one best known example, English-speaking readers, were perusing Walter Kaufmann’s highly influential Nietzsche: Philosopher, Psychologist, AntiChrist which proffered a “liberal”, nuanced and sympathetic reading.

Yet, as Felsch correctly argues, the dominant “Nietzscheanism of the second half of the century originated in France in the 1960s….in Paris Nietzsche was made into the pioneer of a new philosophy of difference”. As he puts it, these deconstructionist French interpreters “perceived the true explosive power of his thought to be located precisely in its aphoristic fragmentation, in its lack of a central viewpoint, in its transgression of the order of philosophical discourse.” This is the point where the main theme of the book, Colli and Montinari’s project—to finally reveal the authoritative, authentic Nietzsche in a scrupulously exacting edition of the entirety of Nietzsche’s sprawling oeuvre—seemed to directly clash with the Nietzsche of Foucault, Deleuze and Derrida. Their positions appeared to perfectly correspond with Nietzsche’s dismissal of philology as “science for cranks” and the “junk of dusty scholarship”. Colli and Montinari’s project, on the other hand, was precisely about faithful philological exactitude, animated by the regulative notion of an authentic source text. From the 1970’s on this poststructuralist French Nietzsche, as Felsch puts it, read like a damning commentary on that very project: “In their claim to represent the definitive Nietzsche, their edition intruded like an atavism into the landscape of late twentieth-century history.”

But this is to anticipate later developments. Who were these two initially completely unknown Italians who were fanatically devoted to this enormous editorial task, one that began already in the 1940s and ran through the 1970s? Through their correspondence that intermittently spanned 40 years, Felsch paints a fascinating portrait “of an erotically charged teacher-student relationship, the Bildungsroman of two Italian intellectuals, and an intimate journal of their editorial project.”  On the surface, the history of an apparently technical exercise in editorial drudgery does not sound promising but Felsch shows how this became a matter of existential and political relevance, linked not only to the turbulent vicissitudes of Italian postwar history, but also how the Kritische Gesamtausgabe became a chapter of wider Cold War intellectual history.

Giorgio Colli (1917-1979) a charismatic teacher, was the older of the two with Mazzino Montinari (1928-1986) his student, vying at first to become his favorite pupil.  Throughout the years of their common endeavor, this was an unlikely partnership. Colli was a wealthy independent scholar, the son of the former managing director of the liberal daily La Stampa, convinced of the decadence of modern culture and filled with philhellene, Dionysian, longings for an imaginary Greek past, while the young Montinari, born into a proletarian family, a Marxist and member of the Communist party, was described by one observer as “vivacious, electrifying, empathetic, preoccupied by the present and its transformation.”  While it is relatively easy to explain Colli’s aristocratic determination to read Nietzsche as if one is ravishingly listening “to music” and not to interpret it, the case of the revolutionary Montinari (to whom Felsch devotes most attention) is more surprising. Unlike Colli, his early Nietzsche was a transformative figure of radical enlightenment. Over time that political conviction waned and what was left was a lonely and fanatical philologist with an unwavering passion for truth. Working for years in solitude in the East German Weimar Goethe-Schiller archives, he gradually came to the conclusion that “not one image, not one word, not even one punctuation mark in lieu of another”, in Nietzsche’s Nachlass, was random or accidental.  The result of this partnership was the still controversial Kritische Gesamtausgabe, described by Felsch as “a desert of philological exactitude in which variants and preliminary stages are listed, citations and sources are identified, and punctilious descriptions of Nietzsche’s manuscripts are given.”

Philip Felsch, How Nietzsche Came in From the Cold: A Tale of Redemption (trans Daniel Boyles). Polity Press, 2024. Pp. 264. $29.95 Hardcover.

It all began under the Italian Fascist regime in the 1940s. Surprisingly, both adherents and opponents of the regime were wedded to a Hegelian narrative of world-historical progress. This did not fit Colli at all. His distaste of modern culture, his philhellenism and his rejection of Hegelian historicism, all brought him close to Nietzsche and an aristocratic and apolitical “tragic” worldview.  A charismatic figure, he gathered his enchanted student followers around him, much in the manner of Weimar’s homo-erotic Stefan George circle. Colli offered a superior “Dionysian” knowledge accessible only to initiates, seeking to literally incarnate a Nietzschean way of life.  From the age of fifteen an adoring Montinari made no secret of his intense feeling for his teacher which evolved from playful flirtation to overt longing. “The pair”, Felsch writes, “never again emerged from their Graecophilic role play”. Regardless of the cult-like similarity to the Stefan-George circle, national cultural differences applied. The proverbial Italian sense of family gradually transformed the homo-social relationships into a conglomeration of heterosexual families with women at times assuming the traditional role of housewife hostess. “In Italy”, Felsch acerbically observes, “even the Dionysian had a culinary character.”

While Colli had an instinctive distaste for politicshis Nietzsche transfigured culture into a humanity liberated from politics and the stateMontinari was initially transfixed by the modern emancipatory promise of communism which in its particular Italian guise granted intellectuals special status (both Gramsci and the head of the party, Palmiro Togliatti, conferred upon them the role of vanguard in the class struggle.) Montinari’s politicization thus seemed like a conscious rebellion against Colli’s distaste for both politics and, indeed, modernity itself. At first, his Nietzsche became differently conceived. Under the strong influence of the Marxist historian Delio Cantimori , Nietzsche, now the radical apostate of the bourgeois world, seemed to offer an alternative higher form of modernity, not its rejection. Moreover, Montinari’s later insistence upon fidelity to Nietzschean texts emulated Cantimori whose studies of heretics, “irrationalist” movements and hidden revolts were predicated upon rigorous empirical exactitude and what Felsch calls “the asceticism of archival work.”

By 1956, however, Montinari’s political disenchantment had clearly set in, and in that same year he would again cross paths with Giorgio Colli, setting the stage for their gradual determination to find and publish Nietzsche’s previously unknown fragments and to rescue him from so many purported falsifications and omissions. A complete, critical, authoritative editionwhat Felsch calls “textual literalism”now became their singular, almost religious, if always disputed, goal. In 1961 Montinari found himself in Weimar.  Surprisingly, despite the fact that Nietzsche was very much an outlawed figure in the DDR, the Italian was met with generous hospitality and received unrestricted access to Nietzsche’s letters, notebooks, and manuscripts (even though a discrete Stasi eye was kept on him and the purpose of his sojourn was a well-kept secret from the citizens of Weimar).

Excited, he wrote to Colli, “I am now living in the villa…. of Nietzsche!... It is the ideal place to work. I was moved in a very peculiar, ineffable way when I held a manuscript of Nietzsche in my hand for the first time and when I crossed the threshold of this house. It doesn’t matter that everything to do with Nietzsche has disappeared; the site is sacred anyway. This trip to Weimar is perhaps the most important event of my life.” The bleakness and shabbiness of East Germany in the 1960s seemed to have completely evaded Montinari’s attention. Not once, Felsch points out, did he find it worth mentioning that the vestiges of the Buchenwald concentration camp were in such close proximity to where he was living and working. Writing on August 21, 1961, one week after the construction of the Berlin Wall(!), he wrote that “My life takes place here amid great quiet and absent outside events.” Although Colli worked in Florence with the microfilm that Montinari sent him, upon his first visit to Weimar, he was afflicted with the same myopia. Nothing was said about the actual grey conditions of State socialism. Rather, he wrote that: “The first impression is peculiar and gorgeous…Everything is ‘Geist’ here…My life takes on a new dimension here, a greater depth.”   

This myopia certainly enabled concentrated exacting work. Seeking to edit Nietzsche’s oeuvre into accurate, definitive form involved painstaking decoding, transcribing and establishing the correct chronology of the multiple individual manuscripts. It was, they hoped, as if this method allowed one to observe the philosopher gradually generate his thoughts in his manuscripts. Thus, the two Italians believed, they had penetrated into what Nietzsche really said. The passion and mood swings that went into this task elicited in Montinari a kind of personal bewitchment that anybody familiar with the history of Nietzsche reception, from the 1890’s through to the present, will recognize. “Nietzsche”, he declared, "is neither a poetic genius nor a philosopher, neither a ‘moralist’ nor a psychologist. Nietzsche is a disease. Every word, every concept, every experiment of his evokes a personal response within me. Nietzsche is a problem not yet solvedand I, too, am a problem not yet solved. As soon as I decide to engage with my disease, I engage with hisand vice versa.”

This was a daunting venture but from the beginning various problems and questions haunted the very possibility of decoding a definitive, authentic source-text.  Not surprisingly, Nietzsche himself incarnated both sides of the issue. On the hand, he famously declared that there were no facts, only perspectival interpretations driven by the will to power. This continues to delight his deconstructionist and other followers who scoffed at philological stodginess and who exuberantly preached a kind of boundless hermeneutics in which the very idea of an Urtext seemed an absurdity.  According to this line, the Montinari-Colli project had always been a doomed enterprise. Yet, typically, if Nietzsche scorned philology, denied facts and unambiguous authorial meaning, in other places he insisted upon their indispensability. He wrote thus in The Antichrist: “By philology should be understood here, in a very general sense, the art of reading well – recognizing facts without falsifying them through interpretation, without losing caution, patience, finesse in the drive for comprehension.”  Indeed, already in the 1960s when deconstructionist hermeneutics was gaining ground, a reaction to a proliferation of exegeses set in. Susan Sontag famously railed Against Interpretation in 1964 and even the idiosyncratic radical, Jacob Taubes, wondered towards the end of that decade whether hermeneutics was actually reactionary, “… entrenched in the Counter-Enlightenment, body and soul.”

In our own post-truth era, the debate between these two positions has become even more intellectually and politically urgent. In such a clime, however, there was no way that the Colli-Montinari venture could have succeeded in finally revealing the real Nietzsche, or what he really said. Still, as Felsch points out, the edition did correct major misreadings which virtually flipped previous meanings. Moreover, the addition of an abundance of previously unknown fragments constituted a serious achievement. Yet precisely this contained an unwanted irony. Spanning nearly 5000 pages, from the ruminations of a young professor through to Nietzsche’s madness, the fragments read like an ongoing intellectual diary. Instead of revealing an emergent thinker in his historical context, as the Italians desired, the post-structuralists revelled in this disorganization, the transgression of genres and their ephemeral provisionality. As Montinari bitterly commented, this sprawling output had unintentionally contributed to Nietzsche as a post-modern subject. As a result, he wrote that all the work had become “undone and leaves behind a feeling of failure.”  Perhaps the two Italians could take comfort with Felsh’s prediction that with the present loss of interpretive sovereignty French leftist Nietzscheanism will undergo yet another paradigm shift.

Yet the history of Nietzsche reception has always been one of multiple interpretations and interested, sometimes quite balmy, annexations. At one time or another a particular liberational or Fascist-like Nietzsche may have taken up more space than the others, but these have always jostled, been indifferent to, or cooperated or conflicted with, each other. Fittingly, no singular Nietzschean paradigm has ever utterly dominated the philosophical, political and cultural landscape. Somehow the Nietzschean corpus itselfwith its vast storehouse of unorthodox suggestive themes, its often-self-contradicting ideas and mixed categories of thought and rhetoricwould not allow for that. In that sense the title of this excellent book, How Nietzsche Came in From the Cold, is alluring but a little misleading. True, it carries a whiff of Le Carré given Montinari’s Cold War sojourn in the remote East German archives and the subsequent publication of the critical edition in the West (especially given the vicious opposition to Nietzsche’s attempted rehabilitation by the unrepentant East German critic, Wolfgang Harich, who declared that not quoting Nietzsche “ought to rank among the basic rules of mental hygiene”). The truth, however, is that in the long history of Nietzsche reception, the philosopher was never entirely in the cold and seemed somehow to be always contemporarily relevant. Perhaps this is because he almost uncannily definedand embodiedthe furthest reaches of the post-enlightenment predicament and encapsulated many of its enduring spiritual and intellectual tensions, dangers and possibilities. To both his enchanted followers and his most determined foes Nietzsche has always functioned as a kind of open-ended prism through which to address the great issues surrounding secular modernity, aware always of both its liberating and cataclysmic potential.


Steven E. Aschheim is emeritus professor of history at the Hebrew University, Jerusalem, where he taught cultural and intellectual history and held the Vigevani Chair of European Studies. The former director of the Franz Rosenzweig Research Center for German Literature and Cultural History, he is the author of numerous books, including Brothers and Strangers: The East European Jew in German and German Jewish Consciousness, 1800–1923 (1982), The Nietzsche Legacy in Germany, 1890-1990 (1992), Culture and Catastrophe: German and Jewish Confrontations with National Socialism and Other Crises (1996), Beyond the Border: The German-Jewish Legacy Abroad (2007), and Fragile Spaces: Forays into Jewish Memory, European History and Complex Identities (2018). His latest book is Zwischen Kultur und Katastrophe. Konfrontation, Krise und Kreativität als deutsch-jüdische Erfahrung (German Edition). Apart from academic journals, he has written for The Times Literary Supplement, The New York Times, The Jewish Review of Books, and Haaretz.



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