Tag Archives: History & Surveys – Modern

Dithyrambs of Dionysus

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Dithyrambs of Dionysus [Amazon, Bookshop, Local Library] by Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche, trans. R J Hollingdale.

Nietzsche Hollingdale Dithyrambs of Dionysus

Dionysos-Dithyramben is a set of nine poems revised, written, and collected by Nietzsche during and after the composition of Thus Spake Zarathustra, and they are thus one of the “Werke des Zusammenbruchs” from the close of his writing career. They were dismissed by Aaron Ridley from his edition of all the other “Werke des Zusammenbruchs” (i.e. The Anti-ChristEcce HomoTwilight of the IdolsThe Case of Wagner, and Nietzsche contra Wagner) as “a collection of poems whose absence is not to be regretted.” It’s just as well that snotty editor forced me to acquire the Dithyrambs in a separate volume, since the bilingual presentation here — while at odds with the larger project of the Cambridge University Press series of Nietzsche’s works in English translation, in which Ridley’s edition stands — is essential for full appreciation of the poetry.

In the role of translator, R.J. Hollingdale is impressively accurate, but he is more intent on the semantic content of the verse than its poetic form. For example, he sacrifices meter, line emphasis, and some end-rhyme in this penultimate stanza of “Die Wüste wächst: weh dem, der Wüsten birgt . . .”:

Die Wüste wächst: weh dem, der Wüsten birgt!
Stein knirscht an Stein, die Wüste schlingt und würgt.
Der ungeheure Tod blickt glühend braun
und kaut –, sein Leben ist sein Kaun . . .

It is rendered thus by Hollingdale:

“The desert grows: woe to him who harbours deserts!
Stone grates on stone, the desert swallows down.
And death that chews, whose life is chewing,
gazes upon it, monstrous, glowing brown . . .” (39)

Hollingdale was one of the great 20th-century anglophone champions of Nietzsche, and I take his notes to reflect a conservative, establishment strain in Nietzsche scholarship. The introduction is a helpful, if brief, overview of Nietzsche’s work as a poet and its relationship to his philosophical output.

Hollingdale’s remarks on the individual poems emphasize the autobiographical dimensions of the poems, somewhat to the exclusion (I thought) of their literary value to readers. On the biographical front, he insists (in 1984) that the syphilitic genesis of Nietzsche’s madness is a fully established fact (87-8), although I have read persuasive arguments by Siegfried Mandel (1988) and Geoff Waite (1996) questioning that allegation, and in the case of the latter challenging its supporting narrative assumption of Nietzsche’s heterosexuality. 

The nine poems are really gorgeous. Although three of them, with slight alterations, also appear in Thus Spake Zarathustra, I found them more powerful here, and thus I was inclined to agree with Hollingdale that “they were inserted [in Thus Spake Zarathustra] capriciously and by force” (85). The significance of “Klage der Ariadne,” for example is almost inverted in the context of the Dithyrambs, and it was so affecting for me, that it may serve as the touchstone of a new ceremony in my private canon of ritual. This slender volume is a treasure.

Hegel and the Hermetic Tradition

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Hegel and the Hermetic Tradition [Amazon, Bookshop, Publisher, Local Library] by Glenn Alexander Magee.

Magee Hegel and the Hermetic Tradition

Writing very consciously in the vein inaugurated by Frances Yates’ Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition, Glenn Magee details the esoteric contexts and underpinnings of the work of G.W.F. Hegel. This is not a work of tendentious revisionism. The wonder is not that Magee can read Hegel as a Hermetic thinker, but that — in light of the evidence which he marshals — so many others have managed to avoid the obvious conclusion. A review from The International Philosophical Quarterly quoted on the back cover of my copy claims that the work exposes “Hegel’s dark side,” but Magee makes no such judgment. When he writes about indicting and convicting Hegel of Hermeticism in his final chapter, he is very plainly using a cacophemistic rhetorical figure. Hermeticism as Magee defines it (and he does a competent job of doing so) could be “dark” to the conventionally pious Christian, or to the rationalistic secular sorts who may have had the upper hand in the 20th-century study of Hegel, but it wasn’t to Hegel, nor to Magee nor me.

I came to this book after reading a good deal of the “Young Hegelian” Ludwig Feuerbach, for whom Hegel figures as the culmination of an obsolete crypto-theology, and I was open to the possibility of heightening my intellectual sympathy for Hegel. Magee pulled that off quite nicely. After reading his treatment of The Phenomenology of Spirit as an initiatory rite (!) I found myself for the first time ever actually considering a full read of that forbidding tome.

Magee has a lot to say about the kabbalah, which he understands to have been influential on Hegel both directly (in Rosenroth’s Kabbalah Denudata and the like) and via the work of Jacob Boehme. Most of his points are fairly sound, but he did not impress me as a scholar of kabbalistic history. He seemed thoroughly dependent on Gershom Scholem. And his transliterations were distractingly erratic; for instance, he wrote Ayin for AIN, although the same word was elsewhere Ein (in Ein Sof).

Likewise, Magee’s appreciation of the history of alchemy seems adequate for his task, but not thorough. In this case, I think he errs (in a way he does not with the Kabbalah) in deeming alchemical methods to be all of a sort. When he declares that “there is no way to decide if the alchemical opus is intended to be entirely figurative or symbolic, or if there is both a literal, physical operation of some sort coupled with a mystical doctrine” (209), it seems clear that he could benefit from the work of recent researchers into alchemy in the history of science, such as Lawrence Principe.

I have no such complaints about Magee’s efforts to contextualize Hegel with reference to the development of Rosicrucianism in Germany. In this case, he draws on appropriate and reliable scholarship in a way that has apparently been neglected by earlier Hegel scholars. Merely in passing, I was delighted to note Magee’s observation about the genesis of the phrase “immanentize the eschaton” in The New Science of Politics by Eric Voegelin (1952), where he is discussing the effects of Joachimist prophecy. 

I was cumulatively impressed with Magee’s thesis, which at one point he puts like this: “Hegel’s speculation, as I have characterized it, is a sophisticated, post-Kantian reappropriation of the memory magic and ‘active imagination’ of Hermetic thinkers such as Bruno and Boehme” (103). He covers Hegel’s ideas about magic, and the essential identity between Hegel’s “speculative philosophy” and esoteric (or mystical) religion. I strongly recommend this book to those who enjoy readings in the history of ideas, and who want to be able to appreciate the aquifer feeding a wellspring of 19th-century philosophy.

Nietzsche′s Corps/e

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Nietzsche′s Corps/e: Aesthetics, Politics, Prophecy, or, the Spectacular Technoculture of Everyday Life [Amazon, Bookshop, Publisher, Local Library] by Geoff Waite.

Waite Nietzsche's Corps/e

“But think back now over the entire, long, virtually interminable extent of Nietzsche/s corpse, as Nietzsche’s Corps/e begins to conclude….” (385) I had to laugh as I read that, because four hundred pages of body text, plus another 150-odd of smaller-typeface endnotes (the author noted an aspiration to a one-to-one ratio between body text and annotation), had taken me six months of careful, if not quite continual, reading to digest. It seemed as if the book, as much as its object, had invoked the interminability of an ewige Wiederkunft.

Geoff Waite hates Nietzsche with the kind of passion that I must suspect of being founded in a prior love. In Nietzsche’s Corps/e he identifies himself with a Althusserian Marxist position opposed to what he diagnoses as: the deliberate viral influence of Nietzsche’s corpus, acting through a corps of intellectuals, toward the ultimate reduction of the masses into a state perinde ac cadaver. (The Jesuit allusion is far from accidental; see 313-315.) He is professedly paranoid in his treatment of Nietzsche, the “Nietzsche industry,” and “technoculture” on the cusp of the 21st century.

With respect to Nietzsche and his intentions, Waite aptly faults “scholarly” or “philosophical” readers of Nietzsche who confine themselves to the oeuvre written for publication. Nietzsche’s workbooks and private correspondence–all now published in German, Italian, and Japanese, though not in English, Waite notes–are indispensable in light of such declarations of esoteric mode as the conclusion of “On Redemption” in Thus Spoke Zarathustra: “But why does Zarathustra speak otherwise to his pupils — than to himself?” (This passage is surely Nietzsche’s equivalent of the fourth chapter of the gospel of Mark.) In particular, Waite claims a central position for the early unpublished essay “The Greek State,” in which Nietzsche affirmed “the necessary Greek triad: ‘slavery,’ ‘esoteric writing,’ ‘the esoteric doctrine of the relation between the State and genius.'” (300)

Waite enters the argument regarding Nietzsche’s sexual appetites armed with some intriguing evidence. But he did not impress me with his repeated references to homosexuality and sadomasochism as if those were self-evidently “bad things.” 

As far as the “corps” is concerned, Waite does not confine himself to any particular textual lineage of Nietzsche interpretation, since he is out to resist them all. He comprehensively examines both right-wing Nietzscheans and left-wing “Nietzschoids,” usually with penetrating criticisms of the latter. He recommends Leo Strauss’s Thoughts on Machiavelli as a manual for reading Nietzsche, and I plan to take him up on this recommendation. Pierre Klossowski’s readings of Nietzsche also win serious points–with caveats–from Waite.

Waite’s notion of the corpse breaks out of the ivory tower and indicts the emerging cyber-society as being in thrall to Nietzsche’s agenda, with targets in popular culture such as William S. Burroughs, Phillip K. Dick, David Cronenberg, and William Gibson. I can’t help but suppose that the later cinematic VR explosion (for which The Matrix was a flagship) brought him into a righteous near-panic! Nor must today’s smartphone-wielding hordes console him.

The entire enterprise of Nietzsche’s Corps/e is taken up in the wake of the “death of communism” and in the face of Bataille’s declaration that Nietzsche’s is “the only position outside of communism.” Waite allies himself with Gramsci and Althusser, and gives Lenin the final word of his epilogue. (The penultimate one goes to Nietzsche.) And yet for all that he offers a “strong rival conspiratorial hypothesis” to the “conspiracy theory” informing Nietzsche’s writings (67), Waite fails to persuade me of the goodness of Communism or the badness of “Nietzchean/ism.”

Ultimately, I am very glad to have read this book, and I would encourage anyone with a serious interest in Nietzsche to tackle it.

The Postmodern Explained

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews The Postmodern Explained: Correspondence 1982-1985 [Amazon, Bookshop, Publisher, Local Library] by Jean-François Lyotard, edited by Julian Pefanis and Morgan Thomas, trans. Barry Don, Bernadette Maher, Julian Pefanis, Virginia Spate, and Morgan Thomas, afterword by Wlad Godzich.

Lyotard Godzich The Postmodern Explained

Postmoderne expliqué aux enfants could potentially be read as “The New Aeon Explained for Babes of the Abyss.” Lyotard suggests that modernity is characterized by a critical position common to Augustine and Kant, contrasting with the “empiricocritical or pragmatic” posture of the postmodern. (63) Technoscience and capital together have effected an “escape of reality from the metaphysical.” (9)

The author has sometimes been misunderstood as an advocate for the postmodern, rather than a diagnostician of it, and in several pieces of the correspondence collected here the reader can see his frustration that the public misses his opposition to “capitalism’s regime of pseudorationality and performativity.” (73) He is not at all smug about the demise of the elements of modernity that give way to the postmodern, but he is also convinced and convincing that retreat to the modern is not a viable option.

In discussing the failure of modern strategies of legitimation, he glosses Hegel to the effect that “the sole normative instance, the sole source of law, the sole y, is pure will — which is never this or that, never determined, but simply the potential to be all things. So it judges any particular act, even when it is prescribed by law and executed according to the rules, as failing to live up to the ideal. Terror acts on the suspicion that nothing is emancipated enough — and makes it into a politics.” (54) While the ideology of capitalism does not itself give rise to such terror (because it deals in evanescent needs rather than final norms), it is still vulnerable to it, in ways that have become ever more evident in the decades since Lyotard wrote the “Memorandum on Legitimation” that is the longest of the missives and essays collected here.

The afterword by Wlad Godzich constitutes an insightful summary of Lyotard’s efforts prior to the publication of Postmoderne expliqué, and it might be profitable to read it first for those who have no previous familiarity with either The Postmodern Condition or The Differend. Reading it myself, I conclude that it will indeed be the child who will master the aeon, but I also register how difficult the achievement of childhood is becoming.


Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Spurs: Nietzsche’s Styles / Éperons: Les Styles de Nietzsche [Amazon, Bookshop, Publisher] by Jacques Derrida, trans. Barbara Harlow.

Derrida Harlow Spurs Éperons

Spurs (Eperons in the original French) is Derrida’s treatment of Nietzsche’s styles, which is to say his stylus, which is rather his phallus, approached through its apparent complement, Nietzsche’s representation of “woman.” Nietzsche is justifiably famous for both the seeming lucidity of his prose and the archness of his wordplay; Derrida is justly notorious for the opacity of his prose and the profundity of his wordplay. (The hieratically arcane Pierre Klossowski also deserves some mention, in consequence of Derrida’s reliance on his translations of Nietzsche.) This combination cannot but awesomely challenge the stoutest of translators, and my hat is off to Barbara Harlow for even attempting the English contents of this volume. Still, as if in admission of the practical impossibility of a translator doing full justice to the text, the original French is reproduced here in parallel. 

An introduction is furnished by Stefano Agosti, who insists that “If one is going to speak of Derrida’s ‘text’, one can, finally, but re-state it, only prolong it” (25). Accordingly, Agosti tries to extend and outdo Derrida’s verbal convolutions, to the point where the English translation (I cannot vouch for the French) becomes a nearly unreadable blow to the head. (The lexical touchstone of Agosti’s introduction is the coup.)

Despite the elegance of the design, with its tallish page dimensions and enigmatic drawings by Francois Loubrieu, I fault this edition severely for its typography. In the English text (the French seems better managed) there are routine substitutions of em dashes for hyphens, hyphens for en dashes, and so forth. Especially in the context of Derrida’s inventive vocabulary and his sometimes halting, digressive presentation, these confusions of punctuation are unkindnesses to the reader. Likewise, the use in both the French and the English translation of French double-angle quote marks, and only French double-angle quote marks, creates serious hazards of reading. Spurs often finds Derrida quoting Nietzsche quoting another — even if this last is merely scare quotes — and these nested quotes quickly become entangled, so that the compounded intertext sometimes requires a diligent reader to go back to the start of the paragraph and count the marks inward to the verbiage at stake. This last process is hardly assisted by the short lines, the lack of either indentations or line spacing at the paragraph breaks, and the absence of full justification. (The text is merely left-justified.) And parentheses are an instrument of abuse similar to the quotation marks.

But intellectual frustration is in many ways the goal of the book. Ultimately, Spurs is concerned with the undecidability of signification and the ways in which texts undergo their loss of contexts. These themes are implicitly demonstrated throughout, becoming gradually more overt, and fully explicit only in the penultimate section on “Abysses of truth” and a sort of coda: ” ‘I have forgotten my umbrella’.” At the last, Derrida insists that his own writing (like Nietzsche’s) is “indecipherable … cryptic and parodying” (137). The disingenuous denial of the anamnesis of the umbrella is a failure to forget the phallus, an exposure of the simultaneous ubiquity and absence of sexual difference. Read it if you must.