Aesthetic Transformations: Taking Nietzsche at His Word. By Thomas Jovanovski


Pp xxiii, 154 , Peter Lang , 2008 , $65.95.

This is a bold and courageous book that requires an equally bold reader, and not simply for the grandiloquence of its style, but the argument itself: Postmodernism too readily celebrates Nietzsche's scepticism, thereby precluding any serious examination of the central concept underpinning Nietzsche's corpus as a whole: the Übermensch (p. xvi). The Übermensch is a troubled concept, tainted as it is with the stains of Nazi aesthetics. Little wonder then, as Jovanovski observes, the prevailing tendency of recent commentators has been to reject, evade, or address the Übermensch as a periphery within Nietzsche's corpus; or reduce the Übermensch to a symbol of self-betterment and a ‘free spirited lifestyle’ (p. 100). By contrast, Jovanovski invites the reader to ‘stop courageously at the surface’ (p. xxviii), and take Nietzsche literally at his word when he says ‘the evolution of the spirit is a question of the body’ (p. 101), and that the Übermensch requires ‘physiological purification’ (p. 115); i.e. selective breeding. In short, Jovanovski contends that ‘the Übermensch consolidates and transcends all of Nietzsche's quasi-postmodernist leanings’, (p. xix) constituting a perennial source of moral energy; ‘a goal devoid of the slightest spasm of uncertainty’ (p. xviii), and a project to be phenomenally and materially manifest.

Jovanovski fashions his argument through an introduction and four decisive chapters. In the introduction and chapter one he explores Nietzsche's aesthetics as they grew in opposition to Socratic aesthetics, the latter grounding them in reason, science, and optimism; the former heralding a rebirth of tragic mythos as the transformative means by which cultural, political, and religious change was to be affected. In this regard, Jovanovski privileges The Birth of Tragedy, often overlooked in the secondary literature, advancing the thesis that the work is Nietzsche's ‘philosophical blueprint’, providing in ‘embryonic form’ all his ideas (p. xli).

In chapter two he explores the reception of Nietzsche by Nietzsche's English translator and scholar, Walter Kaufman. As Jovanovski points out, Kaufman was writing at a time when Nietzsche was widely regarded as a precursor of the Third Reich. Kaufman's brilliance was to bring him into ‘the fold of Western letters’; the problem arose however because Kaufman ‘over-rehabilitated’ Nietzsche (p. 67). And, by isolating and emphasising passages of importance to his own criteria, he unwittingly prepared the way the postmodern reading of Nietzsche as a champion of scepticism.

Chapter three takes precisely those readers to task, including the feminist Janet Lungstrum, Foucault, and Derrida. Again, Jovanovski contends that Nietzsche would have little regard for these postmodernists who end up advocating a radical social turning as an end in itself, and not as Nietzsche clearly intended: the most consequential prerequisite to realizing the culminating object of his historical philosophizing; i.e. the phenomenal appearance of the Übermensch.

In chapter four, Jovanovski lays bare the Übermensch, and the social, institutional and material conditions Nietzsche deemed necessary for its manifestation, including Nietzsche's counsel for strict measures ‘against the reproduction of inadequately physically or intellectually constituted individuals’ (p. 113).

In the Afterward, Jovanovski offers in advance a series of apologetics. He defends further his ‘disinclination to tender critical assessment of any of Nietzsche's trademark principles’, i.e., whether the Übermensch is worthy of examination in the first place (pp. 131–132), suggesting it is simply a matter of forcing a hole through the layers of interpretations and allowing Nietzsche's voice to speak; he also treats the apparent contradiction between Nietzsche's invitation to perpetual self-overcoming expressed in doctrine of the eternal return of the same, and the Übermensch: the former does not imply we behave as we wish but urges us to become who we are. The book concludes by inviting brief reflection on what the Übermensch might mean in the light of today's ‘hyperdemocratic’ (p. 136) climate which privileges the weak, (the Christian value so despised by Nietzsche), yet faces an ‘objectively acknowledged problem’ which might call for ‘severe regulations’: overpopulation. (p. 135).

It is possibly a mark of the sensitivity surrounding the Übermensch that the word fails to appear in either the title or subtitle; but disingenuous nonetheless, because this is not simply a book which eschews critical evaluation so as to put “Nietzsche back into Nietzsche” (p. 93). Let us grant Jovanovski his starting point: we need not follow Barth all the way down the path of authorial execution; we can make an informed interpretation about an author's intention, and so leaving Nazi aesthetics aside, we owe it to Nietzsche to give a good reading of this central concept. However, by the same token, the reader needs to make the metacritical move and ask why should Jovanovski wish to return to Nietzsche in the first place? What is his intention? On this, Jovanovski is clear: ‘Now that nationalism and religion are sliding into anachronism, racial pride is one of the few remaining expressions whereby individual last men attempt to give some substance to their vacuous lifestyle by identifying with something larger than themselves’ (p. 120); in short the Übermensch supersedes the ‘puerile’ expression of racism with the standards of an aesthetic level of existence. (p. 120), and might offer a ‘viable ontological alternative to the current system of political correctness’ (p. 99).

Jovanovski's political agenda invites serious reflection around hard issues, such as selective breeding, and surely given a new twist in the current climate of cloning. Likewise, what would the Übermensch signal to today's human rights movements, directed as they are towards the alleviation of poverty and suffering – making the care of weakness a virtue of government? It is a shame these issues are not taken any further, or with the same care awarded Nietzsche. Instead the study adopts its master's arrogance and brashness, the type that can brush off religion as anachronistic when on the contrary; its re-appearance is one of the defining marks of the political and existential struggles in the contemporary age; if anything, religion has made politics look anachronistic.

What this book does do however is present a compelling case for the centrality of the Übermensch to Nietzsche's aesthetic and moral philosophy, through careful attention to the texts, highlighting what has been much overlooked in other recent literature surrounding Nietzsche. Hence, while this book has little time for the ‘weaker’ reader; it may also be the book the ‘weaker’ reader needs to grapple with.