Pious Nietzsche: Decadence and Dionysian Faith. By Bruce Ellis Benson


Pp. xx, 269 , Bloomington and Indiana , Indiana University Press , 2008 , £24.95.

Bruce Ellis Benson voices the suspicion most critical readers of Nietzsche harbour: Nietzsche's vocal contempt for Christianity masks a deeply held affinity. Like the school bully whose violent outbursts mask the very impotence he ridicules in others, Nietzsche's rage against religion, belief in God and the promise of salvation owe more than Nietzsche would credit to the fact he came precariously close to them; so close he lapses back into them. Hence Benson's central claim: ‘Nietzsche not only begins as a Pietist but also ends as one’ (p. 3). All of this is deftly dealt with through a detailed developmental reading of ‘decadence’, the principle charge Nietzsche levied at Socrates, Wagner, Saint Paul, and Christianity in general. Taking each in turn Benson highlights the degree to which Nietzsche was proximate to his foils, to the extent Nietzsche is best described not as a godless nihilist, but the proponent of a non-decadent religion.

If Benson's thesis sounds unremarkable, his accompanying claim is not: the transition from Christian to Dionysian pietism hinges upon a musical askêsis; i.e. a spiritual exercise involving research, investigation, reading, listening, attention, self-mastery, and invites an inner activity of the will, a technique of the self predicated upon a transformative and aesthetic process which was grounded in Nietzsche's experience of improvisation at the piano. Crucial in this regard is Benson's reading of decadence. As readers of Nietzsche will be aware, Nietzsche readily labelled decedent all those philosophies which were life denying, seeking resolution or redemption in an afterlife instead of creating value from the abundance of will, plenitude and strength. For Nietzsche life is its own justification. Yet as Benson point's out, decadence means precisely ‘de-cadence’ i.e. a loss of rhythm, or ‘falling out of rhythm with life’ (p. 8). In short, it is a musical term, and for Nietzsche, music restores the proper harmony of the soul which is proportional to being in harmony with life itself, thereby allowing for a Dionysian ecstatic and pious state. Hence the central passages in Thus Spoke Zarathustra involve both singing and dancing. As Benson points out, singing enables Zarathustra to bear his great destiny and thus become a master over himself. Music is the key precisely because it makes possible the kind of ecstatic transcendence so crucial to affirming life and improvising upon the self through the cultivation of one's creative vitality, what Nietzsche called the ‘will-to-power’.

Benson is the first to admit that this is not a cool objective or neutral account of Nietzsche. His concern is less with the historical Nietzsche, i.e. what Nietzsche actually said, as with what Nietzsche could possibly have meant, going as far to suggest that the case for a musical askêsis is best described as being ‘extrapolated’ (p. xii) from the text in. Indeed, as Benson points out, despite its etymology Nietzsche never speaks of decadence in explicitly musical terms, but more generally in terms of a disarray of the instincts.

And herein the problems begin, because without wanting to diminish from either the erudition that underpins Benson's engagement with Nietzsche, Socrates, Wager and others, nor the sheer creative brilliance of Benson's musical exegesis, his interpretive stance does raise some issues. First, by interpreting the ‘will-to-power’ as principally a musical and spiritual discipline, Benson shifts the emphasis in Nietzsche's corpus away from the primacy of biology and its energetic and instinctive struggles in an altogether more sanitised direction. In short, by sentimentalising Nietzsche around the piano one is left asking: what becomes of Nietzsche's directive that aesthetic transformation also involves selective breeding? Little wonder then that when the question of eugenics forces its way up through the text Benson abruptly casts it aside as unworthy of serious consideration (p. 85).

A further problem with Benson's interpretative approach can be put in the following way. Consider his treatment of Nietzsche and the Christ. As Benson points out, Nietzsche was sceptical that the Gospels could provide a reliable account of Jesus' life or that there were any ready philological principles to separate out the truth from falsity in the Gospels. Nietzsche subsequently offered up a psychological account of Jesus. Yet as Benson points out, how does one determine the psychology of Jesus when one has already ruled out all philological principles? Can it be anything other than an arbitrary exercise which serves ultimately to tell the reader more about Nietzsche than it does Jesus? Yet that being the case, cannot the same be said of Benson's reading of Nietzsche, taking as it does an interpretive line? In short, given that Benson eschews the historical Nietzsche for an interpretation, does his account not tell us more about Benson than it does Nietzsche? Accordingly one should ask: what shape does Benson's Nietzscheran piety take?

One can read Benson one of two ways. On the one hand, as the title suggests, this book offers a theology of instinctual piety concerned with the heart rather than the head; a post-metaphysical theology which links Nietzsche's affirmation with life to Jesus bodily resurrection. Drawing on the recent work of the materialists Slavoj Z̆iz̆ek and Alain Badiou, Benson celebrates Nietzsche's ecstatic overcoming as a Pauline ‘love beyond the law’ which affirms life beyond the death of imperial Rome – although it is far from clear whether Z̆iz̆ek reads Paul in precisely this way. In short, Benson reads Nietzsche through Christianity in an affirmative way, and not simply in the mode of suspicion as is usually the case. On the other hand this is a theology which risks being subsumed under Nietzsche's death-of-God; hence Benson enlists two atheist materialists to read Paul. And it is not insignificant in this regard that in his conclusion Benson gives the final word to a letter signed by Nietzsche as ‘the Crucified’. Because by giving the final word to the crucified Christ this theology risks becoming the very thing it remains so critical of; i.e. a decadent theology which privileges death over resurrection. I leave it to the reader to determine where the emphasis falls.

That said this book is enormously well written and insightful making it a crucial book for undergraduates and post-graduates alike (Benson provides one the clearest descriptions of genealogy as critique). It offers a concise account of Nietzsche's thought and his principle interlocutors, and a highly imaginative contribution to the reception and advancement of Nietzsche's work which deserves to be read by philosophers, theologians, and musicians alike.