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Maurizio Ferraris, Nietzsches

Andreas Kemmerling
p. 220-224
Notizia bibliografica:

Maurizio Ferraris, Nietzsches Gespenster, Klostermann, Frankfurt am Main, 2016, pp. 252, € 21,90

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1Seeing as the following review might end up being rather long, let me start by saying that I’m enthusiastic about this book. On a scale from 1 to 10 I would give it the highest grade. Not only is it a wonderful book on Nietzsche, it is also a wonderfully written philosophy book. And I don’t mean only the style – which is extremely pleasant to read (my sincere compliments to the translator, even if there’s a small mistake I shall not reveal). I mean the fact that Ferraris is able to do something that very few can do: to talk at the same time about philosophy and about the man who produced it.

2Ferraris does not seek to be “objective”, disappearing, so to speak, behind his words. At the same time, though, he never stands in the spotlight, so that the reader would know more about what Ferraris thinks rather than what Nietzsche believed, did and went through. This is what I think is exceptional about this book: first of all, Ferraris lets Nietzsche speak for himself, quoting aptly chosen passages from his letters and less known texts. Secondly, Ferraris lets history speak for itself, too. Saying that Ferraris makes very wise choices in his work is not enough. What he decides to mention in order to put Nietzsche’s thought in a wider context (to put it somewhat pompously, in the context of the history of the Western spirit from ancient times to post-postmodernity) is the reason why this book belongs to a class of its own.

3When I looked at the Table of Contents I feared the worst. There are no chapters, just eleven sections with titles like Kaputt, Femmes!, Nihilism without anti-depressants, or Nuovo cinema Zarathustra. Goodness! Such titles were complemented by a variegated list of places and dates, with a few extra notes like Jerusalem, 33 AD “it becomes female, it becomes Christian” or Basel, 16th April 1943. The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. My first impression was that the author wanted to propose something light-hearted. It will probably be a potpourri of small anecdotes, I told myself. Must be one of those Italian scholars a’ la Calasso who wants to vent his associative anger out on poor Nietzsche. In short, an intellectual that wants to appear original, learned and witty at all costs. I was ready to put the book away – better to re-read the original. Lucky I brought two Nietzsche volumes with me, i thought. However, I started flipping through the book before putting it down, reading a few passages here and there. Fifteen minutes later I was hooked. I also noted that the work followed a line of thought, so I started reading it properly, this time, from the beginning.

4I wasn’t entirely wrong in my first impression: this book is indeed original, learned and witty. And yet it is not a collection of anecdotes, but a free composition of facts. Facts connected by free association, but not arbitrarily. The book is scholarly, but there is no display of erudition. I discovered a lot about Nietzsche that I did not know before, and that allows me to see his philosophical ambitions under a new light. For example, when he was just over twenty years old, he suffered for not having received any scientific training in his humanistic school. (In Ecce Homo: “realities were only too plainly absent from my stock of knowledge, and what the ‘idealities’ were worth the devil alone knew!”) As a self-taught scholar he tried to keep up to date, in a serious manner and not just for a short time. It is evident that, in doing so, merely divulgative works were not enough for him. It is well documented that he also tried his hand with the work of Cantor, Helmholtz and Mach. He never gave up the hope of giving his views a serious scientific foundation rather than only publishing them in the form of dogmatic aphorisms – which any educated reader mostly took as the arrogant assumptions of a hothead with no scientific awareness.

5Ferraris’s book is also very witty, but in a very pleasant way: he expresses his very own views both when he agrees with Nietzsche and when he doesn’t. Ferraris doesn’t look up, with deference, to a figure on a pedestal, but at the same time, he doesn’t look down on Nietzsche either, not even when he contradicts him – which he does several times. Rather, he addresses Nietzsche’s thought as a well-informed professional philosopher who pushes in the corner of amateur philosophers Nietzsche the philologist, guilty of never really understanding Kant. When Ferraris disagrees with Nietzsche (for instance on the doctrine of eternal return, of the ubermensch, of the relation between interpretation and truth or on his moral philosophy in general), he does so as a simple thinking human being, with no arrogance or presumption. Ferraris clearly and concisely explains to the reader how Nietzsche understands the given philosopheme and asks a question that will probably sound surprising and almost indelicate (if not outright anti-philosophical) to the acolytes of Nietzsche: is it really so, is it really all so clear or is there at least an element of persuasive power?

6Sometimes Ferraris’s answer is an emphatic no. A no to the question under consideration, on closer inspection, and nothing more (except for a brief motivation, often only hinted at). There is no trace of that bit of “contempt” mentioned in the review of the Faz (13th September, 2016). What the reviewer may not know is that among philosophers contempt is the daily bread, and when it becomes harsh it is nothing but a sign of respect. And Ferraris writes as a philosopher, not as an expert on Nietzsche (and there can be a huge difference between those two things). The same reviewer says that Ferraris was trying to make Nietzsche’s thought appear “as absurd as possible”. Hat’s off, this is hermeneutic art at its best, but on the reviewer’s part. One truly needs to work hard to come up with this conclusion – which is entirely false. At every turn, the book shows how Nietzsche has touched the author’s heart deeply, and the latter’s attitude oscillates between sensitivity and pondered distance. There is no condemnation of absurdity in this work.

7It may well be that Ferraris does not understand Nietzsche’s claims (another reproach of the reviewer of the Faz) and takes them at “face value”. But it is really a sign of naivete to look at Nietzsche assuming that he really thought what he wrote? And that he thought it the way he wrote it? After all, it’s Nietzsche we’re talking about. We all admire him, among other things, for at least two reasons: having the guts to think what he thought and the rare gift to write as he did. We certainly love him not for obscurely hinting at unreachable deep thoughts, but for being an artist whose crafted sentences hit us like dards.

8Nietzsche’s sentences are witty: they are, so to speak, sharp exaggerations, the sense of which is transparent. They would not be Nietzsche’s if their meaning were to result from brainstorms or be unveiled by professional exegetes re-emerging from dusty archives after decades of study. If something in the words of Nietzsche makes us reflect, it is not the question of what their meaning could be. Often the question is whether what we read there is not something monstrous, if not even “spectral.” I am obviously referring to the daring (reckless?) intellectual outputs that Nietzsche communicates with his compelling language. That’s one thing. But if one does not want to simply get inebriated with his words, one has to wonder what their relation is with the truth. Even the most audacious philosophical thought, “beyond the beaten track”, is never just a test of courage.

9The more you read Nietzsche the clearer it becomes that he wanted to be read like he read others: with vigilant intellect and the will not to slavishly nod at it all, but rather to keep in mind the great timeless thinkers (Plato, Kant, and so on) in a kind of reluctance that can go up to becoming resistance to the bitter end. Ferraris is the type of reader that Nietzsche would have wished for himself, although he would presumably have hoped that he’d have agreed with him more.

10So let me ask again: is it naive or wrong to take Nietzsche to the letter? Perhaps. But it is surely a sign of respect that any philosopher owes to another. Maybe it is truly best if Nietzsche’s philosophy is not taken at face value, and yet there are still people – more reasonable than Nietzsche – who tell us how to understand it better than he wrote it. After all, this is the good German hermeneutic tradition: understanding the author better than he understands himself. Ferraris is not trying to do this, and some readers (including myself) are grateful for this. Ferraris does not write for Nietzsche experts, but for readers who want to think while they read.

11This is neither an introduction, nor a textbook nor a biography. In fact, I do not know exactly what this book is. In the German translation Ferraris adds a subtitle: “A human and intellectual adventure”. In the Italian original this adventure is explicitly related to the “catastrophes of the twentieth century”. In the German version, the reference to an adventure might also apply to the book itself: it unfolds in a somewhat adventurous manner, starting from the historical events chosen by Ferraris to mark his intellectual journey. The stops are short, they are not analysed in detail, and yet there is not a single one I would have given up.

12The book is funny. Ferraris is always witty and irreverent, even when he’s writing about something sad. But his tone is never inappropriate, and this is no small thing. Despite the lighthearted style and the clarity of expression, Ferraris’s work is no easy read. The author is very learned and shows it consciously. He forced me to do some research – which often turned out to be pleasant. Take page 159. I had never come across Ermanarich, for whom the 17 year-old Nietzsche wanted to compose a symphony. The Google search was worth it, I think, to get an idea of what young Nietzsche found fascinating. On the same page there is a reference to Jim Morrison’s “lysergic resurrection”. Thanks to the related research, now I know what L stands for in Lsd. Knowing this fills me with pride and I fully intend to use the word in the future with the same nonchalance as Ferraris. Perhaps in surprising combinations such as: “what you wrote sounds like lysergic chatter to me”.

13Even if I did some research on it, I still do not know what would happen if Jim Morrison resurrected lysergically. But there is one thing I really hope, with all my heart: that after his resurrection he wouldn’t record anything, not even a symphony for Ermanarich. The late 1970s would have been better if every night at the disco hadn’t ended with Riders on the Storm; those who are fond of Nietzsche would rather wander in the night to Iggy Pop’s Passenger. But this came later. Perhaps Ferraris doesn’t know Iggy Pop? Impossible: it would be such a huge cultural gap! Anyway, why are people so mad about Jim Morrison? You’d have to be at the age when you read Camus by candlelight, perhaps while being a bit high (actually thereby doing him a disservice). In any case, Ferraris is Italian and Italians are notoriously musical people, maybe too much to distinguish great rock artists from those who simply act cool. Putting together Nietzsche and Morrison is to me the worst associative gaffe of the book. Other than that, I have no major criticisms to make.

14But let me talk about something that makes this book so well-made. Ferraris gives us a hint of the stratifications and many nuances of the spiritual attitude he labels “nihilism”. He doesn’t simply refer to some aspects of Nietzsche’s thought or other, more obviously philosophical, impressions. Many of the events he mentions and many thoughts he develops in relation to them rather shed light on how nihilism affects one’s feeling, thinking, writing and then one’s will and action. These are the Spectres of Nietzsche Ferraris writes about. They haven’t disappeared with the “catastrophes of the twentieth century”. Nietzsche hasn’t brought these spectres into the world: he was rather their victim. He didn’t willingly promote them. He didn’t want to. These are spectres in the most fearful sense of the word, not funfair attractions to amuse children. Thank goodness Ferraris doesn’t try to reduce them to a bunch of abstract philosophical concepts. He doesn’t even try to find a philosophical Ghostbuster or come up with a simplistic diagnosis. Something like: “There was Darwin, and it was a hard blow to the image of the Western man; then there was the idealistic philosophy of all the arrogant thinkers who got excited by seeing the subject, all proud, become somehow the creator of his own world (everything else, including themselves, was nothing but false appearance); then there was the industrial revolution with all the misery it brought about; then there was….; and after all of this, there came concentration camps”. Ferraris is too intelligent to do something like this, proving to hold his reader in high regard. In this book the spectral horror seems to intrude into many events like in a painting. As rightly put in the appendix, Ferraris has written a history book, not just a book on Nietzsche.

15Had I had Ferraris’s book fifty years ago, when I started reading Nietzsche (not the imposing Thus Spoke Zarathustra, for which I still don’t feel ready), it would have been a very precious tool. After the initial enthusiasm, I wouldn’t have archived Nietzsche as a “non-philosopher”, which I have done for a long time. At the time he seemed to me like a wonderful writer of aphorisms, endowed with a weighty language and much wit, somewhat similar to Karl Kraus, another author I loved very much. I didn’t take seriously the things I might have disagreed with, because I didn’t take him for a very serious author. I dismissed his expressions as exaggerated, like those produced by pretentious poets. Nietzsche wasn’t a philosopher, for me. I read him (with the condescendence typical of the assumption that I-am-a-philosopher) as if he were someone gifted with witty formulations, who from his haughty Kulturkritik (which I didn’t mind at the time) from time to time ventured into philosophy (where, however, all too often he lost control). This was the only reason why sometimes I would read him, mostly on vacation: hammock literature. I did not even read Kafka’s Zurau Aphorisms like that. For those I have to sit down and focus.

16For “true” philosophy I need a desk and a rubber in hand, to erase notes I’ve taken before. For Nietzsche I never needed a rubber. I only underlined the best passages. And I would always find new ones, without having to delete old ones. Ferraris instead reads Nietzsche like a philosopher reads another. And writes in a way that makes him understandable, providing a lot of food for individual reflection. ““Whatever the reader can do, leave to the reader,” Wittgenstein once said. Ferraris leaves a lot to the reader. And what he leaves to the reader awakens even more pleasure in reading and re-reading Nietzsche, and then reading him again. Taking his word, keeping one’s gaze very focused, taking him as seriously as he would have wanted. And then thinking independently – it’s like relating to the world as it is, or like dealing with what we know about it as undeniable. In a word: this book is unique, weird, wonderful, personal. Let’s face it – a magnificent book. For all those who ‘somehow’ love Nietzsche, but do not want to lose their mind when reading him.

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Notizia bibliografica

Andreas Kemmerling, « Maurizio Ferraris, Nietzsches », Rivista di estetica, 63 | 2016, 220-224.

Notizia bibliografica digitale

Andreas Kemmerling, « Maurizio Ferraris, Nietzsches », Rivista di estetica [Online], 63 | 2016, online dal 01 décembre 2017, consultato il 30 octobre 2020. URL : ; DOI :

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