Nietzsche in Italy (Pushkin Press, 2023) by Guy de Pourtalès, originally published in 1929, has a particular texture that makes it inadequate to consider it a standard intellectual biography. Pourtalès does not follow the contours of the psychological and chronological construction; rather he is more interested in sketching out the telluric effects on the transformative tonality in the thinker’s soul. Nietzsche’s radiant affinity to Italy and “latinity” has been well known, and at stake there is the possibility of finding an exit from the grandiose enactments of the German romantic gestalt. For Pourtalès, “latinity” is the prescription that Nietzsche writes out for himself in order to maintain sanity in the world; and, ultimately, to find its own destiny and path in the face of modern nihilism. Sure thing, Italy is many things for Nietzsche: it is the zenith of his poetic relationship with the Wagners but also their farewell in Sorrento; it is Venetian music and pleasant weather; it is the open and physical form of a possible community of the Free Spirits and artistic expressivity. And Italy is also a refuge from brewing culture of force in the North through the Renaissance uomini singulari where music persists, as he writes to his friend Peter Gast: “Life without music is imply a mistake, enfeeblement, an exile” (94). Pourtalès narrative collage (the different vignettes of Nietzsche’s visits and residencies in the Italian geography) detects the philosopher’s fundamental existential homecoming: a melody of the soul in a world increasingly organized through the chaos as the essence of force. To be attuned to the melody of the soul becomes the task of the artist: “to hear and see beyond the vast “lost time” of humanity what others no longer hear or see, but just unwittingly hum as a tune, vague and wordless”, writes Pourtalès (41).
And if music is an aesthetic form of prophecy, Pourtalès’ sheds light on Nietzsche’s insistence to become a prophet of the age of nihilism: wrestling with the poignant homelessness in the human world of a postmythical age. Pourtalès insists that the “Italian experience” opens up for Nietzsche multiple possibilities to confront the Wagnerian solution through the concretion of the forced and unhealthy (these are Pourtalès’ terms) aesthetic formalization of the mythic redemption. The Nietzschean attempt (the beloved and unresolved versuch) is the final confrontation of “music versus music”, since “all philosophy is a series of events of the soul and finds its symbol only in music” (49) explains Pourtalès. This is what Italy seems to be providing Nietzsche with: the withdrawal from the intoxication of the “Wagnerian flame without being consumed by it” (66). This entails an acceptance to pain without instrumentalizing the rewards provided by the genial artistic form of the Gesamtkunstwerk and the enslaving commandments of Christianity. Wagner and Christianity now stand in the way of the path of destiny without paying dues to mimetic investments. This is Nietzche’s last battle, and thanks to Pourtalès we realize that Italy becomes the battleground for an ultimate detachment. But is it successful? Is Nietzsche as the artistic genialismus prophet able to accomplish the radical abandonment?
This is the resolute ambiguity in Nietzche’s proximity and distance from the Italian tonality. Indeed, Nietzsche seems never to have abandoned the rhetoric of the genialismus. Pourtalès quotes him: “Italian genius is by far the one which makes the freest and most subtle use of what it has borrowed…..and is thus the richest genius, the one with the most to give” (89). At times Nietzsche’s words about Italians or latinity is a metonymic for Christianity, his ultimate confrontation after Wagner, because to overcome Christianity implies to embrace the melody of life. This is why for Nietzsche Jesus is a higher form of life, whose kingdom is, according to Pourtalès (resonating here with the late work of Von Balthasar), “that of children, his faith is without rancor and without reprimand; it lives, it is itself its own miracle and reward” (100). The transfiguration of Christianity becomes a path to arrive at the very attunement of life itself, although this requires understanding love so that the “Kingdom of heaven becomes a state of the heart” (100). This nomos of the heart is Nietzsche’s ultimate and impossible search; perhaps one that does not truly find the path to a proper homecoming.
Was it due to Nietzsche’s failed efforts at finding the melody of the soul in his ruthless, cuerpo a cuerpo (“Dionysius against The Crucified”), struggle against Christianity? Were the terms of the prophetic transfiguration a mere illusion of guidance and redemptive incarnation? To put it in Cowper Powys’ lucid observation: “If Nietzsche had not been obsessed by Christianity he would have thought of Life before Christ came”. Pourtalès does provide us with another hypothesis: “Perhaps amongst the last things he [Nietzsche] understood was the profound speech of this piano, of this fiend, whose inner music he had always been the only one to hear. But no thought, no word emerged from this ruinate soul. Nietzsche expired, walled up his silence” (110-111). In Pourtalès’ interpretation, Nietzche’s lacked the central aspiration of melody of the soul: “knowing how to love”, which is obviously the unlearned lesson from the Italian landscape and the world of visuality. The fact that Nietzsche had no patience for painting according to Pourtalès says a lot regarding his incapability for an erotic mediation to escape spiraling towards madness in a desperate effort for completion. I am not saying that painting could have saved Nietzsche; but, as the last active metaphysical activity in modern nihilism (Kurt Badt), pictorial persistence is the ultimate exercise to hold on to the world from the point of view of one’s daimon. Pictorial persistence clears the illusionary strife over concepts of the tradition. Pourtalès’s Nietzsche in Italy (2023), even if only obliquely, is as lucid of a portrait as we might get in order to raise this question in a serious fashion.