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Thread: The Carlo MichelstaedterEnigma

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    © Differentia: Review of Italian Thought 8-9 (Spring/Autumn, 1999), pp. 125-141


    If ever there was one who, in Nietzsche's words, was born posthumously it was Carlo Michelstaedter. And doubly so. The first posthumous birth was his natural one, which for a variety of reasons he experienced as a species of death. The second was a result of critical exhumations, resuscitations of his life and work in decades following his suicide in 1910. The latest chapter in this second coming began when Carlo's sister Paula died in 1972 and bequeathed his manuscripts and paintings to her son Carlo Winteler. He, in turn, donated them to the Biblioteca Civica di Gorizia, where an archive was established as the Fondo Michelstaedter. Two years later Professor Sergio Campailla took over the task of putting order into the works, and new editions of Michelstaedter's work began to be published by Adelphi Edizioni in Milan. Campailla himself went on to write three definitive studies of the multifarious artist. [i]

    In the wake of the meticulous work of the Fondo Michelstaedter, now directed by Dr. Antonella Gallarotti, a question confronts those who work in the field of twentieth-century Italian. Is Michelstaedter a figure of singular artistic stature or just an interesting anomaly? Is he critical to our understanding of the early 20 th century or can we ignore his work with no significant loss? The enigmas embedded in the Michelstaedter phenomenon make these questions unavoidable. He is not simply an Italian, but a Jewish Italian, and at the same time a citizen of Austria-Hungary. He is as much of a painter and a poet as a philosopher. A great praiser of life, he is also perfect the most perfect nihilist in Western thought. As philosophers like Benedetto Croce and Giovanni Gentile recognized already in the twenties, the extravagant dissertation Michelstaedter wrote for the Università degli Studi di Firenze— La persuasione e la rettorica , finished literally on the eve of his death at age twenty-three—is anything but systematic. [ii] It proposes an ideal for life, but makes it all but impossible to practice. Michelstaedter demands that action measure up to thought, but respects no thought that is not spontaneously prompted by action itself. He inveighs against the temptations of “rhetoric” in one of the most rhetorically thick pieces of writing in the Italian early 20 th century. Advocating independence of mind, he invokes the authority of classical sources. He sees existence as continuous change, but thinks real what is permanent and immobile. Insisting that knowledge can only be relative to the knower, he proceeds to postulate universal, metaphysical truths. Finally, despite his overweening contempt for language, he takes his words so seriously that he is willing to sacrifice everything for them, even his life.

    It is Michelstaedter himself who makes us forego the distanced, protected response to textual matters which afford us a certain shelter. His categorical, moralizing descriptions of life force us to decide: either he is right or he is wrong. We cannot easily assimilate his views into our systems of knowledge. Scoffing at virtually everything people take for granted when not living intellectually, Michelstaedter forces us to consider whether we have a place for his radical positions in our pictures of the world. This, too, is why, at every junction, readers must directly confront the question of his contemporary relevance.

    The recent wave of Michelstaedter readings has offerred its own answer to this question. It has shown (1) that Michelstaedter has acquired international stature and (2) that his thinking has been incorporated into a series of debates in contemporary philosophy. In the company of ten or so book-length studies that have followed Campailla's, [iii] three treatments in particular bring these two dimensions of the Michelstaedter rebirth into high relief: Daniela Bini's Carlo Michelstaedter and the Failure of Language , the articles published in the pages of Differentia by the philosopher Mario Perniola, and two essays by another eminent philosopher of Italy, Massimo Cacciari, in his French collection, DPAN . [iv] Daniela Bini's study is the most complete monograph on Michelstaedter to date, and the first in English, covering the full extent of his artistic achievements. Cacciari's and Perniola's studies then propose two exemplary ways in which Michelstaedter's thinking has been appropriated by contemporary philosophy. New interpretations of Michelstaedter will no doubt have to pass through these three recuperations. Here I would like only to initiate such a passage, and perhaps imagine some occasional byways.

    In the face of the interpretive difficulties attending the work of Michelstaedter, Bini's sensitive readings come as a remarkable achievement, preserving unflinching aplomb in the face of his paradoxes, reading in the manner of an elegant narrative, recounting each twist and turn in Michelstaedter's artistic and spiritual development. Most importantly, perhaps, it engages in that type of intellectual contextualization which Michelstaedter requires of his audience, stressing intimate ties between his work and that of many towering figures of our theoretical tradition (Socrates and Plato, Heraclitus and Parmenides, Buddha and Christ, Leopardi and Pirandello). Bini's is probably the most balanced presentation of Michelstaedter in European context, clearly unravelling the difficult arguments of La persuasione e la rettorica and performing in-depth analyses of his poetry and visual art. In fact, Bini's study is a model for those who plan to engage in a detailed examination of Michelstaedter's artistic work. Both on the visual and the literary levels, it offers a consistently acute commentary to the numerous contributions of this "comet in the sky" of early twentieth century Italian art.

    Bini affirms Michelstaedter's importance in no uncertain terms. She gives his philosophy eminent credit, likening it not only to his great pre-Socratic models, but also to two masters of our century, Martin Heidegger and Ludwig Wittgenstein. [v] She measures his drawings and paintings against those of the commanding expressionists, Oscar Kokoschka, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, and Erich Heckel, and compares his poetry to that of Eugenio Montale. While these are precisely the figures in whose company Michelstaedter stylistically belongs, some readers may be nagged by the question: Is Michelstaedter quite this towering? How central is he to our artistic and philosophical tradition?

    The concluding sentence of Bini's study answers this question by bringing Michelstaedter directly within the purview of issues that have occupied us for some time in literary studies—those of linguistic negativity and difference, addressed in various ways by a whole line of thinkers from Georges Bataille to Jacques Derrida, from Maurice Blanchot to Emmanuel Levinas. "It is not too farfetched to state," writes Bini, "that Blanchot's L'Ecriture du désastre and even Bataille's central idea of the insuperable différence of the negative had their conscious sacrificial victim in Carlo Michelstaedter" (p. 268). The dust cover of the book foregrounds that general connection, introducing Michelstaedter as "a forerunner of Blanchot, Bataille, and Derrida." Granted that these are the publisher's words and not the author's, it is still clear that Bini assimilates Michelstaedter into what has come to be called the twentieth-century critique of the logocentric tradition. And that is already something.

    Michelstaedter's place in this critique seems to rely on the emphasis he places on the opposition between the key terms of his dissertation: persuasion and rhetoric. Persuasion, as Bini glosses it, is akin to the existentialist notion of authenticity. To be "persuaded" is to act in accordance with our being, to say and do what we inherently believe, to commit ourselves first and foremost to our deepest, most inalienable self. Rhetoric, on the other hand, encompasses a mass of practical and theoretical procedures, concessions, and delusions informing the greater part of our cognitive traffic—whether scientific faith in facts, the self-rationalizing ethics of business and pleasure, or just a trust that life can be properly reflected in concept.

    What would seem to account for Michelstaedter's contemporaneity, if not postmodernity, is his vision of the simultaneous ubiquity and inadequacy of all subterfuges of rhetoric. Hope though we may to translate persuasion into principles or systems or practical suggestions, it is entirely off-limits to words—to rhetoric. Persuasion, writes Bini, is "not an intellectual category, but a moral category. It belongs to the realm of ethics, and it cannot be explained" (p. 33). And again, "The nature of persuasione is, in fact, its very unspeakability . . . it cannot be known but must be lived" (pp. 35-36). On the surface, then, Michelstaedter's recognition of the unspeakability of all foundational matters of life assimilates him to the company of many of the most interesting thinkers of our century. Even so, there is an important difference between Michelstaedter and some of these others. The Italian truly believed in the autonomy of this essential persuasion; others saw it as itself a function of rhetoric, a delusion invented by words.

    This raises the question of whether Michelstaedter's elusive and apparently inexpressible idea of persuasion names anything different from the topic of philosophy and religion since time immemorial (the true nature of being, authentic morality, the real and not apparent order of things). Whether called truth or persuasion or the Absolute, whether reserved for the hero, the seer, the saint, or the angel, it seems to have been theorized from the very beginnings of the West. Michelstaedter himself speaks of it with vatic insistence, sometimes even suggesting that the sole hope for human salvation is to keep conveying this message. The hero of persuasion thus speaks to people "in the voice of their own pain, a voice distant to them ." [vi] Each word of the persuaded hero "is luminous" and "creates the presence of that which is distant" (PR, p. 88).

    From Parmenides to Henri Bergson the dream has been one and the same: a non-rhetorical world of meaning, identity, and being. If this is logocentrism, then Michelstaedter is its most committed proponent in the last hundred years. Nothing, in this sense, could be further from the deconstruction of the linguistic metaphysics which marks our era. Michelstaedter's resolution, in the words quoted by Bini, is "to give back to words their original meanings" (p. 20). If Christ and Socrates offer models of persuasion, it is partially, Bini explains, because "they alone did not entrust their thought to the written word" (p. 20).

    The ideal of persuasion does not grow more persuasive when linked to Wittgenstein and other theorists of the unsayable; it does not become more vibrant when identified with organic vitality. Radically different from the modes by which life typically requests that we operate, notes Bini, "persuasion seems not to belong to men" (p. 24). Even so, it is men who have devised the notion, and in countless articulated forms, some sacrificing their lives to it, [vii] others arguing that it can be achieved in a speechless purity of passionate, spontaneous action. Michelstaedter even appears to suggest that persuasion might have been more the rule than the exception before philosophers like Plato chose to separate theory from practice (Jean-Jacques Rousseau would have located the fateful date much earlier). Michelstaedter's Socrates stands precisely for an example of how such persuasion can belong to men. And this, comments Bini, is because "Socrates' theoretical and ethical goals coincide; his life was the enactment of his theory. He was a real persuaso " (p. 26).

    Today, after decades of phenomenological thinking (inaugurated in the very years in which Michelstaedter was writing his dissertation) one wonders whether the distinction between theory and practice is the most useful way to understand the structure of human experience. Now it appears more likely that practice is always motivated by theory in some way or other—always dependent on a manner of vision, on intention and purpose, even in animals. Theory, too, appears always geared to some sort of practice. If anything, one of the pressing tasks of the century seems to have been that of embracing the connection between the terms, inventing a new way of conceiving of the complexities of human behavior outside of the issue of unity or separation.

    Even assuming that this spontaneous, undifferentiated fusion of theory and practice is occasionally mercifully accorded to experience (in ecstasy, savagery, and Zen), the problems still linger. To what extent does it make sense to extrapolate from such an experience of unity, as Michelstaedter does, a "one," fundamental state of being underlying the two-ness, three-ness, and thousandfold variety of more widespread experience? (Something like this question led a thinker truly inclined to mysticism, Martin Buber, to abandon the early monistic metaphysics of his Daniel , 1913, for the dialogical historicity of I and Thou , 1923.) Besides, when philosophers and moralists have called for a correspondence between theory and practice they have usually had in mind the capitulation of one to the other (more specifically, of practice to theory). Noble as the intention may sometimes be, one would also like to see the operation moving for once in the opposite direction (making theory answer to practice). Here Michelstaedter remains regrettably on the far side of the fence.

    Understood as ethical authenticity, persuasion has difficulty disengaging itself not only from the idea of theoretical truth (the intuited or experienced true nature of being) but also from the idea of a free-standing subject. The authentic, autonomous person to whom Michelstaedter advises us to conform our behavior is more like a fiction abstracted from all the contingencies constitutive of selfhood: cultural tradition and prejudice, learning and historical fortune, winding existential ways, the instabilities of care, emotion, and fear. Michelstaedter condemns all of these components of identity as rhetorical layovers, whisking his hero away into the ethereal zones of divine self-standing: The persuaded self is one who "must create himself and the world, which does not exist before him: he must be master and not slave in his house" (PR, p. 73). And this belief in authentic self-making is another reason why Michelstaedter is not as deconstructive as he seems. He never accepted the "ambivalence" (p. 21) of that historical rhetoric in which experience is always caught, that hermeneutical reading and writing of life which is complicitous with—if not responsible for—every human ideal. If he had truly accepted the ambivalence of rhetoric, as Bini claims, the story she recounts would not hold as well as it does.

    To be sure, the story is a compelling one, beginning with Michelstaedter the philosopher and ending with the poet and artist. In writing La persuasione e la rettorica , Michelstaedter runs up against a paradox that he cannot escape without abandoning his vehicle of communication. Conceptual reason can never bridge its distance from the absolute it strives to articulate. This paradox revalorizes Michelstaedter's work in poetry and drawing, those activities which have generally been considered of secondary importance to his thinking. Bini instead sees them, and not the dissertation, as the genres in which Michelstaedter invested his greatest resources. We know, for example, that the concepts of philosophy struck him as "dead bodies without souls" (p. 10). Poetry, on the other hand, may have extended him the promise of a "synthetic image; the image that does not explain, but evokes; the image that does not claim the assent of theoretical reason, but hopes for that of the feelings, through which truth can often speak with a more effective voice" (p. 10). At the end of Michelstaedter's trajectory—away from the sterility of language—lie his portraits of living individuals. It was in these hundreds of sketches, writes Bini, "that Michelstaedter was to find his authentic form of expression, the means by which he could finally defeat rettorica . With pencil or black chalk, the simplest of tools, he could try to catch the fleeting spark of the soul and with rapid strokes fix it on paper" (p. 10). The culminating chapter of Bini's book is called "The Authenticity of Drawing." It divulges Michelstaedter's work in a genre where "between the subject portrayed and the beholder there is no longer any rhetorical mediation" (p. 10).

    Here too a deconstructive sensibility might want to ask: If the division between signs and meanings is as absolute as Michelstaedter claims it is, does it not mark drawing as well? Doesn't a visual representation give us only the body of a person, not the soul (or the image of a body, the projection, as it were, of one "I" on another)? If Michelstaedter had fully believed in the ambivalence of rhetoric he might have had no ground for privileging drawing over writing, for both operate equally under the sway of the sign—revealing and hiding at once. That "communication from within" (p. 216) at which expressionist portraitists aimed is as impossible to achieve in drawing as in philosophy.

    Nevertheless Bini is right about Michelstaedter's interest in human sketches. Portraits try to lay hands on the living core of an individual in a way that philosophy generally does not. It is also true that an artistic arrangement of signs can overcome stereotyped associations of those signs, especially as these associations accrue to the semantics of speech. But the real question may be, how committed was Michelstaedter to exploring such arrangements? His poetry is not Dino Campana's or Giuseppe Ungaretti's, not visionary or hermetic. It is conceptual and cerebral, often rawly allegorical, articulated in much the same rhetoric as his philosophy:

    Io son solo, lontano, io son diverso--
    altro sole, altro vento e più superbo
    volo per altri cieli è la mia vita . . .
    Ma ora qui che aspetto, e la mia vita
    perché non vive, perché non avviene?
    Che è questa luce, che è questo calore,
    questo ronzar confuso, questa terra,
    questo cielo che incombe? M'è straniero
    l'aspetto d'ogni cosa, m'è nemica
    questa natura! basta! voglio uscire
    da questa trama d'incubi! la vita!
    la mia vita! il mio sole! [viii]
    While these may not be his most successful lines, we find that Michelstaedter's poetry as a whole rarely embodies persuasion (as art presumably would, in a classical unity of form and content); it speaks around it—and less persuasively, I believe, than does his prose.

    And what of the idea that truth might speak more effectively in poetry, because there it appeals to the feelings rather than reason? How? If the entire polemic of La persuasione e la rettorica is directed against the irrationality and cowardice of feeling! Even Bini tends to agree with Campailla that Michelstaedter committed suicide precisely because he was unable to tolerate the autonomy of his feelings (especially wrath, resentment, and guilt). One can even imagine a scenario in which the chronologically last Michelstaedter—the Michelstaedter of La persuasione , who focused his readings on the Gospels, Tolstoy, and a handful of moral, theoretical texts—argues that poetry is a spiritually immature form of expression, a language of emotional plaint rather than of firm and stable conviction.

    Similar considerations can be applied to his drawings. The vast majority of them are caricatures —attacks on stereotypes, not positive, alternative visions. Instead of a coincidence of form and content, they represent a schism (a procedure Bini eloquently glosses by reference to Pirandello's umorismo , psychoanalytic theory, and the formal distortions of expressionistic art). The suspicion remains that, up to the end, Michelstaedter never succeeded in liberating his art and his poetry from the conceptual deadlock of persuasion and rhetoric—which did, however, grow eloquent in La persuasione . He never succeeded in persuading himself of the persuasive power of various forms of rhetoric.

    This brings us to another question that no discussion of Michelstaedter seems able to avoid, namely, the outcome of Michelstaedter's spiritual journey, crowned by suicide. On the one hand Bini notes that a literal commitment to persuasion can only be deadly. Michelstaedter "knows that to make himself an absolute being is to negate himself as a finite being, that to make himself an eternal being is to negate himself as becoming. Michelstaedter's suicide seems at this point to have been a coherent and logical consequence" (p. 39-40). On the other hand she is not willing to read his death as an essentially philosophical gesture. She, one of the few people aware of the torments by which Michelstaedter's mind was racked, interprets his suicide as probably a admission that he was unable to live up to his ideal of existential unity. Thus she takes issue with that other, pervasive reading of his suicide as a logical exemplification of that same ideal, or as a symptom of the nihilism inherent in it (in the notion of persuasion). To believe in such a unity of theory and act, writes Bini, is only "to fall prey to the systematic fallacy that mocks postmodernists" (p. 259): the assumption that since Michelstaedter insisted on an absolute coherence of theory and practice he must also have enacted that coherence in his own experience. While the objection is well taken, why we should want to deny Michelstaedter such coherence at the one moment when he made the most absolute decision of his life? In one sense suicide is always an admission that practice (life) is not conforming to theory; the difference in Michelstaedter's case is that his own theories left him no space in which to pursue such a match. Considering persuasion something that practice could never live up to (and allowing for no other value in life) Michelstaedter foreclosed his possibilities. In this sense his suicide was plainly occasioned by philosophy (irrespective of what other, concrete reasons might also have accompanied it, such as a quarrel with his mother the morning of the act, or a lethal disease from which he may have been suffering). In short, it is impossible to divorce Michelstaedter's suicide from the negative judgments he passes on life at every turn. "There is no need," as he writes in La persuasione , "to continue a life which, wanting in everything, is revealed not to be life " (p. 70).

    What would it have taken for Michelstaedter to continue to live? Had he not chosen to believe that the Absolute and the Eternal and the True were the stuff of which life must be made, the intolerable contradictions of experience would certainly have dissolved—and along with them perhaps also the suicidal temptation. Short of this, however, Michelstaedter would have had to find a way to valorize the failure of rhetoric , the rhetorical failure of existence itself. Bini suggests that silence was the inevitable consequence of his philosophical battle. And silence is a stand-in for death. However, one could just as well claim that only there, where silence and death are the only response to the absurdity of experience, do art and life begin. Only there does one take on limitless responsibility for shaping meaning, for actualizing a relatively persuasive form of life. To continue to live Michelstaedter would have had to cease railing directly against language, convention, and interpretation. He would have had to shift more of his energy into the production of art. His talents were so exceptional that he would have found remarkable ways to make his painting, poetry, and philosophy transcend the phantoms by which they were haunted—to coerce these idioms, as it were, into a new type of vitality. Where negativity, duplicity, and rhetoric are prime movers in the demand for the fullnes of meaning and life, creativity accepts its greatest challenge. Adriano Tilgher recognized something of this in his review of La persuasione in La Stampa , 23 December, 1922, p. 3.

    What emerges from Daniela Bini's study of the entire gambit of Michelstaedter's work is a sense that the importance of Michelstaedter's thinking ultimately hinges on how persuasive we find his Hauptbegriff —the moral and intellectual ideal of persuasion. In an age where, to borrow Mario Perniola's sardonic words, "everything seems to be reduced . . . to the daily tactical ministering of the spheres of feelings, interest, and ideas which appear to be obvious," it is more difficult than it once was to respond seriously to discourse about truth and unyielding commitment. [ix] We have become pragmatic through and through, cultivating only experiences and techniques we know to work . We humor only ideas we can translate into palpable results (the very opposite of the direction in which Michelstaedter travels). It is in this type of setting that Perniola prescribes Michelstaedter as a curative. To do so, he too must rethink the significance of persuasion.

    For Perniola persuasion is not a condition in which the self becomes what it most inalienably is—and theorefore immune to the allure of rhetorical deceits. Persuasion is essentially amor fati , love of fate:

    In Greek, persuade, or convince, is peítho . Originally the root peith - was only intransitive: it did not mean to convince someone, but to have trust, or to trust someone. The transitive use of the verb does not belong to the ancient Greek and represents a later change.
    The fundamental meaning of persuasion is trust. To be persuaded thus means to have great trust, to be or remain in a state of trust. (5: 27-28)
    Trust is not at all equivalent to the futural, messianic orientation of "faith"; it is a bearing toward "something already given, something present," a condition of a person "who feels safe because he can rely on a solid reality" (5: 28).

    This vision of persuasion sidesteps the tragic implications that Bini so carefully ferrets out from its textual descriptions. Gone are the speechless dilemmas, the beckoning of death, the self-immolation of Michelstaedter's persuaded heroes. And this is primarily because Perniola is interested in Michelstaedter as a model for a new type of project, one radically different from the two at stake in modernism vs. postmodernism, idealism vs. pragmatism, the sixties vs. the eighties of the twentieth century.

    The sixties and early seventies, claims Perniola, were modernist in style: militant, revolutionary, and intent on the future, protesting the present in deference to social and political ideals. The eighties, by contrast, were postmodernist: passéistes , dispassionately immersed in what has historically come to pass, disillusioned or entertained as the case may be. The postmodernism of the eighties, writes Perniola, "oozes with boredom. This total acquiesence and consent to universal inconsistencies, and this state of misery, when it comes to emotions and feelings," generates only flatness, emanating intellectual pretensions which somersault "in every direction" (3-4: 42). Emerging from this postmodernist period, we may finally be able to grasp the "vitality and fecundity" of Michelstaedter's thinking for the nineties. Very simply, it consists in his call for a "strong feeling" for the present—what neither the sixties nor the eighties respected. It offers an alternative to activism and passivism alike, both equally evasive. In Michelstaedter's idea of passionate commitment to what actually is at any moment, as all there is, of trust in the phenomena composing historical presence, lies the "point of departure of a new cultural tendency" (3-4: 41).

    What is implied by this strong feeling for the present? To begin with, an overcoming of obnoxious, self-assertive subjectivity (though not in the manner of "sentimental Postmodern softness," 3-4: 43). Perniola is almost alone in making an issue of Michelstaedter's critique of vitalistic subjectivity—or the notion that human motivation can be anchored in needs, desires, or lust for power. If subjectivism means acting in accordance with some form of this psychological or biological substratum (including the primal, Cartesian consciousness of the "thinking I"), then Perniola is right: Michelstaedter is not a subjectivist. He wants people to be absorbed in things. "Persuasion," he writes, is "wanting to possess oneself in the things and in the things oneself" (qtd, 3-4: 44, though the original is slightly different: "veder oggettivamente . . . è l'estrema coscienza di chi è uno colle cose, ha in sé tutte le cose: . . . il persuaso : il dio," PR, p. 123). This externalized type of identity gives rise to a new immediacy of being, both phenomenologically and temporally, experienced humbly in listening to "that which emerges from the present, to that which is coming ( sopraggiunge ) hic et nunc , and to that which is manifested in things" (3-4: 43).

    This non-subjective feeling for temporal, phenomenological presence issues into new types of commitment. One enters the "age of the thing" which ensues the postmodern "age of the image" and becomes a "high profile intellectual" (3-4: 47). Strong feeling issues into strong writing. In the nineties, strong writers replace both the weak writers of the eighties and the maîtres à penser of the sixties. Not authors or intellectuals in the classical sense, they are gatherers of traces, bearing witness to experience not in just authorial forms but non-authorial ones (iconographic documentations, the intellectual's library, tomb, and so on). In essence, a high-profile intellectual is not a subject at all but "a thing, " entering into "direct contact . . . between thought and the world of history" (3-4: 46, 49). Silencing all "inordinate affections," desires, and opinions, this new type of thinker may even be more of a reader than a writer, making "him/herself into the single conduit of phenomena, their place of transit, their gateway to phenomena which surprise, upset, and amaze us, which constantly present themselves in an unexpected and unpredictable way" (3-4: 49).

    The time for such non-subjective intellectuals has long come. Yet, it is unclear how much sustenance they can find in Michelstaedter's example. He admittedly advocates valuing the exclusive reality of single instants of experience, but as for whether there is any experience left to such instants, or whether he values the phenomena they make present—this is another story. Michelstaedter radically rejects the worth of what we ordinarily think of as constituting experience: the temporal progression of things, their perishing and changing, their foot in the past and their stride to the future. While he seems to recommend viewing every occurence as happening "once and once only," there is in his work, no love of experience which supports an analogous stance in Rilke or Nietzsche, no verbal or visual celebrations of the wonders of unrepeatable presence. In fact, one can hardly imagine a more widespread condemnation of life as it appears (as it comes to presence on the human and organic level) than we find in this fiery antagonist of desire and need, of affection and adaptation, of dependence and insecurity. [x] In Michelstaedter's view, e verything for which humans ordinarily live amounts to nothing. Moreover, all of this nothing—which obsesses rhetorical consciousness--is a cowardly compensation for the dread of the nothing which truly is at any moment of time. To commit to the present in the manner of Michelstaedter's persuasion is thus also to commit to nothing. The nihilism which could have yielded amor fati is closer to amor vacui .

    Even the apparent non-subjectivism of this presential feeling runs into problems in Michelstaedter's text, seeming more of a promise than a position his words decisively take. Though persuasion means having "nel possesso del mondo il possesso di sé stesso" (PR, p. 82), the emphasis remains much more strongly on the self than the world. A persuaded person, writes Michelstaedter, "cannot affirm himself in the affirmation of those [needs] which are given to him . . . by a contingency external and prior to him . . . he is alone in the desert , and must create everything on his own: god and country and family and water and bread" (PR, p. 70). Could it be that the goal of persuasion is a type of subjectivity after all, aiming "to affirm the person who carries reason within him, to comunicate individual value " (PR, p. 85)? Life must consist in "creating everything by oneself [ da sé , which also means "out of oneself"], not adapting to any way . . . you have to create each thing: in order to have your life as your own. . . . Christ saved himself because out of his own mortal life he was able to create the god: the individual" (PR, p. 103-04).

    While Perniola's strong, non-subjective feeling creates the presence of what is "foreign, other, different" (3-4: 44), in Michelstaedter this otherness is entirely generated out of the one, selfsame self, now dilated to encompass the entire universe (a universe not composed of differences, but a limitless expanse of universal estrangement, in which all cows and cats are black). The "disappearance of the subject" is thus also at bottom a "possession of oneself" (3-4: 44, 46)—oneself as a type of absolute spirit. This new philosophy of presence now appears to have more in common with the visions of saints and ascetics than with empirical love. If anything, as Bini has noted, Michelstaedter's sympathies are deeply Buddhistic (pp.124-25, 245-28).

    Perniola's reading of Michelstaedter is radically different from the truisms we have grown accustomed to hearing. His ethics of presence presupposes "the image of a full world, of a pléroma , in which everything which is important is available." It celebrates an aesthetic conviction quite different from the indifferent dispersion of postmodern attention. Strong feeling stands in Perniola's view "at the opposite pole of negative thought and the various forms which it has recently adopted: the crisis of reason, nihilism, weak thought, and so forth" (3-4: 48). How then can we place Perniola's Michelstaedter back to back with the view presented by the very figure alluded to in the phrases "negative thought" and the "crisis of reason"—namely, Massimo Cacciari? We can do so, I believe, if we tie the positivity of Michelstaedter's ethic more closely to the negativity of his metaphysics. In his second essay for Differentia Perniola makes this negativity more explicit than in the first. There he characterizes persuasion as a paradoxical convergence of movement and immobility. In the "radical extraneousness [of experience] from which it is impossible to escape," the persuaded self does indeed aspire to absolute autonomy and self-sufficiency (5: 27). The "liveliness and exteriority" of persuasion thus becomes intimately tied to a descent into the abyss of one's innate insufficiency. And the self-energizing process of "becoming a flame" is ineluctably a "becoming stone," articulating "an admirable synthesis of sensitivity and coldness" (5: 29).

    The enigma of Michelstaedter in Perniola becomes Massimo Cacciari's aporia. One of our time's most single-minded philosophers of the absolute (where the absolute is understood as the impossible object of philosophy and religion, the shapeless, unspeakable goal of all linguistic efforts), Cacciari finds in Michelstaedter the same battle that is most deeply played out in the Habsburg culture to which the young philosopher belonged. [xi] With Cacciari we are closer to Bini's reading of Michelstaedter than Perniola's, though in truth on the far side of it. Here the opposition between, let us say, the one true way of persuasion and the many ways of discursive deception is so radical that the very idea of unifying theory and practice becomes unthinkable. Persuasion is not only para-doxical, it is also parà - physin , writes Cacciari in the second of his two Michelstaedter essays. [xii] Socrates, the persuaded one, is "atopos"; what he says "cannot take root " (p. 102). An insuperable difference is built into the duplicity of peithò : a divine peithò on the one hand and the oscillating peithò of mortals on the other, ineluctably governed by the built-in requirements of social and political interaction (p. 98). For Cacciari, Michelstaedter severs the two voices of peithò in primordial fashion. No longer can there be any question of actualizing persuasion in feeling or unified action. Operari and the True Way, work and health are thoroughly incommensurable. In truth, what a person reaches in persuasion is nothing less than the immanent desert of the soul, or the silence of the ground of the soul. "He wants to be autarkès . . . he knows no Other to whom to address himself" (p. 108).

    Persuasion thus takes up its place in the history of that tragic spirituality which runs from Aeschlyus' Agamemnon to the absurd Christianity of Kierkegaard. Indeed, La persuasione appears as a unique effort to reconcile pagan trust with Christian faith, peithò with pistis (p. 107). Here Christ is far from a model for practicing what one preaches. Michelstaedter's Christianity is rather contained in the superhuman nature of the love it proposes, in the maniacal courage of the freedom it urges. "The Christian God does not contradict life, but requires an im-possible True Life" (p. 109). And Michelstaedter's aporia is finally that of "having to want the true Way, being able only to want it, and not being able to have it while wanting it" (p. 110).

    In Cacciari's radical rhetoric—curiously appropriate to the fundamentality of the contradictions with which Michelstaedter is concerned—lies a final, essential perception. The bind, or aporia, of the will to persuasion is the experience of persuasion. The only enactment of persuasion lies in embracing its own impossibility. Cacciari sees this more clearly than others, perhaps even more clearly than Michelstaedter himself. To be persuaded is knowingly and willingly to suffer the impossibility of that same condition. It is neither to dismiss the persuasive ideal as irrelevant to the pragmatic operations of the world, nor to encapsulate it in a religious or philosophical theory. Rather, it is to show the dream in all its ineffability, to keep it sacrosanct, to allow it to mark the limits of all knowledge and intuition—in short, to voice its silence. This is the "most ancient" persuasion of life, around which words incessantly turn.

    True life has nothing to do with some Beyond that reason cannot attain; "true life, its perfection, is the accomplishment of this life : the impossible perfect satisfaction of its erga —to which no method can lead. Persuasion is the silence and peace of these words --and it reveals itself in them as the uncapturable 'dià logon'" (p. 110). In still another way, persuaded life lies outside all abstract alternatives to the "sick" life of pain, desire, and need; it consists in "the concidence in process between a person's existence and a radical endurance of the pain connected to this existence. The present of persuasion means being en energhia in pain, not beyond it" (p. 82).

    Perniola and Cacciari do not disagree in viewing persuasion as an existential response to the perfect imperfection of the historical present. Nor does Bini. If anything, they all disagree about how to understand this present. Perniola emphasizes its phenomenal coming-into-being in an infinitely differentiated flow of autonomous things and appearances. Cacciari places the emphasis on what has been called the ontological difference involved in such presence: the unthinkable gap between its being and its becoming, its essence and its appearance, each implied by the other but never reducible to it—a gap making all great joy simultaneously pain. Or perhaps, since Perniola and Cacciari both subscribe to the general lines of a Heideggerian ontology, the real difference lies in what to make of this inherently duplicitous presence. Perniola envisions an ethical response of strong participation. [xiii] Cacciari is primarily concerned with what the presence inspires theoretically, before ethics can even be addressed.

    For Cacciari every expression of persuasion is antinomian, where nomos is the law, the rule, the doxa to which meanings are typically reduced. What is "unauthentic," in other words, is not a particular use of language but language's very constitution (p. 72). The closest it can come to authenticity is to speak from the arena of its immanent futility. And this suggests that the most striking expression of the aporia (profusely revealed by the expressionist art of Michelstaedter's time) is what he may have sensed but found intolerable—namely, the recognition that the greatest closeness to meaning depends on the greatest rhetorical distance. The keeper of language does not order silence, but asks to be taken by the hair, inciting a war in the arena of form, a stretching and distorting of all common words.

    When Virginia Woolf wrote that "in or about December, 1910, human character changed," she had something like this in mind. [xiv] She did not mean that human nature had become different, but that a particular manner of representing it had broken down. Like Michelstaedter, the writers of the first decade of the century were left facing a "Mrs. Brown without any method of conveying her to the reader" (p. 332). They could not start, in their novels, by describing a house "in the hope that we may be able to deduce the human beings who live there," p. 332).

    This era's expressionist suspicion that the essence of Mrs. Brown cannot be depicted by a rhetoric of material or existential conditions explains all the "breaking and falling, crashing and destruction" that accompanies the efforts of new artists to rescue such a person from her material and linguistic entrapment (p. 334). [xv] When considering the art of the beginning of the century, Woolf advises, "we must reconcile ourselves to a season of failures and fragments. We must reflect that where so much strength is spent on finding a way of telling the truth, the truth itself is bound to reach us in rather an exhausted and chaotic condition." Mrs. Brown, in other words, will appear "a little pale and dishevelled by the time her rescuers reach her." And, in the proximity of this salvaging operation, it is above all "the sound of their axes that we hear" (pp. 335-36).

    This is the era of expressionist art which is given consummate expression in the tensions of Michelstaedter's dissertation, and which—who knows—may even hint at a time when such tensions would not have to prove suicidal. Few artists make the sound of the axes as alarming as Michelstaedter—in his conceptual dilemmas, in those drawings to which Bini has drawn our attention, in the contortions of a style he forged in prose. Among the lessons to be learned from the Michelstaedter interpretations of Bini, Perniola, and Cacciari the most important may be this: that only in a revaluation of rhetoric can the soul find its silent persuasion.

    [i] On the history of the Michelstaedter Foundation, see the pamphlet by Antonella Gallarotti, Il Fondo Michelstaedter della Biblioteca Civica (Gorizia: Dispensa dell'Università della Terza Età, 1990). On the Foundation's holdings, see Gallarotti, "Ricordare attraverso la carta: Carlo Michelstaedter," La speranza: Attraverso l'ebraismo goriziano , Catalogue of the exhibition in Gorizia, 7 July - 20 October, 1991 (Monfalcone, Italy: Edizioni della Laguna, 1991), pp. 87-104. The editions of Michelstaedter's writing that have been published by Adelphi Edizione in Milan, all edited by Sergio Campailla and, except for one, in inexpensive paperbacks, are La persuasione e la rettorica (1982), Epistolario (1983), Poesie (1987), and Il dialogo della salute e altri dialoghi (1988). Sergio Campailla's studies include Pensiero e poesia di Carlo Michelstaedter (Bologna: Pàtron, 1973), A ferri corti con la vita (Gorizia: Arti grafiche Campestrini, 1974), Scrittori giuliani (Bologna: Pàtron, 1980).
    Before Campailla, to be sure, a number of excellent studies of La persuasione had already seen the light. Alfredo Giuliani, the novissimo , had done his thesis on Michelstaedter in 1949 (Rome). Books had been written by Cerruti and others in the fifties and sixties. Michelstaedter's schoolmates Gaetano Chiavacci and Arangio-Ruiz had brought him to the attention of Italian philosophers and writers already in the twenties. For a complete bibliography of Michelstaedter criticism up to 1986, see Francesco Muzzioli, Michelstaedter (Lecce: Milella, 1987), pp. 75-194.
    To date, the most ample collection of Michelstaedter's writings remains Opere , ed. Giovanni Chiavacci (Florence: Sansoni, 1958). A splendid catalogue of Michelstaedter's complete drawings and paintings, recently edited by Antonella Gallarotti, as L'immagine irragiungibile: Dipinti e disegni di Carlo Michelstaedter (Monfalcone: Edizioni della Laguna, 1992).

    [ii] Giovanni Gentile's review of La persuasione e la rettorica appears in La Critica 20 (1922): 332-36. For Croce's review see the bibliography by Muzzioli cited above.

    [iii] In order of publication, the main studies since 1980 are: Cristina Benussi, Negazione e integrazione nella dialettica di Carlo Michelstaedter (Rome: Edizioni dell'Ateneo & Bizzarri, 1980); Claudio La Rocca, Nichilismo e retorica: Il pensiero di Carlo Michelstaedter (Pisa: ETS, 1983); Piero Pieri, La differenza ebraica: Ebraismo e grecità in Michelstaedter (Bologna: Cappelli, 1984); Giorgio Brianese, L'arco e il destino: Interpretazione di Michelstaedter (Padova: Francisci, 1985); Francesco Fratta, Il dovere dell'essere: Critica della metafisica e istanza etica in Carlo Michelstaedter (Milan: UNICOPLI, 1986); Piero Pieri, Saggio su Carlo Michelstaedter (Bologna: Cappelli, 1989). One might also note the interesting novel by Claudio Magris on Enrico Mreule, Michelstaedter's best friend from Gorizia, called Un altro mare (Milan: Garzanti, 1991).

    [iv] Daniela Bini's book was published in Gainesville by the University Press of Florida in 1992. Mario Perniola's two essays are "Beyond Postmodernism: Michelstaedter, Strong Feeling, the Present," trans. by Daniela Bini and Renate Holub, and "Enigmas of Italian Temperament," trans. by Aninne Schneider. They appear, respectively, in Differentia 3-4 (Spring/ Autumn 1989): 39-50 and Differentia 5 (Spring 1991): 19-30. Massimo Cacciari's DPAN: Méridiens de la décision dans la pensée contemporaine , trans. by Michel Valensi, has been published in Combas by Editions de l'Eclat 1992. The two essays it contains on Michelstaedter are called "Interprétation de Michelstaedter" (pp. 63-86) and "La lutte 'sur' Platon: Michelstaedter et Nietzsche" (pp. 87-110). The first essay had appeared in Italian in the Rivista di estetica 22 (1986): 21-36.

    [v] The idea of Michelstaedter as a precursor of Heidegger is first systematically argued, if not all that convincingly, by Ioachim Ranke, "Il pensiero di Michelstaedter: Un contributo allo studio dell'esistenzialismo italiano." Giornale critico della filosofia italiana 41, no. 4 (1962): 518-39. Additional links are explored by La Rocca, Brianese, and Cacciari in the studies cited above. Ties between Michelstaedter and Wittgenstein, also problematic in my view, have been drawn not only by Bini but also by Cacciari and La Rocca in the aforementioned studies, as well as by Gianni Carchia, "Linguaggio e mistica in Carlo Michelstaedter," Rivista di estetica 21 (1981): 126-32.

    [vi] Carlo Michelstaedter, La persuasion e la rettorica , ed. by Sergio Campailla (Milan: Adelphi, 1982), p. 87. Hereafter citations from this text (abbreviated PR) will be identified parenthetically.

    [vii] It is worth noting that on his list of countless deluded types who function rhetorically—scientists and shopkeepers, educators and athletes—Michelstaedter hardly finds room for priests and prophets.

    [viii] Carlo Michelstaedter, "Risveglio," lines 22-33, Poesie , p. 69.

    [ix] Mario Perniola, "Beyond Postmodernism: Michelstaedter, Strong Feeling, the Present," Differentia 3-4: 40. References to this and Perniola's other essay on Michelstaedter (fully documented above) will henceforth be identified in parentheses, where the volume number of Differentia is followed by page numbers (thus, here, 3-4: 40).

    [x] Even in the inorganic realm of chemicals, the very principle of life (as expressed, for example, in the tendency of hydrogen to "lust" after chloride and thus form the lethal compound hydrochloride) is suicidal (PR, 46-47).

    [xi] See Cacciari's penetrating study of Adolf Loos, Arnold Schoenberg, and a dozen other compatriots of Michelstaedter in Dallo Steinhof: Prospettive viennesi del primo Novecento (Milan: Adelphi, 1980).

    [xii] Massimo Cacciari, DPAN , p. 102 (full reference above). Hereafter page numbers will appear in the text parenthetically.

    [xiii] In his edifying Del sentire (Turin: Einaudi, 1991), Perniola elaborates at much greater length the aesthetic implications of this type of ethic.

    [xiv] Virginia Woolf, "Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown" (1924), in Collected Essays , vol. I (London: Hogarth Press, 1966), pp. 319-37. Page numbers will now follow parenthetically.

    [xv] Woolf's essay, of course, deals only with the "Georgian," or avant-gardist, writers in English, not mentioning expressionism at all. However, it is only where the pathos of truth and essence is truly preserved in art—or in the expressionist dimension of the avant-garde—that the struggle inherent to language has an intensity comparable to the sort we find in Michelstaedter.

  2. #2


    Carlo Michelstaedter and the Metaphysics of Will

    by Thomas J. Harrison

    (MLN , 106 (1991): 1012-1029 © 1991 by The Johns Hopkins University Press)

    Reason, madness, suicide. What is the relation between these terms? It is certainly a mad logic that leads one to kill oneself, though a logic nonetheless; suicide is a perverse application of practical reason. Or is it the opposite: a rational rejection of perversion and madness? Albert Camus and others have attempted to sort out these problems on a theoretical plane; in the work and life of Carlo Michelstaedter we witness their dramatic entanglement. In the age of high nihilism to which he (1887-1910) belongs, characters both fictitious and real pursue reason to the limits of exhaustion, succumb to insanity, commit suicide with prolific regularity. And yet, with the exception of Otto Weininger, only Michelstaedter enacts the entire plot of the play, fully submitting to the entanglement of the terms. 1 By killing himself on the day that he finished his doctoral dissertation in philosophy, the twenty-three-year-old student insisted on an absolute unity of theory and practice. Having tied a nihilistic knot, he refused to loosen it by means of a last-minute hope or theoretical twist. No, such is the evasion equally shunned, at least in word, by Kierkegaard, Jaspers, and Camus. Once the knot is tied as tightly as Michelstaedter ties it-the [1013] knot of reason, the knot of his age, on which he refuses to loosen the tension-no twist will help. The knot can only break by the force of this pull, in suicide or madness. Philosopher, poet, and, by his own reckoning primarily a painter, Michelstaedter began his short and exemplary life in 1887 as a member of an educated and prosperous Jewish family in Gorizia, on the Italian outskirts of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. 2 He ended it in 1910, after completing his thesis in philosophy at the University of Florence. Published five times between 1913 and 1982, 3 this thesis was to have been a study of the concepts of per*suasion and rhetoric in the works of Plato and Aristotle. But from the start Persuasion and Rhetoric leaves both its philosophers and the literal meaning of its terms behind. Yes, rhetoric denotes meth*ods of persuasion, but in the very broadest sense of those methods, namely, the entire spectrum of ethical and intellectual discourse available to the citizen at any given moment, from political and economic cliché to the norms of social interaction. In its analysis of cultural rhetoric at large, Michelstaedter's dissertation proves to be one of the most trenchant critical documents of our time, bearing remarkable similarities to the work of Nietzsche and the Frankfurt School. 4

    Even so, Michelstaedter traces the ramifications of rhetoric only to defend the possibility of persuasion. Traditionally conceived, persuasion is the goal of the art of rhetoric. In that respect persuasion [1014]

    suasion involves the influencing of oneself by another. Once again, however, Michelstaedter makes the word overreach its own limits, taking as its first connotation a Kierkegaardian conception of the subject's relation to itself. Persuasion means self -persuasion, or knowing what one wants, coincidence of thought and deed. It implies a transposition of intellect into ethics. In the terms of St. Augustine, a thinker never far from Michelstaedter's mind, per*suasion means that absolute self-possession in which the splitness of the will is transcended. 5 The difference between persuasion and rhetoric is thus essentially a difference between "authentic" and "inauthentic" living. 6

    At the beginning of the twentieth century, reason, like folly, becomes finally unable to distinguish the difference between its [1016] own categories of appearance and reality. Nietzsche's nihilistic har*binger of "the death of God" is accordingly a madman, as anyone is mad who attempts to rationalize chaos and announces that the eternal has ceased to be. 10 As reason refuses to abandon a methodology for truth that no longer works, it is led to conclusions that the meta*physician can only experience as a cause for frenzy. Only the thinker who has abandoned all interest in metaphysical knowledge-the nihilist "with a good conscience," for example-can settle on the philosophical softness of epistemological foundations as on comfortable turf. 11

    It is thus under the rubric of an extraordinary exemplum that the progress of Michelstaedter must be read. In his life and death the romantic demand that ethics should coincide with reason finds its epitome and culmination. In fact, it is questionable whether Michelstaedter's Persuasion and Rhetoric would be hailed as one of the masterpieces of the century 12 if its crowning act had not been suicide. Without this proof, its nihilistic thesis would have lacked credibility, for the very legitimation of the principle that persuasion cannot live lies in the fact that Michelstaedter makes an ex*ample of himself. Cynical though it may sound, if Michelstaedter had not killed himself, his philosophy would have lacked its central feature. The "heroic nihilism" 13 of his unified life, work, and death articulates an immanent logic of its era, representing an unrelent*ing confrontation with the slippage of intelligence into madness and of truth into fiction that haunts at least two generations of Michelstaedter's contemporaries, from Nietzsche, van Gogh, and Dostoevski to Trakl, Campana, and the brothers Wittgenstein.

    If Michelstaedter's suicide is an intimate aspect of his thought, so is the form in which it is written-a dissertation. Michelstaedter recognizes the disadvantage this genre poses, to the point of disallowing [1017] him to say anything meaningful. "I know I am speaking because I am speaking," he writes in the first sentence of his preface, "but I will not persuade anybody" (35). The only evidence that speech is taking place is the emission of words, not the transmission of persuasive significance. An essay that aims to defend persuasion from the wiles of rhetoric could not have a more inauspicious beginning. Michelstaedter admits that this is a negative point of de*parture, "but rhetoric anagcazei me tauta dran bia GREEK TEXT [compels me to it]" (35). The vital significance of the words he would write had already been presented in unique and expressive ways-by Hera*clitus, Parmenides, and Empedocles; by Ecclesiastes, Socrates, and Christ; by Beethoven, Ibsen, and Leopardi. It never was heard. How likely is it to succeed now when Michelstaedter repeats it "in a way that cannot entertain anybody, neither with philosophical dignity nor with artistic concreteness, but as a poor pedestrian who measures the terrain with his tread"; "I pay no entrance fee to any of the established categories-nor do I set a precedent to any new category; in the best of cases I will have written... a doctoral dissertation" (36).

    What is the "law" governing this genre which makes Michelstaedter despair of achieving his goal? Is it that the dissertation is exclusively concerned with verification? That it means bypassing style and art to articulate the essence and logic of one's topic, to present its causes and effects in the form of objective description and expository argument? The dissertation enlists language in the service of rational explanation. Poetry, disorder, whim and feeling are its arch-antagonists. It is appropriate that Michelstaedter's es*sentialist project should issue not only into death but also into the rhetoric of the dissertation, a rhetoric that enacts the plot of insist*ing so much on the truth that one ends up by saying nothing. The dissertation proves doubly deadly, forcing Michelstaedter to spell out the nihilistic logic of his age (which others avoided through art) by imposing upon him the method that yields such logic. Both victim and victimizer, reason here insists on battling its own mad*ness directly, a battle that can only end in its own defeat.

    Consider the choice that Nietzsche, Wittgenstein, and other art*ists of the period made to flee the traps of rational persuasion. Their intuition? That dialectical reason could not but lead to specious findings, to conclusions unacceptable by the rules of the game (the principle of non-contradiction above all). Both the method and the import of the deductions of reason came to strike Wittgenstein [1018] and Nietzsche as intolerable. Like their counterparts in the artistic avant-garde, they preferred a species of creative madness to thought's annihilation, choosing to write in a "para-essentialist" mode of fragments, hints, essays, parables and paradoxes rather than that of the treatise. "If I were sometime to see quite new surroundings from my window instead of the long familiar ones," writes Wittgenstein, "if things, humans, and animals were to behave as they never did before, then I should say something like '1 have gone mad'; but that would merely be an expression of giving up the attempt to know my way about [ mich auszukennen ]. 14 The way of perceptual defamiliarization is the typical reaction of the various avant-gardes of the age to philosophical logic. But this defamiliarization necessitates the discovery of new and alogical id*ioms (the reinvention of rhetoric). Wittgenstein abandons his youthful project to enclose the world in a system: "I should like to ask not so much 'What must we do to avoid a contradiction?' as 'What ought we to do if we have arrived at a contradiction?'" (Zettel, ¶688 ). Michelstaedter, on the other hand, was unwilling to forego the law of contradiction. At every turn of Persuasion and Rhetoric we see him struggling with the constraints of dialectical logic, attempting to supplement its deductions with parable and irony. In fact, this melding of styles ends up producing one of the most unusual works of the century, unique and unprecedented after all. The first Italian since Leopardi of truly European stature, as Campailla puts it, 15 Michelstaedter is in fact an extraordinary expressionist thinker; but the logic prevails in the end.

    After subverting his own master concepts in the preface-"I know that I am speaking ... but I will not persuade anybody" (that is, I am engaging in rhetoric)-Michelstaedter launches his disser*tation with a bold and personal assertion: " I know that I want [voglio] and do not have what I want." He substantiates the claim by means of an allegory:


    A weight hangs on a hook, and, in hanging, suffers that it cannot descend; it cannot get off the hook for, being a weight, it pends and, pending, depends [ quant'è peso pende, e quanto pende dipende ] .

    We want to give it satisfaction: we free it from its dependence; we let it go so that it may satisfy its hunger for what is lowest and may inde*pendently descend to the point to which it is pleased to descend. -But it is not pleased to stop at any point it reaches and would like to keep descending, for the next point is even lower than the one it occupies at each moment. But no future point will please it, and be necessary to its life so long as a lower awaits (ora an menh auton) ( GREEK TEXT ); 16 each time it is made present, every point becomes void of attraction, not being still lower; thus at every point it lacks lower points, and these attract it all the more; it is always held by the same hunger for what is lower, and its will to descend stays infinite.

    For if everything were finished at a given point, and if at one point it could possess the infinite descent of the infinite future-at that point it would no longer be what it is: a weight.

    Its life is this lack of its life. If it no longer lacked anything-but were finished, perfect: if it possessed itself, it would have ceased to exist. The weight is its own impediment to the possession of its life, and its inability to satisfy itself depends on itself alone. The weight can never be persuaded. (39-40)

    Many are the claims and allusions here, even more the implica*tions that need unravelling. Let us begin with the first proposition, "I know that I want [or desire: voglio ]," for it prefigures an impasse that will return later. The epigrammatic quality of this assertion has the features of an essential definition, articulated in a stark and elliptical style characteristic of the whole dissertation. It forces the reader to interpolate its unspoken assumptions, a foundational logic in the body of the text, which nevertheless prevails against the pro*fuse accompanying intuitions which, had Michelstaedter lived, might have led him down other, more interesting paths.

    One of the assumptions of this first tenet, "I know that I want" is that an "I" underlies the act of willing. The second is that this activity of willing is single (as the gravitational force of masses, or of Michelstaedter's weight, was then thought to be) instead of double, as in the Freudian psychology of eros and thanatos, or multiple, as in [1020] the conjunction of forces of Nietzsche's will. The third is that the subject of knowledge and the subject of desire are one and the same; it is apparently the same "I" that knows and wills. This is an identification that Schopenhauer called the Weltknoten, or the knot of the world, for it was impossible to prove. 17 If these interpolations are correct, then the opening of Michelstaedter's dissertation places him squarely within a Cartesian tradition which Heidegger traces as far forward as Nietzsche and interprets as the heritage of Platonism. 18 This tradition measures reality from the standpoint of an "I" and comes ultimately to posit the activity of willing as the essence of this "I." As eclectic as Michelstaedter's sources are, the main affiliations of Persuasion and Rhetoric are consonant with Heidegger's reading, stretching from Ecclesiastes, Parmenides, and Plato through the voluntaristic Christianity of St. Augustine, St. Francis, and Petrarch, to Schopenhauer, Leopardi, and Nietzsche. The beginning of Michelstaedter's dissertation anticipates what he shares with the later developments of this tradition: a concern with the essence of human nature, or more particularly, with the essence of the human subject. By the nineteenth century, the essence of this subject that the Platonic and Christian tradition had considered to be animated by divine pneuma is equated with will.

    The assumptions of the first proposition of Persuasion and Rhetoric are borne out by its subsequent arguments. To live a life of persuasion is to recognize and actualize one's will. Persuasion is equivalent to self-possession, to being thoroughly advised (per + suadere) of who one is, to knowing and willing one's will. Dependent on both knowledge and power, persuasion means autonomy: "Persuasion does not live in him who does not live on himself alone" (42). Otherwise, as "son or father, slave or master of what surrounds him," a person will be only "a thing among things" (42) . Ordinarily a person "wants from other things in the future what he lacks in himself: the possession of himself: but in the degree to which he wants and is occupied by the future he flees himself in every present... What [1021] he wants is given within him, and wanting life he distances himself from himself.... His end is not his end, he knows not why he does

    what he does" (41). To become self-determined, the individual must dissociate his will from all that presses in on it and deflects it from its proper course. A person at that point becomes "the first and the last, and finds nothing that was done before him." Nor, Michelstaedter adds, "does it avail him to believe that anything will be done after him ... he must create himself and the world, which does not exist before him: he must be master and not slave in his house" (73). Here lies an image of that final monadic autonomy that is the ultimate desideratum of the subjectivist tradition. As Sartre expressed it, the "first value and first object of will is: to be its own foundation." But unlike Sartre and other philosophers of the twentieth century, Michelstaedter was unwilling to acknowledge that the will is unable to be its own foundation, "thrown" as it is into a horizon for action that it does not determine. Michelstaedter insists on the possibility of self-grounding to the end, claiming that "he who is for himself (menei) GREEK TEXT needs nothing else to be for him (menoi auton) GREEK TEXT in the future, but possesses everything in himself" (41). To be its own foundation, the will must be self-sufficient.

    This argument may be read as a literalization of various aspects of the metaphysics of will from Schopenhauer to Nietzsche. In Schopenhauer, will is a single, irrational principle distributed throughout the universe in a hierarchy of Platonic levels, from the blind forces of nature through organic impulses all the way up to its ultimate objectification in conscious human motivation. By the time this metaphysics reaches Nietzsche it has assumed more complex proportions. Nietzschean will is no longer a "will to God," nor a will to survival, but a will to power. Power, in turn, is always a relative arrangement, a product of forces in tension. Each force is a synthetic unity and a result of concrete action. Power is thus doubly synthetic, fluid and self-metamorphic by definition. It is not an objective quotient of power but a feeling of power (Kraftsgefühl). Nietzschean will, as will to power, is neither a commanding intention nor a "thing-in-itself," as it was for Schopenhauer and the voluntaristic tradition. It is the shorthand formula for what [1022] appears to be a historically commanding action, a configuration of

    incomparably particular acts in specific times and spaces. 20

    If Schopenhauer's will is a universal and originary metaphysical principle, Nietzsche's is a particular and functional result. Michelstaedter conflates their positions, understanding will as both originary and incomparably unique: What the subject knows is not that willing is the essence of all reality, but that I want, and that I am fundamentally equivalent to my desiring activity. The task of persuasion is that of realizing the fundamental individual will. "Become who you are!" is the Nietzschean injunction that Michelstaedter hears and tries to make possible along a model of persuasion. Like many of his contemporaries, however, Michelstaedter misreads this injunction, as though "becoming what one is" meant liberating some intrinsic essence instead of achieving a fruition of existence. 21

    According to Michelstaedter, becoming what one is, or achieving persuasion, involves stripping the entire rhetoric of self-expression-customs, morality, prejudices, and education-to affirm the essential will as its own sovereign. In the self-presence of a persuaded life "potency and act are the same thing" (44). Time itself is arrested. Every instant of the life of such an individual is equivalent to "a century of the life of others,-as he turns himself into flame and succeeds in inhabiting the ultimate present" (89). Or, in still other terms: "Whoever wants to possess his life as his own for an instant, to be persuaded for an instant of what he does ... must view every present as the ultimate one, as though it were sure beyond death: and create his life on his own in the darkness" (69-70). [1023] In this affirmation of self and present in a single act we recognize a literalized version of still another precursor idea: the affirmation of the moment in the eternal return of the same. This particular version envisions the abolition of that disjunction between essence and existence, doing and knowing, fact and value, which Sartre posited as the essence of alienation in The Critique of Dialectical Reason. 22 The will of the life-affirming individual is liberated from the impulse to negate the past, on the one hand, and to hanker after domination of the future, on the other-liberated, in short, from the "spirit of revenge" which wants to get even with all that is missing in the present. How else to understand Michelstaedter's coincidence of self and instant, in which the persuaded person loves everything that is, "not because it is necessary to his need, but for that which it is ... for in that ultimate present he must have everything and give everything: he persuaded and persuade, have, in the possession of the world, the possession of himself-be one, himself and the world" (82).

    And yet, the modal "must" of this passage already suggests a distance between Michelstaedter's and Nietzsche's affirmations of the self and the other in time. Michelstaedter insists on a seamless fusion of self and other; Nietzsche speaks neither of identity nor of moral "necessity," but only of harmony. Aiming as he does at a means by which to overcome the very finitude of existential forms, Michelstaedter seems here to effect another conflation of Nietzsche and Schopenhauer-a conflation of present affirmation with a transcendence of temporal difference itself. For, at bottom, Nietzsche's affirmation of the present is also an affirmation of the past and the future, or of "becoming" in a circle of difference and repetition. The "present" that is affirmed actually amounts to ceaseless temporal distension. One can affirm such a present only by giving up the conception of will as the faculty of single, auton*omous desire. In Nietzsche, to will is already to transcend (by de*siring more than) the present that is "given" at any particular mo*ment of life. The willingness of a life-affirming individual involves precisely an affirmation of the givenness of a given moment (the punctual "now" that Michelstaedter considers the only given) in a constructive-destructive cycle of circular time. 23 In this respect, [1024] Nietzsche's simultaneous affirmation of self-and-present depends on an ontology more like Georg Simmel's than Michelstaedter's. Life, in Simmel's formulation, always amounts to "More-Life [ Mehr-Leben ]," a flow of experience that "does not limit its reality to the present moment, thus pushing past and future into unreality." Rather, the "present of life consists of its transcending the present; ... in [the present] moment the future is reality." 24

    It is clear, then, that the famous amor fati , the love of fate, that characterizes the Nietzschean affirmation of the present is based on a rejection not only of the traditional conception of time as a linear succession of mutually bounding moments but also of the will as an inherent subjective tendency. The self-realization of will shares nothing with a subjectivist rebellion against the objective conditions of life or an egoistic assertion of the principium individ*uationis . Will is a principle of superabundance, not appropriating an object of volition so much as expropriating its own subject, a subject now reduced to a link in a chain. Michelstaedter's subject and object, on the other hand, remain radically separate. The union of these two "autonomies" will turn out to fuse two nothings. Persuasion will be presented as the possibility of the subject to transcend historical positionality for the sake of a utopian realm. This is clear from the impulsion of the weight with which Michelstaedter exemplifies his second assertion, "I do not have what I want."

    The image of the weight bearing downward moves from the idea of will as self-determined to an acknowledgment that such a will can never achieve its proper terminus. Imbedded in this parable is Aristotle's conception of sublunary dynamics, according to which all bodies of the world move in search of their natural place of rest. Fire and air tend upwards, water and earth downwards. 25 And thus the basis for frustration is laid, for the satisfaction of this inclination or will lies ever outside itself, in some other place, which, as Michel*staedter notes, can never he reached without the will relinquishing its own nature. Michelstaedter makes the longed-for achievement even more difficult by inverting another intertextual reference, namely, the principle of Augustine's pondus amoris , the gravitation [1025] of love that carries the will upwards to God-and away from its habitual and partial thirst for the bottom. 26 Michelstaedter's weight moves in an opposite direction. His will, unlike Augustine's and Schopenhauer's, is irremediably intra-worldly. Its inherent motion cannot be ascetically reversed.

    Thus, if Michelstaedter's first proposition seems to offer a hope for self-realization, the second subtracts the offer. I do not have what I want because of the very context of desire-the context of life in the Schopenhauerian and Nietzschean acceptation of the word. Life remains life, and will remains will, only insofar as each reaches ever beyond its present condition. Michelstaedter here is decisive: such life is no life at all. "Life would be," he writes, "if time did not constantly distance being from it in every succeeding instant." Life would be "one, immobile, without form if it could consist in a single point" (43). We may notice here another Augustinian resonance, indeed a Plotinian one. The source of frustration is none other than a certain attitude to time, a symptom of what Michelstaedter calls the will's jiloyucia GREEK TEXT or love of life, which makes the will overreach itself. On account of its "over-active" na*ture ( polypragmon ) , the soul, writes Plotinus, always "seeks for more than its present stage" and thus always "moves on to a 'next' and an 'after' and to what is not the same but is something else and then else again." 27 Distended over a series of mores and lesses, of nows and laters deferring its own desire, the will cannot affirm the ulti*mate value of any present without relinquishing itself--no more than the weight can stop falling if it remains a weight.

    Life thus deposes me from myself, making me seek what is ever beyond me. Such life is a permanent deficit and a tragic drive, a contradiction in terms, a bios abios GREEK TEXT, or living death. Being themselves, all things affirm what they are not. "Their life is suicide" (46). Having hypostatized a "will-in-itself" at the bottom of one's qualities, Michelstaedter is unable to predicate anything of this essential will except an intrinsic nothing. Voluntas is noluntas . "My dream," he could have said with Montale, "is not in the four seasons":

    My dream arises never from the womb

    of the seasons but in the untemporaneous [1026]

    that lives where reasons die

    and God knows whether it was time;

    or whether it was useless.

    Or, in another formulation of Montale: "Only this can we tell you today / what we are not , what we do not want... 28 Persuasion can adhere only to those naked souls, divested of all worldly attributes, who inhabit the Blessed Isles. 29

    Thus far the stipulations of Persuasion and Rhetoric may be sum*marized as follows: Willing is the essence of subjectivity; this willing is subjected to an alienating progression of exclusive moments; it must find its satisfaction in itself alone. The conclusion could not be expressed more poignantly than in some of the last lines Mich*elstaedter ever wrote-in a poem to a real object of his desire, his beloved Argia Cassini. Apostrophizing a person whom it refuses to engage in dialogue, this most intransigent of metaphysical love poems explains why there is no reason whatsoever to seek the actualization of the desire the words express:

    Speak to you:, and before you are taken from me

    forever, seize you completely?-for what reason?

    for what reason, if I lost you completely

    when, the day we first met, you were not mine?

    Even if "by means of your will [ per volontà tua], " I were to win you, Michelstaedter continues, compulsively underscoring the hetero*determination that is his phobia, you would always remain sepa*rate, never fused with my being. The key to his reluctance to pur*sue his desire lies in the reflection that if "I do not know / how to create your life from within my own," the romance is useless. 30

    [1027] Demanding that the will be autonomous, Michelstaedter is waylaid by the impassable barrier of the essentialist tradition. Having defined human being as its innermost subjectivity, this tradition comes finally to acknowledge such innerness as null. Michelstaedter discovers that the will in itself is empty, always filled by what it is not, no more than a dream of itself. And this is why people lament their solitude "for, being with themselves, they feel they are alone; they feel they are in the company of nobody" (41) . T o make matters even worse, the hero of persuasion still has to reckon with the problem alluded to by Schopenhauer as the Weltknoten, namely, the hypothetical identity of the knowing and the desiring "I." When no distance remains between these two functions of the self, the resulting unity is indistinguishable from madness. It is the Dionysian ideal of "being oneself"-of knowing what one wills and willing what one knows-notes Otto Rank, that lands Peer Gynt in the madhouse to begin with. 31 Michelstaedter conceives of this ideal under the aegis not of Dionysus but of Apollo and his Delphic adage, gnothi seauton, or "know thyself" (85). Sovereignty of will is contingent on knowledge. And yet, on the same page, Michelstaedter admits that self-knowledge is a chimera, a "seeking with negative data," a pursuit of a value that we cannot know. We can only know, or presume to know, that this self "should not he related to the irrationality of need" (85).

    The existential problem is thus not merely "I do not have, and never can have, what I want" (not merely the distension of time and the extrinsic gravitation of the will), but even more originally, "I do not know what I want." The singular will lacks a reliable criterion by which to recognize its desire. As Wittgenstein was to show some years after Persuasion and Rhetoric, the mechanics of a private language would be equivalent to the gestures of a man who, to make sure that he understood the morning paper correctly, went out to buy another copy. While the Cartesian turn to the essential subject makes the "I" the measure of all things, there no longer exists any measure of this measure.

    The difficulties Michelstaedter encounters in his argument are thus already inherent to his conceptual grammar. Once the subject is ontologically distinguished from its encompassing "objects," or once being is distinguished from becoming and substance from [1028] accident, the first set of concepts follow a progressive route of abstraction until, as Nietzsche remarks, they dissolve into vapor. 32 Essences cannot be abstracted from historical praxis without witnessing their own dissolution. When Nietzsche suspects reason of madness, he is content to forego an ideal realm of being for a world marked exclusively by becoming. Michelstaedter is not. He follows the Parmenidean itinerary, according to which being is and nonbeing is not, through to the end. Committed as he is to the prin*ciple of the excluded middle, he refuses to allow identity to be contaminated by difference, permanence by change, essence by appearance, the instant by the past or the future. But when one insists on defending the autonomy of the first set of terms against the effect of the second, the only reality that remains is the utopia of idea, the ontology of lack, the empty will. Possessing no content of its own, this will is not even a will, but rather a "will-to-will," a determination, Heidegger writes, "in which the metaphysics of subjectivity attains the peak of its development." 33 Murdered at the hands of metaphysics, Michelstaedter follows its way to non-being.

    To give men "life itself here and now, completely, so that they no longer demand" (81)-this is impossible. Yes, Michelstaedter admits, impossible, but "the courage for the impossible" is "the light that disperses the fog," the fog, that is, of rhetoric. Liberated from all that is "merely possible," he who enters the heralded "new day" of persuasion will create his own legs for walking "and walk where there is no road" (73), tasting "in the impossible, in the unbearable," a joy in which "hunger is not hunger, and bread not bread" (86). But how can one fail to recognize that this fog-dispersing light is indistinguishable from the light of self-delusion, the glow of Heraclitus' lantern that "man lights for himself by night" (54) and that Michelstaedter uses to characterize rhetoric? Or the glow of those Augustinian sinners who, "imagining that the nature of the soul is what God is, want to be light, not in the Lord, but in themselves?" 34 Michelstaedter's metaphors for an impossible achievement must be taken literally. The persuaded person has no life at all; there is "no bread for him, there is no water, there is no bed, there is no family, there is no country, there is no god- he is [1029] alone in the midst of the desert" (70) . And being alone, once again, is being in the company of nobody.

    Thus Michelstaedter makes explicit the nihilism inherent in the subjectivist tradition. Once consciousness refuses to forego its quest for a meaning that is no longer available, it is left to affirm nothing but voiceless passion. That is the point at which "man would rather will nothingness than not will at all." 35 Suicide becomes the self's only proper act, its sole affirmation, the form of a transcendent and impossible identity. As documented by Eduard von Hartmann (to whom Michelstaedter is certainly as indebted as to Schopenhauer and Nietzsche) the "philosophy of life" that inherits the metaphys*ical project induces cosmic suicide. 36 And this explains the cryptic parable that appears on the first, blood-stained page of Persuasion and Rhetoric. Having sketched an oil lamp in the process of extinc*tion, Michelstaedter glosses it with these words in Greek: "The lamp goes out for lack of oil. I, overflowing at the brim, extin*guished myself."

    Michelstaedter's suicide does not attest to the failure of persuasion, as one might be tempted to read it. It enacts it. For the suicide, as Schopenhauer argues, does not will death. The suicide "wills life ... and is only dissatisfied with the conditions under which it has presented itself to him. ... Just because the suicide cannot give up willing, he gives up living." 37


    1 Otto Weininger took his own life at the very same age as Michelstaedter a few months after completing one of the monuments of Austrian nihilism. Geschlecht und Charakter (1903), trans . Sex and Character (New York: G. P. Putnam & Sons, 1906).

    2 A lucid and well-balanced study of Michelstaedter's work as a whole can be had in the study by Daniela Bini, "Michelstaedter tra 'Persuasione' e 'Rettorica,'" Italica 63 (1987): 346-60. The most complete study of Michelstaedter's thought in relation to its time may be that of Cristina Benussi, Negazione e integrazione nella dialettica di Carlo Michelstaedter (Rome: Edizioni dell'Ateneo & Bizarri, 1980). Michelstaedter's pictorial work is collected in Carlo Michelstaedter, Opera grafica e pittorica , ed. Sergio Campailla (Gorizia: Istituto per gli Incontri Culturali Mitteleuropei, Arti grafiche Campestrini, 1975).

    3 The latest edition, which I shall use in this study, is Carlo Michelstaedier, La persuasione e la rettorica , ed. Sergio Campailla (Milan: Adelphi, 1982). (Page refer*ences to this edition will be parenthetically included within the text.) Maria A. Raschini's edition (Milan: Marzorati, 1972) includes the six Critical Appendices in which Michelstaedter performs actual readings of Plato and Aristotle, but lacks Michelstaedter's preface, from which I shall cite.

    4 "Michelstaedter," writes Alberto Abruzzese, "is the single and most isolated example in Italy of an anticipation of the 'Frankfurt thinkers'; his interweaving of negative thought and Marxian sensibility made him already capable of being acutely aware of the destiny of capitalist civilization.' Alberto Abruzzese, Svevo, Slataper, Michelstaedter: Lo stile e il viaggio (Venice: Marsilio, 1979), p. 8. For further treatment of the affinities between Michelstaedter and the Frankfurt School see Abruzzese, pp. 30-37, 203-40, and Marco Cerruti, Carlo Michelstaedter (Milan: Mursia, 1967).

    5 Augustine, Confessions , VIII, viii-x. trans. Rex Warner (New York: New American Library, 1963).

    6 Giorgio Brianese, L'arco e il destino: Interpretazione di Michelstaedter (Padua Francisci Editore, 1985), p. 18.

    7 Friedrich Nietzsche, On the Genealogy of Morals, trans. Walter Kaufmann and R. J. Hollingdale (New York: Random House, 1969). Third Essay, and The Will to Power, trans. Walter Kaufmann and R. J. Hollingdale (New York: Random House, 1968), Books One and Two; Martin Heidegger, Nietzsche IV: Nihilism , trans. Frank A. Capuzzi (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1982).

    8 For a study of Wittgenstein's relation to the post-Saussurian critique of meta*physics, see Henry Staten, Wittgenstein and Derrida (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1985).

    9 Giovanni Papini, "Un suicidio metafisico," Tutte le opere di Giovanni Papini: Filosofia e letteratura (Milan: Mondadori, 1961), pp. 817-22.

    10 Friedrich Nietzsche, The Gay Science, trans. Walter Kaufmann (New York: Vin*tage Books, 1974), ¶125.

    11 Taken from Nietzsche's Human, All Too unman, the phrase "with a good conscience" is one of the formulae proposed by Gianni Vattimo as an ethical cor*relative to his post-nihilistic "weak ontology." See his La fine della modernità (Milan: Garzanti, 1985), trans. by Jon Snyder as The End of Modernity (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1988).

    12 Claudio Magris, "Things Near and Far: Nietzsche and the Great Triestine Generation of the Early Twentieth Century," in Nietzsche in Italy, ed. Thomas Harison (Stanford: Anma Libri, 1988), p. 297.

    13 "To, avoid no reef, one day that will be called 'heroic nihilism,'" Hans Blumen*berg, Shciffbruch mit Zuschauer Paradigma einer Daseinsmetapher (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp Verlag, 1979), Ch, I.

    14 Ludwig Wittgenstein, Zettel, ed. G. E. M. Anscombe and G. H. von Wright (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1975), ¶ 393. Compare his statement in Wittgenstein, Culture and Value, ed. G. H. yon Wright, in collaboration with Heikki Nyman, trans. Peter Winch (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press. 1984), p. 56e: "I am showing my pupils details of an immense landscape which they cannot possibly know their way around [ in der sie sich unmöglich auskennen können ]."

    15 Sergio Campailla, "Introduzione," La persuasione e la rettorica, p. 24.

    16 The Greek translates the previous phrase, "as long as it is awaited." Michelstaedter has recourse to the Greek in order to develop the opposition between the transitive sense of menein [GREEK TEXT] (to await someone or something) and the intransitive one (to stay, to endure, to persist, to consist).

    17 "Now the identity of the subject of willing with that of knowing by virtue whereof (and indeed necessarily) the word 'I' includes and indicates both, is the knot of the world [ Weltknoten ] , and hence inexplicable." Arthur Schopenhauer, The Four*fold Root of the Principle of Sufficient Reason, trans. E. F. J. Payne (La Salle, Illinois: Open Court, 1974), p. 211.

    18 Martin Heidegger, Nietzsche IV, pp. 58-182.

    19 Jean-Paul Sartre, The War Diaries: November 1939-March 1940, trans. Quintin Hoare (New York: Pantheon Books, 1984), p. 110.

    20 Nietzsche's most extensive published passage on will may be that of ¶19 of Beyond Good and Evil . See also the entire chapter, "The Will to Power in Nature," in The Will to Power, among which ¶666 argues that every phenomenon of conscious*ness. including the idea of intention or aim ordinarily associated with will might best be seen as "an epiphenomenon in the series of changes in the activating forces that bring about the purposive action ... a symptom of events, not... their cause." Cf. also Hannah Ardent's explication of the Nietzschean conception of will in The Life of the Mind II: Willing (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1978), pp. 158-72. On additional connections between Michelstaedter, Nietzsche, and Schopenhauer see the cited works by Benussi, Brianese, and Cerruti.

    21 The responsibility for the misunderstanding is ultimately to be located in Nietzsche himself, in the rhetorical power with which he invests some of those Sprichworter in which he posits a "spiritual fatum" at the bottom of each of us, "In me,'' says Zarathustra, "there is something invulnerable and unburiable, something that explodes rock: that is my will . Silent and unchanged it strides through the years." Friedrich Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra, in The Portable Nietzsche , ed. Walter Kaufmann (New York: The Viking Press, 1968), p. 224.

    22 This reading of Nietzsche's eternal return is best exemplified by Gianni Vattimo, Il soggetto e la maschera: Nietzsche e it problema della liberazione (Milan: Bompiani, 1979), pp. 251-81.

    23 See, once again, Hannah Arendt, especially pp. 169-71

    24 Georg Simmel, Lebensanschauung: Vier metaphysische Kapitel (Munich and Berlin: Duncker und Humblot. 1922), pp. 12 and 10.

    25 De Caelo, Book One. Esp. 1.9. 279b1-2.

    26 Confessions , XIII, ix.

    27 Plotinus, Enneads , III, 7, II . The passage is a commentary on Plato's Timaeus, 37c-38b , "On Time and Eternity."

    28 Eugenio Montale, "Le stagioni" and "Non chiederci la parole." L'opera in versi, ed. Rosanna Bettarini and Gianfranco Contini (Turin: Einaudi 1980), pp. 381-82 and 27. Although no full length study of the remarkable relations between Mich*elstaedter and Montale has yet been written, links have been noted by Brianese p. 92; Cerruti, pp. 156 and 175; and Sergio Campailla, Pensiero e poesia di Carlo Michelstaedter (Bologna: Patron, 1973), pp. 156 and 175.

    29 The Orphic-Pythagorean myth to which Michelstaedter refers on page 42 con*cerns the judgment of the dead. Zeus decides that before a judgment is passed on a person who has died, the soul should be divested of the body to be seen exactly for what it is . See Plato's Gorgias, 523a-524a.

    30 Carlo Michelstaedter, "[A Senia, VII]," Poesie, ed. Sergio Campailla (Milan: Adelphi, 1987), pp. 95-96. We might note that the depiction of love in this poem is opposite to that willing of the other's independence paraphrased by Arendt in the above-cited work: "there is no greater assertion of something or somebody than to love it, that is, to say: I will that you be- Amo: Volo ut sis" (p. 104).

    31 Otto Rank, Truth and Reality, trans. Jessie T aft (New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 1978), p. 61.

    32 See Martin Heidegger's discussion in An Introduction to Metaphysics (New York: Doubleday, 1961), pp. 29-33.

    33 Martin Heidegger, Nietzsche IV , p. 237.

    34 Augustine, Confessions, VIII, x.

    35 Friedrich Nietzsche, On the Genealogy of Morals , p. 163.

    36 See especially The Philosophy of the Unconscious (1869), trans. William Chatterton Coupland (London: K. Paul, Trench, Trubner, and Co., 1893).

    37 Arthur Schopenhauer, World as Will and Idea. I, trans. R. B. Haldane and J. Kemp (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1948), pp. 515-516.

    Last edited by Moody; Thursday, November 2nd, 2006 at 02:39 PM. Reason: merged

  3. #3

    Post Re: Carlo Michelstaedter and the Metaphysics of Will

    The outcome of Michelstaedter's search for persuasion beneath the wiles of rhetoric is that in any and all situations the means (rhetoric) vitiate the end (persuasion), a tragic disjunction inviting comparison with similar paradoxes in the work of such contemporaries of Michelstaedter as Luigi Pirandello, Georg Simmel, Ludwig Klages, and Robert Musil. Rhetoric is persuasion's eternal opposite, the fossilized forms of the spirit inevitably betraying the soul. The latter, Michelstaedter is forced to conclude, fails discourse and all but the most paradoxical of existential expressions. While Michelstaedter's work was to have discovered a viable model of persuasion by recourse to Plato and Aristotle, it turned into a study of the impossibility of persuasion and the inescapable ubiquity of rhetoric in every age.

    Of course, Michelstaedter's opposition between persuasion and rhetoric is anything but new in the history of philosophy. It is the heritage of a series of antinomies that originate the whole enterprise of metaphysics: truth and error, reality and illusion, being and becoming, essence and appearance. Metaphysics is the effort to bore through the second elements of the pairs to reach the first. When the project is taken to its logical and final extreme the result is nihilism, according to a progression recounted by Nietzsche and Heidegger. 7 The initial step on this nihilistic route is to posit an [1015] imaginary world beyond the historical one, in which "being," "essence," "unity," and "meaning" are fully at home. In so far as the efforts of mind and will are now redirected toward this ideal reality, this ascetic step represents a type of ethical nihilism which refuses to affirm the value of experience as it stands. The second step is that of philosophical nihilism proper. Here the desire to assert the truth about experience is taken so far that no outposts whatsoever remain standing for "truth," not even the notions of "meaning" and "essence." The positive terms of the metaphysical antinomy cede to the negative ones. All being appears meaningless, illogical, and unredeemed.

    This is the nihilism of Michelstaedter and of the age he repre*sents, making fully explicit the madness implicit in a metaphysical tradition. For only the essentialist bias of metaphysics produces the feeling that "essence" and "truth" are somehow missing in life. The nihilist is an unyielding rationalist, who contends that there is no meaning to any empirical event only because he has made an in*tellectual commitment to those counters of meaning whose absence he now bemoans. "What is truth?" "What is the essence of a thing?" "Where is justice?" -Wittgenstein had already argued that such questions were senseless, theoretical hallucinations appearing plau*sible not so much to reason as to the structures of grammar. The metaphysician assumes that if a question can be asked, it must have meaning. But to apply terms like "meaning" to "life" and "essence" to the term "thing" is to ignore the more practical logic of signs 8 (or the logic of rhetoric). Michelstaedter falls into the trap of grammar, consider*ing its persuasions to be as important as life and death. His suicide, as Giovanni Papini pointed out nineteen days after the event, was a metaphysical one, a gesture of absolute intolerance towards apparent unreason, upholding the dream of bending life to thought. 9 Life, in this reading, is not life unless its nature is known; one wants to live only the examined life. But when taken too literally, met*aphysics causes the death of its own lifeblood, for this examined life refuses to yield to the categories by which it is judged.

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