Monday, 7 December 2020

Book review: Divine Wisdom in the Art of Aphorism

Miniature from Vani Gospels
Miniature from Vani Gospels

The Prelude of Divine Wisdom in the Art of Aphorism 
By Zura Shiolashvili 
ISBN 978-0-9565175-2-4

This slim volume, under the title of The Prelude of Divine Wisdom in the Art of Aphorism. represents a revised third edition of Zura Shiolashvili’s long and earnest study of Nietzsche and the art of aphorism. I reviewed an earlier version, ten years ago (how time flies!) and this is a much broader and deeper work. 

That earlier edition was a little too strident in its attack on Nietzsche, but here is a more nuanced view, that I think throws more light on the strange conflict in Nietzsche’s writing between contempt and dismissal of Christianity and yet a kind of grudging respect and admiration. 

‘I regard Christianity as the most disastrous lie of seduction there has ever been, as the great unholy lie. I draw its after-growth and tendrils of ideal out from under all other disguises, I resist all half and three-quarter positions towards it - there must be war against it’, wrote Nietzsche in Notebook 10, written in 1887. Over a century later, Shiolashvili, by contrast, is very much writing as a believer, indeed a preacher, as one who starts from the perspective of one seeking to defend Christian truth from the ‘withered aphorisms’ of the ‘most eloquent Antichrist of the nineteenth century’. 

In his earlier writing, The Art of Aphorism and Nietzsche's Blind Passion, Shiolashvili found in Nietzsche’s prescription a kind of absurdity - for how can a roe deer resist the jaws of a wolf, if its fate is to be weak in its beauty? For the existing world is inseparable from sorrow and beauty. This, he says, is a pessimistic reality innate to the logic of the natural world… 

Because, if soo, ‘by Nietzsche’s psychological metamorphosis and will to power, a roe deer should turn itself into a wolf to become strong and save its life, denying its tenderness and beauty’. 

In such ways, through advocating his ‘barbaric ethic’, Nietzsche ‘did not want to see everything that is weak is not ugly, and everything that is strong is not lovely’. Nietzsche’s spirituality, Shiolashvili prefaces this edition by saying, ‘starts with his carnal self and ends with psychological delusion’. In fact, for the German nihilist, he adds, depravity represents ‘not psychological degradation but rather the truth of the free spirit’. 

In this slim but elegantly illustrated volume is a mix of prose analysis and commentary on Nietzsche that draws on sources such as Cambridge University Press’ invaluable (for Nietzsche scholars) Writings of the Late Notebooks, as well as elements of Freud and Jung, and philosophers such as Schopenhauer, Hegel, Kant and Hume - the first and last committed atheists. 

Shiolashvili’s claim is Nietzsche reduces thought itself to the ‘will to power’, a notion Nietzsche appropriated from Schopenhauer, who saw the life force as manifesting itself identically in humans, in animals and in rocks. The result is that: ‘Nietzsche's philosophical psychology states the absolute priority of animal desire over the sublime value of mind’. 

In consequence, just as Nietzsche openly promised, the ‘highest becomes the lowest’. It is in resistance to this that Shiolashvili offers his aphorisms, no less than 327 of them in this book! The first is: ‘It is pure thought that beautifies a human being’, while the last is ‘Roses plucked from heaven never wither’.

The aphorisms do, in a curious way, help to clarify and highlight the Nietzschean idea under examination - the search for meaning in a universe with no meaning, other than that pursuit of power. Aphorism 17, for example: ‘You stand on the peak, the bottom of the precipice moves your soul even there - this is the emptiness’. 

By choosing, in this way, to write with an unconventional blend of literary aphorisms, textual quotation and complex, multilayered analysis, Shiolashvili, an unabashed critic of Nietzsche, is also one of his followers.


Thomas Scarborough said...

It's an interesting way of approaching Nietzsche. In the words of The Spectator, ’using Nietzsche’s own language and thought processes against him’.

It also provides a counter-balance to Nietzsche's thought. Lao Tzu wrote, ’When considering any thing, do not lose its opposite. When thinking of the finite, do not forget infinity.’ We need ‘subtle analyses,’ wrote the philosopher Daniel Graham. ‘revealing the interconnectedness of contrary states in life and in the world’. Reading Shiolashvili, one realises more than anything that Nietzsche's thought was not balanced.

Keith said...

Individually, many of Nietzsche’s aphorisms are gems, striking at the heart of human nature. Think of those that, these many years later, have strikingly found a comfortable niche in popular culture. (Such as this commonly evoked nugget: ‘What does not kill me makes me stronger’, which fits into all sorts of circumstances in daily life, disrupting default to ordinariness.) A fact that testifies to Nietzsche’s deft in using succinct, yet bold language to get to the nub of deeply ponderable beliefs. In the aggregate, though, his aphorisms — or, for that matter, anyone’s aphorisms — can prove demanding, even taxing. So, perhaps they’re best savored in bite sizes. Shiolashvili’s book looks like a handy way to do precisely that, to get at Nietzsche’s inspiringly big ideas.

Martin Cohen said...

Yes, interesting to see Thomas and Keith's focus in on Nietzsche, but I would say the book is really about Christian belief - with pushing back against Nietzsche's "God is dead" stance only part of this larger project.

There is an echo of Christianity in Aphorism one (quoted above) which is "It is pure thought that beautifies a human being". Put another way, physical feelings uglify! Or at least are relatively less beautiful. That idea, of course, is there in Plato and many other philosophers.

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