Nietzsche’s Teachings


Long recognized as an important and abiding influence in the European artistic and intellectual circles of the last century, the work of Pierre KIossowski is slowly gaining recognition in the Anglo-American scholarly community. (Ford 2004: 75)

Under the influence of Georges Bataille, Klossowski first began reading Nietzsche in 1934 …During the next three decades, he published a number of occasional pieces on Nietzsche: an article in a special issue of the journal Acéphale devoted to the question of ‘Nietzsche and the Fascists’ (1937); reviews of Karl Lowith’s and Karl Jasper’s books on Nietzsche (1939); an introduction to his own translation of The Gay Science (1954); and most importantly, a lecture presented to the Collège de Philosophie entitled ‘Nietzsche, polytheism, and parody’ (1957) [first published as the final essay in Un si funeste désir (Such a Deathly Desire) in 1963] …Nietzsche and the Vicious Circle grew out of a paper entitled ‘Forgetting and anamnesis in the lived experience of the eternal return of the same’, which Klossowsli presented at the famous Royaumont conference on Nietzsche in July 1964. Over the next few years, Klossowski published a number of additional articles that were ultimately gathered together in Nietzsche and the Vicious Circle in 1969. (Smith 1997: vii-viii)

‘I met Walter Benjamin in 1935 during one of the meetings of Contre-Attaque (Counter-Attack) – as that ephemeral fusion of the groups of André Breton and Georges Bataille was known. Later he was an assiduous audience member of the College of Sociology an outwards facing offshoot of the secret, closed group, Acéphale – (which had crystallised around Bataille following his rupture with Breton). From that time on, he sometimes attended our private little conclaves.’

– Klossowski, Le Monde, 31st May 1969

Klossowski was known as Benjamin’s French translator, having translated “The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility” in 1936 for Max Horkheimer’s Zeitschrift für Sozialforschung, the journal of the Institute for Social Research ….This early encounter with Benjamin’s “Work of Art” essay (and its motifs of reproducibility, repetition, and copying) no doubt set the stage for Klossowski’s later radicalization of these motifs in his own writings on simulacra… Although much has been made of Benjamin’s encounter with surrealism (including speculations about his friendship with André Breton), little has been made of his documented relationships with Pierre Klossowski, Georges Bataille, and their groups of the 1930s: Contre-Attaque, Acéphale, and the Collège de Sociologie …Benjamin, in fact, was scheduled to deliver a lecture for the Collège de Sociologie as part of their 1939-1940 series but, as Allan Stoekl has noted, “the war broke out in September, putting an end to the Collège.” (Hite 2014: 14-15)


‘Nietzsche, who was despite everything a professor of philology at Basel, and thus an academic with absolutely certain pedagogical ambitions, did not develop a philosophy. Instead, outside of the framework of the university, Nietzsche developed variations on a personal theme …This academic, trained in the disciplines of science in order to teach and train others, found himself compelled to teach the unteachable. What is unteachable are those moments when existence, escaping from the delimitations that produce the notions of history and morality, as well as the practical behavior derived from them, is shown to be given back to itself with no other goal than that of returning to itself…

Nietzsche had immediately attained this unteachable in his own solitude, through his own idiosyncrasies – that is, by describing himself as a convalescent who had suffered from the unresolved nihilism of his own era and who had resolved this nihilism, to the point where he was able to restore to the notion of fatum its full force. He had grasped the very ground of existence, lived as fortuitous – that is, he had grasped that aspect of existence which, through him, was fortuitously named Nietzsche.’

– Pierre Klossowski, ‘Nietzsche, Polytheism and Parody’, 83-4

‘What then did Spinoza or Kant do? Nothing but interpret their dominant impulse. But it was only the communicable part of their behaviour that could be translated into their constructions.

What this means is that Nietzsche rejected, purely and simply, the attitude of the philosopher-teacher. He made fun of himself for not being a philosopher – if by that we mean a thinker who thinks and teaches out of a concern for the human  condition. Nietzsche here acted ruthlessly, disruptively, and wound up achieving, one might say, a ‘smashing’ success.

– Klossowski, Nietzsche’s Vicious Circle, 5-6

‘As long as Nietzsche respected these variously delimited spheres from the viewpoint of inquiry, his understanding seemed to comply with two principles: the principle of reality (insofar as he simply described reality historically, he analysed it in order to reconstruct it, and thus to communicate the results of his research to others) and the principle of identity (insofar as he defined himself as a teacher in relation to what he was teaching).

Nietzsche187cBut once the demonstration (required by institutional language for the teaching of reality) was turned into the movement of a declarative mood, and the contagious mood or tonality of the soul supplanted the demonstration, Nietzsche reached the limit of the principles of identity and reality, which were answerable to the very authorities his own discourse was presumably based upon. Nietzsche introduced into teaching what no authority responsible for the transmission of knowledge (philosophy) had ever been advised to teach. But Nietzsche introduced it surreptitiously, his language on the contrary having pushed to an extreme severity the application of the laws required for communication. The tonality of the soul, in making itself thought, was pursuing its own inquiry, to the point where the terms of the latter were reconstituted as a muteness: this thought spoke to itself of an obstacle that the intention to teach would stumble over at the outset.

This obstacle, whose muteness was experienced as intensity and resistance, put the aim of teaching itself in question. Now the resistance of the mute obstacle was nothing other than the virtual reaction exerted by the authorities of identity and reality. Muteness on the inside was merely speech on the outside. The assent (assentiment) of thought to this speech on the outside was merely the resentment (ressentiment) of the mood or the mute tonality. Nietzsche’s declarations transferred the muteness of the mood onto thought, insofar as the mood came up against the resistance of culture from without (that is, the speech of universities, scientists, authorities, political parties, priests, doctors).

…The mute intensity of the soul’s tonality could be sustained only as long as a resistance from the outside was still speaking: culture. Culture (the sum total of knowledge) – that is, the intention to teach and learn – is the obverse of the soul’s tonality, its intensity, which can be neither taught nor learnt. The more culture accumulates, however, the more it becomes enslaved to itself – and the more its obverse, the mute intensity of the tonality of the soul, grows. The soul’s tonality catches the teacher by surprise, and finally breaks with the intention to teach: the servitude of culture thus breaks forth at the moment it collides with the muteness of Nietzsche’s discourse.’

– Klossowski, Nietzsche’s Vicious Circle, xviii-xix


Accordingly, we must learn to identify as a cruel-sounding truth the fact that slavery belongs to the essence of a culture: a truth, granted, that leaves open no doubt about the absolute value of existence… The misery of men living a life of toil has to be increased to make the production of the world of art possible for a small number of Olympian men. […] Every moment devours the preceding one, every birth is the death of countless beings, procreating, living and murdering are all one. Therefore, we may compare the magnificent culture to a victor dripping with blood, who, in his triumphal procession, drags the vanquished along, chained to his carriage as slaves… (Nietzsche, ‘The Greek State,’ 166)

Whoever has emerged victorious participates to this day in the triumphal procession in which the present rulers step over those who are lying prostrate. According to traditional practice, the spoils are carried along in the procession. They are called cultural treasures, and a historical materialist […] cannot contemplate [them] without horror. They owe their existence not only to the efforts of the great minds and talents who have created them, but also to the anonymous toil of their contemporaries. There is no document of civilization which is not at the same time a document of barbarism. (Benjamin, ‘Theses on the Concept of History,’ 391-2)

To explore the foundation of Western culture, and especially ‘bourgeois’ culture, under the pretext of going deeper into it and making it bearable, always amounts to legitimating it in ‘human’ terms. But any possible legitimation was undermined in advance once Nietzsche denounced a society founded on the ideological disavowal of the external constraints it necessarily exerts. The ideological disavowal of constraints is expressed through the concept of culture – and thus, through a false interpretation of culture in a concept. The fact that modern society has merely formed a concept of culture is the proof of the disappearance of a lived culture.

The conception of the Greek state formed by the young Nietzsche became a phantasm that was all the more obsessive  in that it was incompatible with the concept of culture.”That slavery belongs to the essence of a culture is a truth that  leaves no doubt as to the absolute value of existence. For the Promethean instigator of culture, it is the vulture that gnaws at the liver.” A lived culture, according to Nietzsche, can never have a gregarious foundation. It is the fact of the particular case – and thus, from the viewpoint of the bourgeois concept of culture, a monstrosity. Though himself dependent on this  concept, Nietzsche would nonetheless destroy it…

Commune_de_Paris_24_mai_incendie_des_TuileriesIn 1871, well before he had passed through all the phases of his thought and discovered his own way of conceiving the meaning of successive Western cultures, Nietzsche had seen in the report of the burning of the Tuileries during the Commune an untenable argument for a traditional culture. He had written to Gersdorff (21 June 1871):

“If we could discuss this together, we would agree that precisely in that phenomenon does our modern life, actually the whole of old Christian Europe and its state, but, above all, the ‘Romanic’ civilization which is now everywhere predominant, show the enormous degree to which our world has been damaged, and that, with all our past behind us, we all bear the guilt that such a terror could come to light, so that we must make sure we do not ascribe to those unfortunates alone the crime of a combat against culture. I know what that means: the combat against culture [emphasis added]. When I heard of the fires in Paris, I felt for several days annihilated and was overwhelmed by fears and doubts; the entire scholarly, scientific, philosophical, and artistic existence seemed an absurdity, if a single day could wipe out the most glorious works of art, even whole periods of art; I clung with earnest conviction to the metaphysical value of art, which cannot exist for the sake of impoverished people, but which has higher missions to fulfil. But even when the pain was at its worst, I could not cast a stone  against those blasphemers, who were to me only carriers of the general guilt, which gives much food for thought.”

The young professor of philology of the 1870s was still reacting and expressing himself like an erudite ‘bourgeois’. Yet the cynicism of a phrase like the one in which he announces that art ‘cannot exist for the sake of impoverished people’ points to his own critical use of irony, and he expresses his own condemnation in the begnning and ending lines. If art cannot exist for ‘impoverished people’, then the latter assume the guilt of its destruction; but they are simply manifestations of our ‘own’ culture, our universal culture, which dissimulates our own iniquity in the guise of culture. To assume the crime of the combat against culture was an underlying theme of the young Nietzsche’s still-Hellenizing thinking. But this assumption was merely the obverse of a theme that would become more explicit in the years to come: to assume culture’s ‘crime’ against existing misery – which will finally put culture itself in question: a criminal culture.

At first sight, this seems to be a totally aberrant vision: the communards never considered attacking art in the name of  social misery. The way Nietzsche poses the problem here, after reading an erroneous news item, reveals exactly what  he is himself admitting: a feeling of bourgeois guilt. But it is on the basis of this feeling that he poses the true problem. Am I guilty of enjoying the culture of which the impoverished class is deprived, or not?

What he means by our guilt (a guilt which, according to him, was ascribed to the arsonists’ gesture) is to have allowed Christian and post-Christian morality to promote confusion: namely, the illusion and hypocrisy of a culture that would have no social inequalities, whereas it is inequality alone which makes culture possible: inequality and struggle (between different groups of affects).

At the end of his short career, Nietzsche would side with the ‘criminal’ as an irretrievable force, virtually superior to an order of things that excludes it. His refusal to ‘cast a stone’ at the ‘unfortunate’ communards, at the ‘carriers of the general guilt’, pointed both to an instinctive (though still unavowed) solidarity and to a problem, unsolvable for the young Nietzsche in the terms thus posed: ‘culture’ – ‘social misery’ – ‘crime’ – ‘combat against culture’.

“It was only very late that I was able to discover what, strictly speaking, I was absolutely lacking: namely, justice. ‘What is justice? Is it possible? And if it were not possible, how would life be bearable?’ – This is what I was constantly asking myself. And when I delved into myself, I was deeply distressed to find nothing but passions everywhere, perspectives from a determinate angle, the thoughtlessness of everything that is deprived of the prior conditions of justice in advance: but where then was reflection? – Reflection from a vast perspicuity. The only thing I could attribute to myself was courage and a certain durability, the fruit of a long domination of myself.”

As long as culture implies slavery and is the product of (unavowed) slavery, the problem of guilt persists.

Does living in culture means that one wills slavery? What would happen to culture if slavery were suppressed? Would culture have to be extended to each and every person? Would we then have a culture of slaves? But this, it seems, is a false problem. Culture is the product of the Slave; and having produced culture, he is now its conscious Master…

Nietzsche will remain within this perspective of a guilty culture up to the time he puts consciousness and its categories in question – in the name of the world of affects. Until then, there will always be ‘carriers of the general guilt’ of a culture that masks the antinomies of bourgeois morality: in his phantasm, Nietzsche saw the marvels of the Louvre in James. What was important were not the marvels, but the emotions that lay at their origin. For these emotions make inequality prevail: and if inequality makes life unbearable, then ‘courage and endurance’ are required to bear it.

– Klossowski, Nietzsche’s Vicious Circle, 8-13


‘With the proper name and its dissimulation, we approach one of the epicentres of the Klossowskian problematic, present in his reading of Nietzsche, of Fourier, of Sade, in his philosophy of writing, of narration, of politics…’

– Lyotard, Libidinal Economy, 66-67

‘…what Octave hopes to gain by provoking his wife’s adultery, is amongst other things a sort of global view over this body (quite a different passion from voyeurism), that is to make a single name correspond to a single unified body supposed to correspond to it. Octave is not therefore so much a pimp as a politician, if it is true that all true politics is haunted by the phantasm of the unitary body, but only insofar as this body simply escapes the grip of the institutions of uniflcation; beyond bourgeois society, through the class-body.

Apollo_Chiron_Asclepios_MAN_Napoli_Inv8846‘Machiavelli wrote: “You must know that there are two ways of contesting, the one by the law, the other by force; the first is the method proper to men, the second to beasts; but because the first is frequently not sufficient, it is necessary to have recourse to the second. Therefore it is necessary for a prince to understand how to avail himself of the beast and the man.” And he adds this: “This has been figuratively taught to princes by ancient writers, who describe how Achilles and many other princes of old were given to the Centaur Chiron to nurse, who brought them up in his discipline; which means solely that, as they had for a teacher one who was half beast and half man, so it is necessary for a prince to know how to make us of both natures, and that one without the other is not durable.” And he adds this: “This has been figuratively taught to princes by ancient writers, who describe how Achilles and many other princes of old were given to the Centaur Chiron to nurse, who brought them up in his discipline; which means solely that, as they had for a teacher one who was half beast and half man, so it is necessary for a prince to know how to make use of both natures, and that one without the other is not durable.” At the centre of the labyrinth which serves as a tailpiece in [Klossowski’s] Nietzsche et le Cercle vicieux, we will find, not a Minotaur, stupid beast with his monstrous appetite, but a Centaur, a monster more intelligent than the most intelligent of men, the image of the marvellous dissimulation of signs into one another, supreme wisdom which includes the stupidity of bestiality. Octave is equally a centaur, adultery is a centaur, desiring not simply the country which his hands, his lips and his penis arc legally authorized to cross, but insofar as this country is ‘real’, it escapes him; and this is why Octave redoubles his efforts to prolong Antoine’s stay at his bestial hind-quarters, because, as a receiver of force, the Prince of the law knows how to metamorphose himself. And if Caesar must be removed from his mother’s womb by opening it up by force, against nature, it is because Caesar, political master, is a monster made of man and beast.

– Lyotard, Libidinal Economy, 80-81

This independence, forcefully maintained by the marquis , of the libidinal with regard to the economic, is the split within Klossowski’ s phantasy: the Sadean theme is a political theme;  the production and exchange of com modities plays no part in this. The houses of debauchery are civic institutions , and as such have as an indirect but essential function, concentrating the libido on the circle of the political body. Here arc two versions:

“If… one passion has no more need of the whole range of the liberty of another one, none without doubt is as despotic… every time that you deny a man the secret means of the expression of his heart, he will throw himself into venting it on the objects around him, he will  trouble the government. If you wish to avoid this danger, allow a free development to his tyrannical desires which, in spite of him,  ceaselessly torment him…”

Thus one gives vent to the perversion within peripheral institutions, in this, utterly true to the Greek  mode! But Sade also says exactly the opposite: that a republican government always menaced by the despots surrounding it must have as its sole morality its maintenance by any means, that it is ruled out that the means are all moral, that on the contrary it must be immoral men who by their movement of perpetual insurrection keep the republican government on the alert. Thus the houses of which he spoke, far from having the function of the appeasement of the excitations provoked by the pulsions in the citizens, replenish,  rather, what sustains them. Functional duplicity of the sites of luxury as regards the political sphere itself, at once the charge and discharge of energies: criminality, this perpetual mobility of those which Plato, in The Republic, named hornets, and which he wanted to eliminate, provides the government with a twofold service, in the danger presented to it from the excesses of its insatiability, by requiring the institution of criminal spaces which arc discharge points for them and for it. Here Sade revives the great Machiavellian tradition of the connivance of the politician and the beast, the tradition of Chiron the Centaur, instructor to Princes, duplicitous politician par excellence.

In Klossowski, who is a modern man, there is neither city nor government, the republic no longer exists, the only body with a totalizing pretension is the body of capital, it is an open secret that today’s politicians are only the executors of the impulsional imperatives of capital, and that they have no need to receive the great excess of stupidity or bestiality from a Chiron as the endowment of political genius; they are rich enough if they are endorsed by a civil service college. It is in economics that the post-Marxist Klossowski seeks the conspiracy of the pulsions on the “social body”. But he is not content to protest as Marx does against the indirect extension of  prostitution into all activities through the intervention of commodities. He also draws out the implication suggested b y this fact, he sees in capitalism the return, but unaffirmed and unrecognized as such, of what it rejects, that is, libidinal intensity, in the very heart of the most apparently neutralized exchanges. (An analysis which, at first sight, does not appear to be unrelated to that of Baudrillard,  for whom commodity fetishism, denounced and largely ignored by Marx himself, is the transcription, in the order of political  economy, of the foreclosure underlying this order, at the same time as it institutes it.) Klossowski consequently says: there is little to be done (“what we are speaking of in fact exists”) in order that what today passes into the oblivion issuing from the production and exchange of goods, violates, under the screen of dead money, the exchange and consumption of phantasms – in order that this be fully emphasized, and that this production and exchange immediately become the circulation of jouissances: the imaginary living currency has no other function than to claim to reestablish intensity on the circle of trade itself and thus to stop treating desire as banned from it, and to help oneself to the body of capital as a convenient  expedient to attain the unspeakable aims of the species (“to be paid in women”). But in the same way as the Klossowskian idea of intensity is not affirmative (at least in La Monnaie vivante, it is not the same in Le Cercle vicieux), in the same way as it persists (this can be clearly seen in what he nevertheless judges to be an important corrective in this regard, in ‘Le Philosophe scelerat’) in remaining within the nihilist tradition of transgression (of propagation), of perversion (of the medium), of turning-away (of energies), and concurrently, if not in the phantasm as substitute, then at least in the simulacrum as the reduplication o f the phantasm – so the establishment of jouissance in the midst of the circuit of trade can, in his eyes, only  take on the form of a currency, even if this is living: heavy then with the millennial heritage of prostitution and substitution, that is to say of the dualism which we, libidinal economists, will terminate.

‘…we questioned [Benjamin] even more insistently regarding what we perceived to be his most authentic depth, that is, his personal version of a “phalansterial” renewal. Sometimes he spoke to us of it as an “esotericism” both “erotic and artisanal” lying beneath his explicitly Marxist conceptions. The common ownership of the means of production would allow the abolished social classes to be replaced by a society reorganised in terms of affective classes. A liberated industrial production, instead of subjugating affectivity, would allow its forms to flourish and organise its exchanges, in the sense that work would be made the ally of avid desires, and would cease to be the punitive recompense for having them.’

– Klossowski, Le Monde, 31st May 1969


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