Bernard E. Harcourt: Toward an Aesthetics of Being

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By Bernard E. Harcourt

At the heart of Heidegger’s engagement with Nietzsche lies a profound tension or gap that is, on my reading, insurmountable and unbridgeable: it is the conflict between Heidegger’s conception of being and Nietzsche’s conviction about becoming. I would argue that this tension is what ultimately undermines Heidegger’s project of reconciling Nietzsche with his Being and Time. It accounts for what Babette Babich referred to as the “breaking,” or destruction, or corruption of Heidegger—captured so succinctly in that notorious statement by Heidegger that “Nietzsche hat mich kaput gemacht” (“Nietzsche has broken me”). It also accounts, I would argue, for the shift in Heidegger’s attitude toward Nietzsche and metaphysics that Taylor Carman so ably identified in his presentation on “Heidegger’s Two Nietzsches.” It renders Heidegger’s attempted reconciliation—which I would summarize, brutally, as “becoming plus eternal recurrence becomes being”—effectively untenable.

In the process of this ultimately unsuccessful confrontation, however, there is a critical move that, I think, is of genuine interest for us. Heidegger’s forced marriage of being and eternal recurrence in the early lectures, rather than reifying a scientific or ontological reading of the eternal return and producing a Heideggerian conception of being, actually does something very different: it underscores the ethical dimension of the eternal return and, in connection with Heidegger’s and Nietzsche’s fascination with artistic creation (“the will to power as art”), produces a type of “aesthetics of being” that can be fruitfully put in conversation with Foucault’s turn to an “aesthetics of existence” or the Surrealists’s ideas of an aesthetic frisson. This may not have been Heidegger’s intention, and it may not leap off of the page, but it is nevertheless a productive critical intervention that I believe stems from Heidegger’s confrontation with Nietzsche.

Not all the interesting critical moves that we will identify this year will be the deliberate product of the critical thinkers we will be reading. Some will be more unintended or fortuitous—some are mere collisions, accidents. That may be the case here, but it points in a terribly productive direction.


The deep tension between Heidegger and Nietzsche—between being and becoming—is what accounts, I would argue, for Heidegger’s obsession with Nietzsche following Being and Time. Nietzsche’s emphasis on doing, rather than doers, on becoming, rather than being, posed a fundamental objection to Heidegger. And although Heidegger explicitly and adamantly maintained that he was not trying to force Nietzsche “into” Being and Time, my sense is that he was protesting too much—this effort actually played a large role in his reading of Nietzsche. So, when Heidegger writes the following, my sense is that he is in fact revealing the hidden truth:

If we bring Nietzsche’s “will to power,” that is, his question concerning the Being of beings, into the perspective of the question concerning “Being and Time,” that does not at all mean that Nietzsche’s work is to be related to a book entitled Being and Time and that it is to be measured and interpreted according to the contents of that book. Being and Time can be evaluated only by the extent to which it is equal or unequal to the question it raises. There is no standard other than the question itself; only the question, not the book, is essential. (Vol. I, p. 20)

Reading those words only confirms my sense of the early lectures: namely, that Heidegger is essentially relating Nietzsche’s work back into Being and Time and measuring it against that metric.

Along those lines, it is precisely the tension between Heidegger’s being and Nietzsche’s becoming that is at the heart of Heidegger’s constant effort to both recognize his distance from Nietzsche, but simultaneously close the gap. As Tracy Colony remarks, this reflects the “enigmatic composite of proximity and distance that formed the interpretive horizon for Heidegger’s inaugural confrontation with Nietzsche.” (198). Heidegger resolves this enigma, in my opinion, by means of the notion of eternal return. To be very crude, I would contend that for Heidegger:

Becoming becomes being by means of the eternal return. In other words, the tension between being and becoming is resolved by converting becoming into being through the recurrence of becoming.

Heidegger says as much himself when, referring to the most problematic passage in Nietzsche on becoming (“To stamp Becoming with the character of Being—that is the supreme will to power”), Heidegger writes: “We ask: Why is this the supreme will to power? The answer is, because will to power in its most profound essence is nothing other than the permanentizing of Becoming into presence” (Vol. III, p. 156; see also Vol III, p. 213).

The permanentizing of Becoming into presence”: that is what Heidegger wants eternal recurrence to achieve. Throughout Volumes 1 and 2 (of the English edition), Heidegger rehearses and repeats his central argument that, for Nietzsche, the two central concepts are will to power and eternal return, and that those two must be understood together: we must grasp “in a unified way the doctrines of the eternal return of the same and will to power, and these two doctrines in their most intrinsic coherence as revaluation”—and only then will we essentially understand “Nietzsche’s philosophy,” as well as “the twentieth century and […] the centuries to come…” (Vol. I, p. 17) Here are a few recurring passages:

“Nietzsche offers two answers with regard to being as a whole: being as a whole is will to power, and being as a whole is eternal recurrence of the same.” (Vol. II, p. 198-99)


“In truth, the coherence of both must be grasped.” (Vol. II, p. 199)


“Both thoughts—will to power and eternal recurrence of the same—say the same and think the same fundamental characteristic of beings as a whole.” (Vol. III, p. 10).


“The essential, historic culmination of the final metaphysical interpretation of beingness as will to power is captured in the eternal recurrence of the same…” (Vol. III, p. 180-181)


“When in our meditations we bring the guiding projection of all metaphysics to closer inspection, we see that both thoughts think the same thing—will to power in terms of modernity, eternal recurrence of the same in terms of the history of the end.” (Vol. III, p. 166)


“Hence, the basic character of beings as will to power is also defined as ‘the eternal recurrence of the same.’” (Vol. IV, p. 7-8).

Colony asks: “What was the hermeneutic presupposition which guided Heidegger’s interpretation such that, although never posing the proper question of being as such, Nietzsche could still be described as standing in an essential and intimate relation with Heidegger’s own thought?” (Colony, p. 198). The answer, I would contend, is his turn to eternal return to transform becoming into being.

Nietzsche, I would argue, anticipated this move, and warned against it, precisely in the passage that Heidegger returns to again and again in the late notebooks (Will to Power § 617): “To stamp Becoming with the character of Being—that is the supreme will to power.” (Quoted in Vol. I. 19). Nietzsche in fact adds: “That everything recurs is the closest approximation of a world of Becoming to one of Being: –peak of the meditation.” (WP §617; quoted at Vol. I, p. 19). It is almost as if he were writing to Heidegger: at best an approximation. Certainly not an equation.


Heidegger’s argument pushes too hard on the ontological or scientific reading of the eternal recurrence. The effort to deploy the eternal return in this way—to reconcile Nietzsche with Heidegger—does too much work and, effectively, backfires. Rather than tame becoming, what it does instead is to highlight the ethical underpinnings of the eternal return. It makes it clear that Nietzsche’s notion is not ontological, but rather normative and ethical: it is a hypothetical, intended to terrorize us into leading our lives in such a way that every moment and every decision is frighteningly accentuated.

Eternal recurrence, as first articulated in The Gay Science (see Vol. II, p. 19), becomes most clearly about making every moment of our life relivable… about making sure that every moment of your life is worth reliving. It is the ultimate expression of the creation of one’s life as a work of art.

It is worth here rereading, in full, the passage from The Gay Science § 341 that Heidegger quotes at length in Vol. II at pages 19-20:

The Heaviest Burden. What if a demon crept after you into your loneliest loneliness some day or night, and said to you: “This life, as you live it at present, and have lived it, you must live it once more, and also innumerable times; and there will be nothing new in it, but every pain and every joy and every thought and every sigh, and all the unspeakably small and great in thy life must come to you again, and all in the same series and sequence—and similarly this spider and this moonlight among the trees, and similarly this moment, and I myself. The eternal sand-glass of existence will ever be turned once more, and you with it, you speck of dust!” – Would you not throw yourself down and gnash your teeth, and curse the demon that so spoke? Or have you once experienced a tremendous moment in which you would answer him: “You are a God, and never did I hear anything so divine!” If that thought acquired power over you as you are, it would transform you, and perhaps crush you; the question with regard to all and everything: “Do you want this once more, and also for innumerable times?” would lie as the heaviest burden upon your activity! Or, how would you have to become favourably inclined to yourself and to life, so as to long for nothing more ardently than for this last eternal sanctioning and sealing?

The heaviest burden on us: yes, that is precisely how the eternal recurrence must be read—along ethical, not ontological lines. And it is precisely where we are led when Heidegger’s repeated attempts at using the eternal return to substantialize becoming into being fail.

[Incidentally, there is another tension at the heart of Heidegger’s fascination with Nietzsche, and it is between his notions of anguished concern and care, and Nietzsche’s obsession with destruction and injury. For Heidegger, the notion of anguished concern and care is central to our being as humans, including concern for self and others. Much of this, for Nietzsche, is foreign. Our essential being, as humans, is struggle and injury:

“Here we must beware of superficiality and get to the bottom of the matter, resisting all sentimental weakness: life itself is essentially appropriation, injury, overpowering of what is alien and weaker; suppression, hardness, imposition of one’s own forms, incorporation and at least, at its mildest, exploitation—but why should one always use those words in which a slanderous intent has been imprinted for ages?” (BG&E, § 259).

Here too there is an irreparable gap or tension. A chasm. Heidegger attempts to bridge it by means of will, which he reinterprets as being. To be crude again, “appropriation, injury, overpowering” becomes will to power, which becomes our essential being. So by abstracting up, Heidegger tries to avoid the tension (Vol. I, p. 18). Here too, though, the resolution is not successful, forcing us to reexamine the notion of struggle and injury.]


But the reinvigorated ethical reading of eternal recurrence—in conjunction with such a robust interpretation of being—has a way, if anything, of accentuating, of heightening the stakes.

To take a step back, what was so groundbreaking about Heidegger in the 1920s was his turn to such a rich experiential worldly inquiry on the fundamental question of our existence. After the dryness and other-worldliness of the dominant philosophical approaches, from Descartes or Kant—for whom being was reduced to the mind, to thinking only, and time was a mental construct—, after the dominantly disembodied discourse and debates about the mind-body duality, after the predominant work of philosophers like Berkeley and the entire tradition of idealist thought, after all that disembodiement… it was such a relief to discover Heidegger and to read about the real experience of being, and to allow that real experience of being, and of angst, and of fear, and of care and anguished concern, to allow those experiences to ground our philosophical views. That was an amazing, revolutionary time that must have felt like a groundbreaking moment. It has become for us somewhat second nature today, as has phenomenology more generally. But Heidegger’s intervention in 1927 in Being and Time was formidable.

Now, the process of the struggle over being with Nietzsche served to accentuate the idea of eternal return and aesthetic creation, highlighting the unbearableness of being. The eternal return forces us to live and experience reality and choose in a way that makes life worth living… in a way that makes our lives a work of art. Aesthetic production becomes the key. And the idea of art and the artist as representing the ultimate will to power becomes central: art is creation, it is the site of real production. The artist is the creator. No wonder Nietzsche viewed this as the height of will to power. “The world as a work of art that gives birth to itself–.” (WP §796; quoted in Vol. I, p. 71) This truly resonates. And it ties, of course, to Nietzsche’s first book on tragedy and the Dionysian.

Now this work on art and its physiological effects is what the Surrealists would study under the notion of “frisson.” Rapture, frenzy, intoxication, delirium—these are the very emotions of frisson. (Heidegger, Vol. I, p. 92 et seq.) But it also ties to Foucault’s notion of an “aesthetics of existence”: choosing one’s battles as an aesthetic choice; engaging political struggles as a work of art; making one’s life an artistic creation. These are the heightened sensibilities that we reach when we conjoin the ethical notion of eternal return with the force of being in the context of art and artistic production. This, I find, has strong critical potential.

This then may be the heart of one possible appropriation of Heidegger’s reading of Nietzsche for a critical project: “Rapture as Aesthetic State” (p. 92-106 Vol. I). Perhaps we need to explore this more.


Let me recapitulate. The fundamental tension between Heidegger and Nietzsche traces to the existentialist quandary of being versus becoming. In passages, Nietzsche’s writings are adamant that there is only becoming and that the constant effort to impose on becoming the quality of being is precisely at the very heart of our recurring human struggles—it is the ultimate expression of the will to power. Women and men exercise power when they transform someone’s actions into their human nature, when they turn for instance a deviant behavior into a felon, or into a dangerous individual, or a mental disorder: when they impose on something someone did the character of their essence. This is the fundamental tension between existence and essence—and it is at the root of Heidegger’s confrontation with Nietzsche and of Heidegger’s attempt to reread eternal recurrence so as to “permanentize” becoming. In effect, Heidegger struggles throughout these early lectures in 1937 through 1939 to force the square peg of Nietzsche’s thought on becoming (and will to power and the eternal return) into the round whole of Being and Time.

Now, Being and Time was unquestionably transformative when it was published, and liberating: whereas before, philosophical discourse was caught not only in religious dogma (Descartes’ proof of our existence), but also in a disembodied repulsion for our materiality—with the body-mind divide, cogito, and such a fundamental distrust for everything bodily related. Heidegger was a liberation and an embrace of our human experiences—of our angst, of our fears, of our anguished concerns, of our bodily existence, of being here in the world, of our real experiences in relation to time and our own mortality. That was formative, and changed the course of philosophical discourse in the twentieth century. But it was also still tied to a metaphysical discourse that remained rigid in its embrace of the very notion of being. Nietzsche is the one who challenged that most, in part because he was not a metaphysician but rather a philologist, in part because of his temperament and intellect. Regardless, his writings fundamentally challenges the notion that there is permanence, being, a doer.

Heidegger’s confrontation with Nietzsche is his attempt to force the square peg, and it just does not work—but in the very process of that struggle, there emerges something of critical import: an unexpected grafting of the ethical reading of the eternal return (the threat and moral imperative of one’s actions recurring over and over) onto the permanence of being, under the guise of an aesthetic model of creation. It is that conjoining of the eternal recurrence of choice, heightened by the gravity of being, and understood as artistic production that I would call an “aesthetics of being.” It can be placed in fruitful discussion with other critical concepts from the twentieth century (Foucault’s aesthetics of existence or André Breton’s aesthetics of the frisson). It is not Heidegger’s concept, but it emerges from his herculean struggle with Nietzsche and failure. So in the end, I will not refer to this as Heidegger’s “aesthetics of being”—which is all the better, because Heidegger’s politics makes him so utterly unbearable—but rather “toward an aesthetics of being.” It is a critical insight that emerges from the confrontation of ideas. And what it does, essentially, is to heighten the gravity of ethical choice and model it on artistic creation.


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Addendum: Heidegger’s emphasis on nihilism starting in 1940 and hitting a high point in 1944-46 remains untheorized here. In contrast to 1937-39, starting in 1940, with “Nietzsche’s Metaphysics,” Heidegger will say that Nietzsche’s key concepts are not just will to power and eternal recurrence, but also nihilism, the overman, and justice (Vol. III, p. 189). I’m not sure what to make of this shift. I can’t accept that anyone would really subscribe to Heidegger’s claim, repeated by the editor (David Krell), that “his Nietzsche lectures of the late 1930s and early 1940s [represent] one of the principal sites of his confrontation (Auseinandersetzung) with National Socialism.” (Vol. IV, p. 263). That seems intellectually obscene. (Note the discussion of Arendt by Krell on page 272 of Vol. IV). To suggest that one’s seminars could amount to anything resembling a “confrontation” with a regime like National Socialism is completely preposterous and arrogant. But it leaves open the problem of nihilism—to which I may need to return.



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