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In the March/April issue of New Left Review, T.J. Clark reflects on the current state of the traditional Left in Europe, and the failure of its ideas to resonate beyond its usual adherents, even in the face of global financial crisis: “if the past decade is not proof that there are no circumstances capable of reviving the left in its nineteenth and twentieth-century form, then what would proof be like?” He argues that the Left needs to abandon its wishful (and, indeed, nostalgic) hopes for the future collapse of capitalism and instead be truly present-centred – and also that it needs to adopt a tragic sensibility, not least by accepting the innate human propensity to violence. In the latter context he turns to a passage from one of Nietzsche’s early and unpublished essays, ‘Homers Wettkampf’ (1872):

When, in a battle between cities, the victor, according to the rights of war, puts the whole male population to the sword and sells all the women and children into slavery, we see, in the sanctioning of such a right, that the Greek regarded a full release of his hatred as a serious necessity; at such moments pent-up, swollen sensation found relief: the tiger charged out, wanton cruelty flickering in its terrible eyes. Why did the Greek sculptor again and again have to represent war and battles, endlessly repeated, human bodies stretched out, their sinews taut with hatred or the arrogance of triumph, the wounded doubled up in pain, the dying in agony? Why did the whole Greek world exult in the pictures of fighting in the Iliad? I fear we do not understand these things in enough of a Greek fashion . . . and we would shudder if we did. (p.784 in my German edition)

Clark notes Nietzsche’s vehement, if not exultant, tone, but he’s happy to take this as a reliable description of the Homeric world, to be reinforced by some palaeopathological studies of head wounds in prehistoric hunter-gatherer populations, and a quotation from Hazlitt on hatred. This seems a little rash. Nietzsche undoubtedly identifies a significant feature of early Greek art and literature, and offers (as elsewhere) a powerful corrective to naive and idealising accounts of the beauty- and peace-loving Greeks offered by earlier German classicism. However, it’s important not to overlook the two moves he is making behind the scenes. Firstly, this is offered as a picture of The Greeks and their essence; countervailing tendencies, seen above all in philosophy and tragedies of the classical period, are here ignored and elsewhere represented as a deviation from the real or true Greeks of the archaic period.

Secondly, this isn’t offered as an account of what human beings in general are; it is rather a portrait of what human beings must be if they are to achieve their full potential. “The human being, in its highest and most noble powers, is wholly nature and bears its (nature’s) uncanny double-character within itself.  Nature’s fearsome and supposedly inhuman capabilities are perhaps the fruitful ground out of which alone all humanity can further develop in feelings, deeds and works” (783). In essence: the Greeks represent the highest pinnacle of culture and human self-development; the Greeks gloried in violence; cultural development requires the glorification of strength and victory.

Both Clark and Nietzsche want to make ontological statements about a universal human nature, and to consider the implications of this for their own society. The difference is that Clark sees humans as innately violent and thinks this needs to be recognised by the Left, instead of naive optimism about the possibility of producing new, violence free humans completely fitted for society; Nietzsche does believe that humans can have their instincts suppressed and be made into peace-loving sheep, but at the cost of any hope of cultural greatness. Clark would like a peaceful, co-operative society, but takes the pragmatic view that it’s impossible and so instead we need to adopt the tragic outlook that recognises the flaws and limitations of all humans (echoes of Ned Lebow’s Tragic Vision of Politics, though it’s not cited); Nietzsche thinks that a peaceful, co-operative society is a ghastly idea. He’s a persuasive advocate for a tragic vision only if you would always rate Aeschylus over Sophocles and Euripides as offering the most compelling vision of what it is to be human.

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