Review of The Peacock and the Buffalo: The Poetry of Nietzsche (Second Edition)

Journal of European Studies 40(4)
The Peacock and the Buffalo: The Poetry of Nietzsche (second edition).
Translated by James Luchte. London and New York: Continuum, 2010. Pp. 388.

Reviewed by Paul Bishop

Whether philosophy is an art or a science is, Nietzsche noted in the 1870s, a question that causes considerable difficulty, for the philosopher ‘understands by writing poetry, and writes poetry as he understands’ (KSA 7, 19 [62], 439). For his part, Nietzsche began his career as a classical philologist and ended up as a philosopher (or as ‘the last disciple and initiate of the god Dionysos’, as he put it in Beyond Good and Evil, §295). But he always regarded himself as a poet, although it is precisely Nietzsche’s claim to this title that his critics, even well-disposed ones, have frequently been reluctant to recognize. What better way, then, to assess Nietzsche’s status as a poet than a complete edition of his poems and aphorisms? Just such an edition was provided in 1986 by the German publisher Reclam, of which an English translation was offered by James Luchte in 2004 in The Peacock and the Buffalo: The Poetry of Friedrich Nietzsche, now in its second (and bilingual) edition.

Everyone has heard of the three transformations in Thus Spoke Zarathustra (in which the spirit becomes a camel, then a lion, then a child at play), but the title of Luchte’s set of translations refers to another section, entitled ‘Of the Poets’. In this playful (and satirical) animal metaphor, Zarathustra compares the poets to the sea, itself then compared to a peacock, which ceaselessly (if vainly) displays its tail to its aesthetically challenged, intellectually insensitive other – the buffalo.

Zarathustra’s critique of other poets is at the same time a performative defence of Nietzsche’s own practice: ‘I have remained a poet, to the very limits of this concept’, he told Erwin Rohde about Zarathustra on 22 February 1884. In his translator’s note, Luchte admits he has decided not to attempt to reproduce Nietzsche’s rhyme schemes in English: an understandable decision, even if it robs his versions of the considerable ludic charm of the originals (and other translators, such as Walter Kaufmann, pulled off the trick of producing passable rhymed equivalents).

Instead, however, Luchte’s ambition is to produce versions notable for their accuracy – or, as he puts it, ‘a literality which aims to facilitate an attentiveness to the raw meanings of the poems as expressed in German’ (p. 22). In his prefaces to the earlier and present editions, Luchte presents a starkly tragic-existential view of Nietzsche, whose poetic response to his (and our) time seeks ‘to fly into the joy of the sky and to perch upon the mountain amid the ice of honesty and truth’ (p. 35).

Less obvious, on this account, is Nietzsche’s indebtedness to Heinrich Heine, whose ‘divine malice’ and ‘manipulation of German’ he admired in Ecce Homo (‘Why I am so clever’, §4). Yet these are the very characteristics that emerge through Luchte’s renditions: alternately whimsical and pathos-laden, often both. In ‘Sage mir, teurer Freund, warum du so lang nicht geschrieben’

(‘Tell me, dear friend, why did you not write for so long?’) (pp. 57–9),

the young Nietzsche uses elegaic distichs to chivvy his reluctant correspondent; in the ‘Songs of Prince Vogelfrei’ appended to The Gay Science, the rhythmic pecking of the woodpecker satirizes the poetic enterprise

(‘Bis ich gar, gleich einem Dichter, / Selber mit im Ticktack

sprach’ – ‘Until I spoke, like a poet, / With the tick tock

myself’ [p. 211]);

finally, in the poems that eventually became known as the Dithyrambs of Dionysos, Nietzsche’s language achieves an astonishingly sparse, even ferocious intensity

(‘Schild der Notwendigkeit! / Ewiger Bildwerke Tafel! / … meine Liebe entzündet / sich ewig nur

an der Notwendigkeit’ – ‘Shield of necessity! / Eternal work of art! / … My love inflames

itself / eternal only in necessity’ [p. 303]).

Even when accuracy is sacrificed to produce a version less than literal (e.g.

‘Auf nackter Felsenklippe stand ich / Und mich unhüllt der

Nacht Gewand’ – ‘I stand naked on a cliff / And the fabric of night clothes me’ [p. 47]),

the poetic sense of the original is maintained.

In short, this elegantly presented, tastefully produced volume provides, as far as their evaluation of his verse is concerned, all that is required to bring about a conversion of even Nietzsche’s sternest critics.

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