“Sous-Venir”: Klossowski Reading Nietzsche

Andy Grundy

July 4, 2022

Will and wave.—How greedily this wave approaches, as if it were after something! How it crawls with terrifying haste into the inmost nooks of the labyrinthine cliff! It seems that it is trying to anticipate someone; it seems that something of value, high value, must be hidden there.—And now it comes back, a little more slowly but still quite white with excitement; is it disappointed? Has it found what it looked for? Does it pretend to be disappointed?—But already another wave is approaching, still more greedily and savagely than the first, and its soul, too, seems to be full of secrets and the lust to dig up treasures. Thus live waves—thus live we who will—more I shall not say.

So? You mistrust me? You are angry with me, you beautiful monsters? Are you afraid I will divulge your whole secret? Well, be angry with me, arch your dangerous green bodies as high as you can, raise a wall between me and the sun—as you are doing now! Truly, even now nothing remains of the world but green twilight and green lightning. Carry on as you like, roaring with overweening pleasure and malice—or dive again, pouring your emeralds down into the deepest depths, and throw your infinite white mane of foam and spray over them: Everything suits me, for everything suits you so well, and I am so well-disposed toward you for everything; how could I think of betraying you? For—mark my word!—are we not of one kind?—You and I—do we not have one secret? —

Nietzsche, The Gay Science


Pierre Klossowski (1905-2001) engaged with Nietzsche as both translator and interpreter. Under the influence of Georges Bataille, his reading worked to undermine the right-wing political appropriation of Nietzsche in Germany—which raised will to power to the status of a master concept—by shifting critical focus and situating interpretation under the sign of the eternal return. His reading of Nietzsche persisted across his intellectual career. It began with articles in Bataille’s Acephale journal (1936-39), examining Nietzsche and fascism, down to criticizing Karl Jaspers and Karl Lowith’s postwar interpretations of Nietzsche. Karl Jaspers’ commentary was formative for French writers such as Klossowski, since he emphasized ambiguity and contradiction as constitutive for Nietzsche’s work, thereby placing pressure on the eternal return, in opposition to those who argued for the will to power as a governing force.[1] From the 1930s, Klossowski’s reading of the eternal return marked a shift in the French reception of Nietzsche away from the will to power and toward philosophies of difference seen, for example, in the work of Gilles Deleuze, Michel Foucault, and Jacques Derrida.[2]

Klossowski takes seriously Nietzsche’s claim in The Gay Science that “God is dead.” He interprets existence as devoid of teleological, rational, and moral principle. He reads existence in terms of the fortuitous encounter of aggressive bodily impulses and the unconscious production of phantasms which exceed rational, conceptual categories. Gilles Deleuze understands Klossowski in these terms, situating him through a discussion of “bodies-language.” Deleuze tells us that in Klossowski “the body seals and conceals a hidden language, and language forms a glorious body” and that “the body’s pantomime is essentially perverse and has the form of a disjunctive articulation.”[3] That is, the body does not conform to teleological, moral, or rational principle but is positioned in Klossowski’s work as breaking and surpassing these categories through deviation and perversion. This recalls Freud in his essays on sexuality where he describes the sexual drive according to its aberrations.[4] In Freud, the sexual drive deviates through its own inversion as well as the perversion of its aim by extending and lingering beyond the regions of the body associated with reproduction. Klossowski’s texts want to listen to the impulses and phantasms of the perverse body. This body has its own language that wants to make itself heard beyond, or underneath, the limits and boundaries imposed on it by the defensive, conscious ego. Klossowski first takes this investment in the body from his work on Sade.[5] We can also say that he takes it from Nietzsche, reading him as the thinker who breaks with the servitude to conscious thought in favor of the fortuitous encounter of the body’s impulses and the obsessive constraints of its phantasms.