“Sous-Venir”: Klossowski Reading Nietzsche

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Redeeming Nietzsche from his critics


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.


In 1956 Klossowski translated The Gay Science into French, indicating that he regarded this text as decisive in Nietzsche’s oeuvre. This point is further amplified by his inclusion of a dense preface as part of his translation, titled ‘On Some Fundamental Themes of Nietzsche’s Gaya Scienza,” which was later published in a collection titled Such a Deathly Desire. The overall aim of this preface is to situate The Gay Science within the context of the eternal return and against readings obsessed with Nietzsche’s supposed affirmation of power. In his opening paragraph, Klossowski addresses readings that isolate the will to power and repress the notion of return. These interpretations, he argues, position Nietzsche within the paradigm of a “morality of conquest”:


The name “Nietzsche” seems to be irredeemably associated with the notion of will to power, and not even so much with the notion of will as with the notion of power pure and simple. The most recent interpretations see this as a sort of metaphysical commentary on the fait accompli, as a morality of conquest—and then everything else follows: the laboratories and their unspeakable experiments, the suppression of degenerates, foreigners, and the elderly, the crematory ovens, the criminals, and the nuclear weapons.[6]

We have here an articulation of commentaries on Nietzsche that orients Klossowski’s own critical engagement. Reading Nietzsche only in terms of power, without considering the notion of return, constructs his thought as defensive and repressive. We can say that the “morality of conquest” offers us a Nietzsche that represses everything other—the foreigner, the degenerate, the criminal—placing him on the side of conscious thought and the repressive ego. Yet Klossowski argues these readings are “misappropriations” and a “ransom” to which Nietzsche was “fatally subject by posterity” (“Fundamental Themes,” 2). For Klossowski, Nietzsche is the writer who is foreign to himself, who is on the side of the degenerate and the criminal. Discussing the 377th aphorism in The Gay Science, where Nietzsche describes himself as “homeless” and critiques the “racial self-admiration and racial indecency that parades in Germany today as a sign of a German way of thinking,” Klossowski argues for a writer who is committed to compromising his own unity: “the retreat, the isolation, but also the compromising of a vision’s unity, this is what would allow the appropriate extrication of the experience that bears the name Nietzsche.” This attempt to subvert his own “unity,” which right-wing readings of Nietzsche refuse, is described by Klossowski as “a spiritual moment lived in the exclusive felicity of a soul carried to the point of incandescence” (Ibid). When Klossowski speaks of Nietzsche as a soul moved to the point of “incandescence”—glowing through the act of torching his own unity—and as a writer of the “moment,” he is anticipating a category he will introduce later in the same preface/essay. This is the category I want to examine here, in order to contribute to, and extend, our critical engagement with Nietzsche by reading him through Klossowski. It is, perhaps, a category which has been repressed by Anglo-American Nietzschean criticism: the “sous-venir.”

Klossowski introduces the category “sous-venir” to describe an experience that takes place “in a forgetting for the benefit of which the resources of the soul are liberated” (“Fundamental Themes,” 7). Russell Ford explains his translation of the word as follows:

sous-venir” is coined by Klossowski from the preposition “sous,” meaning “under” or “beneath,” and the infinitive form of “venir,” meaning “to come.” It is a homonym of the word “souvenir,” both a noun meaning “memory” and a verb meaning “to remember.” Finally, it also echoes to a lesser extent the verb “soutenir” meaning “to bear” or “to sustain.” It thus carries a sense of remembrance as something that is “undergone” or that one succumbs to.


Following this evaluation, we can say that the experience of the “sous-venir” can first be articulated as that which lies under or beneath our conscious awareness. Through the experience of the “sous-venir,” Klossowski conceives of Nietzsche as a writer committed to the unconscious. Klossowski offers us a Nietzsche who succumbs to the unconscious because it never says no. When Klossowski uses this word, he is placing his reading within the realm of instincts that approach and seize us from “underneath” or “below” the imaginary fortress of the ego. Through this word, he is articulating an experience—that he views as Nietzschean—which places us outside of ourselves. Nietzsche, Klossowski tells us, experiences “moments of ecstatic serenity” that place him outside of himself so that he becomes other (“Fundamental Themes,” 8). This reading recalls Martin Heidegger who, in his lectures on Nietzsche, describes “rapture” (Rausch) as a moment of ecstasy where our being is seized and collapses: “When we are seized by excitement, our being ‘altogether there’ vanishes; it is transformed into a kind of ‘falling apart.’”[7] Yet we can argue that Heidegger wants to locate a totality in Nietzsche, which Jacques Derrida critiques, that refuses psychoanalysis and which Klossowski does not accept.[8] Following Bataille, Klossowski reads Nietzsche as “headless” (akephalos) and thus as heterogeneous. The sous-venir is not a homogenous experience. Rather, through it we “sub-come” to heterogeneity. It is everything other in excess of the normal, familiar, and acceptable, including the rational purity of the dogmatic philosopher. Bataille, influencing Klossowski, describes this excess in terms of excretion and waste which cannot be assimilated: “the heterogenous world includes everything resulting from unproductive expenditure. . . this consists of everything rejected by homogenous society as waste.”[9] We can perhaps, then, think of the “sous-venir” within the landscape of the subterranean—referring to that which is buried underground—as a kind of contagion that defiles as well as an expenditure that is unproductive, perverted, and useless. It is the mole of Human all too Human that digs tunnels in contrast to the cleanliness of the Hyperborean view of the heights. Klossowski attends to this point in Nietzsche and the Vicious Circle when he says that Nietzsche “seeks to conform himself to the subterranean mobility.”[10] The “sous-venir,” then, could be viewed as an ecstasy of the depths that is beyond rational limits and articulations since it violates and contaminates philosophy.


In Nietzsche and the Vicious Circle, Klossowski views Nietzsche as speaking on behalf of aggressive and uncontrolled impulses—connotations which we can say coincide in the term sous-venir—in conflict with a unified and stable identity founded on reason: “Nietzsche did not speak,” he writes, “on behalf of a ‘hygiene’ of the body, established by reason. He spoke on behalf of corporeal states as the authentic data that consciousness must conjure away in order to be an individual.”[11] The desire for a “hygienic” body—clean and pure—is a consequence of the way reason, and thus the intellect, conceives of the body and its impulses: It hierarchizes, judging the body to be unclean, and experiences it as abject. Whilst Julia Kristeva situates abjection within the framework of Kleinian psychoanalysis, the experience she articulates feeds into Klossowski’s reading of Nietzsche: “The abject has only one quality of the object, that of being opposed to I. . . The spasms and vomiting that protect me. The repugnance, the retching that thrusts me to the side and turns me away from defilement, sewage, and muck. The shame of compromise.”[12]


From the viewpoint of consciousness, the body and its impulses are viewed as filth; defined in terms of defilement, corruption, muck, and sewage. By turning away from it—conjuring it away—the individual is born. Nietzsche’s reappraisal works against this: His body was sick and saturated by convalescence. Yet, rather than turning against it, which is what his consciousness demanded, he sided with it, speaking on behalf of this sick body as the “authentic data” from which his consciousness was attempting to extricate itself. Klossowski articulates this when he voices Nietzsche’s “love for his nervous system he knew he had been gifted with, and in which he took a certain pride.” Thus, “he would destroy the person” in favor of this nervous system and its active forces: “the body provided Nietzsche with a completely different perspective, namely, the perspective of active forces[13]; forces that wanted to break free from servitude to the cerebral organ—demanding liberation—which, we can say, is a procedure that inaugurates the sous-venir. Nietzsche did not want to conserve consciousness since, by partaking in such an act, he would be turning away from his own otherness—his own “outside” and limit—which would be the experience of the sous-venir: the active forces of the body defined in terms of impulses and phantasms. The body is, in this sense, the “Other” of the intellect (consciousness) since its impulses and phantasms are strange, foreign, unfamiliar, and different. Owing to this, the intellect experiences the body with disgust and consequently wants to transform it and make it the “Same.” That is, it levels the body: It reduces it to sameness, normalizing it, making it equal rather than different. In this way, the body loses its heterogeneity because it works to exclude its own authenticity and “irreducible depth” in favor of a homology that allows for assimilation only to make the same.

[1] For a thorough discussion of Nietzsche’s reception in France, including the right-wing appropriation of Nietzsche in Germany, see Douglas Smith, Transvaluations: Nietzsche in France 1872–1972 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1996). This text is a useful, far-reaching survey that describes Klossowski’s reading of Nietzsche in terms of its influence on Gilles Deleuze (140–84). However, whilst Smith takes account of the significance of eternal return for Klossowski, he gives priority to Deleuze, making his discussion of Klossowski on Nietzsche rather limited.

[2] See Ian James and Russell Ford, “Introduction: ‘Whispers of the Flesh’: Essays in Memory of Pierre Klossowski,” Diacritics, 35:1 (Spring, 2005), 2–7.

[3] Gilles Deleuze, “Klossowski, or bodies-language,” in The Logic of Sense, trans. Constantin V. Boundas and others (London: Bloomsbury, 2020), 291.

[4] Sigmund Freud, “Three Essays on Sexuality,” in The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, trans. and ed. James Strachey and others, Volume Seven (London: Vintage, 2001), 135–172.

[5] Pierre Klossowski, Sade my Neighbour, trans. Alphonso Lingis (London: Quartet, 1992), 14.

[6] Pierre Klossowski, “On Some Fundamental Themes in Nietzsche’s Gaya Scienza,” in Such a Deathly Desire, trans. Russell Ford (New York: State University of New York Press, 2007), 1. Subsequent references to this text will appear in parentheses in the text.

[7] Martin Heidegger, Nietzsche, trans. by David Farrell Krell, Volume One (New York: Harper, 1979), 46.

[8] Jacques Derrida, Spurs: Nietzsche’s Styles, trans. Barbara Harlow (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1979).

[9] Georges Bataille, “The Psychological Structure of Fascism,” in Visions of Excess: Selected Writings 1927-1939, ed. Allan Stoekl, trans. Allan Stoekl and others (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press), 137–60, (p. 142).

[10] Pierre Klossowski, Nietzsche and the Vicious Circle, trans. Daniel W. Smith (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997), 254.

[11] Ibid., 26.

[12] Julia Kristeva, Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection, trans. Leon S. Rouidiez (New York: Columbia University Press, 1982), 1–2.

[13] Klossowski, Nietzsche and the Vicious Circle, 24–5.