Sense, Power, Struggle: Nietzsche's "Philosophy of Life" in Interwar Egypt

By Nada Khalifa
Submitted to Session P4854 (Materialities of Translation and Circulation: Rethinking Late Ottoman Intellectual History, 2017 Annual Meeting
Egypt; Lebanon; Syria;
19th-21st Centuries;
The print cultures of the decades straddling the dissolution of Ottoman Empire provide a particularly rich archive for historical investigations seeking to ground the social history of knowledge production in novel mappings of context. A reductive form of contextualist reading currently dominates nahda reception studies, one that is inattentive to both the material underpinnings of the will to translate and the ‘ideational’ dimensions of conceptual dissemination. Postcolonial narratives of Arab intellectual modernity, for instance, tend to pit an undifferentiated and spatially fixed Europe against a colonized intellectual class unwittingly reinscribing the conditions of its own epistemological subjugation. Taking the reception of Nietzsche in the Arabic press as a case study, this paper contests the narrow contextualism of such accounts. It does so by recuperating the expansive semantic range of the concepts Arab thinkers appropriated from the German philosopher's works. Their readings of Nietzsche bear on the broader question of how European currents of anti-positivist thought were elaborated in non-metropolitan contexts rife with anxieties about the foundations of progress, the status of classical traditions of thought, and the cultural requisites of political self-determination.
This paper draws on the work of a range of Arab commentators, including Shibli Shumayyil, Farah Antun and Salama Musa, but focuses primarily on the Egyptian essayist ‘Abbas Mahmud al-‘Aqqad. Between 1923 and 1924, he published a series of articles on the ‘Abbasid-era panegyrist Abu ’l-Tayyib al-Mutannabbi, in which he argued that the “philosophy of life” embodied in the latter’s poetry prefigured the ideas of Nietzsche and Darwin. Al-‘Aqqad drew on a naturalist vocabulary informed by turn-of-the-century biological concepts (“struggle for existence,” “natural selection”) to cast al-Mutannabbi as an interlocutor “between” the two thinkers, a figure who synthesized the scientific and existential dimensions of their interventions. His arguments invoked a concept central to Arab thinkers’ engagement with Nietzschean thought: the agon, or the premise that life is characterized by ceaseless and ineradicable struggle. The conception of human nature and sociality embedded in this vision invites us to rethink the predicaments of alterity and translatability in light of these thinkers’ efforts to constitute modern existential-biological knowledge as an idiom of human similitude. Al-‘Aqqad’s case also reminds us that such efforts involved the reactivation of classical Arabic genres of commentary and forms of intertextuality. It points to the deep continuities between the popularizing ethos of late Ottoman littérateurs and the classical tradition of belletrist compilatory literature they referenced.