A lumpy hero approaches the abyss: 'A Dream of Intelligence' - Sebastian Barker: Littlewood Arc, 15.95 pounds

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The Independent Culture
SEBASTIAN BARKER's long poem about Nietzsche, partly written in prose, is by any usual artistic standard a disaster. Phrases like 'Scandinavian viking' - as though there were any other kind, 'metamorphose my shape' - what else? and lines like 'No poet is blind to the power of words' are all too typically careless or trite, and Barker's blank verse has a straightforwardly unprofessional lumpiness.

But The Dream of Intelligence should not, perhaps, be read as a poem at all. Its narrative structure permits Nietzsche to recount, in a dream, the course and purpose of his philosophy on the night before he becomes insane. Repeatedly, Nietzsche says that 'Plato used Socrates like this, to forge / A semiotic of the holy life.' If we overlook the ambiguity of 'forge', we see that Nietzsche presents himself as his own ideal type, the hero towards whom his own work points. What happens in the mind must be lived out to be made true. The Dream of Intelligence documents that living-out, though its verbosity must remind us unhappily of the terseness of Nietzsche's late self-critique Ecce Homo.

Academics such as Alexander Nehamas have in recent years shown how importantly and idiosyncratically Nietzsche is related to other philosophers and to developments in our own culture. He has, in the process, come to seem more brilliantly part of the tradition than the wild man of his myth. The Dream of Intelligence rhetorically insists on Nietzsche's strangeness, as in lines like these:

Contempt alone is right, although we know

How wrong, corrupt, and vile it really is.

But that's the way to live, to stamp the stamp

Of absolute contempt on life and death.

I stamp the authority of disgust

On every thought and action I perform.

'Perform' picks up Nehamas's interest in Nietzsche's style as enacting what it conveys, but 'really' in the second line has an unexamined philosophical obtuseness which prevents our feeling that a philosopher of any kind is speaking.

As we can see in Browning, its first great employer, the dramatic monologue is more effective as a vehicle for characterisation and atmosphere than for ideas, and Sebastian Barker's formal choice poses a problem he does not overcome. Further, Nietzsche was a great writer with a lancing, aphoristic manner Barker never catches, and a great thinker: this turgid redaction of his ideas is too sedatively numbing to communicate his intellectual vertigo.

A radically flawed poem, then, The Dream of Intelligence must also fail as a work of popularisation, offering, as it does, poetry for the skim-reader, philosophy for the comfortably unreflecting.