The Nietzschian we

As I wrote in the last post, Nietzsche’s preface to Daybreak begins on a note of anaphoric ambiguity. Although the English translators have decided that the subterranean is a subterranean “man”, the German is not so inexorable – in fact, it seems to softly bore its way back to the animal, to the mole.

The mystery of the pronouns, here, is not confined to the first paragraph. To make my next move in uncovering the logic of the subterranean, I need to reference a few lateral ‘philological’ issues to show that the pronoun has a philosophical weight.

In one of the most famous essays in linguistics, Shifters, verbal categories, and the Russian verb, Roman Jakobson presented a schema of four reflexive relations between code – some particular symbolic form – and the message – some content or signification: 1) the message that refers to the message - which gives us all kinds of reported speech; 2) the code that refers to the code – which gives us proper names; 3) the message that refers to the code, which gives us “any elucidating interpretation of words or signs”; and finally 4) the code that refers to the message, which gives us the shifter.

The shifter is one of the most interesting and often written about category of code/message relations. This is because the code that refers to the message – the fact that a message is an act of enunciation – gives us, among other things, our persons. As Jakobson wrote, the mystery of how to define the “I”, which seems empty of any absolute reference, is solved when one sees that the reference is not to something the I represents outside of the enunciative situation, but must refer, instead, to the status of I as an indexical symbol. Jakobson remarks that the shifter has a special place in the onto-genesis of language: ‘The indexical symbols, and in particular the personal pronouns, which the Humboldtian tradition conveives of as the most elementary and primitive stratum of language, are, on the contrary, a complex category where code and message overlap. Therefore pronouns belong to the late acquisitions in child language and to the early losses in aphasia.” As Jakobson points out, the child often has to negotiate the use of I and you, and figure out how to substitute the I for his or her own name: “This attitude may persevere as an infantile survival. Thus Guy de Maupassant confessed that his name sounded quite strange to him when pronounced by himself.”

Roland Barthes saw that this childish insecurity was the mark of the writer. In an essay on Proust, Barthes remarks on the fact that Brichot, one of Proust’s characters, is reproached with using “I” too much in his articles on the war, and responds by changing the ”I”s to ‘ones”(ons)

“… the problem, for the writer, is not in fact to express or mask his “I’ (Brichot naively does not succeed in doing that and in fact, besides, has no desire to), but to shelter it, that is to say, at the same time, to protect it and lodge it.”

Taking up the thread from Jakobson’s comment about the enfant and the aphasic, Barthes includes in this low company the writer:

In the second degree, which is always that of literature, the writer facing the I is in the same situation as the infant or the aphasic, accordingly as he is a novelist or a critic. Like the child who says his proper name in speaking of himself, the novelist designates himself across an infinity of third persons, but this designation is not at all a disguise, a projection or a distance (the child is not disguising himself, nor is he dreaming or distancing himself); it is on the contrary an immediate operation, carried out in an open fashion, imperiously (nothing is clearer than the “ones” of Brichot), and of which the writer has need in order to speak of himself across a normal message (and no longer “straddling” it [via a shifter –R], fully issued from the code of others, in such a way that to write, far from referring to an expression of subjectivity, is on the contrary the very act which converts the indexical symbol (a bastard) into a pure sign. The third person is thus not a ruse of literature, but it is an act of institution preceding any other: to write is to decide to say ‘he” (and to be able to say it).”
The Nietzschean paradox is that Barthes’ “he”, burrowing towards the surface, does not know if it is a man or an old mole.

And this paradox is derivative of another textual trait: the Nietzschean “we’. Daybreak was finished by the end of 1881, while the preface to it was attached in 1886. During this period of time, Nietzsche developed an affection amounting to a mania for a certain kind of “we” in which he could, as Barthes writes, shelter. But what kind of shelter is this?

In the preface, for instance, there are the following we-s: wir Philosophen, wir Deutschen von heute, wir Pessimisten, wir Menschen des Gewissens, wir Immoralisten, wir Gottlosen von heute. This leads us to the beginning of the fifth section, which begins with a drumroll of we:

Zuletzt aber: wozu müßten wir das, was wir sind, was wir wollen und nicht wollen, so laut und mit solchem Eifer sagen? Sehen wir es kälter, ferner, klüger, höher an, sagen wir es, wie es unter uns gesagt werden darf, so heimlich, daß alle Welt es überhört, daß alle Welt uns überhört!

(But at last: why do we have to say, so loudly and with such eagerness, what we are, what we want and don’t want? Lets look at it colder, more distantly, more cleverly, at a greater height, lets say it as it must be said among ourselves, so stealthily, that all the world overhears it, that all the world overhears us!”

The first thing to point out about the Nietzschian we is that it is vatic – it prophesizes a place for the speaker among a certain community. The prophesy has been so completely fulfilled, since 1886, that one does not blink at Nietzsche including himself among the philosophers – or as in other texts, among the psychologists, or among the artists, etc. Of course, he was a professor of philology. What we don’t blink at betrays a certain hidden anachronism – we project Nietzsche’s future back upon Nietzsche’s present. In his “Dialogue concerning the fait divers”, Jean Paulhan points out that the trope of the hidden anachronism is one of the commonplaces of journalism - one of its more insidious traps:

M: In this regard, I read a very curious fait divers:

Noisy-le-Sec – The robber, Louis Verget, surprised by Mrs. Smith in the course of unpacking her establishment, strangled her. When Mrs. Smith breathed her last, the murderer finished stealing from her: he only found one hundred francs and a watch.

R.M. I only see the most ordinary, and sad things there.
M. Yes, everything is not in the pink in the life of a robber. But wait: I haven’t told you the headline: a murder for one hundred francs.
R.M. In fact, this is a singular headline.
M. It could be the most reasonable thing in the world: in being a murderer, Louis Verget only made one hundred francs (which is little).
R.M. Yes.
M. But isn’t it clear that this sense, which may be wise, is not the real sense.
R.M. I fear that it is not difficult to disengage the real sense. Grossly speaking, this is what I see: that it is more base and criminal to kill for 100 francs than for a million, I suppose.
M.Not perhaps more criminal, but certainly more disgusting. This makes our man a dirty brute.
R.M. But is he really such a brute?
M. Now we are getting there. If he had discovered a thousand francs, or ten thousand, do you think he would have left it?
R.M. No.
M: It is thus a question of the most implausible fantasy. Remark, however, that it seemed acceptable to our journalist, and without a doubt to his readers. Myself, I was caught.
R.M. We return to our illusions. It is enough that the adventure ends with the stealing of one hundred francs that we are naturally disposed – and nothing resists it with too much force – to admit that our murderer only had it in his head, from the beginning, to gain his one hundred francs.”[My translation, Paulhan, OC 2)

This slight but terrifying disconnect between what is before and after is among the things sheltered in the Nietzschian we. And it is also from that ‘intemporality’ that Nietzsche seems, in the preface as well as in many other texts, to oscillate between a slightly mocking claim to a community that, in truth, he was not a part of and a loneliness so lonely that he was dead in it – he was buried, he was a mole, he was gone down into the ground.