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More reflections on what Nietzsche was up to

To the second edition of The Gay Science, published in 1887, Nietzsche added a fifth book entitled, with that mock boastfulness to which he was prone (and which has added that bellicose aura to his posthumous reputation – beloved by post-structuralist and white supremicist prison gangs alike!), We fearless ones. The end, sort of, of We fearless ones  comes with a dreamy little number  342, entitled “The great health”. Healthiness as a concept that encompasses every part of the self, instead of describing a state of bodily equilibrium, a healthiness that becomes a means to an end instead of an assumption about the everyday – this is what the perpetually sick author dreams of. His dream, though, is of a  likeminded community – this we is, as all we’s are, political. Here Nietzsche is both a child of the century, which was discovering health not as a sort of balance among animal spirits but as a fragile norm that few were able to achieve – and a sign of the coming century, when health really does get interpreted as an intention, so that our sicknesses are somehow, unconsciously, willed.

The great health, however, while has its roots not in physiology, or at least not in physiology alone, but in experience. This is an immense and interesting shift. To be fearless, in Nietzsche’s terminology, is to be an adventuerer – and the first adventure is through one’s own experience. In that instance, experience is transformed into something adventure-worthy. This connection  leads Nietzsche through one of the dithyrambic, labyrinthine arguments in which he specializes, where association and implication become interjoined, and all the rabbits are pulled from all the magician’s hats. The adventurers - the “we”, here – catch a glimpse, due to our health, of an as yet “unexplored land” which overflows with the “beautiful, the alien, the the questionable, the fearful and the divine”  - a glimpse that creates total existential discontent, since it seems that this is the place we are seeking. This place is also an ideal, but not an ideal of the sacred or the good or the just, but an ideal of play, - and here we go back to the great health, for this health belongs to the naïve and curiously innocent spirit who plays with the values that the people have erected, who enjoys a well-being and well-willing that appears inhuman in contemporary terms. These terms seal what is good, true, and real into a package with what is serious – the serious being defined by being ‘unplayable’. But the spirit that Nietzsche evokes isn’t impressed by this “earth-seriousness”, and unconsciously and involuntarily parodies it. Out of that parody, Nietzsche imagines a new seriousness springing forth, setting up its own question marks. And thus “the hour hand moves” and “the tragedy begins”.

So it would seem that the chords of the fifth book, and the book as a whole, crash to a conclusion. But the little numbers don’t stop - Nietzsche moves on to an epilogue – something that is not exactly part of the book, but is in the no man’s land of prefaces and after words. The epilogue begins like a parody of a Wagner opera – or like an episode in Disney’s Fantasia. Nietzsche takes up the “I” as  the author of the book , and depicts himself, like Poe’s poet in The Raven,  feeling the effect of the dark and dreary task of erecting question marks.

“But when I in conclusion this gloomy question mark slowly, slowly painted,  still wanting to recall into the memory of my readers the virtues of correct reading – o these forgotten and unknown virtues! – it happened, that around me the most evil, spirited, gnome-like laughter broke out: the spirits of my book themselves fell upon me, pulled me by the ear, and called me to order.”

It is passages like this that bother those who want to tell us Nietzsche’s esoteric message, or who feel like, as a proper philosopher, Nietzsche’s texts should be  easily reducible to thesis and antithesis in the good old monographic manner. Hegel’s terminology might be obscure, but the form of his book is very clear; and if we are to take Nietzsche seriously, we have to correct his tendency to mix things up and put them all in their proper place. Otherwise, of course, one would have to multiply question mark by question mark, and finally be reduced to reading Derrida’s note on Nietzsche’s misplaced umbrella – the kind of jape that got Derrida into royal trouble when Oxford was about to grant him, horrors, an honorary degree in philosophy.  Here, at the moment when a Hegelian philosopher would be at the end and have argued to a conclusion – here, suddenly, the spirits of the book treat the author like a erring school child. Who, after all, are pulled by the ear and called to order? As Nietzsche well knew from the time he’d invested in German educational institutions, being pulled by the ear was a not uncommon scene. That allusion to a schoolroom scene comes right after a lament for old fashioned reading – another pedagogical theme. But if this is a schoolroom scene, it is a reversed one – for certainly it is the bad students who make gnome like laughter their sabateur’s weapon of choice.

Viewing Nietzsche as an author, this conclusion is not completely bizarre. In fact, as an author who is a philologist and who has written on Greek tragedy, this scene conforms pretty well to the kind of satyr play that always came after the tragic cycle. In fact, we are never far from the satyr play whenever seriousness becomes an issue in Nietzsche’s texts.  

Of course, all of this, for the decrypter of the esoteric message, is simply denial and disguise. Of course, as soon as Nietzsche has revealed his real intentions – dreaming of an order of masters killing and enslaving the weak – he feels that he has gone too far, and engages in this little diversion.

However, if we engage in reading the text, which is what the text literally suggests we do, we find an artistic structure that does not look like denial or diversion, especially as the spirits of the book itself are called into play. Play, parody, and seriousness are the keywords here. The spirits of the book object, evidently, to the last word being given to tragedy. And they also mock Nietzsche’s future fetishism, the sentimentality he has invested in “solitude”, in being a great thinker alone. The jibes are put in terms of music, and Nietzsche accepts the jibes of his “friends” – the spirits of the book, the “we fearless ones”  – while at the same time accepting that the music of the book and the sense of it might be two different things, of which the first is primary. Instead of tragedy, then, the book ends on dance, and on a peasant’s dance at that. Remember that this is the Nietzsche who had no liking or sentiment for the stinking people, and presumably also their tavern instruments, among which the hurdy gurdy would be preeminent.  

If we follow up the notion that we should be reading, here, and perhaps even reaading Nietzsche’s other texts, than the hint – the non-esoteric hint – comes in the phrase “involuntary” parody, which he has used once before in his polemic against David Strauss, the liberal theologian. It is peculiar to authors that the phrases they have used years before still float about in their memory. It is perhaps their characterizing peculiarity. In the case of the polemic against Strauss – well, I would guess that this part of the Thoughts our of Season is the least read, since who among us, friends and droogs, is interested, even a little bit, in 19th century liberal theology? Strauss is probably best known, now, for being translated into English by George Eliot (who thus became the target for some of Nietzsche’s most misogynistic taunts – Nietzsche was quite the troll at times). In attacking Strauss, Nietzsche also attacks the positivist Hegel, and a certain form of apologetic for God that wills the unity of the universe, the eventual conjoining of the subjective and the objective in one coherent work. Interestingly, in his attack, Nietzsche seems to mock a certain rhetoric he later plays with in The Gay science. Here’s a long quotation to finish with – it is left as an exercise to the reader to pick up the resonances:

he [Strauss] assumes without question that all events possess the highest intellectual value and are thus absolutely rational and purposwful, and then that they contain a revelation of eternal goodness itself. He is thus in need of a complete cosmodicy and at a disadvantage compared with those who are only concerned with a theodicy, who
conceive the entire existence of man as, for example, a punsihment or a process of purification. At this point and thus embarrased, Strauss goes so far as to venture for once a metaphysical hypothesisn – the driest and most palsied there has ever been and at bottom no more than an unconscious parody of a saying of Lessing’s. “That other saying of Lessing’s, he says on page 219, that, if God held all truth in his right hand and in his left the never sleeping quest for truth with the condition of contiually erring in this quest, and offered him a choice between them, he would humbly fall upon God’s left hand and beg for the contents of it – this saying has always been regarded as among the finest he left to us. There has been found in it an expression of his restless desire for action and investigation. This saying has always made so powerful an impression upon me because behind its subjective significance I have heard resounding an objective one of immense range. For does it not contain the best reply to Schopenhauer’s crude conception of an ill-advised God who knows of nothing better to do than to enter into such a wretched a world as this is? May it not be that the Creator himself shares Lessing’s opinion and prefers continual striving to peacceful possession.” A God, that is to say, who reserves to himself continual error at at the same time a striving for truth, and who perhaps humbly falls upon Strauss’s left hand and says to him: all truth is for you. If ever a God or a man were ill advised it is this Straussian God, with his pariality for error and failure, and the Straussian man, who has to pay for this partiality – here indeed one can ‘hear resounding a significance of immense range’, here there flows Strauss’s universal soothing oil, and here one senses something of the rationality of all evolution and natural law! Does one really? Or would our world not be, rather, as Lichtenberg once called it, the work of a subordinate being who as yet lacked a full understanding of his task, and thus an experiment? A novice’s test-piece which was still being worked on? So that Strauss himself would have to concede that our world is an arena, not of rationality, but of error, and that its laws and purposefulness are no source of consolation, since they proceed from a God who is not merely in error but takes pleasure from being in error. It is a truly delicious spectacle to behold Strauss as a metaphysical architect building up into the clouds. But for whom is this spectacle mounted? Or the noble and contented “we”, so as to preserve their contentment: perhaps they were overcome by fear in the midst of those merciless wheels of the universal machine and tremblingly begged their leader for help.”