Nietzsche on Art in The Gay Science, Books I and II

Primary version of this post at Barry Stocker’s Weblog, with picture not just link.

Image shows original printing of Nietzsche’s second edition of Gay Science

The Gay Science, in its title expresses Nietzsche’s wish for some kind of fusion of art with science (or knowledge, Wissenschaft could be translated as either though science is the most normal). The idea of science is clearly there, and the idea of something aesthetic is hinted at with gay (fröhliche) The idea of the aesthetic is made more clear with the subtitle, la gaya scienza, a Provençal (Occitan i.e. southern dialect of French particularly associated with medieval Troubadour poetry and music) phrase for the poetry of the Troubadours. Unlike Human, All Too Human, in Ecce Homo, Nietzsche defined The Gay Science as a ‘yes saying’ book, along with Dawn and Thus Spoke Zarathustra. So these are the books where Nietzsche claims to have put forward a positive philosophy rather than a rejection of other philosophies. This reinforces the sense of a work which is poetic and aesthetic in its conception, and this is finally confirmed by Nietzsche’s addition of poems, narrowly speaking, to the second edition of The Gay Science.

I’m thinking here about section I in Book I, and about most of Book II. It says something about the centrality of art in The Gay Science that it starts with art, in a double way, poetry followed by discussion of art. Nevertheless, there are those who are inclined to see The Gay Science, and all Nietzsche’s work from Human, All Too Human as rejecting art as having a central role in Nietzsche’s philosophy, on the argument that Nietzsche’s naturalism (his rejection of any force or thing outside the natural world) entails a positivistic privileging of science in his philosophy. I think this is just wrong, but I’d rather not contribute to a spirit of bad temper between commentators. It’s not a bad thing to emphasise the role of science, and the study of humans as part of nature, in Nietzsche and it’s certainly no more wrong than only seeing Nietzsche as engaged in an aesthetic philosophical self-reflection, that is only concerned with the possible styles of philosophy. I’m not sure that any major commentator has actually seen Nietzsche that way, and I am sure that it is a mistake to think that Derrida read Nietzsche in that way. Perhaps some people working on ‘post-structuralist’, or ‘post-modern’; or rhetoric or metaphorical or literary approaches to Nietzsche have come too close to that point of view, and I seem to remember getting too close to that in the earliest stages of my postgraduate studies. If people want to work on Nietzsche in a ‘philosophy as style’ mode or they want to work on Nietzsche as an early cognitive psychologist, I don’t see a problem, and the same goes for people who see Nietzsche as a historian, a sociologist or anything else I might have forgotten. I would just prefer everyone concerned to approach this is an inclusive way, but there’ll always be some who find it necessary to attack all approaches other than their own.

We’ve seen in the post of July 27th why some commentators might think Nietzsche is against aestheticism in Human, All Too Human, but as I argued in the post of July 26th, there is already a movement back and forth between knowledge of nature and aesthetics in Birth of Tragedy, and a complicated set of statements about whether art has some value from the point of view of knowledge or is the production of illusion. After my recent (re)reading of The Gay Science I’m very inclined to the view that Nietzsche at all points is trying to articulate the view that art contains knowledge because it refers to experience, that art is the expression of natural forces in the human body, and that art creates illusions but illusions which make us see life in a better way rather than creating a complete deceit.

What Nietzsche suggests in The Gay Science is that poetry begins with the attempt to impress the gods through rhythm and that tragedy makes life bearable (which seems continuous with Birth of Tragedy). That seems to lend itself to the line that Nietzsche rejects art as illusion. I would say that Nietzsche has certainly rejected the view that art could refer to an underlying metaphysical reality, but I would also say that he never completely accepted such a view. There is maybe more of a clear rejection now. I certainly do not see that at is rejected as something that gives us knowledge. Art still is what draws our attention to appearances and then maybe to appearances as the only reality, or that there is no model of reality-in-itself behind appearances and art is part of what helps us get that point, which needs to be experienced not just argued. Nietzsche clearly signals that his book is a way of getting us to experience philosophy as something that comes through the fine and sensitive use of language (unlike what I can manage), including its symbolic possibilities. That does not exclude the existence of knowledge claims within it.

Section 107 at the end of Book II, is I think particularly useful. It’s easy to remember beginning and ending sections which maybe why I’m referring to them, but I think that Nietzshe worked particularly hard in this case on making the first and last sections of books memorable, long and complex, as an appropriate way of giving form to his argument. As Section 107 is long and complex, I won’t quote or even paraphrase it. I’ll just say that it puts forward the view that art creates illusion, but not dishonest or destructive illusions. The illusions of art distract us from the more painful aspects of living, but they also draw our attention to these aspects in giving them enjoyable form. These illusions also allow us to to stand above our claims to knowledge and morality. They allow epistemic and ethical scepticism, by showing situations above customary knowledge and morality in a kind of superior existence. The poetic exaltation of an existence in which we do not follow moral rules or prevalent assumptions about knowledge, does not just narcotise us against suffering, though it does have that role. The narcosis is a relative narcosis and it also provokes the courage to question and reject. In this way art provides beautiful illusions and penetrates illusions. There are different kinds of illusion and they can be used against each other. In the early sections of The Gay Science, Nietzsche also argues that what is useful to life is mostly against morality, though also sometimes might be in line with morality as the Utilitarians believed (they believed that good means what promotes the greatest utility, benefit, for the greatest number). Art is part of this amiguity, in which the artist may help or hinder ‘life’, and could do both with regard to higher and lower forms of life. Art can be a stimulus to a more affirmative abundant life, and if not it is an effective way of exploring a collapsing negative form of life, and it can be difficult to say which. The artists may lie to themselves but still produce a stimulus to life. All views of life, all claims to knowledge are illusory, in the sense that none of them present unchallengeable knowledge. The illusions of art, even the self deception of the artist still provides perspectives which something of reality. All appearances are part of reality and there is no higher reality and art may make us particularly aware of that.

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