In the last post we saw a bit about the role of the artist in society. He is the one who reveals to us a bigger world, albeit in a flawed way. Today we see that perhaps one reason for this flaw is that the artist does not have perspective on himself. However good they may be at showing us the wider world, they are not very good at recognizing the truth about themselves. In a sense, this is because of the nature of art. Nietzsche has described it as coming from a desire for its object—but when an ability is based on a desire for what we do not possess, that ability itself goes unseen as it is obscured by the desire for that which is absent. As a practical example, the artist who is great at painting tragedies is always miserable because he wants to be great at painting frescoes. The result is that he cannot see his own greatness and so is inherently limited in his interactions with the world.
This leads Nietzsche into a discussion of the role of truth. What Francis Schaeffer would have called true truth is always going to be tempered with joy, rather than the dour, serious “knowledge” most of us assume. The artist who approaches his work with too much gravity ultimately loses the truth that he is pursuing, while the artist who lets delight break through from time to time is the one who truly digs down into the nature of reality and tries to capture it in his medium:
Thus it can happen that a man’s emphatic seriousness shows how superficial and modest his spirit has been all along when playing with knowledge. (II.88)
This is a point originally made by Plato, echoed by Heidegger, and deeply held by all true Christians: the truth is not just something that we hold on to abstractedly, it is a deeply joyful thing. If that joy does not affect us from time to time, we have to question whether or not we are really in the truth in the first place.
This discussion of truth leads to a series of reflections on writers and writing—another place where at least nominally we find truth and a group of people who at least nominally are supposed to reveal the truth. And yet what we find there is that truth can be as obscured as it is in the arts. Dante, Rousseau, Plato, and the more obscure Alfieri are all noted as having through agony forced themselves into poetry. At least one of them “told a great many lies” and yet still “found a severe form of sublimity” (II.91). As with the arts, we find a mixture of truth and falsehood that has to be understood properly and sifted through by the reader, which explains why we have such different reactions to the same books:
Books and drafts mean something quite different for different thinkers. (II.90)
This difference is in part caused by the author and in part caused by the reader and leads to a sort of literary in-between place where the two come together. And again, this in-between is the result of both the work of the author and of the reader. Just as we as readers bring much to the book, so the writers have their own agendas and thoughts—for example, the tension between writers of prose and writers of poetry.
And yet, when we examine all of these competing tensions in the acts of reading and writing, I think Nietzsche wants us to see some kind of resolution. Even with all these problems there is still something to be gained not just from the “great” writers (whom Nietzsche lists in II.92) but also from the conversation itself. So far, this is the medium we have for expressing thought and so it cannot be dismissed simply because of the problems it has (II.93). To that end, Nietzsche gives us some examples of writers who have done their jobs well—at times despite themselves and at times as a result of their effort and ability. Fontenelle (II.94), Chamfort (II.95), and Shakespeare (II.98), among others, all write either intentionally or accidentally in a way that resonates with us today and leads us toward the truth. This is caused not by what they say (at least, that’s not what Nietzsche focuses on here) but by how they say it. They are great when they remain true to themselves and their inherent ability and style. This is typified by Shakespeare’s Brutus:
It was to him [Brutus] that he [Shakespeare] devoted his best tragedy… to him and to the most awesome quintessence of a lofty morality. Independence of the soul!—that is at stake here. No sacrifice can be too great for that: one must be capable of sacrificing one’s dearest friend for it, even if he should also be the most glorious human being, an ornament of the world, a genius without peer—if one loves freedom as the freedom of great souls and he threatens this kind of freedom. (II.98)
Political freedom, Nietzsche argues, is only a thin veil pulled over Shakespeare’s real use for Brutus as a picture of the free man. In the same way, the authors who are true to themselves and independent of spirit are the ones who truly speak. Those who fail to do so are those who see someone else writing well and try to copy them, rather than speaking in their own voice. And so the emotional speaker who tries to speak logically and the logical speaker who tries to speak emotionally both fall flat (II.96). It is only when they stick to what they know that the their spirits “emerge fully from its hiding place—a logical, mocking, playful, and yet awesome spirit” (II.96).
In all of this we are beginning to see the kind of person Nietzsche is describing—he is calling for us to be defined by who we are living according to and within reality, not who we are told to be by convention or by external compulsion.
Coyle Neal is Assistant Professor of Political Science at Southwest Baptist University in Bolivar, Missouri, and cohost of the City of Man podcast.