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Use your illusion Glimpses of the artist-philosopher according to Nietzsche

Paper delivered, upon invitation, at the conference “Artist Philosophers. Philosophy as Arts-Based Research” held by the University for Applied Arts Vienna and the Tanzforum Wien, 18 January 2015. Illustration: Paul Punk, Hamburg.

42. Eine neue Gattung von Philosophen kommt herauf: ich wage es, sie auf einen nicht ungefährlichen Namen zu taufen. […] diese Philosophen der Zukunft […] Dieser Name selbst ist zuletzt nur ein Versuch, und, wenn man will, eine Versuchung (Jenseits von Gut und Böse, Zweites Hauptstück: der freie Geist; KSA 5, 59).

Why is that “philosopher of the future” still tempting us? Why is Nietzsche still important? Because today, perhaps more so than ever, we need an antidote to barbarism. In the light of recent events in Paris as well as in their xenophobic backlash, the fact that we need a viable alternative to capitalism is thrown into sharp relief. Since the collapse of communism, capitalism has been reigning supreme and unchallenged – up until recently, that is; until various religiously motivated extremisms have started to rear their ugly heads. To Nietzsche, all “Isms”, all dogmatic or solidified ways of thinking, are characterized by their enmity to life itself.

bright-idea-nietpunk

Free and courageous spirits – be it artists, philosophers or, indeed, those elusive “artist-philosophers”, that is, the philosophers of the future, are needed more than ever before: “Frei — sei unsre Kunst geheissen, Fröhlich — unsre Wissenschaft!”, Nietzsche writes in in his “Tanzlied” An den Mistral. Indeed, freedom and laughter are still missing in our academies which are becoming more and more of a marketplace where so-called “truths” are jealously guarded and the opinions of others, also masking as truths, refuted unless they strengthen one’s own position within the hierarchy or system. In those marketplaces, criticism is held in higher regard than the creation of something truly new. This was already the case in Nietzsche’s day and age, who deplored in his Zweite unzeitgemäße Betrachtung that:

Es mag das Erstaunlichste geschehen, immer ist die Schaar der historisch Neutralen auf dem Platze, bereit den Autor schon aus weiter Ferne zu überschauen. Augenblicklich erschallt das Echo: aber immer als „Kritik“, während kurz vorher der Kritiker von der Möglichkeit des Geschehenden sich nichts träumen liess (HL §5).

Philosophers, however, according to Nietzsche, are not to be confused with critics: “I insist”, he writes in Beyond Good and Evil, “that people stop mistaking “die wissenschaftlichen Menschen” for philosophers. He defines what he terms “the actual philosophers” by the fact that their cognition is creation: “Ihr Erkennen ist Schaffen” (KSA 5, 144f.).

Here and now, I can only begin to share glimpses of the artist-philosopher according to Nietzsche. What he has written on the contexts of that concept is so rich and varied that any selection can only remain random in a lecture as short as this. I am hoping that maybe a “song of sentence-ideas”, or what Nietzsche himself referred to as “musikalische Stimmung” (KSA 1, 43) will stick for one of the artists present – an influence, which, as Roland Barthes put it, can be “merely prosodic”. (For this reason, I will be quoting Nietzsche in the original German.)

There is, however, only one instance in Nietzsche’s writing where the term „artist-philosopher“ itself appears: in his estate, in a note from the autumn of 1885:

— Vielleicht eine Fortsetzung: der Künstler-Philosoph (bisher Wissenschaftlichkeit, Stellung zur Religion und Politik erwähnt): höherer Begriff der Kunst. Ob der Mensch sich so fern stellen kann von den anderen Menschen, um an ihnen zu gestalten?

A next step even from this follows a mere year later in Beyond Good and Evil, in the definition of the philosopher of the future as someone who not only creatively works on other people, but on himself or herself:

44. Brauche ich nach alledem noch eigens zu sagen, dass auch sie freie, sehr freie Geister sein werden, diese Philosophen der Zukunft, — so gewiss sie auch nicht bloss freie Geister sein werden, sondern etwas Mehreres, Höheres, Grösseres und Gründlich-Anderes, das nicht verkannt und verwechselt werden will? […] die Nivellirer, diese fälschlich genannten „freien Geister“ […] das Leiden selbst wird von ihnen als Etwas genommen, das man abschaffen muss. Wir Umgekehrten… (60f.)

In a re-evaluation of what was so far known as free spirits, Nietzsche here names the unconditional affirmation of suffering as condition of their great creative power – whilst even “wir freien Geister” in the new, true meaning of the term – is only a preliminary stage of the philosopher of the future.

I will aim to present fragments that, to him, constitute such a free spirit: playfulness, laughter, love and, above all, the unconditional will to experiment. The artist-philosopher’s thought according to Nietzsche is always anti-utilitarian and non-teleological, rarely logical and never finished or perfected, often contradicting itself. He or she is not at all objective, nor “der rein Erkennende”, incapable of action, but the opposite of a typical “deutscher Gelehrter”, whom Nietzsche referred to as “Bildungsphilister” motivated solely by the accumulation of dead knowledge for the sake of his own standing.

However, “cognition is consequent upon feeling” (Ridley, 229), emotion is primary to thought. It outlasts the latter, reaching further than language, as Nietzsche writes in Die fröhliche Wissenschaft (KSA 3, 502): ‘Gedanken sind die Schatten unserer Empfindungen, – immer dunkler, leerer, einfacher, als diese.’ Consequently, in contrast to any would-be objective scholar or philologist devoted to some knowable, secure truth, the artist-philosopher literally puts his or her life on the line, in a reckless „Selbstversuch“ to make their own life a work of art. He or she is “ein Baumeister der Zukunft”, as only “Wissende der Gegenwart” can be; his or her thought is not only thought-provoking, but has a direct effect on “Leben und Handeln”, it is performative, as in this motif of the dance as the art of the new philosopher:

Wir sind etwas Anderes als Gelehrte: obwohl es nicht zu umgehn ist, dass wir auch, unter Anderem, gelehrt sind. Wir haben andre Bedürfnisse, ein andres Wachsthum, eine andre Verdauung: wir brauchen mehr, wir brauchen auch weniger. […] ich wüsste nicht, was der Geist eines Philosophen mehr zu sein wünschte, als ein guter Tänzer. Der Tanz nämlich ist sein Ideal, auch seine Kunst, zuletzt auch seine einzige Frömmigkeit, sein „Gottesdienst“…

Hence, the philosopher of the future seems to engage in a ZirkusArtistenmetaphysik rather than strictly an artist’s philosophy – a tightrope walk between the limits of what is thinkable, above and beyond the abyss of the unknowable truth which he or she still needs to be aware of at all times. Life itself is the tightrope, life as a means to cognition:

„Das Leben ein Mittel der Erkenntniss“ — mit diesem Grundsatze im Herzen kann man nicht nur tapfer, sondern sogar fröhlich leben und fröhlich lachen ! (FRÖ 324, “In media vita”; KSA 3, 552).

The bar which he holds on to for balance on that tightrope is called illusion. Any clinging to fixed “truths” is not merely hostile to the life of the mind, in terms of the exchange of free flowing ideas. It is not merely hostile to actual, individual human lives, which are taken in acts of terror out of the insane motivation to guard what one believes to be the only truth out there. It is also hostile to all human life itself because, to Nietzsche, the fact is that nature is cruel and the universe meaningless, and to fully see that would rob us humans of the will to live. That will to life, however, is what needs to be preserved and encouraged at all costs.

Hence, we have to make sense of our world on our own, we have to give it meaning ourselves – all the while, however, in the full awareness that our “truths” are, in fact, illusions. The philosopher of the future needs to wake up from the “Wahn der Contemplativen”: the delusion of being a mere spectator of the drama of life, merely regarding it; when in fact he or she is its creator, hence, Nietzsche locates the vis contemplativa within the midst of life itself, in media vita, giving it the additional term vis creativa. Those living the vita activa to Nietzsche are mere actors; philosophers, however, the poets of life, creating the world: “Wir erst haben die Welt, die den Menschen etwas angeht, geschaffen!” (FW 302; 3, 540).

However, philosophers still have to learn from the artist, namely, to create the means to make things beautiful and attractive….look at them form a distance, represent them, learn all of that from the artist, but be wiser all the same and include life in all of that: “wir aber wollen die Dichter unseres Lebens sein, und im Kleinsten und Alltäglichsten zuerst“ (FW 299).

“Der schöne Schein der Traumwelten”, Nietzsche writes as early as 1871, “in deren Erzeugung jeder Mensch voller Künstler ist, ist die Voraussetzung aller bildenden Kunst, ja auch, wie wir sehen werden, einer wichtigen Hälfte der Poesie” (KSA 1, 26). This passage stems of course from Die Geburt der Tragödie aus dem Geiste der Musik, dedicated to Richard Wagner. It is famous for its “Belehrung, dass ich von der Kunst als der höchsten Aufgabe und der eigentlich metaphysischen Thätigkeit dieses Lebens […] überzeugt bin.” This “insight into the indispensability of art” (Chandler 296) which Nietzsche in retrospect, in the 1886 preface to that book, derogatorily called his “Artistenmetaphysik”, however, did not yet make him practice what he preached:

Sie hätte singen sollen, diese ‘neue Seele’ — und nicht reden! Wie schade, dass ich, was ich damals zu sagen hatte, es nicht als Dichter zu sagen wagte: Ich hätte es vielleicht g e k o n n t ! (KSA 1, 15).

Although Nietzsche was always rather critical about this book, which was his first book, he still defends its content, or rather, the idea behind the term “Artistenmetaphysik”: the daring refusal to let our existence continue to be judged morally. Morality itself, he claims, is sent back into the world of appearances for the very first time here; moreover, it is not only an “Erscheinung”, as in “phenomenon”, it is rather a “Täuschung” and therefore “Schein”.

It is true that to Nietzsche, “Schein, Kunst, Täuschung, Optik”, are the very basis of life itself – provided they admit to, and embrace, what they are. Hence, Nietzsche’s instinct comes to the rescue in the form of his “rein artistische Gegenlehre”, “als ein fürsprechender Instinkt des Lebens”; hence, Nietzsche the Anti-Christ – as Christianity to him is “nur moralisch” and, thus, hostile to life. Morality is the dark twin of illusion, as it is a lie claiming to be a truth. This anti-moral, anti-Christian stance, which the older Nietzsche sees as his first book’s most important achievement, is stressed further when, at the end of his “Selbstkritik”, he denies the possibility of any metaphysical, or Christian, solace:

Nein! Ihr solltet vorerst die Kunst des diesseitigen Trostes lernen, — ihr solltet lachen lernen, meine jungen Freunde […] vielleicht dass ihr darauf hin, als Lachende, irgendwann einmal alle metaphysische Trösterei zum Teufel schickt — und die Metaphysik voran!

It is evident by now that ‘Verwandlung’, both as the central aspect of the creative process as well as in the demand for constant ‘Selbst-Ueberwindung’ (KSA 4, 148), is one of the most essential Nietzschean ideas when it comes to envisaging the philosopher of the future. He possessed, or was possessed by, a spiritual, ‘fragelose Hingabe’ and, in his capacity as ‘Verwandler von Schmerz und Leid’, was driven by it to the last consequence, as in Ernst Bertram’s verdict on Nietzsche: ‘Krankheit und ihre Bejahung ist für […ihn] ein Stachel hinauf, und Angelhaken der Erkenntnis’ (152).

Once more, however, the human being behind the great artist is testimony to his sacrifice. There is a split tearing Nietzsche from his alter ego: Zarathustra’s warning that ‘die Dichter zuviel lügen’ (KSA 4, 163) indeed applies to Nietzsche, who wrote in the winter of 1882/1883 while creating Zarathustra, a figure who defiantly calls ‘da capo!’ to life,

Ich will das Leben nicht wieder. Wie habe ich’s ertragen? Schaffend. Was macht mich den Anblick aushalten? der Blick auf den Übermenschen, der das Leben bejaht. Ich habe versucht, es selber zu bejahen – Ach! (KSA 10, 137).

In the context of such inhuman hardness displayed by the artist-philosopher, Erich Heller asks ‘why [he] came to undertake such a stupendous labor of thought and feeling’ (112) immediately solving the riddle: ‘The answer was given […] by Nietzsche: because God is dead.’ Around the time of Zarathustra, his creator noted: ‘Wer das Grosse nicht mehr in Gott findet, findet es überhaupt nicht mehr – er muss es leugnen oder schaffen’ (105); and soon, defining suffering as the purest form of ‘Verwandlung’, he had devised of a way how: ‘Ideal bilden, d. h. seinen Teufel zu seinem Gotte umschaffen. Und dazu muß man erst seinen Teufel geschaffen haben’ (KSA 10, 26).

Indeed, Nietzsche-Zarathustra’s demand of himself to ascend ‘auf deinen eigenen Kopf und hinweg über dein eigenes Herz!’ (KSA 4, 194) means nothing less than the demand for the ego to become identical with its self-alienation (Görner 2004, 176). Thus, Nietzsche was driven to create a world as a substitute for the now useless one once made by God. Ultimately, and above all as artist-philosopher, he believed in illusions much more than in the notion of ‘truth’: ‘Die “scheinbare” Welt ist die Einzige: Die “wahre Welt” ist nur hinzugelogen…’; Twilight of the Idols, KSA 6, 75).

Mein weiteres Leben ist die Consequenz. Künstler (Schaffender), Heiliger (Liebender) und Philosoph (Erkennender) in Einer Person zu werden: — mein praktisches Ziel ! (Autumn 1883, KSA 10, 501).

The traditional ideal of the philosopher is replaced by the free spirit, the redeemer of morality, who fathoms the illogical nature of existence; that of the artistic genius is replaced by the human being who creates the new human being above and beyond him- or herself (against an art that is all about works of art; 503).

“In his writing he struggles to bring these conflicting functions together in an agonism of forms. To know and face the truth, to submit consciously and willingly to the lie, and to bring these two inimical necessities into the creative tension of art, this is Nietzsche’s solution, his path ‚zum neuen „Ja“:’

Kunst ist wesentlich Bejahung, Segnung, Vergöttlichung des Daseins (KSA 13, 241, Spring 1888).

“This is the task and meaning of the artist-philosopher” (Chandler, 297): to affirm all that is this earthly life, including pain: ‘Weh spricht: Vergeh!/ Doch alle Lust will Ewigkeit –,/ – will tiefe, tiefe Ewigkeit!’ (KSA 4, 404). This is from the “Nachtwandler-Lied” in Thus spoke Zarathustra, all of which, his creator states, can be reckoned as music. And so, here is a book that finally does sing, unlike his first, The Birth of Tragedy.

Again: it is an understatement to say there is much Nietzsche has said about the artist-philosopher…and about art and philosophy, let alone about artists and philosophers…and the domains traditionally ascribed to them, respectively: truth and beauty. Between the three distinct phases of his oeuvre, his statements on those subjects vary and, of course, him being Nietzsche, contradict each other more often than not. Here and now, I have only been able to give a glimpse of the rich material we have to work with, in the hope that this ART-LAB will provide a literal room for discussion or a sounding-board where we can be midwives for one another’s thoughts, as Nietzsche put it: “Der Eine sucht einen Geburtshelfer für seine Gedanken, der Andre Einen, dem er helfen kann: so entsteht ein gutes Gespräch” (JGB 136). So, why is an attempt at a philosophy of the future still necessary, why is it still tempting? Because today, perhaps more so than ever, we need an antidote to barbarism. We need “ein gutes Gespräch”.


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