Monday, July 9, 2007

On Necessary Artifice

Rarely will I post an excerpt, poem or tidbit without any sort of context or commentary of my own. But I've had an emotionally exhausting day. I will leave it to someone more respected and more widely read to explain why.

Whoever guesses something of the consequences of any deep suspicion, something of the chills and fears stemming from isolation, to which every man burdened with an unconditional difference of viewpoint is condemned, this person will understand how often I tried to take shelter somewhere, to recover from myself, as if to forget myself entirely for a time (in some sort of reverence, or enmity, or scholarliness, or frivolity, or stupidity); and he will also understand why, when I could not find what I needed, I had to gain it by force artificially, to counterfeit it, or create it poetically. (And what have poets ever done otherwise? And why else do we have all the art in the world?) What I always needed most to cure and restore myself, however, was the belief that I was not the only one to be thus, to see thus--I needed the enchanting intuition of kinship and equality in the eye and in desire, repose in a trusted friendship; I needed a shared blindness, with no suspicion or question marks, a pleasure in foregrounds, surfaces, what is near, what is nearest, in everything that has color, skin, appearance. Perhaps one could accuse me in this regard of some sort of "art," various sorts of finer counterfeiting: [...]. But even if this all were true and I were accused of it with good reason, what do you know, what could you know about the amount of self-preserving cunning, or reason and higher protection that is contained in such self-deception--and how much falseness I still require so that I may keep permitting myself the luxury of my truthfulness?...Enough, I am still alive.

- Nietzsche, from "Human, All Too Human"


  1. I have to admit I have only the vaguest idea of what he's talking about. Is it something to do with smiling and nodding politely when people say things you don't agree with, because being confrontational and isolated all the time is extremely difficult?

    Wow. I wonder if Nietzsche is this hard to understand in the original German. You can see a lot of the bass-ackwards German phrasing showing through in this translation, too...

    Whatever gave you a rough day, Ali, I hope you're well past it now! :-)

  2. Jeff, This is from N's preface to his work, "Human, All Too Human"--what I believe he's talking about is the measure of "less than truthfulness" that is necessary in order to mitigate the harsh light of uncompromising skepticism (something N is notorious for). I think all great minds have a certain self-awareness that itself can become a burden. Here, N discusses how his need for intimate and trusting friendship is contrary to his fundamentally "suspicious" philosophical nature, and so these friendships often require him (and perhaps the other person, as well, if they too tend to be analytical and skeptical) to turn a mutual "blind eye" to the imperfections and contradictions, in order to provide one another with a safe haven in which they can "forget themselves entirely." I don't think it's so simple as nodding and smiling politely when you don't agree. Instead, I feel as though the heart of this idea is about art itself. I'm reminded of the movie "V for Vendetta" in which Evey says, "My father said artists use lies to tell the truth, and politicians use them to cover the truth up." When Nietzsche talks about how, in some ways, he had to invent the trusted friendships--how he took refuge and pleasure in "foregrounds, surfaces, what is near, what is nearest, in everything that has color, skin, appearance"--what he is talking about is poetry, what he calls art or "counterfeit"--the direct experience of the world as elevated and brought into almost unnaturally sharp focus. He is well aware that these things are, in some way, idealized and constructed, and as a person who spent his life tearing down and analyzing constructs (especially when it came to Christianity), I think in his more self-aware moments, he finds it hard to justify his own need for a constructed refuge. But at the same time, he also acknowledges that this "art" is what allows him "the luxury of truthfulness"--that it is not merely self-deception, but a poetry that "uses lies to tell the truth."

    Recently, a close high school friend of mine wrote me an angry letter because he felt I'd been ignoring him. In it, he accused me of being "delusional" about my friendship with my ex-boyfriend (who has become, since our break-up, my best friend). The very same day I received that letter, my best friend/ex mentioned to me that he had started reading Nietzsche's "Human, All Too Human" and that he thought I really needed to read it. I can see why. I relate very strongly to this tension between a drive for truthfulness and careful analysis, and a need for a refuge from my own relentlessness. I have struggled in my friendships for the very reason that those closest to me feel that I "hold nothing sacred," so to speak, and anything is fair game for questioning and doubt, including our friendship (and it's often hard to convince them that it is, in fact, the opposite--that I hold everything to be sacred, and that my questioning itself is a process of love whereby I seek a truer intimacy).

    I ended this quote with N's self-interruption, "Enough, I am still alive," because sometimes that is the simple, fundamental truth that can bring self-analysis to an abrupt stop. But the first part of this preface actually goes on a bit longer, and N talks about how it is impossible to judge "self-deception" as either good or bad, in the traditional moral sense (a view which is, in the end, the very thing that sets him apart and exacerbates his sense of isolation, as so few people can function within such a viewpoint). In this preface to yet another work of analysis and skepticism, I imagine him laughing a little at himself as he writes, "but wouldn't you know it? Here I am, beginning again, doing what I have always done, the old immoralist and birdcatcher, I am speaking immorally, extra-morally, 'beyond good and evil.'"

  3. By the way, if you happen to read German (I don't), here is the work in its original. It's my understanding that N's language is highly poetic and makes a great use of subtle puns and plays on words and phrases, even subverting or undermining common catch-phrases within the German language. Of course, this makes translation is incredibly difficult. I'm not sure if some of the awkward phrasing in the English version is a result of translation, or reflects the ambiguous or multi-faceted meanings of N's original writing.

    This is why I love philosophy. I could be so horribly wrong. ;)

  4. I think I understand now. What you’re describing – this need to analyze -- absolutely hamstrung my relationships for years and years.

    In relationships, I tended not to jump to any conclusions, but to examine everything critically; I had no intuition about people at all, and had to work everything out painstakingly. As a result, I was a complete social oaf.

    Nowadays I do have intuitions about relationships, but they’re all built solidly on years of analysis. When I get a “feeling” about someone – that they’ve just undergone a loss, or something is bothering them, etc. – I’m able to say exactly what the clues were and why they led me to that conclusion. I can also use the same tools on myself, which is handy. My wife says I’m by far the most introspective person she’s ever heard of.

    And this knowledge leads me to use artifice. I know that simply speaking my mind directly, without modulating the words or the tone, will make me sound horribly analytical. Of course, I’m not a cold robot, I have emotions to express too; but if I just let them spew out without modulation, frequently I’m just incoherent. :-) So I use artifice to get my meaning across. It’s something that’s absolutely necessary when you’re dealing with someone in emotional distress, because they can’t handle cold analysis. It’s also vital for dealing with children, because, of course, they can’t handle cold analysis either.

    So in many many cases, artifice is necessary to get your meaning across. Bland truth will be understood as heartless (when it’s not intended), and raw emotion will be incoherent. You have to step back from both, mix them carefully, and deliver in measure, in order to get both aspects of meaning across. So artifice is necessary to communicate truth. Do you find that?

    On to translation --

    The convolutions are definitely in the original; here’s my very-nearly-word-for-word translation:

    …anyone who guesses something of the consequences, which is in these suspicions, something of the chills and fears of the isolation, to whom anyone burdened with a difference of opinion is condemned, will also understand, how often I to my shelter, to forget myself, somewhat tried to go to recover -- in something like reverence, or enmity, or scholarliness, or frivolity, or stupidity; and also why I, when I do not find what I need, I had to gain by craft, counterfeit, or poetry ( -- and what have poets ever done differently? And why else would we have all the art in the world?).

    My very-nearly-word-for-word translation isn’t much worse than the translation you quoted. It seems to me that a lot of those convolutions could be flattened out without losing the meaning or even Nietzsche’s “voice”. They are convolutions that are more part of German syntax than anything else, and it’s reasonable to think that if he’d been writing in English, he would have flattened them himself. Here’s my stab at it, probably with a little more paraphrasing than is strictly called for:

    Anyone burdened with a difference of opinion is condemned to the chills and fears of isolation; and anyone who guesses something of these consequences will also understand how often I’ve tried to recover by going to a shelter of self-forgetfulness – a shelter like reverence, or enmity, or scholarliness, or frivolity, or stupidity; and also why I have, at need, resorted to craft, counterfeit, or poetry ( -- and what have poets ever done differently? And why else would we have all the art in the world?)