On Nietzsche's 'The Gay Science'

Posted on 23 Sep 2003

Editor’s Note: Page numbers below refer to pages within the book ‘Existentialism: Basic Writings’, but the number given after the page number is the section number of the book, which should make it easy to find the topic under discussion in any other version of the text (although translations may differ - such as Nietzsche’s coining of ‘fatherlandery’, which seems to be translated simply to ‘patriotism’ in other texts).

Nietzsche subtly avoids a description of who he is in his work. He spends much of his time deconstructing belief systems, and in doing so masks who he is saying that he is. Is Nietzsche a Nazi? A fascist? A social darwinist? How could we mistake him for one of these when he denies each in his writing? He speaks loudly against those who “lose themselves in pitiful nooks and crannies, for instance in fatherlandery…what…in Germany is called “German”…”. (pg 154, 347) This “fatherlandery” is the uprise of a national pride that would later succumb to fascism after Nietzsche’s death. Throughout “The Gay Science” Nietzsche pulls apart systems or social forms, any absolute that people cling to. This includes any kind of religious or political system that attracts followers.

His philosophy is as against the principles behind fascism as it is against those of Christianity. He sees those who need religion as not facing up to the reality that the need for absolutism has died away. Their need for faith is a sign of weakness of the will. He even goes so far as saying that the rise of Christianity and Buddhism “…may be an immense sickness of the will.” (pg 155, 347) The sickness that he sees comes from people’s inability to comprehend that God has died. They are still holding on to systems that have been proven false. Any sort of fanaticism to a cause shows weakness, the weak are attracted to it because “…fanaticism is the only “strength of will” to which even the weak and insecure can be brought, as a sort of hypnotism… Christians call it their faith.” (pg 155, 347)

So can we simply define Nietzsche as faithless? He has certainly lost faith in the standard cultural systems. Is he then simply a nihilist? But here is another categorization which he denies right in the text. He warns us against slipping into nihilism. He sees it looming there, and sees it as something of a transitional phase that we may have to go through in order to reach where he is coming from. It is a paradigm shift away from our current mode of thought that he is trying to get us to. Our ideas have been shaken down to their foundations and need to be rebuilt.

He goes through system after system, attacking it and pulling it apart at its weakest points, but what are we left with when he is done? “[T]hat the world is not worth what we believed it was, is about the surest thing that our mistrust has finally grasped.” (pg 153, 346)

We are left swinging over an abyss. A void of nothingness into which all of our ideas of permanence have fallen away. This void is the “real” state of the world. Coming to this realization after “awakening” from the illusion of permanence it is something of a shock to the system. Our overriding philosophy risks falling into hopelessness because we feel helpless and lost without our old systems to hold on to.

Aren’t we forgetting something here though? Life strives to preserve itself. There is obviously a will to live ingrained within us. Nietzsche, the Social Darwinist? He criticizes even that idea, saying that Darwinism is a “crude… one-sided doctrine”. (pg 157, 349) He blames those who believe in such ideas as having ancestors who had trouble surviving, and thus adopted the idea of Darwinism to justify their situation. He says English Darwinism is “…reeking of small people and their cramped needs.” (pg 157, 349) The English social situation gave rise to ideas that the herd clings-to to describe how things “really are”. Nietzsche sees Darwin as one sided because we see ourselves as the only things with the will to live. Nietzsche sees this will as more universal. “The struggle for existence is only an exception, a temporary restriction of the will to live…” (pg 157, 349)

We have already shattered any objective reality by denying God or any absolutes, so there is no other reality than this one. The world of surface and appearance is all we have. Our whole quest for knowledge, the desire to know and understand is prompted by the “instinct of fear”. (pg 161, 355) All we are trying to do is avoid being harmed, to keep ourselves alive. Knowledge then, is reduced to the function of translating “something strange… explained in terms of something familiar.” (pg 160-161, 355)

What makes this a drastic shift away from the philosophy of old is that Nietzsche isn’t really attacking weaknesses in systems from within. Kurt Gödel discovered flaws within Bertrand Russell’s system of logic, and proved that logic could never be a complete system. Logical systems are based on assumptions that cannot answered from within the system. As Nietzsche puts it “…the human intellect cannot help seeing itself under its own perspectival forms, and only in them. We cannot see around our own corner.” (pg 166, 374) All of the things that we’ve built to describe the world around us are simply this - trying to see around our own corner.

This is not, after all, an attack on just systems of philosophy. This is an attack on our entire way of thinking. Nietzsche is taking a shift in the view of the very inner workings of our consciousness. “Consciousness does not really belong to the individual existence of human beings, but rather to the social and herd nature in them… consciousness is subtly developed only in regards to social and herd usefulness… “to know thyself” will always just bring to one’s consciousness precisely what is not individual in one, what is “average”…” (pg 160, 354) Our inner emotions cannot be communicated. This is a very similar to Kierkegaard’s silent faith, but is also a world away. Kierkegaard was still clinging to a greater reality outside of our own instead of realizing that there was nothing outside of it. Nietzsche speaks very highly of life’s “ambiguous character”. (pg 166, 373) It is that very ambiguity that Kierkegaard’s faith is trying to explain. Nietzsche sees it as foolishness to need an explanation. Any explanation you can give is going to be turned into drivel by the very magic act of putting it into thoughts of the herd. He has a mistrust of consciousness because “everything that becomes conscious becomes, by the same token, shallow, thin, relatively stupid, general, a sign, a signal of the herd…” (pg 160, 354)

What Nietzsche’s overriding philosophy seems to be is doubt. Doubt any system that ties you into believing that it is the only way to truth. Our only responsibility is to “become who you are”. (pg 142, 270) But it would seem that all of his talk here is in the negative, telling us what we aren’t instead of anything about what we are. What are we to become? We are to become embracers of life. At the end of the dark tunnel of our nihilism we find freedom in an unexpected form. All these binary oppositions based on the illusion of absolute ideals have collapsed. Right and wrong are standing on their head and we are free to live in our respective strengths and weaknesses in “style”. We “…fit them all into an artistic plan, until each thing appears as art and reason, and even weakness charms the eye.” (pg 144, 290) It is this style or way in which we live our lives that becomes more important than the actual content of our lives. We are a process and not a static thing.

“We are wary, we moderns, of all ultimate convictions.” (pg 167, 375) We make meaning; it is a story made by our consciousness, by what Nietzsche refers to as the “genius of the species”. (pg 358, 154) The Gay Science is Lewis Carroll’s white rabbit tempting Alice further down the rabbit hole. Nietzsche takes apart everything we know and then puts us shakily back down on our feet. We can’t help but become what we are, that is all we will ever be. So we must embrace life and have “Amor fati” (love of one’s fate). (pg 143, 276)

“…[T]he secret to reaping the greatest fruitfulness and the greatest enjoyment from existence is to live dangerously!” (pg 143, 283) That is not to say foolishly. But there is so much more to it than this. I’m just hinting at hints of his hints. All of a sudden, this void, this abyss of nihilism is filled again. But this time we haven’t filled it with the static dogma of belief systems of the absolute. Now it is a chaotic, unsure world full of possibility.

Thus Nietzsche finally reveals himself for what he is, a Dionysian pessimist. (pg 165, 370) His original thoughts about the Dionysian character in “The Birth of Tragedy” have been tempered by his later realizations, so he is still clinging to the Dionysian passion for life but is no longer tied to that idea as an absolute end in itself. We need to live life like it is an art, but to have our art spring from bounty and not hunger. (pg 164, 370)


comments powered by Disqus