Thomas J. Harrison nietzsche, heidegger, and the language of contemporary italian poetry I. The Language of Philomela



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Thomas J. Harrison
NIETZSCHE, HEIDEGGER, AND THE LANGUAGE OF CONTEMPORARY ITALIAN POETRY

I. The Language of Philomela

      The myth of Philomela, transformed into a nightingale in Ovid's Metamorphoses , recounts the genesis of poetic language. Abducted and ravished by the cunning king Tereus, Philomela still has a hope to redeem her despair--by voicing her misfortune to others. She cries:



If those on high behold these things, if there are any gods, if anything is left, not lost as I am, what punishment you will pay me, late or soon! Now that I have no shame, I will proclaim it. Given the chance, I will go where people are, tell everybody; if you shut me here, I will move the very woods and rocks to pity. The air of Heaven will hear, and any god, if there is any god in Heaven, will hear me.

The words had their effect, Ovid writes. The cruel king

seized her tongue with pincers, though it cried against the outrage, babbled and made a sound something like Father, till the sword cut it off. (1)

The threat of the Orphic word, moving the very woods and rocks to pity, is annulled by butchering the means of utterance. She who would proclaim an enormity in public must lose her tongue. The lying Tereus will allow no categorical statement of the truth.

      "Kata-agoreuein," explains Martin Heidegger in one of his lesser known [end p.19] texts, "means to accuse someone to his face in the agora , the open court, of being 'the very one who....' From that comes the broader meaning:   to speak about something as this or that, so that in and through our speaking the thing we speak about is put forth into the public view, into the open, as manifest." (2) Categorical expressions predicate "that which is the case." Yet even Ludwig Wittgenstein, who opens his Tractatus with this phrase, knew that the poet is denied this mode of articulation. If it is a matter of seizing truth in a proposition, the poet must fall silent, lest he be called a liar.

      In such a silence lies the possibility of a new language. In fact, according to Heidegger, "a resounding of the authentic word can spring forth only from silence." (3) Wordless exile gives birth to poetry. Poetry explores what has been hidden, unarticulated by everyday language. It takes Philomela a year to voice the story of her rape. What she learns is to recount it in the textile of a loom, relating it in the relations of stitchwork. Having lost her lexis, she weaves a new tapestry of sense. Her "second language" is that of the text.

      Ovid has not ignored this progression from word to the exile of silence to a higher order of saying. In this story common words betray. Tereus begins by deceiving Philomela's father, Pandion. Hearing his pleas to bring Philomela home safely, Tereus remains deaf to them: He knows the power of words and guards himself against them. Once he has raped and abandoned Philomela to her silence, he returns to tell Procne "some kind of story" about a mishap that has befallen her sister on the journey. But finally, it is none other than Tereus himself who is the victim of words as he seeks his son. "Itys! Itys!" he cries and falls back into silence, eating his child who has been morseled and served to him on a dish. Tereus is already fourth in line: Pandion's appeal on behalf of Philomela ends with his voice breaking, as an [end p. 20] unspeakable foreboding gets the better of his words. Philomela's threat to reach the ears of the gods with her accusation leaves her tongueless. When the textile is brought to Procne, "unrolled and understood," as Ovid writes, "Procne said nothing." She, like Philomela, will have her say by indirection: "How like his father he is!" she thinks when she sees Itys, and the thought will make her kill him. Her action, like Philomela's, is governed by an obligue semantics, by a showing rather than a stating.

      Philomela's discovery is logos. Originally "relation" or "analogy," logos is from legein , to collect or gather: "to bring various dispersed things together into a unity and at the same time to bring this unity forth and hand it over ... into the unhiddenness of becoming-present." (4) To follow this Heideggerian lead, two things must be emphasized: 1) The binding or correlative nature of logos, 2) The bringing forth of this unity, or the manifestation of the becoming of becoming-present. This disclosive textuality is what is lacking in the language of predication. Predication ( kata-agoreuein ) makes sense only when something is already visible within a horizon of significance; it refers to a thing exposed to view. Art, on the other hand, brings an unseen unity to presence by textualizing it anew. The work is a context first constituting a vision. Accordingly, logos doesn't designate, it shows:

Showing makes something come to light, lets what has come to light be perceived, and lets the perception be examined. The kinship of Showing with what it shows ... later becomes transformed into a conventional relation between a sign and its signification.... Designation is no longer a showing in the sense of bringing something to light. (5) [21] The light and the lit of the art work are one. The "signs" of the tapestry are a result of the stitchwork. Indeed, once the signified can be distinguished from the signifier, language no longer possesses that unity of saying and the said through which the unsaid is said.

      Heidegger's "The Origin of the Work of Art" advances an argument whose unspoken conclusion might be formulated thus: Art, the second language, bespeaks its origin. It does not simply refer to things in a way in which they have never before been seen; it shows the coming-to-be of sense. And it does so by bringing into view the differential movement between absence and presence, concealment and visibility, unsaid and said, which is the ground of predicative language. This difference is ultimately to be traced back to Heidegger's analysis of Dasein in Being and Time . As Dasein, man is not a subject confronting objects but a being-there which bridges and hence "presences" distances Dasein is a pull. "To the extent that man is in this pull, he points towards what withdraws ... drawn into what withdraws, pulled towards it and thus pointing into the withdrawal ... man is a sign." (6) To go even further, we could say that man is a metaphor (from metapherein , to transfer): a carrying-over of presence into absence and vice versa by means of which intelligibility first occurs. Man is "an 'excess' which makes possible 'access.'" (7) Being is a matter of logos and logos is metaphorical kinesis. Art--metaphorical disclosure--is ultimately the disclosure of metaphor. It arises from the struggle between concealment and unconcealment at the very moment that it embodies this dynamic as its final word. Poetry is a language "which, in preparing the sayable, simultaneously brings the unsayable as such into a world." (8) By projecting its vision beyond "that which is the case," it occasions a strife between the [end p. 22] manifestness of the "world" and the recessiveness of the "earth" and embodies that strife in the work.

      This seeing or harkening beyond is what Heidegger means by his metaphor of the Lichtung of truth, where "in the midst of beings as a whole an open place occurs. There is a clearing, a lighting." (9)

      If the art work shows such a clearing of truth it is because of its createdness. This does not mean that it is "the 'N.N. fecit' that is to be made known" by a work of art. "Rather, the simple 'factum est' is to be held forth into the open region by the work: namely ... that unconcealedness of a being has happened here, and that as this happening it happens here for the first time; or, that such a work is at all rather than is not." (10) Unlike a utensil, the essence of which lies in its use, the art work points to its createdness as to the very essence of its meaning. Createdness houses the "self-reflexivity" of the coming-to-be of sense. Art makes sense because it announces itself as a making sense; making sense is its arche , its origin, but also its object, or that which it makes sense of .

      These are some of the considerations raised by Heidegger and--sometimes directly, sometimes indirectly--by this anthology. This does not mean that its poetry is deliberately "Heideggerian." However, even if these poets ignored Heidegger, such principles would still hold as a type of unsaid condition of their poetic activity. The climate of contemporary Italian poetry has been prepared--one is even tempted to say overprepared--not only by the masters of modern verse but also by the theories of the word which have led up to and developed from those of Heidegger (including especially the work of Jacques Derrida, Hans-Georg Gadamer, Jacques Lacan, and Gianni Vat­timo). While the post-Heideggerians themselves have been a daily source of rewritings and rereadings of poetry, here the task is rather to retrieve Heidegger himself as the threshold of new theories and [end p. 23] acts of poetry. But to understand Heidegger means to consider not only his future but also his past. This past involves Friedrich Nietzsche and, at least as a gloss on effability, Søren Kierkegaard.

II. Silence and the Word

      A hundred years before Heidegger's essay "On the Essence of Truth," Kierkegaard raised a dreadful linguistic question on behalf of the Biblical Abraham: How can one speak of an experience which eludes the clench of language? Of that whereof one must remain silent? Language, even the language of art, has no words for what is individual. "So soon as I talk I express the universal, and if I do not do so, no one can understand me." (11) I make myself understood, Wittgenstein would say, by the fact that my meanings are shared by others. And since a private language is impossible, the individual has none. "Humanly speaking he is crazy and cannot make himself intelligible to anyone." (12)

      Friedrich Nietzsche's case against language is equally nominalistic: "Fundamentally, all our actions are altogether incomparably personal, unique, and infinitely individual ... but as soon as we translate them into consciousness they no longer seem to be. " (13) Consciousness is equivalent to language: a net of communication allowing men to speak not of the singular but only of the "average."

For both Kierkegaard and Nietzsche language is an arbitrary scheme imposed upon reality to make it recognizable. Grammar, that "metaphysics of the people" as Nietzsche called it, can never capture truth within its discourse. Otherwise said, what is propositionally the case is never the case. Nor are poets, the "manipulators" of language, immune to these charges. The reason we have art is so as not to perish from the truth. "What does being a poet mean?" Kierkegaard asks. "It means... being [end p. 24] related to the ideal in imagination only, so that one's own personal life is more or less a satire on poetry and on oneself." (14) Poets are clamorous self-deceivers; truth keeps quiet.

      Yet Zarathustra's malice and art is that his silence has learned not to betray itself through reticence. (15) Johannes DE SILENTIO, the pseudonymous author of Fear and Trembling , also alludes to a possible Aufhebung of speechlessness: "Silence is the snare of the demon, and the more one keeps silent, the more terrifying the demon becomes; but silence is also the mutual understanding between the Deity and the individual." (16) If Kierkegaard and Nietzsche voice their silence it is only by means of an anti-language. Kierkegaard devises an art of indirection. Capturing the good faith of the reader by addressing him in familiar categories of discourse, he suddenly leaves him in the lurch by abandoning those categories. His writing is oblique. When he deigns to be direct his statements are paradoxical and self-parodical, as in the opening sentence of The Sickness unto Death : "The self is a relation which relates itself to its own self, or it is that in the relation that the relation relates itself to its own self; the self is not the relation but that the relation relates itself to its own self." Nietzsche's central tactic, as Heidegger first noticed, is to say the very opposite of what one expects. He enlists language in a battle against its own claims. On the other hand, he exploits its charms to seduce or to provoke the reader. Here language is deliberately rhetorical, a mask painted in the brightest of colors. Proliferating these masks, Nietzsche spins out his aphorisms in a skein of epiphanies and a tangle of differences. Ostensibly complete in themselves, all announcements are contextualized by the web in which they are caught.

      Nietzsche and Kierkegaard thus say the unsayable. By respecting [end p. 25] the ineffability of the "sublime," talking around it, showing how language is unable to lay hands on it, they establish the void of unsayable truth at the center of their discourse. This absential presence distinguishes their language as poetic. For poetry is subject to a tragic paradox: knowing the frailty of its language, it persists in its quest for disclosure. It hopes to turn the lie of the word into truth. And if it establishes truth it is only through the deceptions of language. If there is something "sacred" here, as Heidegger suggests (and Nanni Cagnone then questions on page 60), it is perhaps nothing more than the fact that the most meaningful word is granted from an abyss--an abyss threat­ening to suck all words back into its silence. Poetry is the dreadful gift of a "disdainful mercy" (as Conrad said of the sea). "The poet purchases the power of words, the power of uttering all the dread secrets of others, at the price of a little secret he is unable to utter ... and a poet is not an apostle, he casts out devils only the power of the devil." (17)

      Kierkegaard and Nietzsche are caught in the poetic dilemma. They are "outlaws" of language, existing in exile from its shelter. For them the language game is a no-language game: that of entering linguistic structures as non-linguistic participants. And he who has no language will use them all. He will make forays into their camps, confound their plans, and quickly escape back into his own outsideness. In the same paragraph of The Gay Science which speaks of language as "a great and thorough corruption, falsification, reduction to superficialities, and generalization" (#354), Nietzsche characterizes the artist as a squanderer. Once need and distress have obliged men to develop an excessive strength of communication, the linguistic capacity thus accumulated "waits for an heir who might squander it." This heir manipulates language in such a way as to outdo its utilitarian function. He does not use it, he abuses it. Applying all codes to the maximum of their expressive power, he wastes the objective validity of words in a prodigal purchase of the nonobjective. The squanderer is a man who has a surplus of means and but little regard for what they [end p.26] can buy. The true object of his desire lying always beyond its reach, his law is to exacerbate the law, his method is to splurge all methods.

      This notion of the artist as outlaw is paralleled by Heidegger's philosophy of ek-sistence. The difference is that Heidegger generalizes this condition of being in excess of the "current value" of things to all of mankind. Dasein is always a step ahead of itself, projected in its thrownness towards the lawless beckoning of the future. In "What are Poets For?" Heidegger speaks of Being as a venture. Man is the most venturesome of ventured creatures, he claims, because he not only wills but because he wills to will. He ventures the venture of Being. Yet if the philosophy of Dasein retrieves Nietzsche and Kierkegaard from their singular heights to posit them back into the community they so much scorned, it still accords them the privilege of being the most venturesome of the venturesome. They are the most venturesome because they "dare the precinct of Being. They dare language." (18) To venture into language is to venture out of the shelter of understood and inherited casts of thought (ordinary language). It is, in Heidegger's terms, to open oneself to the reception of truth. If truth is conventionally the correspondence of the said to the thing, then here one is opening oneself to the condition which makes such correspondence possible, and that is truth proper, or aletheia : the unconcealment that underlies and remains "forgotten" by objective reference.

      Yet just as he stresses that the artist is not in a class of his own but merely experiences Dasein more intensely than others, Heidegger also qualifies that the artist's venture into the unknown is never absolute. "As ventured, those who are not protected are nevertheless not abandoned. If they were, they would be just as little ventured as if they were protected. Surrendered only to annihilation, they would no longer hang in the balance." (19) The [end p. 27] outlaw is not autonomous. He always preserves his relation to the law. Nietzsche, who often appears to be some sort of anarchist, at times only pretended not to know this. I n fact, nothing is as free of tension as the idea of being a pure nomad of the abyss, drifting " beyond all the codes of past, present, and future," which is one of the most influential contemporary views of Nietzsche. (20) If the individual is thought independent of common law, what is lost is the human struggle between freedom and necessity. Kierkegaard, forever resourceful, puts it like this: "If the individual is isolated, then he is either absolutely the creator of his own destiny, in which case nothing tragic remains ... or the individuals are only modifications of the eternal substance of existence and so again the tragic is lost." (21) Heidegger states the same with "pain is the joining agent in the rending that divides and gathers.... Pain is the dif-ference itself." (22) In what follows, he clarifies Nietzsche's claim that the artist of the grand style "must possess all strong, apparently contradictory gifts and desires: but in such a way that they go together under one yoke." (23) The fundamental condition of Dasein, he writes,

      is an equally original freedom with regard to the extreme opposites, chaos and law; not the mere subjection of chaos to a form, but that mastery which enables the primal wilderness of chaos and the primordiality of law to advance under the same yoke, invariably bound to one another with equal necessity. Such mastery is unconstrained disposition over that yoke, which is as equally removed from the paralysis of form in what is dogmatic and formalistic as from sheer rapturous tumult. (24)

Art is not a leap from codes to codelessness. "Art places the [end p. 28] whole of Dasein in decision and keeps it there." (25) It springs from and remains bound to a differential unity of immanence and transcendence, presence and absence, word and silence, world and earth. If this point demands stressing it is because, as we shall see later, contemporary interpretations of Nietzsche and Heidegger often split the yoke by emphasizing the excessive element of the pair, under guises of the dance, frenzy, chaos, Abgrund , free play, chance, parody, laughter, and the traces of absence. It is true, as the traditional critics have argued, that Nietzsche incorporates Apollo into the later figure of Dionysos. If he no longer mentions him, he has still not abandoned him. The final Dionysos stands for the mastery of conflict, for the joyful acceptance of tragedy. And the tragedy of Dionysos (the artist) is that he signals the pull of the "No-more of the gods that have fled and the Not-yet of the god that is coming." (26) It is the condition of having all words at one's command but not the revealing word, of manipulating the "conferred" but not the conferring.

III. Nietzsche Contra Heidegger

      In his lectures on "The Will to Power as Art" Heidegger raises the following objection to Nietzsche's understanding of art: "Because Nietzsche does not unfold the essence of creation from what is to be created, namely the work, because he develops it from the state of aesthetic behavior, the bringing-forth of the work does not receive an adequately delineated interpretation." (27) Nietzsche's mistake lies in locating the origin of the work in the artist. This happens on account of his "sensuous" metaphysics: Being is a creative play of the will to power, and the most refined expression of the will to power is art. Even if it springs from need, art is essentially invention, a personal vision by which the artist declares, "Thus I will it!" A transfiguration of the cosmos, it is a making ex nihilo . [end p. 29] Heidegger objects to this view for the same reason that he objects to the metaphysical tradition. Man cannot create Being, interpretations or works of art, he cannot even speak, understand or act, unless intelligibility is already given as a possibility for him to seize. Heidegger removes this possibility from its humanistic housing in the ratio and correlates it with the essence of Being itself. Significance is already inherent in the "isness" of things. The source of the art work, then, lies beyond the subject, in a beyond to which he as ek-sistence belongs. It is true that "Being and the essence of things ... must be freely created."

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