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Truth and Lie in Emily Dickinson and Friedrich Nietzsche

To be alive – is Power –

Existence – in itself –

Without a further function –

Omnipotence – Enough –


To be alive – and Will!

'Tis able as a God –

The Maker – of Ourselves – be what –

Such being Finitude! (J 677 / Fr 876) 1


Friedrich Nietzsche was an avid reader of Emerson. But the ruptures he opens in Western philosophical culture find surprising echo in another of his contemporaries, Emily Dickinson,. There are strong contrasts between Dickinson and Nietzsche: in place although not in time; in language; in religious context – Dickinson lived in the intense period of Protestant religious revival of the Second Great Awakening and its wrestling match with Calvinism, in which Amherst passionately participated; while Nietzsche's background is Lutheran in a period of increasing positivism to which his university experience exposed him. Not least, there is a contrast of gender and attitudes towards it, with Dickinson's work a major voice articulating senses of women's identities as these were being reshaped in post-Revolutionary America, while in Nietzsche, "woman" remains a complex and highly equivocal figuration.

Yet there are likenesses. Neither married, although in Dickinson's case this is seen as eccentric deviation and in Nietzsche as philosophical self-affirmation.2 Dickinson from the age of 30 reclused herself in her home in Amherst with her sister, mother, and father. Nietzsche at the age of 35 left his teaching position at Basel to withdraw into a life of increasing isolation until his collapse into mental breakdown in 1889, living out the last decade of his life in seclusion under the care of his sister and mother. In both cases, the posthumous writings (for Dickinson almost all of her poetry) went into the care of the sisters with whom each lived, with the works of each suffering disjunctive publication, Dickinson's in the context of family feuds and Nietzsche's due to his sister's ignoble interferences.

Above all, the two shared certain premises, or perhaps sensibilities, regarding the nature of the world: that ours is a world in continual flux, foundationally a scene of change and multiplicity. Transition, transformation, instability, rupture is the fundamental condition in which, for each, human beings find themselves. Each fiercely, rigorously records and reiterates that their immanent experience is one of profound temporality and inconstancy. "Of this is Day composed," Dickinson writes: "of morning and a noon" that "dower and deprive" (J 1675/ Fr 1692). One of the first aphorisms in Will to Power declares man's "smallness and accidental occurrence in the flux of becoming and passing away" (WP 4).3

The world for each, then, is firstly a world of becoming. As to the world of metaphysical Being that traditionally served as stable anchor and ground for earthly existence, this other "true" world both Dickinson and Nietzsche see as failing adequately to account for, address, or interpret the flux of phenomena. The traditional orders, grounded in metaphysics, for explaining the world's endless transformations seemed flawed and problematic in its claims as well as in its failure to deliver on them. Both Dickinson and Nietzsche thus balance on a volatile edge of metaphysics. Although neither wrote in philosophically systematic ways – Nietzsche's poetic and in particular his aphoristic style is another tie linking him to Dickinson4 – each offers what emerges as a steadfast critique of traditional metaphysical premises, and a dizzying confrontation with the consequences of such critique.

Dickinson's responses to the rupture of metaphysical certainty are more ambivalent, more alarmed than are Nietzsche's. What had seemed foundational had, as through a torn veil, suddenly shown empty; while what stance might take its place remained uncertain. The tearing apart of the two worlds – the tearing away of earthly life from, in Nietzsche's words, the metaphysical "unity, Being, aim" (WP 12) that had purported to govern phenomena – at times causes Dickinson to fall into an abyss. In complex negations such as Nietzsche deploys, she calls metaphysical collapse "The Crash of nothing but of All," and cries: "I cling to nowhere till I fall" (J 1503 / Fr 1532). But at other times Dickinson reaches out to embrace the world of phenomena as her true and exhilarating arena. In, for example, the poem "To be Alive is Power" (cited above as epigraph) Dickinson goes far towards a Nietzschean declaration of allegiance not to any "further" world beyond this one, but to "Existence – in itself – / Without a further function." This world becomes a scene of "Power" which, as a way of being alive, is imminent, and therefore limited and conditional: an "Omnipotence – Enough." Such yoking together the absolute term "Omnipotence" with the limiting "Enough" verges on oxymoron, breaking open metaphysical meaning in ways Nietzsche persistently does. "Omnipotence" rather than marking the divine is both granted and sized to the human. We are alive in the world as the arena of our "will." Within this inherent and immanent life and will, the human is "able as a God."

As almost always happens in a Dickinson text, the concluding lines complicate rather than clarify.

To be alive – and Will!

'Tis able as a God –

The Maker – of Ourselves – be what –

Such being Finitude! (J 677 / Fr 876)


Truncated, with incomplete phrasing and unclear references, the poem leaves obscure who is the "Maker" of "what" and in what sphere. It seems, though, that Dickinson here celebrates a creative power which displaces, even as it imitates, God's. It is we who are the "Maker – of Ourselves." "Such being Finitude" again approaches philosophical oxymoron. "Finitude" and "being" are in traditional metaphysics contradictory terms. But here they are linked. Being is being in and as "Finitude" in this poem. The conditional, finite world is the arena in which we are "alive" and "will," the realm of "power" as self-definition and creativity.

Dickinson's work, like Nietzsche's, stares into the maelstrom of metaphysical collapse and its consequences. Her work, like his, pursues a critique in which metaphysical premises are shown to be wanting. Her work, like his, provides an anatomy of the implications of such critique, of the kaleidoscopic and assaultive and also transformative and generative energies released by it. Given the world's multiplicity, the problem becomes for Dickinson, as for Nietzsche, how to account for experience as meaningful in human terms, given its endless transfigurations. And this, for both, increasingly turns on language and interpretation itself. For each, reality in its multiplicity and transfiguration ultimately becomes constituted not by metaphysical principles but by representation, interpretation, and the words we use in their undertaking.


I. Linguistic Perspective

Despite the dispersions of her language both within texts and in her opus as a whole, Dickinson's work pursues systematic steps of metaphysical critique, tracing the reasons or impulses behind her often regretful inability to accept other-worldly accounts of the earth.

For Death – or rather

For the Things ‘twould buy –

This – put away

Life’s Opportunity—


The Things that Death will buy

Are Room –

Escape from Circumstances –

And a Name


With Gifts of Life

How Death’s Gifts may compare –

We know not –

For the Rates – lie Here – (J 382 / Fr 644)5


"Death" here is entry into traditional immortality. As such it offers a series of metaphysical promises: "Room" evokes eternal and infinite place; "Escape from Circumstances" suggests essence as against accident, absolute design as against conditions; and a "Name" promises fixed identity. But, as Nietzsche summarizes in Twilight of the Idols, in a passage that Heidegger cites as encapsulating Nietzsche's metaphysical critique, so here such promises offered by the afterworld reflect not a metaphysical reality but simply the reverse and antidote to temporality, mutability and mortality – that is, the conditions that we find painful in the world we inhabit. Thus writes Nietzsche:

The true world has een constructed out of contradiction to the actual world. To invent fables about a world "other" than this one has no meaning at all, unless an instinct of slander, detraction, and suspicion against life has gained the upper hand in us. We avenge ourselves against life with a phantasmagoria of "another" a "better" life. Twilight 484 6


"Room," "Escape from Circumstances" and "A Name" grant us the absolute time and space that we lack in our earthly lives. But the attraction of this compensatory fantasy does not guarantee its truthfulness. Indeed, Nietzsche says that the contrary is the case:

The reasons for which this world has been characterized as "apparent" are the very reasons which indicate its reality; any other kind of reality is indemonstrable. . .

The true world – unattainable, indemonstrable, unpromisable. . .

The true world – unattainable? At any rate, unattained. And being unattained, also unknown. Consequently not consoling, redeeming, or obligating. . .

The true world – we have abolished. What world has remained? The apparent one perhaps? But no! With the true world we have abolished the apparent one.7
There is a fatal weakness to metaphysical design. Our position, viewpoint, understanding and experience remain earthly. Any notion of another world is thus based upon and ultimately situated in this one, not the other way around. As Dickinson writes, "The Rates – lie here." The other world in fact suspiciously looks like an inversion, as Nietzsche insists, of the conditions most dreaded in this one. Yet these form our only direct experience. As against these immanent conditions, the other world remains "unattainable, indemonstrable, unpromisable." This world is not the shadow of a higher one, but rather the reverse is true. It is the other world that is a shadow, a lie, projected out of our dark fears. "The Rates lie here" unmasks this lie. The pun on "Rates" invokes both temporality, pacing in time, and value judgment. The measure of value in actuality is "here," not in some other world posited against this one. Such reference to an other world is, then, not truth, but fiction. It is constructed out of what is most disliked in this one world, reflecting this dislike rather than some higher insight, and serving to deny the actual world we inhabit. And what metaphysics calls lie is in fact truth, the only truth we directly experience. The world of phenemena is then not mere appearance, but is as actual as human experience gets, the only actual world. Thus, to deny metaphysical reality is to accept the reality of the earthly world: "With the true world we have abolished the apparent one."

Nietzsche raises such questions of truth and lie in Twilight of the Idols and the nachlass variously collected as The Will to Power;8 but they occupied him from the beginning of his philosophical writings, as seen in his earlier essay "Truth and Lying in an Extra-Moral Sense." This essay opens by framing truth and lie in terms that he later calls "perspectivism" – the sense, as he writes in a Will to Power aphorism, that reality "has no meaning behind it, but countless meanings: Perspectivism" (WP § 481). 9 The variability and partiality of perspective is the chastisement with which he opens "Truth and Lying:"

If we and the gnat could understand each other we should learn that even the gnat swims through the air with the same pathos, and feels within itself the flying center of the world. . . So too the proudest man of all, the philosopher, believes he sees the eyes of the universe focused telescopically from all directions upon his actions and thoughts.10
Nietzsche's intuition of the variousness of perspective, and of how perspective inevitably frames what we see and understand, is firmly shared by Dickinson, who devotes many poems to how "We see – Comparatively" (J 534 / Fr 580). But the greatest distortion of perspective is denying that that is all it is. The biggest delusion, that is, is for a perspective to mistake itself to be more than that, to be absolute comprehension or general truth. Thus in the poem "Who Giants Know, with lesser men," (and Dickinson's terms of measure are notoriously tricky), the "Giants" are those who in fact know that they know less, the "lesser men" those who do not know that they do not know. They mistake their own viewpoint for the whole world's, paradoxically thinking their vision is larger, while the "Giants" see in ways that are more penetrating because they know their understanding is limited. The "lesser" are thus compared to, displayed by, "the Summer Gnat:"

The Summer Gnat displays –

Unconscious that his single Fleet

Do not comprise the skies – (J 796 / Fr 848)


Like Nietzsche's "gnat" in "Truth and Lie" who "feels within itself the flying center of the world," so Dickinson's "Summer Gnat" (here almost an anagram for "Giant") wrongly takes "his single Fleet" – that is, either his own group or his own flight, or his own temporal fleetingness – as if he comprised the whole "skies" at large.

But perspectivism in Dickinson and Nietzsche ultimately takes shape not in terms of vision, but of language. At issue is not so much how people see but what and how they say. Wallace Stevens writes in one of his aphorisms, "The Tongue is an Eye." This move from eye to speech is pronounced in Nietzsche, and it is deeply consequential. As Richard Rorty anatomizes in Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature, the very act of positing knowledge in visual terms is itself metaphysical, assuming the mind to have some reflective power through which sense perception conforms to ideal structures man can perceive as the true Form to which phenomena refer. 11 Yet this vision-model also raises problems of communication and solipsism, problems that become severe once the metaphysical Forms are questioned. The trope of seeing situates comprehension within each individual mind, in ways that can never be fully verified by others, since their interior experience remains inaccessible to anyone outside themselves.12 Implying that understanding is like visual apprehension places it inside each private mind in ways no one else can share, check, or have access to. Perspective becomes a self-enclosed subjectivity to which there is no exit. But language is by definition social. It takes place between people.13 Moving our model of apprehension from a visual grasp to a linguistic exchange relocates formulation from interior space to an interconnecting web or network in which humans are constitutively placed.14

The Nietzschean turn to language has been long recognized as the decisive plunge forward into a post-metaphysical era. It projects the world as

something we formulate, indeed reformulate continuously. The formative and indeed originary power of language is, however, already recognized in Emerson and Dickinson. Emerson's "Nature" vigilantly equivocates between giving nature priority or language. When he writes that "we are assisted by natural objects in the expression of particular meanings" meanings seem to be located in the mind, preceding the objects that become instruments of their expression. But he also asserts that "Words are signs of natural facts" and that nature in turn "is the symbol of spirit." This is to place nature as prior to words, and spirit as prior to nature, in a metaphysically traditional semiotic.

Or again, he seems to be imagining a back and forth, a back and forth where nature and mind "corresponds" to each other because it is only through mind that nature is known, but also vice versa: "Every appearance in nature corresponds to some state of the mind, and that state of the mind can only be described by presenting that natural appearance as its picture." Yet even this reciprocity is a linguistic one, the mind only able to be "described" through "natural appearance" and vice versa.15

The sense of linguistic activism, of the role of language in shaping representation, is a substratum of Dickinson's poetics. Her work demonstrates the forms of language itself to have a primary role and impact in experience. Thus, in the poem "Talk not to me of Summer Trees," nature does not direct and command "Talk," which instead is linked to "Foliage of the mind:"

Talk not to me of Summer Trees

The Foliage of the mind

A Tabernacle is for Birds

Of no corporeal kind

And winds do go that way at noon

To their Ethereal Homes

Whose Bugles call the least of us

To undepicted Realms (J 1634 / Fr 1655)


Nietzsche writes in "Truth and Lie":

When we speak of trees, colors, snow, and flowers, we believe we know something about the things themselves, although what we have are just metaphors of things which do not correspond to the original entities. (TL 249)


In Dickinson's text, the "Foliage of the mind" rivals, indeed precedes, that of "Summer Trees," which emerge as its reflection. The world is made in the image of mind, not mind of the world. But the imaging is deeply rhetorical, a matter of language and its arrangements. The "Foliage" becomes "Tabernacle," an invocation of religious language pursued through the text, but one in which other-worldly meanings are re-cast into immanent ones. Thus "Birds" are of "no corporeal kind," winds are "Ethereal," and "Bugles," resonant of Biblical trumpets, "call" to "undepicted Realms." But in each case, not spiritual, but rather imaginary realms are intended. The "undepicted Realms" are not apocalyptic ones but further poetic ventures.

Or, even more precisely, what is invoked is not simply imagination, but the paradigms that govern it along with other human relations to the world, and which are above all linguistic ones. The poem not only transforms language, conducting it from the religious sphere to the imaginary, but also concerns language. It deflects "talk" of "Summer Trees" to the "Foliage of the Mind" – where leaves are themselves a traditional trope for pages or texts. In a continuing linguistic imagery the bugles "call," a personification granting to them linguistic action. "Undepicted Realms" is a complex trope. Instead of apocalyptic realms, poetic and linguistic ventures are proposed. Undepicted Realms" suggest a sublime tradition, which points beyond any given depiction – a term connoting both visual image and word description. But in another sense, they point to ever further and renewed depictions. They are "undepicted" as yet, not as an absolute state that exists beyond human achievement or expression, but rather as an ever mobile, ever advancing linguistic pathway, tracing an ever receding, because never final description. For, such finality does not exist. Rather, language marks a limit delineating the world that humans inhabit. It is within linguistic realms that we depict, and then depict again. Not least, the poem is cast as dialogue. The speaker addresses an auditor concerning what can and cannot be talked of, about forms of language and their powers.


II. Personification and Negation

In the most famous passage from "Truth and Lie," Nietzsche calls the linguistic forms that are decisive in shaping human understanding of the world "anthropomorphisms, "

"What therefore is truth? A mobile army of metaphors, metonymies, anthropomorphisms: in short a sum of human relations which were poetically and rhetorically heightened, transferred, and adorned" (TL 250).
Nietzsche is supremely aware of the question of viewpoint: how each person sees from within a context and according to a perspective that locates him or her. But Nietzsche probes how viewpoint is itself a figure – a visual image for what is also, indeed firstly, a linguistic praxis. It is the forms of language – grammatical, rhetorical, philological – that articulate categories of understanding, which thus prove to be projected from and within human experience, not perceived or received by us. These categories, whatever form they take, reside in the human. Therefore they can be grouped together under the rubric of anthropomorphism, or, in traditional rhetorical terms, of personification.

Personification is often treated as a sub-category of metaphor or simile. It seems to be a kind of comparison, in which something – one term of the comparison – happens to be human, and is compared to something that is not. As metaphor, personification transfers a human attribute to a non-human one. These transfers can register a range or variety of degree, across and respecting a kind of chain of being. Human qualities can be transferred to animals, but also to vegetables or minerals. Or, animate life rather than specifically human attributes can be transferred down to plant or rock. Human attributions can also be extended beyond specific metaphoric comparisons to larger topoi, as in the micro-macrocosmic correspondences that deeply inform not only literary, but religious and also scientific thought. 16

But Nietzsche's analysis of anthropomorphism extends beyond the specific rhetoric and topoi of personification. Rather, he sees it as fundamental to all human language. (Human) language as such is a mode of personification or anthropomorphism. Far from being a discrete trope, a subset of metaphor and simile as a certain kind of comparison, personification is the norm characterizing all language. For language, as spoken by humans, necessarily and ineradicably humanizes. The categories of language are human categories. This is the case not just when there is a clear ascription of human attributes to something non-human, as in personifying metaphors. Our very grammar, our very linguistic structures, which is to say every verb, every adjective, every noun, reflects human interests and orderings. Thus Nietzsche in "Truth and Lying" states that every definition is

anthropomorphic through and through and does not contain one single point which is 'true in itself" real and universally valid apart from man. The investigator into such truths is basically seeking just the metamorphosis of the world in man; he is struggling to understand the world as a human-like thing and acquires at best a feeling of an assimilation. . . Such an investigator observes the whole world as linked to man, as the infinitely refracted echo of a primeaval sound, as the reproduction and copy of an archetype, man. (TL 251)


The world to humans is a humanized world. The world is a "human-like thing," human seekers experience the world "as linked to man," in relationship to human interests and orders.

Thus, if the world seems to correspond to human understanding, this is because humans find in the world what we ourselves have put there. What has been taken to be correlation is in effect tautology:

What is the situation of these conventions of language? Are they perhaps products of knowledge, of the sense of truth? Do terms coincide with things? Is language the adequate expression of all realities? Only by forgetfulness can man ever come to believe that he has truth to the above-designated degree. Unless he wants to settle for truth in the form of tautology. (TL 248)
Nietzsche here challenges the notion that "terms coincide with things," that language matches a reality predetermined outside it. Language as "adequate expression" presumes that there is a pre-existent external reality that language merely re-presents, as if expression were a secondary effect of a prior determination. This correspondence theory of language posits that language correlates with and repeats an external reality established in itself.

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