Wolosky edfn truth and Lie in Emily Dickinson and Friedrich Nietzsche



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There are readings of Nietzsche's "Truth and Lie in an Extra-Moral Sense" that see it, in its denial of a signified truth outside of language, as tracing a collapse of all meaning. Nietzsche appears then to be digging out the very ground on which he stands, in a self-undoing of language that undermines meaning itself.38 What then remains, notably in the interpretations of Nietzsche in Foucault and Deleuze, is language as an unanchored proliferation of signs, functioning within exercises of power that emerge as the only continuing principle – indeed, a power that seems to act as a itself a metaphysical principle, the substratum of all that is or occurs.39 In such interpretations, Nietzsche prefigures post-modernism in the sense summarized by Cornel West as anti-foundationalist, anti-realist, as detranscendentalizing the subject, and relativist. But there are other possibilities. West himself suggests that "Nietzsche believed such moves lead to a paralyzing nihilism and skepticism unless they are supplemented with a new world view, a new "countermovement" to overcome such nihilism and skepticism," although West sees contemporary philosophy as having failed as yet to achieve such a countermovement. 40 Some indication of a constructive deconstruction in Nietzsche can be seen in the work of Jean Granier, who argues that "Perspectivism" projects not solipsism but, rather, multiple interpretations. These are generative rather than nihilistic or merely relativistic, exactly in that Nietzsche resists dogmatic insistence on one version as alone true. Nietzsche instead insists on "the impossibility of a definitive interpretation that would exhaust the richness of reality."41 This possible constructive deconstructivism sees the Will to Power not as a self- aggrandizing imposition on others but rather, in accordance with perspectivism, as a partiality of any power. Multiple versions may compete, but, especially when cast in terms of language rather than vision, they would do so in forms and forums of mutual negotiation. The denial of a single truth would become the ground for new interpretive creation, while paying homage to the limitation of each before the versions of others and the greater mystery of the world. Limitation remains pivotal. In the Will to Power, Nietzsche describes nihilism as caused by metaphysics itself, in its faulty and devaluating accounts of experience. "The "meaninglessness of events" he calls the "consequence of an insight into the falsity of previous interpretations, a generalization of discouragement and weakness." But it is not, he goes on, "a necessary belief." Indeed, Nietzsche goes on to describe nihilism as a form of hubris, of "the immodesty of man: to deny meaning where he sees none" (WP 599). Nietzsche urges instead a "plurality of interpretations [as] a sign of strength. Not to desire to deprive the world of its disturbing and enigmatic character! (WP 600).42 Here, like Dickinson, Nietzsche acknowledges a mystery beyond possession in any final form. Beyond any account man gives, the world retains its "disturbing and enigmatic character" – a removal that yet generates our linguistic energy, as both a creative and a conditional force.

Thus, Nietzsche's critique of traditional metaphysics does dismiss claims to ground language in a signified truth that exists outside language. Nonetheless, this dismissal of metaphysical truth need not entail either willful imposition of subjective versions or chaotic collapse of all meaning. It may instead point to newly directed structures or modes of signification. These would deny originary forms of "Truth" and would claim that the only shape our world has for us is that of figuration, conducted in language. Language and its figures would then no longer be "lie," since there would be no "truth" to which they need or fail to refer.

Towards the conclusion of "Truth and Lie" Nietzsche names the

"impulse towards the formation of metaphors" as the "fundamental impulse of man," in which "new figures of speech, metaphors, metonymies. . .constantly show [the] passionate longing for shaping the existing world of waking man. . This impulse seeks for itself a new realm of action . . . in Art" (TL 254). The figures of language impel and conduct the endless human making of "new" realms to inhabit, as the very action of "Art." Art emerges as Nietzsche's focal and defining activity, caught or taut between the drive to form and the ever-altering energy that he named in The Birth of Tragedy (written shortly before "Truth and Lie") Apollonian and Dionysian impulses. Dickinson's verse traces this shaping power of trope in both its impulse to order and its refusal of final shape or absolute claim. The world emerges in one sense as an aesthetic venture. In another sense, its mystery, marked as negation, prevents the aesthetic from reducing the world to its own terms, while also generating new forms. In "Truth and Lie," Nietzsche declares: "Nature knows of no forms or concepts. . . but only an X that is inaccessible and indefinable for us." (TL 250). Nietzsche here is unmasking a delusion, the delusion that reality can ever be unmasked. He does so in both disappointment and defiance. Dickinson is never as adamant as Nietzsche. Hers ever remains a "Sweet Skepticism of the Heart / That knows – and does not – know" (J 1413 / Fr1438). As poet, her task is to negotiate the space abandoned by metaphysical certainty with the language forms that never resolve, respecting their own limits, but that venture and create.

This aesthetic and indeed specifically linguistic power, as well as the limitations that at once restrict and yet also launch creativity, is traced in one of a series of Dickinson poems of dawn, through the arc of presence and then disappearance of bird's song:

At Half past Three, a single Bird

Unto a silent sky

Propounded but a single term

Of cautious melody
At Half past Four, Experiment

Had subjugated test

And lo, Her silver principle

Supplanted all the rest.


At Half past Seven, Element

Nor Implement, be seen –

And Place was where the Presence was

Circumference between. (J 1084 / Fr 1099)43


The scene of this poem is radically temporal and radically linguistic. The circles of clock measure intensify the condition of becoming, of time and change, as the context for human experience. That experience itself is represented as one of linguistic activism. Against a "sky" that is "silent," the "Bird" figure introduces a "melody" figured as a "term" that is "Propounded" – that is, as language.44 The relation of the bird to the sky is one almost of address or dialogue; yet it remains "cautious," even modest, with the bird explicitly feminized as "Her" in the next stanza.

The second stanza does break into power. "Experiment" displaces "Test," subjugating and supplanting "all the rest." The song here asserts what

Nietzsche called the "impulse towards the formation of metaphors," one that is not only inescapable, but also defining of human existence in the world. Yet this proves but a moment in an ongoing course that the poem too pursues.

The projection of voice in time becomes empty space. "Place was where the Presence was." "Circumference" here marks language balanced on the edge of itself, of what it can, and cannot, offer and accomplish. The art of song is



celebrated; but it is also retracted, limited in its power to shape or govern or command a world that is ever changing, every escaping from it. In her writing it emerges as a boundary that both generates power and defines its extent – both as to its reach and what it cannot reach beyond.

1 Dickinson texts will be cited by both the Thomas Johnson and the R.W. Franklin The Poems of Emily Dickinson (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1998) poem numbers. The question of textual stability is itself a vexed and complex one, which I will not enter into here. I will say, however, that the textual instability of Dickinson texts concur with the argument in this paper towards the role of language as and in a realm of becoming.

2 As Nietzsche famously said in The Gay Science III: 7 "Thus the philosopher abhors marriage and all that would persuade him to marriage, for he sees the married state as an obstacle to fulfillment. What great philosopher has ever been married?" trans. Walter Kaufmann, (N.Y.: Vintage Books, 1974). Hereafter cited as GS.

3 Friedrich Nietzsche The Will to Power (N.Y.: Vintage Books 1967). Hereafter cited as WP followed by section number.

4 Much has been written on Nietzsche's aphoristic style. See especially Maurice Blanchot, The Infinite Conversation tr. Susan Hanson (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1993).

5 This poem and its metaphysical critique I discussed in Emily Dickinson: A Voice of War (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1984), where my focus was on metaphysical revolt as well as historical conflict.

6 Martin Heidegger Nietzsche. Vol One, trans. David Krell (San Francisco: Harper and Row Publishers, Inc. 1978), p. 202.

7 Friedrich Nietzsche, Twilight of the Idols in The Portable Nietzsche ed. Walter Kaufmann, (NY: Penguin Books, 1954), p. 485.

8 On nachlass questions

9 Cf. a much cited aphorism in Will to Power, where Nietzsche writes that the world "has no meaning behind it, but countless meanings: Perspectivism" (WP § 481). Cf discussion in Lingis and Nehemas.

10 "On Truth and Lying in a Extra-Moral Sense" in Friedrich Nietzsche on Rhetoric and Language ed. Sander Gilman, Carole Blair, David Parent (NY: Oxford University Press, 1989) 246-257, p. 246. Hereafter cited as TL.

11 Richard Rorty, Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1980.

12 Of course one of the Cartesian topics. A central problem in epistemology. Cf Gilbert Ryle eg the ghost in the machine.

13 Another philosophical topic: the impossibility of private language. Wittgenstein. Kripke. Already in Saussure.

14Such location of the human in conversation has become a principal topic in discourse theories, such as Habermas's. Note his critique of Nietzsche, Nehemas; but closes off potential readings.

15 I have discussed Emersonian language theory in "Emerson's Figural Religion," forthcoming.

16 See my "Personification" in The Art of Poetry, (NY: Oxford University Press, 2002).

17 Nehemas's argument here is not consistent re reason not being critical unless via an exterior absolute standpoint. CC to N.

18 Harold Bloom, The Western Canon, (Ny: Harcouty Brace & Company, 1994), pp. 304-309. The sublime of course is a major topic in Dickinson studies. See Gary Stonum, Joanne Fieht Diehl.

19 Kant describes the sublime in Critique of Judgment , as involving "a representation which makes us remark its inadequacy and consequently its subjective want of purposiveness," finding "the whole power of the imagination inadequate to its ideas," II. 26. Lyotard's interpretation of this sublime as a chasm between representation and the unrepresentable is close to what is under discussion here. On the other hand, to Kant the sublime is ultimately a revelation of our own subjectivity, "true sublmity must be sought only in the mind of the subject judging, not in the natural object the judgment upon which occasions this state." As to Nietzsche, he read parts of the Critique of Judgment (CJ) in 1867, but both Kant's sublime and Nietzsche's relation to it are far too daunting a topic to enter into here. For discussion, see: Kevin Hill Nietzsche's Critiques: The Kantian Foundations of his Thought, (NY: Oxford University Press, 2003); Michael Harr, Nietzsche and Metaphysics trans. Michael Gendre, (NY: Suny Press, 1996).

20 Curtius on inexpressibility. See Language Mysticism.

21 As Harold Bloom writes, the poem figures the "limits of her art," "an ungraspable secret, a trope or metaphor not to be expressed." This contrasts Sharon Cameron's reading that "the poem indeed if paradoxically grasps what it claims cannot be grasped," although does see dominion as "redefined as residing only in the momentary, in the particular piecemeal moments reiterated in this poem as both comprehensive and unforgettable." Choosing Not Choosing (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, pp. 164-165.

22 Saussure Linguistics

23 Friedrich Nietzsche, Philosophy in the Tragic Age of the Greeks (Chicago: Henry Regnery Company, 1962), p. 47.

24 Lisa Harper offers a sustained discussion of the veil and the Gaze in Dickinson in "The Eyes accost – and Sunder:" Unveiling Emily Dickinson's Poetics," Emily Dickinson Journal 9:1 21-48

25 Significantly, "dispelled" plays on spelling, while, in the poem's conclusion, reiterating the power of what is imagined over what exists, "Interview" combines a trope of vision with that of language: "Lest Interview – annul a want / That Image – satisfies" (J 271 / ).

26 I have discussed "The Single Screw of Flesh" in Emily Dickinson: A Voice of War (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1984).

27 Jacques Derrida, Spurs: Nietzsche's Styles (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1978), p. 65: Nietzsche is "a thinker of pregnancy, which for him is no less praiseworthy in a man than it is in a woman." BGE 232 / GS 72

28 R. Howard Bloch discusses this traditional association with its implications for language and the sign in "Medieval Misogyny," Representations 20, Fall 1987, 1-24. Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil

29 Eric Blondel, "Nomad Thought," The New Nietzsche ed. David Allison, (Cambridge, Mass: The MIT Press, 1986), 150-175, p. 156. Blondel also discusses the veil in Nietzsche.

30 Cambridge History IV

31 Jane Donahue Eberwein, Strategies of Limitation (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1987), p. 199.

32Gelpi, the Mind of the Poet 97; Gelpi, Mind of Poet 97; 105 "oblivious to the ethical preoccupations of Emerson and Thoreau; 108 cultivation of consciousness her religion In The Tenth Muse, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991), Gelpi pursues the psychological meaning of the circumference, as verging into eternity p. 270.

33 Dwight Eddins, "Dickinson and Nietzsche: The Rites of Dionysus," ESQ Vol 27, 2nd Quarter, 1981, 96-107, p. 101. Cf. Northrop Frye, Fables of Identity (NY: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1963) p. 212, where he associates ecstasy with Circumference Eddins focuses mainly on The Birth of Tragedy and reads its Dionysianism as metaphysical, a reading that has been much contested. See David Allison, "Nietzsche Knows no Noumenon," bpimdary 2 9: 3 Spring autumn 1981 295-310 as non-metaphysical. Of course Heidegger famously saw Nietzsche as an inversion of Plato, and hence metaphysical in his anti-metaphysics. See Nietzsche. Vol One The Will to Power as Art, trans. David Krell (San Francisco: Harper and Row Publishers, Inc. 1978), pp. 200-20; " the true and apparent worlds have exchanged places, ranks and forms But in this exchange and reversal just that distinction between a true and apparent world is maintained, (p. 622). Heidegger's metaphysical interpretation of Nietzsche considers the "Will to Power" as an in-itself, and eternal return as appearance in phenomena, duplicating traditional ontology. For discussion see Ernst Behler, "Nietzsche in the Twentieth Century," Cambridge Companion to Nietzsche,281-322, p. 312; David Farrell rell, "Art and Truth in Raging Discord: Heidegger and Nietzsche on the Will to Power, boundary 2 4:2 Winter 1976, 378-392.

34 Tenth Muse, p. 269

35 Both Eberwein and Gelpi read this poem as accomplishing Romance possession of knight to bride, a "union of bride and knight, Circumference and Awe" (Gelpi, Mind of Poet; p. 126) "Art pressing perpetually at the limits of mortal expression" as a "knight on a quest for this great boon representing the ultimate reach of human aspiration" circumference as death joined in loving union with Awe" 194 as stronger mysterious force beyond humanly experienced boundaries."

36 Cf the interplay of "possession" and "awe" in:

Peril as a Possession

'Tis Good to bear

Danger disintegrates Satiety

There's Basis there –

Begets an awe

That searches Human Nature's creases

As clean as Fire (J 1678 / )

Here "Possession" is itself a "peril." To think we claim, we own, creates a "Satiety" that is ultimately stultifying. Conversely, the "Danger that disintegrates" "Begets an awe" over what we do not possess. "Human Nature" itself is not unitary nor seamless, but (in an imagery of sewing) riven with "creases." At this poem's center is an apparent tautology, but in fact works as oxymoron: "There's Basis there." For "Basis," foundation, is precisely what is not "there." Neither self nor experience nor world constitutes a stable, possessible ground, but only an incessantly changing position, a disintegrative force dangerous to "Satieties." The final image of "Fire" may recall the Heraclatean one so central to Nietzsche, with fire, as Giles Deleuze notes, a Nietzschean trope of transformation. The only "Basis" is one that keeps shifting, launching further standpoints that never, however, securely stand.


37 This is Michael Haar's interpretation of eternal return, Nietzsche and Metaphysics (NY: State University of New York Press, 1996), pp. 28, 31-32. He quotes Nietzsche, "Let us impress upon our life the image of eternity," and comments: "The 'circle' is itself imperfect. The totality of Return is a shattered totality." Cf. Thomas Altizer "Eternal Recurrence and the Kingdom of God" 232-243. check Heidegger.

38 This is De Man's reading in "Rhetoric of Tropes (Nietzsche), 103 – 118. Referring to "Truth and Lie," De Man sees the fact that language is "rhetorical" rather than "representational" 106 as a dissolution of the "literal" and hence any sense of truth altogether: "By asserting in the mode of truth that the self is a lie, we have not escaped from deception" 112. The Nietzsche text is itself one of self-undoing: "The authoritative claims that it seems to makecan be undermined by means of statements provided by the text itself." 117. J. Hillis Miller similarly reads language in Nietzsche as an irresolvable "entangling net," in which he is caught as an "impasse he is attempting to describe" p.42.

reading in "Disremembering and disremembering in Nietzsche's "On Truth and Lies in a Non-moral Sense" boundary 2 (Vol. 9, No. 3) Syposium Why Nietzsche Now" (Spring-autumn, 1981) 41-54.



39 Foucault's famous essay on "Freud, Described by Alan Schrift in "Nietzsche's French Legacy" (CC to N): Foucault focused not on the subjects of power but on power relations, power relations in the absence of a sovereign subject; 340 Foucault: Each sign is in itself not the thing that presents itself to interpretation, but the interpretation of other signs. Nietzsche, Freud, Marx in Transforming the Hermeneutic Context 59- 67 Deleuze;

40 Cornel West, "Nietzsche's Prefiguration of Postmodern American Philosophy" boundary 2 Vol 9 no. 3, 241-269, pp. 241, 243, 264. . check critical reader

41 Jean Granier, "Perspectivism and Interpretation" in The New Nietzsche 190-200, 194-195, 197. Granier writes other positive readings: cf essays in Yirmiyahu Yovel, ed. Nietzsche as Affirmative Thinker (Martinus Nijhoff Publishers 1986). Other positive readings of Nietzschean nihilism can be found in Alexander Nehamas "Nietzsche, modernity, aestheticism" 223-251 disputes what he takes to be Rorty's view of Nietzsche as abandoning himself to a blind contingency. (231) and mere goallessness. 232 No real world doesn't mean no world, Cambridge Companion to Nietzsche ed. Bernd Magnus and Kathleen M. Higgins (NY: Cambridge University Press 1996)

Alan White describes Nietzsche in terms of pluralist models, p. 135. Lyotard, too, reads Nietzsche in terms of multiple and discordant voices.



42 Cf. WP 605 The ascertaining of "truth" and "untruth," the ascertaining of facts in general, is fundamentally different from creative positing, from forming, shaping, overcoming, willing, . . . to introduce a meaning – this task l remains to be done, assuming there is no meaning yet. Thus it is with sounds, but also with the fate of peoples: they are capable of the most different interpretations and direction toward different goals.


43 This is one of the Dickinson poems translated by Paul Celan. I have analyzed it and its translation in "Emily Dickinson and Paul Celan: Trajectories of Mysticism"

Ein Vogel, einer, um halb vier:

dem Himmel, der da schwieg,

den einen Laut trug er ihm an

sparsamster Melodie.
Das war die Probe. Um halb fnf

gings ber sie hinaus,

und sieh: ihr silbernes Zuerst

stach alles andre aus.


Halb sieben: weder Element

noch Werkzeug weit und breit.

Ein Ort hier, dort die Gegenwart,

mit einem Zwischenkreis.




44 This linguistic imagery is evident in a companion poem, "The Birds begun at Four o'clock" (J 783) where the the birds' song is described as "Voices" that "multiply."
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