Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Nietzsche, Life as Art

by Hanno

I want to take a look at Nietzsche's "Attempt at Self-Criticism," his piece where he tries to explain his work "The Birth of Tragedy." He writes:
Perhaps the depth of this antimoral propensity is best inferred from the careful and hostile silence with which Christianity is treated throughout the whole book -- Christianity as the most prodigal elaboration of the moral theme to which humanity has ever been subjected. In truth, nothing could be more opposed to the purely aesthetic interpretation and justification of the world which are taught in this book than the Christian teaching, which is and wants to be, only moral and which relegates are, every art, to the realm of lies; with its absolute standards, beginning with the truthfulness of God, it negates, judges and damns art.
This clearly begins a new critique of morality, and of Christianity, but also offers a view of something else, something important. First, he tells us that the Christian world view is a moral world view. There maybe other moral points of view, there surely are, but the Christian view is the most thoroughgoing example of a moral view. As such, it demands absolute standard, especially truthfulness. This in and of itself is a key to understanding him. As part of the Genealogy, Nietzsche writes that the question which really guides his later work is Why value truth? Is truth valuable in and of itself? Kant thought so. Is truth valuable because the truth is useful? But then it should not be valued if it is not useful. No, it is the unrelenting, unyielding insistence on truth that lies at the heart of the matter.

This world view eliminates, makes impossible other world views, especially artistic ones. Now if we read Nietzsche as valuing the arts above all, we can get a totally new way to read the Genealogy: This is not praising the brute nobles of old, but opening up the possibility of a different world view, by showing that truth is not the only way, morality is not the only way. We can value this world, this life aesthetically, as a work of art, nay, as a work of literature, with all that that implies. It is not the warriors of old that Nietzsche truly admires, but the artists, the brilliant, the wonders.

Truthfulness is hostility to art and to life, claims Nietzsche. But why? He claims that he understood that Christianity was hostile to life long before:
Behind this mode of thought and valuation, which must be hostile to art if it is at all genuine, I never failed to sense a hostility to life -- a furious, vengeful antipathy to life itself: for all of life is based on semblance, art, deception, points of view, and the necessity of perspectives and error.[italics added]
Here is an interesting claim: Life is art, and art is deception, a lie, a distortion. If you think that truth is good, then you think he is damning life. But if art is wonderful, then this vision of life is wonderful, too. And I think he may well be right: the story we tell ourselves about our life, or about the events of day to day, did not happen as we remember. We tell ourselves a story, and it is as interesting and important as it is false. And the story we tell ourselves alters as life goes on, embellishing, and distorting, giving events meaning and significance. We focus on certain features, and ignore others, just as we do when we interpret a work of literature. But it is literally false, it did not happen as we remember it, its meaning is not in the events, but in the telling, in the significance we give it. Our life is a lie. Sometimes painful ("My mother never loved me"), sometimes joyful ("I found my one true soulmate!"). Art does not have to have a happy ending. We can also go back, and rethink what happened to us, the events that shape us, reinterpret our very lives. And when we do, it is our life that actually changes.

But the moral view, the Christian view,
was from the beginning, essentially and fundamentally, life's nausea and disgust with life, merely concealed behind, masked by, dressed up as, faith in "another" or "better" life.
If this life is a preface for another, better world, be it Heaven or Nirvana, what does that say about this world, this life? The more you long for a better place, the more you damn this one. the more you long for peace, for rest, the more you show your true view of this life: toil, pain, suffering. And that is to view life itself as something essentially bad. That is life's nausea: this life makes you sick, you just want it to end. The vision of this life as a punishment for original sin is just an example of this train of thought: Life interpreted as a punishment. But who could think that, if they had a fundamentally positive view of life?

So Nietzsche is yearning for a world view that makes this life valuable, worthy, wonderful, and finds that possibility in art, in a different value scheme than the moral value scheme. To the extent that your moral view, your Christian view, does not reject this world, but revels in it, Nietzsche has less of a problem with it. To the extent that your world view makes way for art, values the deceptions that make our life as we live it, Nietzsche is not arguing with you. When you love this world as it is (Ha!), bad and good, true and false, differing view points and all, then you may be living as Nietzsche hoped.


Anonymous said...

In truth, nothing could be more opposed to the purely aesthetic interpretation and justification of the world which are taught in this book...

I wonder if Lucien Price was right...

"Aesthetic perceptions would appear to be more durable than ethical concepts."

Anonymous said...

I think I may need to go back and re-read some Kant.

ce said...

Nirvana is not a place.

Valuing truth does not necessitate devaluing aesthetics. I would also have to say that art is neither true nor false, and as such that evaluation is just in error. Art has its own system of judgment and follows its own brand of analysis. To judge it in terms of truth or falsehood is just silly. The terms don't apply. At least, they don't apply conventionally.

It is both true that Hamlet was a Prince of Denmark, and false that Hamlet was a Prince of Denmark. It depends on how we use the terms.

Anonymous said...

THIS IS AWESOME, good good good good

Hanno said...

OK, so its a state of mind where there is no suffering, no anger, cravings, etc. Point still stands: the desire for another way of living, not this way of living.

ce said...

Point still stands: the desire for another way of living, not this way of living.

Why is this way of living THE way of living? Isn't that just a value judgment? Why is your interpretation of how "I" should live, somehow "the" way I should live? Aren't you putting an "ought" in there somewhere?

Krista said...

Amor Fati indeed. It's this part of Nietzsche that I think nails Kant a little bit. As you know, I don't think Kant really relies that heavily on a metaphysically laden distinction between the noumenal and the phenomenal. But Kant certainly thought he needed it. In that sense, he has the same dualist world view that the Christians do.

But isn't it true that Nietzsche believes the psychological "damage" that Kant and Christianity have done to people also makes it possible for them to take this artful attitude? Even if he doesn't make the sharp distinction between "is" and "ought" that Kant does, surely it has to be possible for people to stand at a distance from themselves (their desires, their drive, etc.) in order to take the artful perspective on their lives. Isn't that ability both necessary for him and yet reflective of the same dualism he condemns Kant for?