The common attribution of “falsehood” to poetry extends the ambiguity of pseudos even further. First of all, given the competitive nature of Greek poetry, individual poets would use pseudos to target other poets––in this context “false” would mean “inferior” or “ineffective” or “not my poetry.” More importantly, pseudos could refer to what we would call “fiction” as opposed to “fact,” yet not in the binary sense that we might expect. The Greek word usually translated as “fact” is ergon, which had a general meaning of something done rather than something merely said––a distinction that could apply to the “different” sphere of poetic speech. The poetic sense of pseudos would be closer to what we would call verisimilitude, or “fictive truth.” In the Greek sense, fictive truth would not only refer to the way in which poetic language could “resemble” reality, but also to its persuasive power to enthrall the audience and absorb it in the reality of the poetic fiction (eliciting wonder, joy, fear, etc.). This is precisely one meaning of the Greek word mimēsis––not merely representational likeness, but the psychological identification of an audience with a poetic performance (more on this shortly). Nietzsche recognized this mimetic power of poetic “appearances” in The Birth of Tragedy. Greek drama only enhanced mimetic power because it went beyond a bard’s mere narration in speech to actors embodying poetic speech in action. The word drama in Greek meant something done, and so Greek theater showed a conjunction of “fiction” and “fact,” saying and doing, in the Greek sense. In any case, Nietzsche recognized the world-disclosive effects of mimetic poetry in tragedy. He says that poetic images were not “symbolic” because they possessed a living capacity to create their own world (BT 8); here dramatic “fiction” was not a departure from reality because it staged powerful scenes of “a world with the same reality and irreducibility that Olympus and its inhabitants possessed for the believing Hellene” (BT 7).
If we keep in mind the cultural status of poetry in the Greek world, then their attributions of pseudos to poetry (even in pre-philosophical periods) cannot be construed as castigations or even diminishments of poetic language––but rather, among other things, as a gesture to the “different” sphere of poetry together with its revelatory power. Poetry could not simply be an entertaining diversion for the Greeks (akin to our enjoying works of fantasy), because poetry carried world-disclosive and life-guiding significance. Even the notion of “fictive truth,” therefore, might not suffice for capturing the ambiguities surrounding the Greek sense of poetic pseudos.
One final historical note on the ambiguity of poetic falsehood: Some texts tell of the commingling of pseudos and truth (alētheia) in poetic speech. The Odyssey is marked by many alternations between deceptive and true accounts (sometimes mixed together) in the manner of verisimilitude and other senses (see 8. 487ff. and 19. 203). In Hesiod’s Theogony, the muses (who inspire poetry) are said to be capable of both verisimilitude and straightforward truth: “We know how to say many false things (pseudea) that are like (homoia) true sayings (legein etumoisin); but we also know, when we want to, how to speak true things (alēthea gēurusasthai)” (23-28). In epic poetry, homoia did not connote deceptive resemblance but equivalence in some aspect. My overall point is that Nietzsche the classical philologist must have been aware of the many complex senses in which Greek texts depicted poetry, falsehood, and truth. This might help us better understand the evident ambiguities in Nietzsche’s own deployment of falsehood-language in his celebration of art.
The Limits of Poetic Deception
Having covered the meaning and importance of artistic “deception” in Nietzsche’s thought, we must return to the question of what Zarathustra meant by claiming that poets lie too much. I believe the answer is to be found in (1) the high status of conceptual thinking in Zarathustra and other writings; and (2) the experiential impact of the thought of eternal recurrence, which engenders a dark tragic truth (T1) and the task of affirming life in the face of that truth. To begin, in BT Nietzsche tells us that the meaning of tragic myth was not directly expressed in the “word drama” of poetry, and that his own conceptual efforts are initiating such an understanding: “the structure of the scenes and the visual images reveal a deeper wisdom than the poet himself can put into words and concepts” (BT 17). It seems evident that tragic poetry by itself would not suffice for Nietzsche’s intellectual task. Philosophical concept formation (e.g., “the tragic”) provides a deepened and enhanced comprehension of the meaning of pre-reflective cultural phenomena. Indeed Nietzsche maintains that the emergence of theoretical reason and science in the Greek world was not the elimination of aesthetic, creative forces, but their modification (BT 15); again, all forms of thought can be called artistic creations.
Nietzsche here announces something that continues to resonate in his writings: philosophical understanding is crucial, but with concept formation it has to distance itself from preconceptual , artistic cultural forms. Such distance harbors the danger of philosophical alienation from, even hostility toward, preconceptual culture. The advent of philosophy in the Greek world is the original case study. Presocratic philosophy in many ways was reflective of tragic meanings (see PTAG). But with Socrates and Plato philosophy became antagonistic toward tragic poetry. Concept formation resisted the force of becoming to create structures of “being” (T2) that could quell or govern flux for the purpose of secured knowledge and conscious mastery of life. But Nietzsche maintains that here philosophy suppressed its own creative, and thus artistic character (T3).