On Nietzsche’s Poetic Typology and the “Closing Melodies” of The Gay Science, Zarathustra, and Beyond Good and Evil
As the Eiffel Tower, arch symbol of modernity, rose to completion in Paris in 1889, Nietzsche collapsed in the Carlo Alberto Piazza in Torino, not far from the Mole Antonelliana, a newly constructed synagogue that, perhaps fittingly, became in the late 20th century Italy’s National Museum of Cinema. Constructed between 1863 and 1889—thus spanning Nietzsche’s entire adult life—the Antonelliana was one of the philosopher’s most beloved architectural structures and, “because of its absolute drive for elevation,” he said it reminded him “of nothing so much as my Zarathustra. I have baptized the tower Ecce Homo, and in spirit have opened an enormous free space around it.” Thus, a synagogue evokes for Nietzsche not only his greatest gift to mankind, but is sanctified by him with the name of his exalted autobiography. The significance of architecture for Nietzsche is crystallized in this account, which illustrates both his view that buildings must be conducive to thinking, and that grand style itself is a form of architecture, revealing his concern with structure and design—as will be illustrated, and the musical sense of the following term is meant deliberately to convey a fitting and pertinent resonance, this is evident in the very composition of his books.
Two days prior to his collapse, Nietzsche corrected the proofs of the Dionysus Dithyrambs, which would be his penultimate book, then added this dedication: “Sing to me a new song: The world is transfigured and all the heavens are glad.” Signing it “The Crucified One,” the parodist of world history offered us his last gift, not the tender of redemption, but a final series of Pindaric-inspired songs. If his first published book was not a poetic work as he later thought it should have been—a point endlessly reiterated but perhaps here of particular and more precise relevance—his last book was: he did dare say what he had to say as a poet, but as a different kind of poet altogether. Aside from his two strictly poetic works, the Idylls of Messina and the Dionysus Dithyrambs, what is illustrated by his juvenilia, the poems that accompany the first edition of Human, All Too Human, both editions of The Gay Science, and Beyond Good and Evil as well as Thus Spoke Zarathustra, which Nietzsche himself referred to as “a poem and not a collection of aphorisms” (KGB III, 1), is that the Dionysian-inflected Socratic satyr wrote poetry almost continually from the age of nine till his collapse at 44. Considering his critique of the poet, which may be even more stringent than Plato’s, how do we account for Nietzsche’s continuing engagement with poetry? Is there, as most critics believe, actually a disparity or contradiction here that cannot be resolved? From his early work through to his final writings, I believe that Nietzsche actually sustains a distinction between two poetic types, and it is always as the second type that he writes when he poetizes, though he is even in an agon with poetry when writing prose. “It is noteworthy,” Nietzsche professes, “that the great masters of prose have almost always been poets, too—if not publicly then at least secretly, in the ‘closet.’ Good prose is written only face to face with poetry. For it is an uninterrupted, well-mannered war with poetry: all of its attractions depend on the way in which poetry is continually avoided and contradicted” (GS §92). If this reveals how, even in avoiding it, prose can be deeply informed by poetry and that one may remain a poet even when not writing verse, let us proceed to the two poetic types as conceived by Nietzsche to elucidate his intensified Platonic polemic, and to clarify why, in fact, there is no irresolvable disparity.
The first type, which is generally if not always the subject of Nietzsche’s critique whenever he speaks of the poet and of poets, is a nihilist who uses language to lie and enchant. In promulgating universal ideals, this type maintains views that are false, untenable, and possibly dangerous, for the universal homogenizes what is particular, distinct, and resolutely singular. Such humanistic ideals are essentialist and elide social, cultural, and epochal differences in claiming to represent what is fundamentally human and particular to all, whereas Nietzsche complicates the “human,” which to him is an undetermined animal whose status is ambiguous. This type of poet is first characterized in Human, All Too Human as one whom either escapes from the sufferings of its present age, or evades them through “coloring” them with past insights instead of developing insights particular to its own epoch. In this way, such poets are myopic and atavistic for they sustain dying and dead religions and cultures, they are fervent acolytes, mediocre imitators as opposed to productive parodists, and they are deceptive because the sustaining comforts they claim to offer are but provisional and fleeting, thus a kind of stupefying narcotic. More serious, they render our passions inoperative and neutralize our active forces, thereby hindering us from the necessary task of continual self-overcoming (HH §148). As idealists and valets of morality, instead of instigating our necessary self-overcoming, they promote the interest of the species and faith in life as opposed to sacrificing themselves to the earth in order to create beyond themselves and serve as models of transfiguration. They are ethical teachers who, in preaching of the purpose of existence, fail to see life as an experiment, just as they fail to recognize the role contingency plays in it. But “life” needs not our faith, nor does it need to be preserved, as if we even had the power to preserve something of which we are merely a speck of dust within it. “There is no denying that in the long run,” Nietzsche avows, “every one of these great teachers of a purpose was vanquished by laughter, reason, and nature: the short tragedy always gave way again and returned into the eternal comedy of existence . . .” (GS §1). Such ethical teachers are akin to the famous “liars” spoken of in Zarathustra, those who lack sufficient critical faculties and believe not only in the majority and its wisdom, but that Nature itself speaks to or is in love with and whispers secrets to them (Z: II.17). Here we have one of the supreme anthropomorphic delusions; a dose of Darwin would do such poets well. In opposition, Nietzsche’s ideal is “those who do not want to preserve themselves” (Z: III.12).