Wednesday, August 26, 2009

The Gay Science (Review)

"'Evil has always had great effects in its favor. And nature is evil. Let us therefore be natural.' That is the secret reasoning of those who have mastered the most spectacular effects, and they have all too often been considered great human beings.” – The Gay Science; 225

I read this 19th-Century masterpiece of literature back in December, and then felt compelled to write this review. It was the eleventh book of Friedrich Nietzsche’s that I had read. All that was left was Nietzsche Contra Wagner, which I read this summer when I had the chance. I can surely understand why The Gay Science is so many people’s favourite. Here he puts art above science, knowledge above “truth,” and, as always, the affirmation of life up against its denial and slander. But what the book is most renowned for is the announcement that “God is dead,” and the notion of the eternal recurrence. The former requires much work to still be done in the realm of science and language, as the shadows of God remain, and they, too, must be – annihilated.

The meaning of "God is dead" has, for the most part, been explained as God being dead in comparison to how alive he was prior to the Enlightenment. For prior to the Enlightenment, everything (in Europe, anyway) was seen through theistic eyes; be it science, knowledge or “wisdom.” The search for truth in every sense was instinctively sought in and through God. Self- and external discovery was bound to theism at the hip. With the Enlightenment, God was removed, and reason put in his place. One might say he was flattened and crushed by it.

There is, of course, another interpretation of the statement “God is dead,” which one rarely ever hears touched upon, but is just as important, if not more so, and is well tied into what Nietzsche says in Thus Spoke Zarathustra of God being killed by pity. The Christian god wants more than anything that we deny ourselves this life. (Stoicism being the backbone of the New Testament). Basically, it is a call for the crucifixion of all that makes us human. But for Nietzsche, self-denial is the embrace of nothingness (a dominating theme in On the Genealogy of Morals and The Anti-Christ), and nothingness is precisely what death is. Therefore, self-denial is the embrace of death while one is still alive. For Nietzsche, the Buddhist or Christian monk who has been able to kill off all his desires, and blunt himself against life, is officially dead. He walks, talks, breathes, eats, etc, but he is dead. A living sack of meat, one might say. And because the Christian god wants self-abnegation of us as an ideal, he – is dead. For Nietzsche, Christianity is the ultimate attack on and nay-saying of life. This life, that is. As there is no other.

As for the matter of pity in Zarathustra, his following book, and how it fits into all of this, it is also a Christian matter. He called Christianity "the religion of pity." As most know, as it is overt, the god of The Old Testament is a god of power, vengefulness and animosity, and the god of the New Testament a god of love; yet, it is supposedly the same god. Except, he expresses this love by pitying our so-called “sinful natures.” For Nietzsche, this is a wearying violation of conscience, as there is nothing – absolutely nothing – to be pitied here. Our instincts and natural inclinations are to be embraced, sharpened and affirmed, and because this wretched, insipid, obnoxious god wants the contrary of us, namely to kill off our desires, he has inevitably died off (at least in comparison to his tyrannical dominion over Europe in the Middle Ages), as what is unnatural and/or wearying of the human spirit cannot last forever. Furthermore, it is quite astounding to our logic that all of a sudden this Old Testament god of wrath, bigotry and violence is insatiably in love with the entire world (not just the Jews anymore), and shows it by having his son brutally tortured and executed. This morbid nonsense could surely not have lasted forever in the hearts of man as the absolute, glorious truth.

The truth of the matter is, there is far too much that Nietzsche packed into this marvelous book, especially with book five, which he added four years later in 1886, and the Appendix of Songs the following year, for me to even attempt to successfully and justly summarize it all in a little review. But I will explain some fundamental aspects of it, like the vitriolic attack on the search for the absolute truth of things, which is first introduced in section 4 of the Preface. Nietzsche doesn’t know what the truth could possibly be, but he does know that, because the truth of something is a statement to which nothing more can be added, we do not have the means of ever finding it, nor should we want to be able to. For him such truth-claims are a product of laziness and an expression of death, which is why he calls truth an “old hag,” and why in aphorism 344 he identifies the will to truth as “a concealed will to death.” The horizons are limitless for Nietzsche. They are eternal, and there will always be more to learn, especially about human existence, which offers infinite interpretations, and he would not want it any other way, nor can he fathom why someone would want such an insipid, lifeless thing. In fact, if there were a God, Nietzsche would willingly praise him for our fate being this way and no other, which is another aspect of his philosophy that is first mentioned here and again in Ecce Homo: amor fati – the love of fate.

We cannot claim to know all there is to know about the causes of human motives and inspiration (our own, first and foremost), not just because all people and situations are different, but because we are the thing knowing and so are riddled with blind spots towards our inner selves. This, of course, also applies to trying to know the world around us in general. For this reason, which I have here so quickly and coarsely summed up, as there is so much more to this, he sides with Leibniz over Descartes that knowledge is to be sought and accumulated from the object, not the subject. Vice versa is futile, because in the process of knowing, our stream of consciousness continually brings about more that can and cannot be known. It is an infinite cycle that can get us nowhere in trying to learn about the world around us. And he agrees with Hume, as pretty much all the post-Enlightenment thinkers do (though without saying that is what he is doing, as he, for the most part, found Hume's philosophy to be petty and frivolous) that our reason is a slave to our passions, and Nietzsche expounds that when we discover or accept a new truth over one we used to embrace, it is because we have changed, and are ready to put on a new skin, which better suits our present selves.

A very interesting and undeniably ingenious section of the book is aphorism 354, entitled "On the genius of the species.” Nietzsche takes his usual burrowing stab at the origins of human consciousness and self-consciousness. He expounds for quite a bit that the former developed out of a need for communication, particularly between those who command and those who obey. It has evolved around humanity’s “social or herd nature” as a required “social or herd utility.” The latter is a by-product of actual human interaction, communication and the need to express ourselves as clearly as possible to our fellow Homosapiens. This made us very conscious of ourselves, and, therefore, “it was only as a social animal that man acquired self-consciousness – which he is still in the process of doing, more and more.” In constantly needing to assess ourselves and how well we are establishing what we want to communicate, self-consciousness came to be. Due to all of this, the “genius of the species” is what has us see the world, not as it actually is (though it might by fluke sometimes), but as is best for the herd – for the species. All our thoughts are continually “governed by the character of consciousness – by the ‘genius of the species’ that commands it – and translated back into the perspective of the herd.”

As with his other works, the problem of morality is of prime interest. A major aspect of it is, of course, that people use morality to appear and feel superior to others. It is a weapon and tool of their inferiority and feebleness. It is a mask and masquerade. In aphorism 352, he propounds that the person who needs this moral attire the most, is not the barbaric type, but the weak “herd animal with its profound mediocrity, timidity, and boredom with itself,” who then uses morality to appear justified and “divine.” A sage and/or religious founder, like Buddha or St. Paul, must have the genius of understanding the correct morality that will best fit and attract a people in a given place and time, which will in turn inspire followers and zealous devotion (353). And, as for philosophers, be they moral fanatics like Kant or not, there is nothing more paltry and pathetic to Nietzsche, than a philosopher who cannot laugh at himself and the world around him from time to time. Walter Kaufmann, who offers incredibly insightful footnotes, as usual, remarks that most of Nietzsche’s interpreters, critics and detractors were incapable of laughing at themselves.

As for his wonderfully superb attacks and mockery of nationalism (in particularly German nationalism), antisemitism, pessimism, mysticism and all the rest on Christianity and the Christian god, I will not dare to even begin to try and summarize it all here. It’s all too brilliant and fun, and would be quite unjust of me. I only recommend this entire book be read, and everything in it be pondered on without haste by the reader, preferably with a fierce, exuberant heart, under warm, sunny skies, or majestic, starry nights.

A TOAST, then! To the death of God! How I love the smell of his rotting carcass!!

Remember: just because God is dead, it doesn't mean we have to be. :)

Fool in Despair

All that I wrote on table and wall
With a foolish heart and foolish scrawl
Was meant to add a little grace.

You say: “The hands of fools deface
Table and wall – one must erase
All he has written, all!”

I’d like to help as best I can:
I wield a sponge, as you recall,
As critic and as waterman.

But when the cleaning up is done,
Let’s see the super-sage emit
Upon the walls sagacious shit!

- From the Appendix of Songs -


  1. Very compelling writing. I can tell you are a huge fan of N.
    Question for you- how would you relate consciousness in aphorism 354 to his explanation of truth in "On Truth and Lies in a Nonmoral Sense"?

  2. Damn, this is so annoying! I don't get emails letting me know when someone has commented on my blog. That's why I'm only finding out about yours right now. I apologize for the delay, but I don't check my comments regularly. Maybe I should start.

    Indeed I am. I've recently completed my Master's Degree in Continental Philosophy, and my Major Research Project, which I got an A for last month, was on Nietzsche's slave morality and genealogy of Christianity. It was "On the Genealogy of Morals," which I read back in October of '06, that hastened me on my path of academic study, so I owe much to Nietzsche.

    "On Truth and Lies" is a bit blurry to me, but off the top of my head, it works quite well with what he also discusses in "Twilight of the Idols," regarding language. Our herd-like misunderstandings of something causing something else to happen, e.g., saying the lightening flashed, is inaccurate. The lightening IS the flashing. A subject is posited for the occurrence, when really they are one and the same thing. There is no being, there is only becoming: a motif of his very Heraclitian perspective. This stems into his notion of the shadows of God remaining in science and language. We're always trying to (mistakenly) posit a supreme subject as being the cause of things. However, the wind does NOT blow: the wind IS the blowing.

    Thanks for your question. It's a really good one.

  3. Wow, there's a lot to take in here. I'm actually writing a paper on The Gay Science for a culture class that I'm taking. Could you tell me, in your opinion of course, the theme of this work?

  4. Sorry it took so long to reply to you. I don't get emails letting me know when I get a comment.

    I don't think there's one theme. There are many of them, but I think life-affirmation and self-cultivation are dominating themes throughout his work. I suggest reading "Nietzsche: Philosopher, Psychologist, Antichrist" by Walter Kaufmann. You should definitely read "Daybreak" as well, Nietzsche's most underrated work. It came out the year before "The Gay Science," and it's just as good, if not better than it. My favourite of his works is "On the Genealogy of Morals." That book changed my life.