Nietzsche and Eros
between the devil and God’s deep blue sea
The problem of the artist as actor—Jew—woman
By Babette E. Babich
Department of Philosophy, Fordham University, NYC, NY 10023, USA
Abstract. In a single aphorism in The Gay Science, Nietzsche arrays “The Problem of the Artist” in a reticulated constellation. Addressing every member of the excluded grouping of disenfranchised “others,” Nietzsche turns to the destitution of a god of love keyed to the self-turning absorption of the human heart. His ultimate and irrecusably tragic project to restore the innocence of becoming requires the affirmation of the problem of suffering as the task of learning how to love. Nietzsche sees the eros of art as what can teach us how to make things beautiful, desirable, lovable in the routine truth of reality: “When they are not.” The stumbling block for those of us paralyzed by impotence and frozen in a technological age of anxiety, longing for being not becoming (eternal youth), is that one can never possess but can only win great health, again and again (like erotic desire), because one gives it away again and again as sacrifice or affirmation without reserve: that is to say, with erotic artistry.
Although in what follows I address the question of erotic love (that is: the domain of sexuality), it is important to emphasize that 1 will offer as oblique an approach to the issue of eros and sex as any other philosophical discussion. In philosophic reviews of the erotic (particularly analytic treatments),(1) abstraction invariably ablates the wings of the god.(2) Here, however, the obliquity of my approach has less to do with the philosophic elusiveness of the subject matter than with the complex of problems expressed by Friedrich Nietzsche under the name of the repressed problem of the artist. Nietzsche articulates the problem of the artist as the problem no less of the actor than as the problem of the Jew (GS §361) and because all three problems are ultimately expressed as the problem of woman, the erotic element is key in this constellation.(3)
In many of its particulars, the ‘problem’ of the artist (or actor or Jew or woman) has marked affinities with what educators are fond of calling the problem child. The artist is imbued with semblance: false, if not as child psychologists are likely to be false, but given to acting-out or to precocity or preciousness. This “falseness with a good conscience” (GS §361) expresses itself in the child’s characteristic (and, characteristically, sometimes over-exaggerated or feigned) delight in appearance, talent for mimicry, and inclination to affect as such. In strikingly postmodern terms, Nietzsche presents the ‘problem artist’ as the problem of mass culture and—although the age of psychoanalysis is rapidly waning—articulates the latter problem as the problem of the hysteric.
For Nietzsche, “The Problem of the Artist” is a problem that can only be understood in affine terms. Impossible to parse in itself, the problem of culture is the problem of the individual artist: the problem of cultivation and genius, the conditions of production and reception, and so on. The problem of the artist is the problem of representation as the problem of dissimulation and semblance: the problem of truth and lie, reality and illusion. Yet the goal is not to highlight the dissimulating or illusory character of the artist (actor, Jew, woman). Articulating a cadenced account that runs from artist to actor to the Jew and the diplomatic heart of truth/lie and precisely as an account ending with the problem of woman (in erotic love and in life), Nietzsche also adumbrates a parallel reading of democracy in accord with his own transfiguring sensibility.(4)
In one dense, evocative aphorism, Nietzsche resolves the artist’s problem into a cascading tessellation of what might seem to be modernity’s every problem with the other. Posing the problem of the actor (or “fool”) together with the Jew yields an epistemic tension (with reference to ‘falseness’) and, given the intercalation of ‘diplomacy’ and the pragmatics of rhetoric, recollects the origin of scholarship in general (GS §348), culminating in the problem of woman outlined against the cultural phantasm of genius and contra the more virulent opposition between philosophy and science. Given the paradox of Nietzsche’s profoundly democratic sensibility (precisely in its emphatically anti-democratic character), this reticulated register recapitulates and consummates almost the entirety of The Gay Science. In this same way, the “problem of the artist,” (qua actor, fool, Jew, diplomat, rhetorician, woman) culminates with the hysterical sarcasm that embodies Nietzsche’s ultimate word on the problem as a whole: “Woman is so artistic.”(5)
This hysteric resonance articulates a precisely or deliberately overwrought determinism: an excess to excess to excess.(6) The critical and dangerous significance of this associative cadence for contemporary reflection is Nietzsche’s metonymic transfer of the problem of the Jew to the nineteenth century image of woman as a coy, fainting, fashion-conscious lie (BGE §145; §148; §237).(7) It is in this way worth remembering the ordinary reference of the histrionic (to the theatre) and the hysteric in the jokes of everyday life, whereby the apotheosis of the artist as focal point for the question that is the problem of the actor (or the mask) is transformed into the question of woman. And not only feminist scholars but philosophic chameleons like Jacques Derrida and his many imitators have made a good deal of the allusive resonance of this last connection, replaying the music box of Nietzsche’s twilight theme wherein it becomes Platonic truth, taking a Jewish detour to become Christian love, subsequently becoming sufficiently female for the eternal German ideal of woman, ending via the enlightenment, Königsberg, and socialist sentimentality aground on its own evolutionary peak or loss of values. For Nietzsche, the evolution of the ideal is the decay, the decadence of the ideal. It is at once Plato’s conversion (as/into Christianity) into the province of popular enlightenment values and as such an inversion, it is also the instrument of Plato’s revenge: “what world is left? The apparent world perhaps? . . . But no! With the real world we have also abolished the apparent world.”(8)
2. Innocence and becoming
From the beginning, Nietzsche regarded the modern scientific progress ideal as the optimistic fulfillment of Socrates’ invention of modern scientific thinking, i.e., a rational inversion of tragic culture characterized by a profound hatred of change or becoming. The same antipathy to process and becoming undergirds the technological enthusiasm of contemporary Western culture. Our horror of the desultory effects of the corruptions of becoming and time means that we want technological fixes in our cosmetics and in our medicines for aging, sickness, death, and decay; we want the same fixes on the same values in our engineering science for environmental disorders and contamination. In this way, the cult of the new refuses (mortal) change. This is the contemporary cult of juvenile perfection: all promise and potential, but nothing actual—unsullied by the real exhaustions and banal detours of procreative investment or the costs of consummation and growth, not to speak of the desultory transformations of illness and decadence.
It is also capital (it is also extraordinarily difficult) to note that Nietzsche does not simply oppose the optimistic status quo of this Socratic inversion qua life-stasis or cultural stagnation. Instead, Nietzsche opposes the remedial programme of Socratic knowing to the life-affirming potency of the artist who would consecrate or immortalize (and so imprint or stamp) not ideal reality but becoming in the image of being. The key note will be a pure moment of abundance or joy. Without this excess, without what Nietzsche names flowing out or abundance, his word for affirmation (amor fati) is impossible. And I shall argue that failing Nietzsche’s careful, constant attention to the disagreeable, to pain, suffering, or—equally—to banality or pointlessness, any expression of the affirmative ideal is empty because redundant. Without suffering, pain, anxiety and despair, that is, failing the intrusive presence of an oppressive and hard edge in life and love, Nietzsche’s teaching of affirmation reduces to cliché-quality therapeutic counseling or television evangelism or new-age consolation (Write your life as literature! You create your own reality, you are responsible for—you cause your own illness) offered to the victims of cancer or other terminal illness. The placebo new-age spirituality of popular culture blandly, blindly declares: There is no suffering.
Although we are, of course, as liable to suffering and mortality as in Socrates’ own time, and, for all its fanfare, modern medical science has done not a thing to eliminate the ultimate threats of disease and death, it is conspicuously easy to maintain the opposite. In the culture of techno-scientific modernity, the first thing we assert is a triumph over pain and disease and we are sure that a remedy is in the offing for old age, perhaps even for death.
We are committed to a celebration of accomplished permanence—what Heidegger is pleased to tease out of Nietzsche’s Nachlaß notes as the ideal imprinting of becoming with the still form or image of being. This means that we celebrate what becomes in a measure that reflects our best ownmost possibility not according to any tragic accounting of being as and in time, but as good, little Platonic footprints or footnotes. Following in the wake of the inversion of Platonism by way of the Hellenic invention of Judeao-Christianity and the latter’s conversion into Western scientific rationality and techno-culture, we today are careful to reserve our enthusiasm not for a tragic affirmation of becoming (i.e., with a choral affirmation of coming undone, being inevitably undone), but we keep our rounds for the latest banausic invention and preservation. Adverting to the ordinary images of consumer culture, we will buy anything that promises to keep us healthy or beautiful and if we might avoid illness, accidents, or age, anyone of us could spare a curse for a demon arrived to sell the eternal return of the same. The eternal ideal: eternal love, eternal life, eternal youth, yes; but the eternal return, life as it is/was, just as it is/was, no.
We want, because we desperately need, a non-literal, more than metaphorical interpretation of Nietzsche’s teaching of the Eternal Return of the Same.(9) Yet the basic pattern of eternal recurrence is the ancient Greek insight into the tragic essence of life as the breath or flow of birth and emergence, spontaneous growth, persistence and pain, failure and a wide array of possible deaths. For Nietzsche, the fundamental characteristics of life—growth, procreation, aging, and dying—inherently involve difficulty and are ineluctably doomed in the exactly Schopenhauerian economy of what cannot be sustained. The enterprises of life entail failure.(10) In exactly this connection, in a “myth” invented by Plato, we have Eros the god conceived precisely as compensation: a “gift” born of life’s poverty in its calculating concourse with resourcefulness.(11) From such a Platonic standpoint, ‘becoming’ regarded in all its aspects, includes growth and procreation as much as death and persists as an earthly, sullying process of inconsequent beginnings, obscured innocence, fallen ideals.(12)
Against enduring values (Parmenidean stasis, the Platonic weight of being: an impossible value for breathing, organic creatures), Nietzsche wishes to install (or poetically to name as best and so musically to bless) “the values of the briefest and most transient, the seductive flash of gold on the belly of the serpent vita—” (KSA 12, 348). But it is indispensable to an understanding of the meaning of such values to underscore them as the values of appearance and these are values without (real) value: a shining glint of gold, rather less than a gleam on the belly of a metaphor. Only poetry or the music of artistic invention can achieve the highest will to power: marking becoming with the character of being, the seeming or appearance of being.
We will need poetry to stamp becoming with timeless, inalterable value because ‘in truth’ for Nietzsche—as for Anaximander, Heraclitus, Empedocles—there can only be alteration. Science and mathematical logic do not and cannot secure the becoming of what is real as perdurant being. Like poetry and like art, both science (and this includes the human or the social as well as the natural sciences) and mathematics work as conventions or inventions but lie about and most perniciously to themselves.(13) Inventing itself, dressing itself to seduce its own expectations of reality, science’s unshaken confidence embraces the metaphysical reality of its own invention.
The real—the experienced or lived—world exemplifies nothing but the very unremitting change or becoming Nietzsche celebrates in his most unsettling descriptions of the same world Plato deplores. Contrary to Plato’s protest against physical life, the secret of tragic wisdom is the knowledge of ineluctable perdition.(14) Opposing becoming, philosophers seek unchanging truths or logical forms in the same (Lacanian) locus where theologians seek God or purpose, and scientists pursue a unified theory of everything. Nietzsche’s project to restore the innocence of becoming, or to stamp becoming itself with being thus affirms neither the scientific mummification of the present moment nor the eschatological dream of the full time of an eternally ultimate life but the music of mere becoming as not only the native character of the physical or natural world but the best possible truth of the world.(15) This is the determinate scheme of the erotic—here conceived as the valence of art. Speaking of eros, or speaking of art, or, indeed, advocating the renewal of innocence, should not obscure what remains transfigured but not for that redeemed as the tragic character of becoming.
Nietzsche thus returns at the end of his published reflections to his original tragic insight: “All becoming and growing, all that guarantees the future, postulates pain” (TI, “What I Owe the Ancients” §4)—as the very deliberate affirmation of subjective pain in every process and needful in every innocence. One is oneself a piece of fate, but—and this is the heart of Nietzsche’s insight—not fated by any determining power as a power that might intercede or change anything. Thus everything and anything that happens must be imagined as it is without blame. What is crucial in such an amor fati is the unremitting emphasis on what is ‘disagreeable’ or challenging (which is not necessarily difficulty) in the doctrine.(16) What is must be as it is not because it follows the law of God or nature (the point of the claim “ni Dieu, ni maître” [BGE §22], affirms the substitutive logic of secularity where the regularity of the law substitutes for both God as father and master and/as nature) but rather because it is without plan (beyond God or law) and that is also to say without recourse (or salvation/scientific remedy).(17) The erotic domain illuminates this insight as both attained in ecstasy and to be sacrificed in death.
Nietzsche’s teaching of amor fati must be conceived as erotic affirmation. The key to such an affirmation will be consummation, i.e., works not faith. As eros, such affirmation has no part in the resignation endemic either to vulgar nihilism or to positivist determinism. Independently of one another, Howard Caygill and Tracy B. Strong have recently emphasized the secret to this teaching as what everyone, Nietzsche too, would call love.(18) And yet the word of love alone is meaningless. As an erotic, Dionysian affirmation of life, Nietzschean amor fati teaches an eros more demanding than agape and perhaps an eros even more impossible for the devotees of the cult of sexual distraction.(19) Love, just love, or the idea of sex (the image of eros or pornography) is meaningless unless immediately, really affirmed in praxis, declared, enacted in what we do. Whatever one’s confessional standpoint on the question of faith and works, it is the working or the practice, that is: the act of love that counts in the real world.
In other more philosophical words, the danger of talking about love is that it easily becomes a fainting aesthete’s (we remember that Kierkegaard was a television evangelist manqué: i.e., in the age not of the internet or music video but only the novel—and the Danish novel at that), that is: love-talk is exactly not an artist’s musical politics. As an Empedoclean nisus, love does not sit and catch an affective emphasis, gushing over the love of the world inspired by a night at the theater but, like Hölderlin’s Napoleon or Nietzsche’s own derivative “Caesar with the soul of Christ,” lives and acts in the world.(20) This needful eros is the same as the Nietzschean program of reconstrued or restored innocence, or amor fati, which teaches the musical necessity of every individual and every event.
The idea of restoring the innocence of becoming is every bit as counter-intuitive and as implausible (or pointless) a notion as the restitution of virginity. And in reference to love in particular, it is likewise essential to emphasize the contextual reference to the pre-Socratic understanding of erotic love, particularly Empedoclean love, as a physical not a psycho-sociological dynamic innocent of the constructions of both the anti-materialist Platonic Eros and the Pauline eristic. Becoming is the crime or fault of change, aging, and death. Thus the innocence of becoming Nietzsche seeks to restore is an erotic innocence and the purity in question is the chastity of true love (cf. BGE §142). To regard becoming in such erotic innocence presupposes nothing like an acceptance or passive tolerance but an unconditional passion for the world, where the unconditional, impossible impetuosity of real love is a prerequisite for attaining an affirmative disposition toward the world as it is, where affirmation means desire and not resignation. In a Nachlaß note from 1883, Nietzsche proposes the “most important viewpoint: to attain the innocence of becoming, by means of excluding purposes [or ends]” (KSA 10, 245).(21)
Given the cruelest interpretation of becoming, excluding the concept of God or of truth, unchanging Being or the ordinal laws of nature, affirms the lack of ultimate purpose—as Nietzsche has it: “We invented the concept.” Life becomes, in all its becoming, transformations, its decaying in sickness, age, and death, very like the cherubinic rose—without why. Pure blooming: not only buzzing confusion as James’s pragmaticism winces, but also pure gift. Again and yet: to really see this, even once, that is, really to catch the aspect of life as excess, as growth and decay, joy and pain inextricably mixed will require at least one good day. You ‘have,’ as casual language puts it, ‘to be there’ and, in a passage entitled “Vita femina” in The Gay Science, as Nietzsche reminds us in his most rueful tonality, the raw odds against any such revelation are extraordinarily high (GS §339). Even then: the mischief will be to fight the fade.
The sour note of normal indigence here, as it is this that has produced the world-altering contours of slave morality and culture, is that for the most part, for most of us there are hardly any moments that remain or can stay present as such a divine moment. For this reason, what Nietzsche recommends as consecration and blessing remains impossible or inconceivable for us until we catch what is given on such a needful day as may perhaps and yet still be born for us. For I argue that just such a transformational desire (not salvific Lacanian desire will do) corresponds to this same temptation to the expression of passionate love. And here we are thinking exactly of actors, of artists, and particularly of women—and I will add the necessary twist—not romantically but exactly as problematic.
For desire to work as the everyday model of the Dionysian intoxication Nietzsche proposes, it must be a sensualist, aesthetic desire, felt and lived in the world—not merely lust played at, and not at all—and this is the heart of the problem of the Jew, of woman, of actors, and of artists—and not ever the slavish seduction of another’s desire. In the case of woman (not only in the West but in a diachronic extension the world over), the problem here is that she is rarely ’genuine’ but always an actor, a “Vertreter” (TI, “Arrows” §38), a guise in her own space, in place of herself. And, according to Simone de Beauvoir, this disingenuousness is endemic to the traditional cultural ‘situation’ (or manner) of literally “becoming” a woman. Even in the act of love. To affect desire (which is what it is to be the object of erotic desire) in the heat of desire is the eternal sexual calling card of ‘women’ Nietzsche claims, and that no matter whether one speaks of a male or female ‘woman’—“Dass sie ‘sich geben,’ selbst noch wenn sie—sich geben” (GS §361).(22) Nevertheless, in his ideal description of passionate love, what Nietzsche imagines is the spiritualization of sensuality: the music or realization of art. Key to this spiritualization is that the putative fact that he had so little experience of love in his life does not invalidate this insight; much rather this lack of experience may well have been what enabled him to hold to it not because one must be naïve to love (nor does naïveté help) but rather because the work and the working of love is hard. Lacking experience, Nietzsche could escape the compromise, and compensation, negotium of disappointed, misappointed love—where what one so often learns in the experience of love is not how to love but how not to love: the art of compromise or giving up on one’s desire.(23) Thus Nietzsche too, like the Napoleon he imagined himself to be (with the soul of Christ), might have imagined himself the martyr of love’s ideal.