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Niels Helsloot Niels Helsloot


Niels Helsloot, Vrolijke wetenschap, Nietzsche als vriend, Baarn, Agora 1999, pp. 337-342.
© 1999, 2003
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Gaya scienza, Nietzsche as a friend

The problem treated in this book is whether a scientific culture can be retained under radically modern conditions involving the loss of any belief in fixed truths. I approach this problem by concentrating on the question as to whether Friedrich Nietzsche's concept of fröhliche Wissenschaft can serve as a source of inspiration for a tenable conception of science. (Fröhliche Wissenschaft, which is usually translated as 'gay science' – gay in the sense of cheerful or joyful –, is rendered less ambiguously by the Occitan gaya scienza, which designates the poetry of the troubadours.)
   In the prologue (entitled It becomes 'serious'!), scientific culture is praised as a way of life in which whatever occurs is open to investigation – and therefore to appreciation in its own right. This openness is seen as being under attack by the growing dominance of economic value criteria. The belief in (establishable) truth, however, implies a comparable threat from within. In order to avoid fixation of values, the present approach is more explicitly personal and more outspokenly methodical then is usual in philosophy. Its personal character is manifest both in the recognition of the peculiarity of my reading of Nietzsche and in the attention to Nietzsche's life as expressed in his writings. Paradigmatically, throughout the book, the opening section of the first book of Also sprach Zarathustra – in which the soul turns respectively into a camel and a lion to become a child – is read as a biographical sketch. The methodology corresponding to this personal angle of vision is a philological one; it implies an analytical and interpretive approach to texts that are not understandable in themselves, and aims at knowledge of what is known in such texts without judging them by their truthfulness. Contrary to a presupposition shared by the protagonists of the debate opposing (true and perfect) language referring to reality in a naturally right way to language (use) based upon merely arbitrary conventions, a philological approach implies that language has nothing to do with reality (or agreements upon reality). The debate in question, kept alive at least from Socrates up to Kant, simply illustrates how agreements and differences between people – and their forms of life – are expressed in language. In this respect, a philological approach is fundamentally sceptical. Even its own presuppositions are seen as no more than presuppositions. This denial of any final truth has the practical advantage of retaining scientific openness and thus giving an impulse to conversation instead of indisputable conclusions. A philological reading of Nietzsche on these lines cannot adhere to an established tradition of Nietzsche studies; it cannot lead to disapproval, which would indicate a lack of understanding; its orientation towards texts (as part of life) excludes an interest in biographical details in and for themselves; and its start from life impedes the construction of a Nietzsche going beyond historical actualities. What a philological approach can do is open the eyes to Nietzsche's development, which began from a philological rather than philosophical stance and led to a serious attempt at scientific gaiety; a philological approach unavoidably begins with recognition, or even identification; and intervenes in Nietzsche's texts by producing a new text (i.e. it engages in conversation). The question of the tenability of scientific culture can thus be approached in a way that is simultaneously systematic and historically concrete.
   In chapter 1 (Philology's weight), the problem of scientific truth is presented as a problem of one-sidedness. Nietzsche's development is described up to the end of his student days. His interest in the scientific rationality of classical philology is presented as counterbalancing his emotional inspiration by music. Both poles together show the two-sidedness of the moods between which he was torn. The tension inherent in those moods is expressed in a philological note about the inarticulate and inhuman tone of a dreadful apparition behind his chair. If one renounces the musical side of language, as was required in order to be a philologist, one excludes the confusions of real human contact. It was exactly this renunciation which led to Nietzsche's success. In this respect, his academic career continued a feeling of isolation – the experience of the impossibility of human contact – which he traced back to his early years. Yet, the socially binding thrill of music is never totally absent in his thinking. In his final boarding school essay, he pointed to the occasional lyricism of Theognis of Megara in early Greece, which he saw as a musical expression of aristocratic repugnance to the rise of popular power (corresponding to the disapproval of democracy in Bismarckian Prussia). In his student days, he was initially inspired by Jahn – who was both a philologist and a music historian. After he was discovered by Ritschl, who for reasons of principle was a more one-sided philologist, Nietzsche compensated for his purely philological work on Diogenes Laertius, the Latin biographer of philosophers, by planning a dissertation on the singers' contest between Homer and Hesiod, which reached back to more musical times. Nietzsche was strongly influenced by Ritschl's scientific approach at that time, but also by Schopenhauer's resort to artificial representations to ease the pain caused by the will (the will to live, including musical inspiration). Another important influence was that of Bismarck who, in opposition to Ritschl's exclusion of 'musical' moods and Schopenhauer's renunciation, appealed for an energetic readiness for action. Especially at the time of his military service, Nietzsche felt a tension between his personal vision of the Greek muses and the politically decisive power of national armies. In more cultural terms, he realized the lack of power of great individuals (at this time he especially studied Democrit) in relation to the power of the masses – particularly the multitude of philological interpreters. When a short time later he met Wagner, he found a 'philologist' producing music himself. This gave a model of the two-sidedness – of a camel – he tried to acquire by taking the weights of two distinct humps upon himself.
   In chapter 2 (Science in a torn world), the 'musical' reverse of science is incorporated into a two-sided conception of science. The first few years of Nietzsche's professorate are examined. In his inaugural lecture, he programmatically treated the problem of Homer's personality from a philosophical point of view, which meant by recognizing the depersonalizing influence of music. This theme returned in his courses on the Greek lyricists, in which he attributed musical creativity to the people rather than to the aristocracy. A short time later it was also in the name of the people (the nation) that Prussia waged war against France; for Nietzsche this was more than an intermezzo. He played his part in defending Prussian culture, but he soon realized that the military foundation of the German Empire destroyed all culture. At this time, he defined philology in terms of a 'philosophical' aim at cultural unity. But the actual philologists destroyed their subject by reconstructing details without any overall vision; in response to their lack of cultural passion Nietzsche turned his back on professional philology. This is clear in the 'philosophical' (i.e. 'musical') shift in his philological work on Die Geburt der Tragödie. Here he made a distinction between Socratic or ironical science, artificial or lying science, and Apollonian/Dionysian or tragical science. Socrates' ironic appeal for a truth that makes happy served as a model for the optimistic search for knowledge in modern science. The first step in overcoming this one-sided conception of science was to recognize earthly suffering. By creating artificial representations, ('Apollonian') science would be able to conceal unbearable truths. The second step was to see what lay behind this concealment. The tragic combination of heroic Apollonian illusions and self-abandoning Dionysian wisdom offered a two-sided alternative allowing for organization of the chaos within oneself without neutralizing its 'musical' moving force. In discussion with Wilamowitz, Rohde and Wagner, I argue that for Nietzsche this was still a way to contribute to philology and to scientific culture. The two-sided camel in its desert, however, met with a one-sided dragon that came into existence by devouring all duality.
   In chapter 3 (From philologist to troubadour), the two steps towards a tragical science are completed by a third step, towards a gaya (fröhliche) conception of science. This chapter treats the final years of Nietzsche's professorate, up to the 'festive year' in which Die fröhliche Wissenschaft appeared. Two parallel developments are pivotal to an understanding of those years: Nietzsche gradually experienced his profession, which initially served as a defence against the ups and downs of his moods, as leading to him ignoring these moods, and therefore as becoming the main cause of his recurring illness; and he saw Wagner's giving priority to language (philology) over music as hostile towards his own position – which added to his illness by undermining their friendship. He tried to cure both problems by developing a 'philosophy of distance'. The only way to maintain an identity of one's own would be prudence in love, i.e. approaching the idealized powers threatening one's personal autonomy, but only up to the point at which one still feels strong enough to distance oneself and to sacrifice those ideals. With a great struggle he gave up both his job and Wagner's friendship. The tension rising from this liberation resulted in a freedom to support personal points of view, even if this went against other people he loved. This self-acceptance was reached in Die fröhliche Wissenschaft (the first edition, especially the section entitled Sanctus Januarius), which contains a heroic defence of individual exceptionality – symbolized by the troubadour's combination of knightly passion and poetical expression. I discuss how Nietzsche was inspired to take this courage by Lou von Salomé, whom – in a poem entitled Bitte (plea, or please) – he attributed an intermediary position between himself and his best friend (Rée, who had taken Wagner's place). The fascinating but one-sided dragon was fought with the help of the lion (Löwe, Lou), who taught how a predator steals its freedom.
   Nietzsche's recommendation to respect deviating truths is in alignment with the dislike in radically modern science to commit oneself to a single truth. He supported the proposition that this implies appreciating personal points of view (even if they are one's own), and he particularly pointed to the importance of accounting for 'musical' experiences that are complementary to the rationality of science. Thus, the contours of a viable conception of science are marked. The two final chapters elaborate on this gaya scienza by going into two questions raised: How to interpret the prerequisite of the third person Nietzsche needed as an intermediary between himself and the other in order to put knowledge in perspective? And in what respect can this conception of science be termed gaya?
   In chapter 4 (Friendship and love), the intermediary position is interpreted as offering the right distance to gain scientific knowledge. This reading is based on a reconsideration of Nietzsche's development up to Die fröhliche Wissenschaft – i.e. up to his friendship with Rée and Lou. As what is insanity if experienced in isolation starts to become truth once it is shared, so the question of science shifts to the question as to whether a bridge can be build between people. Initially, for Nietzsche, this was a question about the conditions under which male warriors could fight side by side, until the moment their struggle would turn them against one another. Love would encourage the weaker one to become stronger and finally to overcome the one he admired. This implies painful separation, which can only be avoided by adepting oneself to a growing circle of friends – but such adaptation would include a loss of self. At the time of Die fröhliche Wissenschaft, Nietzsche's prudence in love required a balance of power between friends sharing a common ideal. The reference to the troubadours should be seen as a way of relating male 'Greek love' to the possibility of friendship with a woman playing the role of this shared ideal. Nietzsche turned against christian love – required by one jealous god and disinterestedly generalized to all of his children. He polytheistically rejected any unitary ideal (already the god Dionysus was torn apart). The tyranny of submission to one true love would exclude the change needed to be true to oneself and to the multitude of perspectives from which the world can be seen. Nietzsche's Bitte to Lou von Salomé, therefore, should not be read as an attempt to get entangled in marriage. Although the traditional image of the differences between (strong, active and militant) men and (weak, passive and coquettish) women didn't leave much room to imagine other interpretations, Nietzsche intended a more real friendship. The apparent beauty of women is only seductive from a distance; on approaching one finds powerlessness and revengefulness. In Nietzsche's friendship with Lou the need for a balance of power had a different effect than in friendships between men: it encouraged Nietzsche to recognize his own weakness. Being an exception – and therefore weak – himself, he didn't think of truth (which is a woman) as something to possess but as something which, for good reasons, hides itself. Scepticism, as the female approach to knowledge, is a form of shame about the weakness, or even absence, of the truth scientists use to search behind appearances. Nietzsche did not advocate scepticism in the sense of a continuous and desperate doubt, but he did advocate more courteous manners in the presence of a shame that is fundamentally justified, if only to protect the dignity of exceptional beings. Truth should not be spoken, but personal truths can be passed down in silence – by doves forming flocks without understanding the messages they carry.
   In chapter 5 (Uncontrollable laughter), the gaiety of Nietzsche's gaya scienza is concretized in terms of the demand of being able to laugh at oneself (and one's own truths) as a prerequisite to science. This chapter concentrates on Nietzsche's conscious life after Die fröhliche Wissenschaft (again in relation to his earlier development), beginning from his split with Lou and Rée. These were years of renewed isolation, of travelling from health resort to health resort, and of coping in writing with what according to general standards had to be seen as his failure. In spite of this, it is also a period in which the project of a gaya scienza was continued and elaborated. Looking back, it is clear that Lou was not only a friend and a woman, but also a child: a possible pupil and someone that could carry his message into the future. Her lack of understanding and her power to overcome Nietzsche himself turned her into his model of the Übermensch – going beyond human reach, and cruelly playing with the vanishing old world in the way gods, like children, do. In Also sprach Zarathustra and in the second edition of Die fröhliche Wissenschaft, Nietzsche tried to affirm the fate of his own downfall – as an ultimate way of accepting himself. At the end of Also sprach Zarathustra, Zarathustra is on his way to the land of his children: the coming of his time is announced by the appearance of a lion with doves flocking round it. And the new final book of Die fröhliche Wissenschaft asks for the courage to dance into this new land without really knowing what is in store. It is difficult to see why this prospect should be a cheerful one. Yet his tragical conception of science went through a comical shift: human suffering is absurd rather than sublime. The tragic hero turns into a fool – needed as an intermediary to enable one to laugh at oneself indirectly. Only very slowly did Nietzsche accept the possibility, even desirability, of being a fool oneself – ridiculed as an exception, and ridiculing apparent adaptation. By considering Nietzsche's appreciation of seriousness and laughter, it becomes clear that his scientific laughter is the consequence of an extreme seriousness. Life, and downfall, are bearable – and finally delightful – only as means to knowledge. Laughter is a sign of the defeat of powers that are stronger than oneself, and the resulting loss of fear allows for an 'irresponsible' judgment about those powers and about oneself. Finally, it is possible to make one's own judgment upon what is ridiculous and absurd: this judgment is expressed through laghter. It is a form of laughter that embraces a multitude of points of view, including those of one's own Übermensche, and at the same time it is totally isolated because of their fundamental lack of understanding. Nietzsche's sudden insanity kept him from a further scientific investigation into the problem of how to relate to asses whose ears (contrary to those of doves) are large enough to hear whatever they want to hear – the main problem to his reception.
   The book concludes with an epilogue (The prejudice of a serious beast) which considers the ways in which Nietzsche's conception of gaya scienza can serve as a contribution to science in a radically modern culture. This question can now be reformulated into the question of how to deal with the other sides of one's own perspective. Nietzsche pointed to the need of a personal stance in relation to dominant others, the need of continuous practical experimentation, the need of 'philological' friendship towards incomprehensible others, and the importance of being able to laugh at oneself. His vulnerable approach is preferable to the shameful drive to expose truth. Finally the multiplicity of complementary points of view inherent in this approach is underlined by pointing to the strengths and weaknesses of the positions of the camel (including duality in one position), the lion (capable of opposition to the other), the child (introducing a third position, going beyond contemporary enmities and friendships), and – dare I add – the cow (the multifarious animal of the herd who ruminates on all this).


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