Honeycombs and Spider Webs:
Style and Structure in On Truth and Lying in a Non-Moral Sense
To look for truth in Friedrich Nietzsche’s On Truth and Lying in a Non-Moral Sense is to miss the point of the work completely. Ironically, to do so is also to prove the point of the work, or one of its points, completely. Nietzsche offers no truth, nor claims to; the text suggests no alternative to the existing systems of language and science, deceitful by nature from their inception and in their application, but rather demonstrates their all-encompassing totality and effectiveness even as a function of his explanation. The structure and style of the essay are indivisible from its content. If the reader seeks a revelation, or builds one from the pieces so deliberately placed by Nietzsche throughout the text, he testifies to the human readiness to accept deception—which readiness is an integral element of Nietzsche’s argument.
The urge is difficult to resist, despite the several warnings he gives. In order to make his point, Nietzsche must draw out the drive for truth via a precise and careful deployment of rhetorical devices intended to engage the reader, tropes of literary quality that appear truthful and convincing for their vividness and apparent connections to the subjects in question. As he reveals in his conclusion—less a conclusion than a cessation of writing—he makes those connections in his capacity as a man of intuition, one whose intellect uses "the vast assembly of beams and boards to which needy man clings…as a mere climbing frame and plaything on which to perform its most reckless tricks" (152). Though we do not encounter the man of intuition in name until the final paragraphs, he is present throughout, a guide through both the "plain" conceptual terminology as well as the creator of the piece’s more prosaic elements. Nietzsche’s language presents the man of intuition and the man of reason as separate figures, divided by ideology while sharing a common goal of mastery, but, as is made clear from the very start of the text, the two may be and most often are simultaneously contained by a single mind—be it the author’s, or that of the reader. On Truth and Lying serves as an arena for their combat, and an opportunity for the reader to encounter and identify each within the self. Nietzsche favors the man of intuition, both implicitly and explicitly, and deploys his rhetorical skill to assist in that man’s victory of intellect: the "rule of art over life," defined "by the radiance of metaphorical visions, and indeed generally by the immediacy of deception" (153). We will see both how Nietzsche allies himself, and attempts to align us, precisely by those means. The journey through the text is not a turning from darkness to light, from lies to truth, as experienced in Socrates’ cave, but an awakening to unreality—a call not merely to recognize the shadows, but to control them.
That journey designates the work as nothing short of a bildungsroman in which the reader plays the part of the main character. Though full of literary prose, this is not a work of narrative fiction; readers have no figure with whom they can identify or through which they may participate in the intended intellectual development. They must therefore experience it in first person and feel its effects directly. Without a character to follow, only a "narrator" remains, and in order to guide effectively, that narrator must not only have already completed the journey on his own, but also must take care not to assume the reader’s personal stake in the struggle by forging ahead as an individual. Nietzsche diminishes his personal command presence in the very first paragraph, immediately following the parable of the clever animals and the invention of cognition. "Someone could invent a fable like this," he writes, "and yet they would still not have given a satisfactory illustration…" (141). Someone could invent such a fable, and indeed someone did. The move goes nearly unnoticed, but by this simple substitution of an anonymous personage, "Nietzsche" the narrator steps back from the role of active leader and pedagogue. Only rarely in the piece does the author employ the first person, singular: once in the example of naming a mammal a mammal (147), again in reference to the necessity of a mediating force that can freely create poetry, another time in his desire to avoid the word Erscheinung—appearance (148). Apart from a relatively few instances, he does not call direct attention to his isolated, individual presence.
The gesture is obviously an imperfect one. In this case the implied and real authors conflate; all opinions expressed are necessarily those of the broadcasting station. As Nietzsche claims, however, his deception (it is important to remember at this point that, according to his philosophy, all language is deception, lies in a non-moral sense) will only hold if no threat is perceived: "Human beings do not so much flee from being tricked as from being harmed by being tricked" (143). Refining the assessment further, humans flee as soon as they perceive the potential for harm, and in terms of a discourse such as this one, the human reaction of hostility "towards truths which may be harmful and destructive" manifests as argument and disbelief (143). Certainly the notion that humans do not possess any knowledge of things in themselves, the next step taken by the text, is harmful to the man of reason, for he has built his existence upon the contrary foundation. To defuse the anticipated hostility, Nietzsche is careful not to set himself up in opposition to the reader by including him in his invectives—yet.
The changes in his use of we/they, us/them are not without purpose. He speaks of humanity’s flaws, its failings, its willing self-delusion and ambivalence. As part of humanity, the reader (and Nietzsche) is necessarily implicated. The reader is protected, though, by being cast alongside Nietzsche in the impossible position of an outsider. "They are deeply immersed in illusions and dream images; their eyes merely glide across the surface of things" (142, my italics). What is negative or unfavorable in people is largely set apart by third person labels, he, they, or as shown above, the generalized humanity or human beings. "They" bear the brunt of his attack, not the reader, who, separated from the "they," is on a rhetorical level granted in advance the understanding Nietzsche wishes to impart. Only gradually does Nietzsche include the reader in his demonstrations with a "we." That pronoun is, among other things, a marker for reader participation, a subtle instruction to engage in a developmental thought exercise and achieve the next stage towards becoming a man of intuition. "How could we possibly be permitted to say, 'the stone is hard,' as if 'hard' were something known to us in some other way, and not merely as an entirely subjective stimulus?" Nietzsche asks (144). The reader is left to ponder. On another occasion, Nietzsche provides an "answer" along with his question: "Consequently, what is a law of nature for us at all? It is not known to us in itself but only in its effects, i.e. in its relation to other laws of nature which are in turn known to us only as relations”" (149). If the man of reason does not recognize this, then the "us" cannot refer to him. It is "known" only to the man of intuition, the man Nietzsche wants the reader to become.
The strategy is simply pedagogic sleight-of-hand, one level of trickery in a multi-layered collage—a way for Nietzsche to represent an illusion of the entire forest to one of its own trees. As suggested earlier, the reader, presuming he encounters the text in the condition of a man of reason, occupies the space of "they" as well as "we," and as a representative of humanity in its unintuitive state, must therefore share his journey with society at large. His history is human history; the structure of the text takes the reader in a clear line of human development as interpreted by the author, from the beginnings of linguistic designation to the solidifying edificial structure of conceptual reality. Nietzsche’s work here takes place on at least three levels: the first, an explanation of the "history" itself; the next, the debunking of that history as based on any essential knowledge, in accordance with his thesis on unreality and deception. Setting aside the third level for the moment to concentrate on the first two, the bildungsroman appears to begin with man—the reader—in a primal state, his intellect merely a tool permitting competition with fanged and horned "beasts of prey" (142). This situating of man so early in the essay, in a struggle for survival of the fittest, may not be meant to be taken for literal, prehistoric-combat, as this is a history with no dates, and Nietzsche quickly moves on in the same paragraph to a far more developed species of man practicing a far more sophisticated species of deception. Even as allegory, however, it establishes a sense of primitiveness in the developmental chronology, predating even the "drive for truth," (itself ultimately a kind of misnomer), which emerges with man’s next step: language.
As the clever animals in the opening parable invented cognition, man "invented" a system of designation to escape the chaos of all-encompassing war. These designations, intended to possess equal validity in their application across all linguistic jurisdictions, comprise language, in whatever specific form it may appear. It is automatically metaphoric, according to Nietzsche, who begins his analytical attack in earnest on this basis. No "actual" temporal scale is provided by which to measure the duration of the process of forgetfulness that allowed the arbitrary designators to take on the semblance of pure knowledge in the human mind. It could well have been instantaneous, for it would seem that continual awareness of the "deception" demands an unsustainable vigilance of consciousness, counterproductive to the efficiency of the system; or perhaps it occurred upon the instant of mutual comprehension according to de Saussure’s circuit model, a form of which Nietzsche describes as a metaphoric translation of nerve stimulation to sound. The moment a designator was agreed upon by at least two individuals, it could function without the presence of its object, leaving the object "forgotten." Language thus becomes the "unconscious lie" Nietzsche describes at roughly the essay’s midpoint, the truth of the man of reason. Though already revealed as an inextricably embroiled progenitor of the deception, still the reader has not yet arrived at his own time in history.
To structure the human bildungsroman, Nietzsche must marry the process to specific periods of time in human and even geological history. Temporal markers appear, following the section on language, that metaphorically create the timeline, finally leading the reader to what may be taken for contemporary modernity. Briefly: the "mass of images" from which language derived "originally flowed in a hot, liquid stream from the primal power of the human imagination" (148). This is easily an evocation of volcanic activity, a reference to the earth early in its early life. In connection to the "rigid regularity" of concepts, the Romans and Etruscans appear, drawing lines in the sky (147). Then, only a few sentences later, man becomes the constructor of "an infinitely complicated cathedral of concepts," cathedrals being a loftier endeavor that occupied Europe from the 12th to the 17th Centuries. Nietzsche acknowledges the feat as an impressive one, worthy of self-congratulatory admiration and preservation, but does not recognize this metaphoric cathedral as anything more substantial than cobwebs. Finally, continuing this chronological mapping of human comprehension, the 18th Century sees the beginning of the Enlightenment and the Age of Reason. It is here, with the first line of the second chapter, that Nietzsche extends his arguments to the field of science.
The reader has now arrived at the forefront of his knowledge and experience. Nietzsche has taken the reader to the very border of man’s progress, all the way from the first, deceitful survival impulses of human intellect to the deathly imagery of the roman columbarium and the towering prison-fortress of scientific classification. The journey is almost complete, if all has gone according to design: the supposed connection of language to the essence of things has been explained away, knowledge, even the laws of nature, have been revealed to be built upon a fallacious structure of relativistic, artificial, arbitrary constructs. All that remains is the future, and the awakening from a slumberous ideology of reason to whatever comes next on Nietzsche’s map.
It will prove difficult to describe, and create a divergence in the otherwise smooth progression through time. The future of humanity is the common cultural perspective once achieved, as Nietzsche claims very near to the end of the essay, in ancient Greece. He first mentions the Greeks in connection to art, and "the waking day of a people who are stimulated by myth" (151). A page later he confirms the accomplishments of that society as the intuitive intellectual endeavor of man. What Nietzsche seeks, the Greeks once achieved: the victory of art over life. His invocation of them at the end of the essay pulls them from the "real" historical timeline, in which they should have appeared between the Etruscans and Romans; but Nietzsche separated and saved them, moved them in emphasis of his neoclassical sensibilities, the grounding of his philosophy and placement of the intellectual goal of humanity not in a wholly unknown and unfamiliar future, but in an idealized past. Nietzsche does not explore how or why the specific values of that society were abandoned, or how the victory of intuition over reason—art over strict adherence to concept—was reversed, if in fact it ever truly existed, and to do so would take the bildungsroman an undesirable step beyond its finish line. The goal is Greece; both the journey of the reader and the structure of the text lead to it, or rather, lead back to it.
If language were anything other than what Nietzsche claims it to be, "Greece" or "Art" might have been enough to complete the journey, end the essay with a reader well on his way to a liberated intellect. Unfortunately, they are subject to the same conceptual classification, the same mistaken belief that what they represent can be understood in an essential way. Therefore, one step remains to be taken, and naturally, it turns out to be the hardest. The essay, which heretofore operated along a relatively easy to follow logical progression of illustration and explanation, here diverts to a less than crystalline description of the liberated intellect. Nietzsche provides the following authorial loophole to legitimize his inability to make clear in language what, by its very nature, cannot be made clear in language:
No regular way leads from these intuitions into the land of the ghostly schemata and abstractions; words are not made for them; man is struck dumb when he sees them, or he will speak only in forbidden metaphors and unheard-of combinations of concepts so that, by at least demolishing and deriding the old conceptual barriers, he may do creative justice to the impression made on him by the mighty, present intuition (152).
The awakened state, the liberated intellect, cannot operate in the realm of the man of reason; no man of reason can appreciate or comprehend it through language. He can only see it by its effects, much as the way a black hole, believed to be a magnificent and fundamental force, cannot be directly detected, and has thus far defied all attempts even to prove its existence. This is the third level at which the text operates—a metadeception, for lack of a better phrase, left largely unexplained and virtually unmentioned precisely because language is not up to the task of defining it. It is the trick taking place behind the tricks, working on the reader from the opening line, long before there is even an inadequate name for it.
The text must be reflexive. It must contain moments of art’s rule over reason, do what it is about, or the theorem can exist only in conceptual form, insufficient to finish the story of becoming. Throughout the essay, Nietzsche does "confuse the cells and classifications of concepts by setting up new translations, metaphors, metonymies," and shapes "the given world of the waking human being in ways which are just as multiform, irregular, inconsequential, incoherent, charming, and ever-new," as he says is the substance of art (151). Examples are numerous, from the very first line to the last. On several occasions, Nietzsche marks them, calls attention to an "effect" about to take place. The phrase "as it were" precedes the conceit of "to play with its fingers on the back of things," and interrupts the image of "clinging in dreams to the back of a tiger" (143). A "one might say" introduces the suggestion of flowing water as the moving foundation of the cathedral mentioned above (147). The liberated intellect "jumbles up and shifts the boundary stones of abstraction, describing a river, for example, as a moving road that carries men to destinations to which they normally walk" (152). This last instance is "the someone could invent a fable" ploy at the opening of the text replayed to greater understanding. Nietzsche is the man behind the description of river as road. His is the liberated intellect, capable of the artistry the man of reason may be able to understand, but cannot duplicate.
Only in rereading the essay, by knowing what to look for, do these moments stand out as what they are—traces of the man of intuition. The honeycombs and spider webs are man’s constructed concepts, feats of architecture necessary to humanity’s ability to communicate, establish what will pass for truth. They are also, as Nietzsche deploys them, evidence of the deception at a higher level, metaphors taken away from their narrow cells and reapplied in unexpected ways. If life is a dream, the man of intuition dreams lucidly. He, knowing it for a dream, can manipulate the illusion and control the shadows. If the reader, and the world he represents, possesses the knowledge and daring, he might do the same.
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