The central topic of Book Two of Nietzsche’s The Gay Science, published in 1882, seems to be the question of art. Many of the sections of Book Two (which comprises sections numbered 57 to 107) focus on the power and purposes of art, especially music and literature. Yet sections 60 to 75 deal primarily with the subject of women. Are these sections simply an inappropriate interruption of some sort, or may we conclude from their placement that there is an important connection for Nietzsche between the subjects of art and women?
Section 59, “We artists,” begins with an allusion to loving a woman. Kaufmann thinks that this reference prompted Nietzsche to stray off the track momentarily: “The comparison in the first paragraph of this section leads Nietzsche to offer observations about women in sections 60–75.”1 At the end of Section 75, Kaufmann notes, “With this absurd aphorism the pages on women reach their nadir and end. The rest of Book II (through section 107) deals with art.”2 Kaufmann thus implies that the series of “observations” on women is a poorly placed interpolation that does not properly belong to this part of the book, or simply a digression prompted by Nietzsche’s casual reference to “a woman.” Other interpreters seem not to have noticed or wondered about the placement of these passages.
I propose to take the juxtaposition of these two apparently distinct themes seriously, and to inquire into the unstated connections between the sections on women and those on art. My contention here is that Nietzsche’s own art, his style, his self-creation within language are heavily influenced by the question of woman. Nietzsche images both the ecstasy and the abjection of becoming in relation to a picture of language that evokes la mère qui jouit: language as a matrix of human existence, as a mother who requires both intimacy and distance. Thus the close conjunction of sections on art and on woman in The Gay Science is not merely coincidental. These two topics are integrally connected in Nietzsche’s imagination. A careful reading of the transitional sections 59 and 60 clarifies the nature of the link.
The Concealers of Naturalness
Section 59 of The Gay Science, entitled “We Artists,” begins with a paragraph about love: “When we love a woman, we easily conceive a hatred of nature on account of all the repulsive natural functions to which every woman is subject. . . . The human being ‘under the skin’ is for all lovers a horror and unthinkable, a blasphemy against God and love.”3 Of course, in reality, every human being, whether male or female, is actually “subject” to “all the repulsive natural functions,” unless (as seems rather likely) Nietzsche is implicitly referring here to menstruation, pregnancy, and childbirth. He says, “Nature seems to encroach on our possessions, and with the profanest hands at that.” This language conveys a sense of abjection and horror in the face of the physical, natural, and perhaps explicitly sexual existence of a beloved, idealized, almost sacred image of “woman.”
The second paragraph draws a more explicit analogy between this kind of sublime love for woman and the love of God.4 It notes that “as lovers still feel about nature and natural functions,” so the worshiper of God, in the past, ignored facts of nature as taught by scientists, and lived “in a dream.”
Immediately the tone shifts. Where one might expect a cynical or debunking analysis of the parallel tendencies to idealize women and to see all nature as testimony to God’s omnipotence, instead a paean to the self-deceiving abilities of such artists appears. “Oh, these men of former times knew how to dream and did not find it necessary to go to sleep first.” And artists of today, like them, feel strongly and let the spirit of the dream overcome them:
And with eyes open, coldly contemptuous of all danger, we climb up on the most hazardous paths to scale the roofs and spires of fantasy—without any sense of dizziness, as if we had been born to climb, we somnambulists of the day! We artists! We ignore what is natural. We are moonstruck and God-struck. We wander, still as death, unwearied, on heights that we do not see as heights but as plains, as our safety.5
This passage is a revealing compendium of the interwoven themes which course throughout Nietzsche’s works and which throw light on the mysterious complex of art and woman.
The beloved woman and God are analogically related. Nature is thought to “encroach” with “profane” or “unconsecrated hands” on the ideality of each, but both the lover and the “men of former times,” God-worshipers, ignore nature, consider it a “horror” and “unthinkable,” a “blasphemy.” It is nature which is experienced as insult, encroachment, defilement, slander. To think of nature, to look on that which is “under the skin,” is transgressive; it lacks piety toward that which is of ultimate value—and the examples are the beloved woman and God.
Yet the structures of these two objects of aspiration are different too. As Nietzsche sets up the comparison, the adored object and what threatens it are slightly different in each case. In the case of the loved woman, that which horrifies and repels the lover is nature itself, the “repulsive natural functions to which every woman is subject.” It is some sort of “unthinkable” reality, corporeality, the presence of actual functions or elements which inspires such revulsion in the postulated lover.
In the case of the lover of God, however, what strikes him as an encroachment and an insult is everything scientists say about nature—about mechanics, even about “natural law” —all of which is rather an indication of the absence of God’s omnipotent will. What horrifies in the case of woman is an actuality, a presence, a power which inspires contempt, denial, or flight, while what is horrific for the lover of God consists precisely in the suspicion that there is no God, that instead of an ideal and moral (or even arbitrary) will, an impersonal, mechanical causality rules all of nature. Woman’s all-too-present physical reality and God’s absence or abdication are linked here as archetypal precursors of the forces which inspire all artists.
“We artists! We ignore what is natural!” (Wir Künstler! Wir verhehler der Natürlichkeit! I prefer to translate this: “We concealers of naturalness.” For just as the lover denies or represses the physicality of the beloved, and the believer rejects scientific challenges to the idea of God, the artist actively conceals, not merely ignores, what he or she on some level knows.) “We are moonstruck and God-struck.” (A perfect juxtaposition of the images of the celestial feminine and masculine!) This entire concluding passage describes the artistic drive as continuous with both the religious will and the will to “soul and form” versus body, the flight both from divine (fatherly) absence and from motherly presence, from nature as empty machine and from woman as full nature. The artist climbs, scales roofs and spires, and wanders on heights, far above the threat of the natural, whether sensed as presence or absence, “on heights that we do not see as heights but as plains, as our safety.”
Here occur, all together and at once, abjection of the feminine, of woman as bodily and natural, as presence, and reminder of birth and death; the absence or death of God; and the flight to the heights, which Nietzsche images not as danger but as safety, security (Sicherheit). A note of ironic self-critique, of the kind that saves many of Nietzsche’s most far-flung utterances from the absurdity many attribute to him, appears in the midst of the passage: “And we men of today still master this art [of dreaming while awake] all too well, despite all of our good will toward the day and staying awake.” This statement calls into question the ultimate value which otherwise might seem to attach to the artist’s version of the denial of nature. “All too well” do artists of today master the art of dreaming while awake, of climbing to the heights where they feel secure, of fleeing from whatever presence or absence threatens them. Here we have a phenomenology of art, and especially of writing, as abjection, as “self-creation in the face of death, the feminine, nature, and the death of God.
It is just at this point that what Kaufmann calls the “observations about women,” sections 60 to 75, begin. But they are not simply meditations on this theme, interjected here almost randomly because Nietzsche happened to have made reference to a woman in Section 59. Rather, it seems to me that they are integrally related to the questions raised in Section 59 about art and its value for life. Let us look closely at Section 60, and attempt to unravel the connections Nietzsche is making here.
To Sail Away over Life
Section 60 is entitled “Die Frauen und ihre Wirkung in die Ferne.” Kaufmann’s translation, “Women and their action at a distance,” does not fully convey the active sense suggested by the construction “Wirkung in die Ferne.” “In” with an object in the accusative case implies movement into or toward, not static presence in or at. Women, according to this passage, influence or act into the distance; further examination of the passage will show that the vision or image of women serves to give the male artist a sense of distance, an experience of detachment, of peace and happiness at a remove from the turmoil of daily life. “Women’s” action, according to Nietzsche, is to push the artist into a vision of distance itself. They act into the distance, not (primarily) at a distance. This distinction seems important to me. We shall see below how Nietzsche develops it in the section under consideration.
The opening passage of Section 60 exemplifies Nietzsche’s virtuosic powers of language. Precisely here where he attempts to write almost directly on the relation between “women” and creativity, his language rescues him from an abyss otherwise too bottomless to approach. This particular conjunction of concerns puts him face to face with the mysterious and unfathomable character of language itself, which he images as feminine or maternal. Direct discourse about either women or creation is already fraught with anxiety. Approaching the two together brings him close to an explosive state, and it is language itself, its rhythms and patterns of associations, its semiotic power, which carries him through this dangerous region.
“Women and their action into the distance.—Do I still have ears? Am I even only ear and nothing further, nothing more?”6
A disintegration of the self which speaks, the ich, is under way from the outset in this passage. The narrator first questions whether he still has ears, and then goes on to wonder whether he may be in fact only ear, and nothing further, nothing more. What is the situation that leads him to wonder if he has become only ear? The sounds themselves of the German original provide a clue: “Hier stehe ich inmitten des Brandes der Brandung, deren weisse Flammen bis zu meinem Fusse heraufzüngeln:—von allen Seiten heult, droht, schreit, schrillt es auf mich zu. . . . ”
“Here I stand in the midst of the burning of the surf, whose white flames lick up towards my foot:—from all sides, it howls, threatens, screams, and screeches at me. . . . ” Note the rhythms and the hissing of the words in Nietzsche’s sentence. The “I” is surrounded by fire, by flames of surf, which lick or “tongue” (züngeln) up toward its foot. The “fire” and surf are a nearly deafening welter of hostile, aggressive sound. The surf takes on a decidedly verbal character, “tonguing,” howling, threatening, screaming, and screeching, overwhelming with sounds of tongues. (Züngeln also describes the sound snakes make: “to hiss.”) Could this passage be an image for the primal immersion in sound, before speech becomes communication, before any symbolic structure has taken shape to give form and meaning to the cacophony of voices and tongues?
The passage continues, again demonstrating through its own rhythms precisely what it is talking about: “Während in der tiefsten Tiefe der alte Erderschütterer seine Arie singt, dumpf wie ein brüllender Stier: er stampft sich dazu einen solchen Erderschütterer-Tact, dass selbst diesen verwetterten Felsunholden hier das Herz dariiber im Leibe zittert.” “While in the deepest deep [die Tiefe also has both musical and nautical “undertones,” referring to bass notes, and to soundings], the old earth-quaker sings his aria, muffled [or dull] like a lowing bull: he stamps himself such an earthquake-beat to it, that the hearts of even these weathered rock-monsters tremble from it in their bodies.”7
Here then appears another, an erotic, dimension of the noise that surrounds the “I” become “ear”: Poseidon, the old earth-shaker and consort of Mother Earth, sings like a bull, evoking his old fertility associations, and stamps out such a beat to his own low, deep song that its rhythm permeates and shakes even the “hearts” of the craggy monster-boulders on which the narrator stands.
Many aspects of language in its “semiotic” disposition are in evidence in this passage: its all-engulfing, surrounding quality; its overwhelming presence, reducing the subject to an ear; its threat to identity; its aspect as corporeal, as tongue; its association with the fertile union of Poseidon and Earth; and, very important, the power of its rhythmic beat, the low, muffled, underlying pulse that causes the hearts of even weathered rock-monsters to tremble.
What can possibly occur in such a place, a place so utterly dominated by the pulsions and drives of the semiotic disposition? What is the fate of the “I” who stands shivering, overwhelmed, close perhaps to disappearing in the welter of rhythmic, cacophonous noise, reduced to nothing but “ear”?
“There, suddenly, as if born out of the nothing, appears before the gate of this hellish labyrinth, only a few fathoms away—a great sailing ship, gliding along as silently as a ghost.”
The vision is born from nowhere, out of nothing (aus dem Nichts), which is precisely where the “I” is at this point, before the gate of a “hellish labyrinth.” The labyrinth evokes all at once the spiral maze confining the minotaur, sacred half-bull, half-man; the inner ear; and perhaps even the labrus or double axe of the cult of the great mother.8 It may also be a perfectly apt image for the maternal matrix which threatens to overwhelm the “I” with its engulfing, mesmerizing, primal-scene rhythms. The narrator is paralyzed in the midst of a howling storm of sound, losing his identity, no longer “himself.”
But what is it that emerges here, before the gate (a classic place of initiation and transition), in the face of the hellish, horrible, identity-threatening maze of sound and rhythm? Out of the nothing, from nowhere, is born “a great sailing ship, gliding along silently as a ghost.” This sailboat provides an image of escape from the clangor of unmediated untamed language, from the labyrinth of the maternal semiotic realm, from the hellish sense of immersion in a chthonic world of sound. Here again the word höllisch appears. It resonates with Nietzsche’s description in Ecce Homo of his mother and sister as a Höllenmaschine, a hell-machine, and perhaps (though imperfectly) with the unterirdischen Höhlen, the underground caves of man’s nature, in the chapter “Of Old and Young Women” in Thus Spoke Zarathustra. (See chapters III and IV, below.)
There is something hellish and terrifying for Nietzsche about the primary semiotic layer of language, yet he is irresistibly drawn by it again and again. This ambivalent attraction is, I believe, associated with the taboo on the mother’s body. Earliest object of desire, first “abject,” it remains the doubly affecting force in the poet’s life, exerting its influence through one work after another.
At this point, halfway through the first long paragraph9 of Section 60, Nietzsche’s tone shifts dramatically. From the original mood of oppression, terror, bewilderment, and loss of self, the text reverses itself, and moves into a rhythmic and breathy passage of sheer exaltation. The opening half of the paragraph, except for the first two short introductory questions, has so far consisted of only two long, complicated sentences, strung together by means of colons and dashes, while the second half of the passage, although approximately equal in length to the first, consists of five questions and eight exclamations. The narrator’s passive terror in the first half gives way to an equally passive exaltation in the second. In the face of the incomprehensible, irrational, unrelenting clamor of surf’s shatter and pound arises the vision, the sighting, of a ghostly, silent, totally calm, and removed sailing ship. “Oh this ghostly beauty! With what magic it seizes me! How? Has all stillness and silence in the world embarked here? Does my happiness itself sit in this quiet place, my happier I, my second, departed self?”
The speaker praises and yearns for the “ghostly” quiet of the ship; he feels that he is under its magical spell, and wonders whether a happier version of himself, himself as already “departed,” is on the ship.10 “Not to be dead, yet also no longer living? As a ghostly, silent, beholding, gliding, soaring intermediate being? Like the ship, which moves away with its white sails like a huge butterfly over the dark sea! Yes! To sail away over life! That is it! That would be it!”
This fantasy of distance, with its rapturous tone and exalted short phrases, as though the speaker were becoming increasingly excited and short of breath, removes us from the scene of primal terror in the face of semiotic cacophony, to a place neither of life nor of death, to a place free from noise, where one is only schauend—looking on, observing, beholding—no longer subject like the undefended ear, but distanced and elevated, looking down on life and its turmoil, sailing away over life. “That is it! That would be it!” “ Das ist es! Das wäre es!” The fantasy of escape into the intermediate realms is affirmed by these two ejaculations: the unspecified “it” here is a dream of perfect peace, of stillness, of escape from the confusion and terror of the booming, sizzling, infinite repetition of waves on the ear.
This vision of ghostly silence and distance seems to have been generated by the unbearable tension of the preceding passage. It is a way out of hearing into vision, a way out of monstrous noise into perfect peace, out of the hazardous and frazzling shatter of surf into a ghostly ship which sails undisturbed above the confusion, untouched, unaffected.
So far, nothing has been said about “die Frauen.” If Nietzsche had simply left this section like this, calling it as he does “die Frauen und ihre Wirkung in die Ferne,” we might perhaps have interpreted it thus: “The storm and struggle of everyday life, the confusing boom and buzz of normal existence, which reduce the narrator to a passive ear, also give rise in him to a vision of perfect peace, ideality, and stillness. The title therefore means that women are a symbol for the everyday, and that their mundane confusion drives the narrator to the calm ideal realms of philosophy, where he might be neither dead nor alive but merely ghostly and observing, floating and gliding above the turbulent maelstroms of life with women.” This would be a rather ordinary motivation, a typical exposition of the eternal conflict between the emotional battle of the sexes and the dispassionate life of the mind, a “metaphysical” distinction, illustrated and made vivid by a fairly traditional metaphor.
But Nietzsche does not leave the passage there. He immediately begins to comment on his own thought. “It appears the noise here has turned me into a visionary?” The diction emphasizes a shift from aural to visual mode, by the choice of “appears” and “visionary.” He generalizes, “all great noise makes us place happiness into the quiet and distance.” It is the surf, its rhythms, poundings, and shatterings, and its association with the maternal matrix or labyrinth that itself motivates the vision of the ship. And then comes his most surprising interpretation of his own vision: “When a man stands in the midst of his own noise, in the midst of his surf of projections and plans: there he sees also quiet, magical beings gliding along past him, after whose happiness and seclusion he yearns—they are women” (emphases Nietzsche’s).
It is thus “women” who are projected as an ideal escape, a vision of silent distance from one’s own noise, one’s own submersion or immersion in the “Würfen und Entwürfen,” the throwings, castings, projections which rebound onto the subject himself, splattering and crashing around him. The narrator thus takes onto himself the noise and confusion that threaten to overwhelm him, and recognizes the appearance of these magical serene beings as a vision, an illusion, a product of the intensity of his subjection to the tongues and voices of his own linguistic, world-constituting immersion. “Es sind die Frauen.” They are his imagined women, the idealized, etherealized ones whose appearance compensates for the noisy, relentless flames of the surf which “howls, threatens, screams, and screeches at me.” Women as primal matrix work, or act, or effect into the distance, women as ideal object. La mère qui jouit, a dimension of one’s own self-constitution, repressed or abjected, works into the distance, throws up her own reverse image, the virgin of the immaculate conception.
Having owned this semiotic welter as part of his own makeup, as integrally connected with his own projects and plans, he displaces onto an idealized, iconic level the image of woman, only coming close to recognizing that this too is as much a part and product of his own process of self-construction as was the semiotic surf from which he sought to escape. “He almost thinks that there among women lives his better self: in these quiet places even the loudest surf becomes deathly quiet and life itself becomes a dream about life.”
His “better self,” his half-living, half-dead self, is projected out to the realm of women, as if they too were such ghostly beings. But then the turn occurs yet again. “And yet! And yet! My noble enthusiast, on the most beautiful sailboat there is also so much noise and uproar, and unfortunately so much petty contemptible noise.”
Here the narrator’s vision, now attributed to a “noble enthusiast,” or “fanatic,” is debunked and derided. The text points out that even in this most elevated and idealized realm, there is definitely noise, and, unfortunately, much of it is small, petty, pitiable, or contemptible. We thus return to the realm of noise, and to the image of women as mundane talkers, petty noisemakers concerned only with small matters, producing contemptible sound. Yet this place of women had already been designated as the possible dwelling place of the “better self” of the dreamer, so all he learns here is that there is pettiness and noise everywhere the self can go; is this small and contemptible noise really so different from the loud surf of his own projects and plans which deafens him and leads him in the first place to seek respite in a silent vision?
“The magic and the most powerful action of women is, to speak the language of the philosophers, an action into the distance, an actio in distans: but that requires, first and above all—distance!” Superficially, the passage seems to refer again to the idealized muselike image of women, their ability to inspire the artist, but only from afar, where their petty noise does not distract him and remind him of their facticity. Yet we have already seen that the image has been projected partly as an effect of the need to escape one’s own petty noise. A clue to a more telling interpretation lies, I believe, in the turn of the phrase “urn die Sprache der Philosophen zu reden.” At one level it means simply “in philosophical language.” The construction may indeed be translated thus, but does it not also carry the alternative sense of intention? Um zu may imply purpose or end; it may be translated “in order to; so as to.” If we hear in the construction overtones of this purposefulness, we may read the sentence: “The magic and the most powerful effect of women is, in order to speak the language of the philosophers, an influence into the far, an actio in distans.”
Thus the primal and original layer of language, laid down in association with the maternal body (the body of earth shaken by the consort’s song and stamp), with its magical and powerful rhythms and poundings, associated both with instinctual immersion and with individuating plans and projects, pushes the subject, creating itself in language, into the far, toward speaking (reden) the language (die Sprache) of the philosophers. This reference to the language of the philosophers is not only a way of introducing or justifying Nietzsche’s translation of actio in distans; it also says something about that actio in distans itself. The experience of daily life and discourse (Rede) propels the subject into the distance, into philosophical Sprache, originally as an imagined escape or respite, and then as a complementary dimension or direction in the overall project of self-construction.
Section 60 concludes: “dazu gehört aber, zuerst und vor allem—Distanz!” “But that requires, first of all and above all—Distance!” Action or effect or influence into the distance requires distance. It requires that distance be a possibility; not only that women be kept at a distance to work their magical, illusion-creating effect, although this implication is certainly present, but also that distance itself be somehow integrally implicated in the process of the subject’s self-creation in relation to language. This distance or split may be a gap between what is imagined and what is experienced, an ever-active space of indeterminate size between one’s language and one’s discourse, between the sign and its meaning, between the subject’s self-projection as transcendental ego and the disruptive disturbing effects of the unconscious. This distance comes to be metaphorized as Woman, the image both of what the subject flees and of what it desires, both movements in distance, into distance, distance which is necessary, “first of all and above all,” for the subject in process to take shape.
Derrida comments on this section in Spurs. He muses: “Perhaps woman is, as non-identity, non-figure, simulacrum, the abyss of distance, the distancing of the distance, the cut [coupe] of spacing, distance itself if one could still say, which is impossible, distance itself:”11
Section 60 seems again to be “about” language, a discourse on the displacement, flux, and self-distancing of a writer, an artist, a subject in the chaos, turmoil, and ecstasy of self-forging between semiotic and symbolic, always requiring distance, if only from oneself, for the process to move. This sense of desire, longing, frustration, distancing, and the powerful language that expresses it are evidences of jouissance, the ecstasy of becoming, a being on the edge, the edge of oneself, of the other, of one’s fantasized or projected other, and always of language itself, the unrepresentable mysterium, the chora, the matrix, la mère qui jouit. That mother, language, continues to play, as we will see in the next chapter, in and around Nietzsche’s enigmatic poetic work Thus Spoke Zarathustra.