Tuesday, May 13, 2014

We have art in order not to die from the truth

It is a nicely sobering epigraph, this one that Donna Tartt inserts at the beginning of the fifth and final section of her novel The Goldfinch: 'We have art in order not to die from the truth -- NIETZSCHE'. When I read it, I had to put the book down for a moment: this book that, otherwise, was pulling me kicking and twisting through the shiny black streets of its meticulous research -- pulling me despite, or perhaps because of, the increasing delays in the plot: those narrative deferments which deliberate teasings I'll never get used to -- just tell them about your dead phone Theo! -- and that judder to an halt only when the requisite chapter of wisdom is served.

I wanted to poke at the quotation. There was something too obvious about the way the dots were joining up: the way these three words art, die, and truth could be assembled as follows: that although the truth can be terrible, too terrible to bear -- with no resolution possible, nothing reconciled -- while we might even die from the horror of it -- thank god, at least, for the ever glowing lamp of art, and for being able to pass it on through the centuries as it has been passed on to us.

So I googled the line and found what I should have guessed from the first: that this particular quotation from Nietzsche would be out there, seemingly everywhere -- some on quotation collection sites, some shining bare and proud on somebody's tumblr or blog -- but try as I might I couldn't find the exact source. Was it from a book, a fragment, letters? When it turned up, unreferenced, in Albert Camus's Myth of Sisyphus -- near the beginning of the section, 'Absurd Creation' -- I even began to wonder whether the whole of this line's ubiquity on the web came down to a pass-the-parcel game with a fond but half memory on the part of Camus.

I will spare you the erroneous attributions of certain Radiohead reviewers because, if nothing else -- and very directly due to this misdirection -- I managed to unearth a small treasure that I had come across somewhere else once (who hasn't?) and promptly lost:

But then why do you write? -- A: I am not one of those who think with a wet quill in hand; much less one of those who abandon themselves to their passions before the open inkwell, sitting on their chair and staring at the paper. I am annoyed and ashamed of all writing; to me, writing is nature's call -- to speak of it even in simile is repugnant to me. B: But why, then, do you write? -- A: Well, my friend, I say this in confidence: until now, I have found no other means of getting rid of my thoughts. -- B: And why do you want to get rid of them? -- A: Why do I want to? Do I want to? I have to. -- B: Enough! Enough! (The Gay Science, Book II, section 93)

Sometime later, after recourse to databases, I found the longed for line in Book III of Nietzsche's The Will to Power (1968 Vintage edition). I'll quote the entire fragment (number 822, dated 1888; emphases in the original):

If my readers are sufficiently initiated into the idea that "the good man" represents, in the total drama of life, a form of exhaustion, they will respect the consistency of Christianity in conceiving the good man as ugly. Christianity was right in this.

For a philosopher to say, "the good and the beautiful are one," is infamy; if he goes on to add, "also the true," one ought to thrash him. Truth is ugly.

We possess art lest we perish of the truth.
The preceding fragment throws an important light on this -- one that, for me at least, makes the accent on the ugly in this section -- a certain relishing of its strange, unaccountable pull -- so much clearer. Again I quote in full (number 821, dated March-June, 1888; emphases in the original):

Pessimism in art? -- The artist gradually comes to love for their own sake the means that reveal a condition of intoxication: extreme subtlety and splendor of color, definiteness of line, nuances of tone: the distinct where otherwise, under normal conditions, distinctness is lacking. All distinct things, all nuances, to the extent that they recall these extreme enhancements of strength that intoxication produces, awaken this feeling of intoxication by association: the effect of works of art is to excite the state that creates art -- intoxication.

What is essential in art remains its perfection of existence, its production of perfection and plenitude; art is essentially affirmation, blessing, deification of existence -- What does a pessimistic art signify? Is it not a contradictio? -- Yes. -- Schopenhauer is wrong when he says that certain works of art serve pessimism. Tragedy does not teach "resignation" -- To represent terrible and questionable things is in itself an instinct for power and magnificence in an artist: he does not fear them -- There is no such thing as pessimistic art -- Art affirms. Job affirms. -- But Zola? But the Goncourts? -- The things they display are ugly: but that they display them comes from their pleasure in the ugly -- It's no good! If you think otherwise, you're deceiving yourselves. -- How liberating is Dostoevsky!

No beauty as consolation here.