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.


  1. Here is jaac ventriloquising Anthony:


    I enjoyed your post about hunting down a Nietzsche fragment, and tried to post the following comment, but I am never able to successfully comment on Blogspot blogs: 

    The ambiguities of translation. I much prefer the potency of the second translation, the richness of possession against the flatter, subtler 'have', the richness of allusion in 'lest, despite its archaic nature, and all the implication of destruction in 'perish'.

    Not sure if you are able to add that comment on my behalf. If not, not a problem, wanted anyway to let you know that I really enjoy what you do on being in lieu.


  2. It's maddening the way the web has made the sourcing of quotations so much more difficult. Whether they're totally mangled, ridiculously misattributed, entirely fabricated, or reduced to "lite" versions, f'd-up quotations are spreading like MRSAs and they're killing off the good ones at the rate of, oh, a thousand a day. :)

    Anyway, I was once hired for a research task that required me to look into the same sentence of Nietzsche's that prompted your search. The following info from my notes might be of interest:

    "We have art in order not to die from the truth" appears in no published English translation of The Will to Power (from the Nachlass), in which Nietzsche wrote, « Wir haben die Kunst, damit wir nicht an der Wahrheit zugrunde gehen. » (Italics are Nietzsche's.)

    In the first English translation, Ludovici rendered that as, "Art is with us in order that we may not perish through truth." Walter Kaufmann's final revision of R.J. Hollingdale's translation of Book III produced the version that's almost always cited by, shall we say, serious writers: "We possess art lest we perish of the truth." (Italics are Kaufmann's.)

    It's likely that the lite version, "We have art in order not to die from the truth," came directly from Le mythe de Sisyphe, in which Camus wrote: « L'art et rien que l'art, dit Nietzsche, nous avons l'art pour ne point mourir de la vérité. » Justin O'Brien (accurately) rendered it in English as, “'Art and nothing but art,' said Nietzsche; 'we have art in order not to die of the truth.'"

    "We have art in order not to die of the truth" is all over the place in popular fiction, self-help books, etc., and of course generates nearly 10x as many Google hits as English translations from The Will to Power.

    Note that Nietzsche's remarks about the function of art in his earlier essay, "Richard Wagner in Bayreuth," from Unzeitgemäße Betrachtungen (Untimely Meditations as translated by Hollingdale, or Unfashionable Observations as translated by Richard T. Gray) may be useful when interpreting his later and much more famous statement.

    For example, from Gray's Unfashionable Observations, p. 279:

    "But the greatness and indispensability of art lies precisely in the fact that it arouses the semblance of a more simple world, of an easier solution to the riddles of life. No one who suffers from life can do without this semblance, just as no one can do without sleep. The more difficult our knowledge of the laws of life becomes, the more ardently we desire that semblance of simplification, even if only for brief moments—the greater becomes the tension between the universal knowledge of things and the intellectual-moral capacity of the individual. Art exists so that the bow does not break." (Italics are Gray's.)

    There's more, but the above is probably already overkill. ;) Thanks for your wonderful post!

    P.S. to Anthony: Yes, I prefer the (now-standard) translation by Kaufmann, too, for the reasons you mention.

  3. Brilliant! Not at all overkill. Thank you so much.


  4. Wow is just the simple word that may explain that how much I liked it. It was nicely stuffed with the material I was looking for. It’s great to be here though by chance.

    professional voice overs  

    1. So crazy, and so not at all but entirely apt, to have this random insertion of 'professional voice overs' as part of this conversation about quoting Nietzsche.

  5. thanks for the direct german and the camus french, Death Zen! just to note what I found in wikipedia, it should all be taken with a large grain of salt: "Der Wille zur Macht (1888) is an anthology of material from Nietzsche's notebooks of the 1880s, edited by his friend Peter Gast, supervised by his sister Elisabeth Nietzsche, and misrepresented by her as his unpublished magnum opus. All but 16 of its 1067 fragments can be traced to source texts in the historical-critical edition of Nietzsche's writings, Kritische Gesamtausgabe: Werke, though 204 of the 1067 sections involve patching together paragraphs not originally juxtaposed by Nietzsche, or dividing continuous passages into multiple "aphorisms" and re-arranging their order, and much of the text has been lightly edited to correct punctuation errors. Because of its misrepresentation of Nietzsche's private notes as an all but finished magnum opus, it has been called a "historic forgery"."
    Nonetheless, I too hope to use the quote (after also being struck by it in the Tartt novel) for my own purposes (art call on genomic integrity)! :)

  6. As my husband, a philosopher, lay dying in the ICU, with tubes in every orifice, I whispered in his ear, "Who said 'We have art in order not to die of the truth'"? He took a pen and pad and wrote "Nietzche". That was his next to last communication. (His last:" Tell George to fix the roof")
    Thank you for this stimulating exchange. It feels like his spirit is still alive.

    1. Thank you too, Annette. I'm so glad you've brought his voice to this discussion.