1 – The Poet as Actor

Nietzsche writes in Beyond Good and Evil: “Poets treat their experiences shamelessly: they exploit them”11 What appears romantic, or pathetic, may also be a product of calculation and self-consciousness. Whatever mood or emotion a poet may have can become romantically exploited for verse. This much is clear. In monitoring one’s reactions; however, in imitating oneself, the very activity of reflection gives rise to the question of the truth both of the emotion and its exploitation: for it follows that any romantic must also in a sense be an actor or actress in order to behave as if he or she is unselfing the truth. The relation is more complex for the poet. The emotions are the poet’s “own”. An “I” is essential to lyric poetry. Further, ingenuity and naiveté are assumed to be the province of the poet. Thus, the poet’s experiences are exploited but done so “shamelessly”, for they personally proclaim the poet’s innocence.
In Thus Spake Zarathustra, Nietzsche pokes fun at the poet’s special shameless exhibitionism:

Some lust and some boredom: that has so far been their best reflection. All their harp jingling is to me the breath and flitting of ghosts; what have they ever known of the fervor of tones?
Nor are they clean enough for me: they all muddy their waters to make them appear deep. And they like to pose as reconcilers: but mediators and mixers they remain for me, and half-and-half and unclean.
Alas I cast my net into their seas and wanted to catch good fish; but I always pulled up the head of some old god. Thus the sea gave him who was hungry a stone. And they themselves may well have come from the seas. Certainly, pearls are found in them: they are that much more similar to hard shellfish. And instead of a soul I often found salted slime in them.
From the sea they learned even its vanity: is not the sea the peacock of peacocks? Even before the ugliest buffalo it still spreads out its tail, and never wearies of its lace fan of silver and silk. Sulky, the buffalo stares back, close to the sand in his soul, closer still to the thicket, closest of all to the swamp. What are beauty and sea and the peacock’s finery to him? This parable I offer poets. Verily, their spirit itself is the peacock of peacocks and a sea of vanity! The spirit of the poet craves spectators — even if only buffaloes. 12

The phrase, “They all muddy their waters to make them appear deep” captures perfectly the poet in the act of appearing profound not only through the exploitation of private, romantic emotion but also through the exploitation of the sensation of profundity. For Nietzsche, this attitude is part of the emotional pollution which accompanies any transparent effort to appear deep. Fishing for unconscious content only reels in epigonal images from oafish plays at profundity, clichés of old theodicities, and philosopher’s stones. Even the occasional pearl is planted in a bed of emotional muck and psychological buffalo-ing. But it is from the sea’s surface, if not first from the peacock’s feathers, that the poet learns the colors from which to imitate real emotional variety, and its detail.
As for the audience, even a brutish mass of insensitivity will do. Nietzsche depicts the Everyman-Spectator, lured by the sensitive poet, as a buffalo edging through a thicket to a swamp. The buffalo cannot fully understand or see the tawdry play of dandyish self-consciousness. Baffled, the he or she-buffalo yearns for sound, fury, spectacle! Of course, the poet is desperate; his vanity has stained his sense of judgment, and he does get carried away. He performs to any audience available.
Nietzsche intends the passage to be funny; but the ironic intent also expands on the theme of exploitation of experience. To plunder a feeling, while, or even before, it becomes one’s own, is to uproot one’s access to the source of one’s self and experience of the world. The poet may be self-conscious enough to act unselfconsciously, shrewd to every emotion. This strategy, however, must be somehow made more interesting, or extravagant, in order to warrant attention. And so we have a peculiar psychological species of corruption anatomized here. The first self-deception: one peeks shamelessly through a keyhole at oneself. It is necessary to ignore this stage because even private embarrassment (a rare moment of lucidity) will give away the truth. One must force oneself to be so trapped in the process so as to act towards oneself as if one is unaware.
In this play of pretended innocence and drowned lucidity, any scientific clarity can only be greeted with horror. The purely “aesthetic” art-for-art’s sake mirror replaces nature’s as the primping dandy indulges in the cosmetic narcissism which thrives on unintentional self-caricature. All of this quite naturally blends into the fatuousness, the overblown fluff reflected in the epigram quoted above in the preface: “All poets and writers in love with the superlative want more than they are capable of.” 13
More seriously, the exaggeration is twofold: it comes from seeking to be exceptional because of a frustration over a deficient fund of power, and from the forced, self-conscious attempt to compensate “innocently” by creating an alternative art-world. All the layers of self-consciousness, then, feed off an already limited ebb of psychic energy, and so we are left with the “ghost” which Nietzsche refers to above in his peacock-buffalo passage from Zarathustra.
There is still here a will to power which strives for a grand style, but cannot achieve it. There is still a competition, an agon, but it is unlike that described in “Homer’s Contest”. For the desired is distorted, perversely and knowingly, both in its original conception and in its effort before it reaches us as self-conscious poetry. We have before us a perfect example of a corrupt desire willing what is specifically destructive to it, willing greatness through false innocence. So what we are presented, what surfaces as a text is the overreaching, the agony of the spirit. Hence giantism rather than greatness, a histrionic bathos which sinks art while it attempts to trick or overwhelm the reader into believing it profound, “airy”, all the while exposing what is precisely missing from the author’s life.
This does not, of course, mean that the text will not be publicly acclaimed. The instinct to please and the desperation to share ressentiment as culture can lure the same subterranean decadence from an audience. Nietzsche seems to argue in The Case Against Wagner that this may be crucial to an artists’ popularity. The same analysis could then be made of an audience, of a culture, of a “people”. And Nietzsche often does just this, usually to the particular excoriation of Germans and Germany.
Nietzsche maintains, however, that even among the greatest poets art is often a compensation for inner failure:

… one does best not separate the artist from his work, not taking him as seriously as his work. He is, afterall, only the precondition of his work, the womb, the soil, sometimes the dung and manure on which, out of which, it grows …
… A Homer would not have created an Achilles nor a Goethe a Faust. Whoever is completely and wholly an artist is to all eternity separated from the “real”, the actual; on the other hand, one can understand how he may sometimes weary to the point of desperation of the eternal “unreality” and falsity of his innermost existence — and that then he may well attempt what is most forbidden him, to lay hold actuality, for once actually to be. With what success? This is easy to guess. 14.

And in Beyond Good and Evil:

Those great poets, for example — men like Byron, Musset, Poe, Leopardi, Kliest, Gogol (I do not dare mention greater names but I mean them) — are and must perhaps be men of fleeting moments, enthusiastic, sensual, childish, frivolous and sudden in mistrust and trust; with souls in which they usually try to conceal some fracture often taking revenge with their works from some inner contamination, often seeking with their high flights to escape into forgetfulness from an all-too-faithful memory: often lost in the mud and almost in love with it, until they become like the will-o’the-wisps around swamps and pose as stars — the people may then call them idealists — often fighting against a long nausea, with a recurring specter of unbelief that chills and forces them to languish for gloria and to gobble their “belief in themselves” from the hands of intoxicated flatterers — what torture are these great artists and all the so-called highest men for anyone who has once guessed their true nature! 15

The poet’s impatience and ambition to be imposing, to be recognized, to please, without openly begging for praise, terminally transforms his or her existence and relation to the world. Whatever sense of actuality pre-existed the need is lost, transformed under the guise of an ideality — a reactive ideality — which feeds the poet’s self-consciousness. In comparison with an ideal image the artist appears as a dwarfed or ruined actor, a homunculus, exploiting whatever “materials” he or she can find so as to preserve an imaginary elevation. The desperation and the falsity of the poet’s existence separates the author from the creation. Even if the exalted image succeeds in its revenge to right imagined past wrongs, it is grotesque to imagine the actual and the ideal ever meeting. The distance between these two extremes creates in the poet a permanent nostalgia and an envy towards the fiction (the poet’s personae) which is preferred by an audience over the poet’s actual self.
Even if the poet realizes this, preferring to live in an alternative world as the creator — both in the poetic-reactive sense and in the frustrated will to master — lording over what is fictionally created, he or she must present the work in an attractive, coherent form for others. There is nothing in this which, for Nietzsche, is egoless. Even the best poets instinctually hide their reactive ambition. But it is necessary to admit that the artist is in control of the process and yearns to be fulfilled by something more than conventional happiness. Hence the poet as actor is “driven”. The very mechanism which inflates the poet’s act, the personae, can reveal the deficiencies which necessitate the self-drama as an assault on the truth.