2 – The Poet as Liar

Assailing romanticism in The Gay Science, Nietzsche ends in his analysis with this remark:

Isn’t it rather amusing that to this day the most serious philosophers, however strict they may be in questions of certainty, still call on what poets have said in order to lend their ideas force and credibility? And yet it is more dangerous for a truth when a poet agrees than when he contradicts it. For as Homer says: “Many lies tell the poets.” 16

And in another section of The Gay Science, he writes:

Poet and liar. The poet considers the liar a foster brother whom he did out of his milk. Hence his brother remained weak and wretched and never attained a good conscience. 17

Above, Nietzsche argued that any liar need be an actor or actress since any lie must be delivered as if it were true. Since the reverse is not true, i.e., all actors or actresses are liars (unless one believes all dramatic fiction, a lie) it is necessary to examine why Nietzsche, and tradition, insist that all poets are liars.
For Nietzsche, the art-world encourages both creators of values and impoverishers of life. Poets who righteously replace what is true with their projective complaint, their ressentiment of ‘what ought to be true’ who must contradict the truth, and sell their private incapacity, are “romantic”. Art affords the “right” to contradict the truth — a notion which one finds, according to Nietzsche, famous expression in those most disadvantaged by it. These individuals present to a psychologist a unique case: liars reaching “good conscience” through the pleasing of crowds.
Yet Nietzsche defines the common lie as the self-lie in The Antichrist:

By lie I mean: wishing not to see something that one does see; wishing not to see something as one sees it. Whether the lie takes place before witnesses or without witnesses does not matter. The most common lie is that with which one lies to oneself; lying to other is, relatively, an exception. 18

When the self-lie becomes a work of art, however, we must add the question of technique, of entertaining, of pleasing, of persuading others, we must add art to the act of lying. For this “wishing not to see something that one does see” is also an art: one can profit from the ambiguities of metaphor. Splashy metrical effects can confirm poetic convictions, one can accompany oneself to a pleasing tempo, a drum march toward an intentionally projective fantasy, a compensatory, poetic “truth”. The poet panders an intimacy with those pleased, and rewards approval with sensational effects that defy content, an acoustic-linguistic spectacle or communitas of a trans-subjective ressentiment. Herein squirms the “good conscience” which distinguishes the poet from the actor, and everyman from the artless liar.
Nietzsche has already, in Human-All-Too-Human, maintained that artists of all kinds have a weaker relation to truth:

The artist’s feeling for truth. When it comes to recognizing truths, the artist has a weaker morality than a thinker; on no account does he want his brilliant, profound interpretation of life to be taken from him and he defends himself against sober, plain methods and results. Ostensibly, he is fighting for the higher dignity and meaning of man; in truth, he does not want to give up the most effective presupposition for his art, that is the fantastic, the mythic, uncertain, extreme, feeling for the symbolic, over-estimation of the individual, belief in something miraculous about genius; thus he thinks the continuation of his manner of creation is more important than a scientific dedication to truth in every form, however plain it may appear. 19

The poet learns to replace what does not appear with what he or she wishes to appear. As with any artist, this includes fashioning more fantastic and mythic worlds in which, in actuality, the individual who became a poet was and still is rejected, and now is miraculously redeemed. Rejected, but the impulse to please confirms a tyrannic displacement until every trace of shame evaporates, until the medium seems to author the fantasy as a unique reward for those who can share an elemental malice, a private deficiency of power, and it is rewarded as poetry. Habitually, the careful science which preserves what is true frays and there is nothing to entice the poet, or any artist, away from using art to rehabilitate, or “correct” a world which he or she never made. What the poet wishes is to see in this inverted world a transformed self-image which refashions the world to what pleases, because it is not true; and so to transform life-impoverishment into a symbol for genius.
It may be argued, however, that great poetry is terribly difficult to compose and rare. One might also counter that we are not faced with intentional falsehoods here, for poetry inherently is not concerned with truth, but with the creation of imagery and fictional possibilities, a point which Nietzsche concedes. Further, poetry is concerned with fine language first and it may be impossible to achieve a linguistically startling text which reveals only metaphoric content. After a poet prunes away what is poorly written and selects only what is beautifully phrased, who is to say that what is left should also be truthful, or even metaphorically suggestive or create a new — transvaluational truth?
Nietzsche seems to anticipate the partial effectiveness of such objections in the same section from Thus Spake Zarathustra, entitled “On Poets”:

But suppose somebody said in all seriousness, the poets lie too much: he would be right; we lie too much. We also know too little and we are bad learners; so we simply have to lie. And who among us poets had not adulterated his wine? Many a poisonous hodgepodge has been contrived in our cellars; much that is indescribable was accomplished there. And we know so little, the poor in spirit please us heartily, particularly when they are young females. And we are covetous even of those things which the old females tell each other in the evening. That is what we ourselves call the Eternal-Feminine in us. And, as if there were a special access to knowledge, buried to those who learn something, we believe in the people and their ‘wisdom’.
This, however, all poets believe: that whoever pricks up his ears as he lies in the grass or on lonely slopes will find out something about those things that are between heaven and earth. And when they feel tender sentiments stirring, the poets always fancy that nature herself is in love with them; and that she is creeping to their ears to tell them secrets and amorous flatteries; and of this they brag and boast before all mortals. 20

This passage does recognize the difficulty of writing great poetry, admitting that even the best poetic talent sometimes concocts a “poisonous hodgepodge.” Even with a malice free talent a poem either reaches a linguistic threshold consisting of fresh, concise and startling language, or it does not. It is interesting that Nietzsche owns up to this limit and includes himself (through Zarathustra) among such authors. Realistically, any writer knows that what he or she has published can retrospectively fill one with horror.
Nietzsche makes still a further critique of the “Eternal Feminine” by which we conceal our failures as successes and begin to work our way out of our mistakes and our poverty of spirit by transforming each into a “virtue”. We retreat into romantic sentiment and mystify our infirmities through verse, inflate hallucination into revealed truth, and champion softness and ignorance as the initiated vanity of the poet elevates sophistry into a source of cultural privilege and co-habitational revenge. Rimbaud has perfectly depicted the poet as liar when he recalls in Une Saison en Enfer:

La vieillerie poétique avait une bonne part dans mon alchimie du verbe.
Je m’habituais à l’hallucination simple: je voyais très franchement une mosquée à la place d’une usine, une école de tambours faite par des anges, des calèches sur les routes du ciel, un salon au fond d’un lac; les monstres, les mysteres; un titre de vaudeville dressait des épouvantes devant moi.
Puis j’expliquai mes sophismes magiques avec l’hallucination des mots! 21

Poetic language and “behavior” can turn an inward frustration into an outward triumph which, by metaphoric ruse, scurrilously please with revenge against life. With the “hallucination of words”, with the “magic sophisms” of rhyme and rhythm, flattery and outright lies will enchant us, anyway:

Alas, there are so many things between heaven and earth of which only the poets have dreamed.
And especially above the heavens; for all gods are poet’s parables, poet’s prevarications. Verily, it always lifts us higher — specifically, to the realm of the clouds; upon these we place our motley bastards and call them gods and overmen. For they are light enough for these chairs — all these gods and overmen. Ah, how weary I am of all these imperfections which at all costs become event! Ah, how weary I am of poets. 22

It follows that there is a link between the language and lies of religious texts and poetry, and between priest and poet. Religious texts are themselves works of poetry, written with an overlain air of sanctity and holiness in the hope that the mystification will transport the text (the author’s ressentiment) beyond critical (mortal) judgment. Only then can the text become an article of faith and earn a priesthood as sacred document. Poet-priests populate the heavens to their advantage and fog into these texts a holiness which makes their this-worldly revenge untouchable and identifiable with the very judgment of God.
From this perspective religious texts are perhaps the poet’s greatest obscenity. The text somehow discloses exclusive rights of ownership and interpretation and legalizes (by itself) the invocation of “heresy” against anyone who would usurp the privilege by reading it freely, or for themselves. Eternal damnation follows those who differ in their reading of a metaphoric document. The principle of revenge here proliferates pages from venom, guarding the exclusivity, of owning interpretation, commanding blindness. Nietzsche rejects literal belief in any metaphorical text, as anyone who might read with an open mind does since what constitutes the text is the imagination or lack thereof — of poetry.
In contrast, when Zarathustra is asked by one of his disciples why poets lie too much he responds humorously: “What was it that Zarathustra once said to you? That the poets lie much? But Zarathustra too is a poet.” And when the disciple overrides his doubts and pained sincerity by exclaiming that he believes in Zarathustra. Zarathustra shakes his head and replies: “Faith does not make me blessed.” 23
A real wise man desires no followers. Without a ready-made faith, the Dionysiac poet refuses anything above the earth, any trappings, or intentional ambiguities which conflate worship with talent. If we are “bad learners” at the art of poetry, if we fail on the page, this failure is also an inevitable part of an experimental process which offers us access to new, earthly perspectives, and a way in which we can bridge the gap between our aspirations and what we end up with, after our linguistic contrivances. “Yes, we lie too much” is both a statement of fact and an irony. The statement is true to the experimental nature of truth. Hence Nietzsche’s metaphor of inventing “hodgepodges” in a cellar. Yet the experimental openness of a Gaya Scienza disallows the belief, the projection of certainty which proves to be the overwhelming need of those who require faith when the truth proves unacceptable.