3 – The Proof of Poetry

In an essay entitled “On Truth and Falsity”, Nietzsche makes these remarks about the nature of truth:

What therefore is truth? A mobile army of metaphors, metonymies, anthropomorphisms: in short a sum of human relations which become poetically and rhetorically intensified, metamorphosed, adorned, and after long usage seem to a nation fixed, canonic and binding; truths are illusions of which one has forgotten that they are illusions; worn-out metaphors which have become powerless to affect the sense; coins which have their obverse effaced and now are no longer of account as coins but merely as metal. 24.

As he assails it here, truth is spent metaphor. Even the world of mathematics and the “laws” of science are merely precipitates or residues of metaphors:

Whereas every metaphor of perception is individual and without its equal and therefore knows how to escape all attempts to classify it, the great edifice or ideas shows the rigid regularity of a Roman Columbarium and in logic breathes forth the sternness and coolness which we find in mathematics. He who has been breathed upon by this coolness will scarcely believe, that the idea too, bony and hexahedral, and permutable as a die, remains however only as the residuum of a metaphor, and that the illusion of the artistic metamorphosis of a nerve stimulus into precepts is, if not the mother, then the grandmother of every idea. Now in this game of dice, “Truth” means to use every die as it is designated, to count its points carefully, to form exact classifications, and never to violate the order of castes and the sequences of rank. 25

Scientific truth is part of a language-game based on an assumed metaphor which eventually can “give-out”, just as a poetic or rhetorical metaphor can by overuse or after an exhaustion of its suggestive power degenerate into a stereotypic or inert cliché. It is inaccurate, however, to maintain that for Nietzsche there is no truth at all or that he is a logical nihilist. For we must remember that the source of new metaphor, the active, Dionysiac will, creates from an overflow of power and then, with coinage, age, repetition, mimicry, a metaphor becomes exhausted, hackneyed or hoisted into a conviction. For Nietzsche too there can be lie without any truth. Terminal or pathologic nihilism is incompatible with his analysis of value and his will to power. Yet the question which remains before us, after this skeptical analysis confronting the “lie” of poetry, is: When is poetry true? Or: What is the “proof” of any truth in poetry?
This impasse is as fundamental to Nietzsche’s philosophy as the battle against “misology” in Plato’s Phaedo. And it is just as revelatory regarding to Nietzsche’s relation to philosophy, to conceptual or Dionysiac truth.
In our investigation of Nietzsche’s concept of poetry we have explored the inspiration or the grounding of poetry in the Dionysiac will, and the ironies and doubts about its imitation: the poet’s exaggeration, bellows, the act of self-conscious innocence — when sifting the decadence of romantic sentiment, informed especially by Nietzsche’s revulsion with Wagner. Even in Zarathustra, which is also a work of poetry, Nietzsche fears that the “poets lie too much” out of a need to impress, or simply from a lack of talent augmented by a world-weary reactive relation to the will.
We should remind ourselves, however, of the importance of the discoveries in The Birth of Tragedy and of the quote cited above concerning dreams, that Nietzsche “could adduce many proofs, including the sayings of the poets.”26 And we should further remind ourselves that it was not by logic but by the “immediate certainty of vision.”27 that he intended to conduct that inquiry. The importance of poetry could not have been more graphically demonstrated than by his insistence in Ecce Homo that Thus Spake Zarathustra is his philosophic masterpiece and that, “The entire picture of the dithyrambic artist is a picture of the pre-existent poet of Zarathustra”, 28 or that when speaking of Zarathustra he quotes a passage in order to “prove” he is not a fanatic, that, “no faith is demanded here … the tempo of these speeches is a tender adagio.” 29 Finally Nietzsche claims, “I am the inventor of the dithyramb.” 30
Perhaps we can best understand why Nietzsche both criticizes the poet and is equally concerned to establish his credentials as a poet, if we pursue the metaphor of proof, that is, poetry as proof, as an embodiment of Dionysiac experience, and if we also bear in mind its opposite: the reactive-emotional pretense to (romantic) inspiration, as counterfeit.
There is, for instance, no logical certainty reached in a courtroom. What passes for legal proof is a judgment by jurists and judge on the credibility of testimony based on a sense of consistency (sometimes circumstantial) within a particular situation which could not be duplicated without a specific report from a direct witness. The details create a structural expectation from the specificity of the argument, and both constitute the evidence. Every case, then, has its own “plot” and arrives at its own conclusion. And its outcome depends upon the degree of accuracy or ambiguity generated by the testimony revealing a novel situation.
Something akin to this occurred when the Greeks judged a tragedy. In the agon or contest, the Greek public and the judges came to expect within the course of the play an experience of tragedy embodied in poetry, by reason of the unmistakable way in which human suffering unfolded within the mystery of the play. Perhaps it is better for our point that the originality of the play was not in its plot but in how it unfolded, for the stories or myths were known to the audience. The difference is all in the specifics, in the demonstration, the “proof” of the poet’s style, which became more and more synonymous in Nietzsche’s writing with the god, Dionysius.
These comparisons pale before the central implication of the quotes above, however, for they quite rightly identify the metaphoric element in science. The poiesis of science depends on experimental method, testing, but also on theories which themselves depend on metaphors. Without appealing to the “Eureka phenomenon” or lightning striking a romantic image of the scientist, is a unifying metaphor which allows the facts, experiments or equations to cohere. Every “law” in physics depends on a new metaphor to adjust new findings into a theory. This has been true from Copernicus to Einstein to Roger Penrose and Steven Hawking’s works on the “Big Bang Theory” or “Black Holes.” Nietzsche’s analysis of poetry here then, since poetry is the experimental medium for the invention of metaphor, could be extended to that which is critically creative in science which separates the lab workers or number crunchers from the “law” givers, the outstanding theoreticians. And here too, the laws, the truths of science have their histories and give out, or are superseded just as values do when their metaphors turn to clichés.
It is perfectly clear, then, why, as Nietzsche created a philosophy open to Dionysiac insight, it is also a philosophy capable of vivisecting, critiquing metaphoric invention. To inquire at its source, and to develop a concept by which a skeptic could identify where and how metaphors are discovered, and when they become mere idols, stale rehearsals of fixed meanings, or, when ressentiment needs to hoist forth a lie or feint or cliché instead, is to add something substantive indeed to human understanding. So it should be transparent why Dionysiac-active inspiration is essential to Nietzsche’s relation to philosophy, and to truth. Nietzsche makes this point forcefully in Ecce Homo:

Has anyone at the end of the nineteenth century a clear idea of what poets of strong ages have called inspiration? If not, I will describe it. — If one had the slightest residue of superstition left in one’s system, one could hardly reject altogether the idea that one is merely a mouthpiece, merely a medium of overpowering forces. The concept of revelation — in the sense that suddenly, with indescribable certainty and subtlety, something becomes visible, audible, something that shakes one to the last depths and throws one down — that merely describes the facts. One hears, one does not seek; one accepts, one does not ask who gives; like lightning, one does not ask who gives; like lightning, a thought flashes up, with necessity, without hesitation regarding its form — I have never had any choice.

Nietzsche further writes:

Everything happens involuntarily in the highest degree but as in a gale of a feeling of freedom, of absoluteness, of power, of divinity — The involuntariness of image and metaphor is strangest of all; one no longer has any notion of what is an image or a metaphor: everything offers itself as the nearest, most obvious, simplest expression. It actually seems, to allude to something Zarathustra says, as if the thing themselves approached and offered themselves as metaphors. (“Here all things come caressingly to your discourse and flatter you; for they want to ride on your back. On every metaphor you ride every truth … [my italics] Here are the words and word-shrines of all being open up before you; here all being wishes to learn from you how to speak.”) 31

However effective the analogy has been, the difference between the demonstration required for logical truth at the center of conceptual philosophy and its controversial but equally philosophic counterpart, the notion of the “proof” in poetry, this much is clear: poetry offers new metaphors and thus creates the conditions for the values of the structure it coheres. There is just as much opportunity for faking and fraud here. Given that, in some sense, poetry requires that the reader does not remain a mere spectator but also an active participant. Despite perjury in legal proceedings and false arguments in philosophy, or implausible theories in science, it does not follow that there are no genuine trials, arguments or theories. And so with poetry. Understanding poetry requires a taste for the difficult and “fingers for nuance”, yet the poem which is linguistically compelling and imagistically original provides us with a proof of inspiration. Poetry embodies the making of metaphor into style. Hence we must move beyond the imitation of inspiration in romantic histrionics to the language which captures the tensions which relate the existent individual and the monism of the will to power, to style.