1 – The Psychology of the Poet

Nietzsche writes in The Twilight of the Idols:

Towards a psychology of the artist. If there is to be art, if there is to be any aesthetic doing and seeing one physiological condition is indispensable: frenzy. Frenzy must first have enhanced the excitability of the whole machine; else there is no art. All kinds of frenzy, however diversely conditioned, have the strength to accomplish this: above all, the frenzy of sexual excitement, this most ancient and original form of frenzy. 1.

Speaking through Zarathustra, Nietzsche also maintains that poets: “pose as reconcilers: but mediators and mixers they remain for me, and half-and-half and unclean.” 2 What is unclean, of course, is not a poet’s sexuality, but an all-too-human ressentiment which would reconcile the fundamentally erotic or Dionysiac intoxication of spirit with its negation. This poetic mediating or mixing, the self-conscious reaction from an already deficient quantum of power may produce a hybrid (a subgenre?) to please the jaundiced eye of envy or the reactive will — yet an active will in overflow, sublimated through “perfected” forms of art which makes new metaphors first neccessitates the authentic frenzy of creation.

Out of this feeling one lends to things, one forces them to accept from us, one violates them — this process is called idealizing. Let us get rid of a prejudice here: idealizing does not consist, as is commonly held in sub-tracting or discounting the petty or inconsequential. What is decisive is rather a tremendous drive to bring out the main features so that the others disappear in the process. 3

The drive for perfection, the idealizing motive in art is a sublimated and often misunderstood form of sexual frenzy which sustains and heightens, not only by selecting, but by remaking the object of desire, by transforming it into something more desirable. All of its features are reworked, not merely by selecting or discounting, but by accentuating and thereby revealing a concrete essence of what it becomes before the undistracted imagination, the madness or frenzy which drives the artist half-consciously to intensify, prolong, heighten, indeed change, by transferring all attention to the work of art until it originally stands before us. The erotic character of this envisioning distills the desire any artist has for his or her art as an emerging symbol of their self-overcoming, their highest love.*

*cf. Ovid’s approach to the Pygmalion myth: “When Pygmalion saw these women (prostitutes), he was revolted by the many faults which nature has implanted in the female sex, and long lived a bachelor existence, without any woman born, and fell in love with his own creation. The statue had all the appearance of a real girl, so that it seemed to be alive, to want to move, did not modesty forbid. So cleverly did his art conceal its art. Pygmalion gazed in wonder, and in his heart there rose a passionate love for this image of a human form. Often he ran his fingers over the work, feeling it to see whether it was flesh or ivory, and would not yet admit that ivory was all it was. He kissed the statue, and imagined that it kissed him back, spoke to it and embraced it, and thought he felt his fingers sink into limbs he touched, so that he was afraid lest a bruise appear where he had pressed the flesh. Sometimes he addressed it in flattering speeches, sometimes brought the kind of presents that girls enjoy: shells and polished pebbles, little birds and flowers of a thousand hues, lilies and painted balls, and drops of amber which fall from the trees that were once Phaethon’s sisters. He dressed the limbs of his statue in woman’s robes, and put rings on its fingers, long necklaces round its neck. Pearls hung from its ears, and chains were looped upon its breast. All this finery became the image well, but it was no less lovely unadorned. Pygmalion then placed the statue on a couch that was covered with cloths of Tyrian purple, laid its head to rest on soft down pillows, as if it could appreciate them, and called it his bedfellow. The festival of Venus, which is celebrated with the greatest pomp all through Cyprus, was now in progress, and heifers, their crooked horns gilded for the occasion, had fallen at the altar as the axe struck their snowy necks. Smoke was rising from the incense, when Pygmalion, having made his offering, stood by the altar and timidly prayed saying: ‘If you gods can give all things, may I have as a wife, I pray — ‘ he did not dare to say: ‘the ivory maiden’, but finished: ‘one like the ivory maid.’ However, golden Venus, present at her festival in person, understood what his prayers meant, and as a sign that the gods were kindly disposed, the flames burned up three times, shooting a tongue of fire into the air. When Pygmalion returned home, he made straight for the statue of the girl he loved, leaned over the couch, and kissed her. She seemed warm: he laid his lips on hers again, and touched her breast with his hands — at his touch the ivory lost is hardness, and grew soft: his fingers made an imprint on the yielding surface, just as wax of Hymettus melts in the sun and, worked by men’s fingers, is fashioned into many different shapes, and made fit for use by being used. The lover stood, amazed, afraid of being mistaken, his joy tempered with doubt, and again and again stroked the object of his prayers. It was indeed a human body! The veins throbbed as he pressed with his thumb. Then Pygmalion of Paphose was eloquent in his thanks to Venus. At long last, he pressed his lips upon living lips, and the girl felt the kisses he gave her, and blushed. Timidly raising her eyes, she saw her lover and the light of day together.” 4

In The Will to Power, Nietzsche writes:

As man sees woman and, as it were, makes her a present of everything excellent, so the sensuality of the artist puts into one object everything else that he honors and esteems — in this way he perfects an object (“idealizes it”). Woman, conscious of man’s feelings concerning woman, assists his efforts at idealization by expressing delicate thoughts: in the same way, she practices modesty, reserve, distance — realizing instinctively that in this way the idealizing capacity of the man will grow. 5

Further, there is a blunt section in The Will to Power which anticipates while differing from Freud’s principle of sublimation on the sexual foundation of the creative process; on its physiologic origin:

… every perfection, all the beauty of things revives through contiguity to this aphrodisiac bliss. (Physiologically: the creative instinct of the artist and the distribution of semen in his blood –) 6.

Eros is not repressed but strengthened by artistic “distribution”, by sublimation, and in the beginning, it is literal sexuality. Reactive verse can watch, record, embellish, rehearse, commodify the impulse, write verse, that is, but an active affirmation of sensuality makes new metaphor, makes poetry. Drawing from a superabundant fund of energy, an active will which overcomes itself, beyond Freud’s “normal human unhappiness”, makes beauty which revivifies the image of the sexual subject by reproducing him or her in a distilled (aphrodisiacal) form. The instinctual frenzy is never fully or finally satisfied, but intensified through the celebrative madness of art into an immanent (rather than “transcendent”) radiance, reinvesting the active energy, now love, back into this world.
The distancing idealization of beauty makes the madness of sexual excitation endurable, even “spiritual”. Clearly this is how Nietzsche understands the terms “spirit” (Geist) when he does not use it pejoratively.
The “semen” or “seed” is both the real and symbolic source of sexual frenzy spiritualized through poeisis, giving birth to perfected objects of desire as works of art, by seeking to make more beautiful, make lovely, to reinvest desire and recreate it in radiance. Recalling our preface, to “live constantly” in this state “surrounded by spirits” is to dwell wholly in this earthly immanence. To “write with blood” involves commitment and intimacy with the original erotic source of fertility — the active will — but it is the poet who creates the beauty from desire, just as it the poet who invents the beautiful and ugly.
What is beautiful, then, for Nietzsche?

Beautiful and ugly. Nothing is more conditional — or, let us say, narrower — than our feeling for beauty. Whoever would think of it apart from man’s joy in man would immediately lose any foothold. “Beautiful in itself” is a mere phrase, not even a concept. In the beautiful, man posits himself as the measure of perfection; in special cases he worships himself in it. A species cannot do otherwise but thus affirm itself alone. Its lowest instinct, that of self-preservation and self-expansion, still radiates in such sublimities. Man believes the world itself to be overloaded with beauty — and he forgets himself as the cause of this. He alone has presented the world with beauty — alas! only with a very human, all-too-human beauty. At bottom, man mirrors himself in things; he considers everything beautiful that reflects his own image: the judgment “beautiful” is the vanity of the species. 7

And conversely:

Nothing is ugly except the degenerating man … It reminds him of decay, danger, impotence, it actually deprives him of strength. 8

As the measure of the furtherance of his species, his progeny, man works to perfect higher and more distilled forms of his image of desire. This process not only envisions future health but ascendance above oneself. Whatever reflects the decline of our type nauseates and disgusts us and we immediately perceive it as “ugly”. Nietzsche rejects any theory of aesthetics which rests on the naive notion that the beautiful exists in itself (Plato) or that it is purely a play between the imagination and understanding within a form (Kant) but we all, in a sense, resemble Pygmalion following his disgust with the prostitutes, counterfeits of beauty, and love, and would rather esteem a projected image which will arouse desire, rather than its corruption. More, overcome ourselves necessitates our images of health as beauty, secretly wishing to see our images realized as more than flesh, but as art.
The realization of the object of desire is, then, simultaneously a subtle process of distancing, designed to strengthen and empower both desire and subject as projected image. Nietzsche observes that a seductive dance which provokes erotic desire enhances the idealization of the dancer as beautiful. Her beauty enhances our species, her delicacy distances her partner’s desire as a “spiritualization” which distills what each will projects as an ideal to inspire self-overcoming. But there is a ranking of types of beauty in accord with distantiation. The spiritualized eros which drives art — not verse but poetry — to new heights, is an acquired and cultivated physical chastening which begins with athletic discipline and, slowly, through generations of personal training influenced by taste, one can approach truly godlike beauty, as athletics and art meet — in dance:

… one must first pursuade the body. Strict perserverance in significant and exquisite gestures together with the obligation to live only with people who do not “let themselves go” — that is quite enough for one to become significant and exquisite, and in two or three generations all this becomes inward. It is decisive for the lot of a people and of humanity that culture should begin in the right place — not in the “soul” as was the fateful superstition of the priests (and half-priests); the right place is the body, the gestures, the diet, the physiology; the rest follows from that. 9

While the Christians despised the body and held it in contempt, the Greeks gave us our first real concept of the body’s “spirituality” by promoting its cultivation through athletics and art. The Pindaric ode commemorates the beauty of the Olympic ideal as a concrete symbol of living in accord with the perfection of the body. The beauty of the sprinter or middle distance runner, the jumper, discus or javelin thrower, even the wrestler, artistically the dancer — and so the poet — is strengthened by rigorous training, dietary cultivation, and concentrated grace in repeated performance, re: the will to overcome, eventually to win the laurel as an idealized subject of an equally athletic poetic (immanent) ideal. Sublimated eros, the runner’s, the athlete’s taut grace, lightness, poise, makes for a performance beyond the ordinary and, thus, the athlete becomesd a poetic expression, an ode to self-overcoming deserving of Olympic laurel. Nietzsche offers a striking contrast, then, to Freud’s concept of analysis as unearthing repressed neurosis in reaching “normal human unhappiness”, it is a life-performance assuming poetic health which envisions self-overcoming to create a new world.
The athletic process does for the body what the process of idealization does for the subject of desire. It is a process of: ” … subtracting, or discounting the petty and inconsequential.” But, more, it is how the shape of the strong, supple human form emerges to what is unthinkable, heavy, ugly is and so, suppressed.
When Nietzsche asks:

To what end is there any such thing as beauty in tone, color, fragrance, or rhythmic movement in nature? What is it that beauty evokes? 10

The answer must be:

… all beauty incites procreation. 11

The cycle of desiring, distancing, idealizing, making beautiful and desiring again accentuates, heightens, offers more life. It is, afterall, the same cyclic nature whose god Dionysius sponsors through the instinctual need to discharge sexual frenzy. According to the mature Nietzsche, the controlled passion which characterizes sublimated art, and the festive intoxication of the rites of Dionysius, are the same phenomenon. The same psychic overture reveals the intention of the tragic poet, for without the basic erotic energy, and the physiological need to enhance by idealizing, or making human sexuality more beautiful, no poetry would exist (nor entice).
And yet, this erotic energy is also costly to the “healthy” ego. Nietzsche never considers the work of art “egoless”; it is also a sacrifice and a “going-under” as Nietzsche as calls it in Zarathustra, a driving back into the earth, a spending, a squandering, a recklessness to achieve and to overcome the self as an expression of a will-to-power. 12 In this it is also an affirmation, a joyous yea-saying to life. Or, as Nietzsche writes in The Twilight of the Idols:

Saying Yes to Life even in its strangest and hardest problems, the will to life rejoicing over its own inexhaustibility even in the very sacrifice of its highest types — that is what I guessed to be the bridge to the psychology of the tragic poet. 13

The question of the pyschology of the poet, then, becomes how can this world be reinvested with meaning, driven both by Dionysiac sexual frenzy, and its sublimation, not into a transcedent but an immanent affrimation of the earth, and the key for Niezsche’s whole oeuvre then falls within the “proof” he offers through the poetry of his Zarathustra.