Only great pain is the ultimate liberator of the spirit.
Friedrich Nietzsche, The Gay Science
My recent posts have focused on Friedrich Nietzsche’s Twilight of the Idols. I have also taken extracts from On the Genealogy of Morality. Having treated these texts rigorously enough, I should now like to focus on a text that Nietzsche wrote earlier in his career: Die fröliche Wissenschaft—known in English as The Gay Science. This transitions nicely because Nietzsche punctuates Twilight with statements alike in tone and content with his Preface to the 2nd Edition of The Gay Science. I should like to ask: what is the view of Nietzsche on joy?
Nietzsche prefaces The Gay Science with a reference to a Horatian ode that I recently translated:
[This book is] written in the language of the wind that brings a thaw.
Horace’s Ode 1.4 begins:
Solvitur acris hiems grata vice veris et Favoni…
Bitter winter melts by the welcome turn of spring and of a zephyr. Nietszche wants the reader to understand The Gay Science in a metaphoric way: as the warm wind of spring that melts away the winter. Incipit parodia. But what kind of parody begins? A burlesque? A mockery? And a parody of what?
Seasons place us in a mood; the body resonates with the environ that contains it. And seasons are a metaphor for health… the ‘spirit’ resonates with the season of the body. Nietzsche values physical strength—martial virtues—and sees much of metaphysics as remarks that are all but reducible to the broken bodies from which they emanate. At the same time that he most highly esteems physiological health, he almost constantly battles serious illness.
In 1869, at the very young age of 24, Nietzsche becomes a professor of classical philology. In 1870, he serves as a medical orderly in the Franco-Prussian War but contracts a disease that cuts short his service. He publishes several important works between 1872 and his next bout of illness nearly a decade later, when he finally resigned his professorial chair at Basle due to more medical problems. Three years later, in 1882, he writes the first edition of The Gay Science. In 1887, he expands on that initial publication and writes the preface that I’m now writing about. Famously, in 1889, he collapses in Torino upon seeing a horse beaten by its owner and is said never to have recovered his full cognitive capacities.
Seasons are seasonal. Spring as a species of space displaces the harshness of winter. The body that shivered and contracted now warms and expands. Just so, to use Nietzsche’s metaphor, health deposes illness. The healthy mind forgets the illness; it only contains impressions, phantoms of what the illness really was. Just this glimpse at Nietzsche’s biography shows that he had a unique view of the ebb and flow of physiological health. This is a feature of how he came to see that the state of a human body informs its beliefs.
Not every human organism can grasp Nietzschean insights. Not everyone has lived through a winter. Not everyone has lived through a spring. Fewer have lived through both. Nietzsche knows this. His disease is his winter: a period of depression, “a stretch of desert, exhaustion, loss of faith, icing up in the midst of youth…” The tyrrany of pain. The pride that refuses consolation. Winter: bitter, cold, brutal. No escape. Pain-colored lenses.
The philosopher philosophizes in either case—sickness or health, winter or spring. But illness requires a submission to one’s disease—it cannot be otherwise than that one is ill. For Nietzsche, any philosophy that directs the intentions to anything outside of this world warrants the question: what is the state of the speaking body? Does this philosophy originate in a consolation for illness? An anesthetic, a pain-killer, an escape from one’s misery. Whence?
I have often written and thought about the literary trope of katabasis: the descent into the underworld, a preview of death that must afterwards inform life. You find it in Homer, in Plato, in Virgil, in Dante, and you find it in Nietzsche. “Ich muss untergehen.” His disease shows him his death. But the episodes of ice and frost do not end him. He receives the gift: to be genuinely shown his death and then restored to health. He receives the gift of a) having resonated with winter—having triumphed over death, (some of) the worst that life can offer—and b) having been restored to his full creative powers, if only for a little window. But who has anything but a little window?
Only great pain, that long, slow pain that takes its time and in which we are burned, as it were, over green wood, forces us philosophers to descend into our ultimate depths and put aside all trust, everything good-natured, veiling, mild, average – things in which we formerly may have found our humanity. I doubt that such pain makes us ‘better’ – but I know that it makes us deeper… one emerges from such dangerous exercises in self-mastery as a different person, with a few more question marks, above all with the will henceforth to question further, more deeply, severely, harshly, evilly, quietly than one had previously questioned. Trust in life is gone: life itself has become a problem.
Friedrich Nietzsche, The Gay Science
What ‘depth’? What ‘problem’? What does one learn on the threshold of death? If there is an answer, it requires an embodied experience of the concepts one would use to explain it.
…I have always associated the Heideggerian concept of Angst with τὸ θαυμάζεινlit. ‘the being astonished at’ of the ancients… but that being astonished is thoroughly intellectual for the Greeks. The elenchus serves to produce self-interrogation and problematization in a healthy body. But Platonic concepts of illness could not be more foreign to the Nietzschean view, one that sees no irony, no freedom in the experience of death. It requires further study, but I suspect that, if Nietzsche can be said to hate anything, he hates disease and death almost as much as he hates those who have made a comedic and satyric peace with those forces out that ought to produce a tragic engagement.
The irony thickens. This comedification of the tragic—the misappropriated lightness—is an ironic form of comedy that arises from depression. It laughs a sick laughter, a ha-ha of hopelessness. What looks like ‘good fun’ really consists in a deep, self-negating sadness that turns the individual away from its material and psychological reality. A still frame would reveal what everyone already suspects: that the person is actually crying.
That ignorance about one’s grief goes hand in hand with a pretension that one has some kind of special insight about the world. One is a “philosopher” who is “in the know”. One is an initiate and will not show you the handshake. One has reached all the summits and left a trail of proof on one’s Instagram… #Brainyquote.
You can’t look well and be well. The tragic person appears shallow. Things appear shallow to him. There is no need for an apparatus of justification. He does not begin any of his sentences with “Sorry”. For Nietzsche he simply exists. But why tragic? The word tragic concerns the end, not the beginning.
The gay science is the psychology of an onset of spring. Winter is the condition of possibility for spring. A resonance and moodedness with winter—ill-health, depression, ‘the onset of dotage at the wrong time’—give Nietzsche the spiritual depth to write of the thaw, to bring the thaw, to write the Gay Science, a work that arises from an intense love of life—a love that only an encounter with death and a restoration to health (a convalescence) can inform. One transports the impression of having seen death into full physical health. The result: not man, but dynamite.