The Peacock and the Buffalo: The Poetry of Nietzsche (2010) is published by Bloomsbury Publishing.
They learned their vanity from the sea: is the sea not the peacock of peacocks?
Even before the ugliest of all buffaloes does it spread its tail, never becoming tired of its lace-fan of silver and silk.
Disdainfully the buffalo glances, its soul near to the sand, closer still to the thicket, nearest, however, to the swamp.
What is beauty, sea and peacock-splendor to it! This parable I speak to poets.
Friedrich Nietzsche, Werke in Zwei Banden, I, p. 633
Nietzsche is a poet by instinct – he is driven to it. And, it does not seem to be merely vanity that compels his voice, but an irrepressible desire to express his life and fate – intimately and symbolically – to disclose his truths and delusions. He told us, after all, that honesty is our youngest virtue. His first poems are naive compositions of feeling, often troubled, surrounding events such as his father’s death and his departure from Pforta, exposing, in a raw and deep effluence, his youthful turmoil. He strikes one at times as a Romantic in manner of Hölderlin’s Hyperion or Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther, who can see all too clearly the tragic destination of his life.
At other times, Nietzsche seems to have been troubled by the ambiguity of his poetic “tic tock” – he is troubled by the seemingly ludicrous eruption of poesy amid his inner experience. His ‘gift’ is simultaneously ‘poison’ – it is a gift since it allows Nietzsche to express his truth in honesty. Yet, as a philosopher in the age of reason, of Bismarck and Victoria, the poison, infection of poetry would only be seen as a stigma upon his reputation… and a question mark over his commitment to ‘truth’. Aware of his timely predicament, and utterly heedless, Nietzsche digs in for the good fight for poetry and its perspective between heaven and earth. He sets free an array of poetic voices, masks, and larvae, castigating and celebrating – and exploring the habitats of the poet.
There is, for instance, the scoffs of the birds in Dionysos Dythrambs,
Only fool! Only poet!
Only colorful speaking,
From a colorful larval fool,
Climbing upon false broken
Words and false rainbows
Between false heavens
Crawling and creeping –
In Poet’s Profession, there is a mock inquisition of his own sanity with the question, “You a poet? Are you right in the head?” The answer, repeated across the poem, exposes not only Nietzsche’s attempts to mock, to laugh at his own poetic dilemma, but also expressed his anxiety with respect to the seriousness of poetry.
Yes sir, you are a poet,
Shrugged the woodpecker.
We can comprehend both his laughter and his anxiety if we bring into view the historical fabric of Nietzsche’s life and work. For the reductionists and vulgar positivists of the 19th century, any confession of poetry was lettered and quarantined, as mere ‘enthusiasm’. Kant himself (dutifully following Plato) pioneered this pejorative against his new enemies Jacobi and Hamann, who among others, resisted the coronation of reason as the logical and formal criteria for truth. It seems to be no coincidence that the label ‘enthusiast’ emerges with Kant’s usurpation of the transcendental, creative imagination in the second edition of his Critique of Pure Reason. In the wake of the duly deputised authority of reason, philosophers such as Hölderlin, Goethe and Schiller became regarded merely as poets – or, worse still, writers – scribblers. Paganism, romanticism and transcendental naturalism were exiled from the Blessed Islands of Critical Philosophy and Victorian morality to the future opium dens and absinthe asylums of Nietzsche’s day.
The common root of poetry and philosophy is dug up, severed, and put to sleep. The Poets, still convalescing from their suppression under Renaissance Neo-Platonism, were again cast away from the polis.
Poetry (poiesis) itself was raped, spread out as ‘poetry’ and ‘prose’. ‘Mere’ poetry was one of the offspring gestated from this rape – a diminished art, serving merely to flatter and console the discrete, divided ‘ego’ – the other progeny need no introduction.
Poiesis is no longer possible, it was said. Such ‘revelation’ is beyond the limits of possible experience – or conflicts, in its very freedom, with convention and custom. Yet, modernity did not break the old law tablets, but put them to use as morality. The new law tablets lay abandoned…
Nietzsche is an untimely poet-philosopher. If only, one could lament, he had lived earlier, he would have worked amidst higher men such as Schiller, Goethe and Lessing, who did not seemingly ascertain any distinction between poetry and philosophy.
Yet, by the time of Nietzsche’s emergence, poetry had already been overthrown from its time-honored status as the fountain of truth. However, that which is significant is that Nietzsche did not suppress this poetic impulse which took hold of him. Nor did he seek an antidote for his poetic ‘gift’. Not only did Nietzsche increasingly write in an aphoristic style, but he also included poetry in his published ‘philosophical’ works.
Nietzsche gives an indication of this coming to terms in his poem, The wanderer, where he writes:
No path any more! Only abyss and deathly silence!
You wanted this! From the path your will strayed!
Now, wanderer, it was worth it!
Now, look cold and clear!
You are lost, you believe – in danger.
The watershed for Nietzsche’s poetry was of course Thus Spoke Zarathustra where he takes on – amidst his poetic topos – not only the usurpers of the truth of poetry, but also the modern poetry of decline, which served merely to ornament the world of logic and science. Zarathustra laments that he is weary of poets who have perversely fulfilled Plato’s denunciation of poetry by inscribing their own distance from the difficult path of truth. The latter exiled the poets from the polis on the grounds that they lied too much. Yet, with his own Great Lie, he shows himself to be another poet. Yet, Zarathustra celebrates the poet who can lie, as he is the one who can alone tell the truth. After Plato, like Kant, only an implementation of a known script will be tolerated. The official line is born. Plato, weary of time and world, wrote a “poetry” with the pretence of transcending time, world and life.
Zarathustra seeks however to plumb the ugliness, horrors and joys of life and time – and calls on others to find their own tenuous truths between the earth and sky. He warns a Plato of “wild dogs barking in the cellars”, when he strives for the Heights. Zarathustra himself has no problem confessing that “poets lie too much.” Yet, he is aware that this question incits very powerful and dangerous, philosophical questions. Is not the ‘imperishable’ another of the poet’s lies, as well as , truth, beuaty and goodness? Is there a distinction between ‘Good’ and ‘Evil’? Does not Plato himself draw out a “divided line”? And, is not Zarathustra also a poet?
Nietzsche’s uncertainty with respect to poetry is transfigures into a love and affirmation of his gift/curse. In a tribute to the pre-Socratic poet-philosophers, he takes his good fight to Plato and his offspring. Yet, as he is untimely, he beckons the poet-philosopher of the future to retrieve the life and fate of poiesis. It is the poet-philosopher who will abandon the lies of the imperishable – but for more plausible (or more desirable) lies, truths. Nietzsche writes in Through the Circle of Dionysos-Dithyramben (103): “The poet, who willingly and knowingly lies/can alone tell the truth.” It is such a poet who can disclose makeshift truths between earth and heaven – new lies/truths.
Nietzsche takes Plato to task in the Preface to Beyond Good and Evil for having denied perspective, and thus life itself. The poet of tomorrow will express the play of light and shadow, the erotic and al-chemical marriage of life and death, in the topographical language of perspective.
This inextricable marriage of ‘high’ and ‘low’ opens up the inexorable significance of life and perspective. After the death of God, a character in a recent poem, there is once again only poetry and its uncertainty – this world and its desires. The world is will to power – and nothing else besides…
Nietzsche takes away the ground where we stand – he returns us to the contested truths of poetry, time and world – perspectives amidst life and death. Reason and its ideal is also merely poetry, as with the creative figures of Kantian regulative ideas.
Nietzsche remains a poet – and philosopher – for him there can be no contradiction. He continues to write and draw his most powerful themes and insights amid the poetic act. Yet, he does not give it all away. He keeps some of his most radical insights and ‘reasons’ hidden away in his unpublished poetry. Yet, it is here where we can see Nietzsche, the philosopher of honesty, in his most naked moments. It is in this way that even those who have a great familiarity with Nietzsche’s published writings will be astonished and shocked at the raw-ness and radicality of his poetry.
Nietzsche’s practice of writing and composition in itself challenges our strict classifications of poetry, aphorism and prose. He wrote in notebooks throughout his life, whether he was in Germany, or later as he moved around between the Alps, Turin and other totemic locations. It is from these notebooks that Nietzsche drew the content of his published works. The trace of a method is indicated for us by Nietzsche in his many published works in which poetry and aphoristic text, etc. cohabit single books. Poetry plays an indispensable role in these books, including a philosophical role, as it discloses the makeshift status of philosophical inquiry and the impossibility of a unified, logical system of truth. Poetry is not a mere ornament for a ‘substantive philosophy’, frills for a ‘gay science’ – it opens up a topos for the pursuit of truth. In light of Nietzsche’s affirmation of poetry, we are brought face to face with Zarathustra’s parable to the poets.
Zarathustra is tired of the poets and their derivatives across time – but, all is poetry, and everyone a poet. He, unlike Plato, who was weary of the world, time and life, is tired of the vanity of mere poets – peacocks – who no longer desire truth in its ‘love and hate’, but who seek to escape existence and life. The eyes on the peacock’s tale were placed there, after all, by Hera after the death of Argos. These eyes cannot see, but have only an ornamental significance – indicative of vanity.
The buffalo is disdainful of the self-conceit of the peacock. She abides in the dust of the earth, ‘near to the sand with its soul, closer still to the thicket, nearest, however, to the swamp.’ The buffalo stands in the background, in uglier regions, a herd animal, she hides in its belonging. Yet, it is precisely across such regions a peacock must traverse to begin its difficult pursuit of truth. It must undergo much to overcome itself… Yet, its vanity keeps it pre-occupied with the wrong lies and the wrong places.
Should one not instead become indifferent to the vanity of the poet, to the peacock, as does the buffalo? Nietzsche writes in “The poet’s vanity,” from Wit Tricks and Revenge, ‘Only give me glue/I can find the wood myself!/The mind in four nonsensical rhymes/Is not a small object of pride.’ The buffalo will care no matter.
Zarathustra is tired of the prevailing poetry of the ‘little’ self – the ego – the thin froth upon the surface of the raging sea. Such froth disguises the hidden depths, the undertows of the poetry of tomorrow. The froth of the spirit, Zarathustra predicts, will become weary of itself. It too will become a swamp. It will only then become of interest to the buffalo.
Although he is tired of the poets, Nietzsche continues to write a poetry, intimately wedded to his philosophy of existence. In its openness to the ugly, ridiculous and terrible, his poetic philosophy is untimely. It is out of tune with the turn of modern poetic and philosophical postures toward the mere ego. As he makes a friend of his poetry, Nietzsche becomes oriented to questions of paradox and existence, ‘theological’ events and typologies of culture. His own turn toward existence discloses his distance from his contemporaries and evokes the question of the meaning and purpose of poetry itself.
Indeed, in the Poet’s Profession, he begins to lay out a rough sketch of his poetry-philosophy – when he asks if he is writing poems or setting forth pictures, perspectives. Without answering, we are led to an understanding that poetry is, with Bataille and Heidegger, an intimate hermeneutic, disclosure of existence. The poem intimates and indicates – or, as in his poem, The word… the word delights – not as a [realistic] painting or picture, but as a transfiguration of and disclosure.
With Nietzsche, poetry and philosophy can once again begin to acknowledge their common root in poiesis – and, by forgetting that which kept them apart. His gaze upon the other of the ego gives Nietzsche access to his own other ‘great self’ – of body, culture, and the overwhelming powers of life. The ‘ego’ is just another makeshift, another mask – in a long line of deception. Its meaning and nothingness is unveiled amid deeper horizons and powers of life and existence.
Nietzsche’s poetry intimates a return from Apollo’s alleged dream of escape from the earth, his dreamy flight from the raw core of Dionysian life. The sacred dissolutions of a discrete self in death, eroticism and laughter exceed toward the All – toward communion and back, and to a timely return of this dream image back into the deeper music of life. But, for Nietzsche, this tragedy is recurrently one of joy…
Nietzsche’s poiesis subverts the playing field – masks are shattered in the remembrance of their status as mere masks, makeshifts. From the perspective of the poet and his uncertainty, all assertions – of alterity, totality and purity – each come crashing down upon the rocks, pulled by powerful, anonymous undertows.
All and each sets forth a story, seeking to mold its desires into wax. There have been many mutations of the wax. Among philosophers and poets, the difference lies in Nietzsche’s honesty and his willingness to express our youngest virtue amid uncertainty.