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Editor : Absurditas Friedrich Falah
Western philosophy essentially began as a dramatic form in the dialogues of Plato, but quickly wa converted to a subject for study, something analyzed, systematized, and to a large extent removed from everyday experience. Indeed, most think of philosophy as a subject that has no relevance to common existence, even though it undoubtedly always begins there. Attempt at dialogue, or dramatic form of any kind, in philosophy since Plato has generally been either ignored or ineffective. However, with Friedrich Nietzsche, literary forms other than the treatise were re-introduced to Western philosophy in such a way t they no longer could be cast aside as insignificant or un-philosophic. And of course, following closely behind Nietzsche (and deeply indebted to him) came the existentialists, incorporating novels and plays as a essential aspect of the expression of their philosophy. The question then arises, why literature? Why did philosophy to a large extent begin there, and what about it was so important or seductive or effective that w again returned to it (although not for two thousand years)? What does literature offer to philosophy that i somehow not available through the treatise? Rather than trying to categorize works as literature or as philosophy, I would like to explore the interaction between the two and what they can achieve together (a also, perhaps, the limitations of combining the two).
To begin, it is important to think about what one means by literature, or literary writing as
opposed to the traditional form of philosophical writing, the treatise. While this of course could be argued bout unceasingly in philosophical circles, I would like to offer a simple distinction between the two, one with which you may agree or disagree, but which I will be using for the purposes of this paper. Instead of ommunicating through words, literary writing seeks to communicate through images. It uses figurative anguage and description to create a picture to which the reader can relate. Thus, the reader is not merely told something, but immersed in it. While a treatise and a work of literature may seek to discuss the same topic, the means by which they do so are quite different.
So what, then, is the purpose or advantage of a more literary style of writing in philosophy? There
are many, but here I would like to outline just a few, using the works of Friedrich Nietzsche and Albert
Camus as examples. Nietzsches first major work was The Birth of Tragedy, which, while not a particularly traditional take on the topic, was still written in a fairly traditional, straightforward style. However, he became quickly disenchanted with this way of writing and began experimenting with his style. As a result, he wrote using aphorisms, essays, parables, and other such forms of writing as we see in The Gay Science, Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Beyond Good and Evil, The Antichrist, and other works. Why did he feel the need to move away from the traditional treatise towards a more literary style? Perhaps the biggest reason was that, as David Allison says in Reading the New Nietzsche, What he says and how he says it are so much the same: both his own style and the world he writes about confront us as a dynamic play of multiple and continually changing appearance. Here, Allison is specifically referring to The Gay Science, yet I think that this can apply to most of Nietzsches other writings as well. Nietzsche, throughout his body of work, seems to insist on one major idea: that everything is continually in a state of flux, and thus nothing is absolute– of course, trying to avoid turning this into a doctrine is one of the biggest challenges that Nietzsche faces and tries to deal with, to a large extent, in Thus Spoke Zarathustra. Therefore, to state matters in a straightforward manner in the form of a treatise would give the impression of setting forth unquestionable T ruth (one, absolute, universal, objective) in the clearest language possible. Instead, Nietzsche employs figurative language and imagery in order to encourage subjective, not objective t ruths (multiple, relative), as well as to emphasize the changing nature of these truths.
Let us look at a specific work as an example. In Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Nietzsche expresses the
ideas of the Overman, will to power, and eternal recurrence through a series of events, parables, and
speeches centered around or told by the main character, Zarathustra. Rather than setting these ideas out in a formal fashion more similar to The Birth of Tragedy, he chooses to embody them in a story, in action, in experience. How is this different? What does it enable him to do? While it can be extremely frustrating for readers and scholars, perhaps it serves Nietzsches purposes very well. His whole point seems to be that nothing is permanent, but to set this out in the form of a treatise is to negate it– that is, to set it out as a universal proclamation completely defeats the purpose. Thus, even the supposedly universal ideas of the Overman, will to power, and eternal recurrence change, develop, and succeed one another as the reader follows Zarathustra through his own changes and struggles. One of Zarathustras greatest struggles is just this problem of exploring the idea of impermanence, change, and lack of absolutes without turning it into a doctrine or teaching. In encouraging people to follow their own path, he is, in a sense, setting a path for them, and is also greatly distressed when they choose his path as their path.
Pointing out a lack of absolutes and a constant state of change is only part of it; another part consists
in how each individual experiences and interprets this state. Figurative language, literary writing, is by its
very nature open to interpretation as it appeals to individual experiences and ideas to create relationships between fundamentally unlike things. It seeks to give the reader a better understanding of something foreign or abstract by comparing it to something more familiar and concrete. As a result, when we encounter Nietzsche, our individual experiences with and ideas about the familiar and concrete will influence how we interpret his writings. This can easily be shown by mentioning the vast number of interpretations of the death of God (in The Gay Science) in a typical college-level existentialism class. While many take the view that Nietzsche is not literally speaking of the death of God but rather refers to the end of a certain way of thinking, there are others who see this as a direct attack on Christianity. In addition, regardless of whether it is seen as a literal or figurative death, the implications are alternately seen as pessimistic and optimistic, depending on the student, his or her interpretation, and his or her particular attitude or experience concerning that interpretation, Nietzsche, God, Christianity, and any number of other factors. And while Nietzsches writings have been appropriated by a great number of groups with widely divergent ideas as a result of this openness to interpretation (the Nazis being the most well-known example), I think that for him, it is more important to avoid the trap of making categorical statements about a world that is constantly changing. It is more important that each individual consider for him or herself what it means that the world is constantly
changing; how does each of us encounter and live with that idea?
In addition to emphasizing the impermanence and lack of absolutes in the world and the individuals
experience of this, Nietzsches writing style also appeals to a wider audience than the traditional treatise,
while at the same time allowing him to target specific audiences within the general audience. As stated
above, writing in images allows the reader to better understand abstract or foreign concepts by relating them to more familiar experiences. This makes the ideas more accessible to a wider audience by drawing on things that many people do know about to elucidate that with which few are acquainted. This is a tactic used by Plato in Socrates Allegory of the Cave, where he uses the imagery of a cave, the outside world, and the sun to communicate the more abstract concept of the world of the Forms. Practically everyone knows what shadows look like in comparison to the objects that cast them, and Plato/Socrates takes advantage of this experience to make clear the relationship between what we see and the Forms from which they derive. Nietzsche often ridicules and attacks Socrates and the idea of the Forms, but he borrows much from Platos tyle. In Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Nietzsche introduces the idea of eternal recurrence a second time (the first being #341 in The Gay Science) in the following way:
Behold, I continued, this moment! From this gateway, Moment, a long eternal lane leads backward: behind us lies an eternity. Must not whatever can walk have walked on this lane before? Must not whatever can happen have happened, have been done, have passed by before? And if everything has been there beforewhat do you think, dwarf, of this moment? Must not this gateway too have been there before? And are not all things knotted together so firmly that this moment draws after it all that is to come? Thereforeitself too? For whatever can walkin this long lane out there too, it must walk once more.
gateway being the point where those two paths form a circle. Eternal recurrence is a confusing concept, but it is perhaps somewhat easier to grasp when presented through allegory, when the reader can picture something concrete to represent it. In addition, this example shows again the issue of interpretation– even when we grasp the basic concept of time being an eternal circle, what are we to make of this? Like the death of God, is this meant literally or figuratively? How will this idea, depending on the way we interpret it, impact our individual lives?
Lastly, because it is so open to interpretation and because it appeals to individual experience, Nietzsches work can hold different messages for different audiences. Nietzsche had great difficulty in finding an audience, another reason for changing his writing style so much over the course of his works. Like the cartoon South Park, there are many aspects of Nietzsche that easily cause offense upon first glance, but that offer interesting ideas and insights when examined more closely. Thus, some readers are turned away at the mere mention of the death of God or the Overman or the creation and destruction of values.
Others are fascinated by it. And those who read more closely, whether initially attracted or repelled , will find something underneath that remains hidden to those who do not. It seems, then, that the basic distinction in audience that Nietzsche makes here is not whether one agrees or disagrees with what he writes, but rather whether one is willing to explore furtherwhich it seems to me is Nietzsches main purpose in the first place: to get those who are willing, to question and look further. So Nietzsche, among other things, seems to use a literary style of writing to better express his perception of the world as ever-changing, to appeal to a wider audience, and to find those within his audience who are willing to listen, consider, and look further. Nietzsche introduces the reader to alternative ways of looking at the world; Albert Camus explores the implications of these. To do so, he, too, utilizes aliterary way of writing: the novel.
Fiction allows the embodiment of ideas in particular instances and lives, and in the many existentialist novels, plays, and short stories, readers can see the numerous ways in which choice in life is encountered and influenced by the specific situations of individuals. Thus, it seems that fiction is a particularly helpful tool in trying to explicate a way of seeing things that allows of no objective points of reference or permanence. Whether Camus considered himself an existentialist or not, he undeniably did
explore the implications of Nietzsches thought through literature: how does one live in an absurd world, one with no given, absolute meaning or value? If Nietzsche is correct, or if we choose to believ e he is correc what would this mean for human beings? Camus fictional works explore this question through individua characters. Of course his most famous novel, The Stranger, shows us a character who has recognized the absurdity of the world, the lack of meaning, and has chosen one way of acting in light of that: total indifference. On the other hand, Camus novel The Plague (an allegory for Nazi-occupied Paris) explore the reaction of five different men to the utterly absurd situation of a plague that cannot be ended or even slowed by any human intervention. Here, the reactions of the main characters are somehow more human the reader can identify more readily with Rieux, Grand, Cottard, Rambert, and Tarrou than with Mersault because they are not indifferent. For them, as for us, something is at stakeof course, what is at stake is different for each man. Therefore, they are all in the same situation, yet each reacts in unique ways.
Dr. Rieux, although recognizing the futility, fights the plague from its very beginning. In a conversation with Tarrou, (who adopts a somewhat similar attitude), he says the following: since the order of the world is shaped by death, mightnt it be better for God if we refuse to believe in Him and struggle with all our might against death, without raising our eyes toward the heaven where He sits in silence?
Yes. But your victories will never be lasting; thats all.
Rieuxs face darkened.
Yes, I know that. But its no reason for giving up the struggle.
No reason, I agree. Only, now I can picture what this plague must mean for you.
Yes. A never ending defeat.
Camus does not just describe an imaginary reaction to an absurd situation; he actually shows us a
man who realizes that his lifes work is futile in this situation, and his resolution to continue despite the
utility. The reader participates in Dr. Rieuxs realization and resolve through Rieuxs conversations and
actions. It is the difference between having someone tell you about an experience and actually being there experiencing it yourself. And Rieux is only one individual; there are others facing the exact same situation who react quite differently, showing us the variety of ways people can react to a common situation and allowing the reader to try on multiple points of view. Cottard, for example, is actually quite pleased with theplague; he benefits from it in several ways: emotionally and legally, as well as financially. Tarrou writes at ength about Cottard in his journals, at one point stating: Obviouslyhes in the same peril of death as everyone else, but thats just the point; hes in it with the others. The thing hed most detest is being cut off from others; hed rather be one of a beleaguered crowd than a prisoner alone. Cottard, because of his past (he has not only committed some unknown crime, but also feels isolated in general), welcomes the plague despite its dangers, while the other inhabitants tend to ignore, reject, or fear it. Through the development of five main characters rather than one, Camus allows the reader to explore several possible ways of facing the absurd while not judging any of them, not even Cottards. The other four men continue to be friends with Cottard and in then end, feel bad for him rather than condemn him. There are many ways to ace absurdity, none more or less right than any of the others. Camus is not giving us a moral lesson here; he is showing the complexity of life and the decisions we must make, that life is full of contradiction and ambiguity, yet we must act anyways.
Camus and Nietzsche both write in images, but employ quite different styles. For Nietzsche, a
iterary or poetic style of writing allows him to more appropriately express the possibility that there is no
underlying meaning or structure or absolute Truth. He asks us to question the assertions of Christianity and western metaphysics handed down since Plato not by merely analyzing them, but by presenting multiple points of view and situations in a variety of ways. The reader is asked to think outside of traditional lines of thought, and this is helped along by not writing in the traditional manner in the first place. Camus continues.
with this in the senses that he explores the implications of such questioning. Thus, fiction becomes the
perfect vehicle for embodying these ideas in specific individuals and situations to see how they might play out. What would this way of living or thinking mean for individual human beings?
Therefore, particularly in the works of Nietzsche and Camus , the reader can see an attempt to
characterize life in all its ambiguity and contradiction, not by setting forth a system of thought in which
everything is clearly outlined and put in its place, but rather by allowing the reader to see for him or herself what is. Literature is the imitation of life itself; it shows humans existing and acting within particular situations. To quote Camus from Absurd Creation, But in fact the preference they have shown for writing in images rather than in reasoned arguments is revelatory of a certain thought that is common to them all, convinced of the uselessness of any principle of explanation and sure of the educative message of perceptible appearance.Incapable of refining the real, thought pauses to mimic it (Camus, p. 101). Perhaps with this we go back to Socrates explanation of education in the Allegory of the Cave, that rather than trying to explain that which is inexplicable, one must instead try to help others to see (or experience) it for themselves.
Hopefully from the discussion above, it is now clear some of the things literary writing can
accomplish that the treatise cannot. It can show how general or universal ideas manifest in specific
individuals or instances; it can embody and imply the belief that there are no absolutes and everything is i
constant flux without making a universal statement to that effect (thus contradicting it); it can make difficor abstract ideas more accessible to a wider audience by appealing to their experience. But does this papeseek to claim that doing philosophy through literature is somehow superior to expressing it in a treatise? B no means is this the case. Treatises seek to express the universal; literature, the individual. Treatises seek t clarify through words by appealing to reason; literature seeks to do so through images and by appealing to emotion. Treatises tend to tell us what is so, while literature often asks us to question it. I think it was a mistake for Socrates to abandon his humanity in the attempt to perfect his reasoning. It would also be a mistake to say that reason and the intellect should be shoved aside to make way for emotion and intution.
Human beings are composed of both and learn through both. We are individuals who face the universal
question of what it means to be human. We are one and many, intellect and emotion, static and ever- changing; thus, philosophy must take all of these things into account as it continues and address all of our humanity, not just one or another aspect of it. When asked, Which technique– fiction, the theatre, or the essaygives you the most satisfaction as a creator?, Camus replied, The alliance of all of these
techniques in the service of a single work