Thursday, 23 August 2018

To "'give style" to one's character

Nietzsche, 1861
In The Gay Science, Friedrich Nietzsche talks about giving style to one’s character. He calls it a great and rare art. Here’s a famous passage:
One thing is needful.— To "'give style" to one's character — a great and rare art! It is practiced by those who survey all the strengths and weaknesses of their nature and then fit them into an artistic plan until every one of them appears as art and reason and even weaknesses delight the eye. Here a large mass of second nature has been added; there a piece of original nature has been removed—both times through long practice and daily work at it. Here the ugly that could not be removed is concealed; there it has been reinterpreted and made sublime. Much that is vague and resisted shaping has been saved and exploited for distant views; it is meant to beckon toward the far and immeasurable. In the end, when the work is finished, it becomes evident how the constraint of a single taste governed and formed everything large and small. Whether this taste was good or bad is less important than one might suppose, if only it was a single taste! ~ (The Gay Science, translated by Walter Kaufmann; page 232-233)
Here Nietzsche is talking about deceiving oneself by removing the original nature, concealing the ugly, and devising an artistic plan to improve one’s image. He points out that this can be accomplished only by first conducting a survey of one’s strengths and weaknesses. He goes on to say (page 232-233):
It will be the strong and domineering natures that enjoy their finest gaiety in such constraint and perfection under a law of their own; the passion of their tremendous will relents in the face of all stylized nature, of all conquered and serving nature. Even when they have to build palaces and design gardens they demur at giving nature freedom.  
Conversely, it is the weak characters without power over themselves that hate the constraint of style. They feel that if this bitter and evil constraint were imposed upon them they would be demeaned; they become slaves as soon as they serve; they hate to serve. Such spirits—and they may be of the first rank—are always out to shape and interpret their environment as free nature: wild, arbitrary, fantastic, disorderly, and surprising. And they are well advised because it is only in this way that they can give pleasure to themselves. For one thing is needful: that a human being should attain satisfaction with himself, whether it be by means of this or that poetry and art; only then is a human being at all tolerable to behold. Whoever is dissatisfied with himself is continually ready for revenge, and we others will be his victims. If only by having to endure his ugly sight. For the sight of what is ugly makes one bad and gloomy. 
It is not easy to achieve style. The art of improving one’s image, or self-stylization, needs a strong and domineering character—for the weak characters are incapable of recognizing their own flaws and are unwilling to conceive of an artistic plan for transforming themselves. In his unpublished work, Nietzsche says, “Truth is ugly. We possess art lest we perish of the truth.” Nietzsche is unique among philosophers for the important role that he assigns to art in human life. He saw life itself (whether ugly or beautiful, bearable or unbearable) as an artistic phenomena. We may be flawed creatures, but through art we can defy the truth and make life bearable.


Irfan Khawaja said...

On the face of it, it seems a mind-blowing implausible set of claims: self-stylization is self-deception, which we use as a drug to distract ourselves from the ugly truth about ourselves. The truth would have to be unbearably ugly to justify so obviously sanity-destroying a "remedy," but it's unclear why it would be. Even if it was, there are two more obvious remedies: either clean up one's act to mitigate the ugliness, or resign oneself to the ugliness, treating it as inevitable (as we all do when we survey the dignity-affronting ugliness of most modern urban or suburban spaces).

Interesting that both Nietzsche and Rand see art as a response to and remedial of the inherent defect of some human faculty. For Rand, art is a response to the defects of our conceptual and cognitive nature. Despite everything she says about the power of reason, her aesthetic theory (as articulated in the Romantic Manifesto) holds that we need art because without it, our conceptual faculty is inadequate to the task of guiding us through life. Art concretizes sense of life, which is pre-conceptual, and can't be grasped directly by conceptual means.

Both Rand and Nietzsche have extremely narrow, reductive conceptions of art.

Incidentally, though I don't know his work very well, John Dewey made art central to his conception of human life. In some ways, his views are a somewhat more benign version of Nietzsche's.

Anoop Verma said...

I have not read John Dewey's aesthetics. I may someday. You are right both Rand and Nietzsche saw art as a tool for self improvement. Also, Nietzsche's comments on self-deception and self-stylization can be seen in context of what he says in his The Genealogy of Morals about the "blond beast." There is a school of thought that the "blond beast" is a deception that Nietzsche expected the strong among men to achieve.