Nietzsche

The prophet of postmodernity is Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900), with his deeply cynical, mordantly suspicious view of language. Language and especially the figurative is a veil concealing the true nature of the universe as hostile to humanity. As far as Nietzsche is concerned, language is one big lie. In his early work 'On Truth and Falsity in their Ultramoral Sense', Nietzsche asks: 'What is a word? The expression of a nervestimulus in sounds' (Nietzsche, 1873, p.177). The nearest we come to things themselves is through metaphor, but metaphors do not at all correspond to the reality. We forget that our metaphors of perception are metaphors and take them for the things themselves. The generation of metaphors is intrinsic to humanity and an aspect of our inveterate projection of inner needs, desires and fears onto the 'external' world. Myth and art are both the products of metaphoric projection. We do not possess truth, only illusion. The boundary between dreaming and waking is blurred (ibid., p. 188). 'What, therefore, is truth?' Nietzsche asks. He replies:

A mobile army of metaphors, metonymies, anthropomorphisms: in short a sum of the human relations which become poetically and rhetorically intensified, metamorphosed, adorned. truths are illusions of which one has forgotten that they are illusions; worn out metaphors which have become powerless to affect the senses; coins which have their obverse effaced and have lost their currency, becoming again mere bits of metal.

Elsewhere Nietzsche asserts: 'Every word has become a prejudice' (Nietzsche, 1986, p.323).

However, in his first book, The Birth of Tragedy, Nietzsche has a positive view of the symbolic in the sense of myth. Myth is 'the concentrated image of the world'; without myth, culture loses its vitality and creative power; 'only a horizon surrounded by myths can unify an entire cultural movement.' Nietzsche mourns the passing of the unified mythic world and with it the notion of tragedy as perfected by the Greek dramatists. He sees the analytical spirit of the Enlightenment (personified by Socrates) as the solvent of all myths and the modern world as one marked by 'the loss of myth, the loss of the mythical home, the mythical womb'. Demythologisation, says Nietzsche in effect, leads to secularisation. But we cannot live without myths and, just as the Greeks descended into superstition, the Enlightenment degenerates into the bazaar of mythologies that (we would say) is typical of postmodernism: 'a pandemonium of myths and superstitions piled up and accumulated from all over the place' (Nietzsche, 1993, pp. 109-12).

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