The Poetic Process as Aesthetic Experience in Nietzsche’s Birth of Tragedy ADM 16 November 1992 “There are times when

we look at something, whether new or familiar — it can be anything from a panoramic vista to a small, mundane object such as an apple or a doorknob — and realize we are seeing it in a singular way. We seem to be taken out of ourselves.” So observes Bryan Magee in his discussion of transfiguration. This epiphantic process — the removal of an object from its spatial and temporal environment — grants the object a universality it did not previously have, but the feelings such an experience summons are singular and perhaps inexpressible. An epiphany likely will surprise the observer, so much so that he often will be unable to remember, unable to maintain the glory of having united, if only for a moment, with the sublime. The unification is what Schopenhauer calls the aesthetic experience, and what Nietzsche calls a substantial part of what makes life bearable. But in order to communicate the sublime and to preserve it, a medium is needed. This medium, according to both Schopenhauer and Nietzsche is art. Plastic, written, or musical, it is art that captures and expresses the aesthetic, so that the experience can be shared, understood, or duplicated. With a single aesthetic experience as inspiration, an artist can participate in the transfiguration of an object, go through a period of awe, and then feel a deep need to preserve the occasion. From the moment the artist decides to make permanent the Schopenhauerian aesthetic experience, she decides to engage in the poetic process. Just as the aesthetic transfiguration changes the singular to the universal, so does the poetic process transform the singular, personal aesthetic experience into a universal one that will not change, one that may even provide the artist’s audience a glimpse of the aesthetic. The poetic process begins with a longing to make the moment last, continues with a choice of artistic medium, and ends with a finished artistic representation which can be passed on to an audience. In the earliest stages, the artist expresses himself in rudimentary terms. He tries to connect ideas, to apply traditional thought processes to his new outlook, to determine what the pure aesthetic means to him. Words spoken or written in prosaic form fail to capture the essence of the occasion. The spectator, if he is an artist, must instead exercise the force of his will to transform the transfiguration from the singular experience of the universal to the universal experience of the universal. One method of artistically accomplishing this is poetry. In translating the aesthetic occurrence into poetic form, the artist can undergo a second epiphany — a moment or series of moments in which he not only relives the first, but also understands how the first experience applies to his day-to-day life. The discovery of application is crucial to granting value to the artist’s life and purpose. For, as Nietzsche famously argues in The Birth of Tragedy “it is only as an aesthetic phenomenon that existence and the world are eternally justified.” The artist must understand his experience as a justification of his misery-filled life and environment, lest he despair and fail to continue the aesthetic and poetic processes. Failure of the poet means failure of the justification. Nietzsche

defines the task of the poet as aesthetically justifying the world. If the world is as disproportionately filled with suffering as Nietzsche claims, some justification — some lasting justification — is needed to prevent a Hamlet nausea consuming enough to cripple the artistic impulse. Although the poetic process does not originate in the pure willless contemplation of which Nietzsche is so fond, it is born in what Schopenhauer names the “lyrical state” and in Schiller what terms his “musical mood.” Schopenhauer seems far more willing to accept the role of the will in the entire process than doe s Nietzsche. These states combine the willing with the will-less, a merging that makes possible (for Schopenhauer, at least) the translation of the raw epiphany into communicable form, and the transformation of spectator to creator. This process differs from other artistic ones in that its inspiration comes directly from transfiguration. Ordinarily, an artist will see an object and decide to pain or describe it, without ever seeing it objectively. The aim of all art, Schopenhauer concludes, is the expression of the Ideas, primarily the “objectification of man.” But before the artist can fully objectify the man, she must deal with her own subjectiveness, both before her epiphany and while in the lyrical state. Careful investigation of the transfiguration itself, the artist’s initial and ultimate reaction to it, and the response of artist’s audience will offer substantial insight into the poetic process and the aesthetic experience. The investigation begins with determining why transfiguration is a necessary element of human existence. To be sure, there are those who argue against the need of art, let alone the need for an experience that pulls relativity away from an object. The poetic process ignores the suffering of the world, it apparently forgets the need for general happiness; it exchanges the fight against the pain of many in favor of the individual’s rapturous glorification. And although the spectator may feel those around him are experiencing what he is, they in fact may not be, and it becomes his task to make the transfiguration communal. One might argue that rather than be concerned with lyric quality or the best blend of poetry and music, people (especially artists) should pay proper attention to the issues that matter, e.g. disease, hunger, religious strife, and war. These problems, after all, affect and end the lives of masses of people, people who do not have opportunity to care about verse, melody, or the value of opera. What is the reason for artistic pursuits when so many physical elements are in disarray? To be content with life, one needs not only aesthetic justification, but justification of the aesthetic; i.e. both an moral and utilitarian justification of the world. The value of the aesthetic experience, of the poetic process, must be great enough to outweigh the simultaneous misery so many people feel. And the experience must be accessible enough to bring large numbers of people out of their misery. Furthermore, and most importantly, it must be powerful enough in the individual’s mind to outweigh the effect of the pain he feels in and sees around himself. When this is accomplished, he will have the courage necessary to communicate the once inexpressible. In takes courageous will to describe what must be experienced without will: the first moment of transfiguration. As Magee describes above, this is the moment when the artist sees an object as he has never before seen it. From that, an artist can gain inspiration for a work of art that aims at the universal. It is necessary, however, that the artist does not “will” a new outlook. He must be as open-minded and as objective as possible, so he can be, as Nietzsche’s plastic artist,

“never tired of contemplating [an image’s] minutest traits.” When the artist is not seeking a specific inspiration or aesthetic object, he is prepared for the sudden, unexpected aesthetic experience. Will-less and unprejudiced, anything he happens across could strike him as beautiful, and if he is successful in casting away his prejudices, anything he sees can seem to him new. For the first time, he sees the object without relation to his or its environment. Whatever it is near, whatever it affects, whatever its accidents, no longer matter. What does matter is the intrinsic value of that object — it beauty, its proportion, the object per se. The artist sees essence in this transfiguration. Because all mundane attachments disappear, he “seems to be taken out of [himself]” and takes the object itself from its context of ugliness and suffering, so that he can deal with it on a purely aesthetic level. The pain that the artist might associate with the object, the pain that ordinarily would stifle his artistic vision, disappears, so that for better or worse, even the horrific can move the artist to unforeseen, spell-binding aesthetic heights. This is true on a large scale in war. “Millions of men in our day — like millions before us — have learned to live in war’s strange element and have discovered in it a powerful fascination...It has drawn most men under its spell,” writes John Gray in his philosophic reaction to battle, The Warriors. It is of note that Gray recognizes not all soldiers are drawn by “the enduring appeals of battle,” just as not all people are open to the possibility of transfiguration of the commonplace. But enough are aware, and personally know, that gruesome and shocking as it is, the spectacle of war commands the awed attention of its participants — participants who find themselves in such a rapture, they lose their ability to act. They are removed from themselves, removed from the fear and viciousness commonly associated with battle. In spectacular war, fear is replaced by a will-less tendency to aesthetically absorb the event, whatever the physical cost, and blood lust is replaced by Biblical “lust of the eye.” That lust drives the soldier into pure objectivity. Just as Magee’s observer removes the observed from its context, she no longer cares about the death and pain involved in battle, or even the risk to herself. The satisfaction of her eye is all that is important, but it is something over which she has no control. War has pulled her out of her mundane civilian life, and dropped her into the magnificent, grandiose environment of battle, where she is free from ordinary behavioral constrictions. The rules change in war: the ugly becomes beautiful (or at least aesthetically compelling); the grotesque, sublime. She experiences and observes events from a will-less perspective that could not have been possible in a more conventional environment. From this, a writer, painter, or sculptor, gain inspiration, much as Gray himself did. This becomes more apparent when one compares Gray’s language with Nietzsche’s and Schopenhauer’s. Gray writes of “the disinterested contemplation of beauty” , precisely the approach Nietzsche looks for in his consideration of the artist, who “has already surrendered his subjectivity in the Dionysian process. And echoing Schopenhauer’s discussion of the “lyrical state”, the sublime, and will-lessness, Gray quotes Dixon Wecter while describing war as “the one great lyric passage in their lives — lyric because “the chief aesthetic appeal of war surely lies in this feeling of the sublime, to which we, children of nature, are directed whether we desire it or not.” [italics mine]. Subjectivity

does not adulterate the astonishment and wonder that accompany the primordial connection with the spectacular. Whether he wishes it or not, the aesthetic experience, the transfiguration of war from horror to glory, will happen, and it will steal its observers ability to act. Gray suggests this is a result “not so much a separation of the self from the world as a subordination of the self to it.” Both Gray and Nietzsche seem to maintain that an awe-struck observer can fully ignore his pain and needs, though Schopenhauer suggests “willing (the personal interest of the aims) and pure perception...are wonderfully blended with each other” Because the experience can place the soldier/artist in s Schopenhauerian lyrical state, where “willing tears us anew from peaceful contemplation,” he is able to remember the experience, but only as a vague and nebulous one. One of the needs of the will is to know, to understand, the nebulous. Though this contemplation is not as will-less as Nietzsche would prefer, as in a dream for example, the will involved in the lyrical state allows him to begin the poetic process without detracting from its magnificence. Because it is will-less, contemplative, and beautiful, the dream can serve as a Nietzschean inspiration for the poetic process. Nietzsche infers in his discussion of the dream state that the dreamer “must have completely lost sight of the waking reality and its ominous obtrusiveness.” This inference is similar to the phenomenon of transfiguration, in which the observer surrenders his will and sees something without its ominous and obtrusive connections to the world around it. The dream state may prompt the dreamer to proclaim, as Nietzsche suggests, “It is dream, I will dream on,” just as someone involved in a transfiguration will long to hold onto that moment for as long as possible, whether she has any control over herself and the situation or not. The transfiguration and the aesthetic experience justify the phenomenal world, but Nietzsche goes further than that in his praise of the dream state: “I feel myself impelled to the metaphysical assumption that the truly existent primal unity, eternally suffering and contradictory, also needs the rapturous vision, the pleasurable illusion, for its continuous redemption.” Nietzsche not only sees the “pleasurable illusion,” i.e. the dream, as redemptive, but also as preferable, to waking reality. Empirical reality, a representation of the primal unity, is a “mere appearance,” and a dream likewise is a “mere appearance of a mere appearance. This leads Nietzsche to the conclusion that Schiller’s “naïve” art is a mere appearance of a mere appearance. But if the artist uses the dream experience as inspiration, her work is once more removed from the primal unity that is at the heart of empirical and dream reality. The resulting art, then, is an appearance of an appearance of an appearance. After the epiphantic moment or series of moments series passes, the observer is left with an uncertain emptiness because he must return to the reality everyone else experiences, and he must reattach all the associations of pain and suffering to himself, the object he decontextualized, and his environment. He is left with a nameless, disconcerting insight into the nature of the world, a knowledge that reveals to him the base, the vile, the gruesome, with a clarity he has never witnessed. But just as he may have stood awe-struck while watching the horrors of war, he may be incapable of action due to his new knowledge. Nietzsche describes this sensation as the Hamlet nausea, a sickness in which understanding hobbles the will to act. A conflict

emerges now between the will to continue the poetic process and the nausea of inaction. In considering methods of curing himself of the sickness, he may look for further aesthetic experiences, further transfigurations, through which he will remove himself from phenomenal reality and be free from the Weltschmerz. Or, he may hope to recover by directly confronting the source of his inaction, the pain of those who surround him. Knowing that he touched the sublime through his aesthetic experience, he can hope to give others that same feeling if he is able to use his artistic talents to communicate to them the beautiful. Argument and dissertation cannot accomplish this with any elevating or lasting effect; the only method of sharing the aesthetic experience, if there truly is one, is through art. Lyric poetry, situated somewhere between prose and music, best facilitates the immediate desire of the poet to preserve and communicate the essence of her transfiguring experience. It is not as epic as a tragedy or as enchantingly communal as an opera, but poetry’s value is that it can contain the fresh immediacy of the artist’s needs, can be widely distributed, and it gives the artist opportunity to look back on her aesthetic experience with both an objective and a subjective eye. The simultaneous willing and will-lessness create Schopenhauer’s lyrical mood, and in this mood the poet sees the purpose of her aesthetic experience, which in itself can be described as a second transfiguration. Once the author gets over her Hamlet nausea and decides to cement the experience, she is open to a creative subjectivity (by choosing her medium and her words) and an objectivity (by enshrining the moment in an artistic expression, which once refined and submitted, is immutable). “Genuine song,” writes Schopenhauer, “is the expression of the whole of this mingled and divided state of mind.” Genuine song provides the composer with an understanding of herself and her world. The initial objectivity of the aesthetic experience is followed during artistic creation by the Schopenhauerian blend of the objective and subjective will, and this process concludes with the subjective refinement of the artistic expression. In the refinement period, the author re-reads his work (a work written in a state of recovery from the awe) and makes it more cohesive, more understandable. He may change it from a stream of words to a stream of consciousness, a form a narrative that both conveys the fluid nature of the experience and can be readily understood by its audience. The receivers of the work — if the poet has successfully translated the experience from phenomenon to poem — may in turn undergo an understanding, an epiphany, an aesthetic experience of their own. In this case, the poetic process ends with the audience’s epiphantic reaction to the work of the poet.

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