Emptiness and Connectedness
By the time of his "middle works," Human, All Too Human (1878), Daybreak (1881), and The Gay Science (1882), Nietzsche had taken this further step. In Human, All Too Human , he announced his discovery that even belief in truth as a superior value arises only in certain historically contingent situations. So it was not simply our particular historical truths but the very idea of truth as a cultural value that could be shown up as historically specific, contingent, and subject to dissolution.
But if truth could not hold, neither could the idea of history as usually understood—connoting a world that was, on some level, sufficiently coherent and stable to admit truth. As history consumes even itself, we are left with mere flux, sheer becoming, on which human beings, in their need for the security of stable being and suprahistorical truth, impose their particular, contingent fictions. What we take to be "truths" are simply the particular fictions or illusions that have made possible our particular mode of life, that have enabled us to live—more or less well.
Growing from within the particular true world we have posited, the Western ideal of truth has been central to our particular mode of life—which is not to be valued highly, according to Nietzsche's criteria. The recent emphasis on historical truth is but an aspect of that larger cultural strategy. It was bound up
with a particular way of conceiving the world—as historical and thus in terms of continuity, even rationality and necessity. In showing up the ideal of historical truth as but a particular, contingent lie, Nietzsche seemed to undercut the whole package. Whereas historical inquiry had seemed to assume a tyrannical privilege, endlessly showing the capriciousness of our world, we come to feel ourselves free to remember or forget as we choose. As part of the repertory of cultural lies, historical understanding could be assessed simply in terms of its value for "life."
Although it may first seem unnecessarily provocative, the term "lie" is a fair characterization, because in constructing fictions we are hiding from the real nothingness of flux or becoming. We want to believe that some metaphysical sanction or necessity attaches to the particular, merely contingent world that has become. In Beyond Good and Evil , Nietzsche asks rhetorically, "Does one not write books precisely to conceal what one harbors?" and then suggests that beneath every philosophical opinion, there is another, and another beneath that, with no stable foundation: "Every philosophy is a foreground philosophy," a surface over something richer, stranger, which, however, is also a surface, for "underneath" there is only "an abysmally deep ground behind every ground, under every attempt to furnish 'grounds.'" Ultimately, in fact, "every philosophy also conceals a philosophy; every opinion is also a hideout, every word also a mask." As I discuss in chapter 8, deconstruction would take one of its cues from Nietzsche's emphasis on this endless concealment and exclusion.
We seem well on our way to the familiar "posthistorical" Nietzsche of discontinuity and self-creation, but at this point we encounter a fork in his response to the appalling experience of the collapse into history. By historicizing even the historical treatment itself, by dissolving everything into empty becoming and fictional contrivance, Nietzsche seemed able to deflate the particular world and to sidestep any deeper confrontation with the appallingly capricious particularity of things. But he sensed that this tack was too easy; something about the new experience of "nothing but history" continued to gnaw at him.
It was important to grasp that reality, including the present premium on the historicizing mode itself, did not have to be this way, but it was this way—and it mattered that it was. There may be nothing behind us but "dreadful accident," but this moment is as it is because there have been these accidents and not some others. Even though what "there is" is "really" only lies, it is decisive that it has been these lies and not some others. Though there may be great scope for creative reinterpretation, to recognize that the actual is but a provisional, unstable, contingent historical resultant does not make it go away, or enable us to lie it away. What we are left with, then, is not simply a limitless invitation to invent fictions; we necessarily begin with the
particular world generated by our particular lies so far, a world with which each of us is indissolubly bound up.
A number of Nietzsche's emphases during this middle period suggest his continued preoccupation with the nature of that world and the modes of experience possible within it. Even while attacking the historical-mindedness of his own time, he insisted that it was precisely a historical sense, a deeper historical sense, that the West had lacked—and continued to lack. In Human, All Too Human , he charged that "lack of historical sense is the family failing of all philosophers," who lead us to think we can infer an eternal essence from human being as it is now. "But everything has become: there are no eternal facts , just as there are no absolute truths. Consequently, what is needed from now on is historical philosophizing , and with it the virtue of modesty." Nietzsche was recognizing that human being has become as it is through a particular historical process. And modesty was called for because we come to understand that our interpretation, like all the others, will not apprehend stable, suprahistorical "being" but will simply add to the history by giving a particular understanding of the resultant of that history so far.
Metaphysicians, Nietzsche went on to argue, worry about the relationship between the world of appearance and the thing-in-itself; they want to know what there really is, apart from the contingencies of historical circumstance. They have overlooked the possibility that what we
call life and experience . . . has gradually become, is indeed still fully in process of becoming , and should thus not be regarded as a fixed object on the basis of which a conclusion as to the nature of its originator (the sufficient reason) may either be drawn or pronounced undrawable. . . . That which we now call the world is the outcome of a host of errors and fantasies which have gradually arisen and grown entwined with one another in the course of the overall evolution of the organic being, and are now inherited by us as the accumulated treasure of the entire past—as treasure: for the value of our humanity depends on it.
This passage makes it especially clear that the departure from metaphysics soon leads us to a fork in the road. On the one hand, where there once seemed suprahistorical essences that metaphysics might grasp, we now see only "a host of errors and fantasies," and we seem to have turned our backs on any cultural premium on, or perhaps even the possibility of, historical truth. But on the other hand, those errors and fantasies are the particular errors and fantasies that have produced our world—the only world we have, the world with which we must deal. And through the same process we ourselves have become the particular beings that we are. So there might be special value in understanding ourselves
and our world historically, even though postmetaphysical historical inquiry would focus on contingency and not essence and even though no complete, definitive account would be possible.
Although some have found in Nietzsche the warrant for an antihistorical emphasis on "discontinuity," he was much taken with the connectedness of things—on precisely the historical level. Even after suprahistorical essences or necessities are forgotten, things cohere, q follows p and is as it is partly because p was as it was. "History" is simply this temporal coherence, this connectedness of things from one moment to the next.
Moreover, Nietzsche was struck with the fact that this horizontal interconnectedness means that things last—and thus are for keeps. In Human, All Too Human , he suggests "that . . . every action performed by a human being becomes in some way the cause of other actions, decisions, thoughts, that everything that happens is inextricably knotted to everything that will happen." Thus we "come to recognize the existence of an actual immortality , that of motion: what has once moved is enclosed and eternalized in the total union of all being like an insect in amber." This notion makes sense only insofar as the world is a history, only insofar as the endless becoming is not just empty flux but takes on a particular content.
Moreover, this connectedness across time meant that our personal lives are bound up with the happening of this particular world. As Nietzsche put it in The Gay Science, "The most dangerous point of view. —What I do or do not do now is as important for everything that is yet to come as is the greatest event of the past: in this tremendous perspective of effectiveness all actions appear equally great and small." And because of this insight into the permanent weight of what we do, Nietzsche could write a few years later, "I myself am fate and have conditioned existence for all eternity."
Nietzsche, of course, was not shy about claiming world-historical importance for his own contribution, and his antiegalitarianism shaped his way of conceiving the implications of his insight into the immortality of what we do. But his notion that "all actions appear equally great and small" indicates that each of us, in everything we do, has "conditioned existence for all eternity." To be sure, members of "the herd" all do essentially the same things; their actions are interchangeable, so there is no drama to the action of any one of them. Yet even Nietzsche could not deny that collectively their actions add up and weigh heavily, as the impact of our long experience of Christianity amply attested. For all his emphasis on the higher types, Nietzsche grasped that the
mechanism through which a particular reality results is egalitarian—indeed, all too egalitarian.
So even if we think in terms of lies or fictions, it matters for all time that human beings have imposed these fictions and not some others, because subsequent fictions will respond to, and thus embody, the particular world that has resulted so far. What remains, with the collapse of metaphysics, is not mere flux or discontinuity but the total particular that results from the connectedness of things. For Nietzsche, that is the terror. And the challenge was to find a way beyond what he found appalling about the bland particularity of our merely historical world.