A Nietzschean account of literary style

When we think about Frederich Nietzsche and literary style, we might think of one of two things, the first being the conceptual distinction he drew in his first major work, The Birth of Tragedy, between the Apollonian and Dionysian modes. I won’t be pursuing this mode of analysis because I haven’t found a way to make it relevant to my own dissertation, yet, but I will draw our attention to what might be the second thing we think about which connects Nietzsche to style, and that is his own style.

Speaking purely about the only two works of Nietzsche I’ve read, Human, All too Human and Beyond Good and Evil, it can seem as though Nietzsche’s interest in style is less in dealing with the matter systematically, but more in embodying the notion, in his own epigrammatic, aphoristic and restless manner of writing, which seems, as time goes on, to become more and more pertinent to more contemporary forms of media. He’s been usefully described as a newspaper columnist or pundit (in that the philosophical antecedents he engages with he probably hasn’t read as systematically as he lets on, he was a philologist and a classicist rather than a philosopher), blogger (for the same reason) and I’m sure I wouldn’t be the first to say he would’ve fit in well on twitter, were I a vulgar enough character to make those sorts of analogies.

This restlessness when it comes to explicating the finer points of his work is what I mean when I say he embodies his own notion of style; by paying attention to his works’ formal strictures, or the artifice of their non-existence, we might be able to develop a more engaging model of Nietzsche’s stylistics than he can provide us with. For example, in the introduction to Human, all too Human, Ray Furness describes how Nietzsche perceives truth as feminine:

and those dogmatic souls afflicted with a terrible seriousness will be unable to woo her. A light, more elegant path is needed, a fresh and sparkling approach.

This ‘fresh and sparkling approach’ is Nietzsche’s ‘gay science’, which could be summed up as a curative to the Enlightenment project, which Nietzsche viewed as restrictive and overly systematic. As the translator says:

his preference for a darting perspectivism allows him to use dazzling contradictions to disorientate the reader and force them…to do the necessary work of weighting…and evaluating.

His commitment to a multiplicity of thought in his philosophy would encourage us to align Nietzsche’s commitment to multiperspectivalism, with a certain disposition towards multiplicity in literary style. This isn’t really an extravagant interpretation, Nietzsche is positively effusive about artists who display a capacity to be ‘on the move’ stylistically.

One author who he singles out for praise on this basis is Laurence Sterne. Sterne’s novel, The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, A Gentleman, is so stylistically restless, it fails to assume any kind of stable narrative shape at all, which Nietzsche endorses unequivocally:

an artistic style in which the definite form is continually broken, thrust aside and transferred to the realm of the indefinite, so that is signifies one and the other at the same time

So his tastes are fairly obvious, multi-vocality, oscillation of the writing’s attention regarding its subject, ambiguity/irony. The reasons for this are fairly obvious, everything about Nietzsche’s thought repudiates convention and the formation of habit, which makes us overly familiar with and lax in our approaches to objects under inquiry.

Interestingly, for the purposes of my own research into modernism, Nietzsche sees plurality of styles as a modern tendency, and partially attributable to the growth in urban living. Modern iterations of literary forms will be formally restless, Nietzsche argues, as this is the new paradigm: “they [the moderns] are in all things rather too thorough to be able to settle like the men of other days.”

While I don’t think I could get away with calling Richard Wagner modernist, he was one of Nietzsche’s contemporaries, and Nietzsche regards him as pertinent in delineating the modern turn, as he saw it at the time:

This kind of music expresses best what I think of the Germans: they belong to the day before yesterday and the day after tomorrow — they have as yet no today.

Like Hans Georg-Gadamer after him, Nietzsche understood style as a reactionary force in many respects, enforcing normative standards on particular works. In Nietzsche’s estimation, pre-modern works were written for performance, for the benefit of the ear. In the modern age, a key distinguishing feature of style is its appeal to the eye. In both cases, Nietzsche regards this as having their own impediments, demonstrating that he is unlikely to commit to signing off any one kind of style as sufficient in itself, it will always be a matter of overturning, experimenting, pushing the boundaries of hegemonic categories, until they break apart.


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