Friedrich Nietzsche: The Masks of Truth
"Everything deep loves masks; the deepest things have a veritable hatred of image and likeness." Thus spoke Nietzsche in Beyond Good and Evil (1886). The mask is the face that the self presents to the world, and it is essential to the artist and the philosopher. It is not a mask necessarily a mask assumed by them, but one that grows out of their relationship to the world: "around every deep thinker a mask constantly grows, thanks to the continually wrong, i.e. superficial, interpretations of his every word, his every step, his every sign of life."
Humankind fears the truth and takes refuge in superficialities:
It is deep, suspicious fear of incurable pessimism that forces whole millenniums to sink their teeth into a religious interpretation of life. It is that fearful instinct which intuits that man might come into possession of the truth too soon, before he has grown strong enough, hard enough, artist enough. Looked at in this light, piety, "living in God," would appear to be the subtlest and ultimate product of the fear of truth.We put on the mask to "become so much a work of art, of surface, of color-play, and goodness, that one no longer suffers whenever one looks at" us, and "one writes books in order to conceal what is concealed in one."
Every philosophy is a foreground-philosophy.... There is something arbitrary in the fact that the philosopher stopped here, that he looked back and looked around, that here he refrained from digging deeper, that he laid aside his spade.... Each philosophy also conceals a philosophy; each opinion is also a hiding place; each word is also a mask.... Man, a complex, lying, artificial, and inscrutable animal ... has invented the clear conscience, so that he might have the sensation, for once, that his psyche is a simple thing. All of morality is a continuous courageous forgery, without which an enjoyment of the sight of man's soul would be impossible.
W.B. Yeats: The Anti-Self
Yeats's masks, described in Per Amica Silentia Lunae (1918), are also a product of the artist's self-concealment, as well as a spontaneous expression of characteristics of the artist that he or she chooses to suppress. Yeats is aware that his public self is not the one that he finds when he closes the door to his study and sits down to write. "When I come to put in rhyme what I have found it will be a hard toil, but for a moment I believe I have found myself and not my anti-self. It is only the shrinking from toil perhaps that convinces me that I have been no more myself than is the cat the medicinal grass it is eating in the garden." The anti-self protects the self, just as the grass nourishes and heals the cat.
He sees this in the work of his friends, such as the woman (possibly Augusta Gregory) whose "only fault is a habit of harsh judgement with those who do not have her sympathy," but whose plays are anything but harsh and judging. Or the actress who plays meek and self-effacing young women on stage but "in private life is like the captain of some buccaneer ship holding his crew to good behavior at the mouth of a blunderbuss." Even the art she collects is a mask of her private self:
When I last saw her in her own house she lived in a torrent of words and movements, she could not listen, and all about her upon the walls were women drawn by Burne-Jones in his latest period ... women who were always listening, and are as necessary to her as a contemplative Buddha to a Japanese Samurai.He also contrasts the "gentle and silent" John Millington Synge with the "voluble dare-devils" of his plays: "in all his imagination he delights in fine physical life. And "William Morris, a happy, busy, most irascible man, described dim colour and pensive emotion." Yeats posits that "the work is the man's flight from his entire horoscope." Keats, who was "ignorant, poor, and in poor health, and not perfectly well-bred," in his poetry indulged in "imaginary delights" and "gave us his dream of luxury." Dante "celebrated the most pure lady poet ever sung and the Divine Justice," but "had to struggle in his own heart with his unjust anger and his lust."
Which leads Yeats to one of his best-known prose aphorisms: "We make out of the quarrel with others, rhetoric; but of the quarrel with ourselves, poetry." Not everyone achieves this ability to express the anti-self: "The other self, the anti-self or the antithetical self, as one may choose to name it, comes but to those who are no longer deceived, whose passion is reality." It comes from struggle: "He only can create the greatest imaginable beauty who has endured all imaginable pangs, for only when we have seen and foreseen what we dread shall we be rewarded by that dazzling unforeseen wing-footed wanderer."
So Yeats dismisses the contemporary "doctrine of sincerity and self-realisation." It has "made us gentle and passive," when what is needed is "the energy to assume the mask of some other life."
If we cannot imagine ourselves as different from what we are, and try to assume that second self, we cannot impose a discipline upon ourselves though we may accept one from others.... Wordsworth, great poet though he be, is so often flat and heavy partly because his moral sense, being a discipline he had not created, a mere obedience, has no theatrical element.Yeats, tinkering with spiritualism, posits the role of a classical daemon in the artist's life:
the Daemon comes not as like to like but seeking its own opposite, for man and Daemon feed the hunger in one another's hearts. Because the ghost is simple, the man heterogeneous and confused, they are but knit together when the man has found a mask whose lineaments permit the expression of all the man most lacks, and it may be dreads, and of that only.Finally, Yeats confronts contemporary psychology: "The doctors of medicine have discovered that certain dreams of the night, for I do not grant them all, are the day's unfulfilled desire, and that our terror of desires condemned by the conscience has distorted and disturbed our dreams." Artists have no need of dreams to do this for them. They have their masks.
Arthur Schopenhauer: Sympathy and Asceticism
Asceticism, the denial of the body in order to come closer to the spirit, has been the traditional way of dealing with dualism in almost all cultures. For the modern, it is a path toward self-knowledge, toward freeing the self from physical demands. Schopenhauer, in The World as Will and Idea (1818) deals with it in terms of the individual will attempting to separate itself from the universal will.
If that veil of Mâyâ, the principle of individuation, is lifted from the eyes of a man to such an extent that he no longer makes the egotistical distinction between his person and that of others, but takes as much interest in the sufferings of other individuals as his own, and therefore is not only benevolent in the highest degree, but even ready to sacrifice his own individuality whenever such a sacrifice will save a number of other persons, then it clearly follows that such a man, who recognises in all beings his own inmost and true self, must also regard the infinite suffering of all suffering beings as his own, and take on himself the pain of the whole world.This cognition of wholeness, of the "constant passing away, vain striving, inward conflict, and continual suffering," is contrasted by Schopenhauer with "the principle of individuation" and "egoism" that only knows particular things and their relation to his own person." By turning away from the ego, "Man ... attains to the state of voluntary renunciation, resignation, and perfect will-lessness." But the process is difficult: "Therefore Jesus says, 'It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.'" The things of the world call to us. "Asceticism ... shows itself ... in voluntary and intentional poverty."
This "mortification of will" is the rejection of "the source of his own suffering existence and that of the world." For "so long as the body lives, the whole will to live exists potentially, and constantly strives to become actual, and to burn again with all its ardour." But silencing "all volition, gives the deepest peace and opens the door of freedom." Those who attain this state "strive with all their might to keep upon this path, by enforced renunciation of every kind, by penance and severity of life, and by selecting whatever is disagreeable to them, all in order to suppress the will, which is constantly springing up anew."
Friedrich Nietzsche: Self-Overcoming
A keen student of Schopenhauer, Nietzsche also embraced a form of asceticism, but as a means of rising above the herd mentality and "slave morality" of humanity. "Man is something that should be overcome," he had Zarathustra proclaim in Thus Spoke Zarathustra (1883), in order to make way for the Übermensch. (The usual translation, "Superman," has comic connotations that are unfortunately unavoidable.) Just as we mock our simian ancestors, so the Superman toward which we should be evolving will mock us. "All creatures hitherto have created something beyond themselves," he argues, so man must evolve into Superman.
And forget about becoming something higher in an afterlife: "I entreat you, my brothers, remain true to the earth, and do not believe those who speak to you of superterrestrial hopes! ... Once blasphemy against God was the greatest blasphemy, but God died, and thereupon these blasphemers died too. To blaspheme the earth is now the most dreadful offence, and to esteem the bowels of the Inscrutable more highly than the meaning of the earth." (He has already defined "the meaning of the earth" as the Superman.)
The path to the Superman is an ascetic one, because the soul, which was once upon a time "lean, monstrous, and famished" has become "poverty and dirt and a miserable ease," and as a result "man is a polluted river." To become Superman, man must contemn happiness, reason, virtue, justice and pity. The wise man must learn the "will to power": "You want to create the world before which you can kneel: this is your ultimate hope and intoxication." The "will to power" is "the unexhausted, procreating life-will."
Existence is by nature a struggle, and life is "that which must overcome itself again and again." All creatures, Nietzsche asserts, wish to obey but also to command those weaker than themselves, but "commanding is more difficult than obeying ... because the commander bears the burden of all who obey, and ... this burden can easily crush him."
The strange fact ... is that everything of freedom, subtlety, boldness, dance, and craftsmanlike certainty that one can find on earth, whether it applies to thinking, or ruling, or speaking, or persuading -- in the arts as well as in codes of conduct -- would never have developed save through "the tyranny of ... arbitrary laws." Indeed, the probability is strong that this is "nature" and "natural."In Beyond Good and Evil (1886), Nietzsche stresses again the necessity of obedience. He appeals to history to show that "violence, arbitrariness, rigor, gruesomeness and antirationality turned out to be the means for disciplining the European spirit into strength, ruthless inquisitiveness, and subtle flexibility," although the same time "much which is irreplaceable in energy and spirit was suppressed, choked out, and ruined in this same process." But cruelty is a necessity on the way to "everything that we call 'superior culture.'"
What constitutes the painful delight of tragedy is cruelty; what is pleasurable in so-called tragic pity, and basically in everything sublime right up to the highest and subtest thrills of metaphysics, gets its sweetness from nothing other than the added ingredient of cruelty.... Naturally we must get rid of the old ridiculous psychology which knew no better than to teach that cruelty only arises at the sight of someone else's suffering. There is a rich, an over-rich pleasure in one's own suffering, in making oneself suffer.Which brings us back to Schopenhauer's asceticism.
Nietzsche also proclaims the necessity of aristocracy: "Every heightening of the type 'man' hitherto has been the work of an aristocratic society -- and thus it will always be; a society which believes in a long ladder of rank order and value differences in men, which needs slavery in some sense." This, Nietzsche posits, is the only way in which man can attain "a higher level of being." Naturally, he also acknowledges that aristocracies come and go, and that they decline and decay. Egalitarianism may be "proper behavior," but as "the basic principle of society, it shows itself for what it is: the will to negate life, the principle of dissolution and decay." For life "is essential assimilation, injury, violation of the foreign and the weaker, suppression, hardness, the forcing of one's own forms upon something else, ingestion and -- at least in its mildest form -- exploitation." This last, in the evolutionary process, "belongs to the nature of living things, it is a basic organic function, a consequence of the will to power which is the will to life."
In all higher cultures, Nietzsche says, there is an attempt to mediate between "master-morality and slave-morality." The former is the definition of the "good" as those qualities "which are felt to be what excels and determines the order of rank" in society. "What is despised is the coward, the timid man, and the petty man, he who thinks in terms of narrow utility; likewise the suspicious man with his cowed look, the one who humiliates himself, the dog-type who lets himself be mistreated, the begging flatterer, and above all the liar: it is the basic faith of all aristocrats that the common people are liars." The master "feels himself as value-determining; ... he knows that he is the something which gives honor to objects; he creates values."
Slave-morality is that which makes "existence easier for the sufferers: here compassion, the complaisant helping hand, the warm heart, patience diligence, humility and friendliness are honored, for these are the useful qualities and almost the only means for enduring the pressure of existence. Slave-morality is essentially a utility-morality."
Here is the cornerstone for the origin of that famous Antithesis "good vs. evil." Power and dangerousness, a certain frightfulness, subtlety and strength which do not permit of despisal, are felt to belong to evil. Hence according to slave morality, the "evil" man inspires fear; according to master morality, the "good" man does and wants to, whereas the "bad" man is felt to be despicable.