Convincing and proving

It is hopefully clear by now that Ecce homo is no mere story among other stories, and certainly not the scrawlings of a psychologically afflicted author. As Genealogie was history practiced according to his own meta-historical standards, so too is his Ecce homo consistent with views about the character of the self and about how we symbolize it by means of history. Because motivations are at best highly problematic explanations of an agent’s development, Nietzsche foregoes more usual strategies of explaining how he became what he was. Because the self is not a static object, Nietzsche cannot describe himself as a static object in the way of traditional autobiography. Because memory is no mirror of the past, Nietzsche can only interpret himself selectively and subjectively along the lines his memory-drives lead him to. But in denying traditional frameworks of explanation, the self as substance, and the transparency of introspection and memory, Nietzsche opens up a space for a new conception of how autobiography can be a meaningful expression of one’s own self.

The character of reality is a constant process, a continual flux of forms and shapes, the meaning of which shifts and transmogrifies along with the conceptual symbols of those interpreters who try to encapsulate it. Selves, as a part of this reality, will be no different. Like lightning or the rolling waves of a river, the self manifests itself in its characteristic activity: constantly reinterpreting and adjusting meanings, in deciding, valuing, blaming, appraising, assessing, honoring, justifying, condemning, etc. Indeed in the autobiographical activity itself, the self of Nietzsche ‘becomes what it is.’ Writing himself is the flashing. Reinterpreting himself, adjusting the meanings of the symbols of his past due to perpetually newly formed drive dynamics, is the constant washing of waves. There is no substantial self - no thing named lightning, no thing named wave - beyond this series of acts. And we readers get a sense for what the character ofNietzsche is by means of our own retrospective reinterpretations of the after-image of his intrinsically subjective historiographical activity. Just as we make sense ofwhat lightning ‘is’ by means of observing only the after-effect of its activity through our own perspectives, so too do we become familiar with Nietzsche by and only by observing the after-effect of his interpretive activity, the produced text of Ecce homo. Not in the description of himself as a thing, but in his describing; not in the explanation as a thing, but in his explaining; not in the interpretation, but in his interpreting - there is no ‘homo’ to behold independent of its activities. “[E]s giebt kein solches Substrat; es giebt kein ‘Sein’ hinter dem Thun, Wirken, Werden; ‘der Thater’ ist zum Thun bloss hinzugedichtet, - das Thun ist Alles [There is no such substrate; there is no ‘being’ behind the doing, affecting, becoming; ‘the doer’ is simply a poetic addition to the deed].”[1] Ecce homo, whose main activity produces an after-image which we perceive through our own perspectival framework of meaning, is Nietzsche’s auto-historicizing. “L’effet,” Nietzsche claims,


c est moi.

Ecce homo is therefore neither a preview of insanity nor a basely opportunistic revisionism, nor a parody, nor an ironical performance, but alongside the Genealogie a practical example of what its author believed to be the limitations and possibilities of historical inquiry. Nietzsche’s explanatory account of his own life includes hyperboles, exaggerations, and even fabrications. The ‘causes’ he references to allegedly explain how he became who he is are by and large unconvincing to positivists who seek behavioral trends to explain character development, to those who wish to find the motivation or ‘thought side’ of every historical change, and to teleologists who see chosen moments of time as bringing about some greater purpose. But proving an explanation strictly by means of a deduction of a particular under a universal, while quite convincing to most people, is not the only means to generate conviction, even were it logically possible. An explanation can also convince by appealing to a particular audience - as we saw in the fifth chapter - by rendering familiar what was previously unfamiliar to a given perspective. Perspectival explanations cannot prove or demonstrate in the sense of logical deduction; they make known, reveal, bring home, and illuminate the relevant characteristics to subjects whose perspectives have been inculcated just-so over history that such an exposition convinces them of now possessing a solution to what had once been a mystery.

Is there even an opposition between lies and convictions? - The whole world believes that there is; but what doesn’t the whole world believe! - Every conviction has its history [Geschichte], its pre-formations, its probings and missteps: it becomes a conviction after not being one for a long time, after barely being one for even longer. How? Could lies, too, be among these embryonic-forms of convictions?[2]

But whom, exactly, does Ecce homo hope to convince? While vague on the specifics, Nietzsche often enough speaks to some unnamed loyal reader, to “anyone who knows how to breathe the air of my writings.”[3] Nietzsche stresses repeatedly that his account here and elsewhere is only for those perspectives whose determinate scope of meaning is predisposed to accept the sort of deterministic naturalism that Nietzsche’s autobiography offers. “Always supposing that there are ears - that there are people capable and worthy of the same pathos, that there are people you may communicate with.”[4] Nietzsche’s account is indeed intended to explain the development of his life, but is not intended as the only possible one or as one that corresponds to a world detached from the subjectivity of its author or audience. What he is trying to accomplish in his autobiography is precisely what he says: “To communicate a state, an inner tension of pathos in symbols [Zeichen].”84 We readers may not have riddled out the ultimate springs of Nietzsche’s development, and if Nietzsche is right about subjectivity and historiography generally, we cannot. But our acceptance or rejection of this particular perspective’s explanation says something about our own perspectival spheres, namely that we are psychologically inclined to regard such expressions as informative, as making familiar what was previously unfamiliar. The success or failure of Ecce homo as an autobiography depends upon Nietzsche, to be sure, but also upon his audience. “Things like this only reach the most select; it is a privilege without equal to be able to listen to them; nobody is just free to have ears for Zarathustra.”85 For these reasons, I think the postmodern narrativist reading of Nietzsche’s autobiography is misguided. Ecce homo simply does not “represent a repudiation of the efforts both to explain history and to emplot it as a drama with any general meaning.”86 And it does not offer just one more story alongside an ‘infinite number’ of other ones. While Nietzsche denies the possibility of a single authoritative conception of the past, including his own past, this does not entail the ascription of truth relativism. And while Nietzsche does hold the view that historical explanation involves a creative imposition of form, including the form of his own self, this by no means entails the postmodern ascription of interpretive value relativity either. Nietzsche does believe that historical accounts are dependent upon both the subjects who write them and those who accept or reject them, does believe that these dependencies shift and change as history itself shifts and changes, and does believe, finally, that the success of these accounts is nevertheless consistently measured against the criterion of ‘health.’ The postmodern vision of narrative therefore does adopt some of its foundations from a genuinely Nietzschean philosophy of history, but overlooks aspects that Nietzsche himself considered essential.

  • [1] GM, 113; KSA 5, 279. 80 JGB19; KSA 5, 33.
  • [2] AC 55; KSA 6, 237. 2 EH “Vorwort,” 3; KSA 6, 258.
  • [3] 83 EH “Bucher,” 4; KSA 6, 304. Cf. also NF April-June 1885, 34 [134]; KSA 11, 465.
  • [4] 84 EH “Bucher,” 4; KSA 6, 304.
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