Poetry as Dark Precursor: Nietzschean Poetics in Deleuze's "Literature and Life"

By Hall, Joshua M. | Philosophy Today, Winter 2018 | Go to article overview

Poetry as Dark Precursor: Nietzschean Poetics in Deleuze's "Literature and Life"


Hall, Joshua M., Philosophy Today


[T]he power of language... implies an always excessive Idea of poetry. -Deleuze, Difference and Repetition

The present article will attempt to use the Nietzschean "poetics" distilled from Nietzsche's Gay Science (as I have elaborated elsewhere), as an interpretive strategy for considering Deleuze's essay "Literature and Life" in Essays Critical and Clinical.1 I will begin by considering Deleuze's overarching project in that essay, and then reposition his thought from literature in general to "poetry" (in Nietzsche's sense) in particular, indicating both resonances between Deleuze's understanding of "literature" and Nietzsche's understanding of "poetry" as well as problematic areas between them. I will then focus on the places in Deleuze's analyses where he excludes poetry, and suggest that this exclusion is related to Nietzsche's claim that poetry-and, I will argue, lyric poetry especially-is the birthplace of philosophy. Put differently, the being of lyric poetry threatens to disrupt Deleuze's distinction between the respective roles and powers of philosophy and art, and thereby to disclose poets, at least potentially-or, better for Deleuze, virtually-as philosophers, and vice versa. I will then turn briefly to sonnet I, 3 of Rilke's Sonnets to Orpheus for an example of the philosophical potential of lyric poetry, and then conclude by suggesting that a Nietzschean conception of poetry could be understood as the "dark precursor" of "Literature in Life" Essays Critical and Clinical, and Deleuze's work in general.

There are six crucial passages in The Gay Science in which Nietzsche's "poetics" (broadly construed) is articulated, half of which concern poetry in general and the other half of which concern the figure of the poet specifically, though the meanings of both poetry and poet are torsioned and greatly expanded.2 For the sake of clarity, let me summarize these passages in the following graph:

These six points are taken from six aphorisms in The Gay Science that are centrally concerned with poetry as such. Three are found in Book Two, one in Book Three, and two in Book Four. Altogether, they offer a sense of Nietzsche's understanding of poetry, and thereby of his own poetic practices as well. The first three aphorisms investigate (1) the poet's power, (2) poetry itself, and (3) the phenomenon of "prose" as a kind of calcified poetry, respectively. And the last three aphorisms further explore the nature of the poet in ways that liberate the figure of the poet from both (4) a religiously-informed portrayal as medium of transcendent truth, and from (5, 6) a narrow conceptualization as one who simply writes poems as instances of a literary genre. With this background information in place, I turn now directly to Deleuze.

I."[Poetry] and Life"

The six central claims of Deleuze's essay "Literature and Life" all revolve around the notion that writing/literature is a "becoming" or process. I will now consider each of these central claims in detail. First, writing, qua becoming, moves in the direction of the feminine, the animalistic, the molecular, the imperceptible and the mortal.4 In other words, writing moves from a locus of identity and control to the proximity of marginalized otherness. And since becoming (since Aristotle) is the movement of the actualization of potentiality, this claim resonates with passage 1 in The Gay Science, in which poetry is linked to its potentiality.5 Thus, writing/literature for Deleuze is also connected to potentiality (or, in his terminology, "virtuality").

To elaborate on this passage from Nietzsche, it is taken from aphorism 79, which argues that the source of the poets' power and appeal lies in their always approaching yet never completing their goals. "Indeed" Nietzsche writes, the poet "owes his advantages and fame much more to his ultimate incapacity than to his ample strength" Nietzsche goes on to discuss the poet's "foretaste" of a "vision" which is never wholly captured, and which by that very fact inspires such powerful cravings in the poet that it even spreads contagiously to the poet's listeners, and "lifts [them] above [the poet's] work and all mere 'works' and lends them wings to soar as high as listeners had never soared" The eros or Lust for the poet's everunfulfilled vision thus erotically transforms the listeners "into poets and seers" themselves. …

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