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Nietzsche, Heidegger and creativity

In the course of preparing for a doctoral seminar on Sigmund Freud, Friedrich Nietzsche and Martin Heidegger, I was struck, once again, by the creative thinking on the part of these epoch-making figures, as well as its implications for creativity. Freud’s creativity is evident, to mention only one thing, in the fact that, as far as I know, he was the first thinker (with the possible exceptions of Mary Wollstonecraft and John Stuart Mill) who understood that women are subjectivised — that is, become human subjects — along a very different psychic trajectory compared to men. Until Freud, whenever a philosopher wrote about human subjects, it was without any subject-differentiation between men and women, and what was meant when they referred to people as “rational” beings, was usually “men as rational beings”.

In addition to this there is Freud’s systematic and theoretically creative exploration, if not invention, of the unconscious. He was not the first to talk about it; the romantics of the 19th century did so before him, as did his contemporary, Nietzsche. But his theoretical elaboration on it throughout his life, frequently revising his theory in the light of his clinical experience, meant that he founded a new science, albeit a controversial one, almost single-handedly. Within the available space, here I want to concentrate on Nietzsche and Heidegger’s work, however, and mainly on certain inventive aspects of Nietzsche’s earliest work, The Birth of Tragedy out of the Spirit of Music and what is, for me, the most important text ever written by Heidegger, “The Origin of the Work of Art” (OWA).

At the heart of Nietzsche’s youthful work there is a question that might be formulated as follows: Is there a way of making life bearable? In a way it is a response to Nietzsche’s predecessor, Arthur Schopenhauer’s contention, that life is absurd because we are at the mercy of the blind world will, constantly driving us to satisfy desire after desire, and never coming to an end. Only the contemplation of art and, more enduringly, the practice of asceticism (eradicating all desires and needs), could assuage human suffering, according to the latter.

Because Nietzsche was already a professor of philology at the age of 24, it is not surprising that he turned to ancient Greek culture, in which he was passionately interested, to answer this question. While he agreed with Schopenhauer that life was essentially meaningless, in this early work one already sees the difference between the two – where Schopenhauer negated life, here Nietzsche already finds evidence of the affirmation of life among the ancient Greeks.

Ultimately he would become one of the most resolute champions of the affirmation of one’s own life, no matter how painful it might be.

The secret of the Greeks, alone among ancient nations, for Nietzsche, was that they found a way of mitigating the terrible truth, that the abyss of absurdity yawns before human beings at all times. Their achievement was that, unlike modern European culture (which is rationalistic to the core), the Greeks devised a cultural way of combining reason with instinct, in this way acknowledging that humans are not “pure” rational creatures, but are still rooted in nature. In short, we are animals, albeit animals capable of reason.

It is well-known that Nietzsche articulates this insight by employing the names of two Greek gods, namely Apollo and Dionysus, where the Apollonian principle corresponds to individuation, appearance, clarity, Greek epic poetry (the Iliad, pre-eminently) and the visual arts; in short, it represented reason. Dionysus, on the other hand, stood for the arts of music and dance, as well as for the instincts and the “loss of self” through ecstatic intoxication. In passing one may note the analogy between these and Freud’s psychic structures of the ego and the id, respectively.

What makes of this such a creative insight into the preconditions for a viable, vitally creative culture, is Nietzsche’s grasp of the deleterious effects of hyper-rationalisation (the belief that humans are exclusively “rational” beings) on human culture. Denying one’s instinctual nature, for Nietzsche, is to pave the way for a culture’s deterioration, given that only the rational “face” of humanity is recognised and humanity’s mortal oneness with the rest of nature is covered up. The same holds for acknowledging only the Dionysian principle; without Apollonian form-giving to mitigate Dionysian loss of self, life would be unbearable. The genius of the Greeks was that they paid homage to both principles, the Apollonian and the Dionysian, and they did this pre-eminently through ancient Greek tragedy, particularly the tragedies of Sophocles and Aeschylus.

As some readers may know, the word “tragedy” literally means “goatsong” in ancient Greek, which is an allusion to the fact that the chorus in the performance of a tragedy consists of actors disguised as satyrs – creatures half human and half goat – who comment, accompanied by music, on the tragic events as they unfold. Moreover, their appearance stressed the fact that humans are half-cultural, half-natural beings. What one saw onstage as dramatic action was the shining Apollonian “dream” of culture and reason, counterpoised by the appearance, but more importantly, the singing and chanting, “tragic” commentary by the Dionysian satyrs, which reminded spectators that their Apollonian existence was but a brief earthly sojourn before returning to the all-embracing matrix of nature.

It was their creative Apollonian existence that made the terrible Dionysian truth bearable, that everyone born from sexual union has to die – something graphically embodied in music’s rhythmic rise and fall. At the heart of Nietzsche’s understanding of Greek culture there is therefore what one might call a creative “tension” between two forces – the Apollonian and the Dionysian – and if one of these two forces were to collapse into the other, the creative impulse would be adversely affected.

In Heidegger’s OWA one finds a similar tension, this time located in artworks themselves, (and ultimately in language). I cannot reconstruct the entire, thoughtful argument of OWA here, so it will have to suffice to focus on the creative tension between what Heidegger calls “world” and “earth”, the two reciprocally constitutive elements in every artwork, from paintings and architecture to films and literature. These two indispensable aspects of artworks entail a rejection of Aristotle’s two corresponding principles, namely, matter and form, which the latter believed applied to everything from stones and trees to people and artworks.

Heidegger demonstrates that form and matter may indeed help one understand the functioning of equipment like hammers and chisels – the “form” (or essence; not shape) of what it means to be a hammer is entirely fused with its “matter”, or the material that gives it an individual, functional appearance. The more matter “disappears” into form, the better the equipment works, which is why a good hammer is not an artwork. If it were, it would resist functioning.

“World” and “earth” mean something different. “World”, which is the counterpart of Aristotle’s “form”, denotes the aspect of interpretability in artworks – the fact that a “world” of meanings is “set up” and “preserved” in an artwork; think of the way that Pieter Bruegel’s Netherlandish Proverbs preserves the world of Dutch culture as it existed centuries ago, or how Homer’s Iliad does so regarding the ancient, pre-philosophical Greek world.

“Earth”, which corresponds with Aristotle’s “matter”, on the other hand, does not “disappear” into the artwork the way that matter disappears into tools if they are well made. On the contrary, “earth” only shows itself as a kind of internal limit to “world”, that is, as something that has to be acknowledged, but resists interpretation, like the colours in an Albers painting, or the grain in a sculpture made of wood. For Heidegger “earth” is that which shows itself, paradoxically, as withdrawing itself from human scrutiny (unlike “world”), and as such it instantiates the earth, which simply “is”, uncreated by humans, and has to be respected for that.

As in the case of Nietzsche’s Apollonian and Dionysian principles, “world’ and “earth” stand in a creative tension with each other. Heidegger calls it an unresolved “struggle”, which keeps the artwork in existence. Remove one of them, and there is no artwork. This, I submit, teaches us something invaluable about creativity as something that is only possible on the basis of countervailing forces.


  • Bert Olivier

    As an undergraduate student, Bert Olivier discovered Philosophy more or less by accident, but has never regretted it. Because Bert knew very little, Philosophy turned out to be right up his alley, as it were, because of Socrates's teaching, that the only thing we know with certainty, is how little we know. Armed with this 'docta ignorantia', Bert set out to teach students the value of questioning, and even found out that one could write cogently about it, which he did during the 1980s and '90s on a variety of subjects, including an opposition to apartheid. In addition to Philosophy, he has been teaching and writing on his other great loves, namely, nature, culture, the arts, architecture and literature. In the face of the many irrational actions on the part of people, and wanting to understand these, later on he branched out into Psychoanalysis and Social Theory as well, and because Philosophy cultivates in one a strong sense of justice, he has more recently been harnessing what little knowledge he has in intellectual opposition to the injustices brought about by the dominant economic system today, to wit, neoliberal capitalism. His motto is taken from Immanuel Kant's work: 'Sapere aude!' ('Dare to think for yourself!') In 2012 Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University conferred a Distinguished Professorship on him. Bert is attached to the University of the Free State as Honorary Professor of Philosophy.