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Nietzsche’s Women in The Gay Science

Linda Williams spots jewels within Nietzsche’s aphoristic archive of sexism.

At the beginning of Book Two of The Gay Science, Nietzsche presents a series of aphorisms on women. At the end of this series, Walter Kaufmann writes in a footnote to his translation, “With this absurd aphorism the pages on women (sections 60-75) reach their nadir and end. The rest of Book Two (through section 107) deals with art.” Kaufmann’s footnote suggests that the aphorisms on women are not only an anomaly within the second book but a rather embarrassing anomaly at that. I hope to show that Nietzsche’s placement of these aphorisms is no mistake or embarrassment, if we take a closer look at the role Book Two plays within the larger purpose of The Gay Science.

The Gay Science is Nietzsche’s answer to the nineteenth century’s disease of nihilism. As Nietzsche puts it in the Preface: “The trust in life is gone: life itself has become a problem.” But in the very next sentence he reveals his response. “Yet one should not jump to the conclusion that this necessarily makes one gloomy. Even love of life is still possible, only one loves differently.” The Gay Science then proceeds to diagnose the disease and offer suggestions as to how to learn to love life differently.

The Gay Science is one of Nietzsche’s more straightforwardly arranged books. Book One discusses nihilism’s effect on morality since Darwin. Book Two attempts to blur the distinction between realism and artistic creation. Book Three tackles nihilism’s effect on religion (which includes the famous ‘Madman’ aphorism) with the consequences to metaphysics, epistemology, and morality in a godless universe. Finally, in Book Four, in the midst of our nihilistic despair, Nietzsche offers glimpses of his vision of how one can overcome the despair of nihilism and at the end of Book Four introduces eternal recurrence and Zarathustra, which will become the major players of Thus Spoke Zarathustra. It appears that upon revisiting The Gay Science in 1886, Nietzsche thought Book Four needed to be elaborated upon and Book Five was born. This allowed Nietzsche to incorporate some of his newer ideas about morality and human nature into his vision of a new way of loving life differently.

Although Nietzsche mentions women sporadically throughout The Gay Science, Kaufmann believes the fifteen aphorisms grouped together near the beginning of Book Two can be read as a set. He says they represent the low points of the chapter and generally dismisses them as simply more rantings and ravings from that old misogynist, Friedrich Nietzsche. What they are doing in the discussion of realism versus art is, to Kaufmann, anyone’s guess. I would like to guess why Nietzsche placed them where he did. To do this, I will focus on the first aphorism on women Nietzsche places in Book Two: #60 – Women and their action at a Distance.

Like the beginning of every Book in The Gay Science, the first aphorism of each section tells the reader what the rest of the section will be about. To discover what Book Two will address, we must turn to aphorism #57 – To the Realists. Here Nietzsche informs the reader that Book Two will be an attack on those ‘sober’ people who call themselves realists and that the attack will come in the form of comparing realists with artists. The only difference from Nietzsche’s point of view is that the artist deliberately creates his world(s) from his passion, while the realist believes he is ‘discovering’ his. The purpose of Book Two is to convince the realist that his ‘real’ world is also a creation of interpretation, born from a passion for objectivity, a passion no less intense than the love an artist has for his vision, his interpretation of the world.

In #59, entitled We Artists, which Kaufmann cites as the transition to the section on women, Nietzsche writes that when a woman is seen with “all the repulsive natural functions to which every woman is subject,” it is difficult to love her. So in order to love, one must not concentrate on what is under the skin but ignore such matters and concentrate on the outward appearance. In order to love, one must have blinders on in certain areas – the realist as well as the artist. When we look at something, our interpretation of it will depend upon how close or distant we are from it.

We are now in a position to examine Women and their action at a Distance. Nietzsche’s brilliance for metaphor is on display: Do I still have ears ? Am I all ears and nothing else ? Here I stand in the flaming surf whose white tongues are licking at my feet; from all sides I hear howling threats, screaming, roaring coming at me, while the old earth-shaker sings his aria in the lowest depths, deep as a bellowing bull, while pounding such an earthshaking beat that the hearts of even these weather-beaten rocky monsters are trembling in their bodies. Here he likens his existence to being in a kind of hellish place. There is a flaming surf burning his feet, screams and bellows assaulting his ears and making the earth tremble. These images evoke what Nietzsche calls a man standing in the midst of his own ‘noise’, his own plans and projects. These projects require his time and thought; they set up deadlines, duties, obligations, and responsibilities.

Into this scene of a mad, roaring sea come sailboats gently gliding above the fray: women!

Then, suddenly, as if born out of nothing, there appears before the gate of this hellish labyrinth, only a few fathoms away – a large sailboat, gliding along as silently as a ghost. Oh, what a ghostly beauty! How magically it touches me! Has all the calm and taciturnity of the world embarked upon it? Does my happiness itself sit in this quiet place – my happier ego, my second, departed self ? Not to be dead and yet no longer alive ? A spiritlike intermediate being: quietly observing, gliding, floating? As the boat that with its white sails moves like an immense butterfly over the dark sea. Yes! To move over existence! That’s it! That would be something! It seems as if the noise here had led me into fantasies. All great noise leads us to move happiness into some quiet &distance. When a man stands in the midst of his own noise, in the midst of his own surf of plans and projects, then he is apt also to see quiet, magical beings glide past him and to long for their happiness and seclusion: women. He almost thinks that his better self dwells there among the women, and that in these quiet regions even the loudest surf turns into deathly quiet and life itself into a dream about life.

To men preoccupied with their public, occupational responsibilities, women appear to have conquered the chaos of life. Women seem serene and happy, untouched by the ferocious sea of plans and projects. If men could only hook up with such creatures, climb aboard the sailboats, then they, too, could glide above the chaos of their existence and become oblivious to it.

Yet! Yet! Noble enthusiast, even on the most beautiful sailboat there is a lot of noise, and unfortunately much small and petty noise. Yet, in order to climb aboard the sailboats, men must become very close to women and there, declares Nietzsche, is the rub. For once aboard, the sailboats do not appear to be so quiet and serene. In fact, one encounters a lot of noise on the sailboat, and the noise, apparently, is tedious, bland, and monotonous – certainly not as interesting or compelling as the screams and bellows of the sea. Nietzsche ends this section by saying, The magic and the most powerful effect of women is, in philosophical language, action at a distance, ‘actio in distans’, but this requires first of all and above all – distance.

At first glance, this is another indication of Nietzsche’s misogyny, which Kaufmann usually flags in his translations. To one who is searching for Nietzsche’ s misogyny, the point of this aphorism is that women look better to men the farther away men are from them. Perhaps Nietzsche is even recommending that men keep their distance from women, who are noisy in a petty, inconsequential way. Indeed, the first few times I read this aphorism, my response was much like Kaufmann’s – it represented Nietzsche’s provincial, illiberal, outdated, nineteenth-century perspective on women. The most charitable thing to do was to chalk it up to ignorance, skip over it, and move on to the more fruitful discussions on metaphysics, epistemology, and morality in The Gay Science. Eventually, I was able to at least admire the vivid imagery in the writing. Finally, I was able to place the aphorism within the context of the surrounding material and the pieces fell into place. The key to this aphorism is not emphasizing gender but emphasizing distance.

Distance is crucial to the artist. Since Nietzsche discusses the artist as painter, I will limit my remarks to that medium, but they can be developed in other artistic media as well. When a painter conceives of a picture, there are certain things she keeps in mind, such as composition, perspective and light. And the painter has to decide how far away to place the subject(s) of her painting. Just how distant will the distant hills be? Where will the clouds appear to be floating? Will one subject be closer to the foreground than others? Even in abstract painting, proportion and composition are crucial to the work and involve questions of distance.

We the audience viewing the picture have similar questions about distance. What will be the optimal viewing distance? Stand too close and the brush strokes will emerge; stand too far back and some images blur. So what is the perfect distance? It depends upon your projects. If you want to make a forgery, brush strokes become extremely important. If you want to see whether the picture is in proportion to the art on the rest of the wall, standing back is required. The appropriate distance depends upon the context in which the picture is being examined.

What does this have to do with Women and their action at a Distance? It has to do with who is doing the perceiving and what the context of this perception is. If the perceiver is ‘feminist’ and the context is “looking for misogynist writings by Nietzsche about women,” certain aspects of this aphorism will leap to the foreground, most notably Nietzsche’s claim that women emit small and petty noise and his seeming recommendation to keep them at a distance. I am suggesting an alternative context in which to interpret this aphorism and I invite you to view this aphorism through my angle of perception.

I, too, am wrapped up with my plans and projects in academia which feel like hot flames licking at my feet. Truly Nietzsche knows what it is like to be an academician who must publish or perish. But one might object that I am too ‘man-ish’ according to nineteenth century sensibilities; I am the ‘educated woman’ against whom Nietzsche railed. In that case, I will describe the stereotypical plans and projects, obligation and responsibilities Nietzsche might think appropriate for the nineteenth-century woman. She runs the household and cares for the children. Let’s look at even one aspect of this more closely. Meals must be made to be served at certain times when the man stops his work. In order for a meal to be served, food must be bought and prepared. Unless one lives on a farm, food can be bought at the market only during the times the market is open, and she must plan for getting to and from the market so she can have the food prepared on time. In order for food to be prepared, dishes, pots and utensils must be ready – washed and dried from the previous meal. Ovens and stoves must be properly maintained and operative, no small feat in the nineteenth century. Counter tops and tables must be uncluttered, clean and ready for food preparation. The clock is counting down to dinner time and there are interruptions by children and neighbors. She stands in the flaming surf whose white tongues are licking at her feet, in the midst of her own noise, in the midst of her own surf of plans and projects. Then she is apt to see these amazing steamers striding purposefully past her and long for their strength and freedom from her daily repetitious grind: men. She almost thinks that her better self dwells there among the men, and that in these strong, protective regions even the loudest surf turns deathly quiet, and life itself into a dream about life.

Yet! Yet! Noble enthusiast, even on the biggest steamer there is a lot of noise, and unfortunately much small and petty noise. He won’t talk about the important things in life, his relationships with you, the children and his other family and friends. No ! There is talk about politics, stock indexes and whether it will rain tomorrow. This seemingly strong creature cowers at changing a diaper, is rendered helpless by the common cold, and cannot possibly bring himself to clean up a sick child’s vomit. Yes, the magic and the most powerful effect of men is, in philosophical language, action at a distance, but this requires first of all and above all – distance.

From a woman’s perspective, men, too, can look better at a distance. Perhaps familiarity breeds contempt in either gender. The important aspect of this aphorism in this context, I believe, is not the gender but the Otherness from the perceiver. What is distant and foreign appears magical, attractive; on closer inspection, it loses its appeal. So let us re-examine this aphorism in the context of Book Two’s discussion of realism and art.

Nietzsche’s aim in book two is to convince the realists that their take on the world is as much an artistic creation as an artist’s painting. Seeing the world in a realistic way is also to put blinders on preventing us from seeing it in other ways. Realists claim their way is the right way, the objectively True way, the sober way, the serious way of viewing the world. Art is illusory, emotional, passionate, deliberately distorting and false. But, according to Nietzsche, the artist is more honest than the realist. The artist knows she is creating something, while the realist thinks she is merely receiving the world in its raw form, unfettered by emotions and prejudices or even interpretation. What Nietzsche wants the realist to see is that this idea, that human perceptions of the world can be unmediated by emotions and prejudices, is itself a prejudice. Why place such a value on ‘reality’? Why fear unreality, illusion, mere appearance or distortion? Why favor reality over art? Realism is an artistic creation by the realist who refuses to acknowledge herself as the creator.

From a scientific perspective, we know a table is composed of moving molecules in a certain arrangement. If we get a powerful enough microscope, we can see this. Yet how much better is it for us to see the table as we do – as a solid, stable piece of furniture? “Appearance” can be more valuable than scientific “fact,” especially when we want something on which we can place our dinnerware. And a painting of a table can give us great aesthetic pleasure. Why not esteem “appearance” over “reality”?

Woman is often used by Nietzsche to symbolize appearance. The most notable instance of this is the opening line of the preface of Beyond Good and Evil where Nietzsche asks the reader to suppose truth were a woman. Doing so would mean that one would have to reject a dogmatic view of truth or truth as an objective, non-perspectival view of the world. Again and again, Nietzsche equates ‘woman’ or ‘women’ with illusion, appearance, masks, and veils. It is no different in The Gay Science. In #64, Nietzsche writes that old women are even more skeptical than men because they recognize that the essence of life is its superficiality and all attempts toward profundity merely veil this ‘truth’, which Nietzsche places in scare quotes. Why the scare quotes? Because if the essence of reality is appearance, then our conception of truth, which is usually associated with reality, loses its objective status. The artist knows she created her artwork. To Nietzsche, her knowledge is more truthful than the realists’, who believe their Truths about reality are discovered rather than created. Analogously, these old women, who recognize that the world lacks profundity, are more skeptical than the skeptic, who at least considers the possibility of the real, sober and Truthful world in order to be skeptical of it. The Gay Science’s section on women continues with the theme that women are Nietzsche’s metaphor for appearance. In aphorism #71 Nietzsche sounds quite cognizant of and sympathetic to the plight of nineteenth century women, who were taught to be coy and innocent in order to secure a husband. Upon marriage, they were expected to turn into wonderful lovers and expert managers of households, when their only real education was in flirtation and hiding any physical flaws that might offend a suitor. What Nietzsche emphasizes over and over, is that this presentation to others that is, in the realists’ view, illusion is the ‘true’ state of the world. Men create an appearance for the world, too, but Nietzsche notes in #68 that men are more free to create their own image while women, who are in the weaker position of power in relation to men, must conform to an appearance which is not of their own making, but comes from the imagination of men. This makes women ‘doubly innocent.’ Here is a clue to Nietzsche’s opposition to educating women. If women, in the deliberate masks they don in order to seduce men, represent a ‘truer’ view of the world than men, then to raise and treat women the same as men would destroy the ‘truths’ women represent for Nietzsche in their seeming duplicity and multiple appearances. In Nietzsche’s eyes in the context of Book Two, the realists/dogmatists would win.

Can every aphorism of this grouping be interpreted not as Nietzschean Truths about women but as highlighting the problems with the realism/appearance dichotomy? I believe for the most part the answer is “yes”. No. 73, for example, does not focus on women at all but on a ‘misshapen’ child. The holy man suggests killing it, to the horror of the crowd. The holy man defends himself by saying it would be crueler to let the child live. Even here, the juxtaposition between appearance and reality is present, if we remember what the reality is for those in our society who deviate from a certain appearance. This aphorism has nothing to do with women, which gives me more textual evidence that this grouping has less to do with gender distinctions than with Nietzsche’s intended collapse of the reality/appearance distinction.

The point of Book Two seems to be that any interpretation a human being makes is a creative, artistic endeavor, even the creation of a ‘real’, ‘objective’, ‘True’ world. To ask whose interpretation is right or wrong, True or False, offensive or esteemed, is to throw back upon the reader her dependency upon this realism/appearance distinction with its attendant valuations of realism being right, true and good and appearance being wrong, false and bad.

I have tried to show that Nietzsche’s remarks on women at the beginning of Book Two in The Gay Science are neither absurd nor misplaced, however outdated they may sound to our twenty-first-century ears. Within the more general context of Book Two, the aphorisms seem an appropriate placement and metaphor for Nietzsche’s overall project of collapsing the realism/illusion dichotomy. The overemphasis on realism and science as objective Truth was seen by Nietzsche as a substitute for God by the nihilists of the nineteenth century. Science then became the foundation for objective knowledge and morality. As the atheists who stand in the square laugh condescendingly as the madman proclaims the death of God, so too Nietzsche laughs at those who would resurrect science in God’s place. Woman, whose essence, whose “reality” is, for Nietzsche, appearance represents the collapse of the dichotomy. Realism becomes simply one way among many others to interpret the world, no more true or valued than any (other) artistic view.

Despite my defense of Nietzsche’s use of these aphorisms in this context, I’m not claiming that Nietzsche’s writings don’t have misogynic overtones. He clearly was against the education of women, seeing in it the destruction of their allure and, I think, of his ability to use them as a metaphor. Many of his remarks about women, Germans, the English, etc., were meant to be inflammatory. But if we are too quick, like Walter Kaufmann, to simply dismiss anything Nietzsche has to say about women, we will miss some illuminating ways of interpreting these passages. Over and over again Nietzsche reminds us that he is fond of masks, of layers of meanings. One of Nietzsche’s layers may be his stereotypical descriptions of women, but that is rarely ever the only layer, nor as I hope I have shown in this particular instance, the most insightful one.


Linda Williams teaches philosophy at Kent State University in Ohio.

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