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A Feminist Interview with Friedrich Nietzsche

by Linda Williams

“Nicht durch Zorn sondern durch Lachen todtet man. Auf, lasst uns den Geist der Schwere todten!” – F. Nietzsche Also Sprach Zarathustra

Hello and welcome to our show, Feminist Perspectives. Today we are fortunate to have as our guest Shirley MacLaine. Shirley has agreed to channel some dead but not forgotten misogynists for us, and she has just contacted Friedrich Nietzsche, the 19th century philosopher and fruitcake. And now we’d like to discuss a ‘feminist perspective’ with him.

Good morning, Mr. Nietzsche. In the present age you have been much maligned for your apparent misogyny. Nietzschephiles have risen to your defence by quoting the few places where you do not explicitly castigate women, the most oft-used phrase being from Beyond Good and Evil. You write in the Preface of that book, and I quote, “Supposing truth is a woman – what then?” Well, frankly, I don’t know, Freddy, because I just don’t get it. Metaphor is supposedly taking two apparently unrelated concepts and purposefully joining them so each is given new meaning. You’ve certainly fulfilled the first part of the definition. ‘Truth’ and ‘woman’ are amazingly unrelated, but I have to wonder whether the latter part of the definition occurs. Truth tells me nothing about woman, and woman tells me nothing about truth.

F. Nietzsche: Ach, mein Gott, this is great – I can even think and speak in that decadent English language! But I must take issue with you – woman does tell you something about truth. If you read the rest of my Preface, you find out that ‘woman’ is supposed to contrast with ‘dogmatism’.

FP: Hmm. It’s not very clear to me that ‘woman’ means ‘non-dogmatic’ in your metaphor. I thought maybe you were reviving some Greek notion that truth is beautiful or something like that.

FN: Oh no. Of course not. I make it very plain in the following sentences that I’m equating woman with a non-dogmatic ‘style’, if you will.

FP: But if you have to explain your metaphor, don’t you think that suggests a problem with it?

FN: Certainly not! I merely wanted to make sure that doltheads like you wouldn’t make your stupid misinterpretations and think that truth had breasts or could get pregnant or something stupid like that.

FP: In other words, something which was uniquely female, undeniably woman.

FN: Yes.

FP: So you think that really smart people wouldn’t have needed your explanation. They would have said, “Truth is a woman…oh, I see, truth is non-dogmatic.”

FN: Well sure, if they were really smart, but of course there are so few really smart people…

FP: Let’s say for the sake of argument that we do equate ‘woman’ with ‘non-dogmatic’. I’m still unsure as to what ‘non-dogmatic’ is supposed to reveal. Many of your interpreters have suggested that you mean “woman” as “shifting”, “illusory”, “having many masks”, and “no substance behind the appearance”.

FN: I would essentially agree with that.

FP: I find myself offended by this characterization. Your generalizing is, at the very least, unfounded and probably false. At best, it is grossly stereotypical.

FN: I don’t understand your offence. In that passage I’m railing against the dogmatists, the males, if you will. Thus, woman is the good guy here.

FP: We women have heard this one before. You insult us and then try to convince us that the insult is really a compliment. Well, we don’t buy that line anymore.

FN: But look what you have done. You have bought into all this patriarchal value system, where words like ‘apparent’ and ‘illusory’ are taken to be derogatory. It is ‘substance’, ‘stability’, and ‘permanence’ which are the insults. I’m saying we should value the woman-traits! You should not be offended. After my revaluation of all values, you would have seen my comments as high praise.

FP: And when were you going to do this ‘revaluation’?

FN: In February of 1889.

FP: Yes, we are all very sorry about your illness, but I’m afraid you’re missing my point. I’m sure there are women who would be offended by having themselves equated with illusion and such, but I want to get beyond this surface stuff. My difficulty with you is that you seem to have a self-referential problem. You use the word ‘woman’ as if it denoted one thing, a univocal and clear meaning. Yet by your own comments on language, words are severe simplifications of a myriad of diverse complexities. This simplification is even more egregious with the word ‘woman’ than with your example of the word ‘leaf’.

FN: I don’t understand the problem.

FP: Well, take, for instance, “Supposing truth is Margaret Thatcher…” and now take “Supposing truth is Marilyn Monroe…”

FN: I’ll take Marilyn! No, but seriously folks, Marilyn does seem to be the embodiment of my metaphor. Did anyone ever really know Marilyn? She was unknowable, ethereal, always changing…

FP: What about Margaret Thatcher?

FN: Well, of course, the two are not comparable.

FP: Yes, Margaret seems to be totally opposite of Marilyn – substantial, inflexible.

FN: But there, you see, she is masculine in her dogmatism. She has simply and totally embraced the male values. It is too bad, really.

FP: This is the manoeuvre I hate. You strip Margaret and other ‘women of substance’ of their femininity – their womanhood – if they ‘act like a man’. Margaret is no less feminine than Marilyn. It’s just that she doesn’t conform to some weird definition of ‘woman’ that you have in your head. And you say many times that we shouldn’t even have these limiting, simplistic notions of things, yet you subscribe to them all the time.

FN: I now understand the problem. But I think you have to understand the historical context in which the passage was written. You have to understand what 19th century man thought of 19th century woman.

FP: That’s a slick cop-out, Fred. Don’t you think it’s more important to discuss your remarks in relation to your own philosophy than in the socioeconomic- historical context of the 19th century? That’s for historians. We’re philosophers here. Everybody knows 19th century men were male chauvinist pigs. We need to move on to this philosophical question or else we can just throw you into the closet as yet another example of quaint 19th century thinking with no relevance to the present. Would you want that?

FN: No, no, not the closet! That’s where many of my books ended up during my lifetime.

FP: It gets even worse, you know. To say you have this problem with ‘woman’ means, conversely, you have the same problem with ‘man’, that ‘man’ means ‘dogmatic’, ‘substantial’, ‘inflexible’. You can’t tell me that there are no ‘illusory’ or ‘ethereal’ males. You can’t tell me that “Supposing truth is Michael Jackson” isn’t every bit as good a metaphor as “Supposing truth is Marilyn Monroe”. You gain nothing by making it gender specific. “Supposing truth is a woman” is just a lousy metaphor.

FN: I wasn’t talking about men. I was talking about dogmatic philosophers. Women can be just as philosophically dogmatic as men, and then I’d have as much contempt for them as I did with the dogmatic philosophers of the time.

FP: Who all happened to be male.

FN: Quite so.

FP: But if women can include dogmatic female philosophers, then again your metaphor fails: “Supposing truth is a woman – ‘woman’ in some cases being dogmatic philosophers.” Whoa! Kind of loses its punch, huh?

FN: You’re getting way too caught up in this language thing.

FP: Isn’t it true that you got the idea for this metaphor simply because ‘truth’ in German is DIE Wahrheit – a feminine noun?

FN: That’s a filthy lie perpetrated by that scoundrel Wagner! I’m much more original than that. I’ll get you, Richard! I see now where you have misled me – a very decadent, Socratic move – I should never have agreed with your definition of metaphor.

FP: Okay, so what’s your definition?

FN: Well, that it is, essentially, a lie…

FP: Then it’s false that truth is a woman.

FN: Yes, in the literal sense.

FP: But isn’t your point in many of your writings simply that the entire notion of ‘literal sense’ is wrong, because it depends upon a representational model of language which in turn depends upon a correspondence model of truth and these models are erroneous?

FN: Yes. You see, it’s better to know it is lies than thinking it is truth.

FP: Now I’m really confused. You’re saying that it’s OK that it’s a lie that truth is a woman because it makes no pretence of its pretence? Is this some kind of joke?

FN: Well, if you will recall, I do start the second paragraph of my Preface with “Speaking seriously…”

FP: So you’re implying that you weren’t serious about the metaphor.

FN: Take it any way you like; I am a perspectivist, after all…

FP: How about if I take it as an empty metaphor, a sham? Juxtaposing ‘truth’ with ‘woman’ conjures up nothing, is not informative, to anyone who has finally abandoned sexist stereotypes. In other words, “Supposing truth is a woman” says as much or as little as “Supposing truth is a man”, since men can be just as ‘illusory’ as women and women can be just as ‘substantial’ and ‘dogmatic’ as men.

FN: If that is your perspective…

FP: That is a ‘feminist perspective’. Say goodbye, Fred.

FN: “Good-bye Fred.”

FP: Oh God.

FN: He’s dead.

FP: I believe that’s SHE’S dead. After this commercial, Shirley attempts to channel the Ayatollah Khomeini…

© Linda Williams 1993

Linda Williams teaches philosophy at Kent State University in Ohio.

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