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  • The Tragic as an Ethical Category
  • Robert Guay

Tragedy is at the center of Nietzsche's conception of his mature philosophical project as the only alternative to the ascetic ideal, and thus as the only avenue for affirmation. It is not merely an aesthetic category, but one that encompasses the very character of self-determining (or "self-creating") agency. The tragic character of self-determining agency, I shall claim, stems from the conflict between the local, practice-dependent character of our normative commitments and their transcendent purport. My argument will run as such. Becoming what one is, according to Nietzsche, is a matter of taking a particular place in a narrative of self-creation. Such narratives are teleological: they are structured by a kind of directionality (or, more broadly, by "ideals") that cannot, practically, be taken as arbitrary. But these narratives are inevitably incomplete, and so therefore are the norms and selves that depend on them.

The very project of a genealogy of morals supports my first claim, that becoming what one is involves a matter of taking a particular place in a narrative of self-creation. 1 The Genealogy of Morals begins with the declaration that we are unknown to ourselves, and the explanation it provides of this shortcoming, that we have never sought ourselves, is expanded by means of a temporal metaphor: the bell-strokes of our life that we do not think to reckon until after they have passed. What we have failed to accomplish, and what the genealogy attempts to recover, is a diachronic account of who we are. This missing story covers the singular as well as the collective "we." The end of the story, Nietzsche [End Page 555] claims, is the "sovereign individual," 2 and this notion is presumably governed by his general claim: "all concepts in which an entire process is semiotically drawn together elude definition; only that which has no history is definable" (GM, 2.13). Of course it does not follow from this that everything indefinable has a history, but the special elusiveness of modern individuality seems due to the complexity of its narrative source. And not only individuality in general, but also the particular individual, seems to have a narrative basis. In the book subtitled "How one becomes what one is," in the section that promises the "real answer to the question, how one becomes what one is" (EH "clever," 9), Nietzsche offers this account of personal development:

One must keep the entire surface of consciousness—consciousness is a surface—clean of any great imperatives. Beware even of every great word, every great posture! Sheer danger, that the instinct comes to "understand itself" too soon—meanwhile the organizing "idea" with a calling to rule grows and grows deep down—it begins to command, it slowly heads back from detours and wrong ways, it prepares single qualities and competencies that will one day prove to be indispensable as means to a whole—it in turn trains all subservient faculties before giving any hint of the dominating task, "goal," "end," "meaning."

The individual, Nietzsche suggests, cannot be understood in terms of anything available to her consciousness, and not even in terms of any "great imperative" or "great word." Instead Nietzsche accounts for individuality, and in fact his own individuality, in terms of a meaningfulness available in terms of the familiar tropes of journeys and roads, and growing and commanding.

This passage from Ecce Homo suggests not merely a narrative, but one with a teleology, even if only a retrospectively apparent one. Narratives of self cannot be random or arbitrary; their meaningfulness depends on the structure provided by some kind of directionality: in Nietzsche's words, a dominant "task" or "goal." This directionality is invoked by Nietzsche, for example, with the "teachers of the purpose of existence" of The Gay Science's opening section and with the famous "formula of our happiness" of The Antichrist's opening section: "a Yes, a No, a straight line, a goal." The Genealogy of Morals provides a general account of this directionality in terms of a "progressus."

I would like to say that even partial becoming useless, atrophying and degenerating, loss of meaning and purposiveness, in short...


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pp. 555-561
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