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  • Getting Mimetic Again
  • Haun Saussy (bio)

Although its editor, Giorgio Colli, warns the reader of “a certain abruptness” in its formulations, Nietzsche’s draft essay “On Truth and Lie in the Extra-Moral Sense” has served as a rallying point for those concerned to work out the relation between language and literature.1 It puts a skeptical finger on the psychophysical operations we know as experience, damning them with the faint praise of rhetorical terminology as it names them instances of “translation” and “metaphor”:

Das “Ding an sich”… ist auch dem Sprachbildner ganz unfasslich und ganz und gar nicht erstrebenswerth. Er bezeichnet nur die Relationen der Dinge zu den Menschen und nimmt zu deren Ausdrucke die kühnsten Metaphern zu Hülfe. Ein Nervenreiz zuerst übertragen in ein Bild! erste Metapher. Das Bild wieder nachgeformt in einem Laut! Zweite Metapher. Und jedesmal vollständiges Ueberspringen der Sphäre, mitten hinein in eine ganz andere und neue. Man kann sich einen Menschen denken, der ganz taub ist und nie eine Empfindung des Tones und der Musik gehabt hat: wie dieser etwa die Chladnischen Klangfiguren im Sande anstaunt, ihre Ursachen im Erzittern der Saite findet und nun darauf schwören wird, jetzt müsse er wissen, was die Menschen den Ton nennen, so geht es uns allen mit der Sprache. Wir glauben etwas von den Dingen selbst zu wissen, wenn wir von Bäumen, Farben, Schnee und [End Page 189] Blumen reden und besitzen doch nichts als Metaphern der Dinge, die den ursprünglichen Wesenheiten ganz und gar nicht entsprechen. . . .

Was ist also Wahrheit? Ein bewegliches Heer von Metaphern, Metonymien, Anthropomorphismen. . . .2

The “thing in itself” . . . is quite incomprehensible to the creators of language and not at all worth aiming for. One designates only the relations of things to man, and to express them one calls on the boldest metaphors. A nerve stimulus, first transposed into an image—first metaphor. The image, in turn, imitated by a sound—second metaphor. And each time there is a complete overleaping of one sphere, right into the middle of an entirely new and different one. One can imagine a man who is totally deaf and has never had a sensation of sound and music. Perhaps such a person will gaze with astonishment at Chladni’s sound figures; perhaps he will discover their causes in the vibrations of the string and will now swear that he must know what men mean by “sound.” It is this way with all of us concerning language; we believe that we know something about the things themselves when we speak of trees, colors, snow, and flowers; and yet we possess nothing but metaphors for things—metaphors which correspond in no way to the original entities. . . .

What, then, is truth? A mobile army of metaphors, metonyms, and anthropomorphisms. . . .3

The variations spun on this passage by Jacques Derrida and Paul de Man are familiar to all comparatists. They point at an irreducibility of metaphor to philosophical truth, and by implication, at the impossibility of putting Nietzsche’s unpublished essay comfortably under the heading of philosophy.4 “A text like ‘On Truth and Lie,’ although it presents itself legitimately as a demystification of literary rhetoric, remains entirely literary, rhetorical, and deceptive itself.”5 Literature would allow us to see through the pretensions of a kind of language that claimed to tell the truth—not only of philosophy, but of language as used in ordinary ways by speakers convinced that they are being factual and designating things by their correct names. Literature would do that by recategorizing truth claims as rhetorical or literary statements.

It would be a mistake to think that “literature” refers only to fictional, dramatic or lyrical texts and the cultural or classroom practices associated with them. Judith Butler finds in a similar passage a basis for questioning the usually unquestioned link between acts and identities, not only in the sphere of gender but generally in the realm of law: “there is no ‘being’ behind [End Page 190] the doing, effecting, becoming: “the doer” is merely a fiction added to the deed—the deed is everything.”6 But it is often forgotten that the passage discusses a particular example of...


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pp. 189-200
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