a phantasmagoria’s revenge
This is the story of two little hammers.
The first little hammer swung in the hands of the Fairy Feller.
It was for cracking nuts.
The second little hammer swung in the hand of Zarathustra.
It was for cracking heads.
An argument could be successful in its career if it chose to argue that the function of both hammers is very much the same. Or that the inscrutable genius of Dadd painting the Fairy Feller his master stroke and the scrutable genius of Nietzsche writing the dark sayings of Zarathustra have more in common than either would care to admit.
The image turns on the same hinge. Nietzsche’s hammer smashed illusions of another world; only the now, the strong, was effectively real. Dadd’s hammer smashed illusions of this world; only the elsewhere, the ethereal, was effectively real.
Both together give us this warning:
Until we abolish grammar and burn the grass, we cannot escape G-d or elves.
Mike McDuffee’s prose poem ‘As if, if’ (in Fruit of His Lips, 10 May 2010) confronts in different ways both hammers. It functions on two distinct textual planes: poetic and academic. On the academic plane, McDuffee engages Friedrich Nietzsche’s Die Götzen-Dämmerung [Twilight of the Idols] (1895), the recreational war on what Nietzsche called ‘nihilism’, or the life-denying facade of moralistic thinkers and systems of thought. Such systems, he wrote, ‘are here touched with a hammer as with a tuning fork’, leaving them shattered and ringing with their own bloated hollowness. To this claim, McDuffee puts forward a rebuke, an intellectual rebuttal that deflects Zarathustra’s hammer with the rawness of the world, the anguish we’d rather ignore.
On the poetic plane, ‘As if, if’ evokes. It weaves a quest for meaning through wonder and suffering. Wonder assails us in its vision of our shattered inheritance, and the endless promise of the empty expanse from which words are born, the silence that gestates speech. Suffering wrenches us through its grotesqueness, the clamor that silencing words cannot silence, the frenetic waiting on becalmed waters for regenerated winds of change. There is a horror in these words, a haunting sense that a man lost at sea will die of thirst, that the long-awaited daylight is only the prelude to another nightfall.
But there are still the words themselves. And that is reason to hope.
The duality of these two planes in a text, academic and poetic, might best be called prophetic—I am not sure. There is surely a dialectic left in the world while these two planes exist. So it seems inadequate to engage ‘As if, if’ simply on one or the other. My response, therefore, will attempt to engage them on both.
Over the coming week—with a polite interlude to listen to the complaints of a certain mad novelist—I will be dialoguing with four crucial, seminal themes in ‘As if, if’: being as plurality, the caprice of art, the courage of words, and mayhem as ritual.
This dialogue will be threefold. First will be the text itself. There are currently two drafts of this text—the original post, reposted here at Paradoxes, and a revised version at Fruit of His Lips that makes several intriguing changes—some for the better, some for the safer. I will not risk assuming the text has completed its cycle of regeneration; other revisions will be considered if they chance to appear.
Second will be an artistic response, a poem (of sorts) evoking the images and emotions contemplation of ‘As if, if’ evoked in me, and treating in turn with each of the four themes. Third, a commentary will explore the interaction of the text and the poem, in an attempt to press the reach of metaphor and discourse.
The dialogue will be contemplative, it will be literary, it will be academically responsible. It will, I think, be unusual, and, all going as it should, intriguing. I know, I hope, my own limitations. I am not a philosopher in any academic sense; I have not read Nietzsche widely, nor will I attempt to directly engage Die Götzen-Dämmerung. This series will not present scholarly criticism of that sort. I peddle in symbols and words, in ideas and verse. These, then, will be my focus.
If a reading of it should linger behind, still reverberating enough to provoke a second reading, perhaps a third, then the words will have done their work. I can ask for no greater compliment.
In the meantime—check the lawn for hammers before mowing the grass.