Saturday, September 29, 2007

Nietzsche and Lucidity

Nietzsche often writes as though reflexive perception in itself were therapeutic, especially in the visual realm. To be aware that we are looking, for better and worse, is already a defense against trauma. Lucid dreaming is one example of this kind of meta-awareness in The Birth of Tragedy. By a Platonic sort of logic, if “empirical reality” in general is “a continuously manifested representation of the primal unity,” then dreams, being representations of empirical reality, like “naïve art,” are “mere appearance of mere appearance [Schein des Scheins]” (BT [trans. Walter Kaufmann] 45; KSA 1.39). What matters, however, is that this appearance of appearance appear to the dreamer, since only then can it become therapeutic. Unlike the Dionysian poet, the dreamer has to recognize the dream as such:

in our dreams we delight in the immediate understanding of figure [Gestalt]; all forms speak to us; there is nothing unimportant or superfluous. But even when this dream reality is most intense, we still have, glimmering through it, the sensation that it is mere appearance [die durchschimmernde Empfindung ihres Scheins]: at least this is my experience, and for its frequency—indeed, normality—I could adduce many proofs, including the sayings of the poets. (BT 34; KSA 1.26; trans. modified)

In reading this passage it can be difficult to get past Nietzsche’s distractingly weird idea that dreams are more intelligible than waking life. The main part of his point, I think, is that “there is nothing unimportant or superfluous” in dreams (here we might recall Coleridge’s similar belief that ordinary perceptions are more “promiscuous” than hallucinations). The telling characteristic of the lucid dream, however, is that it creates the effect of Schein by reflexivity alone.

Because it is merely rhetorical, the criterion of reflexive phenomenality is so easy to meet that it soons scatters the Schein effect across empirical reality, making it possible at any time to treat Erscheinung as Schein. For the sensation of Schein has no distinguishing quality but apperceptivity: if it relieves, it’s not by muffling “delight” or “understanding.” A strange and powerful defense, this “ambrosial vapor” that leaves the head clear for experience at its “most intense.” Nietzsche goes on, “philosophical men . . . even have a presentiment that the reality in which we live and have our being is also mere appearance [Schein], and that another, quite different reality lies beneath it” (BT 34; KSA 1.26). Expanded to waking life, the sensation again leaves the content of the philosopher’s reality free from distortion, his affects at full strength, even as it applies fleetingly to “the whole . . . of life”:

the whole divine comedy of life, including the inferno, also pass before him, not like mere shadows on a wall [Schattenspiel]—for he lives and suffers with these scenes—and yet not without that fleeting sensation of illusion [flüchtige Empfindung des Scheins]. And perhaps many will, like myself, recall how amid the dangers and terrors of dreams they have occasionally said to themselves in self-encouragement, and not without success, “It is a dream! I will dream on!” (BT 35; KSA 1.27)

The Gay Science §54 repeats every feature of this passage. Nietzsche returns to it again in The Twilight of the Idols and The Will to Power, to stress that, as he phrases it in The Birth of Tragedy with regard to Apollinian illusion, Schein “is one of those illusions which nature so frequently employs to achieve her own ends” (BT 44; KSA 1.37)—that is, that it connives our continuance as biological agents. Freud makes a similar observation about illusion-feelings in dreams:

when the thought "this is only a dream" occurs during a dream, it has the same purpose in view as when the words are pronounced on the stage by la belle Hélène in Offenbach's comic opera of that name: it is aimed at reducing the importance of what has just been experienced and at making it possible to tolerate what is to follow. (Freud, Standard Edition IV, 526)

Again, it’s worth emphasizing that the sensation of Schein leaves reality testing unaffected. The one who views life as a series of phenomenal scenes “lives and suffers with these scenes—and yet.” And yet what?—what's the gain of the effect, if the suffering is included?

The suffering is included, but so is the expression of an objection to it. Nietzsche attiributes the philosophical presentiment that the world is Schein paradigmatically to Schopenhauer—Schopenhauer, who opines “that the world, that life, can never give real satisfaction and hence is not worthy of our affection” (BT 24). Nietzsche’s lucid dreamer declares no such dissatisfaction, and yet the appearance of appearance acts out qualification: the suffering is suffered, but not without criticism. The effect “reduc[es] the importance” of what appears, as Freud observes, by highlighting instead the fact that it appears. In Raphael’s "Transfiguration," Nietzsche recalls, there is a similar “Depotenziren des Scheins zum Schein” (BT 45; KSA 1.39), italics mine). John Sallis opines that “dream images shine in such a way that one takes delight in them, an immediate delight in them simply as forms and figures” (26): putting together the intense pleasurability of appearances as appearances with Freud’s hypothesis that images elude censorship, it could be that images get by the censorship because we can’t resist their sensory appeal, and that the appearance of appearance gets away with casting aspersions on reality because it simultaneously makes possible its beauty. In any case, in the discourse of phenomenality, the appearance of appearance—registration of phenomenality as such—displaces and distracts from dissatisfaction, acting out the qualification of reality so that it does not have to be verbalized. To reconstruct this sequence of associations is to understand why there is a folkloric association between the apparent and the insubstantial in the first place.

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