|“Nietzsche, Art and Aesthetics”
International Conference of the Friedrich Nietzsche Society
University of Warwick, 12-14 September, 2003
Matthew H. Meyer
Paper Title: “The Comic Nature of Ecce Homo”
With chapter titles such as “Why I am so Wise,” “Why I am so Clever,” and “Why I am Destiny,” even the most serious reader of Ecce Homo (EH) cannot help but think that there is something comic about Nietzsche’s final work. In my paper, I will try to confirm such suspicions. Specifically, I will show how EH bears a striking resemblance to Aristophanean comedy and, conversely, use the comedy of Aristophanes to interpret EH.
The first part of the paper will consist of textually justifying the connection between EH and Old Comedy. To do so, I will refer to Nietzsche’s letters from this time (KSB 8, 488) and cite passages from EH that hint at the comic nature of the work. More importantly, I will link Nietzsche’s proclaimed discipleship to Dionysus in EH (EH “Forward” 2) with the ethics of Dionysian laughter first formulated in Beyond Good and Evil (BGE 294, 295), a work in which Nietzsche puts down the tragic mask of Zarathustra and picks up the mask (BGE 278) of Aristophanean comedy (BGE 223).
I will then examine the comedies of Aristophanes, highlighting elements relevant for this paper. Examples will include: (1) The comic poet’s boastfulness in the parabasis; (2) The agonal and abusive nature of the genre (ς; (3) The comic poet’s freedom to create and destroy illusions that disregard the laws of time, space, and causality. In short, I will show how Old Comedy uses irreverent laughter to undermine the authority of “reality,” which then allows the poet to create a world according to his private fancy.
With this background, I will then explore the psychology behind EH. Specifically, I will contend that the work, like Old Comedy, is rooted extreme self-love and its goal is nothing less than self-deification. In EH, Nietzsche transfigures his own life into an aesthetic phenomenon by constructing a fantastic genealogy of nobility, singing his own praises as a writer, and claiming that his works will one day define the history of humankind (EH “Destiny” 8). Like Aristophanes, Nietzsche’s boastfulness also becomes aggressive and abusive. In EH, he attacks Christianity’s ethics of self-contempt and martyrdom in the name of his new values of Dionysian self- and life-affirmation. In doing so, he elevates the agonal element of Old Comedy to world historical proportions with his formula, “Dionysus versus the Crucified” (EH “Destiny” 9).
To conclude, I will argue that the comic nature of EH has a very serious intention. Essentially, Nietzsche’s comedy is an expression of the noble ethics developed from BGE (1885) to EH (1888). In his final work, Nietzsche posits himself as the measure of perfection, looks at himself in the Dionysian mirror, and enjoys himself as the source of all beauty (TI “Skirmishes” 19). He is the noble soul that reveres itself (BGE 287), the one “who is, who possesses reality, who is actual, who is true” (GM I 5). Ultimately, it is the radical perspectivism of BGE that allows Nietzsche to deify his created “self” in EH.