Rohit Sharma, On the Seventh Solitude. Endless Becoming and Eternal Return in the Poetry of Friedrich Nietzsche
Bern: Peter Lang, 2006. 293 pp. including bibliography, paperback US$57.95
Reviewed by Pete Murray
This analysis of Nietzsche’s poetry attempts to connect “the seventh solitude” with the fundamental concepts of becoming and eternal return, a fascinating claim for a notion that seems merely rhetorical. Another thesis of this book is that many of Nietzsche’s philosophical ideas are foreshadowed in his poetry, which does not seem to be controversial as the bulk of the poetry is included in published philosophical works. Nonetheless, one should be true to the earth and wary of poets, and I suggest that laughing and dancing are mere recreations from the “great seriousness” of overcoming nihilism. Still, a number of poems express fundamental Nietzschean themes and feelings and it is with these poems that Sharma is ultimately concerned. The book generally treats Nietzsche’s poetry chronologically, reproducing most of the poems (in German), identifying themes and often relating them to concurrent or later philosophical works. Sharma is a Germanist, but his overwhelming preoccupation is with the poetry’s philosophical sense—rather than technical aspects.
Beginning with early poems and including work up to The Gay Science, the first chapter discovers themes including melancholy, solitude, isolation, individuation, the poet’s travail and the feminine. Exploring the young Nietzsche’s struggle with loneliness and his resignation to a life of solitude (43ff.), Sharma examines important poems from this time such as “The Wanderer” (47-51) and “On a Glacier” (51-55). He also introduces the notion of the feminine in a section which analyses “The Little Brigg, called "the Little Angel,” suggesting that the issue of “woman as truth” underlies the poem’s apparent frivolity, however, I find no contextual evidence to support this, Nietzsche himself describing the Idylls of Messina as “cheerful.” Nonetheless, Sharma challenges us to reread these works more openly, something that is undoubtedly rewarding. The chapter ends with an interesting discussion of BT and the Dionysian, comparing solitude and individuation (71-75), which raises a question of different forms of “aloneness.”
Sharma carries the theme of the feminine through to the second chapter, where his analysis turns to the artist philosopher and further poems from the time of The Idylls of Messina. The notion of play is also addressed in both the sense of creating and destroying, and the more selfconscious play with poetic language. Turning to poems concerning the feminine, Sharma does not seem to expand on these points as it is not at all clear that the female subjects of “A Girl’s Melody” or “Campo santo di Staglieno” have any clear connection with truth or play, and reading the poems with this possibility in mind does not create any openings for further interpretation. The latter poem is possibly based on the epitaph “Pia, caritatevole, amorisissima,” which is the title of another short poem, and is apparently an admission of sentimentality—kissing the gravestone of “amorisissima, the one most dear. Some of the other poems from this period have a more obviously philosophical context. In “Rimus remedium: Or, how sick poets console themselves, there is a return to the poet’s travail in relation to time (91, 98-99). It seems that sick poets do not console themselves well, but face an “eternity of suffering (98) with a dread that will soon be a feature of the eternal recurrence of the same.
Perhaps more could have been made of this, as it seems that the sickness induced by a glance into the abyss is central to the experience of solitude as a state in which a thinker is affected by thoughts which disturb and repel—the thinker in the process of murdering God. Nietzsche has a clear conception of this state of shameful anxiety, with its ambivalent relationship to humanity. Abandoned by values fleeing and destroyed, the self is unable to assume responsibility for others. Sharma considers “To the Mistral: A Dance Song to express one poetic response that requires joining forces with the cold north wind—Nietzsche’s Hyperborean companions perhaps—and beating the rhythm of a new immoralist dance (114-5). Ending this chapter, Sharma’s analysis of the “The Poet’s Call again emphasizes play and laughter as the alternatives to the selfconscious seriousness of the artist, raising what now appears to be the major Nietzschean poetic theme: the question of the value of poetry to the process of revaluation (119). Despite Sharma’s advocacy, it seems that while laughter can kill a god, it cannot create a new one.
The third chapter moves to the Dionysian dithyrambs, commentary on which is split between two chapters, with Chapter 3 analyzing “Only a fool, only a poet!, “Between Birds of Prey, “Ariadne’s Lament, and “The Daughters of the Desert.” Sharma first explores the background concepts of the tragic, the Dionysian, fate and destiny (124f.), which bring together the uncertain mixture of joy and suffering that is essentially Nietzschean. The interpretation raises the issue of the capacity to affirm life despite suffering, a vexed issue, especially when involving the suffering of others. “Only a fool, only a poet!” is shown to question the worth of poetry, and by implication language in general, in an emotional response to the inadequacy of comprehension, while the analysis of “Ariadne’s Lament” raises the question of the nature of will to power in this tormented being, whom Sharma finds to be rendered “helpless” by “an allpowerful thought of the human,” a thought named after the god (1539) and which we could presume to refer to the abyss of human suffering.
As Sharma suggests (154), the metaphor of Ariadne is complex, however, I think that some further background could help. It appears that the figure is used to communicate something of the Dionysian affective state. Thus Spoke Zarathustra suggests that the performance later attributed to Ariadne could be that of the “penitent (B&252;sser) of the spirit” (Z 4, “The Magician”). An earlier reference to this figure (translated as “ascetic”) occurs in Z 2, “On those who are Sublime,” suggesting that there is a separation from life and a failure to grasp laughter and beauty or praise the earth. The connection between these two chapters of Zarathustra is emphasized by the final lines of the latter which are attributed to Ariadne in a note (KGW VII.I 453) and which also resemble the final, subsequently added, lines of the dithyramb, suggesting that passing through a barrier of suffering makes affirmation of life possible, and that this can only happen if one is repentant (Büsser) about the evasiveness of sublimity.
The final chapter approaches the seventh solitude directly through “The Last Will,” “The Fire Sign,” “The Sun Sinks,” “Fame and Eternity,” and “The Poverty of the Rich,” before turning to an analysis of a number of associated Nietzschean concepts (203-215). Following some introductory remarks, Sharma presents an analysis of “The Poverty of the Rich” (181-189), a poem which bears some similarity to Z 4, “The Honey Offering,” and describes Zarathustra in solitude like a creator resting on the seventh day, begging the question of whether the seventh solitude could be restful. Sharma mentions a significant aspect of the poem where, in the second half, the voice changes from Zarathustra’s to some external power. I suggest that on the basis of “Ariadne’s Lament” we could assume this to be Dionysus, especially as the lesson taught is to “give yourself away.” While intuitively understood as referring to the selfsacrificial philosopher, it is not made clear what these formulas mean concretely, however, I suggest that it is a criticism of Zarathustra’s tendency towards asceticism and a requirement for greater engagement.
“Fame and Eternity” contrasts the pettiness of fame to the affirmation of eternity. One interesting issue mentioned is basilisk eggs (173f.). Medieval and earlier “bestiaries” emphasize the basilisk’s venomousness, as do classical references in Pliny, and, as Sharma points out, the Bible (Isaiah 59.5). There is also a reference in the nowrestored final section of The Antichrist, “Decree against Christianity,” which advocates destroying the places where Christians have hatched their basilisk eggs. I suggest that the basilisk eggs represent the resentment that Zarathustra has failed to recognize, being overly concerned with fame. This poem raises two important connected issues—the relationship between eternity and necessity, and how the two can be affirmed—which are only touched on by Sharma. The poem suggests that necessity—generally hated—is loved by Zarathustra. Symbolized by a star and experienced as a form of the sublime that is not evaded by reason, it appears to me that, for Nietzsche, necessity is “the will to power and nothing else” (BGE 36).
“The Fire Sign” confirms that the seventh is the final solitude, without making the concept any clearer. Sharma notes that the fire is more a beacon than a cremation, with Zarathustra attempting to attract “clever sailors” to his home on the ridge between two seas—are they the laughing lions and the swarm of doves? Finally, Sharma finds a more hopeful mood in “The Sun Sinks.” Strength of purpose replaces the depressing resignation and need for escape which the poems often express towards the task of philosophizing. As Sharma notes, there is a “serenity” associated with the seventh solitude (202), a sense of basking in the warm rays of coastal sunset, which is in sharp contrast to the pain associated with Zarathustra’s return to solitude. Interestingly, Sharma also points to a “joyfulness” that he describes as a “movement after achieving the seventh solitude” (203).
Sharma remarks on the obtuse ending (202), which I consider to be poorly resolved in a recent translation of “The Sun Sinks” which renders Nachen as “night,” something which also occurs in relation to Der geheimnisvolle Nachen, translated as “The Secret Night” rather than Kaufmann’s “The Mysterious Bark.” A possible reason, though not a satisfactory one, is that the original version in Idyllen aus Messina is entitled Der nuchtliche Geheimniss (“The Nocturnal Mystery”). Elsewhere, Nachen is used in reference to the death boat (TodesNachen), presumably a reference to Charon, as well as to the shimmering golden boat promised in Z 3, “On the Great Longing,” and seen approaching in the eyes of life (Z 3, “The Second Dancing Song”). Nietzsche uses Kahn to refer to a boat in “The Sun Sinks” and elsewhere (Z 3, “The Second Dance Song”; BT 1, quoting Schopenhauer), and it seems that there are two types of boat, not necessarily corresponding to the term used. One metaphor refers to a protective vessel, including the “death boat,” in which wanderers navigate the sea of uncertainty. I suggest that the structure of this boat is responsibility. The other boat is associated with Dionysian redemption occurring in the form of harvesting, whereby the soul is likened to the object of a harvest festival or Dionysian rite.
Sharma suggests that there are seven uses of the phrase “seventh solitude,” but this does not appear to be the case. GS 285 suggests that there will be no friend for your seven solitudes; GS 309 is entitled “From the seventh solitude” and, like GS 285, is partly spoken directly to the reader, indicated by inverted commas. The wanderer in Z 3 begins Zarathustra’s final solitude, presumed to be the seventh, and associated with the “ridge between two seas,” and finally, the mention in the Foreword to The Antichrist advocates the “experience out of seven solitudes.” However, none of these references provides either a clear suggestion of a meaning, as Sharma acknowledges (203) or a basis for the fundamentality of the term, whether considered purely in the context of Sharma’s interpretation or attributed to Nietzsche (26).
Along with the five mentions in the published works, there are a number of other mentions in the notes, which might enlighten us further. Nietzsche lists three, seven and eight solitudes (KSA 10:21; 10:10; 10:16; 10:16). The seven solitudes are characterized as follows:
- Shame and silence before the great thought
- Loss of all grounds
- Absence of friends
- Highest responsibility
- Beyond morality - the perspective of eternity
The “singular will” has been added to the list of eight. On the basis of Z 3, “The Wanderer,” we can agree that there is a final solitude while, in the notes, both lists end with a solitude particularly concerned with sickness and convalescence. This would seem to make Z 3, “The Convalescent,” the depiction of the events of the seventh/final solitude. On this basis we can say that the seventh/final solitude is where one is able to affirm life in relation to the eternal recurrence of the same, due to a fundamental, nihilistic, thoughtinhibiting affirmation being brought to the surface and overcome. The solitude involving the perspective of eternity, which one might assume to be the highest state and which is reached in Z 3, “The Seven Seals,” occurs as only the penultimate solitude of both the seven and eight. Did Nietzsche reverse his last two solitudes, or was the song to eternity found not to be a “solitude” at all? Furthermore, the list of eight solitudes ends with a reference to the laughing lion and the swarm of doves prefigured in Z 3, “Of Old and New Tablets,” and actualized in Z 4, “The Sign,” also suggesting a change of mind.
Sharma would like to associate the seventh solitude with other major concepts, especially eternal return. Given that it appears that the seventh solitude is the temporal space in which Zarathustra undertakes and achieves the culmination of his painful search for wisdom, this interpretation could be correct. However, any attempt to subsume eternal return under the seventh solitude seems wrong, whether done playfully or not, and Sharma’s reasons for wanting to do so, while mentioned, are not convincing (26). Solitude has a special place in Nietzsche’s philosophy, but the seventh solitude is not a philosophical concept from which others could be derived, also, it is not, as is claimed (217), an example of aposiopesis—a device that Nietzsche often uses, designated by a dash or an ellipsis. Neither can I agree with the notion of “Heisenbergian” uncertainty (217). I suggest that to accept uncertainty as a model for life, without the caveat that the extent that it is admitted into thought must be matched by the creation of value, is to fall into the active nihilism that Nietzsche’s revaluation sought to overcome. To give uncertainty priority ultimately means that an act of violence becomes as valuable as an act of politeness. Nonetheless, the seventh solitude is an important event in the process of revaluation, and despite its overstated major thesis, this book is a valuable study that raises many interesting questions concerning Nietzsche’s poetry in relation to his major philosophical concepts. It is clear that, for Nietzsche, the way through nihilism involves an encounter that will be most unpleasant and threatening. His poetry expresses his concerns about the meaning of this encounter and the possibility of articulating it, as well as providing an escape into nature, mischievousness and laughter, but most importantly it attempts to describe the encounter with meaninglessness and suggest a sense of the possibility of its overcoming.
- The following is based on the article “Einsamkeit" to be published
in Paul van Tongeren, Gerd Schank & Herman Siemens (Hrsg.), Nietzsche-Wörterbuch
- Einsamkeit-Gesundheit. Berlin/New York: W. de Gruyter 2008. I would like to thank Paul van Tongeren for allowing me to use this material.