The Fable—Part I (Lacoue-Labarthe)

The Fable

(Literature and Philosophy)

We would like to inquire here into the “form” of philosophy; or more precisely, to cast upon it this suspicion: What if, after all, philosophy was nothing but literature? We know how insistent philosophy—metaphysics—has generally been about defining itself against what we call literature. We also know to what extent, particularly since Nietzsche, the struggle against metaphysics has been coupled with, or has even identified itself with, a specifically literary effort. We would like to ask, then, whether the dream, the desire that philosophy has entertained since its “beginning” for a pure saying [dire pur] (a speech, a discourse purely transparent to what it should immediately signify: truth, being, the absolute, etc.), has not always been compromised by the necessity of going through a text, through a process of writing, and whether, for this reason, philosophy has not always been obliged to use modes of exposition (dialogue or narrative, for example) that are not exclusively its own and that it is most often powerless to control or even reflect upon. In other words, it is a matter of questioning this more or less obscure and silent obsession with the text, which is perhaps one of the deepest obsessions of metaphysics and which reveals in any case one of its most primal limits.

To speak in this way requires, however, a few remarks:

1. First of all, it is obvious what this inquiry owes to Derrida’s thought, and we cannot avoid, at the outset, a brief explanation. To the extent, indeed, that the desire for a pure saying is linked to the repression of writing and therefore to the thinking of being as presence, the suspicion we cast upon metaphysics is the very one cast upon it by Derrida. As a consequence, metaphysics so determined is obviously no longer quite the same as in Heidegger’s sense, or rather, Heidegger himself may very well be inscribed within it. But to the extent that writing “as such” is not directly as issue, the question is not exactly the same. Everything depends, in fact, on what we mean by literature Do we mean the letter (gramma, trace, mark, inscription… writing), or do we mean only literature, in the most conventional, the most decried sense (which is, moreover, a belated sense), as, for example, when someone says, “And everything else is literature”? In this banal and somewhat pejorative but nonetheless revealing sense, literature signifies above all what has for a long time been conventionally called fiction.

2. We therefore assign ourselves here a relatively simple task. Drawing upon a distinction for which metaphysics itself is responsible, we must ask to what extent one can level against it the accusation it has always brought against any discourse that it did not absolutely master or that was not absolutely its own; and we must do so in such a way as ultimately to show that its own discourse is not radically different from that of literature. We will thus refer, furthermore, to Nietzsche rather than Derrida, that is, to a debate that is apparently more limited (in that metaphysics is supposedly reduced to Platonism) and more superficial (in that only the question of appearance is presumably raised)—but that threatens to become more crucial if, as Derrida himself has clearly shown, to adopt a metaphysical concept in order to turn it back against metaphysics (in metaphysics; one would even have to say, if one could, between it) is to deny oneself in advance the possibility of breaking out of any closure and to doom oneself more obstinately and more desperately to the “wasteland,” to the desert that “ensues” and has perhaps never ceased to “ensue.”

3. This means that the question asked is also that of the “completion” of metaphysics. A difficult, even an inevitably impossible question, for one cannot ask philosophy about literature as though it were a question raised “from the outside,” any more than one can pursue this question to the very end, unfold it in its entirety. First of all, there would have to be an outside. Then, if a means of access were perchance imaginable, the outside would have to allow of unfolding, that is, exposition, properly metaphysical Darstellung: presentation, unveiling. The discourse of truth, in other words. Exposing would therefore be a way of not posing the question; posing the question prohibits exposing, for by necessity it is impossible to expose the question of exposition itself. It is not a matter of giving excuses in advance for the necessary discontinuity of what follows, nor for the difficulty of a commentary linked very precisely to exposition, nor even for the predicament of having to use the language of philosophy (even though it is also this discourse that despairs of being able to efface itself, to disappear, to let quite simply be what it designates). Rather, it is a matter of indicating that one cannot traverse the whole question, and especially that one cannot reverse it. Rigorously speaking, however, this is indeed what would have to be done. But could one keep this operation from becoming dialectical if one ventured to suspect literature (does literature exist, moreover, for anything but metaphysics?) of having always been traversed by the desire to go beyond the process of writing toward thought conceived according to the model of metaphysics—if one ventured, in other words, to consider literature as an ideology?

4. Finally, for all these reasons, it should be clear that it is not only impossible to “treat” such a question; it is also impossible to inquire whether it can legitimately be asked. One can only become involved in it to see what it involves. It is, in other words, a kind of “preliminary work,” provided, however, that we dissociate this from remarks of the “transcendental” type concerning the conditions of possibility of such an undertaking.

Practically speaking, the only text that will be “commented upon” here is a well-known one by Nietzsche, a note from the year 1888 that can now be found in the collection entitled The Will to Power Nietzsche writes the following: “Parmenides said, ‘one cannot think of what is not’;—we are at the other extreme, and say ‘what can be thought of must certainly be a fiction.’” One cannot think of what is not. Although formulated in a negative manner, this is clearly the to gar auto noein est in te kai einai of Parmenides: thinking and being are, in effect, the same. Nietzsche translates it as: that which is—is thinkable, or, more precisely, one only thinks that which is and there is no thought of that which is not. Nietzsche considers this to be a text of the beginning, as it were, an inaugural text: we are situated at the other extreme. Perhaps he even considers it to be the Text of the beginning, that is, the whole text of philosophy, of metaphysics, which, at the conclusion, “at the other end” (am andern Ende) of a history that might very well be History, must be reversed and canceled. In other words, from Parmenides to Hegel (to whom else could this end allude?), all of metaphysics would be a commentary on this proposition. Which means two things (since “we” are at the end and since the end is the cancellation of this text, history ceases when this text becomes obsolete): not only is history the history of this text, but history has taken place because this text needed to be commented upon, unfolded, taken up again, critiqued, reaffirmed, etc. It required this.

Nietzsche is therefore suggesting an interpretation of history. One can at least venture to decipher it: the identity of being and thinking was only affirmed, that is, desired, by Parmenides; and history is the history of the pursuit of this desire. In other words, in the “beginning” is the rift, the gap, the difference that troubles Identity. History is therefore the history of the Same, which is not the Identical. It is the history of lack, of withdrawal, of the repetition of alterity.

All of this could be taken for Hegelian thinking. At least we can see how difficult it is to remain thus on the fringes of Hegelian discourse. In reality, the whole problem is a matter of knowing whether Nietzsche in fact designates an end when he uses the equivocal words “am andern Ende” and whether he thus refers to an origin of history, be it faint or divided. For we know that history is completed precisely at the moment when the originary difference no longer functions, that is, when a (self-)conscious labor has surmounted the initial split and when identity can be reaffirmed in spite of (thanks to) difference: the identity of identity and difference. The end of history is desire satiated, the Same enslaved to the Identical, difference finally thought as determined negativity. History completes itself dialectically in Absolute knowledge.

But not in its disavowal. Nietzsche wants, therefore, to speak another language. But this other language must not be a “ruse.” It must above all be other by virtue of an alterity that is itself other than dialectical alterity. It is therefore necessary:

1. That there be no question of origin and end.

2. That, consequently, the we that makes itself heard not be the Hegelian we for example, the for-us of The Phenomenology of Spirit.

3. That the cancellation of Parmenidean (therefore Hegelian) identity be neither its reversal nor its Aufhebung—that in the text, in other words, the play of negativity not be the simple play of negativity or the work of negativity.

4. That the “concept” of fiction escape conceptuality itself, that is, not be included in the discourse of truth.

These four conditions are indissociable. However, we cannot examine all of them here. We will restrict ourselves to a consideration of the last, since it brings fiction into play and hence touches immediately on the question of literature.

It is therefore fiction that must be question. In principle, the fictional is that which is not true, that is, in the language of metaphysics, that which is not real: that which is not. According to Parmenides, there is no thought except of that which is; there is no thought except true thought. We are at the other extreme and we say that the thinkable and the thought (being, reality, truth) are fiction, are not (real, true…). What metaphysics designates as being, namely, thought itself, is pure fiction. At the very least, metaphysics is not the discourse of truth but a fictional language. But it is clear that fiction is not something capable of cohering on its own, of being spoken and affirmed otherwise than in reference to truth. To invoke fiction, as Nietzsche perpetually does—especially from Human, All Too Human on—is still to speak the language of truth, to admit that there is no other. Moreover, the other texts that Nietzsche wrote at the same time and that revolve around the same question are, at least upon first reading, unambiguous. This is particularly true of Twilight of the Idols. For Nietzsche, fiction—being as fiction—refers back to the thought of Heraclitus as if, in sum, it were simply a matter of opposing Parmenides to Heraclitus and of destroying the official (Parmenidean, Platonic, Hegelian) version of (the history of) philosophy by reviving a previously repressed Heracliteanism. The question of fiction is, finally, the question of appearance, as witnessed by this text from Twilight of the Idols: “Insofar as the senses show becoming, passing away, and change, they do not lie. But Heraclitus will remain eternally right with his assertion that being is an empty fiction. The ‘apparent’ world is the only one: the ‘true’ world is merely added by a lie.” In other words, Nietzsche calls fiction the lie that is truth and calls into question the essentially Platonic, metaphysical break between appearance and reality as well as the whole system of oppositions it engenders and by which it is accompanied: opinion/science, becoming/eternity, etc. The theme is well known: Nietzsche is the reversal of Platonism and hence still a Platonism—and ultimately the accomplishment of metaphysics itself. And it is true that a text such as this one, among many others (and without even taking into account all that is said about the concept of will), justifies an interpretation of this kind. In the same chapter of the same book, for example, the four theses of section 6 say approximately the same thing.

However, the text that comes immediately after makes use of a completely different language. And perhaps it allows us to sketch out an interpretation that is not as simple. This text is a famous one, narrating in six theses the history of metaphysics from its dawn to noon when (the decline of) Zarathustra begins. It is entitled “How the ‘True World’ Finally Became a Fable (The History of an Error).” The sixth thesis indicates the properly Nietzschean moment:
6. The true world—we have abolished. What world has remained? The apparent one perhaps? But no! With the true world we have also abolished the apparent one.

(Noon; moment of the briefest shadow; end of the longest error; high point of humanity; INCIPIT ZARATHUSTRA.)
This Nietzschean moment, inasmuch as it is confused with Zarathustra’s departure, is therefore indeed an end (the end of the longest error), but not the Hegelian end. In any case, it is not evening but the furtive and culminating noontime at which decline begins (again), that is, the course of an identical (and yet not identical) trajectory toward midnight, that other noon, perhaps the same—assuming, at least, that the difference between the dazzling brightness of full day and the absolute darkness of night (which is no less dazzling) is not that which separates the illumination of parousia from the famous night in which all cows are black. What might have remained “naïvely” anti-Platonic in the preceding texts has disappeared here. To think fiction is not to oppose appearance and reality, since appearance is nothing other than the product of reality. To think fiction is precisely to think without recourse to this opposition, outside this opposition: to think the world as a fable. Is this possible?