The Gay Science  

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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.

The Gay Science [German: Die fröhliche Wissenschaft ("la gaya scienza")], is a book written by Friedrich Nietzsche, first published in 1882. This book features the first occurrence of the famous formulation "God is dead," first in section 108, and then in 125. Section 125 depicts the parable of the madman who is searching for God. He accuses us all of being the murderers of God "'Whither is God?' he cried; 'I will tell you. We have killed him- you and I. All of us are his murderers..."

Title and content

The book's title uses a phrase that was well-known at the time. It was derived from a Provençal expression for the technical skill required for poetry-writing. It had already been used by Emerson and E. S. Dallas and in inverted form by Thomas Carlyle (see dismal science). However, it was first translated into English as The Joyous Wisdom. Nevertheless The Gay Science has become the canonical translation of the title since Walter Kaufmann's version in the 1960's. Kaufmann references The Shorter Oxford English Dictionary (1955) that lists "The gay science (=Pr[ovençal] gai saber): the art of poetry."

In Nietzsche's time, the word "gay" in English was not a euphemism for "homosexual". The homosexual connotation of "gay" did not become widespread until the mid-20th century.

Nietzsche himself comments in Ecce Homo about the poems in the Appendix, saying they were,

written for the most part in Sicily, are quite emphatically reminiscent of the Provençal concept of gaya scienza—that unity of singer, knight, and free spirit which distinguishes the wonderful early culture of the Provençals from all equivocal cultures. The very last poem above all, "To the Mistral", an exuberant dancing song in which, if I may say so, one dances right over morality, is a perfect Provençalism.

This alludes to the birth of modern European poetry that occurred in Provence around the 12th century, whereupon, after the culture of the troubadours fell into almost complete desolation and destruction due to the Albigensian Crusade (1209-1229), other poets in the 14th century ameliorated and thus cultivated the gai saber or gaia scienza. In a similar vein, in Beyond Good and Evil Nietzsche observed that,

love as passion—which is our European speciality—[was invented by] the Provençal knight-poets, those magnificent and inventive human beings of the "gai saber" to whom Europe owes so many things and almost owes itself. (Section 260)

Another indicator of the deficiency of the original translation as The Joyous Wisdom is that the German Wissenschaft never indicates "wisdom", but a propensity toward any rigorous practice of a poised, controlled, and disciplined quest for knowledge, and is typically translated as "science".

The book is usually placed within Nietzsche's middle period, when his work extolled the merits of science, scepticism and intellectual discipline as routes to mental freedom. The affirmation of the Provencal tradition is also one of a joyful affirmation of life.

"God is dead"

This book features the first occurrence of the famous formulation "God is dead," first in section 108, and then in 125. Section 125 depicts the parable of the madman who is searching for God. He accuses us all of being the murderers of God "'Whither is God?' he cried; 'I will tell you. We have killed him- you and I. All of us are his murderers..." THE MADMAN----Have you not heard of that madman who lit a lantern in the bright morning hours, ran to the market place, and cried incessantly: "I seek God! I seek God!"---As many of those who did not believe in God were standing around just then, he provoked much laughter. Has he got lost? asked one. Did he lose his way like a child? asked another. Or is he hiding? Is he afraid of us? Has he gone on a voyage? emigrated?---Thus they yelled and laughed

The madman jumped into their midst and pierced them with his eyes. "Whither is God?" he cried; "I will tell you. We have killed him---you and I. All of us are his murderers. But how did we do this? How could we drink up the sea? Who gave us the sponge to wipe away the entire horizon? What were we doing when we unchained this earth from its sun? Whither is it moving now? Whither are we moving? Away from all suns? Are we not plunging continually? Backward, sideward, forward, in all directions? Is there still any up or down? Are we not straying, as through an infinite nothing? Do we not feel the breath of empty space? Has it not become colder? Is not night continually closing in on us? Do we not need to light lanterns in the morning? Do we hear nothing as yet of the noise of the gravediggers who are burying God? Do we smell nothing as yet of the divine decomposition? Gods, too, decompose. God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him. sect 125 reads: "How shall we comfort ourselves, the murderers of all murderers? What was holiest and mightiest of all that the world has yet owned has bled to death under our knives: who will wipe this blood off us? What water is there for us to clean ourselves? What festivals of atonement, what sacred games shall we have to invent? Is not the greatness of this deed too great for us? Must we ourselves not become gods simply to appear worthy of it? There has never been a greater deed; and whoever is born after us---for the sake of this deed he will belong to a higher history than all history hitherto."

Here the madman fell silent and looked again at his listeners; and they, too, were silent and stared at him in astonishment. At last he threw his lantern on the ground, and it broke into pieces and went out. "I have come too early," he said then; "my time is not yet. This tremendous event is still on its way, still wandering; it has not yet reached the ears of men. Lightning and thunder require time; the light of the stars requires time; deeds, though done, still require time to be seen and heard. This deed is still more distant from them than most distant stars---and yet they have done it themselves.

It has been related further that on the same day the madman forced his way into several churches and there struck up his requiem aeternam deo. Led out and called to account, he is said always to have replied nothing but: "What after all are these churches now if they are not the tombs and sepulchers of God?"


Source: Friedrich Nietzsche, The Gay Science (1882, 1887) para. 125; Walter Kaufmann ed. (New York: Vintage, 1974), pp.181-82.]

See also




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