by Teresita Pumará
1. In the fifth paragraph of “Reason in Philosophy”, the second essay of Twilight of the Gods, Nietzsche concludes:
“I fear we will not get rid of God, because we still believe in grammar.”
Out of context as it is quoted, this sentence arises two questions. Why should we get rid of God, and what has the belief in grammar to do with this? All of you good readers of Nietzsche may laugh at these questions. Nevertheless I feel the need to answer them once again by trying to follow Nietzsche’s path in that essay.
2. According to Nietzsche two things characterise philosophers. The first one is their disgust of change -and so of becoming, transforming, and death as intrinsically entangled with life. This disgust of change leads to the rejection of the senses as means to explore and produce knowledge. The senses are seen by philosophers as the great betrayers, because they insist on the continuous change and multiplicity of reality. We cannot grasp the truth through the senses. But then how? Where is it then, this truth? We all know the answer. Things change, so say our senses. Words and the meaning we give to them, apparently not. So, there must the truth lie. In the idea, in the thin, the empty concept. Among all the concepts, the philosophers’ favourite is this idea of God, which is in fact, writes Nietzsche, the thinnest, the emptiest. Not only do philosophers find in the idea of God the soothing eternal truth, moreover they see in it the self-caused reason for everything there is. This for two motives: Because this is the way our reason works, it seeks causes and consequences everywhere. And because, writes Nietzsche, every word speaks for this Eleatic argument, as, alas, we speak.
3. Therefore and back to the initial quote: we cannot get rid of the empty idea of God, of the sterile idea of a “truly real” world of “pure eternal” Forms from which the insufficient physical world of appearances derives, as long as we still believe that the structure of our language is a pure, transparent reflection of that world of Forms. In other, plainer words: that the world is actually organised in subjects (causes, substances) and predicates (consequences, accidents), just to mention the most important grammatical category.
4. But aren’t we already there? Haven’t we got rid of God and the platonic world of Forms? So, it seems at times. But not surprisingly people are readier to accept that truth is either relative or what is collectively accepted as such at a moment in time (and so susceptible to change) than to reject grammar or at least suspect of it. Even the most liberals and libertarians get all heated up when it comes to discuss, for example, the way people write in chats or social networks. In this sense I think Nietzsche, as frequently, hits the nail on the head. Because there is, lightly said, a truth contained in language, but it points rather to us, to the way we process the world. The rejection of life, of its richness and irreducibility will not come to an end as long as we believe in grammar. I insist on the word believe, because the problem does not lie in grammar itself but on defending it against all irregular uses of language.
5. What actually motivates me to write this, the reason it called my attention so strongly is a discussion we currently have in Spanish, my native language, regarding the sexist aspects of its grammatical rules. In Spanish nouns and articles, singular and plural are classified in masculine and feminine. Adjectives must also carry the mark of the gender of the noun they modify. But to refer to a plural group where a plurality of individuals may be found, the masculine form of the article, adjective and noun must be used. Let’s imagine we are speaking about a group of scientists:
If they are all female, we say: las científicas.
If they are all male, we say: los científicos.
If they are male, female, transgender, genderless we must anyway say: los científicos.
I used to think of this as not such a big problem. I have changed my mind. Language teachers, linguists and members of the academy of language argue that the gender of words has nothing to do with the gender of their reference. This now sounds to me not only as an excuse. I can find Plato here, Plato, Christianity, and every kind of Dualism. The belief on language as a pure essence unaffected by the actual world it tries to render comprehensible. Denial and resistance to change.
6. There has been and there are different proposals to, for example, replace the “o” in the third case above explained, either for other vocal (“e” and “i” are the most popular) or for characters such as “@” or more recently “x”, but these last have the problem that they are not quite suited for the spoken language. Others try simply not to fall in that kind of generalisations in order to avoid the omission of variety. As a writer and a writer of fiction I am struggling with all these possibilities, only to discover with frustration, at the end of the day, that the only possibility that actually (aesthetically and practically) pleases me is the “o”, only because so it is, only because I have been using it and reading it my whole life. Only to discover that I still believe in grammar.
7. At the end, and coming back to Nietzsche, the only real struggle is the one that takes place in oneself. But I also believe there is no belief that is eternal, unchangeable. I already see a lot of people struggling like me, each in their one way. And I see how, slowly, the belief in the old uses of language start to crumble. After all they have a birth day and as everything under the sun they will expire. It will take a lot of time, more perhaps than I like to think of. Because nothing happens through the will alone of a group of intellectuals, but through the constant undermining of oppressive structures, but through daring to play with the many possibilities, and showing we can still produce knowledge and art and we can still communicate and the world does not come to an end because we dare to speak and write in different ways. If the world comes to an end I dare say it will be rather because we listen to the fanatical seekers of purity and their maniac final solutions to stop what is unstoppable.