Nietzsche on the emotion of multitude

Tremendous self-examination: becoming conscious of oneself, not as individuals but as mankind. Let us reflect, let us think back; let us follow the highways and byways! (Will to Power, Book 3)

“Becoming conscious of oneself, not as individuals but as mankind” was reverted to again and again by McLuhan in terms of Yeats’ ’emotion of multitude’. He (McLuhan) thought of it as the unconscious range of possibility out of which actual experience emerges through a process we do not understand — but which we urgently need to understand as a matter of survival. It was a question of bringing to light the synchronic aspect of experience: “Let us reflect, let us think back; let us follow the highways and byways!”1

Here is Yeats’ 1903 note:

Emotion of Multitude

I [WBY] have been thinking a good deal about plays lately, and I have been wondering why I dislike the clear and logical construction which seems necessary it one is to succeed on the modern stage. It came into my head the other day that this construction, which all the world has learnt from France, has everything of high literature except the emotion of multitude. The Greek drama has got the emotion of the multitude from its chorus, which called up famous sorrows, even all the gods and all heroes, to witness as it were, some well-ordered fable, some action separated but for this from all but itself. The French play delights in the well-ordered fable, but by leaving out the chorus, it has created an art where poetry and imagination, always the children of far-off multitudinous things, must of necessity grow less important than the mere will. This is why, I said to myself, French dramatic poetry is so often a little rhetorical, for rhetoric is the will trying to do the work of the imagination. The Shakespearian drama gets the emotion of multitude out of the sub-plot which copies the main plot, much as a shadow upon the wall copies one’s body in the firelight. We think of KING LEAR less as the history of one man and his sorrows than as the history of a whole evil time. Lear’s shadow is in Gloucester, who also has ungrateful children and the mind goes on imagining other shadows, shadow beyond shadow, till it has pictured the world. In Hamlet, one hardly notices, so subtly is the web woven, that the murder of Hamlet’s father and the sorrow of Hamlet are shadowed in the lives of Fortinbras and Ophelia and Laertes, whose fathers, too, have been killed. It is so in all the plays, or in all but all, and very commonly the subplot is the main plot working itself out in more ordinary men and women and so doubly calling up before us the image of multitude. Ibsen and Maeterlinck have on the other hand created a new form, for they get multitude from the Wild Duck in the Attic, or from the Crown at the bottom of the Fountain, vague symbols that set the mind wandering from idea to idea, emotion to emotion. Indeed all the great masters have understood that there cannot be great art without the little limited life of the fable, which is always the better the simpler it is, and the rich far-wandering many imaged life of the half-seen world beyond it. There are some who understand that the simple unmysterious things living as in a clear noonlight are of the nature of the sun, and that vague, many-imaged things have in them the strength of the moon. Did not the Egyptian carve it on emerald that all living things have the sun for father and the moon for mother, and has it not been said that a man of genius takes the most after his mother?

  1. “Let us think back” is a matter of retracing vertically, so to speak, what has come to be horizontally. To designate this re-versal McLuhan used a series of ‘repetition’ verbs: ‘recur’, ‘retrace’, ‘recognize’, ‘retrieve’, ‘recollect’, ‘remember’, ‘replay’, ‘reflect’, etc.