Nietzsche went further, identifying Dionysus, the god of tragedy, as one of two dominant psychic principles, the other being Apollo, the god of philosophy. The art of tragedy, Nietzsche claims, delayed the destruction of the Greek myths, by perpetuating the Dionysian ritual in which music and dance occupied a central place. [3] It registers a decisive break with a reading of Greek art and literature that had been orthodox in German-speaking countries since Winckelmann and Goethe. Modernity between Wagner and Nietzsche: Polka, Brayton: 9781498512503: Books - Krafft-Ebing’s Psychopathia Sexualis appeared in 1886 and in a compendious and influential work published in 1892 Max Nordau summarised the fin-de-siècle as the period of decadence, taking Nietzsche himself, along with Baudelaire, Zola, Wagner, Poe and many more, as symptoms of the disease. Hence the paradoxical-seeming description of Wagner as a ‘miniaturist’. And for Nietzsche, at least, no other justification is possible: hence the need for tragedy, which involves the overcoming of horror by aesthetic means. And this is a pity since it obscures the very real strength of Nietzsche’s position, and the seriousness of the grounds on which he questions Wagner’s art. The works for which he would have wished to be remembered are formless improvisations, with lunatic bass-lines and grotesque progressions, entirely devoid of melodic or harmonic logic. The problems he presents on the stage – all of them problems of hysterics – the convulsive nature of his affects, his overexcited sensibility, his taste that required ever stronger spices, his instability which he dressed up as principles, not least of all the choice of his heroes and heroines – consider them as physiological types (a pathological gallery!) ‘Only music,’ wrote Nietzsche (BT, 141), ‘placed beside the world, can give us an idea of what is meant by the justification of the world as an aesthetic phenomenon.’. In the collective dance the social organism lives and renews itself. There are some charming songs in the manner of Löwe, some grandiose attempts at choral and orchestral fantasias, and massive splurges for piano with fraught romantic titles like ‘Hymn to Friendship’. They believed that the religious justification was either empty (Wagner) or pernicious (Nietzsche). When Nietzsche was young he admired Wagner greatly, and they became friends. Both men believed that the human world is in need of justification. Claims of that kind place an enormous critical onus on the one who makes them, and it is fair to say that Nietzsche does not discharge that onus. Nietzsche claims that Wagner’s supposedly ‘infinite’ or ‘endless’ melody conceals an absence of genuine melodic inspiration. Music is not a conceptual idiom. And the true vehicle of tragedy is not words, in which the rational and critical intellect is sovereign, but music and dance, in which bodily rhythms and animal passions find their expression. One wonders what Nietzsche would say in response to Lady Gaga, Meshuggah or EDM, or in response to a popular movie culture dominated by ‘special effects’, ludicrous metamorphoses, and relentless violence without any moral or emotional rationale? In Parsifal, however, art replaces religion, taking the instruments of redemption and infusing them with an aesthetic life. Hence Nietzsche’s ironical comment, re the placing of a wreath on the composer’s grave by the German Wagner Society, on which was inscribed the last words of Parsifal: ‘Redemption for the Redeemer’: ‘Many (strangely enough) made the small correction: “Redemption from the Redeemer”. (CW. The terms are those that Nietzsche would later use to condemn the art of Wagner; but they are here used to praise it. According to Nietzsche Wagner’s music only pretends to the emotions that it claims. This transformation frees us from our enslavement to the world, and gives us the strength and the serenity to renounce it. Maybe Nietzsche’s reaction would have been more moderate had he not at first offered the unquestioning discipleship that Wagner demanded, presenting Wagner, both in The Birth of Tragedy (1882) and in Richard Wagner in Bayreuth (1886) as the greatest modern artist and the saviour of German culture. But it seems to me that Nietzsche does not really provide that underpinning. Hence the original dichotomy – Dionysus versus Apollo – shows itself in another: that between the formless flow of unconscious life, and the principium individuationis that asserts itself in defiance of life. In the last work published in his lifetime, Twilight of the Idols, Nietzsche ventures an explicit account of his aesthetic (sections 19 and 20): ‘The “beautiful in itself” is scarcely a term,’ he writes, ‘not even a concept. And whatever we think of his personal qualities and allegorical meaning, Siegfried is certainly very far from the ‘marvellously accurate archetypal youth’ whose portrait Nietzsche praises in Richard Wagner in Bayreuth. In my view The Birth of Tragedy is the only one of Nietzsche’s works that contains an argument detachable from the author of it. For health means life, life belongs to the body, the body belongs to the community, and the community is true to its inner nature only when responding to the unconscious forces by which it endures. Such might be the moderated judgement of a Nietzschean today. It is now unjustly neglected. Can I through this music achieve the order of sacrifice and renunciation that will bring the peace and quiescence that the Greeks sought through tragedy, and which we moderns must seek through a new form of art – the ‘artwork of the future’ that will replace religion not by refuting it, but by doing its work, and doing it better? Nothing is beautiful; the human alone is beautiful: in this naivety all aesthetics is contained – it is the first truth of aesthetics. Take away those moments, however, and what remains?


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