Monday, May 25, 2009

The Dithyrambic Dramatist

“In the third and fourth Untimely Ones. Two images of the hardest self-love, self-discipline are put up against all this, as pointers to a higher concept of culture, to restore the concept of culture – untimely types par excellence, full of sovereign contempt for everything around them that was called “Empire,” “culture,” “Christianity,” “Bismarck,” “success,” – Schopenhauer and Wagner or, in one word, Nietzsche.” (Ecce Homo, 1888, "The Untimely Ones", section 1) So, years later, Fritz saw more of himself than Wagner (who was dead by then) in his 1876 essay entitled Richard Wagner at Bayreuth.

The essay is the last of four that are collected under the heading of Untimely Meditations or Unmodern Observations (which is the translation I own). Nietzsche worked on a fifth essay pertaining to philology but he never completed it. Originally, he and his publisher were anticipating about a dozen essays, but no more were ever written or published under this heading. Once more we find Fritz adrift.

The fourth meditation was published in the audience program for the opening of the
Ring Cycle at Bayreuth in 1876. It espouses aspects of Wagner’s philosophy that Nietzsche found most appealing, it focuses more on Wagner as representing the concept of “the heroic artist” rather than on his music. Nietzsche cast himself in the same heroic mold, though as a philosopher not a composer.

As mentioned earlier, the piece would have never been completed without Peter Gast’s urging and assistance. Fritz felt it to be too personal for publication. It expresses rather crisply Nietzsche’s own views of “culture” and “society” at the time.

He was fundamentally optimistic. “…the power of Hellenic culture once again waxes;” (section 4) He proclaimed that Wagner’s art was “the very essence of the
dithyrambic dramatist. If we use this term in its fullest sense to include at once actor, poet, and musician…” (section 7) It seems that a combination of various creative disciplines and talents were a quality of “greatness” for Nietzsche.

But, as would become more pronounced in his later works, the great artist is always struggling. “Wagner’s essential life – that is the gradual emergence of the dithyrambic dramatist – was at the same time an endless battle with himself.” (section 8)

Struggle within a world grinding the spirit out of itself. “…Wagner understood the whole humiliating position in which art and the artist find themselves, how soulless or callous society, which calls itself good and is really evil, includes art and artists in its slavish entourage for gratification of its imagined needs. Modern art is a luxury; this he understood as thoroughly as the corollary that it will stand or fall with the legitimacy of this luxury society. This society knows nothing beyond the most callous and cunning use of its power to render those who are powerless, the people, ever more abject, subservient, and unlike a people, and to transform then into the modern ‘worker’. It has also deprived the people of their greatest and purest things – things they have created out of the profoundest necessity, and through which they – the true, the only artist – gently communicate their spirit: their myth, song, dance, and innovation in language, in order to distill a sensuous antidote to the exhaustion and boredom of their existence – modern art.” (section 8)

I find this passage remarkable in that it clearly defines Nietzsche’s idealistic roots against the emerging capitalist/democratic society (which were very much Wagner’s own opinions we should add, this was a point of central agreement between Wagner and himself). Society remains a “souless and callous” “power” transforming an ironically peopleless people into “the modern worker”. The “true artist”, the “dithyrambic dramatist”, was a combination of “actor, poet, and musician” bringing a cultural renewal of “myth, song, dance, and innovation in language”. This was the way Fritz thought about “this luxury society” of his day - what has transformed today into what I would refer to as the functional consumerist culture.

Nietzsche compares his artist ideal with an ancient Greek upon whom he was an expert. The artist is “a supreme sculptor who, like
Aeschylus, points the way to an art of the future.” (section 9)

Nietzsche was an idealist about the power of the future. “But, in general, the generous impulse of the creative artist is too great, the horizon of his love of man too extensive for his sight to remain enclosed within the national reality. His thoughts are, like those of every good and great German, supra-German, and the language of his art speaks not to nations but to men. But to men of the future! That is his uniquely personal belief, his torment and his distinction: no artist of whatever past has received such a remarkable dowry with his genius, no body but he has had to drink these utterly bitter drops with every draught of nectar that enthusiasm proffered him.” (section 10)

He declared, more or less, his existential position about reality tinged with his most heartfelt hope. “…that passion is better than stoicism and hypocrisy; that honesty, even in evil, is better than losing oneself within traditional morality; that the free man can be good as well as evil, but the unfree man is a disgrace of Nature and shares in neither heavenly nor earthly consolation; finally that freedom falls in no body’s lap like a miraculous gift. However shrill and incredible these phrases may seem, they are the sounds of that future world, a world that truly needs art and can also expect true satisfaction from art.” (section 11)

This was the idealistic Nietzsche at his best. The trouble was this no longer fit into the reality of how he experienced life and Wagner. He was beginning to forge distinctive ideas of his own, only kept in notebooks to this point, and this caused him to suddenly see Wagner not so much as a genius as a decadent. In 1876, the whole Bayreuth metaphysic, something he had intimately devoted several years of his life to, now seemed hollow and sick. He experienced nausea just after a few days of the opening of Das Rheingold. He sought out his sister, Elizabeth, to nurse him through violent, recurring bouts of illness. It disrupted his life. For him Bayreuth became a carnival of the worst kind.

“Nietzsche traveled to Bayreuth in August for the Festpiel, yet immediately became disgruntled with the high society of ‘Hans Wahnfried’ and the pomp and circumstance of the festival; he fell desperately ill, left Bayreuth before the second cycle of the Ring was performed, returned, then left again, now for the last time.” (
The Good European, pages 95-96) Clearly, Fritz was indecisive about whether or not to remain at the opening of the Ring at Bayreuth. Apparently, he wanted to be there but it made him sick to be there.

However, Fritz doesn’t seem to have developed the need to abandon Bayreuth completely until a woman he met had first left. Perhaps this was his main reason for returning to Bayreuth after all. For a few days he befriended and my have become infatuated with a married woman conceivably on intimate term as he had Cosima Wagner years before. “For he himself had suffering eyes only for another lovely blonde creature, named Louise Ott. An inhabitant of Strasbourg who had moved to Paris with her Protestant husband after the German Reich’s annexation of Alsace and Lorraine, she was a rabid Wagnerian as well as a gifted singer and connoisseur of German and Russian music. Their ‘romance’, if such it can be called, seems to have been as momentarily intense as it was platonic. She was fascinated by the mysterious depth of Nietzsche’s gaze as well as by the elegance and diction and the exceptional ‘nobility’ of his thinking, devoid of all trace of platitudes. He for his part felt that he had met a kindred soul, capable of fully sharing his most elevated thoughts and feelings.

“’Everything was dark around me when you left Bayreuth,’ he wrote to her three days after his return to Basel, ‘it was as though someone had removed the light. I first had to pull myself together, but that I have now done…” (
Cate, page 225)

He was never to meet Mrs. Ott again.

No comments: