Wednesday, February 1, 2017

Wrestling with a Demon

We have already covered Nietzsche's close association with Richard Wagner and his wife Cosima here and here, among other places earlier in Nietzsche's life. In the final months of his sanity, Nietzsche veered off course from his Revaluation of All Values project. Cultural “strength” and the threat of “decadence” were two overarching themes which he revisited (as he would in more detail in his next work, Twilight of the Idols). It was from this perspective that he became obsessed with Wagner again or, perhaps more accurately, he chose to write about an old but constant intimacy. He had never fully dealt with his indisputable adoration (as a young professor) of the composer, nor with the falling out between the two that culminated around 1878. He devoted two short works to the subject of Wagner and his music in 1888. 

The first published piece was The Wagner Case or The Case of Wagner, in May 1888. It is a tedious attempt to demonstrate the limitations and inadequacies of Wagner as an artist. Later, Nietzsche contra Wagner (completed on Christmas Day 1888) featured excerpts from previous writings, in order to prove that the first work was part of a process of thought - not some spontaneous ravings of a disgruntled former disciple who now referred to Wagner as “one of my sicknesses.” For Nietzsche, Wagner became the epitome of cultural decadence. 

Julian Young writes: “Towards the end of the Turin spring, Nietzsche decided to take time out from work on the 'masterwork' to write The Wagner Case. Why he did this is unclear. On the one hand, he describes it as 'recreation', on another as (yet another) 'declaration of war' on Richard Wagner....The truth, I think, is that relative to the – as Nietzsche was finding – increasingly difficult task of making the Will to Power the masterpiece he wanted it to be, descent to the level of polemics was a relaxation, a release of intellectual tension. 

“War with Wagner, and all he stood for – German chauvinism, anti-Semitism, decadence in art – was, then, one motive for the work. But another, pretty clearly, was the desire to be noticed. In the 1880's Wagner remained a 'hot' cultural topic. The German Emperor (Friedrich) had declared the Wagner movement a matter of national importance. Moreover, the last of Nietzsche's works to be widely read was his Wagner at Bayreuth - a work in which he appeared as a protagonist for Wagner. Why not, then, re-enter the fray, but this time on the other side? Anything to do with Wagner, one way or the other, could be guaranteed to sell.” (Page 492) 

The Wagner Case is a relatively slight work. To someone familiar with his earlier works from Human, All Too Human onwards, most of the Wagner-critique is familiar, even tiresomely so: Wagner is the purveyor of cheap feelings of transcendence-to-bliss that offer his world-and-work-weary audience a vague substitute for the no-longer-believable 'redemption' of Christianity. (In 1888, of course, hardly anyone was familiar with those earlier works, so readers then would have found nothing tiresome in the critique.)” (page 493) 

“Wagner is an interesting case-study, Nietzsche holds, because the 'decadence' of his art sums up – and its overwhelming success proves – the 'decadence' of modernity in general....Nietzsche defines decadence as a 'neurosis' in which the 'exhausted are attracted by what is harmful to life.” (page 493) 

“Nietzsche says [Wagner] is infected by the 'decline in the power to organize' characteristic of all aspects of modern life. The result is that his works are structureless – the principle of 'infinite melody' is merely an attempt to make a virtue out of necessity. In reality Wagner is nothing more than a gifted 'miniaturist'....The 'democratization' of Western modernity has reduced it to an 'anarchy of atoms'. And since it lacks the disciplined unity of a shared morality (a 'game-plan' as I called it) that is necessary to survive in a competitive world, it suffers from 'declining life', and is moving inexorably towards collapse and death.” (pp. 494 – 495) 

“The second passage in which The Wagner Case offers something more than the routine case against Wagner is section 4, which offers 'the story of the Ring'. An analysis of the genesis and nature of his Ring cycle....Like all Wagner's operas, Nietzsche observes, the four operas of the cycle add up to a 'story of redemption'....Wagner's 'ship' struck the 'reef' of Schopenhauer's philosophy. Under Schopenhauer's spell, Wagner realized with shame that what he had done was to 'translate optimism into music'. Redemption in the Ring is thus transformed from socialist utopianism into death and nothingness – which is what makes a work of decadence par excellence.” (page 495) 

“A notable deficiency in The Wagner Case is the absence of any suggestion of any discussion, any mention, even, of The Mastersingers, Wagner's most obviously life-affirming, un-transcendentalist, celebration of a community and art flexible enough to accept novelty while preserving tradition. Even if the Ring ends up being decadent, it would be most implausible to apply that epithet to The Mastersingers. This, one suspects, is precisely why Nietzsche pretends it does not exist: its admission would destroy the simplicity of the polemical flow. 

"A further weakness in the work is the absurdity of calling Wagner a musical 'miniaturist', incapable of large-scale organization. It is true that his music is not unified by the logic of Mozart and Haydn. But...Wagner was in the business, not of following the old, but of inventing a new musical logic. Nietzsche's denying him the right to do so merely reveals, once again, his pwn innate musical conservatism. The person who really was a miniaturist was Nietzsche himself.” (page 496) 

R. J. Hollingdale echoes Young in seeing the theme of “decadence” in the heart of The Wagner Case. (page 209) “The discussion of this polemic has usually neglected to distinguish between the personal motives for Nietzsche's attack on Wagner and the substance of that attack – or even more often has ignored the substance altogether....The similarity in method between The Wagner Case and the Untimely Meditation on David Strauss has not been sufficiently noted, nor that the ungentlemanly treatment accorded Wagner is the same kind of treatment accorded Strauss, with whom Nietzsche was not personally involved: on the contrary it was assumed from the first that The Wagner Case owed its existence solely to its author's inability to forgive Wagner for once having enslaved him. Those of his friends who were still Wagnerians were offended on Wagner's behalf at the disrespectful tone of the work: 'I have given my nearest and dearest a dreadful shock,' Nietzsche wrote Brandes on the 20th October. 

“That Wagner had been dead five years – he died in February 1883 – seemed to aggravate the offense, and it was to meet the charge of apostasy against the dead Master that Nietzsche prepared Nietzsche contra Wagner, which consists of passages drawn from each of his books from Human, All Too Human to Genealogy designed to show that his opinions on Wagner had not changed since 1878, five years before Wagner's death. 

“It seems to me of some importance, then, to try to establish what The Wagner Case is about. It is, of course, an attack on Wagner, and an attack from several sides. In 1888...Wagner was in the process of deification not simply as a great composer, or even as the creator of Bayreuth, but as a man....Nietzsche knew, of course, that Wagner was no saint...Wagner also stood in high esteem as a thinker. He himself brought out his own 'collected works'...Nietzsche's protest of Wagner's 'literature' is another aspect of The Wagner Case with which no one today can have ground to quarrel. 

“A third object of attack is Wagner's ambiguity: his insistence that his music was more than just music, that is contained unspeakable depths of meaning; his obfuscation where his own work was concerned. Nietzsche contrasts the world of Wagnerian music-drama with that of Carmen and says he prefers the latter. The antithesis is so extreme that its polemic intent is obvious, Nietzsche's genuine admiration for Bizet notwithstanding: Wagner is of course a much 'greater' composer than Bizet – a fact Nietzsche never thinks of denying – but his god is Wotan, 'the god of bad weather', and with all his power and genius he cannot achieve what Bizet achieves easily: 'la gaya scienza' light-footedness; wit, fire, grace;...the shimmering light of the South; a smooth sea – perfection'. 

“Fourthly, there is Nietzsche's assertion that Wagner was an actor, and that he represented the 'arrival of the actor in the music world'. The claim is debatable but not outrageous or absurd; it is, on the contrary. One with which many would agree. 

“The gravamen of Nietzsche's polemic is, however, none of these charges; it is that Wagner is 'decadent'. There is no ambiguity about what he meant by 'decadent' in this case: he meant that Wagner was part of the artistic decadence of the latter half of the nineteenth century.” (pp. 209 – 211) 

“Wagner, the 'artist of decadence', became conscious of himself through the 'philosopher of decadence', Schopenhauer, and thenceforth followed the path he had previously followed blindly. 

“Nietzsche attempts to relate all the prominent characteristics of Wagner's nature and art to this basic thesis that he was neurotic: so, for example, he asserts that 'the musician now become the actor' and that 'this total transformation of art into a decided symptom of degeneration (more precisely, a form of hysteria)'. The title of the work, too, it should be noticed, refers specifically to this thesis: Wagner is a 'case'.” (page 212) 

“The virulence of The Wagner Case is, as I have noted, similar to that of the polemic against Strauss, and in both works Nietzsche is criticizing, by means of prominent figure, the Germany of his day: the difference between them is that in the case of Wagner there is a background of personal association. 

“In his last year of sanity his opposition to Wagner's world-outlook changed into antipathy towards the man himself, in the same way as the critical attitude he had adopted towards the Reich from its foundation changed into detestation of the German people as such. The cause was similar in both cases: in the later it was the failure of his countrymen to show the slightest appreciation of him or his work, in the former the humiliating sight of Wagner's increasing fame and popularity.” (page 213) 

“More than all this, Wagner's persistent association of eroticism with death was a predilection the 'decadents' knew how to appreciate: although on the deepest level a symbol for perfect sexual union, it appealed in a more literal way to a generation of writers who saw in it an expression of their own profound nihilism. 'Have you noticed,' Nietzsche asks, 'that the Wagnerian heroines have no children? - They cannot have them...Siegfried “emancipates women” - but without hope of prosperity'. This remark is not as irrelevant as it may seem....Wagner's heroines do not live for love, they die for it; and their 'redemption' is be found only in annihilation.” (pp. 214 – 215) 

Der Fall Wagner is a protest in advance at the course art was to take during the closing decade of the century; and it should be clear why Nietzsche did not draw back from the 'tastelessness' of making it: the decadence of which he accused Wagner was the most influential expression then current of the nihilistic tendency of contemporary Europe and of the Reich in particular, which he saw as the gravest danger this civilization had ever faced.” (page 216) 

Rudiger Safranski inquires: “What is decadence? For Nietzsche, it is a major cultural force, like the Dionysian and Apollonian, shaping not only the artist sphere but all areas of life. Decadence can be summed up as the attempt to draw subtle pleasures from the phantom pain of a vanished God. 'Everything that has ever grown on the soil of impoverished life, all the counterfeiting of transcendence and of the beyond, has it most sublime advocate in Wagner's art''.” (page 309) 

“Decadence is more the pleasure in pleasure than pleasure itself, and more suffering in suffering than actual suffering. Decadence is religion and metaphysics that blink.” (page 310) 

Nietzsche contra Wagner is a carefully selected collection of critical material directed at Wagner in Nietzsche's previous works. There is nothing new in it. Walter Kaufmann explains: “The book was designed to show that The Case of Wagner had not been inspired by sudden malice, and that Nietzsche had taken similar stands. Nietzsche sometimes wrote in relative haste, though the difference between the books he prepared for publication and the notes others published after his death remains considerable. Nietzsche contra Wagner is perhaps his most beautiful book, and those seeking commentary to The Case of Wagner would surely have been referred to the later, still briefer book, had they asked the author.” (page 151) 

It is worth noting that the subtitle for Nietzsche contra Wagner is “Out of the Files of a Psychologist.” This is important as it reveals that Nietzsche saw himself as much as a psychologist as a philosopher. Indeed he may not have made much distinction between the two academic disciplines with regard to his work. He had claimed to make psychological insights at least as far back as Beyond Good and Evil. The only portion of the short work not taken (and reworked, mostly shortened) from Nietzsche's previous books is the introduction, dated “Turin, Christmas 1888.” 

Here Nietzsche states his intention to prove that he and Wagner are “antipodes.” He also takes the opportunity to vent: “...this is an essay for psychologists, but not for Germans. I have readers everywhere, in Vienna, in St. Petersburg, in Copenhagen and Stockholm. In Paris, in New York – I do not have them in Europe's shallows, Germany.” Of course, the truth was that, although he was becoming better known, he still had few readers anywhere and most of those who knew him best from Germany had fallen out with him (for various reasons) long ago. So, this was Nietzsche's “all too human” whining and despair for Europe's disregard for him – reflecting his lonely state of mind just before insanity gripped him. 

Wagner remained a heavy weight upon Nietzsche, given the amount of energy and focus (will power) he devoted to the subject as he began his great revaluation of all values project, and given the fact that Nietzsche was still so obviously enamored with Wagner (his was thrilled by the overture of Parsifal in 1887, as previously mentioned) while being simultaneously repulsed by what Wagner had become in the end. A decadence of art and culture. 

A sample of Nietzsche's ramblings in The Case of Wagner should suffice before we move on. “Wagner increases exhaustion: that is why he attracts the weak and exhausted. Oh, that rattlesnake-happiness of the old master when he always saw precisely 'the little children' coming to him! “I place this perspective at the outset: Wagner's art is sick. 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 psychological types (a pathological gallery!) - all of this taken together represents a profile of sickness that permits no further doubt. Wagner is a neurosis. 

“Wagner represents a great corruption of music. He has guessed that it is a means to excite weary nerves – and with that he has made music sick. His inventiveness is not inconsiderable in the art of goading again those who are the weariest, calling back into life those who are half dead. He is a master of hypnotic tricks, he manages to throw down the strongest like bulls. Wagner's success - his success with nerves and consequently women – has turned the whole world of ambitious musicians into disciples of his secret art. And not only the ambitious, the clever too. - Only sick music makes money today; our big theaters subsist on Wagner.” (from Aphorism 5, The Case of Wagner) 

Finally, the significance of Wagner as a symbol of the wider problem of decadence in the arts and society is best exemplified in this quote: “When in this essay I declare war upon Wagner – and incidentally upon a German 'taste' – when I use harsh words against the cretinism of Bayreuth, the last thing I want to do is start a celebration for any other musicians. Other musicians don't count compared with Wagner. Things are bad generally. Decay is universal. The sickness goes deep. If Wagner nevertheless gives his name to the ruin of music, as Bernini did to the ruin of sculpture, he is certainly not its cause. He merely accelerated its tempo – to be sure, in such a manner that one stands horrified toward this almost sudden downward motion, abyss-ward. He had the naivete of decadence: this was his superiority. He believed in it, he did not stop before any of the logical implications implications of decadence. The others hesitate - that is what differentiates them. Nothing else.” (from the Second Postscript)

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