Thursday, June 1, 2017

"Dionysus Comes To The River Po"

Note: The following excerpts are taken from Chapter 10 of Leslie Chamberlain's Nietzsche in Turin, which I have referenced before.  In this chapter, Chamberlain addresses the onset of Nietzsche's madness and specifically his Dionysus Dithyrambs - the final poems of his life. It affords us a glimpse into the intimate state of Nietzsche's mental decline with appropriate emphasis upon the neurotic obsession for all things associated with Richard Wagner that haunted Nietzsche's final semi-lucid days. It also serves to illuminate Nietzsche's (self-denied) mediocrity as a poet, his intensely felt isolation, his personal affinity (elevated valuation) for ancient Greek culture, and is additionally a reflection of Nietzsche's continuing undercurrent of eroticism.

"Nietzsche's art, which had become the art of life, fought a tremendous battle with sickness.  He was like the outcast Trojan priest Laocoon, resisting the punishing sea serpents to the last breath.  Thinking of the meaning of that classical statue, depicting terror and resignation, Nietzsche considered Laocoon's fate showed the Apollonian forces yielding to Dionysus. The statue could have worn his face. No wonder he called it pathetic.  His mental health late in 1888 was giving way; he was sinking into some putative collective unconscious.  His last resistance was to use his Apollonian gift to depict the chaotic material of an individual life ending.

"The terrifying mythical figure known as Dionysus Zagreus specifically betokened disintegration. Nietzsche gave Zagreus form, so that he could to the last see his fate beyond himself.  He went out to meet that fate as if he finally met his Platonic other half, ideally loved.  This was his last demonstration of amor fati, to shape his final destiny in the mould of the Orphic god who was destroyed and reborn.

"It was a last artistic interpretation of himself, and we understand from it the limits of his artistic impulse, that a sense of 'not-self' was hard won.  He wrote even as a young man that other people were as shadows in his Platonic cave.  He alone was real.  Artistic interpretation was the only way he could conceive of an 'other', a not-I.  Thus a Turin Zagreus was born." (page 182)

"Ecce Homo was a self-portrait in this tragic vein.  Yet it still had the limitations of a literary work.  Using mostly the colors of the contemporary world, Nietzsche framed his autopicture with such philosophy and politics as furnished his unique self-justifications a cultural revolutionary.  He began that process of turning himself into a modern myth, which proceeded apace after his death.  If the myth which then took shape was more violent, less subtle, and ignorant of his religious sensibility, the fault was partly Nietzsche's. Having associated 'the pictorial man' with fanaticism, he denied in Ecce Homo that he was a fanatic, though nothing was more true of his mode of operation in the last days. With pictures of himself as a warrior, an iconoclast and an inexhaustible ego he chased an image and won an idolatrous following. These were his projections in life and he needed to sustain his self-belief.

"But he needed pictures of a different order to depict his life's conclusion.  His greatest moment, sinking into eternal night, was going to be his Dionysian answer to Socrates' irony.  The truly Dionysian pictures abound in the poetry. There the symbolic images are still autobiographical, but removed from historical time. They portray Nietzsche's emotional relationships and his will to Greek religion.  They embody the history of a soul never fully unveiled to us. Nietzsche, like an imagined category of women he despised, was coy. The poems contain riddles to which willfully he never supplied the key.

"'Dionysus Zagreus come to the River Po', however, which Nietzsche set down on a few sheets of grey-edged Turin paper around Christmas, was a picture in prose, and all too clear.  It showed Dionysus wandering amongst a valedictory assembly of friends and family.  It could have been Nietzsche's parting arrow shot into posterity, a scene echoing Odysseus's descent to the Underworld, and one which might have been painted by Claude.  Only to this creation Elisabeth threw away the lock and the door as well as the key.  She took exception to Dionysus's view of the family and, pretending the deed was done by her mother, destroyed those sheets of handmade paper. It was another demonstration of family willfulness, manifesting itself differently in brother and sister." (page 185)

"Elisabeth wrote: 'At this period [surmised to be the last days on 1888] ...he covered some sheets of paper with the wildest fantasies, mingling the legend of Dionysus Zagreus with the story of the Passion and with the history of people whom he knew.  The god, torn to pieces by his enemies, rises again and walks along the banks of the Po, seeing all that he has ever loved, his ideals, the ideals of the present age, far beneath them.  His nearest and dearest have become enemies, who have torn him to pieces.  These sheets of paper, which were addressed to my husband in Paraguay, and to our mother, contain attacks on Wagner, Schopenhauer, Bismarck, the Emperor, Professor Overbeck, Peter Gast, Frau Cosima Wagner, my husband, my mother and myself.  He signed all his letters at the time 'Dionysus' or 'The Crucified One'." (page 186)

"In Ecce Homo Nietzsche has witnessed his death and invented his ancestors; in Turin recently he has seen his own funeral.  There is nothing to stop him being present at his own conception, growing up rapidly and now wandering the banks of the Po.  This jungle of imagery from picture book to picture book is I think just a prelude to understanding Nietzsche's rabid Dionysian imagination in the last six years of his life.

"The fertility of that jungle affected Nietzsche's general view of his style.  He believed he was the master in verbal expression of a myriad of inner states and moods and tensions, for which he had found signs and gestures.  He referred to his exemplary style in 'The Seven Seals', 'Every style is good which actually communicates an inner state, which makes no mistake as to the signs, the tempo of the signs, the gestures - all rules of phrasing are an art of gesture.  My instinct here is infallible.'  We do not have to accept the claim to find its valuable testimony.  The wording is musical and closely resembles what Nietzsche had praised in Wagner. 'Dionysus comes to the river Po' may have some musical quality in the words and the general conception. The garden element and the theme of a non-Christian redemption suggest a faint parallel and challenge to Parsifal , Wagner's last work.  I am aware of the absurdity of comparing three fragmentary lost pages with a grand music drama setting Christianity against Paganism.  But the obscure, forceful, often ugly dithyrambs written at the same time as Zagreus were certainly strikingly Wagnerian, which implies no qualitative comparison with Wagner.  They were mythical and would-be musical, poised between rebellion and inner retreat, and shot through with the sweetness of sleep - and eternal sleep." (page 190)

"The dithyramb also bore, in its modern meaning of a poetic tone more than a form, however, a much closer personal significance for Nietzsche.  It betokened wild howling, vehement expression.  Nothing could have been more apt for a poet in love with the masks of self-intoxication and madness.  What a way to rebel against being made chaste and virtuous by misfortune! The medium itself expressed a desire to be sensually out of control.  Had Nietzsche used the form to greater artistic effect his poems might have become iconic for the modern condition, like Munch's The Scream, because they are a kind of howling after lost community.  All Nietzsche's writing where the pictorial and the musical dominate over the discursive could be called Dionysian and dithyrambic.  They sing, they laugh, they flash color, they luxuriate in texture. That style has been hailed as exemplary of the modern, because it is essentially a lament for fragmentation.

"Of the nine Dionysus Dithyrambs of December 1888, 'The Fire Signal' is a recent creation, drawing on Nietzsche's love of water imagery to make his soul a bonfire on a small island amid an ocean, signaling to every kind of solitude, past and future, for the last and deepest confirmation of his own being alone.  It recalls Brunnhilde before she is awakened to save the world.  Another new poem, 'The Sun Sets', tends towards the ecstasy of inertia, of a hopeless, wish-free motionlessness which is a calm sea, skimmed by the lightest of boats floating into the distance. Nietzsche drafts a letter to an unknown correspondent on 27 November, introducing these minor works.  In general their themes were drawn from the landscape of elemental forces with which Nietzsche was obsessed: earth and sun, desert, fire, mountains.  They were peopled by Dionysus and Ariadne, with a few extra walk-on parts."  (pp. 191-192)

"The dithyrambs are certainly cold in an intense, declamatory fashion.  The rich alliteration once again recalls Wagner's imitations of medieval German Stabreime. The lines seem oddly dead on the page, as if they did come from a faraway, unreachable culture carried into the modern world in fragments.  In particular Nietzsche's imagining of love, which mostly amounts to lust, is often strained and peculiar, because of the introduction of the gastric process.  In a deliberate transvaluation of idealistic love he places biting, chewing, digesting, self-nourishing, self-perpetuation - and excreting understood - at the center of his real love, which is yet a quite unreal one.  In his (pro)creative satisfaction he is fruit cooked in its own juice. Or he wants to be a sweet, gleaming date full of golden promise, chewed in a young girl's mouth and bitten into by her by sharp, ice-cold, snow-white teeth.  To be swallowed like Jonah would also be sweet, conducive to arrival in the ultimate oasis-belly.  There is a memory of a rare real sexual encounter. 'Among Daughters of the Desert' is peopled by dancers, creatures flitting about in gauze, who closely resemble the women he encountered as a bewildered young man in that Cologne brothel.  The picture is of lust buried under so many layers of fantasy that a cursory reading might leave only a sense of frustrated impotence." (page 192)

"The dithyrambs...return Nietzsche to Wagner, revealing themselves as another taking up of the invitation to the young professor to take from Wagner whatever might be useful.  Nietzsche having asked his mother to search out that Wagner earlier in the year, now answered it in 'On the Poverty of the Richest'. That dithyramb repeated word for word also brought Nietzsche contra Wagner to a close, while the title page of that essay set the scene for the last act of his tragedy: 'Turin Christmas 1888'.

"The music to which the tragedy plays out is, by Nietzsche's choice, Wagner's Tristan.  At Christmas 1888 he cannot think beyond Tristan as a fascinating, capital work, peerless among all the arts.  The Dionysus Dithyrambs are replete with Tristan's characteristic imagery of fire, light and dark, ships, breath (air), mouth and lips and its Buddhistic spirit. In the language of the Liebestod, an ecstatic sinking of two lovers into willed darkness, Nietzsche describes his own solitary departure alone. As a composer he has wrought a thematic transformation of the boldest Lisztian kind, taking the original notes and making them express a quite different sentiment.

"That Nietzsche's endless rivalry with Wagner preoccupied him as his end neared is clearly shown  in a letter to Avenarius on 10 December.  As usual, in his mind he made Wagner think about Nietzsche what in fact Nietzsche felt towards Wagner. For with Nietzsche's music and Nietzsche's poetry there was a tragic flaw: it wasn't good enough.  He was a great writer and an extraordinary human and intellectual phenomenon.  But he wasn't a great artist. Indeed the truth was, the great musical god Dionysus was Wagner.  Nietzsche only sang in his chorus, imitated his poetry, but couldn't bear to admit it." (pp. 193 - 194)

"Nietzsche as artist and man provided a kind of music then, to which Wagner supplied most of the human content.  It was Wagner who showed what love was, and in the end Wagner who showed him how, in imagination, to die. Wagner did that not only with his works but his life.  Going mad, Nietzsche, imagined Cosima was his wife.  That claim was the end of the Cosima drama which had been going on in his head for a long time, besides the drama with Richard.  An early French critic of Nietzsche's saw it as the great unwritten romantic novel of the nineteenth century. There is a dithyramb called 'Ariadne's Lament', which in Zarathustra was spoken by a man.  The theme was rebelliousness against an absent God which was at the same time dependence.  In Zarathustra, the trembling old man who declaimed it implausibly, next moment metamorphosed in Zarathustra's mind into 'actor, counterfeiter, liar...magician', i.e. into Wagner himself. The poem made more sense as Aridane's lament, when according to myth, her lover Theseus abandoned her.  In the 1888 version Ariadne was Cosima, Theseus Wagner, and Dionysus, who appeared for the first time to save the betrayed woman, was Nietzsche.  The constant in these two versions was Nietzsche's lament for lost love, his anger and his dependence.  He shuffled the parts, but only ever succeeded in expressing in a dramatic monologue his longing for the lost companionship of the Wagners." (page 195)

Perhaps he had that in mind while he was reading the final proofs of Nietzsche contra Wagner, his mental grip already loose and erratic.  The dithyrambs were written at a time when Nietzsche was exhibiting pronounced signs of megalomania and gradual signs of insanity.  Indeed, at least one was written when Nietzsche thought himself to be the Greek god Dionysus.  As such, these poems represent the fading vocabulary of a would-be poet dancing on the edge of the abyss.

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