Sunday, August 13, 2006

Nietzsche and Symbolism

The German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche is currently enjoying one of his periodic upswings in popularity. Major publications in Germany have made available much more original material, stemming from the Nachlass (unpublished archive). Most of these scribblings Nietzsche never intended to release, and in some instances the assertions therein contradict opinions found in his published work (itself sometimes contradictory, as it stems from different periods in his life). Some postmodernists have also claimed Nietzsche as a precursor, in part because the “indeterminacy” they perceive in his corpus.

Although it is his signature work, Thus Spake Zarathustra is sui generis. His other writings are either essays (including groups of essays) or collections of aphorisms. As happened a hundred years ago, the aphorisms have proved popular with the young these days. Unfortunately, they tend to be taken in isolation--as mantras, so to speak.

A perennially popular Nietzsche saying is "whatever doesn't kill me makes me stronger." (I have thought of doing a piece on phony proverbs: e.g. "It's always darkest before the dawn."). Once I brought up the "not kill me" thing in class and the students defended it by saying that the import is that one can toughen oneself with demanding physical discipline. True enough, but that is not what Nietzsche says.

What is the connection of Nietzsche with the Symbolist movement? If one subscribes to the concept of the Spirit of the Age--I do not--one would simply say that Symbolism began in 1886, the middle of Nietzsche's great creative period. It seems that synchronicity has occurred, and that is the solution. Not so, for there must be more substantial links than this chronological coincidence. A friend inadvertently opened another false trail when he remarked “There’s a lot of imagery in Nietzsche.” To be sure the German thinker is a vivid writer making full use of metaphor, simile and analogy. But recourse to these tried-and-true literary devices does not make one a Symbolist with a capital S.

Setting these temptations aside, three areas of overlap can be detected.

1) The nineteenth century saw the emergence of a new picture of classical antiquity, and especially of the Greeks. The opening salvo came from the literary theorist Friedrich von Schlegel in his 1802 contrast of the classical and the romantic. Schlegel begins by admitting the virtues of classical literature and art, exhibiting bounded perfection, symmetry, and rationality. Over against this achievement he posits the modern or romantic ideal which is willing to forego completeness, perfection, and rationality in its quest for the infinite. In this light Nietzsche’s pathbreaking Birth of Tragedy from the Spirit of Music (1872) reformulated the contrast. This study showed that the elements that Schlegel had identified as romantic and modern were in fact internal to ancient Greek culture, in the interaction of the irrational Dionysiac principle with the serene Apollonian principle, formerly thought to dominate Greek culture. Apparently unacquainted with Nietzsche’s text, French Symbolist painters addressed the dark side of ancient Greece, including such subjects as Oedipus and the Death of Orpheus (contrasting with the decorous role models on display in the neoclassicism of Jacques-Louis David and his followers).

Other advances were due to archaeology. By about 1880 it became evident that the art of the specifically classical period of ancient Greece, characterized by balance, serenity, and idealism, had been preceded by an archaic phase, with its relentless stylization. Gustav Klimt, in particular, was influenced by the lessons of Greek archaic art.

Another approach used the comparative method. Friedrich Max Müller created a new approach to mythology by adducing Indian texts, which philologists had shown were historically akin to Greek ones. His ideas were popularized by his disciple George William Cox. And Cox’s book was translated (as Les Dieux antiques) by no less a figure than Stéphane Mallarmé.

Finally German scholars brought out into the open what had long been evident, though rarely discussed, namely that the Greeks had honored same-sex love. This research continued through the century laying the foundation for modern gay studies (a fact that has been too little acknowledged). In 1897 this interest culminated in the founding of the first gay-activist group, the Berlin Scientific-Humanitarian Committee, by Magnus Hirschfeld.

Paul Verlaine and Arthur Rimbaud were bisexual. Two minor Symbolist authors concerned themselves with homosexual themes: Rachilde (Marguerite Aymery, author of Monsieur Venus and Georges Eekhoud. Charles Filiger(1863-1928) seems to be the only gay Symbolist painter. Not himself homosexual, the Englishman Aubrey Beardsley addressed several "deviant" themes, including phallus worship and necrophilia. At the turn of the century "Sapphic Paris" became a magnet for such major figures as Natalie Barney, Romaine Brooks, Gertrude Stein, and the bisexual Sidonie Gabrielle Colette.

2 Nietzsche’s early maturity was marked by his friendship with the composer Richard Wagner, whom he first visited in his Swiss estate in 1869. The philosopher’s first masterwork The Birth of Tragedy is strongly marked by Wagner’s concept of the Gesamtkunstwerk, the total work of art. Gradually, Nietzsche became disillusioned by the stridently nationalist atmosphere that surrounded the performances at Bayreuth, and by the mystical element in the composer’s work, culminating in Parsifal. In France, Baudelaire became a convert in 1861, when he wrote an essay based on the Parisian premiere of Tannhäuser. Interest mounted in France, culminating in the launching of the Revue Wagnérienne in 1885. For the Symbolists Wagner was an important link to romanticism.

More generally, Nietzsche and the Symbolists shared the view (much influenced by Arthur Schopenhauer) that music was the highest art As Nietzsche (himself a minor composer) remarked, "Without music life would be a mistake."

3) From French sources (mainly Paul Bourget) Nietzsche picked up a negative version of the concept of decadence, which he associated with democracy, socialism, the herd mentality, and other perceived modern aberrations.

The term decadence generally refers to the supposed decline of a society because of moral weakness. The favorite example of this historical process is the Roman Empire where, so the story goes, a great civilization was brought low by wicked emperors such as Caligula and Nero. Yet those heavies ruled hundreds of years before the end of the empire, so the matter must be more complicated. In fact there has been much speculation about the reasons for the decline and fall of ancient Rome. One scholar has compiled a list of 150 explanations that have been proffered since the time of Edward Gibbon.

Roman decadence is commonly linked to a lessening of artistic and literary quality. For centuries the sculptures on the Arch of Constantine were decried as emblematic of this decline. Yet at the end of the nineteenth-century the Austrian scholars Franz Wickhoff and Alois Riegl rehabilitated this “late-antique” art, implicitly positing its similarity to the modern art of such figures as Klimt and Beardsley. In literature the appreciation of the sophisticated writings stemming from the later Roman Empire began earlier. A good example is found in the novel Against Nature by the Symbolist Joris-Karl Huysmans.

Students of the phenomenon of decadence have been impelled to ask whether such a decline might be repeated. In France these gloomy speculations became acute after the catastrophic defeat at the hands of the Prussians in 1870.

As a cultural phenomenon the central feature of decadence is sometimes characterized as the decline in or loss of excellence, obstructing the pursuit of ideals. It is typified by the elevation of cleverness, education, and intellectual pretension over experience and tradition, and is often considered materialistic.

Nineteenth-century biological theories fostered the widespread adoption of an even more negative term: degeneration. Here the emphasis is not so much cultural as physical. In the typical “degenerate” the inadequacy of the body leads to mental decline and perversity. In 1892 the journalist Max Nordau produced a vast tome entitled Entartung (Degeneration). Indicted are not only the Symbolists but ironically also Nietzsche himself.

In literature la décadence was the name given, first by hostile critics and then triumphantly adopted by some writers themselves, to a number of late nineteenth-century fin de siècle writers associated with Symbolism or the Aesthetic movement, and who relished artifice in contrast to the Romantics' exaltation of nature. In his Symbolist Manifesto of 1886, Jean Moréas sought to retire the term in favor of Symbolisme, a move that was largely successful. Nonetheless some, prominent among them the poet Paul Verlaine, continued to speak of themselves as decadents.

In England the downfall of Oscar Wilde led to a widespread rejection of the trend. Today, decadence is commonly associated with Weimar Germany, quite another matter.

REFERENCES. R. Safranski, Nietzsche: A Philosophical Biography, New York, 2002 (the best account of the evolution of his thought); A. Kostka and I. Wohlfarth, eds. Nietsche: "An Architecture of Our Minds," Los Angeles, 1999.


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