Nietzsches Eternal Return | The New Yorker

Posted: May 22, 2020 at 2:47 pm


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I Am Dynamite! lacks the philosophical scope of prior biographies by Rdiger Safranski and Julian Young, but Prideaux is a stylish and witty narrator. She begins with the pivotal event in Nietzsches life: his introduction, in 1868, to Wagner, the most consequential German cultural figure of the day. Nietzsche would soon assume a professorship in Basel, at the astonishingly young age of twenty-four, but he jumped at the chance to join the Wagner operation. For the next eight years, as Wagner completed his operatic cycle The Ring of the Nibelung and prepared for its premire, Nietzsche served as a propagandist for the Wagnerian cause and as the Meisters factotum. He then broke away, declaring his intellectual independence first with coded critiques and then with unabashed polemics. Accounts of this immensely complicated relationship are too often distorted by prejudice on one side or another. Nietzscheans and Wagnerians both tend to off-load ideological problems onto the rival camp; Prideaux succumbs to this temptation. She insists that Nietzsches talk of a superior brood of blond beasts has no modern racial connotation, and casts Wagners Siegfried as an Aryan hero who rides to the redemption of the world. In fact, Siegfried is a fallen hero who rides nowhere; the redeemer of the world is Brnnhilde.

Prideauxs picture of the Wagner-Nietzsche relationship fails to explain either the intensity of their bond or the trauma of their break. Early on, Nietzsche was hopelessly infatuated with Wagners music and personality. He described the friendship as my only love affair. As with many infatuations, Nietzsches expectations were wildly exaggerated. He hoped that the Ring would revive the cultural paradise of ancient Greece, fusing Apollonian beauty and Dionysian savagery. He envisaged an audience of lite aesthetes who would carry a transfiguring message to the outer world. Wagner, too, revered Greek culture, but he was fundamentally a man of the theatre, and tailored his ideals to the realities of the stage. At the first Bayreuth Festival, in 1876, Nietzsche was crestfallen to discover that a viable theatre operation required the patronage of the nouveau riche and the fashionable.

Personal differences between the two men provide amusing anecdotes. Nietzsche made sporadic attempts at musical composition, one of which caused Wagner to have a laughing fit. (The music is not very good, but it is not as bad as all that.) Wagner also suggested to Nietzsches doctor that the young mans medical issues were the result of excessive masturbation. But the disagreements went much deeper, revealing a rift between ideologies and epochs. Wagner embodied the nineteenth century, in all its grandeur and delusion; Nietzsche was the dynamic, destructive torchbearer of the twentieth.

When they first met, they shared an admiration for the philosophical pessimism of Arthur Schopenhauer, who saw a world governed by the insatiable striving of the will. Only through the renunciation of worldly desire, Schopenhauer posited, can we free ourselves from our incessant drives. Aesthetic experience is one avenue to self-overcomingan idea that the art-besotted Nietzsche seized upon. But he disdained Schopenhauers emphasis on the practice of compassion, which also promises release from the grasping ego. Wagner, by contrast, claimed to value compassion above all other emotions. Parsifal, his final opera, has as its motto Durch Mitleid wissend, der reine Tor (The pure fool, knowing through pity). Nietzsches 1878 book, Human, All Too Human, his inaugural assault on Wagner and Romantic metaphysics, hammers away at the word Mitleid, considering it an instrument of weakness. In its place, Nietzsche praises hardness, force, cruelty. Culture simply cannot do without passions, vices, and acts of malice, he writes.

These views made Wagner wince, as the diaries of Cosima Wagner, his wife, attest. In an earlier essay entitled The Greek State, Nietzsche had declared that slavery belongs to the essence of a culture. The intellectual historian Martin Ruehl speculates that Wagner persuaded Nietzsche to omit the essay from his first book, The Birth of Tragedy Out of the Spirit of Music (1872), which culminates in a paean to Wagner. During the same period, though, Nietzsche was castigating German tendencies toward nationalist chauvinism and anti-Semitismconspicuous elements in Wagners political blatherings. What seems particularly unfortunate about the break is that each man had an acute sense of the others blindnesses.

Nietzsche not only rejected the sublime longings of nineteenth-century Romanticism; he also jettisoned the teleology of historical progress that had governed European thought since the Renaissance, and that had found its most formidable advocate in Hegel. Instead, Nietzsche grounded himself in a version of naturalismthe post-Darwinian conviction that humans are an animal species, led by no transcendent purpose. This turn yields Nietzsches most controversial concepts: the announcement of the death of God; the eternal return, which frames existence in terms of endlessly repeating cycles; and the will to power, which involves a ceaseless struggle for survival and mastery. It might be said that Nietzsche, in backing away from Wagner, backed into his own mature thoughtthe celebration of Dionysian energy, the triumphal yes to life over and above all death and change.

Between his final meeting with Wagner, in 1876, and his mental collapse of 1889, Nietzsche lived the life of an intellectual ascetic. Health problems caused him to resign his professorship in 1879; from then on, he adopted a nomadic life style, summering in the Swiss Alps and wintering, variously, in Genoa, Rapallo, Venice, Nice, and Turin. He wrote a dozen books, of increasingly idiosyncratic character, poised between philosophy, aphoristic cultural criticism, polemic, and autobiography. He worked out many of his ideas during vigorous Alpine hikesa practice fondly re-created by John Kaag in the recent book Hiking with Nietzsche. The possibility of a romance with the psychologist Lou Andreas-Salom arose and then subsided; a serious relationship was probably beyond his reach. The landscape of the mind consumed his attention. As Safranski wrote, For Nietzsche, thinking was an act of extreme emotional intensity. He thought the way others feel.

Translating Nietzsche is a difficult task, but the swagger of his prose, with its pithy strikes and sudden swerves, can be fairly readily approximated in English. Kaufmann, in his translations, brought to bear a strong, pugnacious style. In his introductions and footnotes, he distanced Nietzsche from fascist bombastnaming the bermensch the Overman was just one strategyand recast him as a kind of existentialist. But Kaufmann underplayed Nietzsches slippery elegance, and his choice not to translate Human, All Too Human and its successor, Dawn (1881), gave a skewed view of the thinkers development. A series of translations from Cambridge University Press covered the gaps. Now Stanford University Press is halfway through a nineteen-volume edition of Nietzsches complete writings and notebooks. The press has been threatened with cuts in funding, but if the project is achieved English readers will have, for the first time, access to the entirety of Nietzsches work.

Since 1967, the German publisher De Gruyter has been amassing a critical edition of Nietzsches complete writings, which can be browsed on a dizzyingly comprehensive Web site, nietzschesource.org. This monumental project has, to the annoyance of some scholars, attracted increasing attention to Nietzsches extensive notebooks. These show a less awe-inspiring side of the philosopher, as he jots down items from his reading and delivers utterances esoteric, mundane, and bizarre:

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May 22nd, 2020 at 2:47 pm

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