This weekend, I read Nietzsche’s essay “The Case of Wagner,” largely because I felt like it. Nietzsche has been a major philosophical influence on me, to the point where I can say that if I hadn’t read him, I would be a completely different author and person. Nietzsche is another figure in the history of philosophy that I’ve never been taught in class in any great detail. I started reading his work on my own, without any detailed direction from any other professors or similar authority figures.
|The egotistical, German nationalist, anti-Semitic
Richard Wagner. History has come down on
Nietzsche's side in this dispute, I think.
The Wagner essay is a little minor, not exactly a home of Nietzsche’s most profound or influential ideas, but it’s a beautiful piece that demonstrates his skill as a writer and thinker. But it uses those central ideas in an essay with a specific purpose, a critique of the enormous cultural power of Richard Wagner’s aesthetics in the Germany of his day. Wagner’s art, goes the essay, is an assemblage of pathos. His character arcs are reactive and rather unoriginal (every one of his women, says Nietzsche, has essentially the same narrative arc as Flaubert’s Madame Bovary). His art exists to impress you, to overwhelm you with emotion.
And that’s basically fine, but holding this set of aesthetic goals, as Wagner’s works were, as the pinnacle of a culture’s artistic achievement, speaks terribly for the culture. For me, at least, this gets at the heart of what Nietzsche means when he calls Wagner’s art an expression of cultural decadence. To call an art that revolves entirely around cookie-cutter narratives whose presentation is solely to evoke strong emotion the pinnacle of the form, ignores the multifaceted power of art. To say that this is all you want out of your art reveals how shallow you are.
Because art can encourage philosophical and moral thinking, fiercely radical ideas on personal, moral, political, and even cosmological scales. My girlfriend and I were watching Slavoj Zizek’s new documentary The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology,* which included a discussion of Beethoven’s Ninth. Zizek discusses how the climactic choral movement switches from a bombastic explosion of instrumental and vocal power to a carnivalesque jaunt (in other words, it switches from the famous enormity we’re familiar with from the Ninth to the music that was playing in the record shop where Alex DeLarge picked up those chicks in A Clockwork Orange).** Beethoven here lets his own art critique the bombast of symphonic music; the music moves you and simultaneously carries out a dense task of philosophical aesthetic criticism.
* That’s how cool my girlfriend is; we watch Zizek documentaries together.
** Another aspect of A Clockwork Orange which makes it infinitely superior to the novel, a book remarkable in itself, in that its own author ruined it. It took a fearless filmmaker to bring it to its true greatness.
|Fitzcarraldo was sublime in its imagery and fascinating in
its philosophical density.
My own rant about A Clockwork Orange is a Composing post for another time, which will focus on the importance of thematic multiplicity as a necessary condition for a truly great work of art. Werner Herzog is actually a counterpoint to Wagner, as far as explaining the power of the operatic. Arguing against Wagner makes Nietzsche in this essay rather hostile to the operatic form of art itself, which I can understand. So much of opera truly is about the evocation of enormous feeling above all else, an emotional sublime. This is a power to be reckoned with, but Herzog’s art is a creative answer to Nietzsche’s criticism of opera as able to be little more than this.
In his quest for the most remarkable images in the world, Herzog was creating a cinema of opera. Only during the production of Fitzcarraldo did he realize that much of what he had done in his own art was an operatic mode: searching for incredible intensity to capture and put before an audience. One reason he made fewer films in the 1980s was because he was in Germany making operas.
But Herzog’s films were not only acts of emotional intensity; his images evoked concepts and sparked chains of thought that encompassed so many philosophically vital aspects of life. Here are just three examples. An ecologically philosophical meditation on the weakness of simplistic human imperial drives in the face of an implacably complex nature: Fata Morgana, Aguirre, Grizzly Man, Lessons of Darkness. The alien nature of human madness: Stroszek, Woyzeck, Heart of Glass, My Son My Son What Have Ye Done. An exploration of the pinnacle of human virtue and the creation of new moral paradigms through implacable situations: Signs of Life, Fitzcarraldo, Rescue Dawn, Invincible, Bad Lieutenant. This is operatic cinema with the philosophical power of which Nietzsche thought opera was incapable.
• • •
I doubt my own thoughts on “The Case of Wagner” are all that original, however. Werner Herzog has long been associated with existentialism in cinema. The relationship of Nietzsche with Wagner, both the man and his art, have been the focus of works by many philosophers and historians of art and culture. Nietzsche’s concept of decadence as it applies to culture and art is the subject of countless articles across several specialties of modern academic philosophy. Since I’ve been locked out of university libraries for the last year, I’ve had no access to any of the databases whose journals could corroborate my ideas, or indicate just how unoriginal they are.
|Friedrich Nietzsche anticipated not
only many ideas of 20th century
philosophy, but also hipster fashion.
This is part of why, when I was more firmly inside the academic system, I was always hesitant to focus my research on the history of philosophy. The major and minor figures of the philosophical tradition have been the object of so much scholarship already that it’s difficult to find your own place. You almost have to contort yourself in a ridiculous shape to find anything original to say at all. I was most interested in producing philosophically original work, and still am, which is why I focussed my research on problems from which I could draw upon a wide range of scholarship across debates, disciplines, and fields of knowledge.
Another problem regarded relevance. Nietzsche himself wrote a wonderful character in Zarathustra, the man who was the foremost expert on the brain of the leech. He was brilliant and knowledgable, but his knowledge was so intensely specialized that it was practically useless, and he couldn’t even coordinate his knowledge of the leech’s brain with other biological, neurological, or ecological studies. He knew his narrow corner intimately, but the rest of the world was darkness.
This is how I felt when I learned what kind of scholarship would be necessary to become an expert in a specific figure in the history of philosophy. Reading the primary material of the thinker in question was no problem — these were the philosophically dense and interesting works that started the firestorm of the self-named sub-discipline in the first place.
The ancillary material was a different matter. One would not only have to become an expert in philosopher X, but an expert in all the other experts of philosopher X. This, especially for a central figure in the tradition like Nietzsche or Wittgenstein, would essentially make you into the leech brain expert. Brilliant and knowledgable, but unable to connect any of his work to outside applications. You lived in a brightly illuminated bubble which could light nothing of the darkness around it.
I chose a disciplinary specialty outside of the history of philosophy or the production of secondary material on a historical figure because I wanted my works to contribute to the tradition of which those primary texts were a part: a tradition of philosophical writing and thinking that sought to understand and change the world. Even, perhaps especially, now that I'm outside the formal academic system of the modern university, they still can.