No Comment, Six Questions — September 15, 2010, 2:31 pm

Reconsidering Nietzsche: Six Questions for Julian Young

Julian Young is a well-known scholar of nineteenth- and twentieth-century German philosophy. I put six questions to him about his new book, Friedrich Nietzsche: A Philosophical Biography.

1. Most books that address Nietzsche’s life and writings discuss his difficult relationship with Richard Wagner, but your book deals more systematically than others do with Nietzsche’s ideas about music, and the book’s website even includes a series of pieces composed by Nietzsche. How did Nietzsche’s ideas about music affect his philosophy?

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“Without music life would be an error” is a great T-shirt slogan, but its meaning is far from obvious. Here is how Nietzsche glosses his aphorism in a letter from 1888, the last year of his sanity:

Music … frees me from myself, it sobers me up from myself, as though I survey the scene from a great distance … It is very strange. It is as though I had bathed in some natural element. Life without music is simply an error, exhausting, an exile.

Nietzsche’s first book, The Birth of Tragedy, dedicated to Richard Wagner, is constructed around the duality between the “Apollonian” and the “Dionysian.” Apollo stands for intellect, reason, control, form, boundary-drawing and thus individuality. Dionysus stands for the opposites of these; for intuition, sensuality, feeling, abandon, formlessness, for the overcoming of individuality, absorption into the collective. Crucially, Apollo stands for language and Dionysus for music. What, therefore, music does is to–as we indeed say–“take one out of oneself.” Music transports us from the Apollonian realm of individuals to which our everyday self belongs and into the Dionysian unity. Music is mystical.

Since the human essence is the will to live–or for Nietzsche, the “will to power”–the worst thing that can happen to us is death. Death is our greatest fear, so that without some way of stilling it we cannot flourish. This is why musical mysticism is important. In transcending the everyday ego we are delivered from “the anxiety brought by time and death.” Through absorption into what Tristan und Isolde calls the “waves of the All,” we receive the promise and experience of immortality.

Later on, Nietzsche realized that not all music is Dionysian. Much classical music, based as it is on the geometrical forms of dance and march, is firmly rooted in the Apollonian. Yet as the 1888 letter indicates, he never abandoned the musical “antidote” to death. Without music, life would be anxiety and then extinction. Without music, life would be an “exile” from the realm of immortality.

Nietzsche wrote not for lecture halls but to convert his contemporaries to an new way of living in a post-death-of-God world. This is why he believed that, without music, not only life but also philosophy would be an “error.” He ‘”thirsted” after a “master composer” who could “learn my thoughts from me and hereafter speak them in his language.” Only thus, he believed, could he “penetrate into people’s ears and hearts.” Like today’s filmmakers, Nietzsche learned from Wagner that words combined with music have a power to move our feelings–and thus our lives–that words alone can never achieve. Richard Strauss’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra and Mahler’s Third Symphony would thus have received, I believe, Nietzsche’s enthusiastic approval.

2. Nietzsche wrote that a “deadly insult” had come between himself and Wagner. You suggest that you’ve learned what it was.

Wagner had long disapproved of Nietzsche’s close friendships with men–love he held could only exist between the sexes–and by 1877 he was offended by the developing anti-Wagnerian tenor of Nietzsche’s thought. To Nietzsche’s doctor he wrote that the cause of the patient’s many health problems–which included near blindness–was “unnatural debauchery, with indications of pederasty.” His former disciple was, in other words, (a) incipiently gay and (b) going blind because he masturbated. Somehow Nietzsche learned not only of the existence of the letter but of its the exact wording. That was the “deadly insult.”

3. In a review of your book, reformed neoconservative Francis Fukuyama chides you for writing repeatedly about global warming in the context of Nietzsche’s thought. He seems to feel that this discussion is frivolous. How do you react to this critique?

Well, as you say, Fukuyama has seen the error of his ways. So he’s not a global warming skeptic. What he really didn’t like, I suspect, is that at one point–in attempting to motivate Nietzsche’s view of democracy as an inferior form of government together with his call for world government–I suggested that global warming is a problem democratic states might find very difficult to solve. No one is more religiously devoted to an idea than a recent convert from the opposition. The thought that there might be problems too big for democracies to solve is a place, it seems, that Fukuyama just doesn’t want to visit. Nonetheless I appreciated his review. It made me think about things I hadn’t thought about before.

4. It’s conventional to portray Nietzsche as a nihilist who rejects religion as a sort of fraud, but you argue that religion was essential to his vision for a new society. Where do you see his embrace of a new religion, and what exactly does this religion look like?

Émile Durkheim defines religion as “a unified system of beliefs and practices… which unite in one single moral community, called a Church, all those who adhere to them.” Originally, this is how Wagner thought about religion. What had preserved ancient Athens as a flourishing community had been Greek tragedy, the original Gesamtkunstwerk, or collective artwork. Tragedy was “collective” not only because it collected together the individual arts–music, words, acting, dance, scene-painting–but also because it gathered the entire community. The tragic festival, like the medieval mass, was a sacred occasion on which the community was gathered into a clarifying affirmation of its fundamental ethos–that which made it the community it was. In his earlier, “optimistic” days, Wagner’s own music dramas, and more specifically the Bayreuth festival, were intended to be the rebirth of Greek tragedy, a rebirth that would rescue Western modernity from its desolate, fragmented condition.

With his 1854 conversion to Schopenhauer’s “pessimism,” Wagner gave up on community, on indeed the world in general. “Redemption” became a matter of post-mortem ascension to a supernatural “beyond.” Art and religion–Wagner saw no light between the two–now became, as Nietzsche puts it, the “will to death.”

After a decade of confusion, in about 1880 Nietzsche finally became clear that what he endorsed in Wagner was the early philosophy of the Gesamtkunstwerk, and what he hated was the turn to Schopenhauerian “life-denial,” which he considered an apostasy. We must, he wrote, “become better Wagnerians than Wagner,” explaining that “In the end, it was the aged Wagner against whom I had to protect myself.” Thus, immediately after announcing the “death of [the Christian] God,” The Gay Science calls for the creation of new “festivals” and says that the only art that matters is the “art of festivals.”

Nietzsche’s mature view is thus that community cannot exist without being gathered and preserved by a Gesamtkunstwerk. There cannot be genuine community without (in the broadest possible sense of the term) a “church.” And community is important, for only if there exists a community to which we feel we are, in our own way, as we say, “making a contribution” can we live meaningful, flourishing lives. As to the content of a communal religion–as to what would play the exemplary role played in Christianity by its saints and martyrs–he has no view. That content may vary widely depending on the cultural tradition of the community concerned. Nietzsche’s only stipulation is that the sacred figures in any healthy religion must be, like the Greek gods, glorifications of human potential rather than, like the Christian gods, anti-human ideals. The new religious festival will celebrate rather than condemn sexuality, will be a festival of life rather than death.

Durkheim’s definition of religion is one-sided. As Schopenhauer points out, no religion has achieved “world” status without a doctrine of immortality, without some kind of “solution” to the problem of death. Great religions have a public aspect that consists in the creation of Durkheim’s “moral community,” but they also have a private aspect that addresses the individual in the solitude of his confrontation with death. As I indicated in responding to your first question, Nietzsche’s private god is Dionysus: overcoming fear of death is a matter of inhabiting the perspective in which the everyday self shows up as just “a poor wave in the necessary wave-play of becoming,” a mere ripple in the great ocean of causes and effects which, from this perspective, constitutes one’s self. This might sound like Wagnerian life-denial, but it is actually the opposite: not the yearning for absorption into the Dionysian, but the prophylactic against allowing its inevitability darkening one’s Apollonian life.

5. “A little garden, figs, little cheeses, three or four good friends, these were the sensuous pleasures of Epicurus,” you quote Nietzsche. How did this affect his vision of health and happiness?

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The aim of Epicurus’ philosophy was happiness. Specifically it was about achieving happiness whatever happens, happiness in the face of an uncertain, usually hostile, fate. Since suffering is caused by a dissonance between desire and reality, and since we can usually do little about the latter, Epicurus’ advice is to reduce one’s desires as much as possible, particularly those that are uncertain of satisfaction, such as the desire for power and influence.

Nietzsche’s health reached its nadir in 1879, forcing him to abandon his Basel professorship. Since bodily sickness is a paradigm of the hostile fate Epicureanism was designed to raise one above, it is unsurprising that his affection for Epicurus reached its peak during that year. We find him advocating self-control, the reduction of desire, and withdrawal into the world of thought, a realm in which, despite his bodily ‘torture’, he could still experience pleasure, the joy of intellectual adventuring.

By the time he had completed Thus Spoke Zarathustra, 1883 to 1885, Nietzsche’s health had somewhat improved and he had made two important discoveries. First, that the “will to power”–or “growth”–constituted the human essence. And second, the paradox of happiness. “What does happiness matter to me!,” exclaims Zarathustra, “I have long ceased to strive after happiness, I am striving after my work.” To which his animals reply, “But Zarathustra, are you not lying in a sky-blue lake of happiness?”, forcing him to admit that he indeed is. Nietzsche’s point is that aiming directly at happiness is a bad strategy, since true happiness is a byproduct of aiming at something else, of passionate commitment to a meaningful goal. (This is surely correct: Jefferson’s remark about “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” has mislead Americans for hundreds of years.) Given these twin discoveries, a farewell to Epicurus became inevitable. We can no more abandon the will to power/growth–the life of “victories” and, of course, defeats–than we can abandon the will to live. And the possibility of happiness lies, not in following a philosophy aimed at happiness, but in forgetting about happiness and directing one’s will to growth in a meaningful direction. This is why, in 1888, Nietzsche describes Epicurus (together with Jesus) as a “décadent.”

6. You treat postmodern readings of Nietzsche with some deference in your book, but you seem cautious about embracing them yourself. You form the conclusion that Nietzsche is a “plural realist.” What do you mean by that and how is it different from the postmodern interpretation?

I would actually describe myself as treating postmodernist readings with “restraint” rather than “deference.” Postmodernism has its origins in Kant’s observation that all experience is interpretation, that all experience is filtered through the particular structures of the human mind. To this, taking its lead from both Hegel and Nietzsche, postmodernism adds that the filters in question vary from language to language, culture to culture, angle of interest to angle of interest. And so, it concludes, since there are many equally good interpretations of the world, no single one can be picked as the uniquely correct interpretation. From this it follows, so it is claimed, that there can be no particular character that reality has, since to assign it any such character would be arbitrarily to privilege one interpretation over all the others. And if there is no particular character that reality has, then the very idea of “reality” makes no sense. The concept must be abandoned; there is nothing but interpretations.

We “plural realists”–Nietzsche, Hubert Dreyfus (who coined the term), and myself–agree that there are many equally valid interpretations of reality, that there is no uniquely correct interpretation. But from this it does not follow that there is no way reality is, since an equally possible inference is that there are many ways it is. And in fact it is pretty obvious that there indeed are many ways that reality is. Consider a rolling, Provençal landscape. To the property developer it shows up as “valuable real estate,” to the wine grower as a “unique terroir,” to the mining engineer as a “bauxite deposit,” to the cyclist as an “impediment and challenge,” and to the fundamental physicist as “quanta of energy.” We do not have to choose between these interpretations because, quite evidently, they are all true. Each interpretation truly describes reality from, in Nietzsche’s word, the “perspective” of a particular interest. Some interpretations of course we will want to reject as false. That we do, as it were, democratically. If someone claims that the landscape is a papier mâché construction on an alien film-set we will reject that on the grounds of its discordance with the coherent picture built up by all the interpretations we accept as true.

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