Liberty, Prudence, Imperfection, and Law

The Gay Science: V.368–V.372

Richard Wagner. Photo by Triboletpyt, own work. CC BY-SA 3.0.


Just what is wrong with Richard Wagner anyway? Frankly, I’m not entirely sure. That is, I’m not entirely sure what Nietzsche’s objection is as expressed in V.368. It seems to be (and please correct me if I am wrong) that Wagner creates a kind of facade of joy that generates an emotional response to falsehood, rather than the real joy that true art should call forth. This false joy is demeaning and dehumanizing, and it reduces all of us to mere members of the herd (something which happens both to the actors in the performance and to the audience):

No one brings along the finest sense of his art to the theater, nor does the artist who works for the theater. There is one common people, audience, herd, female, pharisee, voting cattle, democrat, neighbor, fellow man; there even the most personal conscience is vanquished by the leveling magic of the great number; there stupidity has the effect of lasciviousness and contagion; the neighbor reigns, one becomes a mere neighbor. (V.368)

Great art should lift some of us up—or at least inspire some of us to lift ourselves up; Wagner merely presses us all down with his music.

Whatever his failings are, they might be Wagner’s own fault. After all,

Don’t we have to admit to ourselves, we artists, that there is an uncanny difference within us between our taste and our creative power? They stand oddly side by side, separately, and each grows in its own way. (V.369)

Sometimes of course these tastes outgrow the powers of the artist, which can be a problem but need not obstruct creativity. But sometimes the powers of the artist outgrow his good sense and taste, and the result is a monstrous stupidity. I think we may read that as a criticism of Wagner, given the context of the aphorism—this is not to deny Kaufmann’s suggestion in the note that Nietzsche had Hegel in mind. That may have been the case as well, given that Nietzsche eventually came to reject both of them.

But, we might ask, didn’t Nietzsche and Wagner used to get along well, wasn’t Nietzsche a Wagnerian? Yes, he tells us, there was a time when he had something of a romantic view of the world. On reflection, however, he started to realize that romanticism is really a reflection of a desire brought about by our struggle for survive.

there are two kinds of sufferers: first, those who suffer from the over-fullness of life… and then those who suffer from the impoverishment of life and seek rest, stillness, calm seas, redemption from themselves… or intoxication, convulsions, anaesthesia, and madness… All romanticism in art and insight corresponds to the dual needs of the latter type. (V.370)

Once Nietzsche had realized this means of reducing art and ideological movements to the two basic motivations, he believed that he had found the key to properly interpreting the operations of the world. The romantic movement is driven by a lack that yearns for more, while the idealistic movement is driven by an overabundance that fears losing what it has, and so becomes a kind of vampire, or disease, unless carefully tempered by the prudence of a Plato. This disease expresses itself in a fear of the senses and the physical world, and it encourages us to turn away from the allurements of the body such as music (V.372). Obviously there are more possibilities than just these two (romanticism and idealism), but at least for now we have not yet a “pessimism of the future,” but “it comes! I see it coming!” (V.370).

The word that Nietzsche keeps bringing up through this reflection is “Dionysian.” As the note points out, this is not the same usage of Dionysus that we read in The Birth of Tragedy. But if we are tempted to accuse Nietzsche of inconsistency, we should remember that he himself is evolving, and so we should not expect to see him stay in the same place:

Like trees we grow—this is hard to understand, as is all of life—not in one place only but everywhere, not in one direction but equally upward and outward and inward and downward; our energy is at work simultaneously in the trunk, branches, and roots; we are no longer free to do only one particular thing, to be only one particular thing. (V.371)

Which is interesting as a philosophical construct, but infinitely frustrating if you’ve ever encountered this kind of personality in real life. One cannot have a conversation with someone who is always evolving, always changing, always growing, because that person can never be wrong and can never have been wrong–they were simply at a “different stage” in their thought. So stop being a hater what with your “logical consistency” and “knowledge of what was said in the past.”

More next time.


Coyle Neal is Assistant Professor of Political Science at Southwest Baptist University in Bolivar, Missouri, and cohost of the City of Man podcast.

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