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Richard Wagner and the Birth of The Birth of Tragedy

Julian Young a a University of Auckland , New Zealand Published online: 25 Apr 2008.

To cite this article: Julian Young (2008) Richard Wagner and the Birth of The Birth of Tragedy , International Journal of Philosophical Studies, 16:2, 217-245, DOI:


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International Journal of Philosophical Studies Vol. 16(2), 217–245

Journal of Philosophical Studies Vol. 16(2), 217–245 Richard Wagner and the Birth of The Birth of

Richard Wagner and the Birth of The Birth of Tragedy 1

Julian Young


Nietzsche writes that the ‘real task’ of The Birth of Tragedy is to ‘solve the puzzle of Wagner’s relation to Greek tragedy’. The ‘puzzle’, I suggest, is the intermingling in his art and writings of earlier socialist optimism with later Schopenhauerian pessimism. According to the former the function of the ‘rebirth of Greek tragedy’ in the ‘collective artwork’ is to ‘collect’, and so create, community. According to the second the function of the artwork is to intimate a realm ‘beyond’ this world of pain and death. The audacity of The Birth is that it attempts to show that Wagner can have his cake and eat it:

the ‘Dionysian’, musical, element provides a ‘metaphysical comfort’, while the ‘Apollonian’, verbal, element draws a ‘veil of oblivion’ over the metaphysical, thereby allowing the artwork to solidify community. Contrary to the standard Anglophone view, this perspective on The Birth shows that Nietzsche’s inti- mate association with Wagner during the period of its creation lies at the heart of its philosophical content.

Keywords: Wagner; Nietzsche; Schopenhauer; salvation; art; community

TaylorRIPH_A_301957.sgm10.1080/ of Philosophicalonline


Between May 1869 and April 1872 Friedrich Nietzsche, then professor of classical philology at Basel University, visited the Wagner household in Tribschen, Lucerne, about two hours away by train, twenty-three times. He had his own bedroom and an open invitation to use it whenever he wished ( KGB II.2 6). Richard Wagner, the same age as his long dead but greatly missed father, became a substitute father, Cosima Wagner (née Liszt, later von Bülow), only twelve years older than himself, a cross between an older sister and a fantasy lover. The gaggle of Wagner/von Bülow children regarded him as an older brother. He was intimately engaged in the selec- tion of their Christmas presents, and was one of the select few present at the first performance of the Siegfried Idyll at the bottom of the Tribschen stair- well, on the morning of Christmas Day 1870, in celebration of Cosima’s birthday. At Tribschen, Nietzsche found the home for which he had yearned ever since the death of his father brought about the loss of the Vaterhaus , the vicarage in Röcken, in which he had been born. In his letters, he referred

International Journal of Philosophical Studies ISSN 0967–2559 print 1466–4542 online © 2008 Taylor & Francis DOI: 10.1080/09672550802017915

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to the whole rumbustious menagerie of Wagners – children, horses, dogs, servants, chickens and cows – as ‘we Tribscheners’ ( KGB II.1 58). The intellectual product of this happy intimacy was a number of prepara- tory lectures and essays which culminated in Nietzsche’s first book, The Birth of Tragedy out of the Spirit of Music (it is important to give the work its full title), a work which appeared in 1872. It is dedicated to Wagner. Cosima was to receive her own dedication of the Five Prefaces to Five Unwritten Books as a Christmas present in the same year. In the Preface to The Birth Nietzsche says that the work is to be conceived as a ‘conversation’ with Wagner, a conversation he could have with no other person. And he reminds the composer that he was preparing The Birth at the same time (and often in the same place) as Wagner was writing the ‘magnificent’ ‘Beethoven’ essay, which he wrote in 1870 to celebrate the centenary of Beethoven’s birth. As The Birth was appearing in January of 1872 Nietzsche wrote Wagner: ‘everything that I have to say here about the birth of Greek tragedy would have been said more beautifully, more clearly and more convincingly by you’. And, in another letter, ‘if I am right in the main [about Greek tragedy] that means so much more that with your art you must be eternally right’ ( KGB II.1 184, 185). This might merely be the routine flat- tery which Wagner demanded in large quantities, save for the fact that a couple of weeks later Nietzsche wrote to his intimate friend Erwin Rohde:

‘I have concluded an alliance with Wagner. You can’t believe how close we are to each other and how our plans [for the regeneration of art and culture] coincide’ ( KGB II.1 192). Shortly thereafter he offered to abandon his professorship at Basel in order to work full time on behalf of the project of building Wagner’s opera house at Bayreuth. (Wagner declined the offer since it was precisely by retaining his professorial prestige that Nietzsche was most useful to the Bayreuth cause.) These biographical facts strongly suggest that Nietzsche’s first book must be heavily indebted to Wagner’s philosophical world-view. Surprisingly, however, Nietzsche’s admirers and scholars have typically gone out of their way to minimize the debt. Sometimes the motive has been to elevate Nietzsche’s brilliance and originality. That, almost certainly, is what under- lies Elizabeth Förster-Nietzsche’s idiotic and completely unsupported asser- tion that reading the works of the Tribschen period ‘we can see how absolutely the conclusions he arrived at through his general conception of Hellenism, disagree with those of Wagner’s art’. 2 Sometimes, I think, mindful of the dramatic ‘turn’ of 1876 after which Nietzsche became the most hostile of all Wagner’s critics, scholars have sought to minimize his ‘Wagne- rianism’ in order to emphasize the continuity of his thought. More often, though, I suspect, Nietzsche’s admirers have been mindful of the undeniably unpleasant elements in Wagner’s thinking: his anti-Semitism, his glorifica- tion of Bismarck’s assault on the French, and the rabid German chauvinism of his later years. Conscious of all this, as well as the close involvement of


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the later Wagnerians with the rise of Nazism, they have been anxious, I think, to rescue Nietzsche from guilt by association. Whatever the motive, the dominant figures of Anglophone Nietzsche scholarship and translation agree with Elizabeth that Nietzsche owed no serious intellectual debt to Wagner. Thus Walter Kaufmann claims that it would be a ‘serious mistake’ to suppose that Wagner influenced Nietzsche intellectually, that Nietzsche was simply dazzled by his personality and music, 3 while R. J. Hollingdale claims that Nietzsche’s relations with Wagner during the Tribschen period were in the nature of an ‘infatuation’ with his charismatic personality and that ‘with the fundamentals of [Wagner’s] “philosophy” he never agreed’. 4 This ‘mere-personal-infatuation’ view is certainly mistaken. It is mistaken, that is, to suppose that Nietzsche worked out his ideas on the nature and significance of Greek tragedy independently of Wagner and then, out of personal loyalty, stuck onto the end of The Birth some Wagner propaganda as an ill-fitting afterthought, designed to keep the ‘master’ happy. 5 It is perfectly true that many of the central ideas of The Birth – the normativity of ‘the Greek’ as a guide to the future and the understanding of Athenian tragedy as an essentially religious occasion, together with the assertion of the primacy of the chorus, and so of music, within it – appear remarkably early, in essays written while Nietzsche was still a pupil at Schulpforta. But it is equally true that his commitment to Wagnerianism developed remarkably early. This was due to his boyhood friend, Gustav Krug, who persuaded the ‘Germania’ society, composed of Nietzsche, Krug and Wilhelm Pindar, to purchase the score of Tristan und Isolde soon after it appeared in 1859 (and three years before its first performance in 1865) and to subscribe to the Neue Zeitschrift für Musik , which had been founded by Schumann in 1834 and was now dedicated to explaining and defending Zukunftsmusik (music of the future) in general, and Wagner’s music in particular. Nietzsche’s involve- ment with Wagner’s world-view is at least as early as his earliest serious reflections on Greek tragedy. We cannot therefore separate his views on the Greeks from his views on Wagner since the two developed in tandem during his teenage years. From the very beginning Nietzsche’s views on the Greeks were related to, and shaped by, the Wagnerian world-view. Already in 1864, four years, that is, before his first meeting with Wagner, we discover Nietzsche defending the Wagnerian music-drama as the rebirth of Greek tragedy: the ‘meaninglessness’ of today’s opera, he writes, which in their prime, the ‘fine-feeling Greeks’ would never have tolerated, is something from which we need rescuing by ‘the brilliant deeds and reform-plans of Richard Wagner’. In the great tragedies of the Greeks, Fritz asserts, the Wagnerian Gesamtkunstwerk (artwork in which all the individual arts are collected together) is prefigured: in them, we find ‘that which the newest musical school sets forth as the “artwork of the future”; we find works in which the noblest of the arts found their way to a harmonious unification’ ( HKG II, pp. 371–4).


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Nietzsche was, then, a committed Wagnerian before he even met Wagner, and at least six years before the intimacy of the Tribschen period. Personal infatuation cannot, therefore, be the explanation of his engage- ment with Wagnerianism – though it certainly confirmed and intensified it. 6 Should we then move to the other extreme and suggest that, somewhat in the way in which Plato’s early dialogues are taken to be mere unvarnished reports of the views of the historical Socrates, The Birth is to be regarded as simply a presentation of the Wagnerian world-view by a more gifted word- smith? Surely not. Surely a thinker of Nietzsche’s already well-developed stature and independence is unlikely to have been satisfied with the role of mere amanuensis. 7 It would seem, then, that what is required is something between the ‘no-intellectual-influence’ view, on the one hand, and ‘mere- reportage-of-his-master’s-voice’ view on the other.


To begin to understand how The Birth stands to Wagner, we need first of all to dispose of the idea that Wagner, whatever his status as a composer, was, as a would-be philosopher, nothing but an empty windbag. Hollingdale claims that ‘Wagner’s pose as a philosopher and seer has no justification [since] his reasoning powers were of the slightest’, that he ‘deck[ed] out his writings with half understood terminology from Feuerbach and Schopenhauer’ in order to give them a ‘spurious air of profundity’. 8 Even Wagner’s devoted biographer, Ernest Newman, calls Wagner’s theoretical writings ‘sham-intellectual maunderings’. 9 These judgments merely reveal the failure of their authors to grasp the, though sometimes nasty, often insightful and important things Wagner has to say. It is true that Wagner is not well served by the Victorian translation of W. Aston Ellis, still his only English translator. But even in the whimsically chosen vocabulary and often tormented grammar of this translation, Wagner still comes over as a model of clarity and even relative economy compared with the likes of Hegel or Fichte. And in any case, the idea that an empty windbag could have captured Nietzsche’s attention for so long is inherently implausible. The fact that Wagner was a serious intellectual made Tribschen as much an intellectual as an emotional home to Nietzsche. The two were insepara- ble in the intensely geistige (spiritual-intellectual) atmosphere of the house- hold, an atmosphere presided over by the spirit of Arthur Schopenhauer, to whose ‘wonderfully deep philosophy’ ( KGB II.1 19) Wagner and Nietzsche were equally devoted. Nietzsche sent his essays and lectures to the Wagners for discussion and scrutiny and thanked Wagner for the ‘many purely scien- tific problems’ that resolved themselves in their discussions ( KGB II.1 4). And Wagner sent Nietzsche the completed ‘Beethoven’ essay, to which the latter replied: ‘I can make clear to you how much there is for me there by way of learning your philosophy of music – that is, the philosophy of music


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– in an essay I wrote this summer entitled “The Dionysian Worldview”’ ( KGB II.1 108) – the essay in which the Apollonian/Dionysian duality came to prominence for the first time in Nietzsche’s analysis of Greek tragedy. The Tribschen discussions were often three-sided. Cosima, a woman of considerable education and perspicacity, peppered Nietzsche with often searching questions about his philosophical work, and in dedicating his Five Prefaces to Five Unwritten Books to her he adds ‘in deeply felt respect and as an answer to questions raised both by letter and in conversation’ ( KSA I, p. 754). In sum, then, when Nietzsche speaks of ‘we Tribscheners’ he refers to an indissoluble unity of heart and mind. What I want to suggest in this article is that during the Tribschen period, Wagner’s world-view functioned as a horizon or (in Gadamer’s sense) ‘presupposition’ of Nietzsche’s thinking alongside Schopenhauer’s world-view, within which Nietzsche had been thinking since 1865. What I want to suggest is that during the period of the genesis of The Birth , Wagnerianism became something, not, certainly, to be slavishly mimicked, but rather to be rethought, reorganized and reappropri- ated. The question I want now to address is why it seemed to Nietzsche that the Wagnerian world-view needed re-thinking and re-organizing.


Nietzsche’s first attempt to get The Birth published consisted in a letter to the Leipzig publisher Wilhelm Engelmann. The letter says that while the work has something radically new to offer Greek philology, its ‘real task is to elucidate the strange puzzle ( Rätsel ) of our times, Richard Wagner in his relation to Greek tragedy’. He goes on to say that the work bears on issues recently aired by (the Wagner opponent) Eduard Hanslick and should therefore be of considerable interest to the musical world and to the think- ing public in general ( KGB II.1 133). It is important to note that this letter was sent to Engelmann and not to The Birth ’s eventual publisher, Ernst Fritzsch, who was Wagner’s publisher. Had it been sent to the latter one might have been tempted to dismiss the placing of Wagner in the centre of the picture as a piece of judicious flattery. The letter to Engelmann seems to me a vital clue. There is some central ‘puzzle’, ‘enigma’ or ‘riddle’ in Wagner’s thinking that needs sorting out. To find out what this might be we need a overview of Wagner’s philosophical thinking in general.

The Wagnerian World-View

Wagner’s philosophical thinking focuses on four interconnected topics:

society, politics, art and religion. I shall begin with ‘society’, with Wagner’s Civilizationskritik , his critique of modern Western civilization. The critique


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focuses on two things: on Christianity and on the effects of industrialization and bureaucratization. Wagner was aware that, for most educated people of his time, Christianity no longer compelled belief. Nonetheless, he argues, it has left us with a pernicious legacy. Whereas the Greeks conceived happiness to be the normal human condition, the Christian world-view condemns us to life in a ‘loathsome dungeon’. 10 Christianity teaches us to despise all things earthly – while contradicting itself by simultaneously preaching universal brotherly love ( WMD , p. 68). Not that this was Jesus’ doing. The Galilean carpenter was a kind of revolutionary socialist who really did practise the universal love he preached. Not him but rather (here one notices the appearance of a key theme from the later Nietzsche) the Roman Church invented the other- worldly metaphysics that lead to contempt for this world ( WMD , p. 59). In general, then, Wagner’s point is that Christianity has been a destructive social force since it has left us with a legacy of self-contempt. And it has, moreover, prepared the way for the inhuman character of modern economic life. If man is a worthless being, then there is no reason not to treat him, as modern industrialized society does, as ‘mere steam- power for its machinery’ ( WMD , p. 65). In modern society, that is to say, work has become nothing but wearying, dehumanizing ‘toil’. Men have been turned into slaves of the machine, have become indeed machines themselves ( WMD , pp. 85–7). This has had a terrible effect on human well-being. Since the masses are trained to be nothing but machine-parts, and are in any case exhausted by work, they are incapable of anything but cheap, mindless pleasures in the moments of leisure time allotted to them. But since cheap consumerism produces ever-diminishing returns, boredom becomes the salient mood of modernity. In the consumer society people are ‘bored to death by pleasure’ ( WMD , p. 62). Part of Wagner’s anti-Semitism consists in seeing Jews as particularly productive of and given to consumerism, though in his later writings he prefers to point the finger at the French: that which is engulfing modern society is ‘French materialism’. The decay of modern society has a particularly deleterious effect on art. The mechanical reproduction of artworks and consequent ‘democratiza- tion’ of taste mean that even the meanest among us can put the noblest types of art on his mantelpiece 11 – which brings about a numbing of our abil- ity to reverence great art. When it comes to music and the theatre, since all the work-weary audience wants is ‘distraction and entertainment’, moder- nity is no longer capable of the Gesamtkunstwerk , the ‘collective artwork’, that was the glory of Greece. Rather than being gathered together, as in Greek tragedy, so that each art-form played a vital role in the total artwork, the arts are now essentially separate, so that each caters to a particular niche-demand for pleasure. Thus opera, and in particular Italian opera, panders to an audience interested only in music – music for easy listening.


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The plots are a joke, one talks through the gaps between the big arias, and when one of them finally arrives one demands that it be repeated six times – which of course destroys any possibility of artistic unity and reduces the occasion to ‘a chaos of trivial sensations’ ( WMD , pp. 37–41). Turning to the literary aspect of modern life Wagner observes that we live in a ‘paper’ culture. We suffer from ‘lexicomania’, from (in my own rather than Wagner’s language) ‘information overload’. This means that the char- acter of our age is essentially ‘critical’, critical in a way that stifles creativity. Overwhelmed by ‘cultural history’, we succumb to the sense that ‘it’s all been done before’ and are reduced to producing mere recombinations of past artistic styles ( WPW V, pp. 113–15). (We might refer to this as Wagner’s anticipation of ‘postmodern nihilism’.) Wagner’s final major critique of modernity concerns the atomization of society. Whereas in the past, we were bound together by the fellowship of a common purpose – Wagner thinks, here, of the artists and craftsmen work- ing together to produce the medieval cathedral – modern society is a society of ‘absolute egoism’. Everyone pursues their own, selfish goals, and the only force for cohesion is the state – the Hobbesian state whose sole function is to limit the harm one individual does to another ( WMD , pp. 79–80).


So much for diagnosis of our parlous condition: what now of remedy? The key is Greece, and above all Greek tragedy. Not, Wagner hastens to add, that we should seek a slavish restoration of the Greek in a ‘sham Greek mode of art’ (the nineteenth-century bank or railway station disguised as a Greek temple, for instance.) Insofar as we admire the Greek we should recreate it as a contemporary reality rather than a fossilized relic of the past. And by no means should we admire everything Hellenic, not, in particular, the ‘dishonourable slave yoke’ on which Greek economic life was based. Precisely the main goal ought to be to replace the quasi-slavery, the ‘univer- sal journeymanhood, with its sickly money soul’ of modern society, with ‘strong’ and ‘free manhood’ ( WMD , p. 65). Nonetheless it is the Athenian theatre which, says Wagner, provides ‘the typical model of that ideal rela- tion, dreamt of by me, of theatre and public’ ( WMD , p. 63). How so? What, for Wagner, was Greek tragedy, and what distinguished it from the sick theatre of the present age?


First of all, Greek tragedy was not ‘entertainment’. It occurred

on none but special, sacred feast days, where the taste of art was coupled with the celebration of a religious rite in which the most


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illustrious members of the state themselves took part as poets and performers, to appear like priests before the assembled populace of field and city; a populace filled with such high awaitings from the sublimeness of the artwork to be set before it, that a Sophocles, an Aeschylus, could set before the Volk the deepest-meaning of all poems, assured of their understanding.

( WMD , p. 63)

Second, it was a ‘collective ( Gesamt ) artwork ( kunstwerk )’. It collected, or gathered, in two senses. Most obviously, it collected all the arts, in partic- ular words and music, together into a single artwork. (Though the music is lost, which leads us to think of Aeschylus or Sophocles as literary artworks, to think this way, Nietzsche remarks in his notebooks, is actually like think- ing of Tannhäuser as just words ( KSA 7 1[1].) But secondly, it collected the whole community together and so created and preserved it as community. In contrast to fragmented modernity, in Greece

all division … all scattering of forces concentrated on this one point … all division of elements into separate channels must needs have been as hurtful to this unique and noble artwork as to the like-formed state itself; and thus it could only mature but never change its nature. Thus art was conservative.

( WMD , p. 63)

Notice that collection in the first sense is required by collection in the second sense, that the artwork can only gather the community if it also gath- ers the arts. If it fails to gather the arts, then the audience fragments into niche-audiences for the individual arts. Fragmentation of the arts, Wagner holds, entails fragmentation of the community. How does the Gesamtkunstwerk gather – create and conserve – community? (Notice that, given that Greek tragedy is the ‘model’ of the ‘ideal relation of theatre and public’, in describing the Greek artwork we are simul- taneously designing the ‘artwork of the future’, the model of what Wagner’s own music dramas are intended to be.) Fellowship and community that extends beyond the merely biological fellowship of common ancestry, writes Wagner, can only flourish where religion and myth flourish. The ‘Hellenic races’

solemnized the joint memorial celebration of their common descent [and so became Greeks ] in their religious feasts, that is, in the glorifi- cation and adoration of the god or hero in whose being they felt them- selves includes as one common whole. Finally … they materialized


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their national traditions in their art, and most directly in the fully- fledged work of art, the tragedy.

(WMD, p. 81)

Tragedy, that is, was a religious act, in which the ‘national tradition’ – that is to say, the ethos of a people, its conception of the proper way to live – was articulated in the form of myth. Indeed, continues Wagner, as the rites of the temple descended into soulless convention the amphitheatre became the place where the essence of religion, ‘religio-social convention’, received its articulation (ibid.). The ‘perfect work of art’ that was Greek tragedy became

the abstract and epitome of all that was expressible in the Grecian nature. It was the nation itself – in intimate connexion with its own history – that stood mirrored in its artwork, that communed with itself and, within the span of a few hours, feasted its eyes with its own noblest essence.

(WMD, p. 63)

It was able to do this since its content was myth, myth being a clarification and ‘condensation’ of ‘the view-in-common of the essence of things’, a view of ‘nature … men and morals’ (WMD, p. 89). In myths, that is to say (whether they be Greek myths or the Norse-derived myths of Wagner’s own music-dramas), are incorporated the essential laws of what is and what ought to be: men should know that they are not gods – witness the fate of Oedipus – and that power corrupts – witness the devastation wrought by Wotan’s quest for the ring of the Nibelungen. Greek tragedy, that is to say, was essentially didactic (a quality Brecht, who also uses masks and music, attempted to recapture). Since it is the essence of the Volk (people) itself that comes to presence in the artwork, in a clear sense it, rather than any individual, is the ‘creator’ of the artwork. The individual playwright is merely the articulator of communal ethos. The communal artwork flourishes ‘just so long as it was inspired by the spirit of the Volk … that is a communal spirit’. When aesthetic ‘egoism’ raised its head in fourth-century Greece ‘the people’s artwork ceased’ (WMD, p. 84). Community or Volk, as Wagner conceives it, is what we might call a uni- cultural society: a society in which, whatever lower-level varieties of life- style there may be, everyone agrees on a fundamental conception of the good life – on fundamental ‘values’ – independently of those values being enforced by the state. It needs to be asked, therefore, why we should value the uni-cultural society. (Since this conception is the direct opposite of


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the twentieth century’s ‘multi-culturalism’, which now finds itself in such serious difficulties, Wagner’s thoughts about community have considerable contemporary relevance.) A Volk, writes Wagner, consists of all those who feel ‘a common and collective want’. Authentic members are those who ‘recognise their indi- vidual want as a collective want, or find it based thereon’. Within a Volk, collective need provides a basis, the only basis, for ‘necessary action’. In other words it gives life a goal and meaning. Where there is no necessary action there is only ‘caprice’. All that remains, in other words, is the pursuit of wants that are not only ‘egoistic’ but also ‘artificial’ and so meaningless – the state of modern society. The communal artwork of the future, says Wagner, will reawaken ‘holy necessity’ so that life will reac- quire meaning (WMD, pp. 85–7). More specifically, work will become once again meaningful and so satisfying. In ‘On State and Religion’ Wagner explains that he parted company with the socialism of his youth when he realized that socialist politicians just wanted to rearrange the world of ‘toil’ whereas he wanted to abolish it, to reform work practices so that, as with medieval husbandry, they would once more constitute a ‘beautiful life’:

a life in harmony with nature and the seasons punctuated by frequent ‘recreations and festivities’ (WMD, 399–401). Moreover, since necessary action addresses collective want, it will abolish classes – though not differ- ences. Everyone, according to their own station, will work towards the communal goal. By becoming members of a team (or perhaps one should say orchestra) they will overcome alienation between one human being and another.


Central to the above thinking, very clearly, is the notion of Volk. The Volk creates and is created by the artwork, and the individual finds meaning and community within the Volk. This raises the question of where Wagner stands on the issue of nationalism versus internationalism, localism versus cosmopolitanism. Wagner observes that while the Roman Empire abolished the reality of Volk and medieval Christianity followed by abolishing the very concept, recognizing alone the concept of ‘Christian man’, he wishes to retain the concept and reinvigorate the reality (WMD, p. 85). Yet – this is the socialist strain in Wagner’s thinking – the importance of a flourishing Volk is not to exclude concern for universal humanity. Whereas

the Grecian artwork embraces the spirit of a fair and noble nation, the artwork of the future must embrace the spirit of a free mankind, deliv- ered from every shackle of hampering nationality: its racial imprint must be no more than an embellishment, the individual charm of


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manifold diversity, not a hampering barrier … We must love all men before we can rightly love ourselves.

(WMD, p. 65) 12

Wagner’s cosmopolitanism reveals itself, too, in the insistence that the content of myth is both inexhaustible and true for all times and cultures, the only task of the poet being to ‘expound’ it in a particular way to a particular audience (WMD, pp. 90–1). In ‘State and Religion’ he rather surprisingly attacks ‘patriotism’ as a harmful delusion (Wahn 13 ). It is harmful since it is simply an enlarged egoism which, fanned by the press, is responsible for the state of permanent – actual or incipient – warfare in which the modern world exists. Patriotism is, in a word, the last refuge of demagogic scoun- drels. From this he concludes the necessity of monarchy with the king’s job being to stand above national politics, to be concerned for ‘human interests far above mere patriotism’ (WMD, pp. 399–421). How can Wagner consistently be both a nationalist and an international- ist? The ‘charm of diversity’ and ‘inexhaustibility of universal myth’ remarks suggests a synthesis between multi-culturalism and uni-culturalism somewhat in the way in which ‘the medieval cathedral’ encompassed a host of regionally and temporally diverse instantiations, or a single language encompasses a host of regional dialects. Or we might think of the way in which a Beethoven symphony contains within itself the possibility of infi- nitely many different, but equally valid, interpretations as a model for the idea of universal myth as susceptible to indefinitely many different interpre- tations within, as it were, the differing ‘dialects’ of different cultures. In later life Wagner’s nationalism took a different and much less palatable form. As Nietzsche put it in 1888, explaining his turn against Wagner, the middle-aged Wagner lost the ‘cosmopolitan taste’ of his youth, becoming instead reichsdeutsch (Ecce Homo II 5), a Bismarckian jingoist. Yet still, at least in theory, the older Wagner sought to reconcile his position with ulti- mately international concerns. Quoting with approval Constantin Frantz, Wagner says, three years before the outbreak of the Franco-Prussian War, that

to extricate ourselves from the tyranny of [France’s] materialistic civi- lization … is precisely the mission of Germany; because Germany, of all continental countries, alone possesses the needful qualities and forces of mind and spirit to bring about a nobler culture.

(WMD, p. 422)

German ‘inwardness’ must, that is, be extended – by force of arms – to save a civilization dominated by French triviality from itself. The perniciousness


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of this appeal to a God-given German ‘mission’ is revealed by the fact that

precisely the same appeal to a unique national mission was used by right-

wing intellectuals to justify Germany’s entry into the First World War, not


mention the younger Bush’s invasion of Iraq.

The Artwork of the Future

Wagner’s view, we have seen, modernity is a sick society. The heart of

his remedy lies in the restoration of the collective artwork, the ‘model’ for which is provided by Greek tragedy. But what exactly will this redeeming artwork be like, this ‘artwork of the future’; an artwork, that is to say, which ‘presages th[e] life of the future and longs to be contained therein’ (WMD, p. 235)? What, in other words, is the theoretical template which Wagner the artist – this most theory-driven of all great composers – tries to realize? It will be, we know, a ‘collective artwork’, a work that collects in the double sense of gathering the individual arts into a single work and of gath- ering the community into a clarifying affirmation of itself. But what about the internal structure of the work? What exactly is the relationship between the constituent ingredients between, in particular, the principal elements, music and words? I shall present, first, Wagner’s early account and then his revised account, a revision that exemplifies the familiar parabola leading from the idealism of youth to the resignation of old age but which was crucially shaped by his discovery of Schopenhauer.



The younger Wagner emphasizes, first of all, the need to restore ‘organic unity’ to the artwork. What must be overcome is the ‘chaos’ of discon- nected bits that is Italian opera. (Nietzsche’s 1888 description of Wagner as

a gifted ‘miniaturist’ who lacked the capacity to construct genuinely

unified wholes (The Wagner Case, section 7) is thus a particularly deadly insult.) There must be no ‘ritornellos’, no ‘self-glorifying’ musical inter- ludes, no big arias, which disrupt the dramatic continuity of the work (WMD, pp. 228–9). What is required between poet and musician is not competition but rather the ‘spirit of community’. They should be like two travellers, one of whom (the poet) describes the land, the other the sea, but who then visit each other’s territory and become one (WMD, p. 215). They are to collaborate in the following way. When words lose elevation (when, for example, they merely expedite the plot), the orchestra comes to the fore, conveying a feeling of foreboding or remembrance that underlies the drama – one might think, here, of film music. But where speech ascends the heights of poetic passion, the orchestra recedes into the background (WMD, p. 228).


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Though this early account of the relation between music and words sounds very egalitarian, it is actually not so at all. For Wagner makes clear that the real threat to the unity of the artwork comes from musical caprice, from the composer’s pandering to the desire of lazy listeners for easy

‘melody’ – ‘nessun dorma’, ‘the music of the night’, etc. (see p. 222–3 above). Ultimately, the dominant element in the work must be the words: passages

in which the orchestra comes to prominence ‘are never to be determined by

the caprice of the musician, as a random tricking out of sound, but only by the poet’s aim’ (WMD, p. 229: Wagner’s italics). And this, in fact, is the natu- ral relation between music and words, a relation reflecting the origin of music in passionate speech: ‘Song is just talk aroused to the highest passion:

music is the speech of passion’ (WMD, p. 52). Wagner is not very explicit as to just why music must be ultimately subor- dinate to words. The ground cannot be that only words can produce unity since there obviously exists musical as well as dramatic unity, the unity possessed by ‘absolute’ (purely instrumental) music when it is good (a unity that, whatever his jibes about Wagner being a miniaturist, fatally eluded Nietzsche, the composer, when he attempted anything but very short works – vide, for example, the way his ‘Echoes of a New Year’s Eve’, after

a lovely beginning, drifts off into shapeless meanderings). It is, however,

pretty obvious why words must be the dominant element of the collective artwork. If its function is to gather the community in a clarifying affirmation of its fundamental ethos, then the most crucial demand on the artwork is that it should articulate that ethos. And that is something only words can do. As Martin Heidegger puts it in the first volume of his monumental Nietzsche study, ‘a solidly grounded and articulated position in the midst of beings’ is ‘the kind of thing only great poetry and thought can create’. 14 If we are to renew our shared understanding of the good life, then, in terms of Wagner’s metaphor, ‘land’ has to take precedence over ‘sea’ since one cannot take one’s bearings when one is, as we indeed say, ‘all at sea’.

The Impact of Schopenhauer

The philosophical works that roused Nietzsche to ecstasy during the Trib- schen period were, as earlier observed, the ‘magnificent’ ‘Beethoven’ essay of 1870 – Beethoven was important to Wagner because he regarded himself as, in Cosima’s words, ‘Beethoven’s only son’ (KGB II.2 32) – and ‘On State and Religion’ of 1864–5. The latter, Nietzsche writes to Carl von Gersdorff, alluding to the fact that the essay takes the form of a letter to Wagner’s patron, Ludwig II,

is a great and deep essay in which he explains to his ‘young friend’, the little king of Bavaria, his inner stance towards state and religion. Never has a king been spoken to in a more worthy or philosophical


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manner; 15 I was completely elevated and at the same time shaken by its ideality (Idealität). …

(KGB II.1 19)

These works were, however, written under the influence of Schopenhauer’s The World as Will and Representation, which Wagner discovered in 1854 and immediately reread four times. As Nietzsche observes to von Gersdorff, ‘State and Religion’ ‘at every point seems to spring from the genius of Schopenhauer’ (ibid). What did Schopenhauer mean to Wagner? What effect did his The World as Will produce on the composer? It produced, or at least powerfully rein- forced, a sea-change in, on the one hand, Wagner’s views on society, politics and redemption, and on the other, his views on the proper nature and signi- ficance of music. As we shall see, these U-turns are intimately connected with each other. Speaking with particular reference to Tristan und Isolde, the first of his operas to be entirely created after his discovery of The World as Will, Wagner writes to Franz Liszt in December 1854 that Schopenhauer’s philos- ophy came to him ‘like a gift from heaven’. Its chief idea, he explains,

the final negation of the desire for life, is terribly serious, but it shows the only salvation possible. To me of course that thought was not new, and it can indeed be conceived by no one in whom it did not pre-exist, but this philosopher was the first to place it clearly before me … long- ing for death, for absolute unconsciousness, total non-existence … [f]reedom from all dreams is our only final salvation. 16

And in Tristan itself, of course, the star-crossed lovers sing at length of their longing for ‘oblivion’:

In the surging swell, /in the ringing sound, /in the world-breath /in the waves of the All /to drown /to sink down – /unconscious – /supreme bliss –

are Isolde’s final words as she sinks ‘as if transfigured’ onto Tristan’s lifeless body and so brings both her life and the opera to a close. As Wagner says in this letter, the thought that the solution to the problem of life lies in its ‘negation’ ‘pre-existed’ in his mind before he found it articulated by the great pessimist. Writing in ‘State and Religion’ to Ludwig, who has asked if he still held the revolutionary doctrines of his youth, Wagner says that having discovered socialism to aim, not at overcoming, but simply reorganizing the dehumanized workplace of industrial moder- nity, he decided, ‘as it were, that “my kingdom is not of this world”’, and that


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in fact ‘world-improvers’ of whatever kind ‘were victims of a fundamental error, and demanded from the world itself a thing it cannot give’ (WMD, p. 402). What this means for the king is that he must become a kind of religious role model, a saint-like figure embodying the nature of ‘true reli- gion’. Recognizing the irredeemable ‘unblessedness of human being’, the ‘innermost kernel’ of religion is, continues Wagner,

denial of the world – that is, recognition of the world as a fleeting and dreamlike state of mind reposing merely on illusion – and struggle for redemption from it, prepared for by renunciation, attained by faith.

(WMD, p. 413)

Redemption from, the ‘Beethoven’ essay adds, the ‘Wahn of individuality’ and the ‘hell of [an] existence filled with terrible discord’. Wagner concludes, with Schopenhauer, that redemption consists in transcending the illusion of plurality, in recognizing that true reality is an indissolubly unity, an undifferentiated ‘Oneness’ which abolishes the very possibility of discord (WPW V, pp. 71–2). Religion, that is, points us to a self- and world- transcendence in which we experience the ‘inner happiness’ of the saint, sure in the knowledge of his other-worldly redemption; or of the martyr – the king, Wagner writes prophetically to Ludwig, is a ‘tragic’ figure. This gives us the task of great – that is to say, religious – art. Its task, Wagner continues (above all one thinks, here, of Tristan),

is to lift us up above life and show it as itself a game of play: a game that, take it ne’er so terrible and earnest an appearance, yet is here again shown us as a mere Wahn picture, so that in this way it comforts us and wafts us from the common truth of our distress.

(WMD, pp. 420–1)

Three things are going on here. First, the affirmation of Schopenhauerian pessimism: life is suffering; human endeavour can change its form but never its quantity, and is thus futile. So the optimism that is presupposed by schemes of world-improvement such as the socialism of Wagner’s youth are based on delusion. More generally, politics is delusion, Wahn: moving from Tribschen to Bayreuth Wagner called his new house Wahnfried – literally ‘delusion-peace’ – explaining, above the front door, that it is ‘here where my delusions have found peace’. Second, Wagner no longer affirms socialist materialism but rather Schopenhauerian idealism: nature, the everyday world, is but a ‘dream’ (WMD, p. 413). And so life is but a ‘game’. This is what makes the third element in Wagner’s later philosophy possible, an affirmation of the


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possibility of ‘salvation’ from this world of pain, salvation through transcen- dence to ‘another world’ (WMD, p. 413) – salvation, Wagner holds, will ‘redeem us from the curse of appearances’, from discord and pain. Of course we cannot provide a rational proof that there is a redemptive other world. Religious other-worldliness is in that sense Wahn, too, a matter of faith rather than reason. But it is healing rather than diseased Wahn (WPW V, pp. 80–1). But how can we access this faith? How can we acquire the phenomeno- logical experience of the reality of this world beyond plurality and so beyond pain? The key is music, music understood in the light of Schopenhauer’s revelation of its true nature.


Schopenhauer held that while, along with language and conceptual thought, all the other arts deal with the visible world of appearance, music in a non- conceptual manner discloses to us the nature of ultimate reality, the ‘thing in itself’. In the ‘Beethoven’ essay, Wagner says that it was Schopenhauer who first properly defined the position of music in relation to the other arts, indicating thereby his acceptance of this high metaphysical claim for music. Being a layman, Wagner continues, Schopenhauer could not properly demonstrate his claim, but attention to Beethoven’s musical development from his beginning as a showy and relatively superficial piano virtuoso to the profound unworldliness for which he is remembered shows that Schopenhauer was right. 17 Failing to recognize Schopenhauer’s great discovery of the uniqueness of music, Wagner writes, some people (foremost in his mind, here, is his antag- onist, the musical formalist, Eduard Hanslick) have applied the criteria of the plastic arts quite inappropriately to music, judging it in terms of the beautiful, of our ‘pleasure in beautiful forms’ (WPW V, p. 77). This was the position from which Beethoven, following the tradition of Haydn and Mozart, started. In his maturity, however, he showed us that the proper category for assessing the greatness of great music is not the beautiful but rather the sublime. When great music ‘engrosses us, she transports us to the highest ecstasy (ekstase) of consciousness of our infinitude’. The highest music is, therefore, ‘religious’ in character. In communicating a ‘holy’, that is redemptive, state it is religion purged of ‘dogmatic fictions’ (WPW V, pp. 78–81). This is the character of Beethoven’s great music. It speaks the ‘highest wisdom’ in a language which the reason of this most unreflective of geniuses does not understand. As the deafness of which he never complained overtook him he became, as it were, the ‘blind seer’. (Tiresias was struck blind by Hera, acquiring thereby the gift of second sight.) His wisdom brings us the ‘highest comfort’. Who, Wagner asks rhetorically, on


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listening to the ‘Pastoral’ Symphony, has failed to hear the redeemer’s words ‘today thou shalt be with me in paradise’? 18 Beethoven gives us an ‘immediate experience [of redemption] of transparent comprehensibility’. His renowned cheerfulness is the world-creating Brahma laughing at himself. Beethoven’s ‘Pastoral’ 19 and seventh symphonies deliver us from all earthly guilt, so that the after-effect, when we return to the everyday world of ‘semblances’, is the feeling of having ‘forfeited paradise’ (WPW V, pp. 91–4). This elevation of music to the status of religion confirms, of course, Schopenhauer’s claim that music is superior to all the other arts. In particu- lar it is superior to poetry. ‘Poetry’, Wagner now writes, ‘must always be subordinate to music.’ Schiller’s words in the ninth symphony are, as words, unimportant – it is significant that in the final movement, the melody to which they are set precedes them as purely instrumental music. At most they help intensify the mood that belongs to the music. And in the Missa Solemnis the voices (aided of course by the fact that they sing in Latin) func- tion as pure musical sounds. ( Wagner here echoes Schopenhauer’s remark that since the superficiality of words can but be a distraction from the deep metaphysical significance of music, the mass is superior to opera since, through constant repetition, the words have become a mere ‘solfeggio’, meaning-free sounds. 20 Wagner’s reversal of his earlier theory of the relative significance of music and words is mirrored in his post-Schopenhauerian compositions. The discovery of The World as Will took place in the middle of writing the Ring cycle (the text for the whole work had been completed much earlier) and had a profound impact on the character of the work. Whereas in the earlier part of the Ring – specifically, in Das Reingold and the first act of Die Walkyrie – the music is strictly subordinate to the drama, in the post- Schopenhauerian part of the cycle the orchestra becomes the dominant force. In the second and third acts of Die Walkyrie and in Siegfried and Götterdämmerung there are long passages in which the words become noth- ing but pure Schopenhauerian solfeggio. In Tristan the drama is so slow and the music so long that the work is sometimes referred to as the opera with- out action. Nietzsche indeed suggests that it is capable of being experienced as a purely instrumental work, a vast ‘symphony’ (KSA 7 8 [21], BT 21). It may be this approximation of the later works to ‘absolute’ 21 music that leads Nietzsche to suggest in his notebooks that the term ‘music-drama’ is actually a bad one (KSA 7 3[70]). Not only is music more important than words, it actually – again Wagner directly reverses his earlier position – gives rise to them: the music of a great artwork ‘contains the drama in itself’ (WPW V, p. 104). What lies behind this idea, I believe, is Schopenhauer’s analysis of emotion into a distinct phenomenological feeling plus an intentional object, together with the idea that music allows one to experience the universal ‘inner nature’ of


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emotion divorced from the intentional object. 22 So, for example, sad instru- mental music gives one the experience of sadness without giving one anything to be sad about. This makes it possible to supply a piece of abso- lute music with an official or unofficial text, which stands to universal feel- ing in the relation of an ‘example’ (WR I, p. 263, WR II, p. 449). Hence, for example, the ‘Pastoral’ symphony and the ‘Moonlight’ sonata – neither title was supplied by Beethoven. (The text may, of course, be visual, as in Walt Disney’s Fantasia.) All great art, claims Wagner, is in fact created out of, if not literal music, at least ‘the spirit of music’: Greek culture was so created, as was the art of the Italian Renaissance (WPW V, p. 121). 23


In summary, then, Wagner’s post-Schopenhauerian thought contains two fundamental reversals of his earlier thought. First, the optimism of socialism is replaced by pessimism about the human condition, with the result that ‘salvation’ is to happen no longer in a future state of this world but in another world. ‘Salvation’, as one might put it, is no longer redemption of the world but rather redemption from the world. And second, instead of music being the servant of words and drama it now assumes priority over the words, which threaten to become, indeed, entirely functionless in the artwork. These changes are of course connected. For if, as in the early theory, the point is to improve the world, to revive community through the community-‘collecting’ artwork, then, evidently, the artwork has to be about the world. In other words, ethos-expounding myth, which only words can articulate, becomes the crucial element in the artwork. On the other hand, if, as in the later theory, one has abandoned world-amelioration as futile, then what one wants from a ‘redemptive’ artwork is something which allows one to transcend the world. Since, on Schopenhauer’s account, this is precisely what great music does, music thus becomes the crucial element in the artwork. Unfortunately for the clarity of his position, Wagner never clearly announces the abandonment of his early philosophy of life and art for a new and diametrically opposed one. He never clearly states that he has given up on the ideal of the artwork as an agent of social redemption, never clearly states that, according to his later thought, ‘redemption’ has become a purely individual notion. Even as acute a reader as Martin Heidegger missed this point. Heidegger writes that what Wagner wanted was that ‘the artwork should be a celebration of national community … should be the religion’ of the people. But, he continues, Wagner’s ‘attempt had to fail’ since he made music, and, in particular, a kind of music that launches us into ‘sheer inde- terminacy, total dissolution, into sheer feeling’ pre-eminent, whereas in fact (to repeat the quotation) ‘only great poetry and thought’, in short, words,


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can ‘create a solidly grounded and articulated position in the midst of beings’. 24 This misses the point, since by the time he came to allow ‘dissolv- ing’, or in his own language ‘sea-of-feeling’, music to dominate his works, Wagner had, in reality, given up on national community. But Heidegger can be excused since Wagner himself never properly resolved the inconsistency between his earlier and later positions. In the ‘Beethoven’ essay, written sixteen years after his Schopenhauerian ‘turn’, he still speaks of the ‘redemption of modern civilization’ 25 as a task for the ‘German spirit’ (WPW V, p. 121, my italics), and in ‘On State and Religion’, mixed in with the idea of the king as a role model of the religious turn to other-worldliness is the idea, preserved unmodified from the social- ism of the 1840s, of the king as the best protection of the deprived classes, and of universal ‘human interests’ as such, since he is above the clash of powerful vested interests which is the character of day-to-day politics (WMD, p. 404). Moreover, Wagner continues to celebrate the creation of ‘national community’ through art in the Mastersingers, another wholly post-Schopenhauerian work, and indeed the whole Bayreuth project that was the obsession of the last decades of his life was an attempt to create, as he explains on the occasion of the laying of the foundation stone in 1873, a ‘German national theatre’ (WMD, pp. 353–69).


Nietzsche, to repeat, said that the main point of The Birth of Tragedy was to resolve the ‘enigma’ or ‘puzzle’ of Wagner’s relation to the Greek trag- edy. In other words, the puzzle of what it was Wagner expected the great artwork to achieve. It is, I think, now as plain as a pikestaff what it is that constitutes the puzzle: it is the contradiction between the pre- and post- Schopenhauerian conceptions of the artwork. Or perhaps, given Wagner’s retention of many of his earlier ideas in his later thoughts, one should speak not diachronically about ‘early’ and ‘late’ but rather synchronically about a split personality, about a ‘socialist Wagner’ and a ‘Schopenhauerian Wagner’. 26 However one describes it, though, the main point is this:

contrary to those who would minimize the significance of Wagner for The Birth, on Nietzsche’s own showing, the main task of The Birth is in fact to resolve the inconsistency at the heart of the Wagnerian world-view. The most obvious way of resolving the contradiction would be to abandon either the early or the late theory. Surprisingly, however, Nietzsche never seems to have contemplated this strategy: since writing to von Gersdorff early in the Tribschen period, he presses him to read not merely the ‘Beethoven’ and ‘State and Religion’ essays but also the central text of the early theory, Opera and Drama (1850) – and offers no warning that the former works might be difficult to reconcile with the latter (KGB II.1 19). What we should expect, therefore, is that The Birth will attempt the daunting


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task of showing how one can endorse both the early theory and the late. Nietzsche’s endeavour is to show how Wagner can have his cake and eat it. Let us now see how this strategy is carried out.

The Birth of Tragedy

The Birth of Tragedy was written, I have been claiming, under the powerful influence of Richard Wagner. But it was also written under the equally powerful influence of, as Nietzsche calls him, Wagner’s ‘brother in spirit’ (KGB II.1 4), Arthur Schopenhauer. While dedicated to Wagner, the work is written, as he puts it at one point, ‘in [Schopenhauer’s] spirit and to his honour’ (BT 5). This latter allegiance entails two crucial commitments. First, in company with the later Wagner, The Birth subscribes to Schopenhauer’s idealism: the everyday world, the world of, in Schopenhauer’s phrase, the principium individuationis, the world of individuality and plurality, is mere ‘appearance’, ultimately just a ‘dream’. And second, again with the later Wagner, it subscribes to Schopenhauer’s pessimism. Life, ultimately, is not worth living since its dominant character is suffering. Influenced by Wagner, I think (see p. 231 above), Nietzsche connects

individuality with pessimism in a way that is at best implicit in Schopen- hauer. ‘Individuality’, he writes, ‘is the primal cause of all suffering’ (BT 10). This connexion makes his pessimism deeper, more philosophical, it seems to me, than Schopenhauer’s. Whereas for the latter the pain of life often seems a matter of quantity – the amount of suffering we experience always outweighs the amount of happiness – for Nietzsche it is a matter of the necessary structure of life as a human individual. As individuals we are first of all condemned to death – in contradiction of the human essence, which is

– as Schopenhauer indeed says – the ‘will to live’. Nietzsche calls this the

‘absurdity’ (BT 7) of human existence: whatever bubble of a life we blow up, it will be inevitably be punctured by time and death. And secondly, as indi- viduals sharing the world with a plurality of other individuals we are condemned – for something like Darwin’s reasons – to disharmony and conflict. This is what Nietzsche calls the ‘nauseous’ character of existence (ibid.). Albert Camus famously said that the only serious problem of philosophy

is the question of suicide; of whether or not life is worth living. Nietzschean- Wagnerian-Schopenhauerian pessimism holds that it is not. Nonetheless, Nietzsche would say, Camus’s equation is a misleading one since, for us, suicide is not an option. The non-rational but inescapable (biologically programmed) will to live – the abhorrence of death as the summum malum

– means that (with only the very occasional exception) we will choose exist-

ence ‘at any price’ over non-existence (KSA I, p. 756). We have no option but to live. This transforms the problem. The relevant question is not whether or not life is worth living but rather, given that we must live, how to


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make it bearable, how to make the best of a bad job. This is where Greece, and in particular Greek art, becomes relevant. The Greeks, Nietzsche suggests, were really Schopenhauerians. Their ‘exquisite’ sensitivity to the ‘terrors and horrors’ of life is captured in their myths: in the fate of Oedipus, the wisest man on earth, condemned unknow- ingly to murder his father and sleep with his mother, of Prometheus condemned on account of his love of man to have an eagle feed on his liver for all eternity, but most directly in the ‘wisdom of Silenus’. Captured by King Midas and forced to divulge his wisdom, the companion of Dionysus declares ‘with a scornful cackle’:

whoever is man can never achieve the most to-be-desired, can have no part of the best. For mankind, for man and woman, collectively and separately, the most preferable would be never to have been born. The next best, however – having been born – would be to die soon. 27

In spite of such knowledge, however, the Greeks survived and thrived:

though massively outnumbered, they defeated Darius’ Persians 28 and, en passant, as it were, created Western civilization, and brought it to a greatness that has never since been matched. How did they manage this? How did they manage to conquer the ‘nauseous’ character of life? Through, Nietzsche asserts, their art: above all and most successfully, through the high point of Greek art, the tragic festi- val. 29 This is where they become relevant to us: to the horror of his fellow Greek philologists, Nietzsche asserts that the only point of studying history, and in particular, ancient history, is to use it as a ‘polished mirror’ in which to view ourselves (Assorted Opinions and Maxims, section 218). We want to learn about Greek tragedy because, through a ‘rebirth’ of the Greek artwork, we can hope to overcome our own ‘nausea’.


What, then, was the tragic artwork of fourth-century Greece – this ‘festive reunification of the [individual] Greek arts’ (KSA I, p. 518) – like? Nietzsche analyses it in terms of a celebrated duality which was probably inspired by his schoolboy study of Hölderlin: 30 that between the ‘Apollonian’ and the ‘Dionysian’ elements. As the god of the boundary-drawing and division which creates both plurality and justice, Apollo symbolizes the world of the principium indi- viduationis (BT 1, 2, 9). In terms of the capacities of the human mind, the Apollonian is the domain of the conceptual, of the linguistic, of reason. As a philosophy of life, the Apollonian is represented, in modernity by the Enlightenment, in the ancient world by Socrates, by ‘Socratism’, as Nietzsche calls it. In art, the Apollonian is, in the first instance, the visible


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world, and in the second, that world raised to a state of beauty by simplifi- cation, clarification and glorification. Nietzsche associates the word ‘dream’ with the Apollonian partly because, from the point of view of his Schopenhauerian metaphysics, a dream is what the world of individuals is, and partly because, so he thinks, dreams represent an ideal of classical beauty for the visual arts, since ‘in dreams all forms speak to us; nothing is superfluous or unnecessary’ (BT 1). In the collective artwork that is Greek tragedy, then, the heart of the Apollonian element is the poetic text, the words. Specifically it is the mythic content of the work, the religious content – Sophocles, Nietzsche empha- sizes, was a ‘religious’ writer (BT 9). Closely echoing Wagner (see p. 224–5 above), Nietzsche says that the mythic figures of Greek tragedy are ‘contracted’ images which ‘abbreviate appearances’. And that they are human types rather than individuals (the actors, of course, all wore masks), which endows them with universal significance (BT 23). What is the importance of religious myth? Again repeating Wagner almost verbatim, Nietzsche says that ‘only a mythic horizon unifies a culture’. Only myth provides it with ‘a secure and sacred place of origin’. The images of myth, he continues,

must be the unnoticed but ever-present daemonic guardians under whose tutelage young souls grow up and by whose signs the grown man interprets his life and his struggles; even the state knows of no more powerful unwritten laws than the mythical fundament which guarantees its connection with religion and its emergence from out of mythic representations.

‘Art and nation (Volk), myth and morality’, Nietzsche concludes, are ‘necessarily … entwined.’ A people is only properly a people if it can impose a mythic, ‘eternal’ view on its experience. Neither a people nor an individual human being can thrive without there being ‘gods of the hearth’ to constitute its ‘mythical home’ (BT 23). In a word, then, the mythic content of tragedy articulates, in allegorical form, the ethos of a community. In doing so it gathers the community, thereby creating and preserving it as community. Whereas the mystery plays of medieval Germany had the function of allowing the individual to separate himself from the community in private meditation, ‘the Greeks viewed the ancient tragedies in order to collect (sich sammeln) themselves’ (KSA 7 3[1]). Thus far, then, Wagner’s earlier account of the role of the collective artwork almost word for word. Now, however, Nietzsche turns to the Dionysian aspect of tragedy. The word Nietzsche associates with Dionysus is Rausch: intoxication, or better, ‘ecstasy’, ‘standing out of oneself’, out of everyday consciousness


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(KSA I, p. 521). In Schopenhauerian terms the Dionysian state is one in which one overcomes the principium individuationis, the illusion of individ- uality, to realize, intuitively, one’s identity with the one true being which everything is. In Dionysian ecstasy, preserved in the medieval carnival (and still, to some degree, in the modern football stadium),

all the rigid, hostile barriers which [Apollonian] necessity, caprice or ‘impudent fashion’ have established between man and man break asunder. Now hearing this gospel of universal harmony, each person feels himself to be not simply united, reconciled or merged with his neighbour, but quite literally one with him, as if [in Schopenhauer’s language] the veil of Maya had been torn apart, so that mere shreds of it flutter before the mysterious primordial unity. Singing and dancing, man expresses his sense of belonging to a higher community, has forgotten how to walk and talk…

(BT 1)

In terms of the capacities of the human mind, the Dionysian is that which transcends concepts, that which cannot properly be articulated in language. And in aesthetic terms it is music, more exactly ‘dithyrambic’ music, music which, like Wagner’s, dissolves everything into a ‘sea of feeling’. In Wagner’s choice of terminology, it is music that is ‘sublime’ rather than ‘beautiful’ (see p. 232 above). The origin of Greek tragedy, Nietzsche argues, lay in the Dionysian festi- val, the ‘dithyrambic’ chanting of hymns in honour of Dionysus. Later, actors and action were added to the chanting – the music ‘gave birth’ to the drama – and a formal division came into being between chorus and audi- ence. Yet remembering that everyone was originally part of a unitary congregation of worshippers, the spectators in the great period of Greek tragedy still felt themselves to be part of the chorus: ‘The audience of Attic tragedy identified itself with the chorus on the orchestra [the semi-circular area in front of the stage], so that there was fundamentally no opposition between public and chorus.’ ‘The whole is just one sublime chorus’ (BT 8). This identification enables Nietzsche to give an account of the ‘tragic effect’, of the seeming paradox of our deriving satisfaction from witnessing the destruction of figures who, in most ways, represent what is finest and wisest in us. As members of the Greek audience we partially empathize with the hero in his inexorable march to destruction. But because our primary identifica- tion is with the chorus we find ourselves transported by its hypnotic singing into the Dionysian state. In this condition we experience, says Nietzsche, a ‘metaphysical comfort’ for the nauseous character of human existence. This happens because the world of individuals becomes ‘unreal’ for us (BT 8);


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individuals, including our own normal selves, become like soldiers in a painting of a battle scene (BT 5). Instead of identifying with anything in the world of appearances, ‘for a brief moment’, we become

the primordial being itself and we feel its unbounded greed and lust for being: the struggle, the agony, the destruction of appearances, all this now seems to us to be necessary given the uncountable excess of forms of existence thrusting and pushing themselves into life, given the exuberant fertility of the world-will

(BT 17)

that we are. From this it follows that ‘only as aesthetic phenomena do

existence and the world appear justified’, that the ‘ugly and disharmoni- ous’ which form such a pervasive feature of the world of humanity are merely parts of an ‘artistic game’ which the primal unity plays with itself (BT 24). This, then, is the ‘solace’ brought by the great artwork. For a brief moment one overcomes prosaic, everyday realism and realizes the truth of Schopenhauerian idealism. The nauseous and absurd in life and the world,

I realize, are not my problem since they are just parts of the epic movie in

which I am no longer a participant. Rather – given my identity with the ‘world-building force’ that ‘the dark Heraclitus’ compared to a child build- ing sandcastles and then knocking them over again (BT 24) – I am its ‘sole author and spectator’ (BT 6). Pain and death, I see, are not just parts but rather necessary parts of the world-movie since (as Margaret Atwood once ruefully observed) there is no narrative without conflict, no encompassing of the new without destruction of the old.


Nietzsche observes that the Dionysian state is accompanied by a ‘dwindling of the political instinct’ through indifference, even hostility, towards ‘the state and the sense of homeland’ (BT 21). This is why, unless it is modified and controlled in some way, the ‘ecstatic brooding’ of Dionysianism ‘leads

a people … along the road towards Indian Buddhism’, engenders ‘apathy’

towards ‘worldly’ affairs and a Buddhistic ‘longing for nothingness’ (BT 21). State and homeland, that is to say, are essentially Apollonian entities: the state requires structure and hierarchy, and homeland requires a boundary between where I belong and where ‘the other’ belongs. So that if I have ascended to the ‘higher community’ that comes from the abolition of all difference and division, then I shall find the idea of return to the world of

individuation – individuation being, recall, ‘the primal cause of all suffering’

– nauseating:


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As soon as everyday reality re-enters consciousness it is found to be nauseous: an ascetic, will-denying mood is the product of this condi- tion. The Dionysian is set against the meanness and commonness [of the everyday] as a higher order. The Greek now wants absolute escape from this world of guilt and fate. 31 … In the consciousness that comes with the awaking from intoxication, he sees everywhere the horror or absurdity of human existence; it nauseates him. Now he understands the wisdom of the forest god,

(KSA I, p. 595; cf. BT 7)

the wisdom, that is, of Dionysus’ intimate companion, Silenus. Of course, this is the ‘wisdom’, too, of the later Wagner, the Wagner who affirms that ‘my kingdom is not of this world’ and longs for ‘death, for abso- lute unconsciousness, total non-existence’ (p. 230 above). And it is the potential effect of Wagner’s later music dramas: no one, writes Nietzsche, could listen to the final act of Wagner’s dithyrambic Tristan as absolute music, ‘purely as a vast symphonic movement’, without ‘suffocating as their soul attempted convulsively to spread its wings’ (BT 21). (The reference, of course, is to Plato’s Phaedrus, to the soul’s regrowing its wings in prepara- tion for its return from earthly exile to its true homeland on ‘the rim of the heavens’.) But of course Tristan is not (quite) pure music, and neither was Greek tragedy. They both contain words and action, the Apollonian element. This, says Nietzsche, shields us from the full force of the Dionysian effect, ‘restores the almost shattered individual with the healing balm of illusion’. We are subjected to the ‘noble deception’ that the tragedy is a purely Apollonian affair, that it concerns nothing but the fate of an individual in a world of individuals. Even the playwright succumbs to the ‘deception’, fails to grasp the deep meaning of his own work. The result is that we return to everyday life ‘strangely comforted’ yet ‘relieved of the burden’ of under- standing why we are comforted. Relieved of the burden of Dionysian insight we are able, once more, to act (BT 21). This is the true meaning of Hamlet’s paralysis: his insight is that ‘knowledge kills action; action requires … the veil of “Apollonian” illusion’ (BT 7). And this is, in the end, the final gift of the great artwork, whether it be Greek tragedy or the Wagnerian music- drama. Like a fairy godmother, Lethe draws a veil of forgetfulness over our moment of world-negating, redemptive insight.


The main goal of The Birth of Tragedy is, to repeat, to solve the ‘enigma’ of the relation between Wagner’s early and late conceptions of Greek tragedy, i.e. of the great, collective, artwork. In Nietzsche’s language, it is to solve the


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puzzle between a fundamentally Apollonian conception of the artwork and

a fundamentally Dionysian conception. Nietzsche’s intellectually stunning

solution to the problem is to show how the artwork can be both Apollonian and Dionysian: how it can both comfort the individual in the face of the nauseous character of human existence and promote the flourishing of community by gathering it in a celebration and affirmation of its fundamen- tal understanding of how human existence is and ought to be. This is an intellectual tour de force, a sorting out of Wagner’s contradic- tory position for which the fecund but muddled composer ought to have been profoundly grateful. (One can imagine an enlightened Wagner reply- ing to requests for a statement of what he really thought about Greek trag- edy with: ‘I don’t know: ask Nietzsche what I think.’) That being said, the question still needs to be raised as to whether Nietzsche’s resolution of the contradiction really works. Does Nietzsche really show that the collective artwork can both redeem the community by gathering it in self- and life- affirmation and comfort the individual by revealing to him a blissful domain beyond this worthless world of nausea and absurdity? The answer, I think, depends on who one is. If we are ordinary unreflective Greeks, or ordinary unreflective denizens of the Bayreuth opera house, then maybe it can work. But if, on the other hand, we are Nietzsche, or close read- ers of The Birth of Tragedy, then it cannot work. For what we now know is that it is all done with smoke and mirrors. Insofar, that is, as we experience the ‘metaphysical comfort’ brought to us by Dionysus, then, like Hamlet, we

know that the presupposition of life-affirming action is in fact mere ‘illusion’. And that entails that, like him, we are paralysed, incapable of authentic action. Conversely, if we can act with passion and commitment then we must be metaphysical realists and so deprive ourselves of the ‘metaphysical comfort’ of Dionysianism. For us it is an ‘either–or’ situation. We must choose between being, with the early Wagner, players on the world-stage and, on the other hand, becoming, with the later Wagner, metaphysical emigrants. Nietzsche’s solution to the ‘enigma’ of Richard Wagner leaves, therefore, an uncomfortable residue. The solution works for the uninitiated, but initiates it leaves out in the cold. It leaves them with the knowledge that life

is not worth living yet locked into an unavoidable compulsion to buy into

life, ‘whatever the price’.

University of Auckland, New Zealand


1 The following abbreviations of Nietzsche’s works are employed in this paper:

KGB Nietzsche Briefwechsel. Kritische Gesamtausgabe, ed. G. Colli and M. Montinari (Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 1975– ).


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HKG Friedrich Nietzsche. Werke und Briefe: Historische-Kritische-Gesamtaus- gabe, ed. Hans Joachim Mette (Munich: Beck, 1934–40).

KSA Friedrich Nietzsche. Kritische Studienausgabe, new edn, ed. G. Colli and M. Montinari (Berlin: DTV/de Gruyter, 1999).

BT Friedrich Nietzsche: The Birth of Tragedy and other Writings, trans. R. Speirs (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999).


The Young Nietzsche (London: Heinemann, 1912), p. 241.


Nietzsche: Philosopher, Psychologist, Antichrist (New York: Vintage, 1950), p. 30.


Nietzsche: The Man and his Philosophy, revised edn (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999), pp. 57–8.


Since the interest in and influence of Wagner is hardest to deny in sections 16– 25, this, in effect, is what Kaufmann suggests in his introduction to his own translation of The Birth, when he says that ‘unfortunately The Birth of Tragedy does not end with section 15, as an early draft did, and as the book clearly [this is the bullying use of ‘clearly’] ought to. Another ten sections follow that weaken the whole book immeasurably’ (The Birth of Tragedy and the Case of Wagner, translated and introduced by W. Kaufmann (New York: Vintage, 1966), p. 13. Presumably Kaufmann couples The Birth with The Case of Wagner, the anti- Wagner polemic of 1888, in order to show what Nietzsche ‘really’ thought of Wagner.


To Carl von Gersdorff, shortly after his first visit by invitation to Tribschen: ‘I have found a man who, like no other, reveals to me the epitome of what Schopenhauer calls “the genius” and who is permeated by that wonderfully intense philosophy. This is none other than Richard Wagner’ (KGB II.1 19; see, too, the following letter).


It is, in fact, clear from his notebooks that Nietzsche was not totally uncritical of the Wagnerian world-view. Whereas Wagner condemns Greek slavery, the young Nietzsche affirms the ‘hard’ truth, as he sees it, that slavery of some kind is the prerequisite of the leisure that produces ‘culture’ (KSA 7 7 [16], 7 [79], 7 [138]). And whereas, as we shall see, Wagner holds that, in a sense, the Volk (people) is the creator of the great artwork, Nietzsche, though sometimes agree- ing with Wagner (KSA 7 1 [1], 7 [18]), is at other times inclined to think that the creator of art can only be an individual (KSA 7 5 [98]). (In both cases of disagree- ment, I believe, Wagner is right and Nietzsche wrong, but to pursue this issue would take us too far afield.)


Hollingdale, op. cit., p. 58.


The Life of Richard Wagner (New York: Knopf, 1946), Vol. IV, p. 525.


Wagner on Music and Drama, ed. A. Goldman and E. Sprinchorn, trans. W. Aston Ellis (London: Gollancz, 1970), p. 59. Hereafter WMD.


Richard Wagner’s Prose Works, Vol. V, trans. W. Ashton Ellis (London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trübner and Co., 1896), p. 120. Hereafter WPW.


Even, one might ask, the Jews? Theoretically at least one must. In the infa- mous ‘On the Jews in Music’ Wagner at least has the grace to place the blame for the status of the Jews as malign outsiders on Christianity’s refusal to assimilate them. Logically speaking the solution to ‘the Jewish question’ is thus assimilation (WMD, pp. 51–9). But the fact that, once Jews are cast in the role of a fifth column in the midst of the Volk, elimination presents itself as an alternative to assimilation is what makes such paranoid thinking so dangerous.


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13 Wahn is a word Wagner uses with great frequency. It is hard to translate: Ashton Ellis leaves it untranslated because he distinguishes both harmful and beneficial forms of Wahn – religion is the latter – rather as Plato, in the Phaedrus, distin- guishes good and bad forms of ‘madness’ – the inspiration behind good poetry is the latter. In itself, it seems to me, Wahn, as Wagner uses it, is a neutral term meaning something like ‘set of beliefs that exceed any possible evidence we could have for their truth’. Nietzsche’s notebooks of the Tribschen period are full of this kind of use of Wahn, for which Illusion is often deployed as a synonym.

14 Nietzsche, trans. D. Krell (New York: Harper-Collins, 1991), Vol. I, p. 88.

15 The competition, of course, is provided by Plato’s attempts to persuade the Tyrant of Syracuse to govern according to the principles of the Republic.

16 Quoted in B. Magee, The Philosophy of Schopenhauer (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1983), p. 355.

17 In Wagner at Bayreuth (1876) Nietzsche deals with the conflict between the reservations he is now beginning to have about Wagner and the overriding desire to praise the composer and promote the cause of Bayreuth by narrating Wagner’s career as a kind of Bildungsroman in which his ‘higher self’ gradually triumphs over his ‘lower self’. It seems to me highly probable that it was the ‘Beethoven’ essay which gave him the model for the structure of this essay.

18 Certainly Walt Disney, whose classic Fantasia allows a day in the life of Arcadia to grow out of the ‘Pastoral’, hears these words.

19 Wagner actually says ‘symphony in F’, which could mean either the sixth or the eighth. The former, however, seems to me far more likely.

20 Parerga and Paralipomena (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1974), Vol. 2, pp. 432–36.

21 Wagner coined the term ‘absolute’ to refer to purely instrumental music. One can to some degree trace the process of Nietzsche’s thinking his way into Wagner’s later theoretical stance via his use of ‘absolute’ in the notebooks of the period. In the autumn of 1869, for instance, in line with Wagner’s earlier theory, with which Nietzsche was familiar prior to the Tribschen period, ‘absolute’, as applied to music, functions as a term of clear disapproval (KSA 7 1 [54]). But by the end of the year – a year in which Nietzsche celebrated Christmas at Tribschen – it has lost its critical connotation (KSA 7 3 [2]) and by the end of 1870 it has become a term of high approval (KSA 7 5 [110]).

22 The World as Will and Representation, trans. E. F. J. Payne (New York: Dover, 1969), Vol. I, p. 261. Hereafter WR.

23 Nietzsche’s book is called, to repeat, The Birth of Tragedy out of the Spirit of Music. Since both the ‘Beethoven’ essay and The Birth were written during a period when Wagner and Nietzsche saw each other on an almost weekly basis, it seems certain that one of them took the phrase ‘spirit of music’ from the other. Since the relationship was of hero-worshipper to hero it seems to me most likely that Nietzsche took the phrase from Wagner.

24 Heidegger, op. cit., pp. 86–8.

25 Might not a society composed of world- and will-‘negating’ ascetics waiting patiently for death to absorb them into a better world count as a ‘redeemed civi- lization’? Hardly. For in the absence of will, of action, such a society would soon get wiped out by will-fully aggressive neighbours. The idea of a will-denying civi- lization is, in short, an oxymoron. To live is to act, and as Nietzsche says, ‘action is world-affirmation’ (KSA 7 5 [32]).

26 Wagner himself speaks of such a split. In a letter to his friend August Röckel written in August 1856 he observes that the theme of ‘renunciation, the negation of the will’ appears already in pre-Schopenhauerian works such as Tannhäuser


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and Lohengrin. He explains this as a split between artist and early theoretician:

‘with my conscious reason, I was working in direct opposition to the intuitive ideas represented in these works. While as an artist I felt [the need for world- denial] … as a philosopher I sought to discover a totally opposite interpretation of the world’, one, namely, supportive of socialism (quoted in Magee, op. cit., p. 341.)

27 This is the formulation given in ‘The Birth of Tragic Thought’, a lecture of 1871 (KSA I, p. 588), which strikes me as more interesting than the slightly different formulation given in The Birth itself (BT 3).

28 If the Greeks had not defeated Darius, Nietzsche reflects in his notebooks, the religion of Zoroaster would have conquered Greece (KSA 7 5[54]). The fact that this reflection occurs in a passage of thought concerned with the ‘illusions’ on which culture is necessarily built suggests an interesting perspective on the figure of Zarathustra: that he is, inter alia, the ‘free spirit’ who sees through the ‘illusions’ of Western culture.

29 Of course, Nietzsche also construes the pre-tragic art of Homer as an overcom- ing of nausea. And even the hyper-rationalism of Socrates, ‘Socratism’, he construes in a similar way. I exclude these discussions, however, as being tangen- tial to present concerns.

30 Nietzsche read a great deal of Hölderlin’s prose and poetic works at school and in 1861 wrote an essay praising the then unknown, or if known, despised, poet entitled ‘A Letter to a Distant Friend in which I Recommend my Favourite Poet’ (Nietzsche Werke: Kritische Gesamtausgabe, ed. G. Colli and M. Montinari (Berlin: de Gruyter, 1967– ), I.2 12[1]). Hölderlin’s philosophical thinking is dominated by an antithesis between ‘clarity of presentation’ (the ‘Apollonian’) and the ‘the fire from heaven’ (the ‘Dionysian’); between, that is, finite human reason and the infinitude of ‘the holy’, of ‘holy pathos’. He holds that Western modernity has been overtaken by clear but shallow reason so that it has lost its sense of the divine, and that the poet, standing nearer to the gods than other mortals, has the priestly task of restoring it. In ‘Bread and Wine’ he asks ‘What are poets for in destitute times?’ and answers that they are ‘like the wine-god’s [i.e. Dionysus’] holy priests/who roamed from land to land in holy night’.

31 Compare the ecstatic state described in Thus Spoke Zarathustra’s ‘Before Sunrise’: identifying himself with the ‘azure bell’ of the sky, Zarathustra has learnt ‘to smile uncloudedly down from bright eyes and from miles away when under us compulsion and purpose and guilt stream like rain’.