Nietzsche: ‘The Lightning Fire’

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bpk, Berlin/Nationalgalerie, Staatliche Museen, Berlin/Klaus Goeken/Art Resource
Friedrich Nietzsche on the veranda of his parents’ house in Naumburg; portrait by Curt Stoeving, 1894. The inscription is from Thus Spoke Zarathustra: ‘My suffering and my pity/What do I care!/Am I striving for happiness?/I am striving for my work.’

Nietzsche does not belong entirely to philosophers. He was a philosopher-poet concerned not simply with describing and explaining the world as he found it, but with identifying and employing the electrifying arts that make the world appear uncanny and ineffably deep. The current Anglophone literature on his work for the most part maintains an embarrassed silence about this poetic power. But Richard Strauss and Gustav Mahler would not have been moved to set to music a novel critique, say, of the neo-Kantian form of epistemic skepticism.

The early intellectual and artistic loves of Nietzsche’s life, Arthur Schopenhauer and Richard Wagner, both wielded convoluted metaphysical arguments in support of their transfiguring visions and Nietzsche was aware from the start (as we know from his letters and notebooks) that their philosophical justifications were slightly preposterous. But he allowed himself, like so many nineteenth-century bourgeois Germans, to be moved if not to belief then at least to tears by their religiosity without religion.

Thomas Mann, of course, became the master of describing the almost-epiphany they both inspired. In Buddenbrooks, he famously depicts the soberly industrious, aging Senator Thomas Buddenbrook, who has recently read Schopenhauer, awakening one night with the blissful realization that individual consciousness is a mistake and death will release us back to unity with the blind, unconscious will that is the endlessly creative essence of all that exists. The ecstatic quality of his vision echoes the exuberant fervor with which Nietzsche had embraced the Schopenhauerean worldview and Wagner’s adaptation of it in his first published work, The Birth of Tragedy (1872).

But Nietzsche’s fervor, like that of Thomas Buddenbrook, was not the kind of psychological state that endures. A couple of years of gradual disenchantment were followed by a lifelong battle between ruthless skepticism and residual admiration for the transfiguring wizardry of Schopenhauer and Wagner. In his early essays, Untimely Meditations (1873–1874), Nietzsche praises Wagner for rejecting all the cheap theatrical tricks employed by composers such as Meyerbeer and instead learning to speak with a “wholly novel psychical magic.” In a late work, The Case of Wagner (1888), he derides Wagner for being “a master of hypnotic tricks” who strives for nothing but effect. In his Untimely Meditations, Nietzsche is intoxicated by Wagner’s blend of myth, legend, Christianity, and fantastical imagination, telling us that it is rooted in a mastery of all art, all religions, the histories of nations, synthesizing the most valuable essence of them all into a beautifully simplified structure. In The Case of Wagner, he writes that he has come to see this exoticism and obscurity as a meaningless mélange of symbols, which fascinates only because it is impenetrable.

The …

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