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 overwhelming power of Wagner’s music, he now tells us, produces only intimations: “the state preceding thought, the throng of yet unborn thoughts, the promise of future thoughts.” The extraordinary magnitude of the emotions expressed by the music is, in the Untimely Meditations, accounted for by their being universal and suprapersonal; we are participating in joy as such, longing as such, and can thereby achieve self-transcendence and not mere sentimental self-indulgence. In The Case of Wagner this has all become mere histrionics, an “overexcitement of the nervous mechanism.”
Such extreme emotional states, in the Untimely Meditations, are deemed capable of allowing us to view ordinary life afresh, with an “uncanny and exuberant sensation of surprise and amazement at the world.” In The Case of Wagner, the “counterfeiting of transcendence” is simply a lie, an emotionally exhausting lie. But Wagner’s music still remains for Nietzsche, in 1888, the most eloquent articulation of “the labyrinth of the modern soul” and therefore indispensable to the philosopher.
The most breathtaking moment in Nietzsche’s unending dialectic of being transported then skeptically rebelling occurs in a middle-period work, Human, All Too Human (1878–1880). Here he spells out for us just what is at stake. He expands his skeptical gaze outward to all of Western culture, to the art, architecture, and ideas that have previously moved him or, being interwoven with our highest values, made him feel that life is meaningful, and he finds there a brilliantly inventive series of transfiguring tricks. Just tricks. And ones that he can now see through. T.S. Eliot found this deep pessimism about art one of the most striking features of Nietzsche’s work (he draws attention to it in a 1916 review of a book on Nietzsche). It is unsurprising that a poet should find Nietzsche’s works of this period arresting. They provide a marvelous compendium of devices for creating uncanny and elevated states while at same time asserting their hollowness.
Nietzsche repeatedly points out, for example, the way in which a sense of profundity, of emotional depth, is often created by mixing apparently contrary emotional states: sorrow in happiness, sweetness tainted with bitterness, playfulness combined with deepest seriousness. This is true not only in music but in those Raphael Madonnas he so admired, their sweet serenity made poignant by symbols of the Passion.
The sonorities of ecclesiastical music and oratory, he tells us, tremble with both beauty and fearfulness. And the vast expanses of space in religious architecture, too, are sinister; they intimidate at the same time as they touch us with their beauty. This feeling of being moved by something that is not fully comprehensible to us, this “transposing people into uncommon moods,” he maintains, creates the psychological conditions required for the premonition that a miracle might happen at any moment.
In 1957, the Dutch phenomenologist of religion Gerardus van der Leeuw was inspired by Nietzsche to produce a compendium of his own, Sacred and Profane Beauty: The Holy in Art. He uses some of Nietzsche’s examples but also has wonderful ones of his own. The power of Bach’s Passions, he suggests, derives in part from the sudden movement between intense subjective emotion in the arias and recitative, and calm objectivity in the choruses, where ripieno (the addition of voices) is used for reinforcement, rather than crescendo, to emphasize the contrast.
In a more vivid, perhaps more obvious example he discusses the use of rests in music to create the sense that we are holding our breath in religious awe. But for van der Leeuw the many effects he describes are not merely psychological tricks, they are revelations of the holy. And whereas few other religious thinkers have followed Nietzsche in providing explicit, detailed analyses of uncanny effects, many have appropriated his insights in the service of mystical and religious revivals.
Various Protestant thinkers in the early twentieth century found in Nietzsche’s writings an important critique of Christianity on the basis of which faith might be revitalized, purged of its decadent elements. In doing so they exploited the profound ambivalence than runs through his work. Many of them took seriously Nietzsche’s association between Christian asceticism and sickliness, hatred of life, and weakness; they felt he pointed the way toward a more healthy, masculinized Christianity.
Religious and mythologizing interpretations of Nietzsche have often been anchored in Thus Spoke Zarathustra (1887), the text where he first expresses his vertiginous delight at the thought of eternal recurrence as a counter-ideal to Christian asceticism, one that invites us to imagine the infinite recurrence of everything that has ever been and to be exhilarated by this possibility, seen as affirming existence in the deepest way possible. Having insisted in 1878 that he would from now on repudiate ecstatic visions in favor of “small, unpretentious truths found by rigorous methods,” he now intones his wisdom, expressed through elaborate metaphors, in the cadences of the Lutheran Bible and employs a rich repertory of poetic transfiguring tricks. The nostalgia for the rich inner worlds generated by religion that continued to surface even in Nietzsche’s skeptical middle period had already intimated that a restriction to firm little facts would not be sufficient for him. In Daybreak (1881), he writes:
Learning to think differently about space.—Is it the real things or the imaginary things which have contributed most to human happiness? What is certain is that the extent of the space between the highest happiness and the deepest unhappiness has been produced only with the aid of the imaginary things. This kind of feeling of space is, consequently, being continually reduced under the influence of science: just as science has taught us, and continues to teach us, to feel that the earth is small and the solar-system itself no more than a point.
Nietzsche remained throughout his sane life a severe critic of religious illusions, but for all that he proclaimed his resilience in the face of hard truths, he could not easily reconcile himself to the fading of what he calls in Human, All Too Human “the rainbow colors at the outermost ends of human knowing and imagining.” Nostalgia would not do. The poetic elements in his later work, and indeed his poetry and songs, attest to that.
The closing words of Krzysztof Michalski’s The Flame of Eternity: An Interpretation of Nietzsche’s Thought invoke an inner voice that calls us out beyond ourselves, making the lives we are living seem “too narrow, too small.” In this very personal book, Michalski makes clear that he can no more live with the constriction of inner space than Nietzsche. His book is essentially a description of the way in which Nietzsche, who in Michalski’s view aimed above all to alter the sensibilities of his readers, altered his own. In his exposition of Thus Spoke Zarathustra, for example, Michalski tells us, “I have to find myself in Zarathustra if his story is to become meaningful.” He thereby invites us to find ourselves there too. This is the indispensably subjective side of interpretation for Michalski. However, he does not intend us to use Zarathustra simply to see our existing selves in a new way. He writes, “But I, this story suggests, am also something more than just myself.” He wants to make us receptive to something that is greater than we are, to expand the outer limits of our knowing and our imagining.
The principal device on which Michalski relies for this transfiguration is a skeptical one. It does not in fact derive in any obvious way from Nietzsche’s thought but rather from the philosophy of Martin Heidegger. Michalski’s philosophical training, in his native Poland, was in the Continental tradition under Leszek Kołakowski, a prominent critic of Marxism and subsequently an unorthodox religious thinker. Michalski, a Catholic, wrote a dissertation on Heidegger and it is clear that the religious element in Heidegger’s later writings remained a particularly powerful influence on him. His hope in The Flame of Eternity is that skepticism about our ordinary way of knowing and experiencing the world will open up radical new possibilities, one of which is a new path to God.
Michalski follows Heidegger in holding that concepts, which we ordinarily employ to make sense of our world, in fact provide us with a very limited form of understanding, one that not only fails to capture the inexhaustible richness of experience and meaning but also shuts down our potential receptiveness to it. Unlike Heidegger, Michalski does not attempt to provide a systematic philosophical defense of this view; nor does he use the Heideggerian term “Being” for what it is that conceptual understanding conceals from us. Rather, he uses Nietzsche’s writings to try to instill in us “a skepticism that cannot be expressed but metaphorically.” He is taking his cue from the late essays in which Heidegger argues that poetry, not philosophy, can best illuminate for us what concepts have concealed. Michalski aims to enlist Nietzsche in altering our sensibilities not through philosophical arguments but through something more like poetry, directing our attention to “the unknowable,” employing metaphors bearing cultural and emotional meanings that cannot be reduced to analyzable abstractions.
In spite of his Heideggerian aims, Michalski’s reading of Nietzsche is a significant departure from Heidegger’s. Heidegger read Nietzsche as a philosopher consistently expounding a single doctrine, that of the will to power. He therefore took Nietzsche’s thought to be an obstacle to the deepened, non-conceptual awareness we need, and particularly to awareness of the divine. Michalski, on the other hand, reads Nietzsche as a poet and enlists him as an ally in showing us not only that our experience of the world is indescribably complex, fractured, and deeply fissured, but that through the fissures God might be revealed to us.
We discover these fissures, Michalski claims, when we confront something that utterly defies our understanding, something we cannot adequately conceive of. Our concepts fail us. Death is the most important example for Michalski but on his view love, too, both resists our understanding and may be revelatory. From the point of view of transfiguration, love and death, as Michalski describes them, are in a sense the same device, for love is seen as something obliterating, a preparation for death. It is accompanied by a form of shame, he tells us:
It is the shame that, though I am with you under the apple tree, I am still Krzysztof, and you are Jadwiga, that we were born, and that we will die. That love will not burn us up completely, that something of us will remain: the ashes of the earth.
This part of the book is only loosely related to Nietzsche’s work, but it is easy to recognize here the form of transfiguration that the young Nietzsche had admired in Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde, the sense that in obliterating the self, love makes us part of something unfathomably greater than ourselves. Michalski takes sides with the young, transported Nietzsche against the later, skeptical Nietzsche who repudiated Tristan in favor of Bizet’s Carmen, pouring scorn on the idea that love is a form of mystical transcendence as opposed to a savage desire for possession.
What the young Nietzsche found the most continually alluring in Tristan, though, is the magic of death and the way in which it can illumine life. In that music he finds
the broken glance of a dying man with his insatiable sweet longing for the mysteries of night and death, far distant from life, which, as evil, deception and separation, shines with an uncanny ghostly morning brightness and distinctness.
Michalski finds the same transfiguring power, the horror of death, in Zarathustra. The prophecy that Zarathustra brings us, like that of Jesus, is an apocalyptic one.
Leszek Kołakowski, in his essay “Jesus Christ—Prophet and Reformer,” describes the effect that Jesus has on his followers in insisting that they live in the shadow of the Apocalypse. The imminence of this catastrophe, he tells us, means that “earthly realities, the whole multiplicity of things that are important in life, lose all meaning”; nothing in the material world can have value to them or be an object of desire for them anymore. Everything physical and temporal is fragile. Abstract norms lose their grip. It is love, the loving bond with God, to which Christ’s followers cling.
In The Flame of Eternity, Michalski points out that Nietzsche often, and in Zarathustra most of all, alludes to “the apocalyptic themes of the Bible.” But although Michalski, like Kołakowski, describes vividly the upheaval in our sense of meaning that follows from our awareness of impending destruction, he views the coming Apocalypse as described by both Nietzsche and Jesus not as an event that lies in the future but as a horror that permeates every moment of our lives.
The fear and longing that pierce my heart in the face of death do not allow me to lose myself in everyday concerns, in that which is today, in what I know. They do not let me fall asleep. The cry of the dying Christ can be heard everywhere I go.
He wants to make us aware of a horror that seems to be an ineradicable aspect of our lives as mortal creatures. But as his invocation of the dying Christ shows, he wants to do more than this. The most important transfiguring device of all, the most difficult one even for the kind of Christianity that offers consoling beliefs about the afterlife, is the one that allows death to be illumined by something beyond it, to be seen at once as something more than horror. The powerful Crucifixion scenes we know, from Bach’s Saint Matthew Passion to Raphael’s Transfiguration (two works of art, incidentally, that were extremely important for Nietzsche) have had to attempt this magical illumination of the grotesque.
There is an El Greco painting of the Crucifixion, Christ on the Cross Adored by Donors, now in the Louvre, that accomplishes this effect with astonishing simplicity. El Greco never settles for indicating holiness with religious iconography; his images convey holiness through their effect. In this instance, the blue-tinged flesh of Christ’s body seems arrestingly corporeal and uncannily incorporeal at the same time. The sight of his body is sickening in its contortions of pain and deathly hues, but beautiful too, the sinewy limbs rendered in El Greco’s long, flowing, mannerist lines and the prominent chest with its masculine musculature and painful vulnerability. As mortal life leaves him the Christ figure shimmers with a different kind of life. Behind Christ is one of El Greco’s dramatic, impressionistic, stormy skies. The body of Christ, while boldly defined, is at the same time unified with this sky, painted with the same rapid strokes in the same palette of blues and grays and whites. The unearthly life we attribute to Christ is the unfathomable power of that storm.
“This lightning-fire, irrevocably inscribed in my life, rends its fabric and makes each moment therein a potential new beginning,” Michalski tells us. He is adopting here a Heideggerian view concerning the unreality of time. Human consciousness differentiates past, present, and future, wresting them from the moment. “This differentiation is the flash of light…. And it is only now, after this burst of light, that the atmosphere that protects human life can be called a cloud.” We dwell in a protective atmosphere, the temporality of our mortal lives, but at any moment it might be dissolved by death.
We can barely know what this means. And this incomprehensibility seems to Michalski to open up radical, unknowable possibilities. Here conceptual understanding reaches its limit and we have to resort to metaphors. The lightning fire that ignites human consciousness and at the same time threatens to burn it up is the “flame of eternity.” Zarathustra’s message is that man “contains within himself an irremovable potential for total destruction and, by the same token, for radical change…. He is like a dark cloud, from which lightning could appear at any moment.”
This is the way in which Michalski finds himself in the poetry of Zarathustra and at the same time finds that he is more than himself. It is an idiosyncratically personal reading. But it undeniably reflects a sensibility to which Nietzsche was drawn in his nonskeptical moments. Nietzsche could not help but continue to admire Wagner for finding “a sound for those quiet, disquieting midnights of the soul, where cause and effect seem out of joint and where at any moment something might originate ‘out of nothing’ [das Nicht].” Nietzsche did not find here, though, a genuine basis for hope. His own dialectic between the condition of being transported and skepticism about that condition left him in the end with neither lasting faith nor doubt but rather was ended by his descent into insanity, into the delusions of a man whose final published work was entitled Ecce Homo and who, as his sanity left him, signed his letters “The Crucified One.”
The trouble with transfiguring devices is their ephemerality, their tendency to prove evanescent in the face of our lived lives. Thomas Buddenbrook, waking the morning after his epiphany, finds that his ordinary bourgeois world immediately closes in around him again and remains his sole horizon until the moment of his ordinary death, falling in the street with his hands in their white kid gloves outstretched in a dirty puddle. That is Mann’s verdict on Schopenhauer.
But Michalski’s own sensibility was more durable. There was a deep continuity between the vision set out in The Flame of Eternity and the life he lived. He died in February this year after a life suffused with hope for what the world of ideas could offer. He sought unlikely reconciliations. As a thinker, he insisted that the New Testament and Zarathsutra share the same message, being stories “about death accepted and integrated into one’s own life.” As founder and rector of the Institute for Human Sciences in Vienna, he brought together humanist thinkers with Pope John Paul II to discuss the relationship between enlightenment and faith. His thought informed his life; and his life, as a thinker, a lover, a friend, is integrated in moving ways into his final work.
But in spite of being in many ways profoundly subjective, Michalski’s art of transfiguration is in essence an old and timeless one. Death as he portrays it is both eternal fire and paradise. It offers us precisely that mixture of fear and beauty that makes us feel a miracle might happen. And undoubtedly many of us, after all the uncanny midnights of the soul, will still awaken early to Philip Larkin’s sober fact:
Slowly light strengthens, and the room takes shape.
It stands, plain as a wardrobe, what we know,
Have always known, know that we can’t escape,
Yet can’t accept. One side will have to go.
For some of us, El Greco’s electrifying storm-Christ will always turn out to be just a clever trick in paint. Those with a different sensibility will carry on seeking and finding new forms of rapture in a transfigured world. Nietzsche will probably remain indispensable to both.