Towards a Nietzschean Understanding of Politics: Notes on "The Case of Wagner" (Part 1)

part 1 | part 2 | part 3

All citations from the essay throughout the course of this series are from the Kaufmann translation in the “Basic Writings of Nietzsche” published by Modern Library, copyright 1992, p. 611-653.

First part: “Preface,” p. 611-612, with commentary.

Note: Words in italics those of Nietzsche’s. Each paragraph from the translation is reproduced. A commentary is between each paragraph.

1. I have granted myself some small relief. It is not merely pure malice when I praise Bizet in this essay at the expense of Wagner. Interspersed with many jokes, I bring up a matter that is no joke. To turn my back on Wagner was for me a fate; to like anything at all after that, a triumph. Perhaps nobody was more dangerously attached to – grown together with – Wagnerizing; nobody tried harder to resist it; nobody was happier to be rid of it. A long story! – You want a word for it? – If I were a moralist, who knows what I might call it? Perhaps self-overcoming. – But the philosopher has no love for moralists. Neither does he love pretty words.

Pre-paragraph 1: The letter begins with an inscription – “ridendo dicere severum,” which Kaufmann translates as “Through what is laughable say what is somber.” Kaufmann points out that Horace has a similar saying, “ridentem dicere verum, quid vetat” (Satires I.24), which he translates as “What forbids us to tell the truth, laughing?”

Nietzsche has turned a question – albeit one that could be rhetorical – into an aphorism or command. That transformation of what could be philosophic into what is explicitly political (law-discoverer vs. law-giver) is our concern. Somehow the question of art is central to this: tragedy and comedy, solemnity and laughter somehow tie into all of this. “Truth” has dropped out of Nietzsche’s forumlation entirely, but we recall Strauss invoking Thomas More in The City and Man p. 61: Socrates laughs, Jesus weeps.

On Paragraph 1: The difficulty with Nietzsche is establishing what persona he is using at any given time. In this paragraph he rejects explictly the persona of a “moralist,” but we have to take that with a huge grain of salt. When we reach the end of this essay, he will have completely trashed Wagner for relying on a redemption narrative that prevents self-overcoming and emphasizes weakness. It looks like he is taking on the persona of “philosopher,” but that too can be defeated – “pretty words” are all Nietzsche writes, and he knows it.

So what “relief” has Nietzsche afforded himself? I think we could go as far as provisionally terming him a “moralist” in this essay. That’s not going to hold up, for obvious reasons. But in this paragraph, we see he has turned his back on Wagner, and that was “fate.” Now he has new tastes, and that is a “triumph.” This is a testimonial for the most part. There is one catch: note the list of four stages – “attached to,” “grown together with,” “resist,” “rid of.” What’s missing is the middle stage between “growing” and “resisting.” In Plato’s Republic, how exactly anyone is turned from the cave’s images to seek the light above is an open question.

2. What does a philosopher demand of himself first and last? To overcome his time in himself, to become “timeless.” With what must he therefore engage in the hardest combat? With whatever marks him as the child of his time. Well, then! I am, no less than Wagner, a child of this time: that is, a decadent: but I comprehended this, I resisted it. The philosopher in me resisted.

On Paragraph 2: Why is Nietzsche insisting that he is a philosopher? And why is he insisting a philosopher resists, when we know full well a philosopher is far more than a believer being confronted with an opposite creed?

I think the answer is something deeply learned from Spinoza: it does no good to tell people that they may not know something, especially not ambitious people with technical skills or enormous talents. Best thing to do is just go “you know what? you know everything” – but one can’t flatter simply to do this. One has to establish one’s own authority, so what you do is you play up to what your audience thinks of themselves, put yourself in their shoes, and then start stepping back.

This requires incredible skill to pull off. It also makes Nietzsche very difficult to access.

3. Nothing has preoccupied me more profoundly than the problem of decadence – I had reasons. “Good and evil” is merely a variation of that problem. Once one has developed a keen eye for the symptoms of decline, one understands morality, too – one understands what is hiding under its most sacred names and value formulas: impoverished life, the will to the end, the great weariness. Morality negates life.

On Paragraph 3: Nietzsche in this paragraph is a scientific moralist. He traces “good and evil” to a larger problem, that of “decadence.” This perspective leads his narrator to say that under morality is decline.

Why should we not take the surface absolutely seriously? Precisely because as the essay develops, Wagner will be accused of negating life by propping up something that is moral inasmuch as it is immoral. A “great weariness” will describe the effeminate heroes who need to be redeemed by women in Wagner; a “will to the end” describes the suicides in those same operas, and “impoverished life” describes aptly the people who buy tickets for Wagnerian mush and sing its praises incessantly.

Perhaps the critique of Wagner is in some ways a critique of Christianity. But that’s a deep, serious question that Nietzsche’s immediate audience isn’t terribly interested in. They know Nietzsche is reputed to be an atheist, and assume that Christianity sucks. What they need to know from Nietzsche’s narrator’s perspective is why Wagner sucks. That’s the immediate rhetorical task, and only by working through it are we going to get the proper critique of Christianity, the one Nietzsche might actually mean. Right now, our narrator is a moralist who has used moralistic logic so well he’s undermined morality.

4. For such a task I required a special self-discipline: to take sides against everything sick in me, including Wagner, including Schopenhauer, including all of modern “humaneness.” – A profound estrangement, cold, sobering up – against everything that is of this time, everything timely – and most desirable of all, the eye of Zarathustra, an eye that beholds the whole fact of man at a tremendous distance – below. For such a goal – what sacrifice wouldn’t be fitting? what “self-overcoming?” what “self-denial”?

On Paragraph 4: The moralistic crusade continues. Our narrator is in love with the timeless, and stands above humanity. Again: for Cicero, the greatness of Socrates was that he compelled divine wisdom to speak about mere human things. Here, however, man is beheld from above only. Notice that the moralistic method means that the moralist is “sacrificing” as well as conquering his previous opinions and wants. A purification is taking place.

So is Nietzsche serious? Absolutely: this is the bare minimum needed to indict Wagner, this is the necessary and sufficient case. And it isn’t just piety being invoked; we’re getting a critique of how far piety can go. To get to the real philosophy, which I know I’m whetting your appetite for, we have to get the surface known well first.

And trust me. It takes years to make a real discovery in philosophy, and usually you have no clue what it means until it is too late. I’m doing you a favor by sticking to the surface.

5. My greatest experience was a recovery. Wagner is merely one of my sicknesses.

On Paragraph 5: If you’re tempted to say “hey, things that are tied to decline are bad, and he said morality negates life, so he must hate morality,” think about the implication of this section. Does the narrator appreciate one recovery all the more because he is still so sick?

6. Not that I wish to be ungrateful to this sickness. When in this essay I assert the proposition that Wagner is harmful, I wish no less to assert for whom he is nevertheless indispensible – for the philosopher. Others may be able to get along without Wagner; but the philosopher is not free to do without Wagner. He has to be the bad conscience of his time: for that he needs to understand it best. But confronted with the labyrinth of the modern soul, where could he find a guide more initiated, a more eloquent prophet of the soul, than Wagner? Through Wagner modernity speaks most intimately, concealing neither its good nor its evil – having forgotten all sense of shame. And conversely: one has almost completed an account of the value of what is modern once one has gained clarity about what is good and evil in Wagner.

On Paragraph 6: This is a moralist telling us what the use of philosophy is. Note that “good and evil” – I thought that was just the problem of “decadence?” – is now the criteria for evaluating Wagner and all of “modernity” (American Constitutionalism, capitalism, socialism, modern Parliamentary democracy, Church/State separation, education in technical skills only, nationalism, etc. In short, our world).

Is the moralist wrong about philosophy? Not really – it is partly because a philosopher can have insight into his time that is especially accurate that we appreciate his wisdom. The only problem is that recognition of philosophy has to come about through “sickness:” there are other things a philosopher does and is, but the moralist isn’t quite going to be able to appreciate them all.

7. I understand perfectly when a musician says today: “I hate Wagner, but I can no longer endure any other music.” But I’d also understand a philosopher who would who would declare: “Wagner sums up modernity. There is no way out, one must first become a Wagnerian.”

On Paragraph 7: Gk. “mousike” – this isn’t just music, this is a complete liberal arts education. Homer is sung, after all, and there are all sorts of accompanying arts used to truly appreciate what is virtually the Bible for the ancient Greeks.

Our moralist now “understands” a musician and philosopher. Is his insight accurate? Must one become a Wagnerian first in order to understand modernity?

The proof of the last statement is all too circular. Our moralist’s personal experience is allows him this “understanding.” And yet: this is our introduction to the problem, and a hint that perhaps the problem cannot be transcended. Perhaps something has fundamentally changed about the modern soul.

Nietzsche does not require a philosopher to say this to us, and raise the crucial questions: taking good and evil seriously lets us see quite far. It is only people who think they can see that much farther who make appeals to dogmatic philosophy, set up their cults, and become as Wagner.

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