Towards a Nietzschean Understanding of Politics: Notes on "The Case of Wagner" (Part 3)

part 1 | part 2 | part 3

II. Music, Art and Politics

for Nancy Ruggeri

1. A fellow student in graduate school remarked that after reading Nietzsche, his love for the band Cursive fell away – the nihilism in their lyrics and their overly emotional tropes struck him as decadent and he couldn’t take them seriously anymore. Straussians are also notorious for having some sympathy with Allan Bloom’s critique of popular music in “The Closing of the American Mind:” music stripped only to the essentials of passion must become bland and commercial, whereas an attempt at refinement may elevate the creator as well as the listeners.

I’m sympathetic to Nietzsche, Strauss and Allan Bloom. And I listen to indie rock and popular music generally more than I ever have in my life.

2. In “The Case of Wagner,” we may say that Nietzsche’s surface teaching is this: Wagner is bad for the same reason as Christianity, except that his hypocrisy, cult, and exacerbation of nationalist sentiment makes him that much worse. Both Wagner and Christianity posit a morality, and thus enervate life.

But that surface quickly dissipates once we see Nietzsche’s persona of a scientific moralist emerge in the Preface. The scientific moralist is distinguished from the philosopher, yet dominates the essay in two separate halves. From sections 1 – 5, Nietzsche’s persona is that of a moralist: Bizet’s “natural” love, complete with martial emotions that cause lovers to hurt and kill each other, is a more honest starting point than an artist claiming he knows exactly where redemption lies in love. It could be said that the story of Siegfried and Brunhilde finding free love apart from the old deities is also a “natural” love, but the objection to that point of view is not considered in these sections. The critique of myth only comes up when Nietzsche, in sections 7 – 12, says that Wagner’s mythological themes are barely distinguishable from dime store romance. The moralist cannot make this complaint, for what gives strength to his critique is precisely that Wagner borrows so freely and carelessly from Christianity. Myth is crucial to the moralist because it connects with the present day, not because it is at a remove.

Sections 7 – 12 seem to be where Nietzsche acts as a scientist. The trouble with Wagner is the atomism that generates him and he excels at using. There is no whole anymore, only an “anarchy of atoms,” created by the conditions of modern democracy. Those passions which stem from disunity can be united artificially as long as a crude appeal to equality is made. That appeal can take any number of forms – one could be by using “rights” to tear apart high culture (i.e. cursing loudly in museums and calling it free speech), another could be in a conception of love where everyone would win if it weren’t for sinister oppressive forces that we recognize because they hate equality. The concern in this section is with the truth, which depends on a concept of the whole which an actor must of necessity deny. An actor’s job is to make a lie seem true; his “whole” stems from a very partial need.

Section 6 is the midway point of sorts: it is where Wagner’s music speaks for itself; the narrator introduces it in his moralist guise. If we add in the two postscripts and the Epilogue to the letter, we get 15 sections and the midway point becomes section 8. The issues of tyranny and theater come into sharp relief there, and Wagner is dismissed explicitly from being considered a musician during that discussion. That seems to fit what the postscripts and the Epilogue discuss: tyranny, other musicians and the master/slave morality are the themes of those last sections respectively.

3. So now we’re stuck with two giant questions: How do love, truth and politics relate? How do the moralist and scientist synthesize?

The “brutality, artificiality and innocence” of the modern soul makes Wagner a symptom of our times. But we note that Bizet’s stronger notion of love, one that might lead to cheerfulness and virtue if properly addressed, shares at least two of these characteristics (brutality and innocence) and could share a third (the artifice may be what takes us from the tragedy of Carmen to virtue). “Artificial” is not necessarily bad – politics for Aristotle is a nature/convention blend, neither wholly one nor the other.

Bizet’s notion is probably flawed: again, the French are ultimately lambasted as decadent. But the fact that a moralist can engage him might be why a scientific moralist and not a moralistic scientist is closer to the truth to begin with. Nietzsche’s moralist says that he seems to himself to be “a better philosopher” when listening to Carmen; certainly he becomes “a better human being,” “a better musician, a better listener.” He tries to listen to the “causes” of the music and hears “its genesis,” seemingly. “I tremble before dangers that accompany some strange risk; I am delighted by strokes of good fortune of which Bizet is innocent” (613-614). He feels answers drop into his lap, that philosophy solves problems from the high vantage he is given (614).

In section 6, Wagner’s music incarnate speaks of “inducing intimations” instead of putting forward “thought.” “The state preceding thought” is what Wagner’s music is aiming for – “Chaos induces intimations,” “the world as it was before God created it.”

We could be cynical and say that whatever makes Wagner’s music work also makes Nietzsche’s moralist feel thoughtful. There’s only one problem: Nietzsche’s moralist is able to take apart Wagner’s music on its own grounds and expose it for what it is. The scientist aids the cause, but the excoriation of Wagner is fairly complete before we encounter the music speaking. There is a difference: Nietzsche’s moralist does have thoughts, he has serious questions. The questions are coming from taking piety and the greatest passions – not just what we think are the greatest passions, our own – seriously.

But we need to be sure of these answers. Hence, the moralist must join forces with the scientist: the passion animating the ancestral faith is elsewhere now. What the scientist finds out is how Wagner exercises power over others. He categorizes Wagner as a man of the theater and moves to consideration of politics from that same logic.

How love ties to piety we can plainly see, but the relation of truth to power is a more difficult task. Again, the atomistic imagery is key – when our passions are bundled, we can be organized by one who is clever enough however he likes. We’ve traded freedom for satisfaction, thinking the latter is freedom, and utterly unaware of the cycle of dependency we embrace.

4. There are many other sections which are cryptic in this essay, meant to push us towards the philosophic. I have given any thoughtful reader enough suggestions with which to start piecing together the teaching. I do realize those suggestions could be wrong, but I didn’t pursue the truth because I thought of myself as always being right.

What I want to do now is spend some time on our conception of politics and love – these directly as opposed to indirectly relate for us. Philosophy in truth was eros for Socrates, but our age purposely eschews philosophy because of its implications of inequality. Philosophy’s relation to the political then was ambiguous and indirect; for us, it is simply nonexistent. This is well and good, for we do strive to be a loving order when we can. A virtuous monarch does preclude the need for philosophy. However, once in a while problems will show up, and they can threaten to tear us apart, and nothing within our toolbox of typical solutions will fix them.

Right now our biggest problem is that we might not be able to fall in love anymore. If this sounds idiotic, consider The Good Life’s “Inmates:”

When you said you loved me, did you really love me?
Or did the words just spill out like drool on my pillow?
Because I was naked when you said those words
But I felt covered in your whispered worship
And as you passed out fast on my shoulder
I imagined a child
Waiting so sad and still for his mom to arrive

That’s just the first stanza of lyrics to this song, but you can see the continuity of theme from the discussion of Nietzsche. The question of communication – do I know you love me? – becomes a recounting of past history, and then, since mythologized moments won’t do, a discussion of who the beloved is.

So the song turns into a psychoanalysis of the beloved – if I imagine a child, maybe I can love him. Oh wait, I can’t, because even a child nowadays learns how not to be vulnerable no matter what. If I imagine the beloved as needy, then again a trap is sprung – it looks like his neediness will always exceed my affection and end with me getting hurt.

This line of logic – the sexes perpetually at war – almost turns comical in a way all of us know too well. The third major theme in the lyrics is the beloved apologizing for hurting the speaker, and the speaker pretty much responding “what kind of sucker do you think I am?”

One party simply is, the party that says she really meant everything, and the other party has a past he can’t escape. Which is as one-sided as one can get: it’s as if the other party had no past, no childhood? Nothing that could stir up these awful emotions? And how is it a relationship of this sort lasts as long as it does, where neither party can leave?

Again, the fourfold regression is key – we move from love to need to harm to where we lie. The dual sense of “lie” is what our speaker says has bound them and she’s breaking free from. As the fourth element, it is singled out as the worst condition, one beyond need and harm.

And yet, while we haven’t discussed it directly, it isn’t clear art can escape lies. We have seen Nietzsche castigate Wagner for being a liar, but that was from a scientific perspective, where Wagner is lying about being a musician. In truth, all art does is set up lies. And art sets up incredibly meaningful, noble lies that make love possible.

If we take lying to be a condition of untruth, then lying could be a metaphor for the pursuit of anything that matters.

5. So is our problem that we want the truth? That “we can’t handle the truth?” Perhaps it’s not our pursuit of truth that’s the problem – again, Nietzsche does assume a scientist’s guise to critique Wagner – but our relentlessness. Dickinson has written eloquently on how to avoid this problem.

Our problem is more like this: We want a truth that tells us everything we want to hear. Wagner appeals to us because we want to act, too. What we want to hear is that love is wholly perfect and that any choices made for its sake are good. It’s not entirely wrong; The Postal Service’s “Such Great Heights” is beautiful because there’s truth there. But it is not entirely right – if love is so flexible, how come individuals will kill over it?

If you want to think of contemporary politics as us bickering about what love is, you’re not far off the mark. The bickering is so severe that we talk past each other and see reasonable appeals as apolitical. Politics has to be passionate for us, for that’s the only sign that anything matters. The notion that someone’s passion could be wholly absorbed in making the best argument possible – in crafting words that last – is just absurd. Passion is the only common marker we have for love: a flexible notion means that passion can be shaped however.

Moreover – the complete breakdown of communication in public life has transferred over to private life. How can we know where one’s heart lies, when we don’t agree on what we value?

I think you can see that our eros is antagonistic to the philosophical, and if you can see that, that’s the beginning of a Nietzschean understanding of politics, one that can be explored via the everyday things around us. Our decadence isn’t in our culture – Nietzsche would probably be listening to indie rock too, even if it was just to see what it was. It’s in us, and the changes have to be incremental, because we’re doing a lot right. If we weren’t doing anything right, then and only then would a revolutionary politics, or a politics of mass, be justified.

1 Comment

  1. I like this, but I’m only really commenting on the first paragraph and the last.

    It seems to me that one of the things
    that people don’t understand about Bloom (or Strauss) is that for him the kind of total critique of modernity that you find in, say, Heidegger is a symptom of the same disease that it wants so desperately to cure (or to be cured). Thus, I can think of various points in “The Closing of the American Mind” where Bloom suggests (and Strauss is even more clear on this) that there are two great ironies of ‘third wave’ thinking a la Heidegger. The first is that it this kind of thinking at once judges the apparently godless world with all the severity of an Augustine or a Luther, while denying the existence of a perspective from which to make this judgment (why judge from the standpoint of redemption, to use Adorno’s phrase, when the belief in redemption is the subject of mockery) or why retain the hope of a Messianic intervention while repudiating the whole tradition of thinking where this made sense. (This first one sounds like something pointed out again and again by Nietzsche, that you also mention in this post) But even more strange is the way in which third wave thought gets suffused with a level of bitterness against the
    that would have been unknown to the ancients precisely because it suggests DISAPPOITNMENTS in utopias that were supposed to be realised (but weren’t), progress that was supposed to occur (but didn’t) and so on.

    I raise this just to agree with a suggestion in the first paragraph, that to me, a “Straussian” who thought that -everything- about say contemproary life (from music to films to the political regime) was decadent and corrupt, would not have understood what she was reading. This is because (I think) the fascinating thing about Strauss/Bloom is that they are simultaneously critics of the present and its unthinking orthodoxies, but who are also extremely wary about ‘total critiques of existing society’ precisely as SYMPTOMATIC of said
    unthinking orthodoxies/modern tendencies. At least this applies to (what I regard) as the Straussian position on modern democracy (the liberal-democratic captialist regime.) But what does this mean for Straussian positions on cultural matters? In his lecture on “German Nihilism” Strauss says
    that the ‘young nihilists’ (Stefan George and Rilke quoting German youths who would later become the Heidegger’s the Carl Schmitt’s and so on) had an enromous responsibility for the rise of National Socialism in Germany and that almost all of said ‘young nihlists’ shared a disdain for ‘Zivilisation’ in the name of ‘Kultur’.
    I know Strauss thinks, it’s the too glib dismissal of ‘Zivilisation’ that is exactly what’s wrong with so much of modern ‘third wave’ thought. But in avoiding the excesses of this movement with regards to say liberal democracy, could one not mount a similar
    argument with regards to (certain) elemetns of modern culture — not the fashionable drivel of the worst of the universities, but say all kinds of pop-cultural things that still preserve classical, Christian, Medieval, or ‘first-wave’ ideas. (You’ve done a good job showing us how this applies to Christopher Nolan’s Batman films.)

    Enough on this for now.

    On another note: I am curious about
    your statement that our “eros is antagonistic to the philosophical.”
    Normally, I would have thought that it was our politics that is antagonistic with philosophy.

    However, your statement that:

    “the complete breakdown of communication in our public life has been transferred to our private life.”

    makes me think you might mean something like this:

    Philosophy is erotic, and eros shares in common with philosophy the fact that it is transcendent. In love, like in philosophy, we leave the city behind: bonds are broken, conventions over-turned, rituals, traditions, conventions all seem rapidly diminishing terrestrial objects to eros’s alternately giddy, and majestic flight. But in politics (particularly in our politics) we want to get things done, find the most efficient means for ends, find ‘solutions’ and so on — REALISE philosophy and so on.

    Perhaps (have I read you correctly here?) this then SHAPES (reflects back upon) our eros, such that it THEN becomes antagonistic philosophy insofar as it is forgetful of its own transcendent character. And through this forgetting, eros seeks that which is anaethema to it:

    rest, fulfilment, complete and final happiness, a cessation (in this world) — of desire in the Aristophanic/psychoanalyitc sense. Is it an aspect or quality of our eros as changed utterly by the ways of our current regime that is antagonistic to philosophy? Or have I screwed that interpretation up totally?

    (N.B. Hoping that wasn’t offensively long, stupid, or off topic. Thanks and keep writing.)

    -Mal.

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