Nietzsche’s Centaur

Bernard Williams

  • Nietzsche on Tragedy by M.S. Silk and J.P. Stern
    Cambridge, 441 pp, £27.50, March 1981, ISBN 0 521 23262 7
  • Nietzsche: A Critical Life by Ronald Hayman
    Weidenfeld, 424 pp, £18.50, March 1980, ISBN 0 297 77636 3
  • Nietzsche. Vol. 1: The Will to Power as Art by Martin Heidegger, translated by David Farrell Krell
    Routledge, 263 pp, £11.50, March 1981, ISBN 0 7100 0744 2

Nietzsche’s first book, The Birth of Tragedy, was published in 1872, when he was 27, and while he was a Professor of Classics at Basel. It had the unusual effect, for him, of attracting some attention at the time of its appearance: after that, Nietzsche’s writings virtually ceased to be noticed until the 1890s, by which time he was, for the last 11 years of his life, insane, virtually without speech, and out of touch with the world.

Nietzsche said to his sister that this book was a ‘centaur’, a description which emphasises its oddness, underestimates its beauty, and misleads about the number of its components, since it is a blend not only of scholarship and literary prose, but of philosophy and assertive aesthetic judgment. It makes some historical claims in answer to an old question, the origin of tragedy among the Greeks; more importantly, it tries to characterise the nature of the Greek view of the world, how that is expressed in Greek tragedy, and what significance both that view and those plays can now have.

According to Nietzsche, two contrasting spirits stand over Greek, and over all genuine, art – Apollo and Dionysus. Apollo represents order, civilisation and the determinate image; Dionysus represents nature, fertility, rapture, and the dissolution of individuation into collective expression. Greek tragedy was a highly stylised and formal art which arose nevertheless from the cult of Dionysus, and at its highest, in Nietzsche’s view, it represents a peculiar moment at which the forces of Apollo and Dionysus were balanced – a balance which expresses a heroic understanding and acceptance of the destructive horror of things, a ‘pessimism of strength’.

These elements, the Dionysiac and the Apollonian (a term surely preferable to Silk and Stern’s ‘Apolline’), by no means merely represent, as they are often taken to do, a dichotomy of passion and reason, or of emotion and form. The basic element of the Dionysiac is indeed Rausch – ‘rapture’ in Krell’s translation of Heidegger, ‘ecstasy’ in Silk and Stern – but the corresponding idea of the Apollonian is dream, and the order which Classical art can set upon things itself has roots in a realm of illusion. The balance between these forces, and the consciousness which the tragic outlook involves, of the unity of destructive and creative forces, was embodied only in the earlier period of the Greek Classical Age – above all, in the tragedians Aeschylus and Sophocles. Of these, Nietzsche tends to emphasise Aeschylus, who was indeed the earlier, but (as Silk and Stern point out) it is certainly Sophocles who most clearly and unpityingly embodies what Nietzsche had in mind.

The third great tragedian, Euripides, destroyed tragedy, according to Nietzsche, or rather helped it to destroy itself, in association with the spirit of Socrates, that spirit of ‘Alexandrian optimism’ which trusted in reason to make the most basic questions of living into matters of discursive knowledge. That same rationalistic optimism led inevitably to a depreciation of art, including Plato’s celebrated rejection of it. The Platonic consciousness, and the later forms of moralism which in various ways Nietzsche assimilated to it, could not stand the power of tragedy, nor the metaphysical conclusion which, in The Birth of Tragedy, Nietzsche saw as implicit in tragedy: that ‘only as an aesthetic phenomenon can existence and the world be eternally justified.’

That conclusion, like other elements of his earlier thought, was a response to Schopenhauer. An admiring interest in this thinker was one of the things Nietzsche shared with Wagner, with whom, at the time of this book, his association was at its closest, though he was later to break it off, in a reaction of independence which was self-protective and entirely necessary. One of the many interesting facts in Hayman’s detailed and scholarly biography is that Nietzsche was present at the Wagner house on the famous occasion on Christmas Day 1870 when Richter and 15 musicians played on the staircase Wagner’s birthday offering to Cosima, the piece later to be known as the Siegfried Idyll. References to Wagner and to his art are present in The Birth of Tragedy, both in the salutation of Act Three of Tristan (a work which Nietzsche knew only from the piano score) as a modern embodiment of the tragic spirit, and, a good deal more problematically, in the form of echoing Wagner’s own hope that his art might be the focus of a national consciousness, in some way comparable to the spirit of the Dionysiac Festivals at which the tragedies were performed.

Silk and Stern, the one a Classical scholar, the other a Professor of German Literature who has already written a rewarding book on Nietzsche, have produced a joint commentary on this remarkable work, which gives a vast amount of background information and relevant comment. They tell of the traditionally German sense of exile, Heimweh, from the ancient world, and of a fascination with Greece which went back to the 18th century, in the form of an image which Nietzsche, more than any other single writer, was to destroy: that of an untroubled, serene world of Attic sunshine. They explain how the book came to be written, and the controversy which surrounded its appearance – in particular, the ferocious attack on it by a scholar younger than Nietzsche, later to become the most famous Classicist of his time, Ulrich von Wilamowitz-Möllendorff, whose savage pamphlet, often right about details and mostly wrong about the larger issues, may have helped to produce the fortunate effect of Nietzsche’s becoming a philosophical writer rather than remaining a philologist – though he was already set on that course before he published The Birth of Tragedy. Their commentary also provides information about such matters as the German understanding of tragedy; Nietzsche’s Classical scholarship as displayed in the book, and how that now appears; and what Nietzsche himself later came to think of it.

The composite authorship has probably contributed to the book’s being longer than it needs to be, and there are some sections of it – that on Aristotle’s Poetics, for instance, rarely an inspiring subject – which are distinctly dutiful. They have between them permitted a slightly schoolmasterly tone at times, both in summary of useful points, and also in some of their criticisms of Nietzsche: ‘Even here, we must admit, [Nietzsche] is liable to indulge his own inventive powers at the expense of his nominal subject.’ But many of the criticisms are well taken and the book judiciously offers (to those who can afford it) a great deal of useful information, organised round a wonderful subject. The only really mad assertion it contains, so far as I can see, is that in the operas of Mozart ‘music and drama merely alternate’.

In his last active years, Nietzsche came to take a poor view of much of The Birth of Tragedy. In 1886, he brought out an edition which had a new preface and a new subtitle. It was no longer The Birth of Tragedy from the Spirit of Music but The Birth of Tragedy: or Hellenism and Pessimism. The Preface was called ‘Attempt at a Self-Criticism’. To some degree, Nietzsche exaggerated the degree of his distance from the content of the book, which contained some of the most fundamental ideas of his later work, even though it is true that he had little use later for the contrast of the Apollonian and the Dionysiac, nor did he take any further great interest in drama. Much of the self-criticism of the Preface is, in a searching sense, stylistic: ‘Today I find it an impossible book: I consider it badly written, ponderous, embarrassing, image-mad and image-confused, sentimental, in places saccharine to the point of effeminacy, uneven in temper, lacking the will to logical exactitude, quite convinced and therefore disdainful of proof, mistrustful even of the propriety of proof, a book for initiates ...’ And the Wagnerian aspiration had gone: ‘Meanwhile I have learned to look without any hope or mercy on this “German spirit”, and also on contemporary German music, which is romanticism through and through, and which, apart from being the most un-Greek of all possible art-forms, is also a first-rate poison for the nerves, doubly dangerous for a nation which loves drink, and honours unclarity as a virtue ...’

Granted these remarks and many like them from Nietzsche’s later years, granted his attitude to pretentious obscurity and professorial self-importance, he really did not deserve Heidegger’s lectures on him. Heidegger offered four lecture courses on Nietzsche at the University of Freiburg-im-Breisgau between 1936 and 1940. The present volume is the first of four volumes in English translation to be published, and carries an analysis by the translator, who clearly knows a great deal about Heidegger, can nevertheless write clearly, and might well have extended himself beyond the very limited role that he has taken.

These lectures are directed to the same area as The Birth of Tragedy, but they barely mention the work. In all these lectures, it seems, Heidegger took as his text a book called The Will to Power, which is, in fact, a collection of aphorisms and notes, of very different dates, which Nietzsche’s dreadful sister, the energetic anti-semite Elizabeth, put together from his Nachlass according to an outline – only one of many different such plans – which Nietzsche had written on one sheet of paper for a book of that title. The Will to Power is a deeply interesting and powerful collection of writings, but it is not really a book by Nietzsche at all, let alone his definitive work. The idea that that was what it was was propagated in the Thirties by Alfred Bäumler, who wrote postscripts to editions of Nietzsche’s work and was a Nazi. Heidegger, it must be said, honourably repudiates in this volume Bäumler’s Hitlerian interpretations, but he accepts Bäumler’s account of the nature of the book called The Will to Power; nor is there any correcting comment by Krell, although he refers to the English translation by Kaufmann and Hollingdale (Weidenfeld, 1968), where Kaufmann’s Preface sets out these matters ir detail.

Heidegger has one or two interesting things to say – for instance, about the relations of Will and Power to Romanticism. He gives some suggestive interpretations, as when he suggests that Nietzsche’s claim of ‘philosophising with a hammer’ means, not smashing things, but to ‘tap all things with a hammer to hear whether or not they yield that familiar hollow sound’. Some other interpretations are interesting without being convincing, as when he says that Nietzche’s claim that ‘we have art in order not to perish of the truth’ refers to supersensible or transcendental ‘truth’ of the kind falsely offered by optimistic Platonist philosophers – a version which seems precisely to take the edge off Nietzsche’s thought. Nietzsche did not remain satisfied with the redeeming power of art as expressed in The Birth of Tragedy, but that left him with the problem which the formulation had tried to answer – of the relations between the power of art and the demands, if not of truth, at least of truthfulness. Heidegger discusses at length what Nietzsche called the ‘holy dread of the discordance of art and truth’ – but only, so it seems to me, to disappear, when the going gets tough, into abstract nouns and gnomic metaphysical evasion.

Heidegger is the only world-famous philosopher of the 20th century about whom it can seriously be argued that he was a charlatan, not because he is obscure, but because it can seem that his obscurity is functional, and that his characteristic combination of an abstract metaphysical terminology with homely domestic metaphor (so that things ‘stand in the clearing of Being’ or such) is not a necessity born of the unequalled depth of his inquiry – something to which he insistently refers – but a purposive substitute for thought which in more perspicuous modes is harder. I genuinely do not know whether such critics are right, but these lectures at least, less densely written and so in some ways more revealing than his more finished publications, do little to disarm them.

There are passages, some quite long, about the history of philosophy, in particular about Plato, which are sometimes utterly dull and banal, and sometimes simply inaccurate: often past writers are tacitly bent to a Heideggerian purpose, ‘a philosophy for initiates’. His use of ‘therefore’ startlingly ‘lacks the will to logical exactitude’: indeed, most of his discursively presented arguments are the dialectical equivalent (to adapt a phrase of Wittgenstein’s), not of a clock that tells the time wrongly, but of a heap of junk. Perhaps that was his intention – to provide an affronting propaedeutic to real, non-discursive, philosophy. Heidegger’s work on Nietzsche has been influential, particularly in France, but to me these lectures seem to do no good to the understanding of Nietzsche, nor to gain anything from it, but mainly to be a hideous example of several things that Nietzsche explicitly and rightly hated.

It is certain, even if not everyone has yet come to see it, that Nietzsche was the greatest moral philosopher of the past century. This was, above all, because he saw how totally problematical morality, as understood over many centuries, has become, and how complex a reaction that fact, when fully understood, requires. To help himself to understand it, he resourcefully explored, in twenty years of increasingly hectic activity, our feelings about art, guilt, violence, honesty, and indeed every element of that moral consciousness which the Greeks helped to invent.

It is not easy to write a book about Nietzsche. Two of the present books succeed, one as a learned and critical commentary on one special work, the other by offering great biographical learning and only modest philosophical ambitions. Heidegger in this volume does not display much learning, and no one can ever have supposed that his philosophical ambitions were modest. But above all it is in its style, in its lack of light and its dire assertiveness, that it shows no sign of having grasped the demands that Nietzsche managed to impose on anyone wanting to write about him, or about the subjects that he transformed.