“To say it once again: today I find it an impossible book – badly written, clumsy and embarrassing, its images frenzied and confused, sentimental, in some places saccharine-sweet…”
—Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche, The Birth of Tragedy
“Flight from boredom is the mother of all art” (8,432).
—Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche
Who will from adolescence forget these lines penned by a convalescent recuperating from some ailment:
“A few weeks later, and he himself was to be found beneath the walls of Metz, still struggling with the question mark that he had appended to the supposed ‘cheerfulness’ of the Greeks and Greek art; until at last, in a month of the most profound suspense, when peace was under debate in Versailles, he too made peace with himself and, slowly convalescing from an illness contracted in the field, gave definitive form to The Birth of Tragedy out of the Spirit of Music. Out of music? Music and tragedy? Greeks and the music of tragedy? Greeks and the pessimistic art form? The most accomplished, most beautiful, most universally envied race of mankind, those most capable of seducing us into life – they were the ones who needed tragedy? Or even more – art? What for? – Greek art?…
The reader might guess where the big question mark of the value of existence was raised. Is pessimism inevitably the sign of decline, decadence, waywardness, of wearied, enfeebled instincts? – As once it was with the Hindus, as it seems to be with us ‘modern’ Europeans? Is there a pessimism of strength? An intellectual predilection for what is hard, terrible, evil, problematic in existence, arising from well-being, overflowing health, the abundance of existence? Is it perhaps possible to suffer from over-abundance? A tempting and challenging, sharp-eyed courage that craves the terrible as one craves the enemy, the worthy enemy, against whom it can test its strength? Wishing to learn from it the meaning of ‘fear’? What is the meaning, for those Greeks of the best, strongest, most courageous age, of the tragic myth? And of the tremendous phenomenon of the Dionysiac? And of the tragedy that was born from it? And on the other hand, that which brought about the death of tragedy: the Socratism of morality, the dialectics, modesty and cheerfulness of theoretical man – could not that very Socratism be a symptom of decline, fatigue, infection and the anarchical dissolution of the instincts? And might the ‘Greek cheerfulness’ of the later Greeks be nothing but the glow of sunset? The epicurean will against pessimism merely a precaution of the afflicted? And science itself, our own science – what does all of science mean as a symptom of life? Might the scientific approach be nothing but fear, flight from pessimism? A subtle form of self-defence against – the truth? And, morally speaking, something like cowardice and falsehood? Amorally speaking, a piece of cunning? Oh Socrates, Socrates, was that, perhaps, your secret? Oh, secretive ironist, was that, perhaps, your – irony?”
Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche, The Birth of Tragedy
This is what grabbed me then and still does: “Is there a pessimism of strength? An intellectual predilection for what is hard, terrible, evil, problematic in existence, arising from well-being, overflowing health, the abundance of existence?“
Nietzsche would battle with Schopenhauer’s version of pessimism his whole philosophical life. He’d come to his notion of this difference in his conceptual framework of the difference between “active” and “passive” nihilism. But Nietzsche was a sick man, ailing from both physical and then mental ailments that would be his undoing. We still do not know for sure, all we do know is this would drive much of his philosophy. A throwback to the poets and sophists he’d question the whole truth-bearing stance of the Platonic-Socratic tradition and find it wanting. In his vitalistic turn he’d seek out a philosophy of life and health rather than truth. Nietzsche’s flamboyant, rhetorical style with all its verbosity and over-the-top extravagance and exuberance always seemed a little too hysterical, a little too much on the edge of madness as if he were about to take flight for parts unknown. One wanted a sober creature who could dip his pen in the viperous wit of the cynic rather than the hyperbolic vats of the poets.
As a young man I loved this chirping extravagance, the poetic philosophy of a vitalist exuberance. Weaned on the poetry of William Blake and the Romantic poets of England this style triggered in me a sense of mysteries about to be unleashed, the dithyrambs of ancient Dionysiac women dancing and tearing flesh. Now it only exasperates me for what it is: the scribblings of a lonely man whose mind sought in the texts of the Greeks what he could not find in real life. His slow disenchantment with Wagner and the German world of art and music, philosophy and history became for him a despairing revelation and torment. Unable to find outer love in women, he’d visit the brothels and whores of various cities as he journeyed across Italy, Switzerland, and Germany. Lost among his own solitudes he would dream of a future man. Saddened by the capitalist spirit, and the philistines of the market democracies of his day he would invent the fantasies of the Übermensch, the Death of God, and a hatred of the Christian mythos which in its pathetic manifestation in Enlightenment Man he felt led to decay, ruin, and decadence of society. A decadence he believed would end in ‘The Last Man’.
His love of music would never falter, and as his biographer puts it,
Nietzsche experienced music as authentic reality and colossal power. Music penetrated the core of his being, and it meant everything to him. He hoped the music would never stop, but it did, and he faced the quandary of how to carry on with his existence. On December 18,1871, Nietzsche traveled from Basel to Mannheim to hear Wagnerian music conducted by the composer. Upon his return to Basel, he wrote to his friend Erwin Rohde: Everything that. . . cannot be understood in relation to music engenders …. downright aversion and disgust in me. And when I returned home from the concert in Mannheim, I actually had a peculiarly exaggerated weary dread of everyday reality, because it no longer seemed real to me, but ominous” (Β 3,257; Dec 21,1871).1
Music seemed to buffer and protect him from the ‘ominous’ sense of a world gone wrong, a world of misery, pain, and suffering which he would seek to forget and sublimate through philosophy and music. Commenting on this need for music against the mundane world of everyday life and boredom Rüdiger Safranski suggests of Nietzsche:
However, even “boredom” has its aura of mystery and is imbued with a singular pathos by Nietzsche. Boredom, from which art provides a refuge, becomes terrifying—the yawning abyss of being. When people are bored, they regard the moment as an empty passage of time. External events, as well as people’s sense of self, become inconsequential. The phases of life lose their intentional tension and cave in on themselves like a soufflé removed from the oven too soon. Routines and habits that otherwise provide stability suddenly prove to be nothing more than façades. Finally, the eerie scenario of boredom reveals a moment of true feeling. When people find nothing to do with themselves, nothingness besets them. Against this backdrop of nothingness, art performs its task of self-stimulation—a virtually heroic enterprise, because people on the verge of a breakdown need to be entertained. Art steps in as a bridge to prevent succumbing to nihilist ennui. Art helps us live; without it, life cannot stem the onslaught of meaninglessness. (20).
That would be one of Nietzsche’s downfalls, his inability to accept this universe on its own terms, he needed art —sublimation of experience into some form of artistic expression to keep him sane. When this failed, he would enter that stage of his own delirium. Whether it was brought on by some physical ailment or not, it was his slow withdrawal from the world that would entrap him in his own night and delusions. Sadly.
- Safranski, Rüdiger. Nietzsche: A Philosophical Biography. W. W. Norton & Company; F First Paperback Edition Used (January 17, 2003)