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Nietzsche and Music
Nietzsche and Music
Georges LiƩbert
University of Chicago Press, 2004
304 pp., 52.00

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Bruce Ellis Benson

The Dance of Thought

Nietzsche and music.

Nietzsche experienced music as authentic reality and colossal power. Music penetrated to the core of his being, and it meant everything to him."1 That Rudiger Safranski opens his monumental biography by focusing on music should almost certainly come as a surprise, probably even for many Nietzsche scholars. After all, isn't the "real" Nietzsche all about such topics as the death of God, the will to power, the superman, and nihilism—topics that have kept the Nietzsche industry humming away? Indeed, the reality is that most scholarship on Nietzsche—even that by first-rate Nietzsche scholars—virtually ignores the prominence of music in both his life and thought. As Georges Liebert notes, "Nietzsche's repeated avowal is often cited: 'Without music, life would be an error,' but almost as though it were a quip. Rarely is the decisive importance music, in fact, had for the economy of his thought recognized." While it would be too much to say that no attention has been given to Nietzsche's relation to music,2 there is no full-scale work on Nietzsche that does this subject justice.

Sadly, that remains true, despite the appearance of Liebert's Nietzsche and Music. Liebert suggests that Nietzsche's oft-quoted aphorism can be taken to mean that "music makes us forget life" or that "life [is] understood only as music." Clearly that first possibility could hardly be what Nietzsche intended. The second possibility is Liebert's ostensible point of departure, and yet he never really gives us a thorough investigation of how music affected Nietzsche's own thought, even though he is thoroughly aware of the profound influence of music in all of Nietzsche's works.

That said, Liebert does provide us with a rich exploration of Nietzsche's relation to music, which was key to his very existence. Some of Nietzsche's most memorable moments were those spent in improvising at the piano. He wrote to a friend that, at such times, he often felt as if he had moved beyond the realm of rationality. Perhaps not coincidentally, in the twilight of his sanity, Nietzsche's friend Peter Gast arrived in Turin in January 1889 to find him improvising endlessly. Nietzsche himself composed music, particularly in his youth, and Liebert spends some time analyzing those compositions—largely Schumannesque in character and not particularly memorable. Liebert contends that, while Nietzsche fails as composer of music, he succeeds as a philosophical composer. While that thesis is no doubt true, I wonder whether it is all that important. Already by age twenty, Nietzsche had admitted his shortcomings as a composer and largely moved away from musical composition.

What Nietzsche and Music principally gives us is a detailed description of how Nietzsche's musical and philosophical tastes developed in tandem. And that is a significant contribution. Liebert devotes much of the text to Nietzsche's relation to Richard Wagner, a relationship that ebbed and flowed over time but surely one that proved formative for Nietzsche's development both musically and philosophically. Although Nietzsche later claimed that he was "a Wagnerian" as soon as he heard the piano redaction of Tristan und Isolde, it actually took him a few years to warm to Wagner's music. But, once converted, Nietzsche turned his first book (The Birth of Tragedy) into a panegyric to the great musical seducer. Those early years as Wagnerian acolyte were heady ones indeed. Even long after the master's spell had been broken, Nietzsche still spoke of "days of trust, of cheerfulness, of sublime accidents—profound moments" spent at Wagner's home. Nietzsche was equally effusive regarding Wagner's music: upon hearing the prelude to Tristan and the overture to Die Meistersinger, he wrote that Wagner set his "every fiber and every nerve aglow."

Nietzsche's falling out with Wagner is one of the best-known aspects of his life. Although the Bayreuth Festival of 1876 is often cited as the moment of the break, it had been brewing for a long time. Nietzsche had grown increasingly disillusioned with what he saw as Wagner's vanity and his willingness to please the public at any cost (despite all of Wagner's rhetoric about the purity of his art). But it was the sheer decadence of Wagner's music that finally caused the breach.

The Case of Wagner, written in Nietzsche's last year of sanity (1888), makes that case forcefully. For Nietzsche, Wagner's artistic decadence lay in the fact that, in Wagner's compositions, "the whole is no longer a whole" but an artificial composite with no inherent integrity. But worse still for Nietzsche—indeed, worthy only of utter contempt—was Wagner's acceptance of the notion that humanity stands in need of redemption. "There is nothing about which Wagner has thought more deeply than redemption: his opera is the opera of redemption."

No opera better signified all that Nietzsche despised than Wagner's Parsifal. For not only is it quintessentially an opera of redemption (and explicitly so), it also represents Wagner's capitulation to Christianity. Of course, whether Wagner had really turned "Christian" is open to question. True, he sent a copy of Parsifal to Nietzsche signed "Richard Wagner, Church Councilor" and spoke more than once of the joy he had in receiving the Eucharist. Yet Cosima (his wife) claimed that the blood turning to water in Parsifal (rather than the other way around) represents a break with Christianity. But even if Cosima's interpretation were true, Nietzsche would simply heap scorn on Wagner for having used Christian motifs as a way of appeasing the public.

As important as Nietzsche's relationship to Wagner was, it is disappointing to see it so strongly dominate Liebert's text. What, for instance, about Bizet, who receives relatively scant attention from Liebert even though Nietzsche celebrates Carmen as the very antithesis to Wagner's decadence? Liebert does provide some helpful discussions of Nietzsche's relation to Schumann, Brahms, Mendelssohn, and Rossini (Nietzsche could not "get along without" Rossini's music, he said). Still, having rightly insisted that music is central in "the economy of [Nietzsche's] thought," Liebert fails to deliver. In light of all that Nietzsche says about music—and the way that music remains for him a means of critiquing thinking, all the way from The Birth of Tragedy to Ecce Homo—it is particularly disappointing that Liebert never tries to explain what "musical thinking" in Nietzsche could possibly be.

Consider the suggestive passage (cited by Liebert) in which Nietzsche says "thinking wants to be learned as dancing wants to be learned, as a kind of dancing," and set beside it Nietzsche's claim that "one becomes more of a philosopher the more one becomes a musician." How are we to understand such claims? Liebert's approach is to dodge them, arguing that, "properly speaking, Nietzsche never thinks music—because it is unthinkable, happily unthinkable, he might have said—his thinking begins with music." This is muddled. Liebert is right in going on to say that, "rather than with philosophy, music begins with the body." But, for Nietzsche, philosophy also begins with the body. Moreover, Nietzsche certainly tries to articulate what music is and how it influences us—and in many passages he is quite successful.

A central question would be what Nietzsche means by "thinking" that is a form of "dancing." How might we work out that idea? Let me very briefly suggest two possible ways. First, central to such a conception of thinking is Nietzsche's contention that what we normally call "thinking" is merely "little reason," which is quite different from "big reason"—i.e., the body's ability to think. As Nietzsche puts it, "the problem of consciousness … first confronts us when we begin to realize how much we can do without it." Given this emphasis on bodily reason, it is not surprising that, at one point in his unpublished notebooks, he claims that "our most sacred convictions, our most unalterable faith in the matter of supreme values, are judgments of our muscles." The body, then, is the locus of our convictions and thus it is also the locus of change of those convictions. Nietzsche goes so far as to say "first one must convince the body."

For Nietzsche, then, it is dance that proves to be a pervasive way of changing our convictions. Of course, Nietzsche likewise speaks of dancing in a much broader way, saying that a "noble education" results in "the ability to dance with feet, with concepts, with words: need I add that one must also be able to dance with the pen?" Accordingly, becoming a good philosopher is a way of becoming a good dancer. Nietzsche writes: "I wouldn't know what the spirit of a philosopher might more want to be than a good dancer. For the dance is his ideal, also his art, and finally also his only piety." If the philosopher's ideal and art is dance, then it hard to escape the conclusion that philosophy is a kind of dance for Nietzsche.

Second, "thinking" as it is normally defined is not just too narrow for Nietzsche, but it also misses what life is all about. This is why Nietzsche points to a kind of thinking that is not dialectical or logical but is nonetheless more truly rational—for it understands life in a way that "rationality" as typically defined cannot. As early as The Birth of Tragedy, Nietzsche had claimed that Socrates had helped drive music out of tragedy and excluded music from dialectic, which is why Socrates failed to understand life. For Nietzsche, "music" stands for all that cannot be easily explained theoretically, for precisely what escapes neatly laid-out systems. Music gives us the truth about life in a way that conscious thought never could.

Could Nietzsche be right that thought has forgotten music? Certainly that claim is open to debate. Yet, if one realizes that Nietzsche has in mind the ancient Greek conception of mousike (which not only includes dance, rhythm, and logos but also connotes the very cultivation of the soul), then the idea of connecting thought to music and dance may be at least worth considering—certainly in more detail than Liebert does here.

Bruce Ellis Benson is professor of philosophy at Wheaton College. Among the topics in his forthcoming book Pious Nietzsche: Decadence and Dionysian Faith (Indiana Univ. Press) is the role of music in Nietzsche's thought.

1. Rudiger Safranski, Nietzsche: A Philosophical Biography, trans. Shelley Frisch (Norton, 2002), p. 19.

2. See Babette Babich, "Nietzsche and Music: A Selective Bibliography," New Nietzsche Studies, Vol. 1 (1996), pp. 64-78.

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