The Birth of Tragedy AND the Linguistics of Musicology — or Gleefully Problematizing Nietzsche

Friedrich Nietzsche (image courtesy WikiCommons)

Do we sometimes have the tendency to forget that the full title of Nietzsche’s essay that we have under examination this semester is “The Birth of Tragedy from the Spirit of Music?” Yet Nietzsche hardly talks about music at all. And when he does speak of music, his observations strike me as highly suspect and far from unimpeachable.

Nietzsche himself, ironically, makes the case against Birth of Tragedy’s concept of music, recognizing in his 1886 introduction that he has mistaken the kitsch and bombast of Wagnerian opera for a glimpse of the Dyonisiac empyrean; that smell of death so unmistakable and overwhelming to Nietzsche on the opening bars of Act III of Die Walküre was in the end nothing more than the Georg Grösz bourgeois seated next to him lighting the cigar he’d brought from his desk at the munitions-works:

It certainly is too bad that I had to obscure and spoil Dionysiac hints with formulas from Schopenhauer, but there is another feature of the book which seems even worse in retrospect: my tendency to sophisticate such insights as I had into the marvelous Greek issue with an alloy of up-do-date matters; my urge to hope where there was nothing left to hope for, all signs pointing unmistakably toward imminent ruin; my foolish prattle, prompted by the latest feats of German music, about the “German temper” – as though that temper had then been on the verge of discovering, or rediscovering itself! … The intervening years have certainly taught me one thing if they have taught me nothing else: to adopt a hopeless and merciless view toward that “German temper,” ditto toward German music, which I now recognize for what it really is: a thorough-going romanticism, the least Greek of all art forms and, over and above that, a drug of the worst sort, especially dangerous to a nation given to hard drinking and one that vaunts intellectual ferment for its power both to intoxicate the mind and to befog it (“A Critical Backward Glance,” ch. VI, pp 12-13)

How much of Nietzsche’s argument can be said to lay on this false premise? Unfortunately, quite a lot. Music was, in the context of Birth of Tragedy, Nietzsche’s very “door of perception.” And he gets it so wrong, dismissing with a Wagnerish wave of the hand nearly two centuries of German musical masterpieces beginning with Bach, and yet relying on this vulgar misrepresentation of the metaphysical nature of music to such an extent, that it is really difficult to continue to credit the rest of his argument. (What a pity Nietzsche couldn’t have lived, instead, to hear Mahler.)

Among the great thinkers there is only one who has fully realized the immense discrepancy between the plastic Appollonian art and the Dyonisiac art of music. Independently of Greek religious symbols, Schopenhauer assigned to music a totally different character and origin from all the other arts, because it does not, like all the others, represent appearance, but the will directly. It is the metaphysical complement to everything that is physical in the world; the thing-in-itself where all else is appearance….. Richard Wagner set his seal of approval on this key notion of all esthetics when he wrote in his book on Beethoven that music obeys esthetic principles quite unlike those governing the visual arts and that the category of beauty is altogether inapplicable to it – although a wrongheaded esthetic based on a misguided and decadent art has attempted to make music answer to criteria of beauty proper only to the plastic arts, expecting it to generate pleasure in beautiful forms. Once I had become aware of this antimony I felt strongly moved to explore the nature of Greek tragedy…. For the first time I seemed to possess the key enabling me to inspect the problem of tragedy… (Ch. XVI, pp. 97-98, emphasis in original.)

This is more than German chauvinism or unfortunate anachronism. It is pure poppycock. One can understand why, in his 1886 preface, Nietzsche would like to lay the blame for this nonsense on Schopenhauer. But that hardly explains away the utter violence to our fundamental understanding of music that is done in this single paragraph. To say, in one breath, that music properly should have no form, no beauty, and leads to no pleasure is a triple-whammy of BS that could only be made by someone capable of conflating the mutilated bodies on the fields of Königgrätz with the dying g*ds of Der Ring (or with our thrill at the “killing” of well-fed extras on the set of Apocalypse Now), a categorical error Nietzsche in his own inimitable way tries to make up for, but charmed by his own youthful excesses, can neither fully renounce.

Nietzsche’s confounding statements on music are also and critically so much more fundamentally flawed than his mistaking, via Schopenhauer, Wagnerian excrescence for genius. Nietzsche’s very characterization of “melody” as an a priori phenomenological structure, the example sine qua non of the penetration of the Dyonisiac into our pitifully Appollonian souls, completely misconstrues and insults one of the fundamental truths about music: that it is, very much like language itself, socially constructed, and therefore inalienably material and concrete. Nietzsche, quoting Schopenhauer directly, says:

[Music] resembles geometric figures and numbers, which are the universal forms of all possible objects of experience and applicable to them all a priori, and yet are not abstract but perceptible and thoroughly determinate. All possible efforts, excitements and manifestations of will, all that goes on in the heart of man and that reason includes in the wide, negative concept of feeling, may be expressed by the infinite number of possible melodies, but always in the universality of mere form, without the material … of which melodies reproduce the very soul and essence as it were, without the body (Ch XVI, pp. 98-99).

It is beyond the ken of this short essay to fully refute all the nonsense embedded in this notion, or how broadly this false premise plays itself out in the magnificently silly Wagnerian rhetoric of Birth of Tragedy. But it immediately brought to mind an observation of the Czech Formalist and linguist Roman Jakobson, made in light of his investigation of “the striking parallels between the fundamental problems of phonology and musicology” (Jakobson, 455).

An African native plays a melody on a bamboo flute. A European musician will have great difficulty in reproducing the melody accurately, but when he is finally successful in establishing the pitches, he is convinced that he reproduces the African piece exactly. But the native does not agree… The difference is that for the African the tone color is the essential point, whereas for the European it is the pitches…. The native and the European hear the same sound and mean by it totally different things (Jakobson, 456).

Nietzsche’s construct, via Schopenhauer, of melody and its “universality of mere form” has, in fact, no universal legitimacy. If music can be said to embody a geometry, it must be said to embody multiple, incompatible geometries leading to manifold incompatible “truths,” which manifest only in the most material way. In the case of music, differences in expression and perception are everything. The despised individual reimposes himself at this most critical moment of the argument, through a door of plain musical ignorance. What significance this has for Nietzsche’s arguments regarding tragedy will best be left to other complainants.

2 responses to “The Birth of Tragedy AND the Linguistics of Musicology — or Gleefully Problematizing Nietzsche

  1. Whoever wrote this article is ignorant. Nietzsche was right.

    • Sort of right about a lot of things, perhaps; self-admittedly wrong in his over-eager Wagnerianism and its implications for both philosophy and music.

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