Lyric Poet, Musician, and the Danger in Spirituality

by MT


In The Birth of Tragedy Frederich Nietzsche says that a good artist, such as the “aged, self-absorbed dreamer”, Homer, is objective, and that a subjective artist is bad.

“We know the subjective artist only as a bad artist, and throughout the whole of art we demand above all else the conquest of the subjective, release from the ‘self’, and the silencing of all individual will and craving; indeed we cannot imagine a truly artistic creation, however unimportant, without objectivity, without a pure and disinterested contemplation.”[28]

Nevertheless a subjective artist can still be good, as in the case of a lyric poet.

“For this reason our aesthetic must first resolve the problem of how it is possible to consider the ‘lyric poet’ as an artist: he who, in the experience of all ages, always says ‘I’ and sings us through the full chromatic scale of his passions and desires.” [28]

In Nietzsche’s view, a good, Dionysiac artist is someone whose subjectivity is a falsehood. To achieve this falsehood, he needs the help of Apollo, god of illusion.

“First of all, as a Dionysiac artist, he has been thoroughly united with the primal Oneness, its pain and contradiction, and produces the copy of that primal Oneness as music, if we can rightly call music a repetition and recast of the world; but now, under the Apolline dream influence, this music is revealed to him as an allegorical dream-image. The ‘I’ of the lyric poet therefore sounds from the very depths of being: his ‘subjectivity’ in the sense used by modern aesthetician is a falsehood. … Apollo comes up to him and touches him with the laurel.” [29]

Now let’s take a closer look at what Nietzsche means by being an ‘objective’ and ‘Apolline’ artist. He is, actually, a poet in the dream!

It is the poet’s task, my friend,

To note his dreams and comprehend.

Mankind’s most true delusion seems

To be revealed to him in dreams:

All poesy and versification

Is merely dream interpretation.

~ Die Meistersinger, Hans Sachs

“It is not only pleasant and agreeable images that he [the Apolline artist] experiences with such universal understanding: the serious, the gloomy, the sad and the profound, the sudden restraints, the mockeries of chance, fearful expectations, in short the whole ‘divine comedy’ of life, the Inferno included, passes before him, not only as a shadow-playfor he too lives and suffers through these scenesand yet also not without that fleeting sense of illusion; and perhaps many, like myself, can remember calling out to themselves in encouragement, amid the perils and terrors of the dream, and with success: ‘It is a dream! I want to dream on!’” [15]

What a nice paragraph! If I could disregard my other preoccupations I would like to read this book slowly and savor it. For people who want to know more about the unity of subject and object, of actor and audience, i.e. the “primal Oneness”, please also read the rest of the BT.(a point I might refer to in my dissertation as well) At this moment, however, I have to resort to a more critical perspective. David Harvey offers a sociological view regarding aesthetics in modern time (particularly after Nietzsche) in his chapter on Modernity and Modernism. According to Daniel Bell, whom Harvey quotes, this hedonistic aesthetic is contradictory with our capitalist society.

“The pursue of aesthetic experience as an end itself became… the hallmark of the romantic movement. It generated that wave of ‘radical subjectivism,’ of ‘untrammeled individualism,’ and of ‘search for individual self-realization’ which, in Daniel Bell’s view, has long put modernist cultural behaviour and artistic practices fundamentally at odds with the protestant ethic. Hedonism fits ill … with the saving and investment which supposedly nourish capitalism. … it is surely true that the romantics paved the way for active aesthetic interventions in cultural and political life.”[19] (Harvey, 1990)

Though Harvey does not elaborate what he meant by “aesthetic interventions,” it is here that we see a place for aesthetic in modern society. To him, because of the unavoidable inconsistancy between universal aesthetic principles and diversed artistic practices and products in different ages and places, aesthetics as a academic discipline cannot satisfactorily explain itself. Because of this gap between theory and practice, aesthetic can intervene and enact this liveless consummerist society and the stifling life that many of us had, or have, been through.

Of course a weapon is blind in itself and cuts both ways.* It is to be remembered that Nietzsche was heralded by Hitler and the Nazi regime in the early 20th Century. We can also see Oswald Spengler’s The Decline of the West (so popular in Taiwan in the 1970s), the sociological theory of the Werkbund circle, and Kandinsky’s writing on spirituality in art, all emerged around the same time, as members of this business that contributed to the nationalistic fervor and a dangerous stereotyping by national boundaries. They also shaped the concept of “culture”, “style”, and “zeitgeist”(spirit of time) as we understand them now. (For Werkbund see Frederic Schwartz, 1994: 13-19. For Spengler and Kandinsky… need to check.) [Click here for a picture of Hitler visiting the Nietzsche archives in 1934.]

This is why I see danger in the pursue of spirituality per se, and why it is important to understand the context, the structure, the larger pattern of the society that facilitate the formation of these contingent ideas taken for granted, or, even worse, as truth. In a way, truth has become such a burdened word nowadays. One often avoids using it in the classroom as criteria. (For example, one of the writing principles I saw today in a grading workshop says “An argument should be debatable,” which means, as innocent heirs of the Enlightenment, we no longer suppose an aprioi truth from the outset.) This, of course, does not mean that we should not read Nietzsche. I still enjoy reading The Birth of Tragedy, but I also keep in mind its disastrous turn in the tragedy of the Second World War.


* In the case of Frank Gehry, mysticist aesthetic fosters land speculation in downtown Los Angeles. (see Metropolis Magazine, March 2006)


ps. We hear so much cliché about being objective/rational and subjective/sentimental, in which science attached to the former and art the later. In fact the meaning and conception of these labels are quite different when they were debated by the empiricist and continental philosophers in the 18th century. Even in the early 20th century they still meant quite differently, as seen in The Birth of Tragedy.