Friday, May 02, 2008

Nietzsche, Christianity, and Art

The following is a summary and commentary on Nietzsche's Genealogy of Morals...

The coda for essay three is straightforward: The human will needs a goal. Is this so difficult to understand, asks Nietzsche? We want to make something out of our lives; we want to add up to something. But do we really understand what it means to "make something of our lives," to achieve something "worthwhile," to choose something "meaningful," to create something "beautiful"? Do we realize how difficult it is to have an ambition or a goal that does not require us to sacrifice our individuality, our polymorphous instincts, our spontaneous freedom? Do we really know how hard it is to make something of ourselves without cutting into ourselves, carving and sculpting with disciplinary strategies of self-denial? Do we not see that wanting to be something — anything — involves obedience to an ideal? Modern fantasies about post-Christian ways of life make men and women into the most deformed of all possible creatures: ignorant slaves of slave morality.

Take, for example, Nietzsche's two digressions into art and philosophy. Both have served as modern alternatives to Christianity, and both promise their followers a purpose free from the degrading necessities of obedience. As Nietzsche shows, neither can deliver.

Art for art's sake, devotion to form, discipline of voice, clarity of vision, all defined and redefined in endless discussions of artistic integrity and purpose — this and more defines the artistic vocation. As Nietzsche observes, the atmosphere of urgency gives art its ascetic character. Our painting must render what is real. Our poetry must serve the muse. "The musician himself" must become "a kind of mouthpiece of the ‘in itself' of things, a telephone from beyond." The composer is a "ventriloquist of God." The listener is no less subservient. We must put ourselves entirely at the disposal of the music. "Not my will but thine" remains as the covert imperative.

Nietzsche finds Wagner emblematic. One can hardly accuse Wagnerian opera of cold formalism and constrained expressive range. Yet, according to Nietz­sche, Wagner's late embrace of Christianity was entirely in keeping with the logic of all art, which is characterized by a will to power expressing itself as self-denial. We can build new temples to art (museums, concert halls); found new monasteries of art (conservatories, artist colonies, studios); fund new programs (writers' workshops, endowments for the arts, musical competitions); we can even refashion the funding of art, education, and practice to serve moral and political ideals (urban art projects, AIDS tapestries, agitprop theater), but we cannot escape from the self-denying trajectory of art. The artist serves art. Wagner only followed his vocation back to its source. (R.R. Reno)

It seems to me that sacrifice is at the core of being human.

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