The End is Never The End: Nietzsche and the Temptation to Prophesy

Running through The Birth of Tragedy is rewarding so long as you recognize that Friedrich Wilhelm was not primarly speaking to you. Rather, like a Cassandra howling at the walls, he was denouncing the folly of his own age, which we, not living in or even properly remembering Wilhelmine Germany, have no reference point to properly understand. Hence, if one reads a passage such as this:

In no other artistic age have so-called “culture” and art itself been so mutually hostle as we see them today. We can understand why such a feeble culture hates true art: it fears that it will bring about its downfall. But might an entire cultural epoch, the Socratic-Alexandrian, have come to an end after tapering to the fine culminate point of contemporary culture? If such heroes as Schiller and Goethe were unable to penetrate the enchanted portal leading to the Hellenic magic mountain, if their braves tstrivings brought them no further than the yearning gaze with which Goethe’s Iphigenie looked from barbaric Taurus to her home across the sea, what hop remains t their successors unless that portal should open of its own accord, in a quite different place quite untouched by all previous cultural endavours – amidst the mystic trains of reawakened tragic music?

Nietzsche, THE BIRTH OF TRAGEDY, pg. 97

One comes away with laughter. Because an honest man will admit that he hasn’t the first notion what the old wierdo is agitated about. Sure, I grasp the meaning of “Socratic-Alexandrian culture”, which is Apollonian and science-bound, rational and bereft of true artistic insight, because I’ve gotten far enough that he’s explained it to me. But I’ve only red bits of Goethe and Schilling. I’m lost here. And the line about the “Hellenic magic mountain” is possibly the nerdiest thing I’ve ever read, and I’m old enough to remember Usenet.

Nietzsche writes with wonderful agitation, and sometimes good ideas float through. This is of a piece with his desire for “Dionysiac” art and everything else. You always get the idea that he’s reaching to express something he cannot quite grasp. That makes him more interesting than the turgid logorrheacs he’s reacting to.

I will say that the line about culture and art being hostile to each other puts me in mind of some of my post about Modern Art via Ruskin. I wonder, though, what the old grump would say if he was granted access to a portal, a magic time mirror, and could look at what art and culture have become, in Germany and elsewhere, in the hundred years since his death. Would he approve of the “Dionysiac” artists, consider the sledghammer properly applied? Or would he recoil in confusion? Perhaps both?

He who writes about the wide range of art and “culture” finds it hard to escape the temptation to extrapolate his present observations into world-historical trends. But I have learned that whatever I expect to come in the near-future rarely comes to pass. No doubt I am guilty of wish-casting. The thing unseen warps our clean linear expectations. We did not get hoverboards and Jaws 19 in 2015. We got handheld magic mirrors into our own yearning and the beginning of the end of the film industry.

Or maybe not. Maybe cinema changes, merges with television, becomes a combined filmic art. Maybe both decline as we lose our ability to watch anything longer than a ten-minute YouTube video. Maybe the Matrix becomes real. Or maybe a thousand other different and contradictory things happen.

The one thing the present will do is flow into the future. And whatever we see down the river is like as not to be a mirage.

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