Dostoevsky and Nietzsche : The Philosophy of Tragedy


     We have traced the history of the regeneration of Dostoevsky's convictions. Basically, it amounts to an attempt to rehabilitate the rights of the underground man. If we now turn to Nietzsche's works, we shall find, above all, that although they bear little outward resemblance to what Dostoevsky wrote, they contain definite and clearly expressed traces of those moods and experiences that astonished us in the creative work of the latter. Nietzsche, too, was a romantic, a transcendental dreamer in youth. We learn this not only from his first book, The Birth of Tragedy, but also from his articles "Schopenhauer as Educator" and "Richard Wagner in Bayreuth," which immediately preceded Human, All-Too-Human, a work in which, for the first time in his life, he permits himself, still timidly and cautiously, to look at the world and its people with his own eyes. This experience cost him dearly. The majority of his friends, Wagner among them, turned from him. As is always the case, none of them were interested in the reason for the sudden change that had taken place in Nietzsche's soul. His friends merely raised the cry that he had "betrayed" his former convictions, and they found this quite sufficient to condemn the man. They all knew that Nietzsche was seriously and painfully ill. But even in this they saw no extenuating circumstances. Wagner, who a short time earlier had extolled Nietzsche's literary work, became so indignant upon reading Human, All-Too-Human that he did not even think it necessary to try to bring his young friend and student to reason. He simply grew silent and to his dying day did not resume his relations with Nietzsche. So that at the most difficult moment of Nietzsche's life, when, as is generally agreed, a person most of all needs moral support, Nietzsche was left completely alone.

     True, public opinion in this instance, as in many others, offers us an obvious error in the guise of an obvious truth. In the truly difficult moments of life, the support of friends usually does not and cannot provide a person with anything; it merely burdens him with the importunate demand for candor and confession. At such moments, it is best of all to be left alone. If you have the strength to bear your misfortune, you will emerge the victor. If you do not, no Wagner will help. I am, of course, speaking not of ordinary, everyday difficulties, when two minds are always better than one, but of those cases when, as Dostoevsky expressed it, the earth crumbles away beneath your feet. And, as you know, they occur much more frequently in life than in novels. On these occasions, friends can be of no help whatsoever. But Nietzsche's friends did not even think of helping him. They became his enemies, and as they did not wish to take the trouble to understand the man, they avenged themselves on him with contempt. In Nietzsche's own words - and this time they are particularly worthy of belief - the contempt of other people is much more difficult to bear than one's own contempt for oneself. [Nietzsche, op. cit., II, 376] And indeed, no matter how much a man despises himself, he always has the hope deep in his heart that he will nevertheless find a way out of his difficult situation. But condemnation by other people is merciless, inexorable, and final. It is hurled at odd moments at the accused with the intention of never again being reconsidered.

     Nietzsche avowedly wrote "Schopenhauer as Educator" and "Richard Wagner in Bayreuth" when he no longer believed either in Schopenhauer's philosophy or Wagner's art. Yet both these articles are an out-and-out panegyric to them. Why then was such pretense necessary? Nietzsche explains that in taking leave of his teachers, he wanted to express his thanks and gratitude to them for the past. I suppose that the reader will not find such a way of expressing gratitude worthy of approval: one must be able to sacrifice one's friends and teachers for the sake of truth. Probably Nietzsche himself was of the same opinion; and if he nevertheless appears in the role of an undisguised partisan of Schopenhauer and Wagner, while knowing that the time had come to take leave of them, then he had other, perhaps less comely, but undoubtedly more profound and serious reasons to do so. Evidently, it was not a question of the teachers, but of the student: Nietzsche would probably have taken leave of the mentors of his youth with less ceremony, had he definitely known where to go after leaving them. We see that gratitude did not prevent him from subsequently writing a sharp article about Wagner, nor did it prevent him from calling Schopenhauer "an old counterfeiter."

     But that was near the end of his literary career, between 1886 and 1888. In 1875, he dared not yet think that it would be possible to oppose the thoughts and moods arising in his soul, vague and chaotic as they were, to Schopenhauer's harmonious and masterfully developed philosophy, which had already won recognition, and to Wagner's fame, which had resounded throughout Europe. At the time, it seemed to him that the most terrible thing that could befall a man was to suffer a break with his teachers and a betrayal of his former faith and convictions. He thought that a man receives his convictions once and for all from the hands of worthy teachers. Although he read a good deal, it never occurred to him that such convictions, when obtained ready-made from other people, are less valuable than his own view of life, which had been formed from his own ordeals, from his own suffering. Or, if you will, he knew that as well. He himself used to express such an opinion, for in the books he read (in Schopenhauer, for example), it was frequently discussed in detail. But when the time came for a "test," when uncertainty arose, Nietzsche, like everyone else in his situation, failed to guess that this was what is spoken of in books. He merely had a horrible feeling that something unprecedentedly hideous and terrible had begun to stir in his soul. In his torment, in his despair, he did not recognize the celebrated "suffering," to which, following Schopenhauer's example, he had given his blessing, and for which he had called in his first book, The Birth of Tragedy. To himself, he seemed so little like a hero, so little like one of the many interesting sinners such as Tannhäuser, who pose so beautifully in Wagner's operas. In his situation, there was not even a trace of the tragic beauty which he customarily admired in the works of the classic writers. He had not stolen fire from the heavens for the good of mankind. He had not guessed the Sphinx's riddles, as Oedipus had. He had not even been in Venus's grotto.

     On the contrary, when he surveyed his past, it seemed to him an uninterrupted series of most shameful humiliations. Here is the light in which he pictures his service to art, i.e., the story of his relationship with Wagner: "In a certain party," he says in an aphorism called "A Martyr in Spite of Himself," "there was a man, who was too timid and cowardly to contradict his comrades: they used him for all sorts of purposes. They demanded anything at all from him, as he feared the bad opinion of his companions more than death itself. His was a pitifully weak soul. His comrades recognized this, and used his characteristics mentioned above to turn him into a hero, and finally even a martyr. Although this weak man always said "No" inwardly, he would always say "Yes" with his lips - even on the scaffold when the time came for him to die for his party's convictions. Beside him stood one of his old comrades, who had so tyrannized over him by words and looks that he indeed suffered death with dignity, and since then has been hailed as a martyr and a great character. [Ibid., II, 86]

     If these words sum up Nietzsche's "past," can anyone believe that upon taking leave of it, the man experienced a feeling of gratitude? Isn't it more likely that the articles "Richard Wagner in Bayreuth" and "Schopenhauer as Educator" were written only because Nietzsche still continued to feel Wagner's gaze directed at him (and perhaps not only Wagner's) and was unable to struggle against its hypnotic effect? And how could he struggle? To do that, it was first of all necessary to uproot all self-respect from his own being, to call his past by its real name, to admit that the newspaper critics, whom he customarily regarded as pitiful and unworthy rabble, were right when they called him "Wagner's literary lackey." In other words, it was necessary to doom himself to the life of the "humblest man." A person does not decide on such a horrible step immediately. Nietzsche still hoped that he might be of use to his party, if only by words that would support its principles and aspirations. At least his good name would be preserved; at least no one would know how shamefully and disgustingly unhappy he was. That is worth something. Nietzsche was a proud man. He did not want to display his wounds; he wanted to conceal them from the eyes of strangers. For this, it was, of course, necessary to pretend and to lie; for this, it was necessary to write fervent, laudatory articles in honor of both Schopenhauer and Wagner, whom he practically hated by then in his heart of hearts, for he considered them the main instigators of his terrible misfortunes. And indeed, who needed his truth? And what could he say if he wanted to speak the truth? Frankly admit his worthlessness? But aren't there a good many worthless people in the world? And could such a confession really surprise or interest anyone? As a matter of fact, nothing much had happened. Nietzsche thought that he was a worthy man destined to do a serious and important deed: it turned out that he was mistaken, that he was an insignificant and pitiful man. Such things frequently happen in life. No one even remembers them. Thus, for example, Nietzsche persuaded himself that David Strauss, whom the Germans considered a great philosopher and an exemplary stylist, was really nothing but an "educated Philistine" with a poor command of the customary literary language. [David Strauss (1808-1874), a German theologian, biographer, and idealist philosopher, who was influenced by the followers of Hegel - S.R.].

     Did this discovery really surprise or shock anyone, Nietzsche included? Of course not. There were enough noteworthy philosophers and exemplary stylists on earth without David Strauss. If Nietzsche had reasoned objectively, he could easily have convinced himself that his own case was of no particular importance. And, moreover, if he had also recalled the fundamental principles of Schopenhauer's philosophy, he could have found perfect consolation in his misfortune. After all, "will" remained unchanged; therefore, was it worth thinking about the fact that an individual, i.e., one of billions of instances of its objectification, had been crushed? But usually "the basic principles of philosophy" instantly vanish from the memory as soon as a person comes into conflict with life. If Nietzsche did recall Schopenhauer, it was not to seek consolation or support from him, but to curse him as his worst enemy. "But this word I want to say to my enemies: What is all murder compared to what you have done to me? What you have done to me is worse than any murder; you have taken the irretrievable from me: that is what I want to say to you, my enemies. For you murdered the visions and dearest wonders of my youth. You took my comrades from me, those blessed spirits. In their memory, I lay down this wreath and this curse. This curse is on you, my enemies." [Nietzsche, op. cit., VI, 161]. These words of Zarathustra refer to Wagner and Schopenhauer. Nietzsche curses his teachers because they ruined his youth.

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