The sort of autonomous self-consciousness that we have been exploring among precursors to the modern can develop – perhaps “intervene” is the better word – in the life of the individual and society in a range of ways, and Nietzsche, Marx, and Freud propose three distinct means. Their three conceptions of how modern lives are shaped and changed emerge from their three different analyses of modern existence. In each, it is clear that immense pressures are placed even on the possibility for critical analysis itself. From the initial Romantic conception of self-awareness there was a fear of those pressures threatening to blunt or erase the creative imagination. Wordsworth addresses this potential blunting and disappearance of the autonomous “discriminating” imagination, in the 1798 Preface to the Lyrical Ballads, where he writes that “a multitude of causes, unknown to former times, are acting with a combined force to blunt the discriminating powers of the mind, and, unfitting it for all voluntary exertion, to reduce it to a state of almost savage torpor.” The causes, he suggests, are the shocks of “great national events” as well as “the increasing accumulation of men in cities, where the uniformity of their occupations produces a craving for extraordinary incident, which the rapid communication of intelligence hourly gratifies;” this “craving” yields a “degrading thirst after outrageous stimulation.” (Of course, these concerns do not sound unfamiliar given the spectacle of media in our society).
In the late nineteenth century, Nietzsche’s thought focuses on just that blunting of discriminating powers and imaginative potential, and his analysis involves indictments of European and often particularly German national cultures, of the history of Christianity, and of much else, but his critique delves also into the very nature of the language with which humans communicate. When language itself has been corrupted – intrinsically, and certainly in the present – by the obligatory gestures arising from the nature of society (and its modern pressures “imposed by society” in the forms of propaganda, sentimentality, and the manipulative spectacle of media, etc.), then even the possibility of truthful communication is cast in doubt. Nietzsche addresses the relation of language to truth in “On Truth and Lie in an Extra-Moral Sense” (1873); the “urge for truth” is swept up in the actual state of language, of a “mobile army of metaphors, metonyms, and anthropomorphisms – in short, the sum of human relations, which have been enhanced, transposed, and embellished poetically and rhetorically, and which after long use seem firm, canonical, and obligatory to a people: truths are illusions about which one has forgotten that this is what they are; metaphors which are worn out and without sensuous power; coins which have lost their pictures and now matter only as metal, no longer as coins.” For Nietzsche, there appear to be two modes of engagement of this dilemma. One is to go along “using the customary metaphors,” and the other is to dive into the fray, finally into the ocean of language in an act of deliberate, self-conscious, creative engagement; the former leads to “the obligation to lie according to a fixed convention, to lie heard-like in a style obligatory for all,” and the latter yields a sort of aestheticizing of truth and existence. (A quarter century later, Conrad employs some of the same images Nietzsche uses, in a famous statement on the novel: “It is only through complete, unswerving devotion to the perfect blending of form and substance…[that] the light of magic suggestiveness may be brought to play for an evanescent instant over the commonplace surface of words, of the old, old words, worn thin, defaced by ages of careless usage.”)
Nietzsche’s vision of language is, like so much else in his thought, oriented around the tragedy of existence (and there are many explanations proffered for the tragic-minded and nearly anarchic darkness of his thinking). Of course, this tendency did not prevent him (and probably encouraged him) to offer prescriptive advice about the stages of the 'overman's development (as in the early "Human, All Too Human," in which he suggests his early idealism, his disillusionment and rebellion, his later acceptance of life as it is lived, and his ultimate realization of his freedom to choose or "rank" the strengths revealed by the perspectivism he developed). His influential conception of modern autonomy of mind and the imagination focuses above all, though, on the engagement of tragic truth. From The Birth of Tragedy (in 1872) to Twilight of the Idols (in 1888), he inquires about the source and nature of tragic understanding, and he asserts that the “Dionysian, with its primordial joy experienced even in pain, is the common source of music and of tragic [art];” the Dionysian is Nietzsche’s name for the particular joy of art’s autonomous creativity, from his earliest work to his last, and here in The Birth of Tragedy, he proposes that “the ugly and dissonant” – the qualities which arise in art from a truth-telling realism – “are part of an artistic game that the will in the eternal amplitude of its pleasure plays with itself.” In tragic art, “the joy aroused [by it] has the same origin as the joyous sensation of dissonance in music,” and in each case “we must recognize a Dionysian phenomenon: again and again it reveals to us the playful construction and destruction of the individual world as the overflow of a primordial delight.” An anarchic delight is celebrated here in the face of the decay and despair besetting late nineteenth century culture, let alone the authoritarian clamp-down of Bismarck’s regime and the horrendous deaths numbering 200,000 in the recent year-long and ever more mechanized Franco-Prussian War. And in one of his last works, Nietzsche understands that “tragic” joy as the result of demanding more of the structure of existence than it can bear, joy “even” in confronting and destroying the gods, the deepest order of existence, a joy arising out of an overfull spirit which desires “to embody the eternal joy of becoming.” The autonomous self-consciousness and the framing tragic aesthetic Nietzsche celebrates indicate the power to upturn our lives which is characteristic not only of his modern critique of existence.Basic Writings of Nietzsche (Modern Library Classics)
That sense of destabilization and threat is evident also in Marx’s famously Hegeleian sentence: “All that is solid melts into air, all this is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses, his real conditions of life, and his relations with his kind.” And of course, Marx’s ideas were as significant for twentieth century modernism as Nietzsche’s. They will be the subject I turn to next.
About the arts and ideas - on my novels and literature, music, and art
My newly completed novel is The Fall of the Berlin Wall, about musicians and particularly the intense, irrepressible daughter of the legendary pianist featured in my previous novel Hungry Generations, now fifteen years after those events. My 2015 novel, The Ash Tree, was published by West of West Books in conjunction with the April 24, 2015 centenary of the Armenian genocide; it's about an Armenian-American family and the sweep of their history in the twentieth century - particularly from the points of view of two women in the family.
There are three other novels of mine, One is Pathological States, about a physician's family in L.A. in 1962, which is as yet unpublished. Another is Hungry Generations, about a young composer's friendship in L.A. with the family of a virtuoso pianist, published on demand by iUniverse. A Burnt Offering - a fable (a rewriting and expansion of my earlier Acts of Terror and Contrition - a nuclear fable) is my political novella about Israel and its reactions to the possibility of a war with Iran (with the fear that it will be a nuclear war).
[These blog posts are, of course, copyrighted.]
[These blog posts are, of course, copyrighted.]