Philosophy Index

Friedrich Nietzsche

Thoughts out of Season

Part I

By Friedrich Nietzsche

Richard Wagner in Bayreuth

I.

For an event to be great, two things must be united—the lofty sentiment of those who accomplish it, and the lofty sentiment of those who witness it. No event is great in itself, even though it be the disappearance of whole constellations, the destruction of several nations, the establishment of vast empires, or the prosecution of wars at the cost of enormous forces: over things of this sort the breath of history blows as if they were flocks of wool. But it often happens, too, that a man of might strikes a blow which falls without effect upon a stubborn stone; a short, sharp report is heard, and all is over. History is able to record little or nothing of such abortive efforts. Hence the anxiety which every one must feel who, observing the approach of an event, wonders whether those about to witness it will be worthy of it. This reciprocity between an act and its reception is always taken into account when anything great or small is to be accomplished; and he who would give anything away must see to it that he find recipients who will do justice to the meaning of his gift. This is why even the work of a great man is not necessarily great when it is short, abortive, or fruitless; for at the moment when he performed it he must have failed to perceive that it was really necessary; he must have been careless in his aim, and he cannot have chosen and fixed upon the time with sufficient caution. Chance thus became his master; for there is a very intimate relation between greatness and the instinct which discerns the proper moment at which to act.

We therefore leave it to those who doubt Wagner's power of discerning the proper time for action, to be concerned and anxious as to whether what is now taking place in Bayreuth is really opportune and necessary. To us who are more confident, it is clear that he believes as strongly in the greatness of his feat as in the greatness of feeling in those who are to witness it. Be their number great or small, therefore, all those who inspire this faith in Wagner should feel extremely honoured; for that it was not inspired by everybody, or by the whole age, or even by the whole German people, as they are now constituted, he himself told us in his dedicatory address of the 22nd of May 1872, and not one amongst us could, with any show of conviction, assure him of the contrary. "I had only you to turn to," he said, "when I sought those who I thought would be in sympathy with my plans,— you who are the most personal friends of my own particular art, my work and activity: only you could I invite to help me in my work, that it might be presented pure and whole to those who manifest a genuine interest in my art, despite the fact that it has hitherto made its appeal to them only in a disfigured and adulterated form."

It is certain that in Bayreuth even the spectator is a spectacle worth seeing. If the spirit of some observant sage were to return, after the absence of a century, and were to compare the most remarkable movements in the present world of culture, he would find much to interest him there. Like one swimming in a lake, who encounters a current of warm water issuing from a hot spring, in Bayreuth he would certainly feel as though he had suddenly plunged into a more temperate element, and would tell himself that this must rise out of a distant and deeper source: the surrounding mass of water, which at all events is more common in origin, does not account for it. In this way, all those who assist at the Bayreuth festival will seem like men out of season; their raison-d'etre and the forces which would seem to account for them are elsewhere, and their home is not in the present age. I realise ever more clearly that the scholar, in so far as he is entirely the man of his own day, can only be accessible to all that Wagner does and thinks by means of parody,—and since everything is parodied nowadays, he will even get the event of Bayreuth reproduced for him, through the very un-magic lanterns of our facetious art-critics. And one ought to be thankful if they stop at parody; for by means of it a spirit of aloofness and animosity finds a vent which might otherwise hit upon a less desirable mode of expression. Now, the observant sage already mentioned could not remain blind to this unusual sharpness and tension of contrasts. They who hold by gradual development as a kind of moral law must be somewhat shocked at the sight of one who, in the course of a single lifetime, succeeds in producing something absolutely new. Being dawdlers themselves, and insisting upon slowness as a principle, they are very naturally vexed by one who strides rapidly ahead, and they wonder how on earth he does it. No omens, no periods of transition, and no concessions preceded the enterprise at Bayreuth; no one except Wagner knew either the goal or the long road that was to lead to it. In the realm of art it signifies, so to speak, the first circumnavigation of the world, and by this voyage not only was there discovered an apparently new art, but Art itself. In view of this, all modern arts, as arts of luxury which have degenerated through having been insulated, have become almost worthless. And the same applies to the nebulous and inconsistent reminiscences of a genuine art, which we as modern Europeans derive from the Greeks; let them rest in peace, unless they are now able to shine of their own accord in the light of a new interpretation. The last hour has come for a good many things; this new art is a clairvoyante that sees ruin approaching—not for art alone. Her warning voice must strike the whole of our prevailing civilisation with terror the instant the laughter which its parodies have provoked subsides. Let it laugh and enjoy itself for yet a while longer!

And as for us, the disciples of this revived art, we shall have time and inclination for thoughtfulness, deep thoughtfulness. All the talk and noise about art which has been made by civilisation hitherto must seem like shameless obtrusiveness; everything makes silence a duty with us—the quinquennial silence of the Pythagoreans. Which of us has not soiled his hands and heart in the disgusting idolatry of modern culture? Which of us can exist without the waters of purification? Who does not hear the voice which cries, "Be silent and cleansed"? Be silent and cleansed! Only the merit of being included among those who give ear to this voice will grant even us the lofty look necessary to view the event at Bayreuth; and only upon this look depends the great future of the event.

When on that dismal and cloudy day in May 1872, after the foundation stone had been laid on the height of Bayreuth, amid torrents of rain, and while Wagner was driving back to the town with a small party of us, he was exceptionally silent, and there was that indescribable look in his eyes as of one who has turned his gaze deeply inwards. The day happened to be the first of his sixtieth year, and his whole past now appeared as but a long preparation for this great moment. It is almost a recognised fact that in times of exceptional danger, or at all decisive and culminating points in their lives, men see the remotest and most recent events of their career with singular vividness, and in one rapid inward glance obtain a sort of panorama of a whole span of years in which every event is faithfully depicted. What, for instance, must Alexander the Great have seen in that instant when he caused Asia and Europe to be drunk out of the same goblet? But what went through Wagner's mind on that day—how he became what he is, and what he will be—we only can imagine who are nearest to him, and can follow him, up to a certain point, in his self-examination; but through his eyes alone is it possible for us to understand his grand work, and by the help of this understanding vouch for its fruitfulness.

Thoughts out of Season (Part I) by Friedrich Nietzsche. Translated by Anthony M. Ludovici