Monday, December 6, 2010

History: Considering the Past

As difficult as this may be to believe, I have been reading Friedrich Nietzsche and finding much that is inspiring – at the very least, thought-provoking. The current text on the desk is an early work, a group of essays called ‘Untimely Meditations’, in particular the second of these “Untimely Ones” (as Nietzsche himself fondly called them), entitled ‘On the uses and disadvantages of history for life’. It was published in 1874. I plan to give you some excerpts – this considering and selecting of passages will help me organise my thoughts, and hopefully be of at least some passing interest to you faithful blog readers (the ones that like the entries on philosophy, anyway).

Nietzsche is known for positing three species of ‘history’ – or rather, ways of regarding history:       
the monumental, the antiquarian, and the critical. These may have positive and negative faces.

The ‘monumental’ :

“History belongs above all to the man of deeds and power, to him who fights a great fight, who needs models, teachers, comforters and cannot find them among his contemporaries...Of what use, then, is the monumentalistic conception of the past, engagement with the classic and rare of earlier times, to the man of the present? He learns from it that the greatness which once existed was in any event once possible and may thus be possible again; he goes on his way with a more cheerful step...”

But inspiring though this is, there are dangers:

“As long as the soul of historiography lies in the great stimuli that a man of power derives from it, as long as the past has to be described as worthy of imitation, as imitable and possible for a second time, it of course incurs the danger of becoming somewhat distorted, beautified and coming close to free poetic invention; there have been ages, indeed, which were quite incapable of distinguishing between a monumentalized past and a mythical fiction...”

ENO's 'Don Giovanni' - an attempt at innovation,
but the reviews were the pits.
Nietzsche’s discussion then becomes a polemic against those he calls ‘inartistic natures’ who misunderstand the monumental nature of the past. When I read the next passage, I was reminded of recent Letters to the Editor carping about the current production of ‘Don Giovanni’ at the ENO: I haven’t seen it , but it is apparently one of those opera productions which takes a classic work and updates it to the present; a re-interpretation, in other words. I read that this one involves a gang rape scene (not in the original Mozart, I hasten to add, though arguably suggested by the story).This updating is often done in the opera world, and is always predictably decried by the traditionalists. Of course, these things don’t always work artistically, but they can be superb. The nay-sayers often object without having seen the performance, on the fundamental ground that you shouldn’t mess with a masterpiece. Here’s what Nietzsche might write to the papers (except that he loathed the popular press):

“...a half-understood monument to some great era of the past is erected as an idol and zealously danced around, as though to say: ‘Behold, this is true art: pay no heed to those who are evolving and want something new!’ This dancing mob appears to possess even the privilege of determining what is ‘good taste’: for the creative man has always been at a disadvantage compared with those who have only looked on and taken no part themselves; just as the public house politician has at all times been cleverer, more judicious and more prudent than the statesman who actually rules...the monumental is never to be repeated, and to make sure it is not they invoke the authority which the monumental derives from the past. They are connoisseurs of art because they would like to do away with art altogether...For they do not desire to see greatness emerge: their means of preventing it is to say ‘Behold, greatness already exists!’...whether they are aware f it or not, they act as though their motto were: let the dead bury the living.”

Phew! That socks it to ‘em! But now for the antiquarian:

“History thus belongs in the second place to him who preserves and reveres – to him who looks back to whence he has come, to where he came into being, with love and loyalty; with this piety he as it were gives thanks for his existence. By tending with care that which has existed from of old, he wants to preserve for those who shall come into existence after him the conditions under which he himself came into existence – and thus he serves life.”

But I can hear some objectors (is that you, Evan?) decrying the revering of the old just because it is old. Nietzsche agrees:

'encased in the stench of must and mould'?
“The antiquarian...always possesses an extremely restricted field of vision...this always produces one very imminent danger: everything old and past that enters one’s field of vision at all is in the end blandly taken to be equally worthy of reverence, while everything that does not approach this antiquity with reverence, that is to say everything new and evolving, is rejected and persecuted...Then there appears the repulsive spectacle of a blind rage for collecting, a restless raking together of everything that has ever existed. Man is encased in the stench of must and mould...when the historical sense no longer conserves life but mummifies it, then the tree gradually dies unnaturally from the top downwards to the roots – and in the end the roots themselves usually perish too.”

This reference to a tree harks to a fanciful but evocative metaphor Nietzsche uses earlier to describe how the past (the roots) can feed the present (the branches):

“the tree is aware of its roots to a greater degree than it is able to see them; but this awareness judges how big they are from the size and strength of its visible branches...”

And the third ‘species’ of history? How do we account for or incorporate the evil events of the past? Plenty of Very Bad Things happened, after all.

“...a third mode, the critical: and this, too, in the service of life. If he is to live, man must possess and from time to time employ the strength to break up and dissolve a part of the past: he does this by bringing it before the tribunal, scrupulously examining it and finally condemning it; every past, however, is worthy to be condemned – for that is the nature of human things: human violence and weakness have always played a mighty role in them."

And perhaps here Nietzsche should have been compulsory reading for John Howard and his Liberal Party during those long years when they scorned what Howard called ‘the black-armband view of history’ and refused to tender an apology to the indigenous people of Australia on the basis that ‘we didn’t do it’.

“For since we are the outcome of earlier generations, we are also the outcome of their aberrations, passions and errors, and indeed of their crimes; it is not possible wholly to free oneself from this chain. If we condemn these aberrations and regard ourselves as free of them, this does not alter the fact that we originate in them. The best we can do is to confront our inherited and hereditary nature with our knowledge, and through a new, stern discipline combat our inborn heritage and inplant in ourselves a new habit, a new instinct, a second nature, so that our first nature withers away.”

There is also some poignancy in this passage in the realisation that Nietzsche was German, and concerned very much with the German culture of his times. In the greater body of his work he is often seen as prescient in foreseeing the collapse of culture that ushered in the atrocities of the early twentieth century. The need to deal with their Nazi past remains a very serious issue for the German people today – a recent thoughtful book on that very subject is Bernhard Schlink’s “Guilt about the Past”, and the same theme permeates his more well known novel “The Reader” (now of course brought to you on the silver screen). I recommend both books.

Friedrich Nietzsche, 1875, around the time he
wrote this 'Untimely Meditation' on history.
Lou Salome (the girl he loved),
Paul Ree (who won her)
& Nietzsche. 1882
(I don't know what they're doing either)

And so we leave Friedrich there, at least for the time being; but not without noting that he has a tragic biography. He was recognised as a genius at a young age and became a full professor by the age of 24. As a young man he went off to the Franco-Prussian war and had his health ruined; he suffered from debilitating migraines all his life, and his poor health (and wildly unpredictable books) ruined his academic career. He spent much of his life wandering about Germany and Switzerland living on a small university pension. He never married (his best friend stole the woman he loved); he was a young acolyte of Richard Wagner but fell out with him; he had a ghastly sister who was a die-hard fascist; it seems he also probably had syphilis. It may have been this (or not) that eventually sent him mad. From 1889 his life ended for all intents and purposes, though he lived on for another eleven years, exploited by his sister until the last.

Quotations from Nietzsche 'Untimely Meditations', ed. Daniel Breazeale, trans. R J Hollingdale, Cambridge Texts in the History of Philosophy, Cambridge University Press 1997

Images from:

No comments:

Post a Comment