204 The performance of The Marriage of Figaro marks a Lesser Transition. A new estate begins to develop; society gives itself a new form. That is, it remains identical in its nucleus; the modification, undoubtedly a major and painful one, is consummated within the system. A Lesser Transition, in this sense, is any change that takes place within history, and therefore that is what the French Revolution was, and in general, every revolution is.
Naturally, there has never been a lack of spirits who claim to see within history something different, particularly in an apocalyptic epoch. When Jung-Stilling asked whether the national insignia is the “eye of the animal” that emerges from the depths, this corresponds to its metaphysical necessity, which easily leads, as it does in his meditations on the realm of the spirits, to reckless judgments. For the historian, such aspects are superfluous, even annoying. His work is optimal when it obeys the advice: “Shoemaker, attend to your shoes!” The historian is neither a pessimist nor an astrologer nor a prophet. In this respect, Spengler no longer belongs to that fraternity, despite the fact that his entry on the stage, precisely at that historical moment, was not by chance. The domain of the historian is limited to time and with it to the Lesser Transitions. The field he cultivates is time. Anything that transcends this terrain, for example, metaphysical or theological speculations, can, instead, harm his work. Nietzsche can attend the school of Burckhardt, but the reverse would be implausible.
205 On the other hand, we must admit that we are leaving the framework that we have identified with “history” since the time of Herodotus. That is why it is not possible for us to continue our inquiry regarding the situation within the image of the world we have inherited. Nor can we continue to trust the means and the forms, whose legitimacy was never cast into doubt for thousands of years. The fact that war, borders, property and matter should disappear, that the power of the father should disappear: behind all of this a framework of forces is at work that no longer merits the adjective “historical”. Something new is taking place within and without history. The fissure is no longer that of a house that is collapsing, nor is it that of a fire or a conflagration, as many peoples have suffered since ancient times. It must conceal something different from a fire that can be exploited or quenched in the classical way.
206 We must avoid an error, that is: the notion that a symbolic representation can transform the course of events. The sinking of the Titanic offers, even in its name and in a whole symphony of details, an analogy, an image, a symbol of a particular state of technological and socio-economic development. Something similar is true of the great scandals, the Dreyfus affaire, the case of the Royal Jewels and the trial of the Captain of Köpenick. All of them are symbols, models, abbreviations. They may offer an intuitive image, they may also help hasten the process of change, but only within the system and its necessities. If they had not taken place, what was necessary would still have been verified. They are images that can unleash consequences, but less as a cause than as a triggering factor. Sometimes one gets the impression that Clio is playing hopscotch. Thus, the queen has nothing to do with the history of the necklace that weighs so heavily and so decisively on her neck. The burning of the Reichstag is also suspicious. The tide comes with or without warning signs. The astrologer is limited to the symbol that establishes a link between an event and a constellation. They are images for contemplation, not for the will: works of art.
There is an astral substance in things, even when the coordination remains hidden. It is in the lamb, in the stable and in the manger; and precisely for that reason, the star is more than a sign of reference. It acts necessarily; but that it should be seen can depend on chance or on the movement of the clouds.
In this sense, space travel can extend knowledge, but only within the frontiers that the earth concedes to us in its sublimations.
207 Just as history has its rules, it can also produce facts that do not conform to those rules. When, for example, as the Bible recounts, the king of a besieged city, in a dire situation, appears on the wall of the city and sacrifices his son, which causes the besieging army to withdraw, then this does not belong to the system of history, although it must be chronologically included in the epoch subsequent to Herodotus. In this respect, as well, the Old Testament is a gold mine of discoveries. Goldberg provides some shocking details in his Critique of Judaic Doctrines. There are circumstances in which a similar event can be ordered in a chronological sequence. Even so, chronology is among the crudest tools of history. The “stone age” extends, in certain remote places, right up to our century, and even, when it comes to questions of spirituality, it may be found in places that are much closer to us.
208 Both history and art harbor strange materials, materials that have nothing in common with their legality, and it is even possible that they both violate it.
Art proceeds within the framework of history, which, considered in this context, appears as the history of culture. Both action, as well as the objects of action, receive by its means a different light; they are projected in a lighter medium. Now they appear under a typical, general, abstract, objective form in a concentrated, ideal, romantic or any other way you want to call it. Even where art surpasses its limits, merging with, for example, politics, ethics or religion, it remains within the system. Its unity is unmistakable, both spatially, in countries separated by great distances, as well as temporally, in the succession of styles. Its periods are like the segments of an animal, which can be differentiated, but concerning whose organic articulation there can be no doubt.
In this framework, therefore, the premiere performance of The Marriage of Figaro represents a Lesser Transition. The enormous excitement to which it gave rise must not deceive us concerning this fact. It is normal, in the sense that plagues of locusts, earthquakes or eclipses are normal, which recur in accordance with determined cycles, and may even be predictable. The excitement is precisely a sign of the fact that a model is understood totally and universally. Revolutions and Reformations necessarily belong to the course of culture.
209 But what happens when the movement leaves the very orbit, and not just a certain period, of history, and history itself becomes questionable? Then, just as politics is incapable of adjusting to the classical means, art cannot create a dependable model, either. With the downfall of the gods, their statues collapse, too.
No one needs to assume responsibility for this collapse; it collapses by itself. Bakunin jumped out of his carriage and took off his frock coat to join the workers he saw who were busy demolishing a house. Léon Bloy had visiting cards printed with the title, “Demolition Expert”. Nietzsche opened the Twilight of the Idols with the epigraph, “The hammer speaks”.
Today this is a business opportunity for those who want to loot the rubble. Corpse robbery has become a branch of collective industry; you have to use a lantern to look for people who are not participating in it. Matthew 8:22 offers a word of advice.88 The fall must always have its antecedents. However, there is a difference between pushing, according to Nietzsche’s exhortation, what is on the verge of collapse, and pushing what has already collapsed. The totem animal of Nietzsche was the eagle rather than the vulture. It is true that clean-up specialists are also indispensable; even the Brahmans had to admit this. But one can recognize clearly by their odor who belongs to the caste of the vidangeurs. It can be discerned in the vicinity of the flayers huts. “Un vautour: se nourrissant plutôt de chair morte et de vidange que de chair vivante” (Buffon, Oiseaux I, 248).
But this activity also surpasses the domain of necessity. Montaigne observes: “Vous voyez souvent des hommes sains faire un grand vuidange d’extrements sans besoin aucun precedent.”89 210 Nonetheless, although it has been interpreted without much insight—in Germany, Russia, France, England, and also in America—the crack in the lumber is heard everywhere, wherever the planetary tension is increasing. In Nietzsche, Dostoyevsky, Bloy, Joseph Conrad, and most precociously, Edgar Allan Poe, and also in Melville, especially in Benito Cereno; in all of them a disturbing atmosphere is propagated alongside and below the optimism that was so enthusiastically disseminated at the time: Zola, Walt Whitman, “Salut au monde”, the first radio transmissions, the World’s Fair, the Eiffel Tower.
It is necessary for us to pay heed to the subtlest sounds. The subliminal is not necessarily found outside of the system; it is even normal in old houses. Ghosts and apparitions can also be domesticated, and even rationalized, as the spiritualists did, and as is still being done today by parapsychologists. The subliminal forms part of domestic tranquility. One will look for it in vain under the Eiffel Tower, which is why the idea of taking part in its demolition lacks appeal. The bombings have erased old neighborhoods from the map, and with them more than one ghost, to the benefit of technological constructs.
In such landscapes one can leave the hammer aside—as long as one does not want to use it as a prospector. The rest is the business of the cleanup crews. What is still cracking and splitting apart in these places, heralds something different, it heralds something more than collapse. We have managed to take the first hesitant steps, beyond the threshold of the radioactive era. The latter demands a new toolbox—in the spiritual realm, as well.
211 One more note: here one might get the impression that the technological process has influenced our meditations. Thus, the assumption has been formulated that Darwinism has left its mark in Zarathustra. This is called building your house from the roof downward; in the beginning was the word. Progress is oriented in accordance with it, independently of whether one works with muscle power or with steam power, with electricity or with radiation. Compared to this, the world of things is fictitious; it evaporates into smoke if it is not always renewed by the word and by poetic creation. Now, too, important efforts are dedicated to the return to the word, to the sounding of strata that are fused in the magma.
The atom, for example, demonstrates activity, but lacks reality. In which the following universal truth is reflected, that is: abstractions do not reach the absolute. The Tower of Babel is based on fiction. No one will be convinced of this who has not understood that the very basis of abstraction, the numerical series, itself represents the most prodigious abstraction, a universal key fabricated by all cultures. But nothing more than a key.
212 Let us return, however, to the premiere performance of Figaro. This play heralded, as we said, a Lesser Transition. And nonetheless, when Beaumarchais smashed the windows, a wave of fresh air entered the theater. The room was still crowded, it was hard to breathe, and this feeling would spread: the Bastille, the guillotine, the Pont d’Arcole, the pyramids, the burning of Moscow, Waterloo. Few centuries have begun with such an impulse.
Universal history is still in its swaddling clothes, if it is compared to the cycles of geological history and of the cosmos. The influence of astrological signs, the macrocosmic style of astrology, becomes particularly persuasive on the scale of the major periods. But we only attend to the idea of a few influences that, to speak truly, become more constrictive the more deeply we plunge into them: Taurus, Aries, Pisces, and now Aquarius, whose Age is now announced. They are unique experiences—we only know one part of the signs of the Zodiac, and none of them has yet been repeated.
We undoubtedly know the course of smaller and really more human unities, which we call cultures and which Spengler ordered into a system. For many reasons, meanwhile, there is a growing suspicion that precisely our culture is not adjusting to this schema, since it has departed from its cyclic orbit. Which could also be a consequence of a millennial acceleration.
By this I do not mean to say that this movement, which fills us with enthusiasm at the same time that it terrifies us, does not obey a cycle, and that it is tending towards the unknown in a straight line of progress. There is probably no movement in the universe that does not revolve around a central point. This was the theological conviction with which mechanical and astronomical, dynamic and static, models of the universe could also be reconciled. Linear progress, however, is debatable.
Since we are passing into a new orbit or, expressed in different terms, since we are undergoing a transformation that is unprecedented in the history of the world and of culture, the one thing we can be sure of is that it is evidently taking place outside of our consciousness. To the same extent that this consciousness is becoming more exact “in the cockpit”, the voyage itself becomes more uncertain, insecure, and doubtful.
“Outside of our consciousness” does not mean, however, that the movement is also situated outside of our experience. Internal experience is related to consciousness as the mass of an iceberg is related to its visible part. In this respect, in our century voyages of discovery have been successfully carried out that are at the same level as the voyages to the deepest parts of the oceans.
The human being is the measure of things—the word gains a greater scope with the extension of knowledge. Internal knowledge has passed through the amoebas, the reptiles and the dinosaurs; it was felt all over the Moon long before a spaceship landed on it. Here resides the experience not just of periods in the history of the world, but also in the history of the Earth, not only of voyages in time, but also of explorations beyond the wall of time. Many contents that took shape in religions and also in myths, could only have become “conscious” in this way.
To activate this experience is now our most urgent task.
The Case of Wagner 213 If we now consider the premiere of Figaro as the model of a secular Lesser Transition, next we raise the question concerning how a Great Transition, the entry into a new “House”, is heralded. Entry always indicates supervention.
First of all, we want to set aside secondary considerations—such as whether, perhaps, man acquires a particularly relevant role, insofar as, for the first time since we have been able to speak of universal history, we are entering into an astrological sign that does not refer to an animal form. Other questions are connected with this one—thus, for example, that of knowing whether we have attained a sufficient level of spiritualization to spare ourselves the entry of the gods.
Therefore, we shall observe certain precautions, and in what follows the questions are not posed for the purpose of obtaining any answers, but only for the purpose of pointing to the method to formulate the questions.
How, for example, is The Case of Wagner different from the premiere of Figaro? At first glance, by its longevity, since TheCase of Wagner has been hotly debated for more than a century. It lacks the explosive component of Figaro, despite the fact that it, too, was associated with scandals. It also lacks the strictly political element, despite the fact that his work has been repeatedly mobilized on the political battlefield. In Beaumarchais the fire disappeared into smoke; in Wagner new fuel is still being brought to the fire. And this fire is not, by the way, a “fire” in the political or social sense. And where it does cause destruction, we also hear a subtle crackling sound from the flames.
Baudelaire could not avoid hearing that sound. This is just where he found what he had been looking for in hashish: “The spirit is transported to that dreamlike state where total clairvoyance is not far off, where one then perceives a new connection of the phenomena of the world which, undoubtedly, is of such a kind that it cannot be perceived with the eye of ordinary vision….”90 This is how it is expressed in the only essay that Baudelaire devoted to music in which, after the Parisian debut of Tannhäuser (1861), he defended Wagner against “the imbeciles … of the gutter press”.
Wagner’s concert at the Salle des Italiens plunged Baudelaire into a kind of addiction. He went to all the cafes, to all performances, wherever a piece by the maestro was being performed.
Tannhäuser must have affected Nietzsche with a similar or even more violent enthusiasm. The Case of Wagner must be read with a critical spirit, like all polemics. It was written during his Turin period, in the fateful year of 1888, shortly before his breakdown. In such readings we must pay close attention to the points of light, to the flashes that glitter in the most diminutive crystals, as can be seen on the surface of the snow when the sun shines low on the horizon.
“Anarchy of the atoms…. hostility and chaos, always becoming more striking, as one ascends to ever higher forms of organisation…. our greatest miniaturist in music, who compresses into the smallest space an infinitude of meaning…. the heir of Hegel.… music decomposed and reduced, as it were, to the elementary…. He emancipates the oldest woman in the world, Erda.”
Along the way, there are expressions and sentences of which only Nietzsche is capable: “‘The world’, a Christian term of insult…. The Wagnerian musical directors, in particular, are worthy of an age which posterity will one day designate with timorous reverence, the classical age of war”. And, to top it all off, the quotation from Wagner: “Let us be careful. Let us struggle against our ambition, which would like to found religions. But nobody must venture to doubt that we save him, that our music alone brings salvation….” (from Wagner’s essay, “Religion and Art”).
Something must have happened there. Nietzsche’s main objection to Wagner, décadence—which is surprising, coming from Nietzsche—is not relevant in our context. However, it is just in such transitions that the décadent extends his tentacles as far as possible. His place is wherever the bios is being transformed into pus. It is even possible that this term is converted into an insult directed against the most capable and fecund of artists. He is the degenerate. When, nonetheless, the genre itself loses rank, value and power, perhaps the degenerate is the only one who still knows how to clear the way, while he strives to pass between the almost immaterial cracks of the petrified edifice; the last one who still possesses generative force.
However, we do not want to attribute value to mere success or to the fact that “the continuity of history is preserved”. Even where the type does not make progress, and that is its current fate, it has acted “in itself”. An example is Akhenaton, in whom the figure of the décadent rises to power and champions heresy. His name is inscribed in the Book, even if he did not experience the resurrection in time that was later conceded to him thanks to the work of the archaeologists. It is not by chance that this has succeeded for us, for there are related surprises between the spiritual position of this personage and ours: in his attempt to venerate natural forms, under the aspect of pure radiation, such as was developed in Heliopolis, and of spiritualizing them with the help of art.
214 The Case of Wagner will last longer than Nietzsche supposed. Exhaustion and crisis form part of its image. The way Nietzsche preferred to view the situation, however, is exemplified in prophecies like the following: “The age of national wars … this whole interlude-character which the circumstances of Europe at present are possessed of, may, in fact, assist such art as that of Wagner in obtaining a sudden glory, without thereby guaranteeing to it a future….”
And he adds as a postscript: “The Germans themselves have no future.”
In both cases it is likely that he was mistaken. What is the future, anyway, when the question is framed in such terms? It is a word that is particularly dear to spirits who have no present moment. We can compile a whole catalogue of words that are the objects of celebration in this sense—for example, with respect to those who do nothing but invoke youth, maturity, tradition, the afterlife, ideals, the revolution, democracy and metaphysics. All, au fond, defensible, but only au fond when they are backed up by the necessary power. Otherwise, they degenerate into mere invective. That Spengler should have denied a future to the “Worker” seems surprising to me, coming from a thinker for whom the entire West had no more value than a form of Antiquity.
Anyone who participates as an invited guest in the sumptuous banquets of life, anyone who engenders, who creates, who enjoys, does not speak of the future in this way. Nietzsche, of course, was not unaware of this. Otherwise, how could he have venerated the light of noonday, the oasis, the most silent hour, honey, the serpent and the homecoming? The Mediterranean and also midnight?
215 Twelve years ago, in New York, exhausted after a long and tedious flight in a jet plane, the performance of The Twilight of the Idols at the Metropolitan Opera made me think of the part of this prophecy that relates to Wagner. The audience was predominantly Jewish; in the final scene, Wotan comes onstage in the robes and with the overall appearance of the High Priest, Aaron.
Wagner’s future seems to me to be more than assured.
Nietzsche quotes Goethe’s definition of the fate of the Romantics: “Suffocation
by chewing moral and religious absurdities over again”, and he adds: “In fewer words: Parsifal”. “The Christian wishes to get loose from himself.… but perhaps the German also wants to free himself from himself … To look enviously towards master morality, noble morality (the Icelandic legend is almost its most important document), and at the same time to have in his mouth the contrary doctrine, the ‘Gospel of the Lowly’…. Modern man represents biologically a contradiction of moral values, he sits between two
chairs, he says in one breath, Yea and Nay.”
216 Meanwhile, what is here seeking philosophical expression by way of the voluptuous storm of the intuition has taken form in the vicissitudes of time, in unprecedented concentrations and shocking deliquescence.
In the premiere of Figaro a storm is also announced. There, too, the air is charged and foul. But even without taking into account that there the Roman expression, “one of two alternatives”, prevails, and here the Germanic expression, “one as much as the other”, it seems that the storms are different not only in the extent of their destructive power, but also in their quality.
Beaumarchais’s action can lead to a common denominator: the Third Estate is knocking at the door. But who or what is coming and knocking at the door now?
At first, Wagner wanted to conclude The Ring of the Nibelungs with a hymn to “free love” and with the prospect of a utopia, where “all will be well”, as Nietzsche says. Wagner finally rejected that plan; Beaumarchais opted in favor of it.
217 To judge the power of a Transition on the basis of the themes that motivate it constitutes, a priori, a mistake. Mediocrity sought to overcome itself by choosing “elevated materials”. When a genius applied himself to them, in the historical novel, for example, like Flaubert in Salammbô, he takes on, instead, a temporary ballast. He will always proceed with freedom, as has been the case since ancient times in the great dramas. Art is sovereign, even against history.
When Nietzsche directed his attack particularly against Parsifal, it must only be understood, in part, as a thematic critique. The idea of salvation, which seemed particularly strange to him, is not contained in the theme, but in its background; to elaborate this theme, one does not need Christian subterfuges. In any case, Schopenhauer managed to do so without resorting to Christianity; and, according to Nietzsche, Wagner created a poetic version of The World as Will and Representation. The malaise might be rather widespread. What good are the gods, what good are the names that have more or less worn out with use? Nietzsche is not thinking of the figures of the shadow play, which move according to more or less preformed ideas and ideals, but his sarcasm points to the player casting the shadows who is hidden behind the scenes. But he is not capable of defeating him, just as Schopenhauer was not able to triumph over Hegel.