Tag Archives: Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche – 1844-1900

Dithyrambs of Dionysus

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Dithyrambs of Dionysus [Amazon, Bookshop, Local Library] by Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche, trans. R J Hollingdale.

Nietzsche Hollingdale Dithyrambs of Dionysus

Dionysos-Dithyramben is a set of nine poems revised, written, and collected by Nietzsche during and after the composition of Thus Spake Zarathustra, and they are thus one of the “Werke des Zusammenbruchs” from the close of his writing career. They were dismissed by Aaron Ridley from his edition of all the other “Werke des Zusammenbruchs” (i.e. The Anti-ChristEcce HomoTwilight of the IdolsThe Case of Wagner, and Nietzsche contra Wagner) as “a collection of poems whose absence is not to be regretted.” It’s just as well that snotty editor forced me to acquire the Dithyrambs in a separate volume, since the bilingual presentation here — while at odds with the larger project of the Cambridge University Press series of Nietzsche’s works in English translation, in which Ridley’s edition stands — is essential for full appreciation of the poetry.

In the role of translator, R.J. Hollingdale is impressively accurate, but he is more intent on the semantic content of the verse than its poetic form. For example, he sacrifices meter, line emphasis, and some end-rhyme in this penultimate stanza of “Die Wüste wächst: weh dem, der Wüsten birgt . . .”:

Die Wüste wächst: weh dem, der Wüsten birgt!
Stein knirscht an Stein, die Wüste schlingt und würgt.
Der ungeheure Tod blickt glühend braun
und kaut –, sein Leben ist sein Kaun . . .

It is rendered thus by Hollingdale:

“The desert grows: woe to him who harbours deserts!
Stone grates on stone, the desert swallows down.
And death that chews, whose life is chewing,
gazes upon it, monstrous, glowing brown . . .” (39)

Hollingdale was one of the great 20th-century anglophone champions of Nietzsche, and I take his notes to reflect a conservative, establishment strain in Nietzsche scholarship. The introduction is a helpful, if brief, overview of Nietzsche’s work as a poet and its relationship to his philosophical output.

Hollingdale’s remarks on the individual poems emphasize the autobiographical dimensions of the poems, somewhat to the exclusion (I thought) of their literary value to readers. On the biographical front, he insists (in 1984) that the syphilitic genesis of Nietzsche’s madness is a fully established fact (87-8), although I have read persuasive arguments by Siegfried Mandel (1988) and Geoff Waite (1996) questioning that allegation, and in the case of the latter challenging its supporting narrative assumption of Nietzsche’s heterosexuality. 

The nine poems are really gorgeous. Although three of them, with slight alterations, also appear in Thus Spake Zarathustra, I found them more powerful here, and thus I was inclined to agree with Hollingdale that “they were inserted [in Thus Spake Zarathustra] capriciously and by force” (85). The significance of “Klage der Ariadne,” for example is almost inverted in the context of the Dithyrambs, and it was so affecting for me, that it may serve as the touchstone of a new ceremony in my private canon of ritual. This slender volume is a treasure.

Prophets of Dissent

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Prophets of Dissent: Essays on Maeterlinck, Strindberg, Nietzsche and Tolstoy [Amazon, Bookshop, Project Gutenberg, Local Library] by Otto Heller.

Heller Prophets of Dissent

Otto Heller was a native of Bohemia who immigrated to the US in 1883. He had a lifelong career as an academic, including a doctorate from the University of Chicago. He wrote Prophets of Dissent during World War I, while he was Professor of Modern European Literature in Saint Louis. It collects four essays on “the foremost literary expositors of important modern tendencies” (vii). There is little or no mutual reference among the component essays on Maeterlinck, Strindberg, Nietzsche, and Tolstoy, even when one mentions a figure treated by another; each will stand on its own for a reader. In each there is a good overview of the literary figure including both biographical details and bibliographic notes.

Of the four writers treated here, Maurice Maeterlinck is the one whom I have read the least and am most likely to read in the future. Heller’s treatment of Maeterlinck, whom he classes as a “mystic,” was encouraging in this regard. He also characterizes Maeterlinck as working within the “new romanticism” of his period (13). The features of Maeterlinck’s work that Heller observes to have been off-putting or even risible to early readers are all attractive to me: a preoccupation with transcendent realities expressed through subtle and enigmatic symbols.

Heller’s study of August Strindberg–whom I have read extensively, but long ago–glosses the notorious Swede as an “eccentric.” I think the observations here are incisive and accurate, if often dismaying. For example, “In Strindberg’s case, religious conversion is not an edifying, but on the contrary a morbid and saddening spectacle; it is equal to a declaration of complete spiritual bankruptcy” (100). The essay necessarily treats Strindberg’s eventual keynote of misogyny, his self-torment, and his apparent ideological fickleness, and gives him credit for “the extraordinary subjective animation of his work” (104).

Friedrich Nietzsche features as the “exalted” figure in Heller’s treatment. As a reader of Nietzsche, Heller would not have been dependent on other translators, and I assume the quotes and fragments that he presents in English are his own translations. These compare favorably with other translations on my shelf. For example, he quotes Also Sprach Zarathustra: “All great Love seeketh to create what it loveth. Myself I sacrifice into my love, and my neighbor as myself, thus runneth the speech of all creators” (128). Heller is of course at pains to dissociate Nietzsche’s intentions as an author from the Great War policies of his countrymen. He surveys the doctrinal leitmotifs of Neitzsche’s work and scores him as a powerful and admirable advocate of self-realization, if nearly useless as a reference for social reform.

The chapter on Leo Tolstoy the “revivalist” marks him as a spiritual successor to Jean Jacques Rousseau, and possessed of a similar “inconsistency between principles and conduct” (205). Heller rates Tolstoy highly as a social critic, while pointing out the unworkability of the author’s proposed solutions in light of actually existing society. (For myself, I see Tolstoy as a puissant modern agent of the Great Sorcery, and I find his moral aspirations somewhat noxious.)

Throughout the book Heller’s own prose is full of little gems. He was clearly a perceptive reader and skillful writer, confined to criticism and academic study through want of his own determining inspiration. This book (along with a separate study of Ibsen) seems to be his principal intellectual legacy, and it is a pleasant and informative read for those of us interested in its subject matter.