The Birth of Tragedy and the Awakening: Influences and Intertextualities
Bradley, Patricia L., The Southern Literary Journal
For decades, scholars of Kate Chopin and her works have indirectly, or at least without much elucidation, acknowledged the Nietzschean strain they have observed in her canon, particularly in her masterpiece The Awakening (1899). One recent example of this type of reference appears in the introduction to a new edition of Chopin's first novel At Fault (1890), in which the editors make the sweeping claim that "[n]umerous critics have remarked on Chopin's familiarity with philosophical works, especially the German Romanticism of Friedrich Schopenhauer and Friedrich Nietzsche" (Green and Caudle xxi). Additionally, two essays from the collection Kate Chopin Reconsidered: Beyond the Bayou (2992) make glancing and, at times, downright elliptical references to Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900) and certain of his works to illustrate images and metaphoric approaches Chopin shared with the radical nineteenth-century German philosopher.
Martha Fodaski Black begins her essay "The Quintessence of Chopinism" by tracing the bird imagery Chopin uses to set the opening scene in The Awakening to similar uses in George Bernard Shaw's feminist essay "The Womanly Woman." Black suggests other possible source texts, such as Mary Wollstonecraft's A Vindication of the Rights of Women (1772), George Eliot's Middlemarch (1872), and Nietzsche's Beyond Good and Evil (1886); while recognizing these earlier texts and their uses of the image, however, Black flavors the Shaw text as influence because, as she notes, Shave's views were more immediately available to Chopin as she was writing her novel; indeed, "evidence of [Chopin's] reading [Shaw] is implicit in The Awakening" (97). Black's conclusion also reflects her own goal as essayist: to convince the reader of Chopin's clear convictions regarding the "woman question" during the late nineteenth century and thus counter Elizabeth Fox Genovese's claim that Chopin was not really a feminist (95).
Writing for the same essay collection, Lynda Boren makes an even more tantalizing reference to Nietzsche in "Taming the Sirens: Self-Possession and the Strategies of Art in Kate Chopin's The Awakening." Boren's reference to the putative Nietzschean quality in Chopin's novel is even more elusively and literally elliptical. Well into the essay, she moves directly from one paragraph that deals with Edna Pontellier's unstinting response to "the strains of Chopin" to a subsequent but obviously related paragraph. In doing so, Boren uses the following transitional idea:
Subscribing to Nietzsche's argument in The Birth of Tragedy from the Spirit of Music (1872), it follows that Edna's latent Dionysian desires for irrational ecstasy are brought to the surface by certain types of music, while the Apollonian demand for order, required by art, is only feebly realized or negatively imaged as "encaging," "paternalistic," "silencing." (Boren 187)
Boren's use of the paragraph's initial dangling modifier demands that we examine the utility of questionable grammatical structure in this context. Who is, after all, subscribing to Nietzsche's argument? Is it Boren and, by a hoped-for extension, her reader? Was it Chopin and, by extension, Edna? Is Boren grudgingly positing a relationship of influence between Nietzsche and Chopin? Or is she relying on her reader's appreciation for an intertextual connection between Nietzsche and Chopin? Indeed, Boren's syntactical lapse, conscious or otherwise, draws our awareness to a pattern of scholarly reticence when it comes to making too direct a connection between Kate Chopin and Friedrich Nietzsche. If nothing else, observing such evidences of reticence manifested by syntactical misdirection begs this question of Chopin studies: what would acknowledging a relationship of influence between The Birth of Tragedy and The Awakening imply for Chopin critics and the direction of their criticism? The critical stakes as we consider this question could well be our cherished view of Chopin as feminist activist and the possibility that Edna's identity as feminist goddess is merely a construct.
Lynda Boren's reference to Nietzsche's The Birth of Tragedy from the Spirit of Music has the potential to be doubly misleading to her reader in the sense that even though this text was, in fact, published in German in 1872, no English translation was available to American readers until after the turn of the twentieth century. This detail of publishing history has been a stumbling block for many scholars attempting influence studies connecting Nietzsche with countless artists of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century who appear to have read (but cannot be proven to have read, not even in English and especially not in German) The Birth of Tragedy. Lacking this very proof, critic B.J. Leggett, for example, eschewed making influence connections between Wallace Stevens and Friedrich Nietzsche in his study of the American poet. Leggett accordingly entitled his work Early Stevens: The Nietzschean Intertext (1992) and in his study privileges an intertextual relationship between Nietzsche and Stevens--i.e., his own Nietzschean "reading" of Stevens--over the attribution of Nietzsche's direct influence upon Stevens--i.e., the result of Stevens having actually read Nietzsche rather than experiencing his philosophies indirectly as part of his cultural surround (Leggett 1-2). As Leggett explains, pursuing intertextual links rather than seeking to impose the influence of one work on another "allow[s] us to read aspects of a text that are otherwise unreadable, to propose new perspectives, and to identify different ideologies at work in the text" (viii). As we shall see, the intertextual relationship of Stevens and Nietzsche posited by Leggett facilitates an interesting triangulation of Stevens, Chopin, and Nietzsche, to be explored in a later section of this essay.
On the other hand, to what degree would Kate Chopin's knowledge of and consequent reliance upon Nietzsche's The Birth of Tragedy have been stymied by the absence of its English translation prior to her composing The Awakening? We should remember that from before Kate Chopin's birth in 1851, her hometown of St. Louis bore a marked German identity. St. Louis historian J. Thomas Sharf dates the period of greatest German immigration into the city from the revolutionary year 1848, noting that the politically liberal newcomers did not always blend in easily with the original St. Louisans, who were "conservative in politics, opinions, and morals." German immigrants, for example, overwhelmingly favored abolition during the Civil War and found themselves aligned politically with what Sharf terms the "New England element in St. Louis." Sharf adds that eventually, and not without bitter social and political struggle, this coalition came to represent "many of the thriftiest, most enterprising, and most useful citizens of the place[, who] built the railroads, fostered industry and developed trade in every direction" (1591).
Similarly, Denton J. Snider, an early organizer and exponent of German philosophical thought in St. Louis through what came to be known as the St. Louis Movement, calls the period from 1861 to 1875 "The German Era of St. Louis." According to Snider, St. Louis "became in many of its most decisive characteristics a German city" (138) and embraced many aspects of German culture. During these years, a large number of German language bookstores existed in order to supply their patrons with books and journals ordered from Berlin and Leipzig. Accession records from the St. Louis Mercantile Library--the same library, by the way, that owned four copies of Kate Chopin's The Awakening, all four of which were checked out on the memorable occasion when the author came to monitor their circulation--show large orders of German language titles made through such suppliers as Frederick Roeslein, F.A. Brockhaus, Michael Coomes, and Conrad Witter, among others. The Mercantile had (and has) several titles by Nietzsche in both German and English, donated by such community figures as Robert S. Brookings, at one time the president and director of the Mercantile Library as well as the president of the board of trustees of Washington University, and G.E. Stechert, a prominent St. Louis industrialist. The Mercantile's ownership of these volumes indicates that Nietszche's works were not only available but sought out and read by some St. …
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Publication information: Article title: The Birth of Tragedy and the Awakening: Influences and Intertextualities. Contributors: Bradley, Patricia L. - Author. Journal title: The Southern Literary Journal. Volume: 37. Issue: 2 Publication date: Spring 2005. Page number: 40+. © 1999 University of North Carolina Press. COPYRIGHT 2005 Gale Group.
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