Friedrich Nietzsche and Weimar Classicism

By Rennie, Nicholas | Goethe Yearbook, January 1, 2007 | Go to article overview

Friedrich Nietzsche and Weimar Classicism


Rennie, Nicholas, Goethe Yearbook


Paul Bishop and R. H. Stephenson, Friedrich Nietzsche and Weimar Classicism. Rochester, NY: Camden House, 2005.281 pp.

Nietzsche's references to Goethe and Schiller include expressions of emphatic veneration, rote gestures of obeisance to two dominant representatives of the German Kulturgut, handy quotations culled from a widely familiar literary corpus, and criticism that occasionally turns bluntly dismissive. The latter stance becomes especially evident in the case of Schiller. In his early works, Nietzsche cites Schiller approvingly, as when he adopts his insights into the role of the tragic chorus in Die Geburt der Tragödie. In his later writings, by contrast, he rejects Schiller as an "Attituden-Held" whose idealism has improperly elevated his reputation in Germany above Goethe's (KSA 13:502).' "Seien wir Idealisten!" he urges mockingly in Der Fall Wagner, after all, that is how Schiller had himself anointed as a so-called Klassiker (KSA 6:25-26).

Nietzsche's relation to Goethe is somewhat different. The figure who interests him is the late Goethe of Eckermann's Gespräche, in whom Ernst Bertram, writing in 1920, recognized one of Nietzsche's key "masks."2 Throughout his work, Nietzsche recurrently (even obsessively) invokes and speaks through Goethe as the representative of a magisterial, Hellenic culture of balance and selfdiscipline that he misses in the modern age.This ventriloquism is not without its tensions. In Götzen-Dämmerung, Nietzsche confirms his reverence for Goethe, but within a few pages also flatly states that Goethe misunderstood Greek culture ("verstand ... die Griechen nicht" [KSA 6:151-53, 159]). A note from the same period of composition identifies this failure-specifically, the inability to account for the role of the Dionysian in ancient Greece-with the very concept of the "classical" (KSA 13:235).

In short, Nietzsche's relationship with the two main representatives of Weimar Classicism, one that has been freshly examined in this study by Paul Bishop-and R. H. Stephenson, is marked by considerable ambivalence. It is not unique, among the traditions linking German writers from the eighteenth to twentieth centuries, in defining itself through a debate over the meaning of "Greece," and over the nature of that imperative that ancient Greek culture and aesthetics have recurrently been assumed to constitute for a modern age.These traditions, in turn, would reveal new ambivalences as Nietzsche himself became in some problematic sense classical-a phenomenon perhaps best represented when the Nietzsche Archive was integrated into (or buried within) Weimar's Goethe-Schiller Archive in 1949.

What are, then, the connections to which the conjunction in this book's title alludes? A guiding principle of the study is that "over and over again, at significant points in the development of his mature thought Nietzsche has recourse to the cardinal doctrines of Weimar Classicism" (88). The Kulturkampf waged by Goethe and Schiller is a "missing perspective" in the literature on Nietzsche, one without which "[his] thinking is distorted to the point of unintelligibility" (1). In particular, the authors focus on the "conception of aesthetic experience as a conciliation of the sensuous Dionysian and the formal Apollonian, borrowed from Weimar Classicism and placed at the heart of Die Geburt der Tragödie and Zarathustra" (2).To understand this genealogy is to recognize that the two texts are closely related, and that the latter work "has a single, coherent message," one that coincides with what Goethe called "das Evangelium des Schönen" (3). The first three chapters examine Die Geburt der Tragödie and Zarathustra, and are followed by a fourth chapter entitled "From Leucippus to Cassirer: Toward a Genealogy of 'Sincere Semblance.' " An appendix describes the biographical details of Nietzsche's work on Zarathustra.

The logic of the book's structure is not entirely clear to me, suggesting as it does a set of aims and interests that are not fully reconciled, and that do not fit in any obvious way with the title. …

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