Richard Wagner (1813 – 1883) intended his mid-Nineteenth Century innovation of Music Drama to instigate a thorough renewal, not simply of art, but rather of the human situation, as writ large, in society and culture; he foresaw in the late 1840s that his work would require a theoretical basis in metaphysics, aesthetics, and ethics. As it happens, all three parts of this theory entail, although Wagner does not employ the terms, both an anthropology, and a theory of representation. Finally, Wagner’s theory of representation derives a type of primordial signification from an event in which the unavoidable beauty of a token or talisman disarms a threatening violence. Wagner worked out this anthropology, and the accompanying theory of representation, borrowing his vocabulary and some few notions from G. W. F. Hegel and Ludwig Feuerbach, in a series of essays and pamphlets in the 1840s and 50s. In these documents, Wagner prescribed the “mimetic,” “poetic,” and “tonal” (that is to say, the combined dramatic) characteristics that would body themselves forth in Tannhäuser, The Ring of the Nibelung, Tristan and Isolde, The Mastersingers, and Parsifal. These operas – or rather these Gesamtkunstwerke, as their author called them, using his own coinage – would recreate on the modern stage an “earliest utterance of consciousness.”[i] Their performance would inaugurate a new “breaking loose from unconscious life,”[ii] to quote from their author’s post-Idealist terminology; enacting the Gesamtkunstwerk would thus revitalize society by rescuing it from the degradations of fashion and the rabble, two of Wagner’s reliable pejoratives, in which an anthropologically acute reader will discern the theme of cultural breakdown in thoughtless spreading imitation and the unconsciousness of the crowd.
Provided they spring honestly from motives of true charity, and to the extent that we are sane, our deepest loves must point toward reals. They must be reliable guides, or they would interfere with survival, and we would not have them.
So then also likewise with our deepest sorrows.
A client wrote me over the weekend, asking if I thought recent news of apparent flattening of the curve of new infections of Chinese Flu in Italy, Spain and, perhaps, even New York City, portended incipient prevalence over the virus. I responded:
Friedrich Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra (1883 – 1885 – Translated by R. J. Hollingdale): Poor Nietzsche! – Unread in his lifetime, thundering out his contrarian theses to an auditorium minus an audience, and tangling himself up in contradictions of Gordian knottiness such that untangling them would require, not so much a sleek sword, but a great battle-axe and much chopping. And yet, as wrong as Nietzsche so often was, he often got things right despite himself, even supposing that he never knew it. Like so much of the past, Nietzsche speaks to the present, speaks presciently and with clarity to the swamp of human folly in which the contemporary world finds itself so deeply mired. He addresses the phony moralism of the herd, the delusion of a self-denominating progress that continuously congratulates itself on having consummated history, and the mandatory nescience in regard to the human and cosmic realities. A man of colossal resentment, Nietzsche yet understands, even as he models, the perniciousness of resentment; and he sees how envy sends its poisonous tentacles everywhere – just not into himself. That he pretends not to see. Nietzsche’s most famous book, Thus Spoke Zarathustra, places the ancient prophet of the Persians and Medes into the role of mouthpiece for the author. Nietzsche assumes the office of an inspired seer. The oratory begins. Paul Kriwaczek summarizes Thus Spoke Zarathustra more succinctly than anyone else. In his own In Search of Zarathustra (2002), Kriwaczek writes how Nietzsche’s program sought “to undo the damage caused to humanity by Zarathustra’s original teachings,” namely through “the invention of morality.” Kriwaczek imputes to Nietzsche the conviction that “therefore it was up to Zarathustra himself to reverse the mistake.”
Res ipsa loquitur, no?
While we’re at it, there is a strong epidemiological case for sexual modesty and chastity, for parochialism, for patriotism, and for cultural conservatism in respect to morals and customs. What is more, the humanely small scale of Schumacher and Christopher Alexander, Moldbug’s Patchwork or localism or Catholic subsidiarity, and the traditionalism of William Morris, of Chesterton, of Carlyle, and of de Maistre and Bonald all make great epidemiological sense. Wendell Berry, Edward Abbey, Tolstoy, the Wrath of GNON, and of course we here at the Orthosphere; all echo the same notion:
Stay small, stay local, stay close to home, stay close to nature, and within the span of your own hands. Small steps, not great revolutionary saltations.
Walter J. Ong, Jr., Orality and Literacy (1982): Freshman composition students – whose deficient prose has come in for praise during their progress from Kindergarten to high school by teachers who also write poorly and have no real grasp of grammar or syntax – believe firmly that writing differs not at all from speaking. They therefore “write” only what they would say, were they jawing with their dorm-buddies over some topical topic. (If, that is, they did jaw, but mainly they do not.) Ong’s Orality and Literacy explores the stark contrast between oral language and written language; or rather, between the thinking of those who live in what he calls primary oral cultures and those who live fully in the stream of literate, either chirographic or typographic, culture. Ong’s chapter on “Some Psychodynamics of Orality” lists the characteristics of a primary oral culture. In an early paragraph Ong remarks that “fully literate persons can only with great difficulty imagine what a primary oral culture is like, that is, a culture with no knowledge whatsoever of writing or even of the possibility of writing.” For one thing – an oral culture is also an aural culture. Speech is sound; it vanishes into silence in the same moment as it pronounces itself. Speech is time-bound. To attend to speech means to attend to persons, either orators or interlocutors; and both oratory and interlocution correspond to a performance. Oral cultures and literate cultures in fact share a need, namely to preserve the wisdom necessary for group survival, but in an oral culture this takes the form of proverbs and sayings, which are anything but discursive and strike literates as quaint and hackneyed. “In an oral culture,” as Ong writes, “experience is intellectualized mnemonically.” The young come under the obligation continuously to repeat the legal and customary formulas. Oral cultures will appear to literates as restrictive and redundant in their iteration, narrow in range, and sententious, traits that arise from an intrinsic limitation.
As we look to the end of Christmastide next week, I thought it seemly to bid farewell to the season with a fond nod – not just of respect and gratitude, but as shall be seen of reverence and some awe – to the inspiring and administering angel of the domestic rites of that festival, Santa Claus. With that statement, I have given away the matter of this post.
I puzzled for years over the tradition that the Magi were led to Bethlehem by a star. I read all sorts of ingenious explanations: that, as expert astronomers, the Chaldeans were uniquely equipped to navigate to Bethlehem by celestial observation, or that there had been a supernova whose light reached Earth for the first time shortly before the Nativity, or the like. None of them quite made sense. How could something outside the orbit of the moon indicate a specific town on Earth?