“A book is like a mirror. If an ass looks into it, you cannot expect an angel to look out.”
Bearing the humbling injunction from Arthur Schopenhauer above in mind, I recently attempted once again a sympathetic, open-minded reading of Friedrich Nietzsche’s The Birth of Tragedy, and like my attempts to read Nietzsche sympathetically in the past, I failed once again. In some circles (but not in mine; I don’t have a circle), Nietzsche is the contemporary philosopher par excellence, esteemed for his style, his rhetoric, his polemic power; for me, ass though I may be, I find little sympathy for any of the three. There may be many reasons for this. No English translation of any of Nietzsche’s work sounds like anything but an English translation from a foreign language; if this were untrue of any of the translations I’ve come across (and I’ve tried three different translations of BT), I might blame the translator, but there may be something in Nietzsche’s thought itself which renders it so unaccommodating to my ears. The fetishization of the Dionysiac spirit, and of pre-Platonic Greece itself, is profoundly unconvincing to me (as is Bataille’s obsession with ritual and rite); again, this may be because by nature I am more sympathetic to the Apollonian spirit, but I am not at all sure that this is true. All that heightened rhetoric, all those exclamation points! Reading Nietzsche I can’t help but feel subjected to a loud never-ending harangue from a soapbox, punctuated with a loud, forced laughter and unhelpful references to abstractions like an Übermensch or an eternal recurrence (the concept of the latter, especially, is unpleasant). I have my suspicions as to why Nietzsche is one of the most popular and certainly most influential philosophers of the modern age, but perhaps these are best saved for another time.
I do not require that a philosopher be systematic. Nietzsche certainly is not. Neither, despite all of the secondary literature defining his system, is Schopenhauer, and he admits as much in the very first preface to the very first edition of The World as Will and Representation. But reading Schopenhauer I feel rather differently, as if in a quiet conversation in a dimly-lit study equipped with all the bourgeois pleasures of the mind and body — a roaring fireplace, a carafe of brandy, quiet talk, ironic laughter, as outside a snowstorm rages in the night. Schopenhauer’s manner convinces me as much as his insight; I am happier to admit his inconsistencies, as he himself admits he has them, especially when it comes to women and sex; as Schopenhauer said of Kant, great minds must be allowed to make occasional mistakes with impunity. For me it does not ameliorate the force of his thought or his writing.
I will be fifty in two months’ time, and perhaps I value these bourgeois pleasures more than I ever have: it is night outside, after all, and there is a fierce blizzard blowing. And I am perhaps less interested in popularity or community than ever before. I doubt that any sacrifices I might have to make to be popular or clubbable, whether it’s within a small circle or a large public arena, would justify the returns, quite small as I can imagine them in the larger scheme of things. I can see no justifiable or significant recompense to the exertion to be popular, or at least more widely read. I do not believe, like Nietzsche does (sometimes; sometimes he doesn’t; it depends on which of his aphorisms you quote, and that’s a game I’m not interested in playing, for I don’t have the time), that a culture or a civilization might somehow be recreated that reflects the characteristics of a society that would value tragedy, through revalorizing the Dionysian spirit or what-have-you, and I don’t have the desire for propagandizing those values within my portfolio as a writer.
When it comes to whatever I may write about drama or theatre, especially as it exists now in the country of my birth, I find myself to be more disconnected than ever before, no matter the blowsy and illusory “connections” that things like the blogosphere, Twitter, and Facebook pretend to provide. I suppose I have a reluctance to be absorbed into the corporatized digital world that these represent. The mad desperate craze for connection, for accessibility, for popularity, for community, I find profoundly foreign and hostile to my nature as a writer and as a person, especially in an art form like theatre. And yet it is this nature which must be the source for my writings about and for the theatre and drama. This places me outside, which is where I suppose I prefer to be. “A good drama critic is one who perceives what is happening in the theatre of his time,” Kenneth Tynan wrote in the foreword to his 1967 book Tynan Right and Left. “A great drama critic also perceives what is not happening.” In both Word Made Flesh and in my writings about erotic tragedy, I have written about what is not happening. I make no pretense that I am, QED, a great critic. But Tynan suggests there is some value to it, and I am content to rest with that.
And besides — it is unfair to write about the dramatists and theatremakers in America without the opportunities to see and become more deeply acquainted with their work than is possible for me now. In acknowledging this, I trust that my readers will understand that from now on Superfluities Redux will be less about theatre and drama and more about other things (theatre and drama will inevitably be engaged on occasion as well, though, as I conceive it, rarely). I write for no community, but for you, if you would like to read it; no harm done at all if you would not and go elsewhere; I will be happy to sit alone with you in that quiet bourgeois den and speak quietly about those obscure, quiet things that matter to me and just may matter to you as well. We may even talk a little about that storm outside, for it is certainly spectacular. Together we can talk away the hours, sharing our resignation, until the blizzard finally slows and ceases and the endless night is peaceful once more.