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The Journal of Nietzsche Studies 34 (2007) 28-46

Nietzsche's Musical Askesis for Resisting Decadence
Bruce Ellis Benson

Nothing has preoccupied me more profoundly than the problem of décadence," writes Nietzsche in The Case of Wagner (P).1 That preoccupation is likewise evident in Nietzsche's other texts of 1888—TI, A, and EH.2 Yet Nietzsche goes on to reassure us (or perhaps reassure himself) that he "resists" this decadence by way of what he calls his "special discipline," which he describes in terms of "sacrifice," "self-overcoming," and "self-denial."

Yet what does music have to do with this "special discipline"? That music was deeply important to Nietzsche is well known. From his youth on, he was an avid improviser at the piano. His letters (and even writings) are filled with references to particular musical pieces, composers, and even concerts that he attends. Not only does Nietzsche frequently use musical metaphors, but he also links music and thought in such a way that the latter is somehow dependent on the former (a link that I shall later consider). In his recently translated book, Georges Liébert notes that "Nietzsche's repeated avowal is often cited: 'Without music, life would be an error,' but almost as though it were a quip. Rarely is the decisive importance music, in fact, had for the economy of his thought recognized."3 Liébert wonders whether Nietzsche means that music is a way of evading life or whether life can be understood "only through music."4 I read Nietzsche through the latter lens, as a "musical philosopher" who—like life—can be properly understood "only through music," that is, when the centrality of music to his thinking is recognized. Accordingly, I take Nietzsche very seriously when he says that whatever "cannot be understood in relation to music" fills him with "disgust and aversion" (KSB 3:257).5 Although my goal here is to demonstrate the importance of music to Nietzsche's askesis, it will likewise become apparent how deeply Nietzsche's thought in general is penetrated by music.

Here I will argue that Nietzsche's resistance to decadence is a kind of asceticism—or we might better speak of an askesis—that can be understood in musical terms. The aim of Nietzsche's decadence-resisting askesis is the attunement of the soul with life. In its most literal sense, decadence simply means "falling down." Metaphorically, it is decline or decay from a previous state of vitality.6 But one can also read decadence musically, as a "de-cadence" in the sense of a loss of rhythm. Although music and decadence are strongly linked for Nietzsche (particularly, though not exclusively, in CW), I know of no instance in which Nietzsche thinks of decadence in this explicitly musically etymological sense. Yet, given not only that decadence for Nietzsche is in effect [End Page 28] a falling out of rhythm with life but also that music—particularly dance—plays such an important role in helping us get back into rhythm with life, that musical sense of decadence seems a highly appropriate way of reading Nietzsche.7

The success of Nietzsche's askesis can be judged both theoretically and practically. On the one hand, to what extent does Nietzsche's askesis provide a way to resist (even if not to escape) decadence? That is, does Nietzsche's askesis truly constitute a new sort of rhythm? Or does it—in the end—somehow reinscribe the very logic of decadence? On the other hand, to what extent is Nietzsche successful at practicing his own askesis? While Nietzsche tells us that his "greatest experience was a recovery" (CW P), the extent to which he recovered is surely open to question.

De-cadence: Falling Out of Rhythm

For someone who had been preoccupied with—not to mention so much better known for—so many other themes, Nietzsche's declaration regarding his concern for decadence comes as something of a surprise. But, as Nietzsche says, he "had reasons" for that preoccupation.

One reason is...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1538-4594
Print ISSN
0968-8005
Pages
pp. 28-46
Launched on MUSE
2007-12-06
Open Access
No
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