What Kind of Text is Zarathustra? By Lawrence J. Hatab

Music and Dance

The existential task presented in Zarathustra concerns the affirmation of natural life, especially its visceral embodiment, passionate drives, and instinctive energies—which were precisely the targets of spiritualized or rationalized philosophies and their conceptions of truth (T2). The philosophical register of Zarathustra can never be separated from its poetic character, which liberates the text from prevailing truth standards. But the modern understanding of poetry is generally restricted to language arts and written texts. Ancient Greek poetry was orally sung in live performances, and tragic poetry added enactment along with musical accompaniment and dance.[21] Music and dance enact sub-textual, embodied elements of language (tempo, rhythm, tone, gesture), which communicate with visceral life-energies that cognitive/verbal emphases suppress or conceal.

The text of Zarathustra has scores of references to, and enactments of, song, singing, and dance. And in Ecce Homo we read: “Perhaps the whole of Zarathustra can be considered music—certainly a rebirth in the art of hearing was one of its preconditions” (EH “Books: Z” 1). Dance is surely the epitome of (musical) embodiment, and it is given a high status in Zarathustra: “Only in the dance can I tell the parable (Gleichnis) of the highest things” (Z II: “Grave Song”). Nietzsche depicts Zarathustra as a dancer who affirms life in the face of eternal recurrence (EH “Books: Z” 6). In GS 84, Nietzsche implicates dance in the historical origin of poetry, and in Zarathustra dance seems to be a relief from Zarathustra being ashamed of poetry (Z III: “Tablets” 2). In TI “Germans” 7, Nietzsche says: “thinking wants to be learned like dancing, as a type of dancing. . . . A noble education has to include dancing in every form, being able to dance with your feet, with concepts, with words; do I still have to say that you need to be able to do it with a pen too—that you need to learn to write?”

As indicated above, dance is the clearest indication of embodiment, and its connection with poetry and music can help illuminate “sub-verbal” elements in language that communicate in a non-cognitive manner by way of tempo, rhythm, tone, gesture, and artistic effects (see EH “Books” 4). Such elements reflect precisely those natural energies in life to which the text of Zarathustra points. But a focus on music and dance pushes beyond modern “textual” notions of poetry to “sub-textual” effects that can be traced back to the historical emergence of language out of human embodiment. Such sub-linguistic origins are addressed in Nietzsche’s discussions of language in relation to gesture and music.

Language, Gesture, and Music

In HH 216, Nietzsche claims that language originated in gestures and facial expressions, together with the automatic, immediate imitation of these phenomena in face to face experience, which is natural in adults as well as children (called “motor mimicry” in modern psychology). Such was a direct communication of shared meanings (such as pleasure and pain). From such common comprehension, Nietzsche says, a “symbolism” of gestures could arise, with verbal sounds first coupled with the gestures, and then after familiarity operable by way of the sound symbols alone. We can understand the sense of this in how much gestures and facial expressions play an important role in face to face speech.[22]

Nietzsche occasionally discusses what can be called mimetic psychology, especially in his reflections on Greek art. An early essay, “Greek Music Drama,” mentions the audience’s sympathetic identification with the sufferings of tragic heroes.[23] And The Birth of Tragedy contains several relevant treatments. Apollonian and Dionysian forces are exhibited in nature herself, before the mediation of artistic works (BT 2). Forming and deforming powers are intrinsic to nature’s course, and dreams and intoxicated states (both of which exceed conscious control) are preconditions for the more cultivated manifestation of Apollonian and Dionysian powers, particularly those of language and music. Artists are said to “imitate” primal natural energies, which could not mean representational simulation, but rather the more performative sense of “impersonating” these energies in artistic practices (impersonation being one of the meanings of mimēsis in Greek). Indeed, nature itself urges expression in bodily gestures and movements (BT 21). Singing and dancing then exhibit an enchanted, ecstatic elevation, a quasi-divine transformation where one is not really an artist because one “has become a work of art” (BT 1).

In many respects, Nietzsche associates the Dionysian with music (BT 6, 17), especially its immediate emotional force that “overwhelms” conscious individuation. The Apollonian is associated with poetic language and theatrical technologies that shape a more individuated world. But since music and language are coordinated in tragic drama (BT 21), immediate disclosive force still operates in its performances. As indicated earlier, poetic metaphors are not “symbolic,” they possess a living power to disclose a world (BT 8). Tragic drama produced a Dionysian effect of mimetic identification, originally embodied in choral impersonation, where one acts “as if one had actually entered into another body, another character” (BT 8). An early note on tragic drama reads: “All art demands a ‘being outside oneself,’ an ekstasis; it is from here that we take a step to the drama, by not returning within ourselves, but entering into an unfamiliar being, in our ekstasis, as if bewitched” (KSA 7: 2 [25]).

In general terms Nietzsche considers music to be equiprimordial with gesture as a foundation for language, particularly in terms of how a speaker’s tone accompanies gesture symbolism. Rhythm and pitch intonations, according to Nietzsche, provide a common field of comprehension that renders the communicative power of language possible.[24] This is one reason why the Dionysian was essential for Greek tragedy in Nietzsche’s eyes, because the “universal” element behind Apollonian language could be presented through the combination of music, gesture, and dancing that embodied the poetic performance (BT 6).[25] Nietzsche thought that the Greeks had a capacity largely lost in modern experience, namely a “third ear” that could hear the musical background of language (BGE 8). We could say that Nietzsche’s answer to the question of how language could express something beyond its arbitrary phonic forms (given the differences in words across different languages) would not be in terms of universal cognitive conditions, but universal corporeal conditions of gesture and musicality. And his reasons for restricting language to a certain “fictional” status would follow from our tendency to separate distinct words from 1) the flux of experience and 2) the embodied forces behind verbal speech. Yet it seems that the first tendency is the more apt target because the corporeality of language in gesture and tone is said by Nietzsche to make language possible and it is not hard to intimate its indigenous function in embodied speech.

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