Kafka and Modernity: A Chinese Intellectual Approach

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In Franz Kafka’s Beim Bau des Chinesischen Mauer, there is a silence and juxtaposition between the official justification of the building of the Great Wall and the hidden knowledge of the Chinese. The lack of opposing rationales or reflection on opposition makes it impossible for the subjects of China to gain freedom. The narrator, on the other hand, does not look to the Emperor and his classical teachings, but looks to the characteristics of the world around him – the people, the construction of the wall – to investigate the situation. This type of rationale is akin to modernism, a subject prominent in Chinese intellectual thought of Lu Xun, Kang Youwei and Liang Shuming. These thinkers, as well as Walter Benjamin, give us insight to the expression of modernism in terms of worldliness. The ultimate goal of this study is to provide a case for the worldliness presented in Mauer by highlighting themes of Chinese modern thought.

The Case of China and Kafka

It wasn’t only Kafka who likened himself, im Grunde, to the Chinese[1]. For Kafka’s tenth Todestag memorial, Walter Benjamin contextualized Kafka’s mythic spirit in Chinese genealogy, “Unter den Ahnen, die Kafka in der Antike hat, den jüdischen und den chinesischen, auf die wir noch stoßen werden, ist dieser griechische nicht zu vergessen.” (Benjamin, 5) At once Benjamin invokes Kafka’s worldliness, grounding him in the primordial cornerstones of the early modern world. What makes Kafka particularly Chinese is essentially what makes him non-European: “Die natürliche Auslegung ist der eine, die übernatürliche ist der andere; am Wesentlichen gehen beide – die psychoanalytische wie die theologische – in gleicher Weise vorbei.” (ibid., 16) Unanswering to the investigations of European modernity, Benjamin uses the Zeitgeist to organize Kafka under the utter difference ascribed to the Chinese:

“»Ihm gilt grade die Fülle der Welt als das allein Wirkliche. Aller Geist muß dinglich, besondert sein, um hier Platz und Daseinsrecht zu bekommen« Das Geistige, insofern es noch eine Rolle spielt, wird zu Geistern. Die Geister werden zu ganz individuellen Individuen, selber benannt und dem Namen des Verehrers aufs besonderste verbunden.« […] Es ist nun freilich nicht Kafka, von dem hier die Rede ist – es ist China.” (ibid., 20)


What is most important about Benjamin referencing China is not what he suggests about Kafka’s work in its “inexhaustible intermediate world”[2], rather that Kafka’s Chinabild is canonized alongside him, confirming a cross-cultural process of modernity. Though Benjamin quotes Franz Rosenzweig’s Stern der Erlösung, a piece in which China is placed opposite the West, he is not polemicizing Kafka nor China, but emphasizing the unorthodoxy of Kafka’s contribution “um die Frage der Organisation des Lebens und der Arbeit in der menschlichen Gemeinschaft.” (ibid., 11)

In binding the Chinabild with Kafka’s fictional oeuvre, Benjamin posits that Western culture is “haunted by its own structural obverse”[3]. That is, the West is comprised of systems of binaries: the subjective vs. the collective, and the material vs. the spiritual. “In seiner Tiefe berührt Kafka den Grund, den weder das »mythische Ahnungswissen« noch die »existenzielle Theologie« ihm gibt.” (ibid., 22) Kafka doesn’t ground himself in mythical divination or existential theologies that his Western upbringing supplied him with, but adds to the constitution of the West by exemplifying a critical antithesis. Benjamin positioned “Beim Bau des Chinesischen Mauer” in its profound contrariety to Western dualities, “eine Erfahrung, die tiefer geht als die des Durchschnittsbürgers, trifft auf sie auf,” (ibid., 19) and through this, brought forth the worldliness of his work. In this essay, I will respond to Benjamin’s assertion of Kafka’s worldliness in Mauer, looking not to Western dualities from which it differs, but to conception of worldliness that offers a framework for how we might understand Kafka. By analysing Kafka’s canonical European literature through the works of Kang Youwei, Liang Schuming and Lu Xun, his worldliness becomes an alternative dialectic of modernity.

 Fragmentation in Beim Bau des Chinesischen Mauer

Kafka’s testament to the Great Wall of China is not a parable of reason or of God, but as the title infers, a parable beim Bau. Alluding to the Great Wall’s fragmented and episodic construction, Kafka’s title also requires his reader to consider its emblematic status in the development of China. Built across 6,259 kilometres of China’s northern border, the disjointed assembly of the Great Wall submits to its representation of cultural, geographic and historical continuity. Kafka’s German title already suggests an architectural and epochal fragmentation of the wall, while it’s English title, “The Great Wall of China”, misses this allusion.

Paradoxically, Kafka’s fragmentation became a prominent example for the construction of Europe’s “dominant literary tradition”[4]. Advancing Benjamin’s conviction that Kafka cannot be “oedipalized by a mother narrative”[5], that is, categorized in European terms, Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari allow Kafka a canonical exegesis as a “minor literature” in which “there is insurmountable discontinuity… in his mode of expression through fragments” (Deleuze, 72). Deleuze and Guattari distinguish three categories of “minor literature”, which have influenced my coming reflection on Kafka’s fragmentation: collectivity, politics as “neither imaginary or symbolic” (ibid., 7), and deterritorialization. They address Beim Bau der chinesischen Mauer specifically: “the fragments refer so much to the imperial transcendence and a hidden unity that certain persons will feel that the discontinuous wall will find its only finality in a tower.” (ibid., 72) By this they mean that the signification of a unified China relies on the gaps in the Great Wall’s construction, which still represent a border to the north. These gaps concurrently enfeeble and uphold the unity of China.

The idea of “minor literature” is precisely that discontinuities are the basis for an understanding of any literary Zeitgeist. The categorization of “major literature” necessitates the opposition of “minor literature” to reify its existence. Carlos Rojas situates “minor literature” in a socio-cultural context as “the extent to which even a putatively unitary sociocultural space or tradition may contain radically incommensurate languages or semiotic systems” (Rojas, 78). Creating a category for Kafka’s early modernity literature as inherently non-European emboldens the understanding of modernity by challenging the laurels of a northern hemisphere development narrative. As Benjamin insisted, depicting Kafka’s Mauer as a fragmentation requires an analysis outside of historiographical time, outside the Western prescriptions of modernity, but nonetheless with an eye to intermediary of societal development:

Das Vergessene – mit dieser Erkenntnis stehen wir vor einer weiteren Schwelle von Kafkas Werk – ist niemals ein nur individuelles. Jedes Vergessene mischt sich mit dem Vergessenen der Vorwelt, geht mit ihm zahllose, ungewisse, wechselnde Verbindungen zu immer wieder neuen Ausgeburten ein. Vergessenheit ist das Behältnis, aus dem die unerschöpfliche Zwischenwelt in Kafkas Geschichten ans Licht drängt.” (Benjamin, 20)


In this essay, I propose that we cannot address Kafka’s “ungewisse” in terms of Benjamin’s, Deleuze’s or Guattari’s European dualities, rather, we must look to authorship that upholds Kafka’s “ancient genealogy”; Chinese author Lu Xun’s history asserts an understanding of Kafka’s narrator in relationship to the state, Liang Shuming prioritizes ‘unscientific’ development as a basis for modernity, and Kang Youwei’s ‘One World’ philosophy emphasizes Kafka’s state critique as non-utopian. These three themes, the individual, science and the idyll, fill the ‘gaps’ of major literature in the time of European modernity.

Historiography as Worldliness in Beim Bau des Chinesischen Mauer

Benjamin formulated the most engaging analysis of Kafka’s work in relation to the fragmentary evolution of the state: “Er hat nur in dem Spiegel, den die Vorwelt ihm in Gestalt der Schuld entgegenhielt, die Zukunft in Gestalt des Gerichtes erscheinen sehen.” (63) This guilt assigned to Kafka could be interpreted as the weight of modern structures of judgement, which forces man to look within himself and acknowledge his ancestral development. There is no “answer” to be drawn from this reflection, but rather a concession to the various historical stratum that project into reality. Mauer has two examples of this problematized history: first, the Tower of Babel and the Great Wall, and second, the emperor and the directorate I mean that the Tower of Babel and the Emperor represent a divine shadow implicit to the modern rulers – the Great Wall and Kafka’s directorate. Considering the historiographic contest these dualities provide to the “master narrative” of development, author Sebastian Veg highlights that Kafka’s Mauer delimits the concept of time in history:

“On a reflexive level, this sets aside from the linear conception of time often criticized as the implicit subtext of modernity: on the contrary, they underline that democratization is bound up with an “open” view of history that allows the readers to forge their own understanding and define their place in it.” (Veg)


Ritchie Robertson recognized this particular privileging of bygone modes of bureaucracy as well. He postures Kafka in relation to Eastern European Jewry, wherein the “nostalgia for the belief in the sacred nature of political organization, are seen as obstacles to the full empowerment or liberation of the individual.” (Veg) Of course, both Veg and Robertson are drawing from the entirety of Kafka’s canon, and yet this historiographic problematic also rings true in Mauer and with the views of Chinese literary intellectual, Lu Xun.

Already alluding to his worldliness by contemplating the Nietzschean understanding of history, that is, that world literatures should be brought forward to promote societal evolution, Lu suggests that the “savage forces of history are irrefutable,” (Lu, 98) and suggests that civilization buds from the “flower of savagery” (ibid.). Though speaking of Mara poetry, Lu’s intention to reflect on the “savage” in order to find “Nature” resonates as the Dionysian dithyramb Nietzsche borrowed from the Greeks in The Birth of Tragedy.  Promoting the “incomparably wise and mighty ancestors” (ibid.) of past civilizations, Lu encourages the nation to remain faithful to its “illustrious past”: “As a nation grows, concern for the past has merit that lies in clarity […] So I say that taking a nation’s spirit forward depends on how much one knows of the world.” (ibid. 98-99) Suddenly we must recall the situation of Kafka’s narrator: a young man, who knows details only about the directorate to build the wall, but has passed only the lowest exams in school. He is feeling lucky to be enlisted among “die arbeitenden Massen” to work on a project that holds meaning in its antiquated spirit as the new Tower of Babel, and in its practical contribution “zum Schützen gegen die Nordvölker gedacht,”. Kafka expresses a natural unity of the workers (their blood) with China at the site of the Great Wall:

“Jeder Landmann war ein Bruder, für den man eine Schutzmauer baute, und der mit allem, was er hatte und war, sein Leben lang dafür dankte. Einheit! Einheit! Brust an Brust, ein Reigen des Volkes, Blut, nicht mehr eingesperrt im kärglichen Kreislauf des Körpers, sondern süß rollend und doch wiederkehrend durch das unendliche China.”


Though entirely “das System des Teilbaues”, a paradox in itself which will be covered in the next section, the workers feel unified. Here we see that modernity, as represented by the Great Wall, does not gain legitimacy through its non-linear trajectory, but rather through the funnelling of energy toward a singular task, rooted in the ideological program of the Babelian fairytale. This fragmented project of the Great Wall echoes Lu’s citation of Carlyle:

“The Czar of great Russia, with soldiers, bayonets, and cannon, does a great feat in ruling a great tract of land… When soldiers, bayonets and cannon are corroded, Dante’s voice will be as before. With Dante, united, but the voiceless Russian remains mere fragments” (Lu, 4)
By using only the semblance of the Tower of Babel, the workers and work of the Great Wall are voiceless. Referencing Kafka’s story “The Tower of Babel”, Veg considers that the building of the Great Wall is “essentially a pretext” (53) to convey the manipulation of nation’s subject. What he means here is exactly the voicelessness expressed by Lu Xun; when the individual lacks attuned historical knowledge, he is unable to free his voice from the “subtext of modernity”, that is, the national imagination.

For Lu Xun, a Chinese literary renaissance is required to emancipate the voices under the shadow of a national imagination. His strategy commits to worldliness when he says, “fortune lies in being Western Europe’s antithesis,” (107). Reflecting on the “desolate” and “stagnant” history of China, Lu sees progress through influence from the outside. Mauer is of the same mind; as Veg contends, the construction of the Great Wall is positioned as an oppressive institutionalization of subjects, who “hatten alles Vertrauen zu sich, zum Bau, zur Welt verloren,” (X), whose faith in the world had been lost due to the project of closing themselves off to it: “Durch das Fenster aber fiel der Abglanz der göttlichen Welten auf die Pläne zeichnenden Hände der Führerschaft.” (X) Kafka argues for worldliness in his argument against the oppression incurred by borders.

Veg considers about this oppressive silence of the leadership as a “blurred border between the legitimate and the illegitimate” (Veg, 65) which calls to mind Mauer’s scene in the directorate (Führerschaft) and Lu Xun’s ideal of Chinese polity: “Don’t disturb” (Lu, 101). When inside the polity, there is still an “Abglanz der göttlichen Welten”, that is, the polity takes a cosmopolitan stance by considering itself divine, and inside it there’s still a semblance of the mythical, which has human voices trapped inside: “in dieser Stube kreisten wohl alle menschlichen Gedanken und Wünsche und in Gegenkreisen alle menschlichen Ziele und Erfüllungen.” (X) One might recall here the River Styx, where the soul revolves in an infinity of wishes with constant disappointment[8], which you cannot cross without an emblem of the gods. Wearing an emblem also is Kafka’s messenger of the Emperor, who is unable to pass through the bureaucracy of the empire while trying to deliver a message to the people.[9] At this point, Kafka begins to delimit the understanding of the people to simply “dunst und nebel” (X), and his narrator sets himself a mission of tracking down how the wall is “von diesen Fragen wesentlich betroffen.” He discovers that his singular curiosity about the Emperor is answered only by obscured meanings from different portions of the huge country: “So groß ist unser Land, kein Märchen reicht an seine Größe” The country itself cannot educate the people, so they understand the Emperor merely as the empire itself, as a fairytale: “Das Kaisertum ist unsterblich, aber der einzelne Kaiser fällt und stürzt ab,” Lu agrees that communication between the polity and the public must remain open, or “new voices cannot be raised in China” (Lu, 108) and things will not progress “since the old taint is deep” (ibid.). Lu and Kafka recognize that the worldliness of understanding as communication beyond the bureaucratic borders, allowing the population new information beyond mere reflections of the past. Kafka juxtaposes fragments associated with various times, suggesting that linear, contemporary history is not understandable except in its “autoreferentiality”[10], its ability to obscure meaning; the farcical unity of humanity with “den Geist der Zeit”.

Non-Utopianism in Beim Bau des Chinesischen Mauer

Though Mauer’s narrator states that the present conditions are not acceptable, “So bereit ist man bei uns, die Gegenwart auszulöschen,” and the government is to blame, “zwar ist sie in der Hauptsache von der Regierung verschuldet,” Kafka’s text cannot be understood as the European idea of a “dystopia” because not everything is unpleasant or bad, and his consideration of a better world- one with freer communication and less imaginative oppression- is inherently not “utopian” because he doesn’t discuss any type of pre-determined idyll. The civil society parable is a condition for reflection, not for prescription. The narrator does, though, consider the cultivation of knowledge being insufficient and the borders totalitarian. He describes that the borders create a weakness in people’s imaginative power and faith: “eine Schwäche der Vorstellungs- oder Glaubenskraft beim Volke”.

Understanding worldliness through the abolition of borders is a fairly easy task, but the process by which this is conceived is not so clear. Rojas contemplates that Kafka’s narrator’s destructive and creative considerations as a dialectic of inclusion and exclusion, “upon which modern culture is conceived” (Rojas, 80). Likening Kafka’s discussion on the Tower of Babel’s “weak foundation” to the gaps in the Great Wall so far, Rojas suggests that it is exactly the Great Wall’s construction of an artificial unity that “offers a structural foundation for the inverse project,” (79). He argues that without the project of the Great Wall, the narrator would not understand the “weak foundation” of the empire’s people. In this sense, the opportunity to create worldliness lies in the civilization’s lack thereof.

Kafka’s recognition of imperialism by way of the northern, walled border calls to mind Chinese intellectual Kang Youwei’s “One World” philosophy. In his magnum opus, The Grand Commonality, Kang observes worldly suffering, not unlike Kafka’s narrator in Mauer. Neither Commonality nor Mauer observes teleological doctrine as a source for information, rather, they both highlight a reform for the betterment of human nature. To the extent of Kang’s vision on language does Kafka’s narrator agree. Depicting a scene of near violence due to linguistic differences of a dialect from the neighbouring province, Mauer problematizes antiquated language. It is in this passage that the villagers would wish to obliterate the present, making room for new dialogue in advanced and intelligent tongues.  Kang approaches the site of language in Part II of The Grand Commonality, suggesting that an entirely new language should form with a Peking dialect. They both appropriate Peking as the imagined empire, but why? And, does Kafka’s narrator also wish to create an entirely new language for all subjects of neighbouring villages?

According to Ban Wang, Kang Youwei’s aspiration toward worldliness “has to work through a specific culture in order to access a common ground,” (Wang) which explains the appropriation of Peking. Wang continues to suggest that the path to worldliness is attained from “engaging one’s native culture reflectively and creatively.”[11] I added emphasis to the “and” in order to highlight the virtue of new language expressed by Kafka’s narrator. Though Mauer asks for an evolution in language, it also envisions a dream world in the heavenly clouds of Peking. Wang cites Kang’s reinvention of a “language of Heaven” as “endowing humanity with universal reason”, much like Kafka’s narrator aspires for reason and understanding beyond simply sitting at the window, dreaming.

In opposition to Kang, Kafka’s intention is not aimed at the destruction of the old language, but rather the aspiration of an understanding beyond the realm of dreams. Attaching “dreams” to the “imagination” of Peking, the subjects of China in Mauer envision the state as a heaven, through which they could achieve a great understanding. Mauer’s worldliness would compose once the retrospective, traditional knowledges are transcended by the knowledge they desire, from Peking. In building the wall, there is a transcendence of scientific knowledge and a re-development of the educational system, but it is the ‘gap’ of knowledge about the empire (and the Emperor, and Peking) that is a unifying force, “gerade diese Schwäche eines der wichtigsten Einigungsmittel unseres Volkes zu sein scheint.” Kafka’s narrator stops at that point, leaving the reader to wonder: What can a unity of those dispossessed of rational knowledge accomplish? Kang Youwei and Lu Xun both suggest that the way towards worldliness is through the borderless expansion of knowledge – but how does a unified people achieve this?

We must remind ourselves that the civil society depicted in Mauer is a parable for reflection; the narrator has devoted himself to the histories of different people, “fast ausschließlich mit vergleichender Völkergeschichte beschäftigt”, much like Kang and Lu Xun devoted themselves to the understanding and critical assessment of other nations. Kang says, “It is as if we were all parts of an electrical force, which interconnects all things, or partook of the pure essence that encompasses all things.” (Kang, 3-4) Wang ascribes this passage as taking “a vignette of long-distance learning and interaction by way of far-reaching sense and sensibility” (Wang, 7) and, in the style of Kant, Wang applies this to the “international arena composed of mutually opposed, self-serving states” (ibid.) He sees that in order to maintain interstate relations, the “parochial agendas” of each state must be antagonized; education must evolve beyond simply traditional matters, “by rising over and above the interests of self-preservation and pressure of survival” (ibid.).

In this same way, Mauer’s narrator’s intention is to bring about a worldly understanding of the situation in China as the only path to understanding the Empire, the holders of the divine, outside their superficial education: “Halbbildung wogt bergehoch um wenige seit Jahrhunderten eingerammte Lehrsätze, die zwar nichts an ewiger Wahrheit verloren haben,” Kafka’s narrator emphasizes a brilliant paradox that, although education exists, and it supplies the population with eternal truths, it is still “Halbbildung”. By unpacking what the other half of this education could be, we can understand the worldliness that Beim Bau des Chinesischen Mauer aspires towards.

Unscientific Development in Beim Bau des Chinesischen Mauer

            Worldliness is, for Kafka, a process towards the understanding of needs, which for Lu Xun and Kang Youwei becomes the overcoming of an oppressive institution through knowledge that expands beyond it[12]. Kafka sets the condition for discussing worldliness by problematizing the borders between the nation and the people, the people and knowledge, and, in this section I will show his link between knowledge and the fulfilment of a worldly humanity. Worldliness as humanity, gained through knowledge, can be traced back as far as Plato: His consideration about poetic art as essentially imitative in the Republic, when Plato suggests that, “all imitative poetry would seem to maim the reasoning of those hearers who do not possess an antidote in the knowledge of its real nature,” (Aesthetics, 24). This projection of reasoning is banished by the divinity of beauty in Plato’s Symposium: “Beauty, however, is in harmony with the divine.” (Aesthetics, 37d) Two distinct elements from Mauer are depicted: reasoning and knowledge of the Empire’s real nature, and the aspiration for understanding of the divine Peking. The “eternal truths” in Mauer are those imitations, the retrospective that maims the full education. Kafka’s narrator imagines Peking as representative of the “divine”, which the leadership holds apart from the subjects, and suggests that the subject’s education has been deprived from understanding it. The eternal half of the education is superficial, it is the retrospective, while the missing half of the Halbbildung is the divine.

Wang suggests that Kang Youwei’s “One World” philosophy echoes the ethical aesthetic consummated by Kant, especially by virtue of the attention to education: A narrative of human progress is posited: cross-cultural learning is an educational as well as maturing project, a process akin to the program of rationally and aesthetically inspired Bildung in German Modernism.” (Wang, 8) Likewise, I have argued that Mauer’s depiction of modernity is essentially worldly, and will use its theme of education to emphasize this further.

Looking to Chinese intellectual Liang Shuming will assist in beginning a conversation about the education in Mauer, because his philosophy emphasizes the “spirit” and “distinctive characteristics” of a culture as necessary for the reform of education (Shuming, 109). For Schuming, cultural identification and the “perennial problem of the meaning of human existence” was necessary to participate in a global pattern of modernity[13]. He, like Kafka’s narrator, did not necessarily reinforce the Western hegemony of an idyll education[14], but both placed the “arcane” institutions of China in dialogue with the scientific notions of the West[15]. The piecemeal construction of the Great Wall as an effort to protect the Chinese subjects from “die ungläublichen Völker…. Unter ihnen… Dämonen” of the north calls into question the logic of the Chinese authorities, and the knowledge of the people of the outside world[16]. Do they really believe the people there to be demons?

The naivety of the Chinese subjects to both historical knowledge and scientific knowledge is moreover exposed by the appropriation of the Tower of Babel. Author Robert Lemon provides an explanation of this theme as a “Biblical exegesis” wherein the fall of the Tower of Babel requires the building of a new one, rather than the challenging of God’s (the Empire’s) supremacy. Schuming would consider the appropriation of the Tower of Babel and the fragmentation of the Great Wall as essentially Chinese: “To completely ignore objective standards and regulations, and focusing on revering the gifted- this is the spirit of [of China]” he continues, “one needs to examine in them the earliest and see in them China’s tendency to “return to the past” […] For as long as a person has read the Four Books and the Five Classics, he or she will be able to take care of everything.” (Shuming, 111-112) Through Lemon and Shuming, it becomes again clear that the Chinese Führerschaft in Mauer passes only unscientific education to their subjects, and demands from them trust in the institution.

Kafka’s narrator says: “Damals war es geheimer Grundsatz Vieler, und sogar der Besten: Suche mit allen deinen Kräften die Anordnungen der Führerschaft zu verstehen, aber nur bis zu einer bestimmten Grenze, dann höre mit dem Nachdenken auf.” Here he is reverberating the issue that knowledge and truth lies within the government itself. Liang agrees: “In China, governing depends on respect for a singular ruler […] What kind of habit is it to confirm what has not been examined? An unscientific habit.” (113-116) He problematizes the role of Chinese people as scienceless subjects, “If their own ideas are not their own, how can there be any freedom to speak of?” (121)

Emphasizing freedom as a matter of education outside of the Empire’s traditional style, Liang and Kafka’s narrator also constitute the issue of freedom. Kafka’s narrator is in fact trying to understand the science of the Great Wall’s fragmentation, in order to bring the people closer to the Emperor- closer to freedom through the divine. The narrator stumbles upon a problem, though, that the fragmentation of the Great Wall must always be referred back to the Empire, constituting the “autoreferentiality” observed by Veg. According to Shuming, China cannot accomplish its worldliness if the subjects are not free to think for themselves, which aligns with the dilemma of Kafka’s narrator. Though the narrator uses worldliness as a method, that is, gaining insight from all the Chinese subjects rather than simply the Emperor, worldliness cannot be achieved because of the Empire’s totality.

Genau so, so hoffnungslos und hoffnungsvoll, sieht unser Volk den Kaiser.” This duality considers the struggle of the people to both rely on the Empire for knowledge, but receive nothing in return. Beim Bau der chinesischen Mauer, the people are only further inaugurating the acceptance of sciencelessness by bordering themselves from the outside. This inverse of this is worldliness, in which each subject can think beyond the borders of the Empire.

The Importance of Worldliness

In this introduction to the worldliness conferred by Franz Kafka in Beim Bau des Chinesischen Mauer, the topics of historiography, non-utopianism and sciencelessness have allowed us to access the concept of knowledge as an institutional development and freedom as a divine concept. Author Walter Benjamin offered us insight to the worldliness of Kafka himself, while Gilles Delueze and Félix Gattauri expanded upon the significance of “minor literature” to the overall concept of modernity. Through these ideas, the significance of fragmentation as elemental to a whole concept became evident. Lu Xun provided an expansion of the idea of fragmentation in Kafka, showing us that overlapped histories cannot be treated as myths, as they were in Mauer, if we want to attain knowledge. Moreover, Kang Youwei emphasized the condition for knowledge as the breaking of boundaries, particularly the wall, allowing access to a divine knowledge. Liang Shuming took us one step further and emphasized freedom of thought as impossible in the Chinese Empire, allowing us to dissect Kafka’s heavy paradox of sciencelessness. This analysis of Kafka’s Mauer aims to emphasize the “minor literature” claim that European modernism is in fact built upon differences within the canon. Much like the fragments of the Great Wall are still a part of its massive length, so are the narratives of literary and intellectual development substantiated by their differences.





















Works Cited

Alitto, Guy. The Last Confucian: Liang Shu-ming and the Chinese Dilemma of Modernity (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1979).

Benjamin, Walter. “Zur Zehnten Wiederkehr Seines Todestages.” Gesammelte Schriften. Suhrkamp Verlag Frankfurt am Main. 1977.

Bensmaïa, Raya. Deleuze. Gattauri. “Kafka: Toward a Minor Literature”, “Foreword”. Theory and History of Literature, Volume 30. University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis. 1986.

Davies, Gloria. “High Culture Fever: Politics, Aesthetics, and Ideology in Deng’s China . Jing Wang.” The China Journal 41 (1999): 209-11. Web.

Engel, Manfred, and Dieter Lamping. Franz Kafka Und Die Weltliteratur. Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2006. Print.

Kafka, Franz. “Projekt Gutenberg-DE.” Beim Bau Des Chinesischen Mauer.

Kang, Youwei. “Sources of Chinese Tradition | Books | Columbia University

Press.” Columbia University Press. Web. Oct. 2016.

Keller, Karin. Gesellschaft in Mythischem Bann: Studien Zum Roman “Das Schloss” Und Anderen Werken Franz Kafkas. Wiesbaden: Akad. Verl.-Ges. Athenaion, 1977. Print.

Lemon, Robert. “The Contingent Continent: Kafka’s China.” Imperial Messages: Orientalism as Self-critique in the Habsburg Fin De Siecle. Rochester, NY: Camden House, 2011. Print.

Lu, Xun. “On the Power of Mara Poetry.” Modern Chinese Literary Thought: Writings on

Literature, 1893-1945. By Kirk A. Denton. Stanford, CA: Stanford UP, 1996. 97-109.

Nietzsche, Friedrich Wilhelm. The Birth of Tragedy, Ecce Homo, The Case of Wagner and Thus Spoke Zarathustra. Trans. Walter Kaufmann. New York: Vintage, 1967. Print.

Rojas, Carlos. “Writing on the Wall.” Journal of Literary Theory and Comparative Literature. 17 Feb. 2015. Web.

Shuming, Liang. “The Cultures of East and West and Their Philosophies.” Tao: A Journal of

Comparative Philosophy. Web. Oct. 2016.

Veg, Sebastian. “Democratic Modernism: Rethinking the politics of early 20th-Century Fiction in China and Europe”. Boundary 2; Volume 38, Issue 3. (2011) Web.

Wang, Ban. “Aesthetic Humanity and the Great World Community: Kant and Kang Youwei.” State of the Discipline Report. Web.





[1] In a 1916 postcard to Felicia Bauer, his ewige Verlobte, Kafka wrote “im Grunde bin ich ja Chinese”. Meng. Kafka und China. 30.

[2] Rojas, Carlos. “Writing on the Wall: Kafka, Bourges and the Chinese Imaginary.” 425F 1.13 (2015): 71-81. Duke University, 2015. Web.

[3] Ibid. 74.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Bensmaïa, Raya. “Kafka: Toward a Minor Literature”, “Foreword”. Theory and History of Literature, Volume 30. University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis. 1986. ix.

[6] Veg, Sebastian. “Democratic Modernism: Rethinking the politics of early 20th-Century Fiction in China and Europe”. Boundary 2; Volume 38, Issue 3. (2011) Web.

[7] Veg, Sebastian. “Democratic Modernism: Rethinking the politics of early 20th-Century Fiction in China and Europe”. Boundary 2; Volume 38, Issue 3. (2011) 56.

[8] Here I’m referencing Lord Byron’s “Don Juan” (1819), in which he laments that his thoughts are both free and restricted by the “liberal age” and references the god Apollo as the keeper of the instruments that would allow him access to his free thoughts in the River Styx.

[9] Veg, Sebastian. “Democratic Modernism: Rethinking the politics of early 20th-Century Fiction in China and Europe”. Boundary 2; Volume 38, Issue 3. (2011) 52.

[10] Ibid. X

[11] Wang, Ban. “Aesthetic Humanity and the Great World Community: Kant and Kang Youwei” Web, no pages.

[12] It is worth recalling the earlier discussion of histories “overlapping” towards the knowledge about our place in time.

[13] Guy Alitto, The Last Confucian: Liang Shu-ming and the Chinese Dilemma of Modernity (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1979).

[14] As Edward Said’s notion of “Orientalism” would suggest.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Lemon, Robert. Imperial Messages. “The Contingent Continent: Kafka’s China” (2011) 125.



Melancholy, Dandyism and the Death Drive in Thomas Mann’s The Blood of the Walsungs (Wälsungenblut)



Problematized as an essential discontinuity with the past, the fin-de-siècle is haunted by the critique of the decadent; the ostentatious, self-conscious aesthete manifests as the plague of decadence. Decadence proves to be a-temporal, fragmented by meaning and by its dialectic as a ‘necessary sickness’ to society. To the western ear, decadence reserves a hyperbolic meaning, often correlated with sweet deserts: ‘sinful’ amounts of hot fudge may produce a ‘death by chocolate’. But outside the sphere of contemporary advertisement, the indulgent perception of decadence remains closer with its Latin roots, decadere, “to decay” and “to fall”, allowing the concept to maintain a privileged appropriation as an essential discontinuity with the past. These two examples highlight the paths taken to analyse decadence as a concept: the first is apathetic to the socialized path of decadence, and the second is a source of its destruction. Aligned with the Zeitgeist, decadence becomes a direct product of development, but also holds meaning as a pejorative qualifier for individual actions and lifestyles within a socialized civilization.

Reflecting on “decay” of individual actions, decadence as a social critique emerges throughout history, but distinctively at the fin-de-siècle; a literary trope of decadence manifests as an ostentatious, self-serving male aesthete – the “Dandy” – an avatar of post-Enlightenment class-consciousness, whose delight in elegance is meant as a symbol of the “aristocratic superiority of mind.”[1] It is this particular embodiment of decadence in Thomas Mann’s Blood of the Walsungs that I investigate. I propose the dandy’s decadence as the collapse of an equal relationship to society, physicalized in the experience of melancholia as it’s defining element.

Literature Review

The feigned refinement of decadence is the point of departure for Nietzsche’s considerations of the fin-de-siècle aesthete. Though the meaning of decadence was lacking in German-French dictionaries by 1879[2] but had entered in to them as “Verfall… heruntergekommen,” and “Dekadenz(epoch)”[3] by 1969, Nietzsche’s purpose was not to advance a definition of decadence, but rather to problematize it from a French origin. Author Charles Bernheimer discusses Nietzsche’s relationship with decadence by highlighting his use of the French word décadence[4] as a “poorly informed” cultural allusion, though it could also be attributed to its formal lack of German equivalent. Like I am not discussing definitions, Nietzsche did not dwell on decadence in The Birth of Tragedy (1876), but suggested it as an outcropping of madness and a “symptom of the failing power” of morality in the “developing hegemony of reasonableness, practical and theoretical utilitarianism, as well as democracy itself.” (§4) Here we can see that decadence is in relationship to society. This set the tone for Nietzsche’s departure from the Dionysian for a depiction of decadence in The Case of Wagner in 1888[5].

Like Nietzsche’s response to the Zeitgeist of decadence manifests as his own bodily illness in Wagner, author Charles Bernheimer reacts to Nietzsche’s relationship to decadence as an “agent provocateur”. That is, he localizes Nietzsche as a decadent himself; decadence becomes a descriptor for the ails Nietzsche suffers: “his susceptibility to horrible migraines, gastric ailments, and eye troubles are all symptoms, he tells us, of his décadence.” Choosing Nietzsche as both a heretic of decadence[6], and a decadent himself[7], Bernheimer appropriates nine points of Nietzsche’s reflection that offer insight to decadence. These nine points will help me signify decadence in Walsungs as a “waste”, a “fragmentation”, an “expression of condemnation”, “modernity”, suffering through rather than escaping, “the body”, which I will treat as all physicality, “the illness”, “a woman”, and “superficiality”[8].

Agreeing with the idea that decadence leads to healthier value systems through a “natural excretory function,” (9) Bernheimer ascribes decadence, “a necessary and beneficial place in the economy of life.” (10) As in The Case of Wagner, Decadent Subjects treats decadence as “a disease that must be resisted for the sake of healthy and ascending vitality” (21) and yet it is “involved in an ongoing struggle that requires that the limits of power be constantly reassessed.” (17) These two examples of the duplicities of decadence in relationship to the body and to the body of society represent those “two paths” of decadence, and the anthropomorphic attention to decadence, making analysis of the Dandy figure a relevant contribution to this Fin-de-Siecle dialogue.

“These beings have no other status, but that of cultivating the idea of beauty in their own persons, of satisfying their passions, of feeling and thinking…. Contrary to what many thoughtless people seem to believe, dandyism is not even an excessive delight in clothes and material elegance. For the perfect dandy, these things are no more than the symbol of the aristocratic superiority of his mind.” (Painter)

Charles Baudelaire, an eminent French Dandy himself[9], postures the Dandy as much more than a narcissist, but rather a “signifier which seeks, through his melancholia, the return of the masculine self.”[10] Siegmund of the Walsungs embodies the melancholic sickness of Dandyismus, as did Nietzsche, both of whom have a problematic relationship with normality. For the modern reader, this metaphor of melancholy should resonate as a subtype of depression, a psychiatric disorder for which the origins remain so multi-faceted that an express diagnosis is convoluted. So how could this act as a metaphor for the Dandy?  When we are talking about ailments at the fin-de-siècle, the psychoanalytic work of Sigmund Freud, particularly for this discussion “Mourning and Melancholia” (1917) is essential. Freud investigates the psychological underpinnings of the physicalized melancholy:

“[Melancholy is] a cessation of interest in the outside world, loss of capacity to love, inhibition of all activity, and a lowering of the self-regarding feelings to a degree that finds utterance in self-reproaches and self-revilings, and culminates in a delusional expectation of punishment.” (Mourning, 244)


It is clear that melancholy stands outside the realm of physical investigation, in fact, it is just the opposite; much like the concept of decadence, melancholia is signified by an inward-turning and self-hatred. Siegmund embodies these aspects of both melancholia and decadence. Though melancholy can be seen, as a Dandy can be seen, neither decadence or melancholia can be traced to its origins. Nietzsche and Bernheimer imply decadence as an extra-physical ailment in a similar way to Freud. Nietzsche claims, “And here my seriousness begins. I am far from looking on guilelessly while this décadent corrupts our health-” (Wagner, §5) Bernheimer responds, “Mining his illness as a resources for adventurous, original speculation, the (decadent/hysterical) philosopher transposes the body’s nonknowing into written “symbolism for the eye.”” (DS, 18) That is, Nietzsche uses bodily illness to embody decadence – a hysteria – which comes from the body’s “nonknowing”, its extra-physical state.

This epistemological aspect of decadence reveals its dynamic spirit, which Bernheimer tries to restore from its “previous reduction that substitutes a pattern of human growth” (4) by analysing several decadent works, or works about decadence, which present “unexpected avatars of the death drive” (Todestrieb) (6). By reading Bernheimer’s Decadent Subjects with attention to decadence as a reaction to the death drive, we can see that he implies hysteria as a reaction to the death drive, too. Therefore, I consider that the melancholia expressed by the most decadent character in Thomas Mann’s Blood of the Walsungs, Siegmund, as also representative of the death drive.

In order to understand Siegmund as the most decadent character, we must recognize his essential disengagement with society. Much like Carl Emil Schorske’s “aestheticist hypothesis”, which dissects Viennese culture as “aesthetic modernism emerging in opposition to historical consciousness and political engagement”[11], Bernhnheimer’s “avatars” of the death drive are disengaged with the socio-economic sphere, but react to it. Siegmund, likewise, reacts to his division from society in the way of hysterical decadence[12]. Nietzsche, though fragmented in his own writing, emphasizes the fragmented socio-political character of decadence as a struggle towards freedom, with its effects increased by the scope of organization:

“But this is the simile of every style of décadence: every time, the anarchy of atoms, disintegration of the will, “freedom of the individual,” to use moral terms,—expanded into a political theory, “equal rights for all.” Life, equal vitality, the vibration and exuberance of life pushed back into the smallest forms, the rest poor in life. Everywhere paralysis, arduousness, torpidity or hostility and chaos: both more and more obvious the higher one ascends in forms of organization.” (Wagner, §7)


This notion of fragmentation is better described by Bernheimer, using Nietzsche’s work as a body for example: “separate units are animated at the expense of coherent argument, historionic exaggeration undermines serious conviction” (18) Decadence is seen as a multi-faceted rotting of coherence, and a melodramatic hysteria that erodes the possibility of “serious conviction”, which for Nietzsche would be the struggle towards freedom. Considering Siegmund of the Walsungs, we see his melancholia as a reaction to his oppressed and removed relationship to society as both a Jew and a Dandy. Siegmund’s perspectivism distinguishes decadence from realism, signalling to us that we are not reading about an oppressed group’s Kampf. Decadence becomes a dialectic of necessity and plague to society, a reflection of society but also a turn towards the self, a repeating phenomenon of personal origin and yet, for Schorske, “a political surrogate for a marginalized liberal bourgeoisie” [13]. Schorske’s attention to decadence as a cultural phenomenon is problematic[14], but suggesting decadence as an effect of marginalization echoes the distance between Siegmund and ‘normality’. I will show that Dandyism is a symbol of decadence and an “avatar” of the death drive through the marginalization and resulting melancholia experienced by Siegmund.

The Blood of the Walsungs

We see a manifestation of marginalization in Thomas Mann’s The Blood of the Walsungs (1905), which was “nur ganz diskret nur ein paar mal angedeutet”[15] according to a letter Thomas wrote to his brother, Heinrich Mann, concerning the anti-semitic, stereotypical picture produced in Walsungs, “es war konsequent und obsessiv”[16]. According to Décadence in Deutschland, Walsungs follows three categories of stereotyping: bodily characterizations, mental qualities and social identity. It is within these three categories that we find the “drooping nosed” “loquacity” of family Aarenhold, a merchant family of Ashkenazi decent living in Germany. Though published in 1905, a quarter-century before the Shoah, Mann shades the decadence of the German Jahrhundertwende with the rise of antisemitism. In doing this, Mann sheds light on the subjects’ motivations for aesthetic superiority; Family Aarenhold is foremost ruled by their reputation as a “lesser organism”[17] within German society. Nietzsche also acknowledges decadence to occur as, “instincts of the weak… the exceptions… the abandoned, the abortus,” (DS, 14) Mann situates his main character of decadence, Siegmund, as both socially weaker with Jewish blood, and also abandoned by his twin sister for her non-Jewish marriage.

Siegmund is initially characterized by his conscious attempt to withhold his Jewish features: “He had a strong growth of black beard but kept it so close-shaven that his sallow face with the heavy gathered brows looked no less boyish than his figure.” (290) In the face of anti-Semitic marginalization, Siegmund’s outward appearance is of primary importance. He focuses himself on maintaining appearances and due respect: Mann writes, “The blond-haired citizenry of the land might go about in elastic-sided boots and turn-over collars, heedless of the effect. But he –  and most explicitly he [Siegmund] – must be unassailable and blameless of exterior from head to foot.” (300) Focusing in on the cause of his desire to be “blameless”, we must also interrogate why he feels guilty. First assuming that Siegmund has not suffered the baptismal waters, we can consider that his inward transfixion is a consequence of solipsism[18]. Author Rhonda Garelick addresses the “self-containment”[19] of the Dandy figure: “a self-created, carefully controlled man…the suppression of the “natural”.” (Dandyism, 1).

“He had so abnormal and constant a need for purification” (298) that he stood for an hour or more in front of his mirror, an object that Baudelaire describes as a necessary accoutrement to the Dandy[20]. Garelick evokes Barbey d’Aurevilley’s definition of Dandyism, “A Dandy can spend… ten hours at his toilette, but once it is done, he forgets it” (83) This brings to mind Siegmund’s constantly reddened hands from washing them[21], or his tendency to change ties multiple times a day. Garelick continues that fundamental idea of the dandy as concerned with “his object-like identity” (39), adding a physical object scope to the category of “bodily characteristics”. Siegmund’s image is decadently fragmented into his multiplicity of luxuries, excess and ornamentation. The bearskin rug and the mother-of-pearl box (full of brandy chocolates and maraschino cherries) act as mnemonic devices of their wealth, a wa(h)re Liebe[22] that serves as an abstraction of their relationship to society. Associating themselves with fine things, the Aarenhold family expresses a decadence, but Mann places Siegmund often on the receiving end of these things. Siegmund is the one who is offered the treats, who lies on the chaise lounge for hours, and who adorns himself with powders of the toilette. This immediate link between the social constructions of wealth and consumption problematizes Siegmund’s distance from society; they are the empty signifiers, the meaningless objects, of the Aarenhold family’s attempt to assimilate. Like Siegmund rejects the leather-bound books with his family stamp, he also does not participate in the assimilation process. Here we see the inward-turning decadence that allows for dandyism.

Physical characterizations go even deeper than the accoutrements of the Aarenholds, down to the quality of their blood: “He [Herr Aarenhold] knew that they were united against him, that they despised him: for his origins, for the blood which flowed through his veins and through him in theirs;” (293) The father, whose Jewish blood he has given to his children, is evoked in the title Wälsungensblut: “Wälse” is the father of Siegmund and Sieglinde in Die Walküre. It is important to note here, that the mother’s blood is not mentioned, instead she is “short, ugly, and prematurely aged” (289), who does not heed the hairstyle advice of her family (290) and “hated” by Siegmund when von Beckerath, the fiancé of Sieglinde, comes around (294). Mrs. Aarenhold’s contribution to the family’s half-Jewishness beckons a Nietzschean analysis of literary decadence, that in it “life no longer dwells in the whole. The word becomes sovereign and leaps out of the sentence, the sentence reaches out and obscures the meaning of the page, the page gains life at expense of the whole.” (Wagner, §

7) Bernheimer reminds us that the obscured whole represents the fragmentation of decadence itself (DS, 9). Although the family Aarenhold is genetically Jewish, they have a “composite, calculated, artificial, artefact”[23] half, a projection of decadence that demands its subject to “parish!” (DS, 11) The death drive, manifested in the essential genetic division of mother and father, the oedipal law, is aligned with the decadence, the decay of unity. The Aarenhold family’s decadence evokes Siegmund’s aggression towards his mother, an early-emerging symptom of his melancholy.

Siegmund’s melancholic tones resonate as the secondary category of mental characterization. His Jewish self-hatred cannot go unnoticed, “Long he looked at each mark of his race: the slightly drooping nose… those large black eyes that glowed like fire and had an expression of weary sufferance” (314).  This trait of suffering clearly comes from his father, who “had been a worm, a louse if you like. But just his empty capacity to realize it so fully, with such vivid self-contempt, had become the ground of that persistent, painful, never-satisfied striving that made him great.” (293) Why does the suffering make his father “great” and Siegmund “weary”? Freud’s depiction of melancholia as “constitutional ambivalence”, helps us frame the difference between Siegmund and his father.

His father, though clearly also afflicted with Aarenhold familial decadence, takes great care to remain determined in life. He advises Sieglinde’s fiancé, “if you want to enjoy your new life, really enjoy it, consciously and artistically, you must take care to never get used to your situation. Getting used to things is death. It is ennui” (293). Siegmund, on the other hand, “passes his days vacantly and swiftly” (299) as a dilettante of drawing and painting. “He was too shrewd not to know that the conditions of his existence were not the most favourable in the world for the development of a creative gift” (ibid.). His shrewdness, his judgement, had such “glowing expectations” that although “Siegmund had been born into superfluity, he was perfectly adjusted to it” (ibid.). Though Siegmund was thrilled and occupied by his superfluous objects and maintained a “shrewd enterprise”, same as his father, “he had no time for a resolve” (300). Instead of marrying in to a non-Jewish family, like his sister and his father both, Siegmund remains preoccupied with “preparation” and “lavish equipment” of his decadence:

“How much mental effort had to be expended simply in making a proper toilette! How much time and attention went in to his supplies… how much occasion for making up his mind lay in that moment, recurring two or three times daily, when he had to select his cravat!” (300)


Invoking the objects which preoccupy him as signifiers of his attachment to society, Bernheimer would describe Siegmund’s energy expenditure as “a pleasurably perverse relation to the world” (DS, 182). Freud would draw a difference between Siegmund’s expense of energy, compared to that of his sister and his father who interact with society, if only with a “benevolent neutrality” (301) to their own mourning of social oppression:  “Mourning is regularly the loss of a loved person, or to the loss of some abstraction which has taken the place of one, such as one’s country, liberty, an ideal and so on” (243) but because “the disturbance of self-regard is absent in mourning” (244) Siegmund’s detachment with society is positioned as melancholy. Just as the Aarenhold family experiences decadence, they are also mourning the loss of their relationship to society as Jews. But, it is only Siegmund who suffers dandyism and melancholy.

Sieglinde, undeniably the effigy of Siegmund’s, as she “suffers the same as he” (Walsungs, 308) is also his object of desire, his objet petit-a. Mann writes, “Sometimes their gaze sought each other’s, a melting together in an understanding” (290), positioning the gaze as a site of construction of identity in each other. This echoes Siegmund’s “gazing” into mirrors, as well. They share common examples of decadent behaviour when speaking aggressively at the dinner table is framed as “their habitual posture of self-defence” (291), “their words rang sharp as though sharpness, hardness… were demanded of them as survival values” (296). Recalling Nietzsche’s proclamation that a decadent cannot necessarily fight for his freedom, relevancy of their Jewishness comes to a disturbing caprice. Though necessarily decadent in the eyes of German society by virtue of half-Jewishness, Siegmund is the singular family member who has not involved himself in German society. Just as the dandy is inward-turning, His melancholic and hysteric decadence make him an “anti-natural” part of society, “to be forcibly removed from the infected organism” (DS, 14). The German-Jewish question is brought forth by their attempts at survival through sharp-tongues and consumerist signifiers while within the greater society, and through Nietzsche’s hint at necessary “Ausrottung”[24]. Considering that they “love each other alone” (290), could it be racial narcissism that promotes their “survival values”?

When investigating Siegmund’s possible narcissism, we much reflect on Baudelaire’s assertion that the dandy is more of a neurotic than a narcissist. Freud would agree that dandyism, in its inherently decadent fragmentation, is not narcissistic:

“The difference, however, between narcissism and hysterical identification may be seen in this: that, whereas in the former the object-cathexis is abandoned, in the latter it persists and manifests its influence, though is usually confined to isolated actions and innervations” (Melancholy, 250)
Here, Freud suggests that when the internal project of object-loss is negated, the subject then experiences narcissism, which is different than hysteria. So, the dandy’s separation from society, and his assertion to achieve a feigned superiority in this light, is not a narcissistic act, but rather a melancholic, or hysteric one. Again placing melancholia within the diagnosis of decadence, the death-drive emerges at the site of memorializing the loss of ego status with the prolonged object-cathexis[25].

Rather than narcissism, I think Siegmund sees himself in Sieglinde, because as a dandy he “is a woman in certain aspects” (Dandyism, 25). Bernheimer recognizes and discusses the feminization of decadence, in his closing chapter on Freud: “Masculine speculation [about the self] is replaced by the girl by unmediated desire, the premise of that desire being the female lack. Here, in ovo, is the rapacious drive motivating the decadent femme fatale.” (DS, 176) That is not to say that Siegmund actually envisions himself as castrated, but rather that he views Sieglinde as a cultural continuation of himself. “He has no friends, never had had one but this, his exquisitely groomed, darkly beautiful counterpart,” (Walsungs, 301). Bernheimer discusses that this “greater imaginative mobility released by the decadent fantasy” (183), that is, his solipsist fantasy, allows the object of affection to be seen as a muse. Sieglinde is, in fact, one of Siegmund’s few social stimulations, whose decadence he values. By alluding to Sieglinde as his Apollonian muse, she also is illuminated as his “missing half” in the course of unity. She is an identical fragmentation, who regards formal society when he does not, giving them an Einheit if merged together that would otherwise be a Zweiheit der Geschlechter (Tragedy, §1).

The implied incestual relationship between the two can also be seen as decadence, fitting with the Nietzschean poisoning of decadence as “sterile, unproductive and destructive,” (DS, 10), Mann writes, “they doffed aside the evil-smelling world and loved each other alone.” (Walsungs, 301). Mann’s Walsungs ultimately positions the decadence of the Aarenheld twins as unproductive, “like self-centered invalids” (315), Siegmund and Sieglinde are together “a suppression of anteriority”[26] they experience in relation to society. Particularly for Siegmund, who is further removed from society than Sieglinda, we see that without her, in the absence of his twinning unity with her, his indolent dandyism is indeed an “avatar” of Freudian death-drive.

Her purpose for him is more than as an incestual fetish. Recalling Baudelaire’s assertion that a dandy is attempting to regain his own masculinity, Sieglinde becomes both the object his is losing, and the mirror through which he can establish himself as a man while immersed in an effeminate world. His removal from the world exists alongside Sieglinde, as cast by their carriage ride together. ““Shall I shut us in?” asked Siegmund. She nodded and he drew the brown silk curtains across the polished panes.” (304) Upon arriving at the theatre, the melodies of Die Walküre “voiced their eternal yearning” (305), of whom we are unsure because of the mixed narratives between the Die Walküre and the Walsungs. Foreshadowing their own relations later in the evening and also highlighting Siegmund’s object-cathexis of Sieglinde, she whispers to him, “She will come back to him at once.” (307) After the opera, Siegmund went to lie on his bearskin rug, “and there was tragic meaning in the dragging step that bore him towards it” (314) His suffering in this final scene must also be interpreted as his last night together with Sieglinde, whom he is pre-emptily mourning the loss of as a “libidinal cathexis”[27].

Though it goes unstated, I believe that Siegmund’s loss of Sieglinde is unlike his loss of attachment to society because he is able to consciously conceive of what he has lost, and this is what gives rise to his hysterical melancholia, not narcissism. After the play, Siegmund’s “complaints are really ‘plaints’ in the old sense of the word. They are not ashamed and they do not hide themselves.” (Mourning, 248) Staring into the mirror yet again, showing us that he is aware of the object-cathexis of his love Sieglinde, Siegmund gives in to a full melancholic illness, “[he] moved as though to get up-but sank back again, his head against his outstretched arm, and stopped there, silent” (314). Saving him from a possible plunge into a manic sadism, Sieglinde returns to Siegmund.[28].

Thus does Siegmund’s life replicate the Dionysian tragedy of Die Wälkure. Greek tragedy, however, is an especially beautiful art form because it is made up simultaneously of intoxication and dreams[29]. “To understand the tragic myth we must see it as Dionysian wisdom made concrete through Apollonian artifice” (Tragedy, §6). In a dreamlike state, Siegmund “was seeking to clothe in reason what he was trying to say” (315) to Sieglinde, giving way to the peak of their tension that had been “carried tither in expectant dreams” (ibid.). This moment in which they “forgot themselves in caresses” (ibid.) creates a resolution – a dimension of the aesthetic “primordial oneness”, the point when decadence resolves its hybridity and becomes a unified whole. Mann’s Walsungs represent the Wagnerian opera, which weaves together the Dionysian and Apollonian at the climax of their incest (it had never before been committed: “the borders of a kingdom she had never entered” (315)) as the “perpetuum vestigum [the eternal mark] of a union between the Apollonian and Dionysian… a magical mirror of the world, as the primordial melody… [which] gives birth to poetry from itself.” (Tragedy, §6) This primordial melody, the child birthed, “grew and waxed the seed of that hated, unprized race” (311) in Die Walküre, and for Siegmund and Siedlinde Aarenhold, so grew and waxed the unity of their race in the face of societal exigency.

Siegmund’s achievement of unity cannot be aligned with the death drive. In this scene, he has transcended both melancholia and decadence, he has overcome the Nietzschean fragmentation, and evokes his life-drive. As an opposition to the events so far, this culmination adds to the assertion that Siegmund, until this point, has been involved in a melancholia of the death-drive. Though his marginalization by society remains unchanged, and we do not know of his future mourning once he loses Sieglinde to marriage, he reaches a unity that will forever change his ethical dimensions[30], and perhaps relieve him of dandyism.


Siegmund Aarenhold is shaped by melancholia, decadence and dandyism in The Blood of the Walsungs, His departure from other characters emphasizes the melancholy particular to a dandy, whom, according to Charles Bernheimer, represents the Freudian death-drive in its decadence. Using authors Rhonda Garelick and Charles Bernheimer, dandyism is treated through the analysis of its particular decadence, and reveals the melancholic separation of Siegmund from society and his family members. Decadence is prescribed to the family Aarenhold as well: Sieglinde, as the mirror and libidinal attachment of Siegmund, and Mr. Aarenhold, the figure of Jewish self-hatred, are decadent in their fragmented relationships to German society, but refrain from becoming dandies because of their involvement in the socio-political sphere. In this diagnosis of melancholia, the subject of decadence is also treated in its fundamental relationship to the Dionysian impulse. Nietzsche’s The Birth of Tragedy proves useful in shedding light on the problematic illness of decadence in The Case of Wagner, and also helps the reader focus on the shift from melancholic death-drive to passionate life-drive at the end of the story.

Looking Ahead

There was a certain problematic that emerged when using Nietzsche’s and Bernheimer’s texts to dissect the decadence of Walsungs. The decadence considered by Nietzsche relies primarily on French authorship to describe German decadence, and Bernheimer, likewise limits his notion of “Decadent Subjects” to the particular place of Western Europe. The Aarenhold family’s decadence, though, cannot be separated from their Ashkenazi narrative; though they are living in (but not integrated into) German society, their decadence has meaning beyond the aestheticist center of Western Europe. Though their relationship to the centre of society produces Siegmund’s need for an “unassailable appearance”, it also disregards their movement from the periphery.

Nietzsche, Bernheimer and Schorske rely on a common canon of turn-of-the-century authors to paint a picture of fin-de-siècle decadence, yet maintain a Nietzschean assumption of decadence as inherent to any time[31]. Seeing decadence beyond this set of binary oppositions, author Scott Spector investigates the “third figure… that is, the self-conscious figure of the historian himself” which suggests that the aesthetic project of investigating decadence is “fragmented” moreover by the lens through which we investigate it. Spector’s article, “Marginalizations”, interrogates the paradigm of the fin-de-siècle as a political reaction by suggesting texts from Central Europe at the turn of the century, effectively producing an “interlocking dialectic… which was meant to contain a revolutionary force…- in the inclusive sense of embrace, rather than the exclusive sense of closing off” (150).

Spector’s investigation broadens the scope of future investigation into decadence. It is in this vein of borderlessness that I envision the widening and deepening of the project of decadence. Canonizing The Blood of the Walsungs alongside Jewish immigrant and third-culture literary theories could offer a productive insight to the decadence experienced by Siegmund and his family, beyond that which I have drawn out in relation to the Western European circumscription of decadence. The Blood of the Walsungs is a broadly enlightening text concerning Jewish decadence, which I have treated in its psychoanalytic posture among the fin-de-siècle thinkers.












Works Cited

Baudelaire, Charles, and Jonathan Mayne. The Painter of Modern Life, and Other Essays. London: Phaidon, 1964. Print.

Dr. Friedrich Köhlers Französich-deutsch Taschen Wöterbuch. Leipzig: Leipzig Verlag, 1879. Print.

Erlich, Gloria Chasson (1978) “Race and Incest in Mann’s “Blood of the Walsungs”,

Studies in 20th Century Literature: Vol. 2: Iss. 2, Article 3.

Freud, Sigmund. “Mourning and Melancholia.” The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud. London: Vintage, 2001. N. pag. Print.

Garelick, Rhonda K. Rising Star: Dandyism, Gender, and Performance in the Fin De Siècle. Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 1998. Print.

Hadlock, Philip G. “The Other Other: Baudelaire, Melancholia, and the Dandy.”

Nineteenth-Century French Studies, vol. 30, no. 1/2, 2001, pp. 58–67.

Langenscheidt Worterbuch – FranzösischDeutsch. Völlige Neubearbeitung. Berlin, München, Zürich: Langenscheidt. (1969)

Nietzsche, Friedrich Wilhelm. The Birth of Tragedy, the Case of Wagner. New York: Vintage, 1967. Print.

Spector, Scott. “Marginalizations: Politics and Culture beyond fin-de-siècle Vienna.”

Rethinking Vienna 1900. By Steven Beller. New York: Berghahn, 2001. 132. Print.





[1] Baudelaire, Charles. “The Painter of Modern Life” (1863)

[2] Dr. Friedrich Köhlers französich-deutsch Taschen Wöterbuch. (1879)

[3] Langenscheidt Worterbuch – FranzösischDeutsch. Völlige Neubearbeitung. Berlin, München, Zürich: Langenscheidt (1969)

[4] He uses the French rather than the German Dekadenz.

[5] Recognizing the hedonistic Dionysian impulse in relation to dandyism sets the stage for discussing the climax of The Blood of the Walsungs.

[6] Nietzsche published an excess of literature focusing on the ethical dimensions of tragedy and Wagner. His works both slant and promote the Dionysian impulses of Wagnerian opera.

[7] Bernheimer cites Max Nordau’s Degeneration as “exemplary of the fin-de-siecle degenerate”. 19.

[8] Bernheimer. Decadent Subjects. 26-27.

[9] Hadlock, Philip. “The Other Other: Baudelaire, Melancholia, and the Dandy.” (2001) 58–67

[10] Ibid.

[11] Spector, Scott. “Marginalizations: Politics and Culture beyond fin-de-siècle Vienna.”

Rethinking Vienna 1900. (2001) 132.

[12] Evidence for this is provided in the section “The Blood of the Walsungs”.

[13] Ibid.

[14] I will discuss this more in the section “Looking Ahead”.

[15] Décadence in Deutschland. 407.

[16] Ibid.

[17] I’m referring here to page 10 of Decadent Subjects, “A society… should be thought of as an organism that is made up of a federation of lesser organisms.”

[18] Garelick says there is a “required solipsism of dandies”. Dandyism. 29.

[19] Garelick. Dandyism. 84.

[20] “The dandy must aspire to be sublime without interruption; he must live and sleep before a mirror.” Baudelaire, Painter.

[21] Ehrlich, Gloria. “Race and Incest in Mann’s “Blood of the Walsungs”. 1978.

[22] “Wa(h)re Liebe” is a pun: true love and commodity love.

[23]Nietzsche. The Case of Wagner. 170.

[24] Drawn from Decadent Subjects. 14 : My word choice is considering Hitler’s speeches about the extermination of European Jewry as an allusion to the fascist appropriation of Nietzsche’s work.

[25] Drawing from Mourning and Melancholia. 256.

[26] Garelick. Dandyism. 28.

[27] Freud. “Mourning and Melancholia”. 245.

[28] I’m alluding to the next step after melancholy according to Freud.

[29] The art is beautiful precisely because it is a harmonious combination of Apollo and Dionysus.

[30] Together the Apollonian and Dionysian create an ethical evolution of the self, which is Nietzsche’s point of departure for the ethical aesthetic in The Birth of Tragedy.

[31] Nietzsche. The Birth of Tragedy. §2.

Ethical Aesthetics in Nietzsche and Schiller: Connected Duplicities


Revisiting the ethical aesthetic seems like a time-worn lecture- even the jokes have to be cited! The historical relevancy, increasingly less intriguing as society parts from old doctrines, falls on the ears of students as if they are suffering a nun through Confirmation. What then, is a teacher to do?

Friedrich Schiller and Friedrich Nietzsche employ the method of idolizing their subjects in Greek history, making them relevant again as the ideal destination of society. Just as they, compiling subjects of Grecian antiquity, provide you with a picture of them, I will compile Letters on the Aesthetic Education of Man (1795) and The Birth of Tragedy (1872) as subjects of early modern ethical aesthetic philosophy, in order to paint a picture of it as common sets of duplicities concerned with freedom. It is ironic that both these authors were idolized by the fascist regime, which, in my opinion, is due to a misreading. I posit that their historicization of Grecian culture, their similar understanding of the ‘idyll’ and their ideas about harmony and unity are intended to restore their milieus’ understanding of specific topics: for Schiller, education; for Nietzsche, decadence. Both authors search for the free will in human nature at the crescendo of beauty, an inherently ethical treatment of aesthetics. As do their intended topics, Nietzsche and Schiller’s ethical meditations diverge concerning the ‘idyll’.

Literature Review

Rather surprisingly, considering the innumerable amount of secondary literature concerning Schiller and Nietzsche individually, studies highlighting their connections and divergences are sparse. Research published in the early 20th century tends to deny Nietzsche’s claims at originality by comparing his philosophical reasoning with Schiller’s[1], a trait characteristic to the emergence of critical writing, with a polemic treatment of Nietzsche in line with the “canonization of Schiller as a national saint”[2]. Contemporary publications on Nietzsche’s “productive engagement”[3] with Schiller provide a more holistic approach, by investigating the entire Nietzsche criterion in order to summate a Nietzschean depiction of Schiller (Schillerbild). Nicholas Martin’s two-fold account, Nietzsche’s Schillerbild: A Re-evalutation (1995) and Untimely Aesthetics (1996) takes issue with the tendency to indebt Nietzschean philosophies to Schiller, claiming:

“To talk of influences on Nietzsche is profoundly to misunderstand his eclectic and experimental method of thinking and writing… Accordingly, Nietzsche uses Schiller, as he does so many other historical figures, as both a sounding-board and a whipping-boy.” (Schillerbild, 23)


Martin’s contribution is clearly indebted to scholars Charles Andler and Herbert Cysarz, to whom he attributes his argument that Nietzsche’s aesthetic treatment in The Birth of Tragedy articulates Schiller’s Letters through the “reinvention of the Greeks”[4], the “creative” appropriations of history[5] and the aesthetic process. Martin, a Nietzschean[6], uses mostly Nietzsche’s direct evaluation of Schiller to connect the two as “inadequate for the needs of their times,”[7] but provides important insights to Tragedy, which I will address in this paper.

Author Martin Prange also investigates common philosophical underpinnings in his work Valuation and Revaluation of the Idyll: Schillerian Traces in Nietzsche’s Early Musical Aesthetics (2006). Prange’s essay addresses the influence of Schiller’s Naïve and Sentimental Poetry, while Martin’s focus remains on Nietzsche’s idea of Schiller. As I will also insist, Prange labels Schiller’s essay “On Naïve and Sentimental Poetry” as having a decisive influence on his Letters and Nietzsche’s Tragedy, as mediated by Immanuel Kant’s moral philosophy. Both Prange and Martin’s books forego a conversation on the ethical aesthetic, which seems to me Nietzsche and Schiller’s common point of departure and the pinnacle of divergence after significant parallel in terms and processes. To this end, I endeavour to follow the Apollonian-Dionysian depiction in Tragedy, while highlighting the ethical aesthetic of the Graecization of German culture, the creation of aesthetic duplicities using Schiller’s Poetry and finally, Nietzsche’s shift from Schiller’s concept of harmony and unity.


Kant’s assertion that experiencing beauty necessitates disinterested contemplation and, therefore, the separation of aesthetics from ethics[8], laid the theoretical framework for the replacement of aristocratic morality during the shift from oligarchic rule in early-modern Europe. Though, the red thread of the aesthetic problematic can be traced all the way back to Plato’s consideration about poetic art as essentially imitative in the Republic, when Plato suggests that, “all imitative poetry would seem to maim the reasoning of those hearers who do not possess an antidote in the knowledge of its real nature,” (Aesthetics, 24). This projection of reasoning is banished by the divinity of beauty in Plato’s Symposium: “Beauty, however, is in harmony with the divine.” (Aesthetics, 37d) Aristotle continues the project of researching the intuitive absolute totality in the face of beauty by allowing artful imitation a more privileged meaning. Poetry, he argues, allows a window to the “probable impossibilities,” tragedies that are not directly experienced, but still allow you to ratchet up pity and fear: “If you see a lion, you run; poetry lets you think.”[9] Kant returns to the emotional transport[10] of art, removing it from the logical, deductive, political processes, allowing beauty to fall under the category of ethical freedom: “To deem something good, I must always know what sort of a thing the object is intended to be, i.e. I must have a concept of it. That is not necessary to enable me to see beauty in a thing.” (Aesthetics, 45) Throughout the analysis of Tragedy in Schillerian terms, these ideas of poetry and tragedy as the vehicles for transport to other times, beauty as harmony of human with the divine, and the element of ethical freedom achieved in this state are the main tenants of my attention.

Schiller’s Letters respond to Kant’s antinomies of beauty as a matter of “arbitrary taste”[11] by looking at the purpose of beauty to the nature of man. Schiller suggests that in art and in play, we live in the imagination, a world of our own composition that is not bound to the limited possibilities of reality. Here, we maintain the “active” psyche, not passively reacting to stimuli, not “determined” by social externalities. We do not use our energy as utility requires, nor do we lack opportunities to use it as we desire.

“By means of aesthetic culture, therefore, the personal worth of a man, or his dignity, inasmuch as this can depend solely on himself remains completely indeterminate; and nothing is achieved by it than that he is henceforth enabled by the grace of Nature to make himself what he will.” (Letters, §21)

Disturbed by the lack of freedom in human condition, Schiller wrote his Letters On the Aesthetic Education of Man (1795) in response to his surprise at the self-serving ideals of civilized circles during the Enlightenment and after observing the regression to violence among lower classes[12]. Schiller suggested that “aesthetic education” would better mature the consciousness of mankind. Grounded in three drives, play, form and sense, Schiller suggested systems of experience that, when poorly balanced, caused a regression in humanity. His Letters are useful as a distinguishing framework for Friedrich Nietzsche’s aesthetic considerations in The Birth of Tragedy (1897) thanks to the common perceptual lens of the ‘idyll’ of aesthetic balance; Schiller and Nietzsche require the arts at their climax, before the realization of the moment of beauty, to reveal the most primal delight – not as individuals in a world of judgement and pity, but as pure beings. This would be authenticated by a singular, homogenizing past. Both authors employ Greek classicism to disembark from the lopsided coordination of 18th and 19th century public values, realizing that only through the cultivation, dynamic contradiction and synthesis of two opposing aesthetic drives, for Schiller form and sense, and for Nietzsche Apollonian and Dionysian, can we achieve a dialectic between the modes of feeling and thinking, which Kant treats as an unresolvable paradox: “the essential point, to which the question of beauty finally leads.” (Letters, §2) Schiller seeks to expose the benefits of aesthetic education in the face of rationalism and Nietzsche seeks to reveal rationalism’s product – the aesthetic “plague” of decadence[13].

Author Charles Bernheimer reacts to Nietzsche’s relationship to decadence as an “agent provocateur”, that is, he localizes Nietzsche as a decadent himself; Bernheimer highlights Nietzsche’s use of the French word decadence[14], which “would then imply a connection between his philosophy, which he calls “filigree art” full of “nuances”, (EH 223)…, an avant-garde French aestheticism.” I interpret this chosen French aesthetic theory to be indicative of his attention to primarily his milieu, the fin-de-siecle[15], but also to a societal ‘idyll’ for the world’s advancement beyond the Enlightenment, much like Schiller. Though Nietzsche is not responding to the upheaval and “barbarism” that Schiller depicted in Letters, he is still taking issue with a society in ruins.

Because Nietzsche published an excess of literature focusing on the ethical dimensions of Wagner[16] in a time of decadence, he has been promoted as a “heretic” of the ethical aesthetic. Decadence proves to be a-temporal and fragmented by meaning and by its dialectic as a ‘necessary sickness’[17] to society. To the western ear, decadence serves a hyperbolic purpose, often heard in relation to dessert; with a ‘sinful’ amount of hot fudge, you may experience ‘death by chocolate’. But outside the sphere of contemporary advertisements, the indulgent perception of decadence remains closer with its Latin roots, “to decay” and “to fall”, allowing the concept to maintain a privileged appropriation as an essential discontinuity with the past. Decadence then becomes a direct product of development, and holds meaning as a pejorative qualifier for individual actions and lifestyles within a socialized civilization. Reflecting on “decay” of individual actions, decadence as a social critique emerges throughout history, but distinctively at the Fin-de-siecle; a literary trope of decadence manifests as an ostentatious, self-serving male aesthete – the “Dandy” – an avatar of post-Enlightenment class-consciousness, whose delight in elegance is meant as a symbol of the “aristocratic superiority of mind.”[18] The feigned refinement of decadence is the point of departure for Nietzsche’s considerations of aesthetic judgement. His purpose was not to advance a new definition of decadence, more general or more precise, but to review the positive and negative cultivations of aestheticism. Like I am not discussing Dandyism, Nietzsche did not dwell on decadence in The Birth of Tragedy, but illuminated it as an outcropping of madness and a “symptom of the failing power” of morality in the “developing hegemony of reasonableness, practical and theoretical utilitarianism, as well as democracy itself.” (§4) Nietzsche’s response to the Zeitgeist of decadence is cast as a bodily illness in The Case of Wagner (1888), but is grounded in the universal subjectivity expressed by the aesthetic notion of human nature in Tragedy.    

According to Nietzsche and Schiller, the aesthetic fulfilment of human nature transcends the Zeitgeist[19]. Though the authors focus attention on criticisms of their respective milieus, Schiller gives up the “alluring temptation” to comprise his freedom from, “the political theatre of action,” and he aims to, “place himself in the center of the whole, and to raise his individuality to that of the species.” (Letters, §2) According to Denker und Dichter scholar Nicholas Boyle, Schiller’s state of dignity is separate from the (non-polar) binary of regulative normalcy and “wild ochlocracy”[20], and frees human nature from the “depravity of character” tolerated by barbaric bourgeois and aristocracy, and the “brutal, lawless drives” (Letters, §4) of those proletariat[21], who fought savagely during the French Revolution. In his book Goethe: Revolution and Renunciation[22], Boyle suggests a Schillerian “duality in which sense rules reason,” which, “may harmonize in the production of behaviour which is both morally free and physically attractive- beautiful movement” (Goethe, 63).  Though I agree that Schiller was indeed searching for the outward manifestation of humanity’s “beautiful soul”, I think the use of the word “duplicity” (Duplicität) would better serve the relationship of form and sensuous drives in society. Unlike a duality, they are never completely separate from each other. I believe that Boyle is not to blame for this mistake, because he continues on to understand form and sense in correlation with the “duality of the sexes” (Zweiheit der Geschlechter) (Tragedy, §1), which is wrongly translated by Walter Kaufmann, the translator of Boyle’s edition of Tragedy. Here, the word Zweiheit actually means a “two-ness”. If Nietzsche had intended a duality, he would have written Dualität. Boyle compares these duplicities because of their relationship together; they are woven in to each other[23]. Though the two drives are never completely separate, Nietzsche denotes that they are still in constant tension with one another except in moments of unity, with periodic reconciliation (Versöhnung). As Schiller brings forward Plato’s Philebus, “things are a mixture of one and many” (Letters, §6), form and sense have an inexorable nature, giving them a character not unlike Nietzsche’s discussion of Apollonian and Dionysian drives as irreconcilably connected windows to human nature[24]. In the following, I will consider Schiller’s conception of drives of aesthetic freedom as duplicities, then organize them in conversation in Tragedy under the Apollonian and Dionysian drives, tracing the duplicity of these drives and posing questions that can be answered by Schiller’s discussion of form and sensuous drives.

Letters on the Aesthetic Education of Man/ Greacization

In finding a solution to the Kantian paradox of the subjective universal, Schiller categorizes aesthetic production as, “[to] appear determined through the nature of the thing, which one could call the voluntary assent of the thing to its technique” (Letters, §1).  Boyle suggests that although Schiller does not accept Kant’s negative view of man’s natural being[25], he does not return to an “illusory primitive state” (68), that is, Schiller doesn’t seek to overcome the duplicity of form and sense, nor establish a unity from them. According to Schiller, man cannot be reduced to a unity, but are always existing in duplicities: “Person and Condition… are in the finite being eternally two” (Letters, §4) Disagreeing with Kant’s assumption that the subject (man) is noumenon, Schiller’s Letters show man as an understanding of phenomenon:

“To say that man has first to become, is no objection; for man is not just Person pure and simple, but Person situated in a particular Condition. Every Condition, however, every determinate existence, has its origin in time; and so man, as a phenomenal being, must also have a beginning, although the pure intelligence within him is eternal. Without time, that is to say, without becoming, he would never be a determinate being; his Personality would indeed exist potentially, but not in fact.” (Letters, §11)
Schiller’s change of perspective from Kant’s categorical imperative allows the consideration of alternative routes to the nature of man, of which he is primarily concerned with the moral destination as an answer for happiness- namely the socio-political problems exaggerated by Robespierre’s Reign of Terror (the French Revolution) (Letters, §3) and the consequences of sciences and industry in the modern era (Letters, §1). His conception of what man is supposed to become show that beauty is necessary in the destination of man, that is, “beauty is a necessary condition of Human Being,” (Letters, §10) which is situated between formal and sensuous drives, that is, the barbaric and the savage.

Schiller claims that these two fundamental drives in man are reductionist, and they, “exhaust our concept of humanity, [we must] make a third fundamental drive which might possibly reconcile the two, a completely unthinkable concept.” (Letters, §13) In disavowing the “radical opposition” of the two drives, Schiller develops a drive out of them – the play drive – which does not unify the other two, because then it would negate its necessity to exist[26]. Nurtured by an aesthetic education, the play drive allows man to overcome the duplicity between personal (savage, sensuous) and social (barbaric, form) freedom through the framework of the mind, instigating a long revolution of political change instead of a creative destruction[27] of societal order. Author Emiliano Acosta suggests that Schiller’s “parallel reality [the play drive]… does not lead to an effective real overcoming of the real situation, but to the idea of an emancipating praxis of man in the element of the art and the semblance.” (“Schiller’s Concept of Recognition”, 127) This brings Schiller’s aesthetic idea to the realm of the ‘idyll’, which he recognizes as the institution of moral law on earth (§25)

By establishing Schiller’s concept of recognition in society as one of utopian aspirations, Acosta anticipated Martin’s conversation on the “untimeliness” of Schiller and Nietzsche’s work. Martin says,

“Any attempt to construct a state according to moral principles will be untimely (unzeitig), and any hopes for it chimerical “until the separation of the inner man is again abolished, and his nature is fully developed enough to be the artist herself, and to assert her reality to the political creation of reason. (AE VII)…

It is not least this need to break the vicious cycle which leads him [Schiller] to the Greeks. The Greek example is removed in time and space.” (Untimely Aesthetics, 69)
What Martin is exposing is Schiller’s use of the Attic world, in its “unconscious harmony” (ibid., 70) as a contrast to the disjointed junctures of the Enlightenment. Schiller draws a positive historical lineage from the Greeks, whose poetics should be studied by the individual in hopes of restoring mankind.

Tragedy benefits from Schiller’s appropriation of the Greek model as the base example for the ‘idyll’, even the divine (Letters, §6), as a quintessential looking glass to view the shortcomings of Germany’s decadence. Unlike Martin, I am not suggesting this Graecization of aesthetic theory as an intertextual relationship belonging to Schiller and Nietzsche alone. According to Boyle, creating a bond between Greek and German cultures can be seen as a wider trend of poets and thinkers in Germany’s Culture Struggle (Kulturkampf[28]) to employ a singular, homogenizing past (Goethe, 19). On the other hand, Martin considers the “re-evaluation of the Greeks” to be a central aim in the project of “rebirthing” aesthetic culture: “This very tactic, though, of employing models and exemplars from the past, because he feels his own are is too corrupt to regenerate itself from within, is one Nietzsche shares with Schiller.” (Untimely Aesthetics, 28) I tend to agree more with Byron’s holistic conception of the Greacization of Germany because of the authoritarian personality of the era[29]. Though Martin points out that Nietzsche adapted the ‘tragic’ Greece, whereas Schiller used the Golden Age, I would like to emphasize this as a divergence in their treatment of the ethical aesthetic.

Both Schiller and Nietzsche take issue with the Greek divergence towards political societies – for Nietzsche much earlier, with Socrates, and for Schiller the ironic “Building of Political Freedom” (Letters, §2). For Schiller, the problem of political freedom is that it is experienced under the charge of truth. The French Revolution marks a failure of the political, while the ending of the Golden Age marks a stagnation the project of politics. He projects this turn Nietzsche understands the Socratic era as ushering in a mission to consider existence apprehensible, as “the turning point and vortex of the so-called world history” (Tragedy, §14) which transcended the tragic era.

I believe that an ethical aesthetic difference highlights the gap between Nietzsche and Schiller’s appropriation of the Greeks, that is, Schiller is concerned with the loss of political truth while Nietzsche focuses on a loss of “tragic insight”. These aims diverge at the subject; Schiller is concerned with the project of development, while Nietzsche is concerned about decay. Their appropriations of Greek culture both insist that a once-‘idyll’ society, gifted with arts that bettered mankind, had turned toward a deluded denial of progress. Though Martin chooses not to historicize these ethical parameters of Hellenization, he hints beyond his Schillerbild, and momentarily considers The Birth of Tragedy’s celebration in Hellenic culture under a Schillerian categorical authority, “for his [Nietzsche’s] radical reformations of the creative process, the function of the tragic chorus, and the traditional aesthetic antithesis” (30). That is, Nietzsche held a ternary purpose of Grecian culture, not unlike Schiller’s consideration of play, form and sense.

Mapping Duplicities

Nietzsche describes the Apollonian: “In the dream, the great sculptor saw the delightful structure of a superhuman” (Tragedy, §1) He uses the noun “superhuman” (Übermensch) in association with the structure of Apollo[30], but does not discuss “superhuman” – the best possible person – as the balance between both Dionysian and Apollonian. This constant division echoes Schiller’s realization that unity cannot be attained from form and sense, made only more clear through the application of aesthetics later on. Apollo is the god of light, and Nietzsche explains that the god’s connection to appearance also links him to the concept of the prophecy of a higher truth. It is through this higher truth, moreover, that “life is made possible and worth living” (Tragedy, §1). It is paradoxical, then, that Nietzsche refers continuously to the Dionysian as “life affirming” when here he is ascribing this same thing to the Apollonian. However, the Apollonian is an appearance, and thus we are examining the beautiful appearance, or semblance, of the dream worlds. By recalling Schiller’s appropriation of ‘form’ to the world of thought and dreams, we can begin already in the first section to draw a parallel between Schiller’s ‘beautiful semblance’ (der schöne Schein) of the play drive and Nietzsche’s higher truth from the Apollonian Schein. This also brings to mind Schiller’s idea that the form drive leads to the “greatest enlargement of being” (§13), meaning that form drive moves us out of the individual realm to that of something greater- like the Apollonian higher truth.

When one finally doubts the dreamy illusion of Apollo, the Dionysian is quick to emerge:

“If we add to this awe the ecstatic rapture, which rises up out of the same collapse of the principium individuationis from the innermost depths of a human being, indeed, from the innermost depths of nature, then we have a glimpse into the essence of the Dionysian, which is presented to us most closely through the analogy to intoxication” (Tragedy, §1).
By designating the Apollonian to the principium individuationis, Nietzsche further parallels Apollonian drive to Schiller’s ‘form’; sculpture, he declares, is the most Apollonian of arts, which relies entirely on its form. For Schiller, when sense drive rules over form, it reduces man’s ability to unify his nature: “As long as he merely feels, merely desires and acts upon desire, he is as yet nothing but the world, if by this term we understand nothing but the formless content of time.” (§6) Could not “intoxication” correlate to the “formless content of time?” Nietzsche declares that when the Apollonian Veil of Maja is ripped asunder “man feels like God” (Tragedy, §1). One sees here a problem with the Dionysian, because a man is engaged in a wrongful representation of God. Man finds himself in the Dionysian state, no longer as an “artist” but, “has become a work of art: the artistic power of all nature, to the highest rhapsodic satisfaction of primordial unity, which reveals itself for Nietzsche in the transports of “intoxication” (Tragedy, §1). This necessarily reflects on Schiller’s assertion that sense drive seeks “absolute reality” (Letters, §1) attempting to “destroy” anything that is “mere world” (ibid., §5) For Nietzsche, Nature rejoices in its celebration (ihr Versöhnungsfest) with mankind, her lost sons. This occurs in the magic (Unter dem Zauber) of the Dionysian, as it determines actions in the physical realm and points to a broader understanding of life. A problematic begins to emerge for Nietzsche and Schiller, when one recognizes that intoxication can be dreamlike, and that a dream is in fact a sort of intoxicating phenomenon. This notion embodies the idea that the two drives exist in one another, but for Nietzsche the problem is that the Dionysian emerges as favourable over the Apollonian. Where is Apollo in this exalted satisfaction of primal unity?[31]

Nietzsche then describes Dionysus as a mystical feeling of collective unity[32] (Tragedy, §2). Greek tragedy, however, is an especially beautiful art form because it is made up simultaneously of intoxication and dreams[33]. Nietzsche separates the Dionysian Greeks from the Dionysian barbarians, who drink more than their fill of the witch’s brew (Hexentrank). In the Greek festivals, such excess will not be found. Nietzsche writes of Dionysian music,

“In the Dionysian dithyramb man is aroused to the highest intensity of all his symbolic capabilities: something never felt forces itself into expression, the destruction of the veil of Maja, the sense of oneness as the presiding genius of form, in fact, of nature itself.” (Tragedy, §2)


How is it here, that the veil of Apollo is destroyed? Is Apollo not always at play with the Dionysian?

Nietzsche writes that the dithyrambic servant of Dionysus will only be understood by someone like Dionysus himself. The Apollonian Greek senses with terror that his consciousness was, “like a veil, merely covering the Dionysian world in front of him” (Tragedy, §2). It is not the other way around – the Dionysian Greek has no room for “realization” that his consciousness is withholding the Apollonian existence from him. He likens this naivety to a “complete victory of the Apolline illusion” (Tragedy, §3), but suggests that Apollonian and Dionysian share in the common presence of naivety as the hidden ground of suffering (Tragedy, §3). Nietzsche points directly to Schiller’s understanding of naivety, “that unity of man with Nature, for which Schiller coined the term.” (Tragedy, §3)

Mapping Duplicities: The Tragic Chorus

The Apollonian and Dionysian binary owes greatly to Schiller’s On Naïve and Sentimental Poetry. Published two months earlier than Letters in 1795, Schiller set the stage for his dissection of form and sensuous drives. By departing from Kant’s “intractable oppositions” through a symbolic resolution of poetic form as a duplicity, Schiller organizes poetry by subject-relationship[34]; in naïve poetry, the poet will describe directly what is going on, while in sentimental poetry, the author reflects on himself. Though transporting us back to the Grecian poetics as those of direct description (in the naïve mode), we see a parallel with Niethzsche’s “Mythos”, which Martin describes as a “naïve harmony of the ancients” (Schillerbild, 36). Schiller shapes the aesthetic theory used by Nietzsche to explain his term ‘Apollonian’[35]. Martin claims that this connection is “identical”, and quotes Nietzsche’s acknowledgement of Schiller as the “originator of the term”:

“Wherever we encounter “naïve” in art, we have to recognize the highest effect of Apollonian culture, something which must always come into existence to overthrow the kingdom of the Titans, to kill monsters, and through powerfully deluding images and joyful illusions so emerge victorious over the horrific depths of what we observe in the world and the most sensitive capacity for suffering… Homeric “naiveté” is only to be understood as the complete victory of the Apollonian illusion. It is the sort of illusion which nature uses so frequently in order to attain her objectives.” (Tragedy, §3)


Though Nietzsche idealizes naivety within the Homeric, pre-Socratic era, he defines like Schiller defines the difference between “naïve” and “sentimental” forms of poetry. Instead of poetry, Nietzsche is discussing tragedy in these terms and focusing on the “naïve”, which for Nietzsche existed in the Homeric Era. He elicits Richard Wagner’s “The Ring of the Niebelung” in describing the achievement of the naïve, which helps us realise the departure from Schiller’s ‘idyll’ of aesthetic education. Though Nietzsche considers naivety “purely Apollonian” (Wagner, §3) and interprets the sentimental as emerging alongside it, both born in tragedy, Nietzsche does not consider Dionysian as “sentimental”. Though Apollo was created with regard to Schiller’s naivety, I think that Nietzsche’s use of Schiller’s form-sense duplicity in Letters is more relevant to the function of Apollonian and Dionysian together, and better depicts the red thread of the ethical aesthetic.

Era notwithstanding[36], consideration of form and sense as a balanced depiction of Apollonian and Dionysian drives sheds light on the common idea that through beauty, the ethical will emerge. Nietzsche quotes Schiller: “With me, feeling first lacks a defined and clear object; the latter develops for the first time later on. A certain musical emotional state comes first, and from this, with me, the poetic idea then follows.” (Tragedy, §5) Nietzsche’s attention to Schiller’s de-temporalizing of the technique of poetry leads him to discuss that the basis for tragedy, poetry, is a combination of “the lyricist and the musician, in fact, their common identity” (§5). Likening the lyrical poet to a Dionysian artist, Nietzsche constructs a duplicity with Apollonian as the goal of primordial oneness[37]. But, Nietzsche exclaims, he could not live without Dionysus[38]. Contradictorily, Nietzsche writes that they mutually intensify each other (sich gegenseitig steigernd) (Tragedy, §4). This duplicity can be cleared up by reflecting on Schiller’s conception of form and sense drives as “a reciprocal action of such a kind that the activity of one both gives rise to and sets limits to the activity of the other, and in which each itself achieves its highest manifestation precisely by reason of the other being active.” (Letters, §14)   and how they react when in perfect balance to create the play drive.

In the Attic Tragedy and the dramatic dithyramb, the two are in a more or less equal unity because they combine the Apollonian elements of dialogue, character and action with the darker, Dionysian essence of being (Urgrund), projected by the chorus and fall of the tragic hero. Nietzsche writes on how our view here is directed to these two drives who share a common goal, a secretive marital connection, and a child that is both at once: “whose secret marriage partnership, after a long antecedent struggle, glorified itself with such a child—at once Antigone and Cassandra.” (Tragedy, §4) Though untouched by Martin, this mention of Antigone’s Cassandra resonates with claim of being able to see the future, but killing herself when she is unheard. It emphasises the “untimeliness” of Nietzsche’s idyll, much like Schiller’s, but also marks the decay of society in a post-Socratic world. The truth was available, but it did not progress.

For Nietzsche as well, this Apollonian-Dionysian unity is that of mystery (Einheitsmysterium), however, the lyric poet is Dionysian who is “completed” by the primordial unity, “To understand the tragic myth we must see it as Dionysian wisdom made concrete through Apollonian artifice” (Tragedy, §6). The sublime Dionysian is a merging of the self and the other as a universal and passionate art, and it must react with the sober Apollonian, which represents the imperatives of “knowing thyself” and “nothing to excess!” (Tragedy, §6) Together they create an ethical evolution of the self, which is Nietzsche’s point of departure for the ethical aesthetic. Most importantly here is the difference in understanding of the ethical aesthetic between Nietzsche and Schiller. Both propose movement by an aesthetic piece of Grecian history in order to reach the “primordial oneness”, but Nietzsche’s path to this aesthetic takes a modern turn.

Though Schiller reflects on poetics as the bridge to play, Nietzsche regards Dionysian tragedy as the vehicle. His concern with tragedy holds an ethical aesthetic concern for Nietzsche’s own time, that is, his concern with the Wagnerian opera. The folk song can also be woven between the two as the “perpetuum vestigum [the eternal mark] of a union between the Apollonian and Dionysian… a magical mirror of the world, as the primordial melody… [which] gives birth to poetry from itself.” (Tragedy, §6) Nietzsche concludes that lyrical poetry can’t have the same impact as music because it consists of language, which is an illusion. This primordial melody, the child, the Mythos that Nietzsche intends to restore, is at once apparent as the play drive, where form and sense are intertwined but the imposed truth drops away, giving way to man’s freest will. Schiller says that words are acceptable for common speech, but man is “only fully a human being when he plays,” (Letters, §8) because this has lifted him out of the necessity to communicate, quite like Nietzsche’s conception of lyrics as limiting for the tragic chorus[39].

In Schiller’s twenty-fourth letter, he outlines the three-stage cycle to achieve a full potential both individually and societally. He bolsters his argument by suggesting that truth may be achieved through attaching value to semblance (Schein), in this case, allowing aesthetic value to supersede logical value. Here we approach Nietzsche’s idea that through tragedy, value is illuminated, but it must proceed also through three stages, which end in the acceptance of an aesthetic education (Bildung) (Tragedy, §15-22) .These stages are different, because Nietzsche focuses on a whole-cultural reversal or upheaval, where a new wisdom (Weisheit) would readily replace the Darwinean and Comtean trajectory of scientific determinism (Tragedy, §25) and Schiller considers the stages to represent a passage from individual understanding towards the whole-cultural. (Letters, §25). The ethical aesthetic in both works focuses on aesthetic education as an antithesis to the perceived barbaric and savage culture of the times.

Aesthetic Antitheses to Rationalism

Though the resolution of the play drive seems the Schillerean answer to Nietzsche’s “primordial oneness”, and they use a similar appropriation of Grecian history, the point of Nietzsche’s Tragedy is to inform us about tragedy, while Schiller wants to inform us about education. Schiller seeks to expose the benefits of aesthetic education in the face of rationalism and Nietzsche seeks to reveal rationalism’s product – the aesthetic “plague” of decadence. They are both aesthetic responses to free will, but diverge at the site of the ‘idyll’; Schiller prescribes that man develop as if he were not burdened by modern “truth”, while Nietzsche intends for man to be enlightened by aesthetics forms of the past. This is reflected by their differing intentions about what the reader should learn. Both teachers, Schiller and Nietzsche substantiate their conversations about education and tragedy by suggesting society use them to move toward an aesthetical antithesis to rationalism. They use the ethical aesthetic as a means to achieve the primacy of their arguments.



Works Cited

Bernheimer, Charles, T. Jefferson Kline, and Naomi Schor. Decadent Subjects: The Idea of Decadence in Art, Literature, Philosophy, and Culture of the Fin De Siecle in Europe. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins UP, 2002. Print.

Boyle, Nicholas. Revolution and Renunciation: (1790-1803). Oxford: Clarendon, 2000. Print.

Burnham, Douglas, and Martin Jesinghausen. “Nietzsche’s “The Birth of Tragedy”: A Reader’s Guide” Hunter College, CUNY. WorldCat. 1995. Web.

Cahn, Steven M., and Aaron Meskin. Aesthetics: A Comprehensive Anthology. Malden, MA: Blackwell Pub., 2008. Print.

La-Rouche, Helga. “A Reader’s Guide to “Letters on the Aesthetic Education of Man”” Schiller Institute. Fidelio, Volume 14., June 2005. Web.

Martin, Nicholas. “Nietzsche’s Schillerbild: A Re-Evaluation.” German Life and Letters 48.4 (1995): 516-39. Web.

Nietzsche, Friedrich Wilhelm. The Birth of Tragedy, Ecce Homo, The Case of Wagner and Thus Spoke Zarathustra. Trans. Walter Kaufmann. New York: Vintage, 1967. Print.

Nietzsche, Friedrich Wilhelm. The Case of Wagner. Place of Publication Not Identified: Allen & Unwin, 1924. Print.

Nordau, Max Simon. Degeneration. New York: H. Fertig, 1968. Print.

Prange, Martine. “Valuation and Revaluation of the Idyll.” Nietzscheforschung 13.JG (2006): Web.

[1] Martin, Nicholas. Nietzsche and Schiller: Untimely Aesthetics. 1996. (17)

[2] ibid. (19)

[3] Martin, Nicholas. “Nietzsche’s Schillerbild: A Re-evaluation”. German Life and Letters. 48:4. October, 1995.

[4] Ibid. (2)

[5] Martin, Nicholas. Nietzsche and Schiller: Untimely Aesthetics. 1996. (97)

[6] Over half of Nicholas Martin’s publications have Nietzsche in the title.

[7] Ibid. (202)

[8] Kant, Immanuel. “The Critique of Judgement”. (1790)

[9] Watkins, Evan. CRI 200C. UC Davis, Fall 2016.

[10] Referring here to Longinus, On Sublimity: “The effect of elevated language upon an audience is not persuasion but transport.” (§1)

[11] Wertz, William F. Jr. “A Reader’s Guide to Letters on the Aesthetic” Fidelio. Volume 14, Number 1-2. Spring-Summer, 2005.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Nietzsche, Friedrich. “The Case of Wagner”. 1888. (2)

[14] Rather than the German Dekadenz. Bernheimer also finds Walter Kaufmann’s translation to disrespect this usage of the French word.

[15] The fin-de-siecle is framed by Max Nordau in his book Degeneration (1892) as a time when society was in danger of reverting back to a pre-Enlightenment civilization.

[16] Nietzsche’s works both slant and promote Wagnerian opera.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Ibid. (15)

[19] The spirit of the times.

[20] Schiller intends to express a state of violence in which the leadership is overthrown.

[21] Using proletariat in the same sense as Karl Marx in The Communist Manifesto.

[22]Schiller on freedom in appearance’ is in the chapter ‘Post-Kantian Germany to 1793’ (61)

[23] Rather than Kaufmann’s translation that they are woven together, or zusammen, they are woven ineinander (Tragedy, §12), which also eclipses his translation’s use of “duality”.

[24] Nietzsche acknowledges the irreconcilable connectivity of the two drives at the beginning of The Birth of Tragedy. Throughout the text, Nietzsche seems to either forget or ignore this assertion.

[25] In The Critique of Judgement, Kant asserts a negative view of experiencing beauty by suggesting that we feel the sublime purposefully, but without any ulterior purposes. This is ‘purposeless purposiveness’.

[26] The tradition of substantiating philosophy in its inexplicability is exactly the thread that Nietzsche follows by leaving phenomenon up to art and philosophy, but is most frankly described by Heidegger in Being and Time (1927): “Making itself intelligible is suicide for philosophy.”

[27] Using ‘creative destruction’ in the sense of Joseph Schumpeter

[28] Though the Kulturkampf would typically represent Otto von Bismark’s attempt to gain Catholic authority in a Protestant Germany, I think Boyle is alluding to Nietzsche and Schiller’s injections of myth into the otherwise scientific ethos at the turn-of-the-century.

[29] Here I am referring to Erich Fromm’s “The Authoritarian Personality” (1957) which depicts a German society that birthed fascism due to strict normatization of institutions such as education, literary circles and the church.

[30] In his later texts including Ecce Homo, he describes those who are “superhuman”, including Zarathustra, as purely Dionysian.

[31] I am staging these questions to answer later.

[32] This spurs the same question: how is Dionysus a feeling of unity without an equal presence of the Apollonian?

[33] The art is beautiful precisely because it is a harmonious combination of Apollo and Dionysus.

[34] It seems important to note here that Friedrich Schlegel, the ‘father’ of the German Romantic movement, wrote one of his earliest pieces Vom äesthetischen Werte der griechischen Komödie (1794) in response to Schiller’s assumption that poetry can be categorized by subject. Schlegel promoted a more materialistic, secular understanding of poetry as defined by era.

[35] Martin, Nicholas. Untimely Aesthetics. (150)

[36] The implication of this distinction from Schiller is discussed in the previous section, Graecization.

[37] In section 38 of The Anti-Christ Nietzsche writes about what “miscarriages of duplicity” modern people are.

[38] In Ecce Homo, page 78, Nietzsche writes that he has never taken sides against himself, but has he not taken sides against the Apollonian half of the unity?