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New Left Review I/213, September-October 1995

Peter Dews

The Limits of Disenchantment

In a passage from The Case of Wagner, [*] This essay forms the introduction of Peter Dews’s book, The Limits of Disenchantment. Essays on Contemporary European Philosophy, to be published by Verso in 1995. Nietzsche affirms that ‘Hegel is a taste.—And not merely a German but a European taste.—A taste Wagner comprehended—to which he felt equal—which he immortalized—he invented a style for himself charged with “infinite meaning”—he became the heir of Hegel.—Music as “idea.”—’ [1] Friedrich Nietzsche, The Case of Wagner, in The Birth of Tragedy and The Case of Wagner, trans. Walter Kaufmann, New York 1967, p. 178. Nietzsche’s virtuoso attack on Wagner’s music for its portentous depths and sham reconciliations, traits which he sees as inherited from Idealist metaphysics, but which here mask egoistic calculation and a manipulation of emotion which violates aesthetic form, marks the emergence of a distinctively modernist sensibility. For this new outlook, philosophical and aesthetic attempts to restore meaning to a disenchanted universe are in deep collusion with what they seem to oppose. As Charles Taylor has recently reminded us, by the late nineteenth century: ‘Victorian piety and sentimentality seemed to have captured the Romantic spirit. For those who saw this whole world as spiritually hollow and flat, Romanticism could appear as integral to what they rejected as instrumentalism was. It merely offered trivialized, ersatz, or inauthentic meanings to compensate for a meaningless world.’ [2] Charles Taylor, Sources of the Self: The Making of the Modern Identity, Cambridge 1989, p. 458. Astutely, Nietzsche suggests that ‘transposed into hugeness, Wagner does not seem to have been interested in any problems except those which now occupy the little decadents in Paris. Always five steps from the hospital. All of them entirely modern, entirely metropolitan problems.’ [3] The Case of Wagner, p. 176. Against such mystification, the new aesthetic of modernism strove for a coldness, remoteness and impersonality which Nietzsche already anticipates when he invokes against Wagner ‘the great logic, the dance of the stars’.

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