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Schiller and Our Times

Schmidt Number: S-1024

On-line since: 30th April, 2018


Schiller, the Greek Drama and Nietzsche

The period at which Schiller wrote his Wallenstein, was for him a period of transition, a refining period in which he was trying to rise above his earlier “Weltanschauung” to the grasp of what he called the purely artistic. We have seen how Schiller found in the beautiful and artistic something which could raise man's forces of soul, bring them into a harmony — so that it is artistic creation which gives man freedom. Thus for him, as he wrote to Goethe à propos of his Wilhelm Meister, the artist was the only true man and the philosopher, compared to him, only a caricature. Here was a vital turning-point which reflected what Schiller had then experienced.

In Fiesco, in Kabale and Liebe, in Don Carlos some of the characters are sympathetic to him, others antipathetic. But at the height of his art he wished to get rid of such moral judgment and valuation; he wished to treat a wrong-doer with the same loving care as he did the hero; his work was no longer to be associated with what he himself felt as sympathy or antipathy. When the objection was made to Wilhelm Meister, that many of the figures offended against moral feeling, he wrote more or less like this to Goethe: “If one could show you that the non-moral originated in you and not in the characters, one might have some ground for objection.” For Schiller Wilhelm Meister is an education in aesthetic.

Schiller, having had a vision of human personality in its true autonomy, tried to raise himself to the sunlit heights of pure art. Hence comes a new form of participation of the artist in his art; we can see it already in Wallenstein. He was not going to have a personal part any more, nor judge and value morally; he was simply to be an artist.

This conception reminds us of a conversation of his with Goethe in which they were discussing architecture, and in which Goethe made a remark of deep significance, though it might sound at first somewhat of a paradox. Goethe demanded of a beautiful building that it should make an impression of harmony not only on the eye but on a man who might be led through it with bandaged eyes. When everything sensible has been abstracted, it is still possible to put oneself into it by the spirit. It is not fitness for a purpose that he demanded, but the ideal quality of the spirit. At first sight it may seem paradoxical: it was created out of the lofty view of art which Goethe and Schiller held. Round them there grew up a circle of artists whose judgments were similar: e.g., Wilhelm v. Humboldt, a fine connoisseur, whose aesthetic essays are important for the contemporary intellectual atmosphere. In this way Schiller was led into opposition to his earlier artistic views and to Kantianism, which practically only admits the supersensible where the moral is concerned. No artist could see like that; and in his return to the artistic Schiller found Kant inadequate.

Schiller's conception of the tragic conflict was that later formulated by Hebbel when he said that only that is tragic which is inevitable. That was Schiller's feeling, and that was what he tried to carry out in his Wallenstein; that was the way in which he wanted to depict the tragic. In Shakespeare's Richard III he saw fate breaking in with such inevitability; but before then he had had an earlier love for the Greek drama. In the Shakespearean drama the person of the hero takes the central place, and it is from his character that the inevitable development arises. Greek drama is quite different: there everything is predestined, and complete. Man is set in a higher spiritual order, but simultaneously, because he is a material sense-being, he is shattered by it. The decisive element is not the character or personality of the hero but the superhuman destiny and fate.

The Erinyes of Greek tragedy are not originally avenging Furies but represent the vague foreboding something which is not wholly soluble and shines dimly into human destiny. In his return to the artistic Schiller reached this conception of the tragic. If we are to feel tragedy in this sense, we must eliminate the personal and separate it from the merely human. Only then can we really understand Wallenstein.

There is something super-personal that has grown beyond the personal which hovers over Wallenstein. Man belongs to a higher order, a higher spiritual world — that is for Schiller the meaning of the stars which guide man's destiny. It is in the stars that Wallenstein is to read his destiny. Carlyle indicates this super-personal, when he points to the parallelism in the character of the separate personalities in Wallenstein's camp, which hints at the personalities of the leaders. Thus the Irish Dragoon, who puts his trust in the luck of war, points to his chief, Buttler; the first Cuirassier who reflects the finer side of life in war, to Max Piccolomini; the Trumpeter in his complete devotion, to Terczky; while the Sergeant Major, who quotes the sayings of his general, appears as a caricature of Wallenstein.

We have here then a great law which goes beyond the merely personal. The whole composition of the poem shows us the standpoint which Schiller believed he had achieved. We have first, the camp where Wallenstein does not appear at all; second, the Piccolomini scenes where Wallenstein practically does not enter but learns what has happened from Max Piccolomini and hears from his wife what is happening in the Viennese court. He allows events to take their course so that his generals unite and sign the famous document. The action takes place round about him. In the same way the idea of treachery is only grasped lightly, and then takes possession of his soul. Thirdly, Wallenstein's death; here he is driven into events by his own thoughts which have taken on an objective life, he is forced into a super-personal destiny. A monumental language marks the situation. He is set within an iron necessity; the personal — which has nothing particular to do with the great lines — is thrust into a corner. It does, no doubt, express itself in stirring tones, as, for instance, in the conversation with Max Piccolomini: —


Wallenstein (with eyes silently fixed on him and approaching him): Max, stay with me; leave me not, Max. When they brought you to me in my winter camp at Prague, into my tent, a delicate boy, unused to German winters, your hand was frozen to the heavy standard which, like a man, you would not let go. Then I took you in, covered you with my cloak; myself was your nurse, nor was ashamed, of the smallest service; I tended you with a woman's careful thoughtfulness, till you, warmed by me, felt the young life again pouring through you. When, since then, have I changed? Thousands I have made rich, given them lands and honours — you, I have loved. I gave you my heart, myself. They were all strangers, you the child of my house. Max, you cannot leave me. It cannot be, I will not, cannot believe my Max can leave me.


But it does not specially fit into the plot. Schiller's great achievement in this drama was that he kept the tragic and the personal apart, that he has shown how Wallenstein, after letting the thoughts play freely about him, simply cannot but stride onwards to the deed. He shows us how out of freedom there grows a kind of necessity; and this whole style of thought contains ideas of the moment which have only to be fanned to life in order to become fruitful.

The next play, Maria Stuart, is conceived in the same vein. Practically everything has already happened at the beginning, and nothing occurs but what has been long prepared. It is only the character, the inner life, which unfolds itself before us, and this inner life again acts as a necessity. In his later plays Schiller tried more and more to give form to the idea of destiny. Thus in the Maid of Orleans something super-personal is expressed in the visions in which her demon-spirit appears, calls her to her mission and opposes her when she is untrue to the command, until by repentance she redeems it. In the Bride of Messina especially he almost tries to give the Greek drama once more a place in modern life. There he expresses the super-personal by introducing the chorus.

What did he want with the chorus? Schiller was looking to the origin of tragedy, which arose from religion. In the primitive drama it was shown how Dionysos, the suffering God, finds redemption in humanity. (More recent research has revealed the truth of this.) When the Greek Mystery drama was secularised, there arose the first beginnings of dramatic art. Thus in Aeschylus we still have the echo of that out of which art had arisen, of the Mystery cults within which the world-drama of world-redemption was depicted. Edouard Schuré has described these Eleusinian Mysteries in his Sanctuaires d'Orient, a first example of the religious and artistic solution of the world-riddle. The world-embracing action of this original drama could not find in speech its proper instrument; for speech is too much the expression of personal relations. When drama began to use the word, it dealt with more personal relations, as in Sophocles and Euripides. There was a passage from the representation of the typical to the personal. Hence the old drama used a super-personal speech which was akin to music, and given by the chorus which accompanied the action represented in mimicry. Thus the musical drama developed into the later speech drama. Nietzsche has developed these ideas further in his Birth of Tragedy from the Spirit of Music.

For him the word drama is a sort of decadence; and hence comes his reverence for Wagner who wanted to create a new religious art, born out of the world of myth. Wagner was keen, not on the personal, but the super-personal; and so he took for the foundation of his dramas not historical, but mythical action; and where he has to represent the super-personal he does not employ the usual language but a language sublimated by music.

Schiller felt what was only discovered by research after his time, and developed Greek tragedy along those lines. He wanted to introduce a lyric element, so that, as he says in the preface, he might raise art to a higher level by means of the mood. Thus there already lies in Schiller what was worked out more radically in the Nietzsche-Wagner circle — except that those men did not deal with it so clearly as Schiller had done.

In Schiller we have already the great conception of leading mankind back to the source from which the spiritual sprang, of leading art back to the original basis from which religion, art and science all grew up. To him beauty was the dawn of truth. Even to-day we can find in Schiller what may guide us to the best we may hope, for the present and the future. And so he may be a prophet for us of a better future.




Last Modified: 19-Sep-2018
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