3 – The Transition to Style

After considering Nietzsche’s theory of tragedy and his rejection of romantic sentiment, we have yet to face the compositional problem of embodying the Dionysian in writing. The exaggerated “feelings” of romantic sentiment occur even in Nietzsche’s philosophy just as it did quite naturally in his or anyone’s juvenilia. Progressive detachment from such sentiments is essential to the process of learning how to write i.e. learning how to embody inspiration in concrete detail. By way of an introductory example, we can take a passage from Nietzsche’s letters in order to demonstrate the relation between inflated (and adolescent) romantic expression, the wish to write well, and the stylistic evidence, a talent for detail, for “actuality” in style.
In a letter dated 1867 (which is disputed as to authorship cf. endnotes below), the young Nietzsche writes:

The scales are falling from my eyes. I lived all too long in a state of stylistic innocence. The categorical imperative, “Thou shalt and must write” has aroused me. I tried something that I had never tried at school: to write well, and suddenly the pen froze in my hand. I could not do it, was annoyed. And all the while Lessing’s and Lichentoog’s and Schopenhauer’s stylistic precepts were buzzing in my ears. It was always my solace that these three authorities unanimously agree that it is difficult to write well, that no man has a good style by nature, that one must work at the uphill job of acquiring one … 1

After using a characteristically musical metaphor to explain how he will break free and begin to develop his own style, Nietzsche stops short of the implications of his own remarks by pledging in the same letter to remain “always logical and beautiful”. He thus betrays that he still remains under the influence of the Romantic-Platonic understanding of poetic craft.
Later, it became axiomatic for Nietzsche that both Romanticism and Platonism seek to go beyond detail, style, beyond language towards emotional and dialectic “transcedence”. For to urge us beyond the limits of language only further disembodies or alientates our concrete relation to it. Further, it is only natural for us to question the aesthetic dictates of any writer who in his or her best moments was completely embodied, and whose tactile imagery was fully detailed and fully sensual. When they wrote well, neither Plato nor Rousseau fulfilled their own precepts.
In the same letter, the young Nietzsche writes: “I honestly do not want to write again, so woodenly and dryly in such a logical corset … ” And yet when one tries to escape the constriction of academic prose one may find one’s writing excessively formless. In this letter, there is evidenced a quality which overrides the specificity of detail while trying to evade the result of doing so. When one escapes the restraint of academic prose one may fall into a corresponding lack of control or self-mastery. Neither academic formality nor its romantic antithesis are equal to the mature challenge of finding and achieving a genuine style. Style has to do with “becoming what one is,” by recognizing a commitment to the specifics which immediately reveal the choices being made. From a wealth of examples and specific, sensible imagery, we are able to experience a whole “world” projected by the work, and to sense the presence of an individual who is responsible for creating it. That many writers offer inadequate accounts of an intuitive process which they only mastered following years of learning how to embody their insights, speaks more to their lack of being able (or unwilling) to account for their talent than for their talent itself. Or why it came to fruition.
It is interesting that, in another early letter, Nietzsche reproaches a friend for having argued that Holderlin’s poetry lacked clarity:

Unclear talk, sometimes the ideas of a lunatic! These contemptuous words show me, first, that you are caught up in the common inane prejudice against Holderlin, and second, that you have nothing but a vague notion of his work, insofar as you have not read either his poems or his other works. Altogether you seem to believe that he wrote only poems. So you do not know his Empedocles, then this most important fragment, in whose melancholy tones reverberate the future of the unhappy poet, his grave of long madness, and not as you say in unclear talk but in the purest Sophoclean language and with an inexhaustible fullness of profound ideas. Also you do not know Hyperion in which the harmonious movement of the prose, the sublimity and beauty of the characters, made upon me an impression like that of the wave beat of a troubled sea. Indeed, this prose is music, soft melting sounds interrupted by painful dissonances, finally expiring in dark mysterious funeral songs. 2

Exactly the same pattern is repeated. Admiration for style leads beyond it. An admittedly attractive (and prophetic) link between the young Nietzsche and his then obscure predecessor still leads to a disembodiment, to a reaching beyond language to a state of music. The result is beautiful, ardent sentiment. Yet it should be remembered that it takes years of experience to be able to select and build a work of “visionary” art from concrete detail. And was it not Holderlin himself who opened “Patmos” with the lines: “The watchful god hates untimely growth.”? 3