234 When, in the changes of time, archaic powers approach or even supervene—Greek, German, Egyptian or Mexican gods—it is not a repetition that takes place, but a return.
A repetition takes place, for example, with Napoleon III. Meanwhile, time has seen his power undermined. Return refers to the acquisition of a position of a starting point outside of time. When this event takes place, it is usually only recognized much later, that is: as a result of that which survives the process of demythologization. This is where the advocatus diaboli of modernism goes to work, and its task is not difficult in an epoch in which the actors no longer deal in myths, or even with fairy tales, even if they sing their praises to the sound of trumpets. Not another face, but an image in which clever mercenaries are at work. Colossi with feet of clay; when they fall they are followed, instead of by songs, by a cloud of dust dispersed by the wind.
235 Repetition confirms the order of stable and classical epochs and their security. At such times legacies accumulate, one monarch succeeds another, one style dissolves harmoniously into another.
In return, art touchesbottom: it reaches domains that no longer allow it to be subjugated. Its configurative capacity is weakened and its capacity for conjuration is strengthened. When archaic powers supervene, when they suddenly erupt next to us, causing terror, joy or happiness, they are not the goal that we have to attain. They are instead testimonies of something imminent, of an approaching goal. Then silence is imposed, even in music. The nameless can be expressed with sounds, but it cannot be named.
If we invoke them by their names, then we will have exchanged return for mere repetition. However, they are nothing but witnesses—Pillars of Hercules. The nameless, that which is not coined in the form of money, beckons to other journeys. What returns is not an Olympus of the gods, but the timeless matrix where they were born. New names are needed to apprehend it.
From this perspective one can understand the accusation of “histrionic” with which Nietzsche summarizes his attack on Wagner. His art is understood as a sign of a Great Transition and at the same time as an example of the way that a Great Transition can be spoiled and betrayed. His art was content with a mask. We can judge it differently.
236 Rather than figures supervening, something must have happened within the undifferentiated. At the freezing point, the particles that have been transformed into crystals are not just similar, but equal to those that will crystallize. In this intermediate time the weft undergoes a stage in which its fiber is colorless. Then, new models are in the works.
Where the weft loses its qualities, not only are material differences fused, but so too are those characterizing points of reference: the differences between up and down, high and low, right and left, and even between life and death.
When the fiber recovers its color, however, the relative differences of the reference points are manifested—at first in the form of diverse processes of development. Thus, the powers of interconnection, spirals and woven forms with knots arise. Science comes to the encounter with these structures, on the small as well as the large scale, both in the atoms and in the molecules as well as in cosmography, in its conceptions of the inorganic and the organic world. These models extend from the spiral nebulas to the fabric of the genes, and even deeper. These movements precede the formation of every crystal.
We must presume the existence of similar processes in the genesis of the work of art. A large part of the work of art does not acquire a figure and remains in the limbo of the concept or intuition. Another part will erupt unexpectedly.
237 When a creature reproduces in the organic world, whether in the form of a bacillus, a snail or a convolvulus, a movement is repeated that is very close to the reticulum. “Lower” organisms like the foraminifera possess this capacity, but so do the more highly evolved organisms. In the evolution of the ammonites the movement comes and goes, as if reproduction was always necessarily reiterated.
These movements span the entire morphological reserve. Their existence is conjecturable wherever the style is extremely simplified, but they can also penetrate extensive reserves and produce Baroque universes. To behold a nautilus shell cut into two halves is to behold a marvel. Something similar also penetrates our technological landscape.
238 In this context the following question, among others, is posed: whether the magmatic eruption destroys, in every circumstance, the form and particularly the evolved form, or whether it can instead transform it, perhaps even make it fertile? Generally speaking, volcanic force must not be conceived as only an absolutely isolated power, but also as a cooperative power. This is how it is manifested in the larger economy of the earth; it testifies to its weft. That it should show itself in the color red is, now and then, necessary, just like the cycle of feast days on the calendar.
239 It is important that we should be guided, more than once, to the extreme frontiers of the human, as was the original meaning of the festival. Its history can be divided into two great hopes: in the desire to become identical with the animal, and in the hope that the gods will supervene.
The precondition for such approach is that the human being should remain open. It is known that today he is no longer so capable of such a thing and that he proposes this even less than in any other period of his history; to the contrary, he proposes to totally humanize the world and to saturate it with the human substance.
Must we resign ourselves to the fact that sensory apparatuses that existed in the past should slowly degenerate and die? This is Huxley’s view in Brave New World.
Or is it precisely the total purge and clean sweep of the metaphysical remnants eroded by time that will allow us to expect the unprecedented? Nietzsche, who made a tabula rasa by revoking the gods along with men, undoubtedly harbored great hopes. But he expressed them imprecisely. Like Zarathustra, the wise man was able, and is still able, to live in any time.
However, what meaning can living have without contact with those frontiers before which not only human beings but even the gods and animals are daunted? This question has always disturbed and worried the human being, and even today it is still the most secret of his anxieties.
240 Zarathustra loved the serpent; he took it for the most clever of the beasts. By this he could not have been referring to the empirical snake, the animal as an object of scientific knowledge and anatomical and zoological description. He must have had in mind another kind of intelligence and a different creature than the one that is manifested in nature.
Indeed, the cleverness and intelligence of Mother Earth lives in the serpent, but not with any greater power than in any other creature. This does not explain the fear and veneration that it aroused in the East and in the West, the rank to which he was raised above the heads of the gods and kings, or the one to which he was relegated at the foot of the cross. Nor does it explain the shock of the hiker—no matter how wise and brave he may be—at whose feet the snake lies coiled.
A force must be acting in the serpent that is stranger and more powerful, a force that, right up to our time, has preserved and maintained as a revealed secret his immediate capacity to strike fear into our hearts.
If we compare this shock with the effect of a work of art, we may say that it acts by reduction to a fundamental form that we call the weft. It is not a primordial power, but a power that, by way of evolution, has been regressively stylized until it provokes fascination and shock. Long ago the snake had limbs; in the ophidians, however, they atrophied, and only some anatomical vestiges remain. From an evolutionary point of view, a flagellate, a coelenterate, or a lamprey, is a more primordial organism. Many of these creatures, like the spirochetes, are also incomparably more dangerous.
Thus, in the serpent we are presented with a mask, and an especially highly developed mask. This testifies to the value that has been conceded to this creature since ancient times. It is the animal of the funerary gods, and also of Aesculapius—a creature whose venom unites both powers, deadly poison and cure. Peoples widely separated from one another in time and space venerate in it the primordial power of the earth. It is the origin and end of metamorphoses.
241 The mask in space: what we sense through it shocks us and fills us with ecstasy. We listen attentively; personat: a sound comes to us. Every work of art has to display something of this character; what it represents, is presentation. If what it offers is nothing more than representation, something that comes to us though music and light, it is reduced to an empty spectacle, to a mere mask: this is the fundamental objection to artistic naturalism, as well as against the zoological naturalism that is practiced today.
The mask in time: When the serpent lies coiled and then uncoils before our gaze, it is something more than an episodic encounter that is soon overcome. In this sense, the historical event is like the work of art—something different from the ephemeral, from the just and the unjust, from crime and suffering, cooperates in its temporal representation. The criminal and the victim are those who are often least aware of this fact. Tolstoy: in the Russian winter Napoleon disposed of an insignificant measure of free will. Clemenceau: the human being who knew least about the affaire was Dreyfus himself. Therefore he did not see anything more than the episode which his rehabilitation brought to an end. Also part of this context is the liquidation of types that have inflicted atrocious harm. To give them death is not contrary to order, but it does not repair the reduction that order has suffered, either. The quantification of the harm produces a kind of perturbation in reason.
It is not the fact that something happens, but the impression that is gathered “as if something had happened”, upon which the power of the facts and the work of art are based. The latter must transport us beyond time and space. All approach points to this. The woman of the night, who displays herself in a window in a port city, knows what will happen, and desires it. It is necessary, however, no matter how squalid it may be, that it should take place “as if” something else really happened in addition. Meanwhile, everything is reduced to a mask, to mere representation, to a realistic “action”. If something else must happen here, it is the customer who must provide it.
The woman works like a hunter of serpents, but is not prepared to offer anything of the serpent itself.
242 The serpent does not horrify us so much by virtue of its venom, its immobility or its lack of limbs. It seems rather as if, for an instant, the weft moves slightly. Life and death are mixed together, the floor becomes unstable. In every hazardous gesture there is concealed the great and only danger.96 In this sense, the serpent indicates a frontier—for some time, now, however, it has not been alone. Seeing it arouses a reminiscence from times immemorial: the proximity of that weft within which, like any other difference, the dividing line between life and death is also blurred. The veil becomes more tenuous and colorless. The physicians of old recognized it as a sure sign of imminent death, when the dying man began to “pick at the threads in his bedclothes”.
If it can be said of anyone that he is a “reliable customer”, who brings and provides something, it is the dying man. Here there are no more detours, the route is straight and direct. We have to cross the “valley of shadows”, even when our senses no longer serve us. The path leads further, even when hands and feet have ceased to move and the heart has stopped beating.
Whether some differences still persist here—for example, between entry and departure—is a question that has obsessed human beings since their origins, and often almost exclusively. Anyone who is inclined to a positive answer, or who even takes into consideration such a possibility, is immediately confronted with the following question: whether it is indeed possible to work in this direction in this life, whether by way of the meditative path, by the method of a rule of life or through a symbolic journey by way of death?
To behave “as if” something will happen: this is the meaning of mental exercises, both military as well as mystical. There are soldiers who have never been in the line of enemy fire, although throughout their entire lives they have exercised with this approach in mind. However, behind the enemy lines death lies in wait, and no one can spare themselves from this encounter.97 243 Just as there are veins that solidify in magma during the process of cooling, the weft can form almost without any transition and attain a high degree of perfection. It is to be supposed that the great draftsmen, whose works are so breathtaking because of their fabulous richness, have preserved a reserve of that decisive effort to create images. Even if these images proliferate inside them, like a plant, we must not attribute their power to this factor. The work of art exists in space, whether as a palace or a modest shack, but it exists. Here, however, something different is intermingled, a pantomime gesture of which the artist is not aware, and that perhaps even annoys him.
We encounter this petrified movement, in statu nascendi, not in Lascaux and Altamira—those are already works of art—but in Mexico. This involves, as we shall never cease to emphasize, not so much dates established over the course of time, but rather experiences on the frontiers of time, always possible at any point in time—even, and once again more than ever, in our time.
Here we must not forget the reason for the interweaving of Celtic and Germanic elements, which is also found in countries that hardly know the serpent. I shall provide an excerpt from my diaries on the Oseberg Ship, which is on display in Oslo, a funerary vessel, lavishly decorated with ornaments:
“As among the Celts, here interweaving plays an important role; this motif covers almost the entire surface of the wood. These figures cannot have been born from a pure spirit of invention. It rather appears that they conjured, by magical art, a universe of lines, as if it had burst from the well-spring of the undifferentiated, and that, from an artistic point of view, it would be unimaginable, refractory even to any formulation. The ornamentation of loops harbors much more powerful forces than mere estheticism could provide. It is the net of fate, with its dense, even indivisible reticulum. All those blacksmiths, weavers, builders of ships and carts were at the same time magicians. That which the hand created, acquired life; the verse was a magical formula. This is how we have to see the warship with its crew: as a powerful dragon that plows the waves, sure of its goal.”
244 Historians like Walter F. Otto (1874-1958) and Wilhelm Grönbech (1873-1948) achieved that which was denied to Jacob Burckhardt, or which he had denied to himself: the step that leads from historical-cultural considerations to immediate reality—on one side the Greeks, on the other the Germans and their world.
The fact that the Christians worship a single god who does not tolerate other gods at his side is a fact that the world has had to pay for dearly. And not only has it paid with the extermination of human beings and peoples, but also with the planned destruction of documents. This makes it difficult not only to have access to the more refined cultures of Mexico, but also to our own ancestors. In this respect, the existence of Snorri represents for us a unique stroke of good luck.
Nevertheless, Grönbech was still obliged to grope around in the dark for the most part to return to interpretations that were more in accord with the original sense, starting from Christian interpolations and distortions. Thus, the meaning of the blót as a sacramental magical ceremony. We must add a few more considerations.
Grönbech designates the blót as a “creative festival”. He is referring to a festival with a particular purpose, that is: conjuration and the epiphany of the gods. He could also consider it as a solemnity, since the atmosphere was undoubtedly more than festive; it was majestic.
In accordance with its nature, the festival is linked to particular days, to the cycle and to return. This feature may also have been applicable to the blót, but only in part, since it could be celebrated independently of the cycle, for an immediate purpose—for instance, to solicit advice from the ancestors and from the gods before making serious decisions. This is why one must imagine the circle of the congregants as a more reduced and homogeneous group than that of the guests in the banquet halls of the big landowners and princes.
In both cases, the participants drank, and undoubtedly copiously. The difference was approximately the one that was long ago established between “dinner” and “banquet”. In the blót, viands were not served on the table, and jokes were definitely out of place. The atmosphere was serious and rather anxious, charged with expectation. The singer, the bard, was not supposed to appear in public, either. But they undoubtedly pronounced verdicts. In the great banquet hall, on the other hand, jubilation reigned to excess.
Festivity and solemnity had to touch on their borders and interweave; their separation is an act of spiritual anatomy rather than historical anatomy. We must agree with Grönbech that the ritual of the Germans has been lost in its essential features and “that we were never in any position to reconstruct the rite in its development”.
The banquet was attended by the men, especially in the great banquet hall; the blót transported them to another time. History and fate were severed. In the former, the human being was united with his kind in the fabric; in the latter, he congregated in the weft.
It is not a difference between two points of a temporal sequence, but between two incommensurable temporal orders. In festive joy, the past and the future were celebrated. For the participants, the exploits of their fathers and also their own exploits were the objects of praise. One listened to the singer, and also to those whose names would survive in the memory of their descendants. “The beloved weapons gleam”; courage and exuberance increase. They easily overestimated their own limits. The Phaeacians agreed to arm a ship for Odysseus; the officers of the Prussian Guard sharpened their sabers on the stairs of the French embassy, before 1806.
A different temporal order reigns in the blót. When the gods are conjured, they are not convoked from the past, from “time immemorial”. Nor should one solicit oracles, or try to divine the future. When the Goths committed themselves to such a way of life they had already lost their power. Past and future are instead concentrated in the prodigious tension of the moment. One arrives at the bridge; time flows below. Here one finds the most remote chamber, here is where the treasure lies, with respect to which the works and exploits of the external world represent nothing but miserable copies. Where fate is lived is where it is contemplated.
245 Next is the temptation to confer upon this encounter an oracular meaning, as has always happened and will always happen. The future must be opened up to view or it must be completely determined—upon this choice, priests, magicians and astrologers have at all times made their living.
The vulgar conception of astrology is entirely encapsulated in the desire to interpret the future. The general lack of knowledge of and disdain for prayer generates an attraction to fortune-telling.
The Great Transition leads beyond time as such, and, ultimately, beyond the future as well. The future merges with the past in the incandescence of the moment. Nietzsche referred to this moment when he spoke of “happiness at noonday”. The clock stops. To this we must add what Schopenhauer says about the solemn power of the moment of death. Here, at the Customs Station, in anxious expectation, the fundamental motif of the melody of life echoes for the last time.98 246 Properly speaking, the gods are not conjured but illuminated; this fact has been well described by Grönbech, and it was also familiar to Angelus Silesius, as is corroborated by some of his boldest verses.
The gods are therefore in statu nascendi, almost without qualities, not yet eroded by worship and faith: they “sound” more than they act, as can be discerned from many of their names (Frei, Freia, Fro, and also the ones that begin with Jo, Ju, Jul).
They are not found in the roots or in the crowns of the trees, but at the foot of the ash tree, where the higher sphere and the lower sphere shine like a mirror. There, the weft is colorless, without quality. Hence the intrepidness, the power based on knowledge, that triumphs over seas and peoples.
The place where a “great” blót is celebrated is considered to be sacred ground; there a commemorative stele is erected. Hence one concludes that the encounter is not always consummated.
247 If, in the historical past of people and religions, or in their ethnographic present, we venture to inquire into the absolute, we will only attain to models, normative criteria in most cases. We have to provide the measure ourselves. Names, even those of the gods, are not just noise and smoke. Anyone who accepts them in the sense of mere repetition has already lost the game before it even started.
In this respect, I am reminded of a nocturnal conversation I once had with the writer, Ernst Wiechert, who died some time ago. It was at the Leipzig observatory; he told me anecdotes about the students in his most recent class, those he taught at the Institute.
“And I have one who has very big plans. This young man dreams of becoming a Napoleon. This is the goal towards which he directs his actions.”
“Not bad. And what is he doing to bring it about?”
“He lives like an ascetic, he is interested above all in mathematics and tactics and is thinking, after he is awarded his bachelor’s degree, of joining the artillery regiment.”
To which a third person, I think it was the editor, Naumann, added:
“Let’s hope that he makes it to the rank of sergeant.”
This was undoubtedly a correct judgment with respect to the method, but too severe with respect to the young man himself. He lacked only a spark of imagination. In his view, the world was divided into names, the way a garden is divided into terraced plots; he wanted to prosper in one of them. He was unaware of the fact that, if by chance we reach a rank of that kind, in reality we ascend from the humus of the nameless. The grenadiers had a better sense of this; for them the great man was le petit caporal.
The lack of imagination is excusable, even necessary. If imagination were ever to prevail, the world would soon resemble a virgin jungle or a madhouse. It needs little people and their sobriety no less than great men. In this sense, it is like a home, where it is more important for the postman and the chimney sweep to come than a Frederick or a Napoleon.
248 The world lives, therefore, more on the Lesser Transitions and even on the very small ones than on the Great Transitions. On this we agree, which does not exclude a general assessment of the situation.
As for us, there can be no doubt that we find ourselves on the threshold of a Great Transition and that we have already witnessed some of its contours. Furthermore, the preparations are enormous.
When one monarch succeeds another in a dynasty, right down to the last of the Karls, the Fredericks or the Ludwigs, the reign is repeated by way of the order of succession. Persons succeed one another, small and great, among whom the great, for the most part, are dearer to the people than the insignificant ones. There are wars and domestic revolts. To fight for the king, whether against the foreign or the domestic foe, was usually normal.
In the Great Transition, on the other hand, there is a break in the succession, there is a lack of directive lines. It is no longer about persons, borders, ideas, or even gods, as in the wars of religion. Now everything consists in knowing whether the images that are presented correspond to the absolute claim of the Great Return—even in the most advanced posts on the front, there are only presentiments.
Here I find it necessary to once again refer to The Case of Wagner. When it comes right down to it, Nietzsche’s charges against Wagner cannot be explained on the basis of “sickness”, decadence or “histrionics”. These are nothing but subterfuges. Behind them lies a charge, possible only between Titans: that Wagner has falsified the return!
This is what he wants to say; and it is discernable precisely where it is not distinctly formulated. Nietzsche’s central thought, “eternal recurrence”, is characterized by utter vagueness. When such imposing waves besiege the heart, it is better that they should remain in the unexpressed instead of being formulated in such categorical terms.