Richard Dehmel, (born Nov. 18, 1863, Wendisch-Hermsdorf, Brandenburg, Prussia—died Feb. 8, 1920, Blankenese, near Hamburg), was a German poet who exerted a major influence on young writers through his innovations in form and content.
After completing his studies at Berlin and Leipzig in 1887, Dehmel worked as an insurance official and then, in 1895, became a freelance writer. He chose naturalistic social themes for his early works and was one of the first major poets to write about the misery of the working classes. Influenced by Friedrich Nietzsche, he extolled individualism and a life of uninhibited instincts and passion, but at the same time he felt drawn to self-sacrifice and the search for harmonious ethical ideas. This conflict shaped both his tempestuous personal life and the content and style of his work. The latter is characterized by passionate and vigorous expression and by an ecstatic rhetoric that can be sensitive at its finest and sensational at its worst. In his first collection of poems, Erlösungen (1891; “Redemptions or Salvations”), the conflict is expressed in the opposition of unbridled sensuality and ascetic self-discipline. Dehmel found a resolution of the conflict through his belief in the mystical power of love and sex. He came to view the sensual relations between a man and a woman as the basis for a full development of the human personality and for a higher spiritual life. This is the theme of his cyclical epic poem, Zwei Menschen (1903; “Two People”). His treatment of sexual themes was not only passionate but, for the times, shockingly frank.
Strauss and Nietzsche
For Strauss, who is said to have bragged that he could render a teaspoon clearly in music, articulating lofty philosophical ideals in music was another challenge altogether. Although when speaking of his tone poem Also Sprach Zarathustra, his statement can be extended to much of his music. Strauss wished to convey by means of music an idea of the development of the human race from its origin, through the various phases of its development, religious and scientific, up to Nietzsche’s idea of the Superman. In one three-minute Lied, Strauss does not have the time to do this, but the general direction should be kept in mind.
Nietzsche’s Mature Philosophy
Nietzsche’s writings fall into three well-defined periods. The early works, The Birth of Tragedy and the four Unzeitgemässe Betrachtungen (1873; Untimely Meditations), are dominated by a Romantic perspective influenced by Schopenhauer and Wagner. The middle period, from Human, All-Too-Human up to The Gay Science, reflects the tradition of French aphorists (François Duc De La Rochefoucauld, Prince de Marsillac) . It extols reason and science, experiments with literary genres, and expresses Nietzsche’s emancipation from his earlier Romanticism and from Schopenhauer and Wagner. Nietzsche’s mature philosophy emerged after The Gay Science.
In his mature writings Nietzsche was preoccupied by the origin and function of values in human life. If, as he believed, life neither possesses nor lacks intrinsic value and yet is always being evaluated, then such evaluations can usefully be read as symptoms of the condition of the evaluator. He was especially interested, therefore, in a probing analysis and evaluation of the fundamental cultural values of Western philosophy, religion, and morality, which he characterized as expressions of the ascetic ideal.
The ascetic ideal is born when suffering becomes endowed with ultimate significance. According to Nietzsche, the Judeo-Christian tradition, for example, made suffering tolerable by interpreting it as God’s intention and as an occasion for atonement. Christianity, accordingly, owed its triumph to the flattering doctrine of personal immortality, that is, to the conceit that each individual’s life and death have cosmic significance. Similarly, traditional philosophy expressed the ascetic ideal when it privileged soul over body, mind over senses, duty over desire, reality over appearance, the timeless over the temporal. While Christianity promised salvation for the sinner who repents, philosophy held out hope for salvation, albeit secular, for its sages. Common to traditional religion and philosophy was the unstated but powerful motivating assumption that existence requires explanation, justification, or expiation. Both denigrated experience in favour of some other, “true” world. Both may be read as symptoms of a declining life, or life in distress.
“Nihilism” was the term Nietzsche used to describe the devaluation of the highest values posited by the ascetic ideal. He thought of the age in which he lived as one of passive nihilism, that is, as an age that was not yet aware that religious and philosophical absolutes had dissolved in the emergence of 19th-century positivism. With the collapse of metaphysical and theological foundations and sanctions for traditional morality only a pervasive sense of purposelessness and meaninglessness would remain. And the triumph of meaninglessness is the triumph of nihilism: “God is dead.” Nietzsche thought, however, that most people could not accept the eclipse of the ascetic ideal and the intrinsic meaninglessness of existence but would seek supplanting absolutes to invest life with meaning. He thought the emerging nationalism of his day represented one such ominous surrogate god, in which the nation-state would be invested with transcendent value and purpose. And just as absoluteness of doctrine had found expression in philosophy and religion, absoluteness would become attached to the nation-state with missionary fervour. The slaughter of rivals and the conquest of the earth would proceed under banners of universal brotherhood, democracy, and socialism. Nietzsche’s prescience here was particularly poignant, and the use later made of him especially repellent. For example, two books were standard issue for the rucksacks of German soldiers during World War I, Thus Spoke Zarathustra and the Gospel According to John. It is difficult to say which author was more compromised by that gesture.
Nietzsche often thought of his writings as struggles with nihilism, and apart from his critiques of religion, philosophy, and morality he developed original theses that have commanded attention, especially perspectivism, the will to power, eternal recurrence, and the superman.
Nietzsche’s perspectivism has sometimes been mistakenly identified with relativism and skepticism. Nonetheless, it raises the question of how one is to understand Nietzsche’s own theses, for example, that the dominant values of the common heritage have been underwritten by an ascetic ideal. Is this thesis true absolutely or only from a certain perspective?
Nietzsche often identified life itself with the “will to power,” that is, with an instinct for growth and durability. That concept provides yet another way of interpreting the ascetic ideal, since it is Nietzsche’s contention “that all the supreme values of mankind lack this will—that values which are symptomatic of decline, nihilistic values, are lording it under the holiest names.” Thus, traditional philosophy, religion, and morality have been so many masks a deficient will to power wears. The sustaining values of Western civilization have been sublimated products of decadence in that the ascetic ideal endorses existence as pain and suffering. Some commentators have attempted to extend Nietzsche’s concept of the will to power from human life to the organic and inorganic realms, ascribing a metaphysics of will to power to him. Such interpretations, however, cannot be sustained by reference to his published works.
The history of philosophy, theology, and psychology since the early 20th century is unintelligible without Nietzsche. The German philosophers Max Scheler, Karl Jaspers, and Martin Heidegger laboured in his debt, for example, as did the French philosophers Albert Camus, Jacques Derrida, and Michel Foucault. Existentialism and deconstruction, a movement in philosophy and literary criticism, owe much to him. The theologians Paul Tillich and Lev Shestov acknowledged their debt, as did the “God is dead” theologian Thomas J.J. Altizer; Martin Buber, Judaism’s greatest 20th-century thinker, counted Nietzsche among the three most-important influences in his life and translated the first part of Zarathustra into Polish. The psychologists Alfred Adler and Carl Jung were deeply influenced, as was Sigmund Freud, who said of Nietzsche that he had a more-penetrating understanding of himself than any man who ever lived or was ever likely to live. Novelists like Thomas Mann, Hermann Hesse, André Malraux, André Gide, and John Gardner were inspired by him and wrote about him, as did the poets and playwrights George Bernard Shaw, Rainer Maria Rilke, Stefan George, and William Butler Yeats, among others. Nietzsche’s great influence is due not only to his originality but also to the fact that he was one of the German language’s mostbrilliant prose writers.
The Lied “Befreit”
And now, finally to the Lied. You will see that it is a unison in suffering and death, one of Dehmel’s recurrent themes. It is a transcendence, one of Strauss’s recurrent themes. And it is a giving into what is, which may be a borrowing from Nietzsche himself. However, I believe that Dehmel, and thus Strauss, are saying in this poem that love and suffering transcend the meaninglessness that Nietzsche describes. The poem speaks of building four walls; these walls can be seen as symbols of shutting out the meaninglessness that Nietzsche speaks of. And it is very clear that one of the pair, we are not told the genders, will be eternally united with the other by love. Thus, at least here, love triumphs all.