Friedrich Nietzsche undoubtedly a highly influential thinker and one of the most important philosophers of the modern age was and continues to be often misunderstood and maligned and more often than not mired in controversy. The controversy may occur at times due to his innovative and revolutionary ideas, but at other times due to influences and circumstances that have been completely outside of his control.
An example of very unfortunate historical circumstance would go back to his estranged sister Elisabeth Förster-Nietzsche. She had taken charge and was mainly responsible for the legacy of the great philosopher. As she was a fervent Nazi supporter and outspoken antisemite, many of her brother’s thinking and ideas were distorted to please the growing and usurping power of the ultraright. The latter pounced upon that opportunity to appropriate and misuse the great philosopher’s ideas to align with and mold into their abhorrent worldview.
This association with the Nazis not only distorted the views, but also turned Nietzsche into someone he was certainly not. Nietzsche, in fact, would be the first to stand up against the tyranny that the Third Reich came to represent and their interpretation of the Übermensch could not have been further from the actual ideas of the great philosopher. As a result, this link and association have not only overshadowed the brilliance of his great mind, but this effectively caused hesitation if not downright rejection of the ideas represented by Nietzsche.
The situation is somewhat different when it comes to the imposing German composer Richard Wagner. That his music is majestic and brilliant is beyond doubt, but the appropriation of his oeuvre via the Nazis created a long-lasting stain and wound, which is reflected in Israel’s current stance of refusing to publicly perform his works albeit not downright banning them. When it comes to Wagner, there is palpable antisemitism expressed in his writings and hence, unlike in the case of Nietzsche, the association with the Nazis may appear justified in certain terms. Put differently, there was much less distortion needed to match and align the composer’s ideas with the Nazi mentality.
My point here is not in any way to defend the racist ideas of the musician, but to simply iterate an observation about artists and their creation: sometimes we need to separate the man (or woman) from their work. I think that choosing to censor and not to play nor listen to the beautiful music of Wagner is an error. I cannot deny feeling guilty about enjoying and appreciating his music but let us keep in mind that there are many Jewish conductors, such as Daniel Barenboim for example, who end up publicly performing Richard Wagner’s music. Although I would prefer artists to be a model and an example unto others in their personal life as well, I can think of and tolerate possible gaps and discrepancies between the created work and the persona who created them.
By all accounts and purposes, we might see Charles Bukowski as a lowlife drunkard, but his poetry is exquisite and beyond reproach. In the realm of films and cinema, Alfred Hitchcock alongside many other great directors may have been difficult and tyrannical on the movie set, but he created enduring works of art. We should refrain from immediately jumping to conclusions and judging the work by its creator. Rather we should attempt to isolate the work whenever deemed necessary and behold and regard it as a separate entity onto itself.
To give an example, what if Bach – and this is merely speculation and most likely completely untrue – was not at all religious himself. Would that make his music less moving from a spiritual and religious perspective? We might feel disappointed; we might think it hypocritical, but the fact remains that his work is imbued with divinity or at least a divine feeling and inspiration. Equally, if my own musical God in the likes of the incomparable Ludwig Van Beethoven were to be stained with scandal, I would still put him on a pedestal - not because of his personality but because of his enduring and powerful music.
This type of judging the artist as well as the work has found new precedents in the recent Me Too Movement where some great artists have fallen from their pedestals as a result. Yet here I must offer a certain relevant distinction and caveat. In the case of actors, the situation is slightly different as they thrive and live off their persona. We know that actors are playing roles, but since their work is visually represented, it becomes much more difficult to disassociate one from the other. When I listen to Wagner, I do not think of him personally but rather I imagine scenes inspired by his music.
However, this distancing effect cannot occur or is much more difficult to do when it comes to acting. Acting is a visual form of performance and is closely tied with the person despite the current feat and ability of changing physical characteristics and age onscreen through make-up and computer technology. The fact remains that I find it harder to disassociate Kevin Spacey the actor from his actual despicable deeds. Evidently, it becomes much more intense and complicated when the main character of the show is supposed to embody a strong father figure and role model as is the case with Bill Cosby and his Cosby Show. In that case, I cannot re-watch any of those episodes without feeling queasy deep inside my stomach.
Yet the effect of disassociation would be much easier to do with directors who generally stand behind their camera and who are less visual to us. Although I strongly condemn the perpetrated actions of Woody Allen and Roman Polanski, I can still appreciate and value their works of art despite those implications. Their works are indeed personal expressions and extensions of themselves, but the films become transcended in the process. Their work can then be appreciated on its own merit without the presence of its creator. In fact, often works of art somehow manage to become independent of the author and gain a life of their own and this I can respect in the greatest artists despite their flaws.
To give another and rather offbeat example of visual representation is the moustache stub. In that case, it is not Charles Chaplin’s face that comes to mind, but Hitler’s. As a result, it is anathema to use it without risking dangerous association and implication with the Nazis. The same can be said of the Swastika, which was initially an Indian symbol of purity and healing until the Nazis soiled it forever with their dirty hands.
But let us keep in mind that Hitler himself was a vegetarian. This is very uncomfortable, but few people associate this with him and see their alimentary choice as a noble one. With the exception of very few vegetarians who opt for draconian measures of implementing and forcing their views upon everyone else, the act of being a vegetarian has little impact or connection with Nazi ideology. The main reason for this is that it is not visually connected with it and not fresh or salient in our minds.
To go back to the first cases of Nietzsche and Wagner, we can see how it was much easier to disassociate the philosopher from Nazi ideology than it was with the great composer. Music in its representation is more forceful because it is auditory. The Nazis actively listened to and used his works in their operatic spectacles, which wily-nilly created a closer tie between the two. The fact that Hitler proclaimed Wagner to be his favorite composer does little to help in this matter. Ideas, on the other hand, are more abstract and have been somewhat easier to dissociate from their grip.
Finally, as a closing thought, we should not forget that people not only live in but are also a product of their epoch and that almost nothing just appears nor is created out of a vacuum. Put differently, the times must have been to an extent promoting or encouraging certain trends and movements. For instance, during the fascist reign, science was actively interested in and investigated the use and effects of eugenics. This is also a time where brave Aldous Huxley presented us a world divided and controlled by genetics.
Along a similar vein, views of women and particularly sexuality have strongly influenced how people thought and acted in their specific times. Although I believe that great minds can surpass their own times, look at Nietzsche for instance, we should not avoid judging people retroactively and with hindsight. Yes, it is troubling and leaves a sour taste that someone as enlightened as Thomas Jefferson would still keep his own slaves, but that should not diminish the power and force of his message.