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Manos Perrakis, Nietzsches Musikästhetik der Affekte

Freiburg im Breisgau: Verlag Karl Alber, 2011. 140 pp. ISBN 978-3-495-46488-7. Paper

Reviewed by John M. Carvalho

After neuroscience, the affects are for some the hottest topic in philosophy today. On this score, Manos Perrakis’s Nietzsches Musikästhetik der Affecte hits the stands at the right moment. We might expect that attention paid to what has come to be thought of as the most objective part of ourselves, the part most accessible to empirical research, the central nervous system and the brain, would be followed by attention to what is most subjective about us and least accessible to empirical observation, our feelings and emotions. But discussion of the affects has been around for some time. Perhaps it took the attention neuroscience is getting to put the affects in relief.

The general clamor about the affects began sounding around attention given to Silvan Tomkin’s psychobiology and Gilles Deleuze’s Spinozist ethology. Deleuze, in general, describes the affects as specific intensities of the body, as approximations of a truth, if not the truth of the body and, by extension to other bodies populating the planet, the truth of everything that is. From this observation, Deleuze posits an ethology, or science of practices and habits, aimed at maximizing what heightens certain of these intensities. This is a seductive thesis, especially for those inclined to read Deleuze through Nietzsche and Nietzsche through Deleuze. The will to power, for example, can be readily described on these terms as such an affect and as the most important affect for understanding what it means to be alive. 

Perrakis’s book, though, is refreshingly innocent of this seduction. Perhaps, sequestered in Athens and Berlin, working on the dissertation that would be the basis of Nietzsches Musikästhetik der Affekte, Perrakis remained above the fray. More likely, sensing the fray, Perrakis found a way into it that had not been anticipated by other commentators. Because equally, if not more than music, Nietzsche loved the Greeks. And an account that connects Nietzsche and Nietzsche’s interests in music to the Greeks deserves to be taken seriously. This is just what Perrakis gives us. Following his affections for the Greeks, Nietzsche is shown to have embraced and extended the ancient tradition that makes music "die Sprache der Affekte," the language of the affects. Drawing from these affections, Perrakis skillfully and carefully unpacks Nietzsche’s connection to the Musikästhetik of his times and gives us an account of Nietzsche as contributing to these aesthetics. Perrakis, thus, gives us a book that positions Nietzsche’s thinking about music in the context of the cultural commentary of the 19th century, making Nietzsches Musikästhetik der Affecte, appropriately, a work on Nietzsche’s philosophy of music and, to a lesser extent, a work on Nietzsche’s philosophy as a whole. We will have more to say about this below.

Perrakis’s idea, quickly summarized, is that Nietzsche develops an aesthetics of music that accomplishes what the 19th century introduction of formalism, on the one hand, and an aesthetics of feelings, "ein Gefühlsästhetik," on the other, cannot. Specifically, Nietzsche’s Musikästhetik overcomes the metaphysical nature of romanticism in an aesthetics of music in a way that does not leave feelings and the affects behind. In the account offered by Perrakis, Nietzsche is able to go beyond Hanslick and those under the influence of Schopenhauer by attributing a "große Vernunft" to the body, using music as an example of a similarly intelligent sensorium that safely represents the world to us in all its clarity. On Perrakis’s view, this is Nietzsche’s great accomplishment, and it puts to rest the question put by Curt Paul Janz, namely, does Nietzsche overcome romanticism in the aesthetics of music? According to Perrakis, Nietzsche definitively does.

Perrakis says that Nietzsche does this in three phases of philosophical reflection on music, and he devotes a section of his book to each of the perspectives which characterize these phases. There is an early metaphysical perspective developed under the influence of Wagner and Schopenhauer. There is a middle historical-genealogical perspective in which Nietzsche comes into contact with the aesthetics of his times and with “absolute music,” music freed from its dependence on language and other extra-musical effects. And there is a third “radically anti-metaphysical” and physiological perspective in which Nietzsche posits that music satisfies the this-worldly needs of the body rather than the other-worldly needs of the soul. As Perrakis summarizes the point, what was in the first phase part of a conceptually indissoluble feeling is, in the third phase, localized in the body. And for Perrakis, the physiology of music in the third phase represents a return to the symbolism of the Will found in Nietzsche’s first phase, only now this Will is strongly positioned in the body and made, therefore, more deeply individual. So, Perrakis concludes, Nietzsche does nothing other than transfer Schopenhauer’s systematic relationship between the body and the will into music, even if he now conceives of Schopenhauer and Wagner as the epitome of a romantic-metaphysical aesthetic understanding which leads to the impoverishment of life.

This thinking on Perrakis’s part is characteristic of the generally dialectical structure of his argument. It “returns” Nietzsche to what are supposed to be his roots, and this will be a problem for anyone wedded to Nietzsche’s mature philosophy and Nietzsche’s own “Attempt at a Self-Criticism” of his Birth of Tragedy Out of the Spirit of Music. On the other hand, those same readers will be heartened by Perrakis’s sensitivity to and emphasis on Nietzsche’s practical interests in music. Perrakis finds these interests in the way Nietzsche characterizes music, in his first phase, as a clarity of insight into and expression of a culture based, as it is, on the living affective substrate of that culture. That is, music affords a people a way into what is most true about themselves and a way of expressing that truth. These practical interests are there, too, according to Perrakis, in Nietzsche’s second phase where the secret in music comes into contact with the conceptually formal structures that make music possible. Why do people make music? What does it do for them? Well, in part people make music because it expresses what they feel. And what they feel is culturally specific, that is, specific to whatever they feel in their culture. In Nietzsche’s third phase, Perrakis says the practical import of music is fully present in the this-worldly pleasure music affords those bodies affected by it.

Nietzsche is presented by Perrakis as less interested in what music is, a theory of music, and more concerned with what music does, how music stands alongside and surpasses the role played in a culture and for a people by poetry and religion. Music in a sense trades on what has been prepared for a people by poetry and religion, the way poetry and religion exhibit and prepare these people for what is ineffable and, yet, true about them. And music does this in a way that safely brings these people into contact with what is most threatening and terrifying, because inchoate, about them.

This same sensitivity is played out in an article Perrakis published under the title “Intimität” where he describes Nietzsche’s abilities at four-handed piano.[1] If music in the language of the affects, then we can learn something from listening to it, and it takes a highly practiced listening to succeed at four-handed piano. In fact, on the terms laid out in his book, we could say that in four-handed piano one is listening, through the music, to what is most true about one’s playing partner and that in playing one responds to one’s partner with an expression of what is most true about oneself. These truths are physiological and expressed physiologically through the application of hands to the keyboard which manipulated the physical contact of hammers on strings. Four-handed piano, like small ensemble performance, allows musicians to communicate through music what they feel deeply about themselves in their associations with others who are, like them, deeply affected by music. This surely amounts to something more, and better, than anything Schopenhauer might have conceived.

Ordinarily commentators attempt to give an account of Nietzsche’s philosophy by referencing Nietzsche’s relation to art. Alexander Nehamas does this for Nietzsche’s relation to literature and others have done the same for Nietzsche’s relation to music. Perrakis, working in the opposite direction, attempts to give an account of Nietzsche’s aesthetics of music in terms of Nietzsche’s philosophy as a whole. Of course, if Nietzsche’s philosophy is best understood in terms of his relation to music, then, following Perrakis, Nietzsche’s Musikästhetik is to be understood in terms of a philosophy informed by Nietzsche’s incorporation of music into that philosophy. If this is not viciously circular, it shows that Nietzsche’s philosophy is thoroughly musical and that what Nietzsche contributes to the Musikästhetik of his times is to be valued for saying what music has given him to feel and think through these feelings. Perrakis book, then, is valuable for giving us this side of Nietzsche, Nietzsche the consummate musician who finds a voice in philosophy through music for what he feels most profoundly about himself and about his times.

1. Manos Perrakis, “Intimität: die intime Botschaft der Musik,” Tà katoptrizómena, Heft 53 (2008);