I have been immersed in Nietzsche over the past week, from The Birth of Tragedy to The Twilight of the Idols. There are few writers who interweave such stylishness of expression with such brutality of thought. Central to all Nietzsche’s work is the insistence that without savagery there can be no creativity. As the eponymous prophet puts it in Thus Spoke Zarathustra, ‘The highest evil belongs to the highest goodness: but that is creative’.
In The Birth of Tragedy, his first published work, Nietzsche draws a contrast between two aspects of the Greek psyche: the wild irrational passions personified in Dionysus and the disciplined and harmonious beauty represented by Apollo. The triumph of Greek culture, Nietzsche suggests, was to have achieved a synthesis between the two. Dionysus is the explosive, ungoverned force of creation, Apollo the power that channels that channels that force into creative wonders. The Greeks were both cruel and creative, brutal and innovative, physically savage and aesthetically sensitive. Abandon the brutality, Nietzsche suggests, and one foregoes the creativity. ‘The strongest and most evil spirits’, Nietzsche claims in The Gay Science, ‘have so far done the most to advance humanity’.
It is an argument that has always reminded me of the celebrated scene with Orson Welles and Joseph Cotten on the Wiener Riesenrad, Vienna’s ferris wheel, in Carol Reed’s film The Third Man. Welles plays Harry Lime, a drug racketeer in postwar Vienna who, having faked his own death, made a fortune out of out of other people’s deaths by stealing penicillin from hospitals, diluting it and selling the adulterated drug on the black market. Confronted by his old friend Holly Martins (Joseph Cotten), who is outraged at the immorality of Lime’s actions, he responds with his own superbly Nietzschean line:
‘In Italy for 30 years under the Borgias they had warfare, terror, murder, and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, and the Renaissance. In Switzerland they had brotherly love, they had 500 years of democracy and peace. And what did that produce? The cuckoo clock.’
So, for no reason other than that it is one of my favourite scenes from one of my favourite films, here is Orson Welles and Joseph Cotten debating life, death, morality and the cuckoo clock: