Aestheticism, Decadence and Neo-Romanticism in Germany
In March 1889, when he was twenty-one years old, Stefan George arrived in Paris, having left Turin almost at the same time that Nietzsche had left it, clinically insane. In the Hôtel des Américains he made the acquaintance of Mallarmé, ‘le prince des Poètes’, and was invited to his Tuesday afternoon gatherings. After the hopeless provincialism of so much German poetry, George now entered an atmosphere redolent with the names of the great French symbolists and with the presence of Poe, Richard Wagner and Baudelaire, that poet decried by Zola in the Berlin periodical Die Gegenwart as a ‘Räpresentant des diabolischen Romanticismus’. 1 George returned to Germany with a sense of mission: his goal was nothing less than the vivification and purification of German art — and life. As well as the obvious l’art pour l’art elements in George’s work there will also later emerge a vast and imperious vision; conscious of the achievement of French symbolism, he will also owe a debt to his German mentors, particularly Hölderlin and Nietzsche. The cult of the spiritual aristocrat, the visionary remote in azure loneliness has already been referred to, and obviously betrays a Nietzschean presence, but on a profounder level it was Nietzsche’s views on art which were of vital importance for George. For Nietzsche returned again and again to the problem of art, and passionately believed that art is the highest manifestation of life, that the artist transfigures and thereby redeems by his vision (as Baudelaire had claimed: Tu m’as donné ta boue, et j’en ai fait de l’or’ 2 ), and that life has meaning only as an aesthetic phenomenon. ‘Die Kunst und nichts als die Kunst. Wir haben die Kunst, daß wir nicht an der Wahrheit zugrunde gehen’, 3 and again: ‘Die Kunst ist das große Stimulans zum Leben. Wie könnte man sie als zwecklos, als ziellos, als l’art pour l’art verstehen?’ 4 — these two aphorisms illustrate his beliefs concerning art at the end of his mental life. Art as an illusion? As l’art pour l’art? But it is an illusion that keeps man in life, that enhances life, and it therefore is a manifestation of the Will to Power. The supreme artist is he who blesses, praises and affirms, and Nietzsche’s dicta will reverberate as none other throughout the German literary scene of the first half of the twentieth century.