Attempt at Self-Criticism
Nietzsche tells us that as The Franco-Prussian war calmed down and he recovered from a disease contracted on the front, he began to entertain the hypothesis that the tragic art form was responsible for Greek cheerfulness. Nietzsche considers the Greeks to be the best and most courageous civilization. Even though Europeans have wealth and longevity he sees such sickening pessimism in them. Greek tragedy must account for the difference, but how? How did tragic myth prevent Greeks from becoming early iterations of dissatisfied Europeans? Further, what destroyed Greek tragedy? Why wasn’t this vital force not passed on to their intellectual ancestors? Did a theoretical viewpoint or what Nietzsche calls Socratism kill it? How? Are Socratism, theory, and science the reasons for European decline? What strange questions Nietzsche is asking! What philosopher would ever call into question the merits of Socrates and science? Maybe science isn’t the cause of the downfall, but rather a symptom of it. Maybe science is cowardly escapism from pessimism, an option pursued when we cannot bare the true reality of existence and there is no healing art form.
As Nietzsche reflects on the Birth of Tragedy, he harshly criticizes his youthful effort for reasons too numerous to count. He is like a musician agonizing over old demos. In disbelief that he once thought them good or even worth showing to the world. Nietzsche does see some value in the Birth of Tragedy. He acknowledges that he was one of the first to problematize science. Nietzsche also takes pride in the treatment of Wagner. One of the major contributions Nietzsche believes the text to have made is the identification of the human proclivity towards revelry, that is, this in-built desire to participate in the celebrations of Dionysus, to be whipped up into Dionysian frenzies, but what exactly is Dionysian?
Nietzsche seems to consider himself a disciple of the God Dionysius, so we can expect for him to make clear who this God is and what exactly is the Dionysian. That may not happen at this very moment. Nietzsche hits us with a cascading avalanche of questions, which in his mind already have answers. To this lecturer they are dizzying. Let me see if I can’t impose some order upon them.
1) Did the Greek relation to pain remain constant? Did the Greeks become more sensitive creatures? Was the Greek craving for beauty, parties, and pleasure, and the multiplication of cults the result of some pain? Nietzsche seems to think that the relation to pain changed because the older Greeks via tragedy seemed to not seek out the beautiful, but the ugly. They wanted an art form to expose the frightful underbelly of existence.
2) To understand if there was a real shift, we have to ask what might have given rise to this craving for tragedy? Could there have been an overflowing of joy in those older Greeks? Is that why they sought something so dark? Were the Greeks so healthy that a Dionysian spirt or madness overflowed and produced tragedy and the comic arts? Did the collective Greek soul with its abundance of health, create mass hallucinations and visions? Could these shared ecstasies have brought a form of Dionysian madness and tragedy upon Greece?
3) what happened with the later Greeks? They desired optimism, rationality, logic, science, utilitarianism, and democracy. Nietzsche seems to be intimating here that as the Greeks grew weaker and more informed, they did not crave the horror of tragedy, but an impotent happiness and rationality. Could it be that modern ideas are actually a sign of cultural decline? Are optimists necessarily afflicted? Nietzsche believes this cluster of questions leads to the ultimate grave question. Where did morality spring from and what is its significance?
For Nietzsche, morality is not the true metaphysical activity of man. That distinction is reserved for art. Ethics cannot justify the world, only art. There is a Dionysian god in Nietzsche’s book (though it is unclear how we are to think of this God right now). Is it a drive within one’s soul that expresses itself when the soul overflows or is afflicted? Is the Dionysian God a cultural phenomenon, like a mass hysteria? We don’t quite know yet. This discordant being can only be reconciled with the world, through art, not morality. Through appearances and not dictates from some noumenological realm.
Nietzsche takes the Christian religion as the most concentrated version of the moral scheme. He believes Christian morality to be totally antithetical to the artistic metaphysics proposed in the Brith of Tragedy. Why? First off, Nietzsche believes Christianity relegates all art to the realm of untruth. Hmmm…that doesn’t seem quite true. What would Nietzsche make of the way the church uses art? Only some very unique sects of Christianity are definitively anti-art. We’ll have to revisit that question.
Even if it is true that Christianity denies art, on what grounds can Nietzsche claim this? Nietzsche thinks Christianity is the ultimate escape from life. It hates life. It has to postulate another realm to do away with the sickness of confronting this life. Therefore, when art is used as a way to cope with existential reality and beautiful things are made, Christianity must deny them and their representations of sensuality. Art is seen as something life affirming, an anathema, says Nietzsche to a dogma, that is anti-life. Christianity and Christian morality on this view are perspectives one embraces when they are so sick of the amoral world and have eschewed art as the justification of existence. For Nietzsche, the artist is anti-Christian and the anti-Christ will be the Dionysian God.
In the closing of the Birth of Tragedy’s “attempt at a self-criticism” Nietzsche scolds his youthful self for employing Schopenhauerian and Kantian terminology to express his original ideas. He takes some shots at the current political climate in Germany as well, which may be of interest to intellectual historians though I’m not sure it helps us a ton here. He also takes time to defend himself from the charge of being a romantic. All these seemed like unimportant debates to me. Moving on to the Preface to Wagner.
Nietzsche Preface to Richard Wagner
Here Nietzsche gushes with adoring anticipation at the thought of how Richard Wagner will receive the Birth of Tragedy. Nietzsche confesses that Wagner’s musical works in part inspired or at least synchronized with his own philosophical outpouring. Nietzsche imagines the book to be a long letter written directly to Wagner. Sensing that Wagner understands that art is the only metaphysical justification of life, Nietzsche dedicates the essay to him.
So now we can sink our teeth into the marrow of the Birth of Tragedy. Nietzsche begins with the claim that art is produced as the result of the temporary synthesis of the Dionysian and Apollonian duality within. To this point, we’ve heard very little of the Dionysian and nothing of the Apollonian. So it is right to expect Nietzsche to develop these ideas substantially. Where do these terms come from? Nietzsche gets them from the Greek art deities. Apparently, the Apollonian art tendency culminates in the production of art objects such as sculpture, while the Dionysian tendency can best be thought of in the creation of music. Nietzsche thinks these art tendencies occur within us simultaneously and antagonize one another, occasionally giving birth to new iterations of art in air quotes. The Greeks miraculously brought these two art tendencies together in the form of tragedy. Attic tragedy is supposedly a synthesis of the Apollonian and the Dionysian. Okkkk. Does that clear everything up? No.
Nietzsche asks us to conceive of these two tendencies as dreams (the Apollonian) and intoxication (the Dionysian). It is in dreams where more perfect forms of bodies and life are experienced. We can perhaps see this as a place where poets and sculptors draw a great deal of their inspiration. I’m presuming that all plastic or image arts would involve some connection to the phantasmagorical. Since every man dreams, in his dream world he is a kind of artist; however, not all try to represent these experiences that we suspect to be mere illusion in art objects. An interesting side note: Nietzsche thinks the Apollonian impulse in man might be responsible for why so many philosophers take the world as it is as mere appearance and posit a deeper reality behind things. Philosophers, unlike the aesthetically incline, may confuse reality with the dream. It should be noted that Nietzsche does not think the Apollonian dream world to just be some unconscious heaven we tap into. The Apollonian realm contains all our worries and fears as well. The terrors of life are also amplified there.
Apollo was deemed to be the Greek deity that presided over all this wild internal life. The ruler over all this fantasy. Apollo’s role as this God, was soothsayer. The dream world for the Greeks was supposed to heal us in some way, so Apollo is a healer. So when Nietzsche talks about the healing aspect of image or plastic arts, and those art forms are seen as extensions of the dream world, then we can understand why Nietzsche labels them Apollonian or the result of the Apollonian instinct.
Nietzsche contends that expressions of the Apollonian dream world, affirm the principle of individuation. For as much as we may be batted around by these otherworldly images, insofar as we do not give ourselves over to something pathological, we trust that it is the individual who is expressing them via the plastic arts. Why is this important? We are going to see shortly that the Dionysian has a very different effect.
Nietzsche thinks, one way or another, the Dionysian instinct awakes within man and that this can be seen from the dawn of time. Narcotics may do it. Spring with its abundance of life may do it. Song itself may do it. By “it” what is meant here is that the subjective point of view is obliterated in orgiastic fusion in order to fuse with humanity’s revelers. When the Dionysian spirit wells up, all men feel themselves fused together and with nature itself. In this situation, man is no longer the Apollonian artist, rather man becomes the art. The intoxicating spirit of music and dancing transforms the man into an ecstatic God unified with the rest of humanity, the chorus, the dancers, nature, or whatever you want to call it.
Thus far, Nietzsche has covered that the art tendencies of nature spontaneously and unconsciously erupt from the individual. The Apollonian in the form of dreams and the Dionysian in regards to the individuality destroying mysticism of intoxication. We have covered this already, but it bears repeating. Those artists who imitate the Apollonian impulse and create plastic art images are Apollonian artists. Those that reflect the intoxicating spirit of the Dionysian, typically in the form of music, are Dionysian artists. In Greek tragedy, since both impulses are employed, one is simultaneously an Apollonian and Dionysian artist, meaning such artists both feel the ecstasy of the renunciation of the self and the dignity of the principle of individuality. But how this precisely happens has yet to be revealed.
Nietzsche intimates that the multiplicity of emotions witnessed in Dionysian fervor proceeds from the pain of individuation and the joy of release from it, when the veil of maya has totally been shredded. This is why there is the intermixture of pleasure with pain. When the principle of individuation was in full effect and the Apollonian aspect of ourselves ruled, art was expressed in the symbols of images; however, now that the veil of maya has been torn asunder and the Dionysian has been unleashed, man needs new symbols. These symbols will come from sound, dance, facial expressions, voice etc. All of these Dionysian forms of symbolization serve the purpose of restoring man to unity with nature and humanity writ large.
As Nietzsche surveys Ancient Greece, he claims that it was this Apollonian impulse that gave rise to the pantheon of Olympian gods. The excesses of the dream world, devoid of any moral restraint, are crafted here. One has to ask, why would the Apollonian impulse be so fertile in these Greeks? What caused them to produce so many spellbinding deities on the magic mountain? Nietzsche claims that deep down the Greeks knew the horror of existence. That existence was meaningless and ought not to be lived. In order to sustain themselves in this knowledge, the Apollonian impulse fashioned all sorts of idols to blanket over the given reality. The knowledge of this dark truth is present in countless Greek myths and it was only with the help of art could the Greeks withdraw from this brutal reality. Further, the gods that adorned mt. Olympus lusted for life and communicated to the culture that this life is not pointless, but something that is self-justifying, even if you inhabit the lowliest position within it.
What I’m trying to better understand now is how individuality gets affirmed by access to the Apollonian fantasy. It completely makes sense that Dionysian knowledge of bewildering inter connectedness of humanity and nature would drive us towards lovelier art images. Staring into that existential stew would prove too intense. We need things that are lovelier, to take away the suffering. But how precisely do Apollonian images restore the individual’s sense of self? Nietzsche seems to think that self-knowledge, the reigning in of pride, and not engaging in excess, are coupled with the craving for aesthetic beauty. Looking into the Dionysian frenzy propels us not only towards the beautiful, but parameters on the self, so that it may sense it’s dignity again. So just as the Dionysian fundamental knowledge and picture of things precipitates a love for beauty, it similarly prompts a love for a constrained self. They are inextricably linked. It should be noted that these desired for constraints upon the self are constructed and artificial in a sense for Nietzsche, so that when the Dionysian begins to speak its truth again the individual can be seduced back somewhat easily into the Dionysian. It looks like the individual human and by extension the art generated within the culture is just a constant ping pong match between these two art impulses. Stare too long into the abyss one creates art images. Delude oneself long enough with those illusions and one eventually slips away into the self-abnegation of the intoxicatingly Dionysian. So how precisely did conditions arise where both art impulses could be balanced in Greek tragedy? What stopped this seemingly endless cycle? We no longer enjoy Greek tragedy as moderns. Are we now just caught up in this endless back and forth or do we enjoy our own synthesis of the Apollonian and the Dionysian somewhere? Why is it even important for their to be an art form with an equilibrium if we can so easily exchange our art impulses to get through life? Why not just oscillate forever??
Nietzsche is now prepared to scrutinize the synthesis of Apollonian and Dionysian genius. He is searching for an access point and pauses to reflect on the lyricist and the poet. These individuals appear to be contradictions. Is not music a product of the Dionysian impulse? Does not the Dionysian impulse obliterate the constraints of the individual? If so, how do lyricists and poets reference the “I” in their compositions? Nietzsche thinks if we can explain this, we might be able to make headway into an understanding of the tragic synthesis. Nietzsche, drawing on what Schiller intimated about his own poetic process, claims that identification with the primordial unity of the Dionysian must come first. The lyricist initially surrenders his subjectivity to the contradiction and the pain of inchoate Dionysian reality. A musical mood or music itself issues forth from this confrontation with the abyss. But how does the lyrical genius make the transition from the Dionysian to a point of a view where lyrical poetry is issued? How are lyrical poems, not epic poems mind you for Nietzsche thinks those are Apollonian creations, and eventually Greek tragedies and dithyrambs made? It seems that the lyrical genius, with his special gift, has access to images and colors to characterize his identification with the world. It as if he is just barely touched by the Apollonian impulse. The lyrical genius is to be distinguished from an epic poet like homer who merely lives in an Apollonian dream scene. The difference being a homer is separated from the Apollonian images he dreams up and projects. The lyric genius, when referencing an “I” is not positing separateness, but rather an eternal identification with the world, with that Dionysian truth of fundamental unity. So it looks as if the lyrical genius, even though he may proclaim “I” has not been properly individuated by the Apollonian lust for beauty and constraints upon the self. The lyrical genius appears to be a strange hybrid or transitional figure, who is at one with the Dionysian but able to make use of some features of the Apollonian.
What’s interesting about the lyrical poet as Nietzsche conceives him, is that he is something of a medium. I am unsure of Nietzsche’s metaphysics. My study of Nietzsche as an undergraduate would make me suspect that a Nietzschean metaphysics would be oxymoronic, yet, Nietzsche may have one nonetheless. It looks as if Nietzsche views the Apollonian and the Dionysian impulses very differently. They are not just instincts within every individual. The Apollonian yields comforting illusion and maybe in a sense it could be called “incorrect”, whereas the Dionysian shatters the principle of individuation and puts man in touch with the primordial truth of the oneness of all being. Nietzsche in these pages (p.50-52) is fond of speaking of that Dionysian truth and instinct as the only thing that is true and that it drives all art creation. Here it sounds like Nietzsche is describing a collective undergirding force responsible for all existence and art creation. This is a very strange thing to attribute to Nietzsche if his cultural catchphrase is “God is Dead”. It looks as if he has found some sort of pantheism here. We will have to revisit this to see if this true and if it is problematic later in our lecture. The other interesting problem that Nietzsche’s speak creates is that the Dionysian is ultimately responsible for the art made and that art is often manifested in the form of humans. If the Dionysian is driving the lyric poet, the lyric poet is simultaneously the subject and object of art. He seems to be a participant in his own transfiguration by the eternal essence. So when Nietzsche speaks about our lives being aesthetically justified by art he seems to have something deeper in mind than I initially interpreted. Initially, when he said our lives were aesthetically justified by art I thought he meant that the creation of art via the intermingling of these art impulses allowed us to properly deal with the existential reality. That seems to be an incorrect now or perhaps a lesser truth. What he seems to be really saying in this passage is that our lives are metaphysically justified by art when we are but instruments or creations of the Dionysian. So there are a lot of questions here. If I have read Nietzsche correctly, why is the Apollinian impulse not deified in the exact same way? It seems to play a role in the creation art just as much. Why is it merely a reflexive instinct? Could it be that the Dionysian is somehow in control of the Apollonian? Would this account mean that those plastic art creations are not legitimate forms of art for Nietzsche since they spring from the Apollonian impulse directly and not the Dionysian or can the Dionysian take credit for everything since it sets things in motion?
Also, within these pages Nietzsche considers the folk song. He thinks that the ubiquity of the folk song amongst all people is testimony to the universality of the dual art nature. What would lead Nietzsche to make such a claim given the development of his ideas thus far? We might also want to keep this question in mind. If the folk song is a synthesis of the Dionysian and the Apollonian, why is he devoting so much attention to Greek tragedy and not the more universal phenomenon of folk song? Are there qualities to Greek tragedy that are not inherent in folk song. We shall have to wait and see.
Nietzsche asserts that the folk song can be observed to come into being during periods when the Dionysian impulse is drummed up. Presumably, the music of the folk song comes first and reflects the Dionysian primordial truth. The melody of song catalyzes the lyrical poet to marry it with Apollonian words and images. The words of the lyric poet, are unlike the epic poet’s words. Here words approximate music. The words are essentially channeling the intoxicating power of Dionysian music.
For the lyric poet to express music in words and concepts, he will need to employ all sorts of techniques such as dynamics. And to repeat, as I understand Nietzsche, the lyrical genius when he makes his utterances is but a medium for this churning Dionysian will. Nietzsche dramatically refers to the lyrical poet as an Apollonian genius and an uncorrupted concentrated locus. If the lyrical poet, makes reference to individualized willing it is only an act of interpretation. His own longing is merely a symbol for the more primordial moan. Music itself does not need the lyric poet, but enjoys his words and concepts as adornments. Lyric poetry is predicated on music but not vice versa. The words of the lyric poet cannot say more than what was already present in the music. Music directly symbolizes the primordial oneness and Apollonian words and images are at a distance. Just how far a distance? Nietzsche conceives of the primordial unity as something that precedes phenomena. Phenomena are mere appearance and not reality. Language is the symbolization of phenomena. It looks as if language is at least two degrees removed from the will embodied in music, thus preventing language from correctly apprehending music. Perhaps, now those critiques of music journalism make more sense. Someone once said that “writing about music is like dancing about architecture”. A cursory Internet search attributes the quote to Frank Zappa, Laurie Anderson, and Elvis Costello. The source is less important than reimagining it in the Nietzschean context. Music cannot be spoken about precisely because language is out of touch with truth and music is a manifestation of that truth.
Nietzsche now appears ready to describe and explain the phenomenon of Greek tragedy. History, Nietzsche relates, tells us that Greek tragedy evolved out of the tragic chorus. Naturally, he will have to train his attention on the proto-drama that is the Greek chorus. Nietzsche, taking his cue from Schiller’s insight, sees the Greek chorus as a wall that is built to close off reality and preserve poetical space. The Greek satyr chorus builds up a fictitious natural state, where fictitious characters can now emerge. The realm of the chorus ought to be viewed as some sort of cult that springs forth from the Dionysian will. The Greek chorus nullifies man, inducing the feeling that he is at one with all men. Nietzsche adds a little here. When one feels this oneness, one is in touch with the indestructible power of life. So it is pleasurable to be in touch with this reality not only because it frees us from the pangs created by the principle of individuation, but because we also experience something indescribably robust. The Greek chorus comforts man from the terrors of world history and nature. What’s puzzling here is that we were under the impression that the Dionysian communicates the truth of meaninglessness to man. Nietzsche still seems to maintain that position and that the meaningless can still generate a great deal of nausea and anxiety; however, from the Dionysian springs music and the chorus as a healing form of art. So for right now, it seems that the chorus as extension of the Dionysian creates a poetic space within which fictitious forms can arise and also places the audience in a pleasurable oneness with life.
Why did the Greeks choose satyrs to compose their choruses? Nietzsche thinks it has something to do with how the satyr embodied the most intense emotions and signified nature’s ravenous sexual appetite. He, the satyr that is, symbolizes that longing for nature and the primordial. The satyr chorus expresses the true reality, contrary to the archetype of cultured man, who would like for us to believe it is he who is in touch with a deeper reality. Given what Nietzsche knew at the time about Greek theaters, he thought that architecture to be very conducive for the identification with this chorus of satyrs and that which is primal. Here men of culture could leave their identities behind and surrender themselves to the chorus.
What’s interesting is that in this transformation into satyrs, men finally confront the god. The chorus is a representation of the foundational. The oceanic is sensed as something still outside this throng. Apparently there will be an Apollonian complement to this Dionysian state that speaks to this feeling of the foundational being is near. Why is there an Apollonian compliment at all? Why didn’t Greek tragedy remain dithyrambs and the satyr chorus? I’m not sure we know just yet. Nietzsche is just now making the claim that the symbolized Dionysian will discharges itself onstage into Apollonian images. He encourages us to think of the satyr chorus as a womb, which will birth dream images. One has to wonder why the Dionysian would create Apollonian apparitions onstage? What need is there to individuate? Isn’t everything well in this chorus? Nietzsche seems to think the projections do not occur so that individuation can happen, but rather to emphasize the disintegration of these characters back into the ground of all being. Ok..I’ve got lots of unanswered questions here, but I’m going to press on in hopes of everything being illuminated. Some of those questions include, what causes the Dionysian to discharge? Where is the author of this tragedy? Is he merely channeling the Dionysian? How conscious is he of writing this event? Are all tragedies the same? Does the Dionysian will discharge itself the same way each time? Why is there a need for more than one Greek tragedy?
Nietzsche begins to tell us of one of those first images projected on stage from the Dionysian. He claims that in time, it was not enough to merely sense or imagine the god’s presence. He needed to be given form and so we encounter the tragic hero in the drama. The dithyrambic chorus via it’s own rapture witnesses a God before it. In this birth, we have the two art realms integrated. The Apollonian and Dionysian are working in concert and the Apollonian actions and words give way to the reminders of the real truth of the chorus. This tragic hero, as the Dionysian God incarnate, allows Dionysius to finally speak rather than impose and sway via the force of the satyr chorus.
Earlier we pondered how the Dionysian could discharge itself into Apollonian images on stage. What could motivate this aside from some nebulous desire to see the God incarnate? Nietzsche uses a familiar phenomenon to account for Apollonian tragic images. Think of when you stare at the sun and then turn away. In order for the eyes to heal themselves, we may see black spots. The inverse is true in regards to these art impulses. Should we stare into the Dionysian abyss, we see bright art images, as a healing effect, when we turn away. The Apollonian impulse is trying to heal us from the prolonged glance into the primordial reality.
What is difficult to understand here is the following. We may grant that the Dionysian discharges healing Apollonian art images on stage; however, why must Greek tragedy be so tragic? Why must it have such pessimism inbuilt? If the Apollonian impulse really wanted to heal us, wouldn’t the Apollonian be effervescent and light? Why do our players suffer so much? It is hard to say. This might just be the way it is for the author of Greek tragedy. Individuated images and a lawful universe may only temporarily cover over the Dionysian truth. The titanic efforts of the individual may ultimately have to give way to the Dionysian again for individuation is so very flimsy and dissipates so easily. Suffering may be the very cost of having individuals on the stage, of turning away from the Dionysian. Nietzsche has a wonderful metaphor for it, where the Dionysian is the ocean and the individuals are but the crests of waves, rising and then plunging back into the abyss. Perhaps, the individual’s downfall is just as inevitable as those crashing waves reuniting with the ocean. This is what happens when the Apollonian and the Dionysian interact with one another.
Though this has been hinted at before, it bares a little more emphasis. The Greek tragic art form did not arrive all at once. It evolved. Early Greek tragedy solely featured the suffering Dionysus on stage. In time, the characters would multiply beyond the hero, but Nietzsche seems to think it is Dionysus beneath each mask. That he personifies himself regardless of persona. Dionysus gets to experience the agony of willing and individuation regardless of what title he assumes. Within a proper Greek tragedy, Dionysus becomes a dismembered God. He is scattered into bits that will become the cast. We now see why there is an unspoken doctrine of the tragedy, where the principle of individuation must be cast off and all the individuals are fused back into the oneness of the Dionysian. Think of how they all kill each other at the end of Hamlet. What a bloody mess.
Just when we are beginning to understand Greek tragedy, Nietzsche tells us that unlike other art forms Greek tragedy died young and by suicide no less. What does Nietzsche mean here? How does an art form die and how does it kill itself? He will get to these questions. Right now, Nietzsche appears preoccupied with discussing the malformed progeny of attic tragedy, those art forms that took the place of tragedy. This may be minutiae. Let’s see if there is anything interesting here.
Euripides, instead of projecting Dionysus onstage, began to bring the crowd, the spectator, and everyday life to the center. Civic mediocrity was now the star and Euripides could teach the public the arts and how to debate and what not. This seems a far cry from using tragedy to give form to the Dionysian. It’s almost as if tragedy became a pragmatic teaching tool. The frivolous episodes that were paraded upon the stage, Nietzsche thinks, are indicative of a culture in decline. When a culture no longer has something to strive for, it becomes merely eccentric, like a grandpa performing magic tricks. The Christians would see this paltry Greek cheerfulness as justification for an antagonism with the culture, though Nietzsche thinks that is unfair given how vibrant and heroic the older Hellenes were.
Why would Euripides alter the form of Greek tragedy? Nietzsche thinks there were two voices in his head. Euripides’ own voice, which could not make heads or tails of the wild unjustifiable events of earlier Greek tragedy and a yet to be named spectator, who perhaps too grew frustrated with the seeming disorder of Greek tragedy.
So who was the second voice in Euripides’ head? Who told him to do away with Greek tragedy as it was? Nietzsche claims it was Socrates. What problem did Socrates have with attic tragedy and in turn what issues may Nietzsche have with the old gadfly? Euripides heeded what he believed the Socratic ethos to be. That something could only be beautiful if it was intelligible. So it seems like Euripides used Socrates to confirms his aesthetic prejudice. Though I’m not familiar with Euripides’ plays, I can imagine they must have been rather rational or reasonable, whatever that means in the aesthetic context. Perhaps, that just means things didn’t seem so bloody pointless as they frequently do in Greek Tragedy. Euripides may have just eradicated all mystery and uncertainty from tragedy by carefully scripting it all and laying it bare for the audience. This is how Euripides embraced Socratism and set in antagonism to the Dionysian production.
Nietzsche continues his polemic against Socrates, saying that Socrates, in the ear of Euripides, set consciousness as the creator and instinct was suppressed. By making everything intelligible, Socrates established an ideal in antagonism with the Dionysian within. All the Greek youths began to idealize this Greek figure that calmly went to his death, that embraced dying. Presumably, when the Dionysian attracted attention in the form of Greek tragedy, life was valued more than when the Hellenic gaze turned to this strange phenomenon who knew nothing and obeyed an inner demon.
Given that Socrates’ intellect was in such control, he never really stared into the Dionysian abyss and Greek tragedy must have seemed so frivolous to him. It spoke no real truths. It was curious distraction and adornment. Nothing of great value could be deciphered from it. It was something for the rather unintelligent. Thus, those playwrights influenced by Socrates minimized the Dionysian role and emphasized a cheerful optimism onstage, where virtue and happiness were brought into perfect harmony. It’s interesting to note that just before Socrates dies, he finally heeds the apparition that has prodded him his whole life to make music. Nietzsche speculates that maybe in this moment, Socrates realizes that he may have overlooked the more fundamental wisdom of the Dionysian in the obsessive pursuit of logic.
Nietzsche now examines how Socrates’ influence endures and how exactly art in general is affected by this influence. Nietzsche believes Socrates brought into existence a hitherto unheard of archetype, known as theoretical man. What is the theoretical man’s task? Unlike the artist who delights in mere appearance, the theoretical man seeks to discard coverings for truth. Ironically, Nietzsche thinks that the theoretical man deludes himself into believing truth can be ultimately apprehended. Science has its limits and it is at those limits where science transforms back into an art. What is Nietzsche getting at here? Supposedly Socrates’ entire life arc is a microcosm of this trajectory. Socrates employed reason his entire life to make existence intelligible and when he could not in the end, he resorted to myth. I’m guessing Nietzsche is again referencing the apparition that commanded Socrates to make music. How in general does science lead to myth-making and what semblance does myth-making share with art? Ah, so apparently when man reaches the boundaries of logic and knowledge, he experiences the tragic insight and once again needs the protection of art. So, what happens next? What new art forms will theoretical man invent at this edge or will his art forms really just be what we already call religion and science? Will man reinvent or rebirth tragedy in some way? It may be obvious to us how religion could be considered an art form. The idea of a heaven is very much like the Apollonian dream scene, but how does science become an art? Is Nietzsche insinuating that all our beautiful theories at the edge are Apollonian in some sense? Is string theory an art form? Let’s press on.
Nietzsche ponders if a rebirth of tragedy will ever be possible in light of the promulgation of the cheerful science disposition. It would seem Socratism will always remain opposed to the Dionysian, unless somehow individuals give up their belief in the delusion of science. Something that must have seemed unlikely in Nietzsche’s time and even more so in our’s. Something we may be asking ourselves is, does the scientific spirit completely annihilate the Dionysian and the tragic? Cannot music still occur concurrently with science and could there not be proper Dionysian discharges into tragedy? Nietzsche seems to think that the Socratic spirit is such that music no longer purely distilled the world as it did in Greek dithyramb, rather now Apollonian concepts and logic too obviously mingle with what she be a pure copy of the will. If the music becomes too conceptual and logical, what hope is there that attic Greek tragedy will emerge again? We’ve covered this already, but the bastardized Greek dithyramb in Nietzsche’s eyes, gives rise to Euripidean characters who no longer are specs of the Dionysian on stage, but rather they are rigid phenomenon or characters. Like the goofy neighbor or the dumb boss of a sitcom.
We need to do a little housekeeping. To recap, Nietzsche seems to think there are at least three ways for enlightened men to deal with the Dionysian abyss once confronted: 1) make sense of the world through science 2) get caught up in Apollonian beauty, 3) take metaphysical comfort in that will flowing beneath everything. Interestingly, Nietzsche claims that these three forms of illusion or stimulants drive all culture. Depending on the proportions of the stimulants, we will have a Socratic (a.k.a. Alexandrian) culture, an artistic culture (a.k.a. Hellenic), or a tragic culture(a.k.a. Buddhistic). How did Nietzsche arrive at these signifiers for the types of cultures? The Socratic and Alexandrian connection is obvious enough and Nietzsche thinks this is the culture that predominates today. Nietzsche says something provocative here about Alexandrian or Socratic culture. He claims it needs a slave class to permanently endure in its optimism. What does he mean? Who are the slaves? Perhaps, he is referring to those workers and laborers of industry that allow us to conceptually map the world. What would happen if no one believed in nor cared for intelligibility? What kind of uprisings would there be? The theoretician could appeal to the myths to tranquilize the people, but unfortunately he has killed those off already. What a paradox the scholar finds himself tangled in! Nietzsche claims that when true men of insight can identify the limits of scientific scrutability (I.e. Kant and Schopenhauer) the culture becomes tragic, meaning that wisdom supplants science. A wisdom that denies conceptual knowledge in favor of an understanding that all are intertwined. The suffering of the world is his own and sympathizes with it. The tragic culture ought to crave an art form such as tragedy to deal with the critique of science. We can perhaps now see why Nietzsche identified the tragic culture with the Buddhistic culture. He is labeling the insight into the true universal, that of primordial interconnectedness, a Buddhistic tenet.
Nietzsche is unsurprised that at his time, opera seems to be the art form du jour. Such an art form would fit with Socratic culture he negatively muses. What’s Nietzsche’s problem with Opera? Since it is so lyrically driven and the music seems to be less of a priority, he is likely going to think of it something more akin to the naïve Homeric epic poetry that was not formed as a result of an understanding of the Dionysian. Nietzsche demeans opera as an art form for those who cannot appreciate the real foundation of art. Opera is more obsessed with words, phraseology, and an obsession with tracing back the origins of the good man. Nietzsche dismissed this artless art, for it is not based upon that animating tragic insight. One can see here how Nietzsche might be developing a ranking system or a litmus test for what qualifies as art and whether or not it is good art. Since opera takes its motivation from Socratism and borrows aesthetic elements, it’s not only not art but bad. Conversely, greek tragedy, as the proper synthesis of Dionysian and Apollonian is truly art.
Why does Nietzsche ramble on so long about opera? Who cares? Could we not say that opera has died as well or is on life support? What does it matter to us if opera is a bad and artless art form? Nietzsche seems to think there are reverberations. That maybe opera removed modern music further and further away from the Dionysian. And then we may ask, so? The problem here is that if modern music is merely formal and pleasurable tone and out of touch with the Dionysian reality, we will have a mere superficial diversion, rather than the truly life-affirming mechanism of tragedy with its synthesis of the Dionysian and Apollonian. Nietzsche, in a rare moment of optimism, intimates that a rebirth of tragedy may be possible in Germany given the gathering of intellectual and musical forces that grasp the tragic insight, though all this will be predicated on how much attention is given to his own diagnosis of this little miracle of tragedy the Greeks played with before the emergence of the theoretical man.
Just for a point of clarification, we ought to have a good sense for Alexandrian and Buddhistic culture, but do we understand what Nietzsche meant by Hellenic culture? We might be able to deduce the following. If theoretical man drives Alexandrian culture to its limits producing the tragic insight, we await reconnection with the Dionysian form of music to produce that perfect art form of tragedy possessed by the Hellenic people. If I understand Nietzsche correctly, he seems to think that there are some German geniuses who have grasped the tragic insight, yet not enough has occurred at this juncture to re-enter the Hellenic and rebirth tragedy.
In these closing pages (p.122-144), Nietzsche gives us a litmus test for determining if the aesthetic audience has been too infected by Socratism. It has to do with the experience of onstage miracles. If the miracle offends him, then the Socratism is strong. If he experiences something else, perhaps there is hope from Nietzsche’s perspective. What kind of hope? What Nietzsche is getting at here is that the individual who fully embraces socratism, doesn’t understand the healing effect of myth. Myth as we’ve alluded to in many different ways for Nietzsche makes a people more naturally creative, unifies the cultural trajectory, organizes the sporadic Apollonian emissions, and allows individuals to interpret their lives.
The theoretical or abstract man without myth comports himself very differently within a culture devoid of myths. Nietzsche uniquely portrays the thirst for knowledge, something we moderns understand to be a good thing, to really be a sign of malnourishment. The theoretical man is so hungry for myth that no amount of knowledge will satisfy him. Nietzsche speaks of him akin to a famine victim.
Something that may be unclear to us here is that Nietzsche seems to be speaking of tragedy and myth-making as if they are one in the same. That tragedy somehow makes the myths. We know that cannot be true since myth preceded tragedy and tragedy frequently employed prior existing mythology for its purposes. Similarly, myths emerge elsewhere without the emergence of tragedy. What Nietzsche seems to be saying is that tragedy sustains the populace’s involvement in myth and the healing power of the Apollonian-Dionysian synthesis. What myth and tragedy have in common is that they are an affront to Socratism and by extension science. Without myth and tragedy, Socratism leaves us with nothing but frivolity, superstition, and mind numbing intoxicants to deal with the limits of knowledge. That seems about right.
In his closing, Nietzsche reminds us once more that the Dionysian and Apollonian synthesis not only justifies the individual life, but metaphysically justifies all of life. It is Nietzsche’s claim that these only superficially opposed art instincts again and again animate all human existence. The Dionysian in particular, since it drives the Apollonian, seems to forever build these houses of cards only to have them destroyed by theoretical actors. If I understand Nietzsche correctly, the individual life is a stronger one for having experienced the synthesis of these art deities and the natural trajectory of life goes unimpeded should the Dionysian and the Apollonian effectively couple. All Socratism weakens the health of the individual and the entire arc of nature. Whoa.
Nietzsche’s “Birth of Tragedy”
Modern Library Edition 1992
Lecturer: Luke Johnson
© 2016 Noetic / Luke Johnson