Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Nietzsche's "The Birth of Tragedy"

Nietzsche published this essay in 1872 at the age 27. He explains the birth of Greek Tragedy by focusing on the chorus, which existed before drama, and gave rise to it. The chorus, sung by satyrs, and devoted to the worship of Dionysus, was deeply associated with the god. Its dithyrambic music invited union with all of nature, and loss of individuation. When this music was cast into an image, in the form of the dramatic scenes, Tragedy was born. This clarification into image and persons Nietzsche associates with Apollo. The sweet calmness of the Greeks was Apollinian (Walter Kaufmann, the translator, follows Nietzsche's spelling), but Nietzsche's point is that we cannot fully appreciate Greek civilization if we do not understand the Dionysian passions it brought under control.

Less persuasively, Nietzsche associates the death of Greek Tragedy with Euripides. In the later playwright rose the spirit of Socrates, whose rationalism destroyed the power of the Greek myths. So Euripides' plays brought realism and psychology to the stage; they put the ordinary spectator on the stage, instead of the god speaking through the mask of Oedipus or Orestes.

Kaufmann, in his introduction to the essay, puts the relationship between Nietzsche and Schopenhauer nicely. He thinks that Nietzsche's very first book "constitutes a declaration of independence from Schopenhauer." While Nietzsche admires him for his pessimism, his facing up to the terrors of existence, Nietzsche himself celebrates Greek Tragedy as a superior alternative to Schopenhauer's "Buddhistic negation of the will." As Kaufmann puts it, "From tragedy Nietzsche learns that one can affirm life as sublime, beautiful and joyous in spite of all suffering and cruelty."

Some passages I like particularly:

The ancients themselves give us a symbolic answer when they place the faces of Homer and Achilochus, as the forefathers and torchbearers of Greek poetry, side by side on gems, sculptures, etc., with the sure feeling that consideration should be given only to these two, equally completely original, from whom a stream of fire flows over the whole of later Greek history. Homer, the aged self-absorbed dreamer, the type of the Apollinian naive artist, now beholds with astonishment the passionate head of the warlike votary of the muses, Archilochus, who was hunted savagely through life. . . . Compared with Homer, Archilochus appalls us by his cries of hatred and scorn, by his drunken outbursts of desire. Therefore is not he, who has been called the first subjective artist, essentially the non-artist? But in this case, how explain the reverence which was shown to him--the poet--in very remarkable utterances by the Delphic oracle itself, the center of "objective" art?

. . . In the first place as a Dionysian artist he has identified himself with the primal unity, its pain and contradiction. Assuming that music has been correctly termed a repetition and a recast of the world, we may say that he produces the copy of this primal unity as music. Now, however, under the Apollinian dream inspiration, this music reveals itself to him again as a symbolic dream image. The inchoate, intangible reflection of the primordial pain in music, with its redemption in mere appearance, now produces a second mirroring as a specific symbol of example. The artist has already surrendered his subjectivity in the Dionysian process. . . . The "I" of the lyrist therefore sounds from the depth of his being . . . . When Archilochus, the first Greek lyrist, proclaims to the daughter of Lycambes both his mad love and his contempt, it is not his passion alone that dances before us in orgiastic frenzy; but we see Dionysus and the Maenads . . .


In this sense the Dionysian man resembles Hamlet: both have once looked truly into the essence of things, they have gained knowledge ad nausea inhibits action; for their action could not change anything in the eternal nature of things; they feel it to be ridiculous or humiliating that they should be asked to set right a world that is out of joint. Knowledge kills action; action requires the veils of illusion: that is the doctrine of Hamlet, not that cheap wisdom of Jack the Dreamer who reflects too much and, as it were, from an excess of possibilities does not get around to action. Not reflection, no--true knowledge, an insight into the horrible truth, outweighs any motive for action, both in Hamlet and in the Dionysian man.


We talk so abstractly about poetry because all of us are usually bad poets. At bottom, the aesthetic phenomenon is simple: let anyone have the ability to behold continually a vivid play and to live constantly surrounded by hosts of spirits, and he will be a poet; let anyone feel the urge to transform himself and to speak out of other bodies and souls, and he will be a dramatist.


In the light of this insight we must understand Greek tragedy as the Dionysian chorus which ever anew discharges itself in an Apollinian world of images. Thus the choral parts with which tragedy is interlaced are, as it were, the womb that gave birth to the whole of the so-called dialogue, that is, the entire world of the stage, the real drama. In several successvie discharges this primal ground of tragedy radiates this vision of the drama which is by all means a dream apparition and to that extent epic in nature; but on the other hand, being the objectification of a Dionysian state, it represents not Apollinian redemption through mere appearances but, on the contrary, the shattering of the individual and his fusion with the primal being. Thus the drama is the Dionysian embodiment of Dionysian insights and effects and thereby separated, as by a tremendous chasm, from the epic.

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