The Birth of Tragedy

Friedrich Nietzsche Why should the Greeks have needed art at all? The Greeks, who are even now considered the archetype of man, the most fully developed, most beautiful specimen yet – what role could art have served in their lives? That they perfected the tragedy – the art form of pessimism – precisely when civilization was flourishing and at its height: what does this tell us? A pessimism of strength, formed out of superabundant life? In the spectrum of Olympian gods one can see every aspect of Greek life deified. Not just the good, but the horrible too is typified in the divine figures of the people. Faced with the horrible reality of existence, the Greeks created these gods out of a dire need to see in themselves something more meaningful and glorious. They took their own characteristics, good or evil, and posited them in a higher realm. Thus could they glorify themselves and every aspect of their lives. Before the gods, Greek folk wisdom proclaimed the best thing for man is to not have been born – the second, to die quickly; with the gods, even the great hero Achilles would rather a long life as a day laborer than a glorious life cut short. To be near these gods, to live on earth as the gods: this became so dear to the Greek that even lamentation at life’s pain and misfortune became a song of praise. So the gods, created out of dire need, seduced the Greeks into a continuation of life. This is the holy function of all art: to give life meaning, to make sense of that which seems to defy logic. The ultimate conclusion of this book is that science can take us only so far; when it reaches its limits art must take over as a kind of crown of science. They are not opposed: one should lead naturally to the other. According to Nietzsche there are two basic art impulses which are diametrically opposed to one another: the Apollinian and the Dionysian. These are based on the Greek gods Apollo and Dionysus. Apollo – god of appearance, represented by a dreamlike world of illusion – and Dionysus, god of passion and excess, symbolized through intoxication. The opposition in Greek culture of these two natural impulses eventually found a perfect balance in the tragedy. The Greeks first of all needed a joyous dream world in which they could perceive a perfection of their own natural states. This was the first impulse to make life possible and worth living. Image: a storm raging all around and a sailor at sea. What can he do but trust in his own frail bark? So the individual, in the midst of the chaos around him, trusts in individuality. As a result the Greeks cultivated restraint and proportion, accepting the boundaries of the individual and fulfilling them with grace and dignity. In other parts of the world, festivals of revelry occurred in which

the institution of marriage was cast away in favor of sex orgies and drunken behavior; passion and excess of all emotions and action ruled in the same manner that Apollo lorded over the Greeks. These frenzies did not reach the Greek culture until later precisely because the principles of Apollo blocked them out. What sense did these revelers make to the Apollinian with their animalistic dancing and reckless abandon? They must have viewed them with horror: barbarians! They typified the opposite of what the Apollinian held up as the guiding principles for a meaningful, worthwhile life. But gradually the celebrations became audible even to the noble Apollinians. Louder and louder their music sounded – based not on rhythmic trances of the dream god Apollo but passionate tones of emotion – until the Greeks could resist no longer. Dignified posture gave way to dance. If the Greek formerly expressed his nature through the static image of the individual, a new wisdom provoked him to the symbolic expression of dance in which the individual releases himself from all subjectivity and finds himself in harmony with all those around him. This is the chief end of the Dionysian impulse: the gulf between man and man is bridged so that not only is one reconciled with others but actually as one with them. According to Dionysian wisdom, individuality is just an illusion created to make life livable. Nature is one primal being of which all life is a part. Returning to the image of the sailor: threatened by the waves, why not jump in? What terror this concept is to the sailor! The collapse of his belief in individuality. His life, everything he knows of himself, his family – everything subjective: his will, hopes, plans, everything an individual creates himself with – would all be phantoms and essentially ideas he made up from a gross misconception. But also… what ecstasy! No worries or fears: just life. The strong currents of Dionysian wisdom were naturally blocked out by a people who defined themselves individually. But once recognized, once the Greeks gave way to the ecstatic clamoring and realized that at bottom, underneath their constructions of identity there existed something primal and wilder – that in fact, their identities were created in order to harness this chaos – a new, tragic insight filled them with nausea and despair. The illusion with which they’d made life bearable had been shattered. Why build anything out of themselves then? Why live another illusion? In order to fight this danger the Apollinian impulse sharpened in many Greeks and reached its pinnacle, but it could not stamp out the Dionysian, and the two principles continued at war with each other. Existence needed a new direction; all was in danger of being lost. This is exactly the function Greek tragedy served. With an abundance of life pulsing through them, with the excess of Dionysus the Greeks found an art form that seduced them to a deeper affirmation of existence than even the dream world of Olympian gods

had done before. The mythology changed from godlike representations of man to tragic heroes who symbolized the human contradiction of mortality and eternity, pain and pleasure, suffering and celebration. It offered each spectator Life, not as a mortal human individual but as part of the eternal, unchanging core of existence – unaffected by the ‘history’ of the world and all changes in appearance. But to be at one with this primal core and feel the eternal at the heart of nature one must participate now, in the earthly life. Greek art before being inundated with Dionysian currents was devoid of this active participation; it was simply a contemplation of images as phenomena in which the artists were not involved. Homer is the example. But art should be something one completely immerses himself in to the degree that he loses (or forfeits) his subjective self. To become one with the core – that is art, and through that process one overcomes the horrible ‘reality’ of existence… to the degree that survival become precious again. But how? And why how? Isn’t this enough? Don’t we have what we need? Well… Greek tragedy did not last very long. If we understand how exactly it was born, perhaps we can generate a rebirth of tragedy and resurrect art, and through art – life. The funny thing about TBOT is that this is the most convoluted part of the book: how tragedy is the perfect synthesis of the two art impulses. Nietzsche clearly has a conception of the relationship between art and life, but it appears as if he only uses the Greeks as a vehicle for these ideas. This is almost surely not true; perhaps at some point he conceived of the idea and began to look for evidence. It is, unquestionably, astounding. But the book’s difficulties are probably from an over-conscious attempt to arrange it perfectly based on concepts rather than by instinct… an irony because Nietzsche criticizes Socrates for creating consciously rather than instinctually, and condemns this backward tendency as the origin of the death of tragedy. It is Nietzsche’s first book though, one that would have an important effect on his reputation, and the man did have a lot to say… perhaps this explains why he tried to say everything he could and still organize it as logically as possible… The clue to getting at the origin of tragedy is the pairing of another poet, Archilochus, with Homer on many Greek gems and sculptures. Homer, as the epitome of epic and thus Apollinian artists – those who create art based on images and concepts they contemplate with wonder – and Archilochus, the passionate, seemingly subjective artist who introduced the folk song into literature. Because of their stark differences many aestheticians explained this dual acclaim as the heights of Greek objective and subjective art. But Nietzsche argues that there is no such thing as subjective art, that every artist must first conquer the subjective ego, must rid themselves of individual will and

desire in order to create truly pure art. It would follow that Archilochus is essentially the non-artist. How can the “lyrist” be an artist when his “I” is at the heart of every poem? The language of Archilochus imitates music rather than images and phenomena; lyric poetry strives to imitate the spirit of music, and to represent symbolically the effects of music, which is by nature a symbol of the primordial contradiction of pleasure and pain in the core of eternal being. As such it represents that which is “beyond and prior to all phenomena.” Using melody to express verbal images – the lyrist uses repetitive strophes – the images that are generated are scattered and varied, created sometimes unconsciously to fit the strophe. In this way music gives birth to different pictures that represent it born not from the subjective mind of the lyrist but the musical image of the primordial world. Thus the lyrist speaks from the very heart of nature – even as the images change they always represent the primal unity – and the subjectivity of the lyrist is actually a fiction. In other words the lyrist, as a man, becomes only a medium through which the primal unity “celebrates his release through appearance.” If a subject has become an artist he has already shed his individual will and is not expressing himself but “the one truly existent subject.” The satyr chorus in Greek tragedy gives birth to the different dramas or visions as the melody of the lyrist gives birth to different images of the primal being, unchanging despite all the different projections and appearances. Not only that, it is ideal – raised high above the reality of mortals. But the spectators relate to the satyrs and feel at one with them; as they relate to the god Dionysus they become one with him. How? The satyr is closer to the god, at one with him, while the spectator is a man of culture. Like the lyrist, he speaks from the heart of nature. Whereas the lyrist becomes the appearance of the god, the tragic hero becomes the appearance of the satyr chorus. The spectators do not see a masked man but the god with whom, through the chorus, they have already identified. They see as if their masks (of culture) have been destroyed. In this way Dionysus became an epic hero. Oedipus, Prometheus: the stories of these characters, their myths, these are different ways of explaining the human condition: the conflict between the one primal unity – or the myth of the man – and the man himself. In one sense the tragic heroes are individual men, but in a higher sense, because of their epic (and thus Apollinian) stories, they represent all men. Euripides takes all the music, which generates myth, out of tragedy, and is left with an epic story even he feels the need to explain to his audience. At the beginning of each play a trustworthy figure whose authority is supposed to authenticate the reality of the forthcoming drama provides all the information necessary for a complete understanding of the play, as if to say: ‘this myth actually happened; that man over there Euripides did not make this up, you can

trust me.’ And it is precisely in this manner that all great cultures perish: the mythology becomes less important than the belief in the historical reality of its events; myth ceases to blossom and the people, spiraling further away from the representations that created them, lose all touch with the gods and the very heart of nature. What provoked Euripides to change the tragedy? Like Socrates, he believed that “knowledge is virtue;” in order for something to have merit it had to be intelligible. He could not rationalize the mythological, Dionysian currents in tragedy and thus sought to remove them entirely. That which could not be rationalized was not only of no use but a bad influence, and so he (in conjunction with Socrates) consciously tried to rid all such elements from art. Creation became a conscious act which is subjective rather than instinctual – the way of the primal being. As a result, poetry’s function is reduced to the servant of philosophical thought; the chorus no longer serves as the origin of tragedy but as a mere component; the music is replaced by syllogisms; the mythology replaced by naturalism. In the hands of Euripides the satyr chorus devolved from an ideal to a thoroughly accurate depiction of modern Greeks. Now the Greek can see himself on stage but does not connect with Dionysus, does not shed his cultural skin or relate to the archetype of all men. There is nothing about Euripides, Nietzsche claims, but what he consciously knows. Nothing about man but what he consciously knows… This shift in art reflects the essential belief of Socrates: that “thought, using the thread of causality, can penetrate the deepest abysses of being, and that thought is capable not only of knowing being, but even of correcting it.” To Socrates, the aim of all science is to make existence appear comprehensible and thus justified. It is worthless to him if he doesn’t know what it means. But, as we know – and as Socrates himself suspected at the end of his life – science has limits that lead to tragic insight, and if art does not assume the function of science at that point – if art does not make life justified – then what will incite us to keep living? It is not through science, but “only as an aesthetic phenomenon that existence and the world are eternally justified.” Man is not in harmony with nature, but he needs that illusion to survive. Man is dissonance: he needs the veil of music to restore his meaning… and to restore the meaning of life to the world. Art is not for us, Nietzsche concludes, nor do we create it. We ourselves are only images created for the true author; our highest dignity is as works of art – not as artists. Throw the net around us, give us a common goal, god, vision. In so much as they remain mythological, they all symbolize different aspects of the same thing: eternal life, and the pain of living as individuals.

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