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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
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.