Friday, August 7, 2015

The Birth of Tragedy (Out of the Spirit of Music)

Book Review: The Birth of Tragedy (Out of the Spirit of Music) - by Friedrich Nietzsche – translated by Shaun Whiteside – Edited by Michael Tanner (Penguin Books, 2003 – originally published in 1872)

This is one of Nietzsche’s early works expounding his ideas about the origin and nature of the Greek Tragic tradition. I have read a couple of Nietzsche’s works now and I found them quite wordy and sometimes difficult to follow, but usually insightful. His ideas and those of his hero Schopenhauer can be seen as precursor ideas to psychology, particularly the psychoanalysis that deals with archetypes. He has also been described as pessimistic though his ideas do seem honest attempts to get to the heart of philosophical matters. This work involves what he terms ‘artistic impulses’ as the Apollonian and the Dionysian (Apolline and Dionysiac as he calls them). Apollo as a sun god of light, reason, beauty and order, represents those artistic orientations while Dionysus as a god of intoxication, madness, and intuition, is more in line with the primal urges and instinct than ordered reason. Art needs the Dionysian to be more than imitation. Music especially channels the Dionysian urge while the visual arts are more Apollonian. He sees proper tragedy as therapeutic exercise of the Dionysian impulse and notes that it was only really present in the early tragic period and is sorely needed in the art world of his day and his place (19th century Germany). 

Nietzsche was only 28 when this book was first published it in 1872. He re-released a revised version of it 14 years later as The Birth of Tragedy. Or: Greekhood and Pessimism. New Edition with an Attempt at a Self-Criticism. The academics of the time considered the book outrageous but Richard Wagner and Nietzsche’s other “Wagnerian” friends loved it. He apparently renounced some of its ideas and clarified others in the latest edition and noted his youth at the time, perhaps trying to please the academic world, although most of his works are considered quite rebellious to academics. The implications of art and its history (in this case Greek tragedy), solving metaphysical problems, and political/cultural themes would be the topics of most of Nietzsche’s books. He was first a professor of philology and the classics, then a freelance writer. He is usually considered a philosopher. He believed that a people’s art could be used to discern the health of a culture. He was certainly well-read in the Greek classics and the philosophers, especially the pre-Socratic philosophers. One might see this book as a book about the science of Aesthetics but it is too expressive and intense to follow the rules of science. Others have criticized this work, particularly the end part about the need to transform German nationalistic art into Dionysian forms.

There is a long introduction with commentary on the text and Nietzsche’s own “attempt at self-criticism.” The main views about the aesthetics and implications of Greek tragedy were inherited from Aristotle. He noted that tragedy gives us food for thought about our excesses and purges us of both pity and terror. Aristotle saw Euripides as the “most tragic of the poets, then Sophocles, then Aeschylus. Nietzsche disagreed and reversed the order, seeing Euripides as instigating the death of tragedy. Nietzsche seems to venerate tragedy as a noble and necessary art form. He saw tragedy as more powerful than mere myth, taking known stories and embellishing them with the emotional evocations provided by music. Metaphysically, Nietzsche saw the Dionysiac as reality and the Apollonian as appearance. Thus the Apollonian appears in visual arts and in the visions evoked by stories and epic poetry (and dreams) while the Dionysian appears in the raw emotions inherent in music and lyrical poetry. Thus, he sees the Apollonian as more illusory than the Dionysiac. The veil of illusion hides the terrible truth. He says that action is thus based on illusion but “true” understanding is grounded in truth. Such understanding menaces the will. Art is then the “redeeming, healing enchantress.” Thus horror is tamed through art, as absurdity is tamed through comedy. Nietzsche notes that Apollo may speak in the voice of Dionysus and vice versa so that in the end the full tragic experience is a collaboration of the two artistic impulses. His problem with Euripides seems to be that he ignored the chorus and instead inserted the dialectic as the means to solve the issues presented in the tragedy, thus reason, rather than intuition mediated through music, is venerated so that the understanding achieved is lessened, being deprived of the intuition necessary to comprehend the tragic truth of existence. This is a result of the dialectic begun with Socrates and this Aesthetic Socratism via Euripides killed tragedy by inserting optimism into it. Dionysus as the god of ecstasy and intoxication shows that partaking in artistic tragedy the spectators become intoxicated to some extent by becoming partakers rather than spectators in the actual tragedy. The intro/commentary notes the comparison of beauty to terror that is exemplified also in Rilke’s Dueno Elegies which the commentator (Michael Tanner) thinks were influenced by Nietzsche’s ideas here. 

The text begins with Nietzsche’s Attempt at Self-Criticism which laments the book as an extravagance of youth. But, as Tanner noted, with extravagance comes insight. It seems that the Apollonian/Dionysian duality metaphor is one of the tame and the wild, with the tame bringing about the death of the wild, in this case. The rational philosophers, beginning with Socrates, perhaps tamed the pre-existing wild irrational nature-religion forms of ecstatic worship. He notes that the first task of the book was:

“…to see science under the lens of the artist, but art under the lens of life.”

In his “self-criticism” he saw the book as an artist’s speculative psychology and metaphysics. He laments that he tried to explain rather than sing, or create art to make his point at the time. He saw Christianity as fundamentally opposed to true art, full of dogmatic morality. He also regrets his usage of the ideas of Schopenhauer and Wagner and especially his hopefulness at the end of the book where he seems optimistic about new German art and music and what he called the “German spirit.” In a preface addressed to Richard Wagner he notes that he considers art as the supreme metaphysical activity of man.

He notes that music is Dionysian, and visual art such as sculpting, is Apollonian. Dream oracle interpretation was also an attribute of Apollo, perhaps since dreams tend to be visual and concerned with image and form. Attic tragedy was the perfect balance between the two impulses. Visual art is about form, and form, according to Schopenhauer and Indian metaphysics, is illusion. Music, as the Dionysian mode, is about releasing inhibition, intoxication, and letting go of form, individuality, and convention. It is (perhaps) letting “force” flow. It is the rending of the veil of illusion. In the Dionysian mode the artist becomes the work of art itself. He mentions the Persian/Babylonian Sacaea for comparison. This was an orgiastic festival of renewal. He sees Greek tragedy as beyond mere tribal ecstatic reveling. However, he notes that the Greek Dionysians incorporated ecstatic music – rhythm, melody, and harmony in the dithyramb choruses which lended a new ecstatic mode to the new form of tragedy and blended the two artistic impulses. The Dionysian chorists were satyrs. He sees these choruses as the epitome of participatory theatre so that spectators become part of the drama, internalizing the tragedy. Thus man as spectator becomes the satyr looking upon the god, Dionysus, and understanding life through his natural yet elegant animalistic tendencies.
“The individual, with all his restraints and moderations [Apollonian], was submerged in the self-oblivion of the Dionysiac state and forgot the Apolline dictates. Excess was revealed as truth, contradiction; the bliss born of pain spoke from the heart of nature.”

He sees the precursor to Attic tragedy in early Greek lyric poetry. Early lyrical poets like Archilochus conveyed the mad and emotion-bearing spirit of music in their “art,” he says. On the other hand, he sees the epic poets, like Homer, as distinctly Apollonian. Archilochus is credited with introducing the folk song into literature. Folk music is, according to Nietzsche, imbued with the Dionysian mode. Comparing tragedy to Hamlet, he notes that:

“Understanding kills action, action depends on a veil of illusion.”

He refers to understanding the absurdity of existence, although it is unclear what that really means as it is difficult to determine “how” someone could understand absurdity, or rather the implications of such absurdity. Perhaps he simply means coming to terms with it. He gives art (and comedy) as a remedy for the sickness caused by such understanding.

Dance is seen as an Apolline art, with movement being visually appealing. He mentions it as the Apolline mask, the light of reality that serves to hide the darkness of reality that lurks beyond, the “Greek cheerfulness” that hides the equally Greek knowledge of the tragedy of life itself.
Nietzsche discusses a comparison of the Indo-European Prometheus myth with that of the Semitic myth of the fall of Adam and Eve. Prometheus, the male, commits a crime against nature in rebellion of its harsh reality, and thus suffers. Thus are the sins of man punished further. Eve, the woman, is the cause of sin in the Semitic myth. Prometheus and his fellow-Titan brother, Atlas, suffer the sins of questing man with their acts of penance. Prometheus is associated with Dionysus as one who acknowledges the injustice of life yet is also associated with Apollo as one who longs for justice, or as Nietzsche states it:

“All that exists is just and unjust and equally justified in both.”

He notes that until Euripides, all heroes of Greek tragedy (Prometheus, Oedipus, etc.) were masks of Dionysus. He sees unity behind individuation, the inherent unity behind the futile and deadly quest for individuation, inherent in the mythos of the dismemberment of the god, Dionysus, as the central mystery of tragedy. Dionysus is seen as a strange but necessary composite of the gentle and the cruel dual nature of life.  In tragedy, he says, the vanquished world of the Titans is brought back to dwell alongside the Olympian world. This reminds me a bit of the Orphic Dionysians who saw humans as a composite of sinful Titans and the divine Dionysus, although in this sense Dionysus is redemptive compared to the Titans.

After Euripides it was the New Attic Comedy that put tragedy out of its misery, says Nietzsche. He goes into great detail about how Euripides laid out (unconsciously no doubt) the death of tragedy but basically he did it by removing the Dionysian element from it. He brought in the non-Dionysian, non-artistic dialectic that was imbued with rationalism, Socratism. In the comedies of Aristophanes, such as – The Frogs – the aesthetic Socratism was sealed with Socrates being a character in some plays. The worship of knowledge was thoroughly replacing the worship of instinct. Intellect was trumping emotion. It was Socratic logic that transformed the once noble Greek artistic spirit into one where optimistic rational order was now the only good and desirable effect. Socrates was said to be freed by rational insight from the fear of death. He was the new prototype, the man who conquered harsh reality through healing rationalism instead of through healing art. He spurred a thirst for knowledge in Greek society.

He invokes Schopenhauer to explain the contrast between music and the visual arts. He noted that music is the immediate language of the will that stirs the imagination, thus affecting the Apolline artistic faculty. Music invokes the universal while visual art invokes the individual. Invoking the individual is a mode of illusion as the individual is ultimately destructible while the universal is not – at least according to the dictates of philosophy and religion in Indo-European contexts.
While we may delight in existence in our Apollonian illusion we still have to face the “sorrowful end” of life and that is Dionysian. The specter of this inevitable sorrow lurks behind joy and all of reality. Sometimes we see beyond the mix and find an ecstatic state in that ultimate reality that includes death and destruction, a mystical state in that universality of life, species, existence. Dionysus represents the universal will as Apollo represents the individual will. Nietzsche also mentions that the later tragedies changed the endings of the plays. The old ones, he says, had a sense of metaphysical conciliation where the fallen hero found a sort of metaphysical grace. The newer ones made the hero into a kind of gladiator, granted freedom after some initial torment. The music changed as well, designed to evoke emotion but not to the degree or lending itself to Dionysian contemplation. The ambiguous god, representative of the ambiguous nature of life, was replaced by an optimistic hopeful spirit of rationalism.

He notes culture being composed of: the Socratic, the artistic, or the tragic and gives these historically as: Alexandrian, Hellenic, or Indian (Brahman). Our whole world, he says, got caught up in Alexandrian culture akin to Socratic-Alexandrian optimism. He notes Kant and Schopenhauer as heroes who prevailed over such optimism. Wagner attacked it from the operatic and musical direction, although he thinks that opera arose from Alexandrian culture. Nietzsche, at least at the time this book was first written, advocated “the gradual awakening of the Dionysiac spirit, in our contemporary world!” His goal was thus in the later chapters to work towards a rebirth of tragedy. It had been relegated before then to merely serving the Apolline illusion. The Dionysian essence of music was used in service of the “clarification of drama,” drama with clear and rational content and ending that was not present in the ambiguousness of early tragedy. Such clarity is Apolline while music is wild, unpredictable, and less confined by rules than visual art. Thus, with the later changes to tragedy, the cathartic effects, though still there, were minimized, in a sort of “feel good” artificial rendering, void of the raw and naked Dionysian power, and instead the much limited Dionysian force was seen through the Apollonian lens.

With the rebirth of tragedy comes the rebirth of the “aesthetic listener,” he says. Presumably, this refers to the participant-spectator rather than just the spectator. This suggests that enrapturing the audience was an effect of unedited Dionysian force. He chides the “critic” of the arts as one who has agendas in rating things for their usefulness to the “moral world order” but it is also clear that Nietzsche is also a critic, though certainly in a different sense. The aesthetic spectator is one who can understand myth as “the concentrated image of the world which, as an abbreviation for phenomena, cannot do without miracles.” Mythic understanding is different, a different method than understanding through our widespread “critical-historical” means. There are different ways of knowing and the mythic way has too long been hidden by the dominant critical-historical way.

He goes on about Germanic historical reconstructions such as Lutheranism and more importantly the rebirth of Germanic myth among the wave of German Romanticism. As the decline of Greek tragedy was through a dissociation of the two primal artistic drives, so too did it affect other cultures presumably through the dominance of Alexandrian-Socratic aesthetics. A rebirth would require a re-association of the two impulses. Nietzsche notes the importance of dissonance in Dionysian music – although this is probably speculative as not too much is known about Ancient Greek music. Of course, for the aesthetic listener, to experience tragedy is to experience the dissonance of failure instead of triumphant success and glory, although there is success in the failure, the success of switching over to experience things from the universal perspective rather than the individual one. We can experience impermanence as suffering or we can experience impermanence as the inevitable change among a non-individualized universal permanence. 

The Dionysian force is the original one with the Apollonian force coming later, says Nietzsche:

“From the foundation of all existence, the Dionysiac substratum of the world, no more can enter the consciousness of the human individual than can be overcome once more by that Apolline power of transfiguration, so that both of these artistic impulses are forced to unfold in strict proportion to one another, according to the law of eternal justice.”

Nietzsche was certainly an intense and rebellious soul that offered much insight and fodder for metaphysical contemplation and here some artistic/aesthetic contemplation as well.  

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