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The Birth of Tragedy

Friedrich Nietzsche

Forward & Chapter 1

Philosophical Themes

Chapters 2 & 3

Summary

In his short Forward to Richard Wagner, Nietzsche anticipates criticisms that may be directed at his first philosophical work. He associates himself closely with Wagner, referring to "Our esthetic publicity." He also assures Wagner (and us) that he has written a serious treatise on a serious subject: art.

Nietzsche cautions readers to avoid the temptation to see his essay as a mere comparison of "gay dilettantism" with "gallant earnestness." The real issue at stake here, he writes, is the much larger question of German hopes for the future. One must not dismiss the aesthetic question of art as simple or irrelevant; rather, it is at the core of the German national character, and may be its salvation.

Nietzsche directs this forward at those who are accustomed to thinking of aesthetics as a fringe discipline, a "merry diversion." Rather than being on the fringe, art is "the highest task and the proper metaphysical activity of this life." Nietzsche appeals to Wagner as "my noble champion on this same path," someone who will understand and support his devotion to the aesthetic cause.

Nietzsche then begins his essay by stating that progression in the field of art is inextricably bound with the Apollonian and Dionysian duality. In ancient times, there was a fierce opposition between Apollo and Dionysus, Gods whom he calls "the two art-deities of the Greeks." Nietzsche immediately establishes that he is outlining his philosophy in ancient, well-respected terms. The opposition between these two Greek gods is similar to the "perpetual strife" that exists between men and women; just as this strife must be resolved in order to procreate, so must the Dionysian and Apollonian elements come together to make the highest art. And, while their differences may be destructive, they are also necessary to the process.

One key set of oppositions that is linked to Apollo and Dionysus is that of dreams and drunkenness. The land of dreams, associated with Apollo, as a light filled space, a place where man enjoys "the immediate apprehension of form." It is in dreams that man is healed and helped and that man receives divine intuition. However, dream forms are often symbols or metaphors, which Nietzsche calls "appearance". He compares the aesthetic dreamer to the philosopher, who knows that what he sees is not real, but an "appearance" whose interpretation can lead to truth.

Apollo is the god of measured restraint; one who is dreaming will not be carried away and assume that what he sees is real. We never lose track of Apollo's beautiful appearance, and thus are able to ride calmly through the storms of life. Schopenhauer's term, the principium individuationis, or 'principle of individuation', symbolizes man's separation from the chaos of life when under the protective influence of Apollo.

In opposition to this principle of calm reason, there is Dionysus, who represents the collapse of the principium individuationis, the inability to discern the boundaries between appearance and reality. Thus, Dionysus is associated with drunkenness, or the forgetting of the self. Under the influence of Dionysus, there is a breakdown of the barriers between man and man, between man and Nature itself. It is in this state of diving ecstasy that man enters into the primordial unity, and is a member of a higher community.

Analysis

The Birth of Tragedy was Nietzsche's first philosophical work. He is thus determined in his forward to establish himself as someone with something serious to say about the German character and its relationship to the Greeks. As a young philosopher, Nietzsche takes the clever step of associating himself with Wagner, the great German composer of his day. By enlisting him as his ally, Nietzsche ensures that he will not be written off so easily as some starry-eyed student of aesthetics. He implies that if Wagner agrees with him that art is the highest task of life, then his readers should agree with him as well.

While Nietzsche ostensibly writes his forward for Wagner, it is clear that he writes it with the general public in mind. He suggests that serious readers, whom he calls "those earnest ones," will understand that questions of aesthetics are of the highest importance. By suggesting that anyone who does not take his work seriously is missing the point, Nietzsche plays off of the intellectual insecurities of his readers and gains their attention and respect.

From the beginning of his essay, Nietzsche makes it clear that he will be discussing aesthetics on his own terms. He creates a new frame of reference for his readers to understand art and the artistic process, that is, the dualistic opposition between Apollo and Dionysus. He thus lays the groundwork for discussing various affected states that are relevant to the artistic process, all of which relate to either Apollo or Dionysus. In doing so, he creates numerous oppositions that would not be logically apparent outside of his structure; for example, we do not ordinarily think of dreaming and drunkenness as being opposite states. But, under Nietzsche's program, they fall under the influence of Apollo and Dionysus respectively, and thus represent opposite energies.

After naming Apollo and Dionysus as the two opposing elements around which his argument (and art in general) revolves, Nietzsche proceeds with "duality" as his main metaphor for the artistic process. Apollo and Dionysus are merely the symbols of this duality, which, in this chapter, he elucidates in terms of dreams and drunkenness. For Nietzsche, dreams represent the realm of beautiful forms and symbols, an orderly place of light and appearance. Drunkenness, on the other hand, is that state of wild passions where the boundaries between "self" and "other" dissolve.

In his discussion of dreams, Nietzsche introduces terms that will reappear throughout the essay, such as "appearance" and "the apprehension of form." The idea of appearance is related to Plato's cave, to which Nietzsche makes reference when he writes that the dreamer sees life pass before him, "not like mere shadows on the wall—for in these scenes he lives and suffers—and yet not without that fleeting sensation of appearance." One has life-like experiences in ones dreams, but is still aware that these experiences are mere appearances and that the reality lies beneath. Nietzsche makes the assumption here that, when dreaming, one is always aware that one is dreaming; those who are entirely caught up in their dreams are not experiencing Apollonian beauty, but rather Dionysian ecstasy.

Whereas Apollo represents the state of "measured restraint," in which man remains separate from the emotions and illusions that buffet him, Dionysus represents the breakdown of those walls. From the progression of Nietzsche's analysis, we see that he does not view the Apollonian and the Dionysian realms equally, but rather sees the latter as the negation of the former. Dionysus enters the field when reason fails, not the other way around.

This is not to say that Nietzsche derides the Dionysian state; on the contrary, he sees it as fundamental to the creation of art. He gives the example of the singing and dancing crowds of the Germanic Middle Ages, who whirled in ecstatic celebration of St. John and St. Vitus. To those who would condemn this behavior as a symptom of "folk-diseases," he writes, "Such poor wretches can not imagine how anemic and ghastly their so-called 'healthy-mindedness' seems in contrast to the glowing life of the Dionysian revelers rushing past them." One must submit to Dionysian madness in order to attain the state of primordial unity, a state beyond social barriers and narrow thinking.

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