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The Birth of Tragedy

Friedrich Nietzsche

Chapters 17 & 18

Chapter 16

Chapter 19

Summary

Dionysian art shows us the eternal joy of existence, and the source of that joy lies not in phenomena, but behind phenomena. We witness that all individuals must come to a sorrowful end, but that we can find comfort and redemption by losing our individuality and becoming one great living being. While Greek Tragedy demonstrates this principle, it is apparent that the Greeks themselves never recognized the true meaning of tragic myth. We find this understanding in the actions of Greek Tragedy, but not in the words. If one were to only pay heed to these words, one will never surpass the level of appearances.

It was this Socratic obsession with words and logic that eventually killed tragedy. But, there is still hope. Once science has exhausted its logical limits, and its claim to universal validity has been destroyed by the realization that it has limits, a rebirth of tragedy becomes possible. Man yearns for a universal understanding and can find it in music.

The Attic Dithyrambic form of music shows how 'scientific thinking' destroys the spirit of music. In this new form of art, music is manipulated to imitate phenomena, such as the sound of battle or the sea. This is a totally degenerate form of music. For, "it seeks to arouse pleasure only by impelling us to seek external analogies between a vital or natural process and certain rhythmical figures and characteristic sounds of music." This musical style's attempts at imitation of phenomena has the effect of arresting our imaginations, as we stop trying to imagine a thing when we are presented with a supposedly realistic image of that thing.

Another un-Dionysian trait that was brought to its height in Euripidean drama was the prevalence of 'character representation.' Rather than expanding into an eternal type, Euripides's characters (as well as those of Sophocles, to some extent) must develop individually. As a result, the spectator is no longer conscious of the scope of the myth, as his focus is narrowed to the specifics of the play. Because the hero can no longer seek redemption in Dionysus, the new tragedy substitutes earthly comforts, such as riches or freedom, for metaphysical release.

There are three cultures, Alexandrian, Hellenic, and Buddhist, which exemplify the three types of culture, which are 'Socratic', 'artistic', and 'tragic'. The three planes of illusion (disguising the suffering of the world) maintained by these cultures in turn are: the delusion that knowledge can save the world, the seductive veil of artistic beauty, and the idea that beneath the phenomena of the world eternal life flows on indestructibly. Our modern world is entangled in the net of Alexandrian, i.e. Socratic, culture. Drunk with optimism and delusions of limitless power, a 'socratically' inclined culture is doomed to slave revolt and the degeneration of religion. However, with the knowledge that scientific precepts are but another veil of illusion that bring man no closer to solving the true riddles of the universe, a culture again values wisdom as its highest end. This new culture will seek an art of metaphysical comfort, not just material and phenomenological comfort.

Socratic culture begins to fail when it realizes the consequences of its precepts and once its confidence in the eternal validity of its foundation begins to slip. A scientific culture must be destroyed when it begins to grow illogical in its retreat before its own conclusions. Socratic doctrine as a basis for culture is fundamentally unsatisfying, for the man who depends only on rational thought for his comfort will go eternally hungry.

Analysis

Nietzsche admits here for the first time that the Greeks themselves did not acknowledge many of the aspects of tragedy that he claims to be of greatest importance. However, nowhere does he concede that the fundamental basis of his argument, that tragedy redeems through Dionysian suffering as expressed through music, is theoretical and not fact. He writes, "At the same time, however, we must admit that the meaning of tragic myth set forth above never became clearly apparent to the Greek poets, not to speak of the Greek philosophers; their heroes speak, as it were, more superficially than they act; the myth does not at all obtain adequate objectification in the spoken word." Nietzsche then explains this disparity between the words of the Greeks and his own theories about their tragic culture by emphasizing that words are in the phenomenological realm, and thus Apollonian. Words can never express the truth that music reveals. This is a brilliant argument on Nietzsche's part, for then he is free to interpret the 'message' inherent in the music however he sees fit.

Nietzsche stages a rather epic battle between the theoretic and tragic world- views. In one corner we have science, brimming with confidence that it can explain the universe down to the last atom, all with the power of human thought. In the opposite corner we have music, which by its nature flows with universal understanding, so that we intuitively understand the truth of human suffering and redemption outside of our reason. Nietzsche is confident that once man realizes that the powers of science are limited, he will be forced to turn to tragedy for comfort again.

The nature of the 'New Attic Dithyramb', a musical style that grew out of the Socratic era, bears witness to the havoc that science wrecks on music. Nietzsche calls this form "intrinsically degenerate," as it seeks to portray nature, to represent it with sound. Nietzsche's scorn is fierce: "[this new form of music] seeks to arouse pleasure only by impelling us to seek external analogies between a vital or natural process and certain rhythmical figures and characteristic sounds of music…." In this frame of mind, we are totally unable to access myth, stuck as we are in a superficial layer of representation. While Dionysian music is expansive, in that it tends towards the universal, Socratically inclined music is fundamentally limited in that it seeks to imitate specific images in the world. Thus it can never truly satisfy the soul.

This same trend is true of characters in Euripidean tragedy. Whereas characters in the old days of tragedy were mythical archetypes, possessing strong links to the universal memory, Euripidean characters are each formed as individuals. One is drawn to them by their individual characteristics rather than by their mythical wisdom. Nietzsche scorns this cheapening of the Attic stage and calls it superficial; "in the new Attic Comedy, however, there are only masks with one expression: frivolous old men, duped panders, and cunning slaves, recurring incessantly." These sorts of characters can hardly hope to satisfy the metaphysical demands of true art.

Nietzsche gives a surprising example of the down side of Alexandrian (i.e. Socratic) optimism. "…the Alexandrian culture, to be able to exist permanently, requires a slave class, but, with its optimistic view of life, it denies the necessity of such a class, and consequently, when the effect of its beautifully seductive and tranquilizing utterances about the 'dignity of man' and the 'dignity of labor' is over, it gradually drifts towards a dreadful destruction." This slave class, having come to regard its existence as an injustice (learning to do so from the authorities of culture itself), will revolt in revenge. While this example seems absurd in this context, it does present an interesting view of the fundamental contradiction inherent in democratic capitalism, which, Nietzsche says, cries out that the common man is free while at the same time exploiting him mercilessly.

Nietzsche does his best to portray the Alexandrian existence as hollow and doomed to destruction by its own logic. His extremely depressing portrayal of the Alexandrian man almost has us convinced: "[he], who is at bottom a librarian and corrector of proofs, and who, pitiable wretch, goes blind from the dusty books and printers' errors." When compared to the Dionysian promise of vital energies and eternity spent close to the universal will, this existence seems unbearably wretched. Nietzsche has appealed not only to our intellect, but also to our emotional need for comfort and connection.

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