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The Birth of Tragedy

Friedrich Nietzsche

Chapters 20 & 21

Chapter 19

Chapters 20 & 21, page 2

page 1 of 2

Summary

While the German spirit has striven to maintain a connection to the Greeks, through the work of Goethe, Schiller, and Winkelmann, this connection has grown progressively weaker. Perhaps this stems from an imperfect understanding of Greek culture, such that a firm connection could never be formed between German and Greek culture. We see that opinions concerning the value of Greek contributions to culture have been degenerating at a rapid clip. Thanks to the current understanding of Greek culture's focus on "beauty," "harmony," and "Greek cheerfulness," the academic establishment has affected a skeptical abandonment of the Hellenic ideal and a perversion of ancient studies. The cultured man of the present has sought to take over Greek antiquity "historically," and thus is at a loss in the face of the now developing rebirth of tragedy.

Culture and true-art have never been so estranged as they are at present. The current culture hates and fears true art, for it fears destruction from its hands. But, as this current Socratic culture has now exhausted itself, this destruction is unavoidable. The impending rebirth of tragedy is nothing to be feared, however. It alone promises the renovation and purification of the German spirit through the power of music. Our culture is exhausted, and we have nowhere else to turn. We must look now to Dionysus, who will seize everything decrepit, decaying and broken in our culture and tear it away, so that we may be bathed in the golden light of tragic redemption. Have faith now, for the time of Dionysian rebirth is near.

The Greeks are our example for what the miraculous awakening of tragedy signifies for the inner fabric of a people's life. First, we must say that even during the time period when the Greeks were most possessed by the Dionysian demon, they still maintained their principium individuationis, and thus maintained strong political and domestic sentiments. The Greeks found the right balance between constant, ecstatic brooding and the empty lust for empire and power. Their culture flourished thanks to their ability to blend Apollonian and Dionysian elements in their lives.

The two key aspects of tragedy are music and the tragic hero. The hero takes the suffering of the world on his shoulders and thus relieves us of the burden. The tragic hero also serves as an example to us, for he prepares himself for higher existence through his own destruction, not his victories. The power of music alone, united as it is with the essence of Dionysus, would be too much for anyone to take. Music imparts to myth a metaphysical significance that could never be achieved with words alone. However, if we felt as purely Dionysian beings, we would collapse from the intensity of the unmediated world will. Therefore we require myth, which uses the hero as mediator, to shield us somewhat from the power of music. The hero is an Apollonian illusion who delivers us from the primordial suffering of the world. "…the Apollonian influence uplifts man from his orgiastic self-annihilation and deceives him concerning the universality of the Dionysian process into the belief that he is seeing a detached picture of the world." This detachment is necessary for our mental health.

While Dionysus must speak through the language of Apollo in order to communicate with us without destroying us, Apollo in the end speaks the language of Dionysus. For, the overall effect of the drama is Dionysian. In tragedy, we are made aware that the Apollonian elements, including the actors themselves, are merely illusions. We realize the antithesis between "phenomenon" and the "thing- in-itself"—that is, the Dionysian reality that lies beneath our illusions. Once the Apollonian, in the form of the phenomenon, serves its purpose, it retreats, and we are left with the Dionysian.

Analysis

In this section, we begin to understand the urgency behind Nietzsche's adamant attention to the nature of Greek tragedy. For, while German scholars in the past have attempted to forge links with Greek culture, they were unable to get to the core of the Hellenic nature, the result being that the connections between these two cultures have grown far weaker. Current scholarship is in danger of abandoning the Hellenic ideal altogether, thus putting the future of German culture in immediate peril. Nietzsche is no doubt referring to German classicists' obsession with morphology and other analytical approaches to tragedy when he writes, "If there is any one at all in these circles who has not completely exhausted himself in his endeavor to be a dependable corrector of old texts or a natural-history microscopist of language, he perhaps is also seeking to take over Grecian antiquity "historically" along with other antiquities, and in any case according to the method and with the supercilious air of our present cultured historiography." Nietzsche is beside himself with frustration over academia's inability to see the larger picture. By concentrating on minute details and historiographical analysis, they are losing themselves in the phenomena of Apollo and blinding themselves to the far more important Dionysus.

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