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The Birth of Tragedy

Friedrich Nietzsche

Chapters 20 & 21

Chapter 19

Chapters 22 & 23

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.

Nietzsche argues that never has culture been more divorced from art, thanks to the Socratic legacy of Alexandrian culture. However, conveniently enough, the German scholars Kant and Schopenhauer have thrown a wrench into the Socratic works, by revealing the limits of scientific inquiry. The time is ripe for the rebirth of tragedy, which will sweep over the cultural wasteland that is modern culture and regenerate everything that now lies dusty and dead. Nietzsche believes that a very special conjunction of events and cultural trends has occurred, thus creating the necessity of the rebirth of tragedy as well as the means by which it will come about: German music. Nietzsche waxes poetic when he tells his leaders to have faith in their new salvation: "Dare now to be tragic men, for ye shall be redeemed! Ye shall accompany the Dionysian festive procession from India to Greece! Arm yourselves for hard strife, but have faith in the wonders of your god!" Nietzsche here takes his aesthetic inquiries up to a religious fervor.

Nietzsche's portrayals of German culture as exhausted and hopeless, without power of redemption, are incredibly bleak, and effectively set the stage for Dionysian salvation. This image follows the ancient Greek model of Dionysian intervention, which is clearly expressed in the myth of Ariadne. Ariadne was the princess of Crete who helped Thesues defeat the Minator by giving him the golden thread that would lead him out of Deadalus's maze. Theseus is successful, and king Minos is furious. Having betrayed her father and her country, Ariadne pleads with Theseus to take her with him back to Athens. He does so, but then abandons her on the island of Naxos before sailing home again. Having sunk to the point of utmost hopelessness, Ariadne cries out to Dionysus in despair. Dionysus then appears on the island and marries her. German culture in its decrepit state is similar to Ariadne in that it has run out of options, and must call on the mercy of Dionysus in order to experience a rebirth. Dionysus was seen as the god who would come to you only at your lowest hour, when all other hope was lost.

It is a common misconception that Dionysus is merely the god of wine and revelry. What we must understand is that the Greeks saw wine as being a divine gift, one that would allow man to forget his miserable existence for a short time. Having no illusions about the misery of life, the Greeks created a deity who promised relief from suffering, both through wine and the promise of a more long lasting salvation. The Elusinsian mysteries, celebrated at Eleusis for hundreds of years and the basis for the cult of Eleusis, celebrated this promise of salvation. Christianity took many of its precepts from this cult, including its promise of salvation in the after-life.

However, while the influence of Dionysus, embodied in music, can be extremely beneficial for man, it can also be overwhelming if not mediated by some element such as the tragic hero. Having expended a great deal of energy emphasizing the dangers of illusion, Nietzsche here warns of the destructive powers of the Dionysian spirit. The incredible maddening power of Dionysus can only be mitigated by Apollonian illusion. Having almost been carried away in his praise of Dionysus, Nietzsche swings back towards Apollo, explaining that no Dionysian redemption would be possible without him.

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