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The Birth of Tragedy

Friedrich Nietzsche

Chapters 22 & 23

Chapters 20 & 21

Chapters 24 & 25

Summary

Modern scholars of aesthetics fail to mention the triumphant union of Apollo and Dionysus in art, wherein the soul of tragedy is born. Rather, they constantly focus on the struggle of the hero with fate, the triumph of the moral order of the world, or the cathartic emotional release through tragedy. One is forced to conclude that such thinkers are not aesthetically sensitive men when hearing tragedy, but rather are moral beings. They are intent on discovering the moral truths hidden in tragedy, and so they fail to apprehend that tragedy is the highest Art.

With the rebirth of tragedy, the "aesthetic hearer" is also reborn. This new man of art replaces the "critic," who has infested the theater for far too long. These critics had ears only for art that would excite "moral-religious" emotions, rather than for art that would enrapture them in a powerful spell. And now, theater has abandoned even this task of morally educating the people. Art has thus been demoted to a trivial topic of conversation, constantly discussed but little esteemed. Some theatergoer might have experienced an inkling of the thrilling sensations that accompanied true art, but as there has been no formal understanding of true nature of art, such an experience would easily have passed out of his consciousness and been lost.

One can easily identify as either an "aesthetic hearer" or a "Socratic-critic" by examining the feeling with which he accepts the "wonder" represented on stage. For, in this way, he will know how capable he is of understanding myth, which cannot exist without wonder. It is likely that almost every one who does this will have been so affected by the "critico-historical" spirit of modern culture that he can only experience myth by learned means and through intermediary abstractions, unable to experience the joy of direct contact. This is a dangerous situation; for, deprived of myth, every culture loses its creative power. Myth frees the power of imagination, gives meaning to man's life and to his struggles, and serves as the great unwritten law of the state.

In the present culture, man is guided not by myth, but by abstract education, abstract morality, abstract justice, and the abstract state. Modern culture has no fixed and sacred primitive seat, but is forced to feed off of other cultures. Our culture is consumed by a desire for knowledge, yet remains ever unsatisfied. A culture is to be valued only according to its ability to impress the stamp of eternity on its experiences. For it is only with this consciousness of eternity that man shows his understanding of the relativity of time and of the true metaphysical significance of life. Once a culture begins to comprehend itself historically and to destroy the myths at its base, it experiences marked secularization, with great ethical consequences.

Luckily, the German character has not become inextricably tangled in this culture. The German man still hopes that beneath this relentlessly civilized life there still lies a glorious primitive power. The first music of this concealed power was born in the Reformation, in the form of the Lutheran choral- hymns. The potential is clearly present, but in order to seize it, we must hold fast to the Greeks as our guides, and exile those foreign myths and cultural influences which have polluted the German spirit. The Greeks can teach us to reestablish our household gods and mythical home, and thus revive the German spirit.

Analysis

Nietzsche proposes that modern scholars of aesthetics have missed the point of tragedy because they are in fact not aesthetically sensitive men at all, but rather are moral critics. They have focused intensely on the struggle of the tragic hero with fate and the triumph of the moral order in the tragic world, failing entirely to comprehend the full revelatory and redemptive powers of the tragic medium. In keeping their noses pressed to their books, they fail to understand tragedy as being the highest art. Nietzsche urges us to dispense with our Socratically critical impulses and to become aesthetic listeners again. We must resist the urge to analyze art, and allow ourselves to fall under its spell. Our intuition will then lead us to a far greater understanding than any logical thought could bring us.

While Nietzsche criticizes the reduction of the role of theater to that of a moral influence, he sees at least some cultural value in this form. However, in his day, even this moralizing function of theater had been abandoned. Art had become an entirely frivolous exercise, much discussed but of little cultural value or use. We can understand now why Nietzsche felt it necessary in his preface to justify his study of art. His assertion that art could be life affirming and the key to the satisfaction of man's metaphysical yearnings ran contrary to the prevailing artistic conception of his day, or so he claims. Nietzsche portrays himself as a virtual one-man army, fighting to rescue culture from the dusty pit into which it had fallen.

Lest his readers doubt that they were living in a cultural wasteland, Nietzsche endeavors to show how the Socratic abandonment of myth leaves man hopelessly unfulfilled. The modern man has lost his sense of wonder, and with it the ability to receive nourishment and reassurance from myths. Living in a world of abstractions, he has no anchor to tether him to the universal consciousness or history of his people. A culture without myth as its base is artistically impoverished and lacking in natural creative power.

Nietzsche reassures his readers that all hope is not lost, for while Germans live in a Socratic culture, the German character still retains a sense of the "primitive power" of myth. In championing the "primitive," Nietzsche contradicts himself. In the preceding section, he criticized opera mercilessly for representing the primitive Greek man, and yet here he is guilty of making a fetish of the primitive nature of ancient men. His discussion of the importance of myth for the modern man reaches a patriotic fervor when he writes, "But let him never think he can fight such battles without the household gods, without his mythical home, without a restoration of all things German!"

With this in mind, we must note that Hitler, who came to power some sixty years after Nietzsche wrote this essay, placed great emphasis on the glorification of the primitive man and of the powers of myth. One of the goals of his propaganda machine was to construct myths around which the German people could come together as one people. This is not to suggest that Nietzsche was a Nazi before his time. However, his ideas had influence far beyond the philosophical realms.

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