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The Birth of Tragedy

Friedrich Nietzsche

Chapters 24 & 25

Chapters 22 & 23

Important Quotes

Summary

The paradoxical state of contemplating tragic myth is that of being "constrained to view, and at the same time to long for something beyond the viewing." When witnessing the enactment of tragedy, one delights in appearance and contemplation, but at the same time denies this delight and finds a still greater pleasure in the annihilation of the world of appearance. We know that this greater pleasure existed for the Greeks, because there is no other explanation for the manifestation of the suffering hero in so many different forms. The mere fact that real life often takes a tragic course cannot explain this trait, if we believe that true art is never an imitation of nature, but rather a metaphysical supplement to the reality of nature.

The explanation for tragic myth must lie in the examination of the aesthetic pleasures that it affords. As only a pure aesthetic pleasure could be the basis for a pure art, we must exclude pity, fear, and the morally sublime from our list of possible sources. We are left then with the question of how the ugly and the unharmonious, which is the substance of tragic myth, can excite aesthetic pleasure. The answer is that "it is precisely the function of tragic myth to convince us that even the ugly and unharmonious is an artistic game which the will plays with itself in the eternal fullness of its joy." This rather confusing explanation becomes clear when we recognize the joy of "musical dissonance," which has the same origin as the joy of tragic myth.

Because music and myth are so closely related, the degeneration and depravation of the one necessarily involves a deterioration of the other. Both myth and music have suffered at the hands of Socratic optimism. However, we have faith that "in some inaccessible abyss the German spirit still rests and dreams, undestroyed, in glorious health." The German spirit speaks now through music and promises a rebirth of tragedy.

Just as music and tragedy and myth are inseparable from each other, so the Apollonian and Dionysian elements of tragedy are thoroughly intertwined. Apollo has no substance without Dionysus, and Dionysus has no means of expressing itself to people without Apollo. They exist in proportion to one another, such that a culture of immense Apollonian beauty must have some Dionysian madness at its root that impels it to seek such beauty as a refuge. Suffering and beauty, joy and pain, are two sides of the same coin.

Analysis

At the very end of his essay, Nietzsche begins to reveal some of the circular logic that has driven his arguments. Whereas earlier in the work he implied that the Greeks absolutely acted in particular ways, in this section he shifts to saying that we can only infer that the Greeks thought and acted in these ways. Perhaps he felt some pangs of conscience at having put so many words into Greek mouths and thoughts into Greek minds; as a trained classicist, he must have known how theoretical all of his assertions were and how unlikely they were in many cases.

Nietzsche's contention that the idea of the suffering hero must indicate the existence of Dionysian delight in the destruction of the individual hinges solely on his previous claim that true art is not imitative. Otherwise, we could explain the suffering hero by the simple phrase, "That's life." The problem with Nietzsche's argument is that he uses one contentious claim to support another, thus leaving him with very little objective truth to stand on. In order to believe his argument, we must agree that true art never imitates, and that tragedy was a true art. Moreover, Nietzsche's reasoning behind his claim that true art is never imitative is based on the idea that true art is by definition a union of the Apollonian and Dionysian essences. When we follow his thought to its logical conclusion, we see that his argument is entirely circular. Nietzsche's entire basis for the "delight" that the Greeks "must" have felt when they observed the death of the individual on the tragic stage is unstable, as it all hinges on his definition of the Dionysian in art.

Nietzsche also reveals that his search for the explanation of the pleasure provided by tragic myth automatically excluded all "non-aesthetic" pleasures, such as pity, fear, or the morally sublime. Without batting an eyelash, Nietzsche has imposed his ideas of superior aesthetics upon the Greeks, all the while implying that he is an objective observer of Greek culture. He has also constructed his terminology in such as way as to exclude all possibilities that might conflict with his theories. Again, one could call this circular or specious reasoning.

Nietzsche ends his essay with a strong restatement of the dualistic nature of tragedy. Apollo and Dionysus must work in perfect balance in order for true art to be born, as there is a back and forth exchange of influences throughout the artistic process. Nietzsche also restates his other main idea, that music and tragic myth are inseparable. Without music, tragic myth could not access the Dionysian, and thus would not be tragic. And, without tragic myth, music could not take shape in a form that would express its power in a manner intelligible to men. One is left with the impression that the Nietzschean system is so beautifully balanced that it could be called an Apollonian phenomenon in itself.

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