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The Birth of Tragedy

Friedrich Nietzsche

Chapters 2 & 3

Forward & Chapter 1

Chapter 4

Summary

After describing the opposing states of Dionysus and Apollo, Nietzsche writes that these two systems represent artistic energies "which burst forth from nature herself, without the mediation of the human artist." These states exist a priori of any particular individual or culture; they are rather the "art-states of nature," of which every artist is an "imitator." Again, Nietzsche presumes that the Greek model is the only one, and that the state of mind for the Greeks is relevant to all of us.

In an attempt to discern the origins of these art-impulse archetypes, Nietzsche makes a vague attempt to analyze Greek dreams, but quickly moves on to a discussion of the Dionysian Greek as a progression from the Dionysian barbarian. The Dionysian Greek was protected from the wild destructive ecstasies of the Dionysian barbarian by the influence of Apollo. The "reconciliation" between Apollo at Delphi and Dionysus was "the most important moment in the history of the Greek cult." However, the power of Dionysus was not defeated, but transformed. For the first time, the destruction of the individual ends not in annihilation, but becomes an artistic phenomenon in the form of music and dancing.

There is a strong distinction between Apollonian and Dionysian music. The former was composed of merely suggestive tones, whose wave-beats of rhythm "were developed for the representation of Apollonian states." Apollonian music was structural, and played no active role. Dionysian music, on the other hand, is defined by its power to evoke emotional states. "In the Dionysian dithyramb man is incited to the greatest exaltation of all his symbolic faculties." When he hears Dionysian music, man is compelled to dance, and in dancing he exercises new symbolic powers that were restrained before.

While this activity must have seemed completely foreign to the Apollonian Greek at first, he soon would have had the nagging feeling of familiarity. For it is only the Apollonian veil that hides the Dionysian world from the Apollonian Greek. The Dionysian world is all around him, but it is shrouded in glowing beauty that the Greeks in their miserable existence felt necessary to drape around themselves. This glowing beauty is both comforting and limiting, and Dionysus mercilessly tears it aside so that we may confront our own primordial natures.

When one first encounters the Greeks, one is stunned by their vision of unflagging beauty, and must wonder what source could produce such joy. The truth is quite the opposite, however, as the Greeks created a world of beauty for their gods in the face of the misery that existed on earth. For, "How else could this people, so sensitive, so vehement in its desires, so singularly constituted for suffering, how could they have endured existence, if it had not been revealed to them in their gods, surrounded with a higher glory?" The Greeks, more than any other people, were susceptible to the perception of suffering, and thus were forced to create a particularly dazzling shield to ward it off.

The complete absorption into the beauty of appearance is called 'the naive in art.' Homer, the ultimate naive artist, populates his world with heroes who strive to reach the glory of the gods, and who revel in Olympian illusions. Olympus did not serve as a source of moral retribution, but rather as a model of glory in which Homeric heroes saw their mirrored images. Nature veils the true goal with a phantasm, an Apollonian illusion (as represented here by the Olympian gods): "and while we stretch out our hands for the latter, Nature attains the former by means of your illusion."

The Greeks had such a talent for suffering and for the wisdom of suffering, that out of necessity they created the Apollonian illusion to save themselves from despair, and to keep themselves striving for glory.

Analysis

Having broken down the Greek artistic mentality into Apollonian and Dionysian impulses, Nietzsche now attempts to trace the origins of these impulses. This presents a puzzling contradiction in terms, for if every artist is an imitator of these two art-states of nature, regardless of their identity or culture, then how can these art-states be dependent on two deities that were created by Greek culture at a specific point in history? Nietzsche vacillates between seeing Apollo and Dionysus as metaphors for a way of thinking, and seeing them as the necessary enactors of this way of thinking. However, this contradiction does not give Nietzsche much trouble, as he is more concerned with the Greeks and their development of art, not with people who came before or after.

Nietzsche makes a vague attempt to pin down the origin of the Apollonian archetype of the dreaming Greek, but since it is impossible to say what Greek dreams looked like, he moves quickly on to discuss the archetype of the Dionysian Greek. It is interesting to note that he abandons the term drunkenness here and speaks only of the "Dionysian." For, were he to speak purely of drunkenness, he would be forced to acknowledge that Greeks were drinking long before Dionysus arrived. Rather, Nietzsche places the emphasis on the transformation of Dionysus once he hit Greece and ran into Apollo, and art was born.

The advent of Dionysus in Greece was a celebrated and much documented event in Greek myth, and Nietzsche seizes on this moment as the seminal one for art. For, while Apollo was indigenous to Greece, thus making his origins in the Greek consciousness difficult to trace, Dionysus arrived from Asia sometime during the archaic period, bringing with him his revelries, music, and ecstatic dancing. The event is immortalized in Euripides' ##Bacchae,## which Nietzsche discusses later in the text.

Nietzsche places a great deal of emphasis on the differences between Dionysian Greeks and Dionysian barbarians, arguing that the Dionysian impulse only became artistic, and thus productive and beautiful, once it hit Greece and encountered the Apollonian. Before that, it was mere destructive orgiastic energy with no value whatsoever. Nietzsche has little qualms in discounting "barbaric" culture, that is, all peoples non-Greek, in one foul swoop. Nietzsche seems to shudder as he writes, "In nearly every case these festivals centered in extravagant sexual licentiousness, whose waves overwhelmed all family life and its venerable traditions; the most savage natural instincts were unleashed, including even that horrible mixture of sensuality and cruelty which has always seemed to me to be the genuine 'witches' brew."

Nietzsche carefully sets the stage for the meeting of Apollo and Dionysus, explaining how, before Dionysus came to Greece, his influence on culture was entirely destructive. Apollo, the god of civilization, had a good influence on Dionysus, transforming his destruction into redemption. Nietzsche writes, "But if we observe how, under the pressure of this treaty of peace, the Dionysian power revealed itself, we shall now recognize in the Dionysian orgies of the Greeks, as compared with the Babylonian Sacaea with their reversion of man to the tiger and the ape, the significance of festivals of world-redemption and days of transfiguration." The meeting of these two deities provides the spark for the "artistic jubilee" that is to follow.

Dionysus was not the only one with flaws before this encounter, however. In his third chapter, Nietzsche explains the root of Apollonian culture as being the need to disguise the world of suffering under a veil of beauty. The Apollonian "appearance", while brilliant and joyful, is merely a disguise, a deceit created by the Greeks so that they could bear their suffering. Nietzsche also argues that the Greeks were particularly sensitive creatures and thus more susceptible to their suffering, and more in need of some protection from it. And so the Apollonian impulse gave birth to the Olympian gods, says Nietzsche. We must stress here that no Greek would ever have considered Apollo the driving impulse for the Olympian gods; this is another warping of the Greek mentality for the benefit of Nietzsche's argument.

Thus, while Dionysus brought only destruction before his arrival in Greece, Apollo brought only the disguise of suffering and no real redemption.

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