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The Birth of Tragedy

Friedrich Nietzsche

Chapters 7 & 8

Chapters 5 & 6

Chapters 9 & 10

Summary

While fifth century tragedy was made up of actors and a chorus, ancient tradition tells us that tragedy originally contained no actors, and thus arose solely out of the tragic chorus. Many classicists see this chorus as the 'ideal-spectator', representing the people in contrast to the aristocracy. This idea of the chorus as a politically motivated and democratic force is false, for tragedy's origins lie exclusively in religion.

The concept of the chorus as ideal-spectator, espoused by Schlegel, cannot be correct, "for hitherto we had always believed that the true spectator, whoever he may be, must always remain conscious that he was viewing a work of art, and not an empirical reality. But the tragic chorus of the Greeks is forced to recognize real beings in the figures of the drama." Thus, by definition, the chorus cannot be considered a body of spectators.

Rather than existing in and commenting on our reality, the chorus exists in an idealized 'natural state,' in which it observes 'natural beings.' This state of nature is created under the influence of Dionysian music, which neutralizes civilization. Thus the satyric chorus (the original Greek chorus was made up of satyrs) undoes the effects of culture on the Greek man: "and this is the most immediate effect of the Dionysian tragedy, that the state and society, and, in general, the gulfs between man and man, give way to an overwhelming feeling of unity leading back to the very heart of nature." It is under this influence, after he perceives the very nature of suffering itself, that man is in danger of despair. For, once he has perceived the true nature of things, man realizes that no action can oppose the reality of suffering. However, before man can give up on the world in frustration, art enters in with its saving grace. "[Art] alone may transform these horrible reflections on the terror and absurdity of existence into representations with which man may live." Art is not an amusing pleasure, but rather a necessity for existence.

The satyr was "the archetype of man, the embodiment of his highest and intensest emotions." In beholding him, the Greek man of culture was forced to reject the pretty appearances of his own reality and accept the truth of nature as true reality. When sitting in the theater, he could imagine himself as one of the chorus and thus enter the world of Dionysian primal awareness. The dramatist brings to life those spirits which inhabit all of us, so that what the Greeks saw on stage was the embodiment of their united consciousness. The audience as a whole experienced a metamorphosis, with each spectator accepting the essence of the satyr as his own. "The dithyrambic chorus is a chorus of transformed beings, whose civic past and social position are totally forgotten." The world of theater is a world outside of culture, or rather, within culture, revealing its true heart. It is here that the individual is dissolved into the collective.

In this conception, the actors are mere Apollonian appearances. They represent a vision that the chorus generates and then celebrates in song. The chorus is the only reality of the drama. The chorus excites the minds of the audience to Dionysian frenzy, such that they are able to see not masked actors, but gods and heroes on the stage. Thus the Dionysian madness makes the Apollonian dream-state possible.

Analysis

In these sections, Nietzsche defines the relationship between the tragic chorus and tragic actors. He contends that the chorus is at the heart of the tragedy, being the embodiment of the Dionysian consciousness. It is commonly accepted that tragedy's origins lay in the ritual chorus, but Nietzsche goes further, establishing the necessity of this origin.

Before explaining the true nature of the chorus, Nietzsche dismantles the Schlegel's theory that the chorus is the 'ideal spectator.' Because the primitive form of tragedy contained no actors and only a chorus, the chorus cannot be construed as a spectator, for at that time there would have been nothing for them to observe within the realm of the play. "What kind of art would that be in which the spectator does not enter as a separate concept? What kind of art is that whose true form is identical with the 'spectator as such'? The spectator without the play is nonsense." Nietzsche then anticipates the argument that the chorus could be called the spectator of the people by saying that the chorus and the people are not separate; "there was at bottom no opposition of public and chorus."

In order to substantiate this idea, Nietzsche argues that the chorus, defined as it was by Dionysian music, brought the audience back to a state of natural unity. "…[I]n the dithyramb we have a community of unconscious actors, who mutually regard themselves as transformed among one another." Rather than just witnessing the chorus's transformation, the audience is drawn along with it, into the depths of Dionysian tragic suffering. There they forget the shallow phantoms of culture and are able to apprehend the truth of existence.

In order to understand this melding of chorus and audience that Nietzsche describes, we must consider the Greek concept of mimesis, or imitation. We are familiar with the idea that an actor 'plays' a role, assuming the qualities of his character and pretending to live in the world of the play. However, the Greek actor did not only play his part, he lived it. The mimesis, or imitation, that took place was not feigned but real. When the news came to Creon that Antigone was dead, the audience would have wept for her actual death, not for the idea of it. For, when myths were re-enacted on the stage, a divine influence was present (in the form of Dionysus), such that the mythical actions were actually happening all over again. Thus one can say that a Greek audience member went much further than suspending his disbelief; rather, he entered the world of the tragedy, mesmerized in what Nietzsche would call the 'Apollonian dream-state.' Once he entered the realm of that reality, the world that we would consider 'real' ceased to exist. This process allowed theater to play a powerful role in the lives of its audience. In Nietzsche's conception, it allowed them to access the primordial truth offered by the Dionysian mind-state.

However, Nietzsche is careful not to become too one-sided in his praise of Dionysus. Although Dionysus instigates this process, it cannot proceed without Apollo. For, once man enters this Dionysian understanding and truth, he is in danger of losing himself there, and becoming unable to continue with his everyday reality. "In this sense the Dionysian man resembles Hamlet: both have for once penetrated into the true nature of things,—they have perceived, but it is irksome for them to act; for their action cannot change the eternal nature of things; the time is out of joint and they regard it as shameful or ridiculous that they should be required to set it right. Knowledge kills action, action requires the veil of illusion…" Luckily, art is designed to provide this very veil of illusion that will allow action to continue, that is, in the form of the Apollonian dream-state. Therein lies the redemptive quality of art.

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