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The Birth of Tragedy

Friedrich Nietzsche

Chapters 9 & 10

Chapters 7 & 8

Chapters 11 & 12

Summary

On the surface, the dialogue of Attic Tragedy appears simple and transparent. We must not be fooled by the apparent obviousness of their verbal confessions, however, as they are only 'appearance' and not the truth. When we look for the source of this light and cheerful appearance, we find its cause in the "secret and terrible things of nature." These Apollonian appearances are "shining spots intended to heal the eye which dire night has seared." The transparent simplicity of the dialogue stems not from a base of comfort, but rather from the need to recover from the darkness of the Dionysian experience.

Even in the myth of Oedipus, a strange and terrible story, we find that there is a beautiful necessity for suffering. Oedipus must be sacrificed so that a new world may be built upon the ashes of the old. Sophocles's Oedipus is not a sinner, as he simply plays out the part assigned to him by the story. The first clue to his unnatural end comes when he solves the riddle of the Sphinx. For, whoever is able to force nature to reveal her secrets must himself be outside of nature. Thus we are made aware of the unnatural fate that must await him. Whoever turns a trick against nature must expect the dissolution of nature in himself. Thus, we have the broken, blinded, incestuous Oedipus who surrenders himself to justice at the end of the play.

In contrast to the passive fate of Oedipus (passive because he made no conscious sin against the Gods) stands the active sin of Aeschylus' Prometheus. Prometheus dares to steal fire from the gods, so that man may control his own fate and not wait on the whim of the Olympians. This story represents "the profound Aeschlean yearning for justice." The individual wishes to break out of his bounds, and must commit the 'original crime' to do so. This 'Aryan' myth, with its 'masculine' crime and 'active sin' stands in direct contrast to the 'Semitic' myth of original sin, which is profoundly 'feminine.' The Promethean myth, with its theme of active striving against the bounds of natural law, is strongly Dionysian. For, while Apollo seeks to calm individual beings with neat boundaries, Dionysus constantly strains against these bonds. However, in its yearning for justice, the Promethean myth is also Apollonian.

As different as they may seem, the characters of Oedipus and Prometheus are both just masks of the original tragic hero—Dionysus. The suffering that these characters undergo is just the surface manifestation of the god "experiencing in himself the agonies of individuation." In assuming the role of an individual, Dionysus allies himself with all of our suffering. He undergoes this torment in order to open the way for the audience to follow him back to the Primal unity. This is the 'mystery doctrine of tragedy,' "the fundamental knowledge of the oneness of everything existent, the conception of individuation as the prime cause of evil, and of art as the joyous hope that the bonds of individuation may be broken in augury of a restored oneness."

The characters of Oedipus and Prometheus existed in Greek myth before the coming of Dionysus, but in Dionysus, Greek myth is born anew. In Attic Tragedy, "Dionysian truth takes over the entire domain of myth as the symbolism of its knowledge." Music is the spirit that Dionysus breathes into these myths to bring them back to life. Orthodox dogmatism kills myth by consigning it to distant history, thus freezing it in the remote past and denying any continuation of its natural vitality and growth. Dionysian music seized myth and brought it back to life on the stage.

Analysis

In order to justify his relentless quest to find Dionysus at the heart of Attic Tragedy, Nietzsche writes that we must not trust what we find on the surface of Sophoclean and Aeschylean dialogue. He writes, "But let us, for the moment, disregard the character of the hero which rises to the surface and grows visible—and which at bottom is nothing but the light-picture cast on a dark wall, that is, appearance through and through." It is in the nature of analysis to look beneath the surface of things, as anything worth studying has some amount of complexity to it. But we must remember that Nietzsche has an agenda, and many of the motivations that he accords to the Greek tragedians are theoretical. Additionally, the cheerfulness that he accords to Oedipus's situation is questionable. Nietzsche argues that, while Oedipus may bring his house to ruin by his action, "through this very action there is brought into play a higher magic circle of influences which build up a new world on the ruins of the old…in contrast to the aged king, burdened with an excess of misery, whose relation to all that befalls him is solely that of a sufferer, we have a supramundane cheerfulness…" This 'cheerful' outcome is but an appearance, he writes. Nietzsche is forced to construct Oedipus's fate as ultimately cheerful, in order to justify his search for the truth of his true suffering (which is not what it appears to be at all).

Nietzsche then presents a causal explanation for Oedipus's fate. The fact that he is able to solve the riddle of the Sphinx indicates that he must have unnatural wisdom, which indicates an unnatural fate ahead of him. Nietzsche's reasoning is intriguing, although perhaps circular; "…wherever by some prophetic and magical power the boundary of the present and future, the inflexible law of individuation and, in general, the intrinsic spell of nature, are broken, an extraordinary counter-naturalness—in this case, incest—must have preceded as a cause; for how else could one force nature to surrender her secrets but by victoriously opposing her by means of the Unnatural?" This reasoning leads Nietzsche to the idea that Dionysian wisdom is a dangerous gift.

Nietzsche's discussion of the transgression of Prometheus against natural boundaries between men and gods leads him to one of the key distinctions separating Apollo from Dionysus. As the god of civilization, Apollo comforts man by drawing boundaries around him, helping to define himself as an individual. While these boundaries allow man to come to know himself, they are also limiting. Dionysus, on the other hand, is the relentless destroyer of boundaries (thus his association with madness). By bringing fire to man, Prometheus encourages him to break out of his bonds and fly as high as he can. Nietzsche writes, "this Titanic impulse, to become as it were the Atlas of all individuals, stand on broad shoulders to bear them higher and higher, farther and farther, is what the Promethean and the Dionysian have in common." Having made a very strong case for the Dionysian aspects of the myth of Prometheus, Nietzsche then introduces a rather weak Apollonian counterbalancing effect, arguing that Aeschylus yearns for 'justice,' an Apollonian trait. Nietzsche fails, however, to clarify what he means by this 'yearning for justice.'

After establishing the Dionysian aspects of two famous tragic heroes, Nietzsche then reveals to us that all tragic heroes are merely masks of Dionysus. Furthermore, it is only through the influence of Dionysus and Dionysian music that these myths are saved from certain death. Nietzsche does this in order to lay the ground for one of the main points of his essay, which is the death of tragedy at the hands of Euripides, who will be the first to counter-pose Dionysus against the tragic hero. This underlying motive will become clearer in the following sections.

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