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The Birth of Tragedy

Friedrich Nietzsche

Chapter 16

Chapters 13–15

Chapters 17 & 18

Summary

Tragedy could not live without the spirit of music. Music, in turn, can provide for the rebirth of tragedy. In contrast, the greatest opposition to the tragic worldview is modern "optimistic science," which is the descendent of Socratic thought. However, there are indications that the rebirth of tragedy may now be possible.

The main points of the essay so far can be briefly summarized in this manner: Art is not derived from one exclusive principle, but rather from the conjunction of the two worlds of art represented by Apollo and Dionysus. Apollo is the transfiguring genius of the principium individuationis, through which alone redemption in appearance can be attained. The spell of individuation is then broken by the mystic cry of Dionysus, who leads the way to the innermost heart of things.

Richard Wagner is the only one to have recognized this antithesis. He has shown music to have a different character from all other arts, in that it is not a copy of the phenomenon, but a copy of the will itself, and thus is one step closer to the world. Others have misunderstood music to be an art delighting in beautiful forms. This essay has endeavored to show the opposite, that it is the only art to transcend the forms of appearance. The study of the Greeks up until this date has entirely misunderstood the point.

Schopenhauer, in his "World as Will and Idea," provides key insight into the relationship between music and image and concept. Music, regarded as an expression of the world, is a universal language that speaks directly to the world. Music is not a copy of the phenomenon, but rather a copy of the will itself. Melodies are an abstraction of the 'actual,' the real world. The universality of music is opposed to the universality of concepts. Whereas concepts are 'universalia post rem' (universality after the fact), music gives the 'universalia ante rem' (universality before the fact), and the real world 'universalia in re' (universality in itself). The composer achieves an expression of the will not by conscious intention by means of his conceptions, but through a direct knowledge of the nature of the world unknown to his reason. The use of reason, and the abstraction of the conceptual, places man in the world of inadequate imitation. The composer uses his intuition to avoid this plight.

Dionysian art exercises two kinds of influence on the Apollonian art faculty. Firstly, music is able to access the 'symbolic-intuition' of Dionysian universality, and provide the medium through which this symbolic image may emerge in its highest significance. Music thus gives birth to tragic myth. Secondly, music strives to express its nature in Apollonian images.

If one fails to see the connection between music and tragedy, then one misses the point of the tragic essence entirely. "For, it is only through the spirit of music that we can understand the joy involved in the annihilation of the individual." If we were conscious only of the world of images, then the vision of the tragic hero's death would be cause for sorrow. However, through music we are able to access the Dionysian universality and become aware that the hero is only phenomenon, and the eternal life of his will cannot be destroyed by his death. Whereas Apollonian art tries to console us with the idea of the eternity of the beautiful image, Dionysus provides us with a far more redemptive truth.

Analysis

At this point in his essay, Nietzsche makes a transition from discussing the nature of Greek tragedy to discussing the modern ramifications of his ideas. In order to substantiate his transition from the Greek world to his contemporary Germany, Nietzsche must prove to us that music is the key to accessing the Dionysian universal soul. For music is a concrete element that Greek and German society have in common. If music is all that is required for tragedy to be reborn, then Germany has the chance to instigate this rebirth. Nietzsche's purpose for writing his essay is becoming clearer; he urges his readers to reestablish the link with Dionysus that has lain dormant for over two thousand years, and thus contribute to the redemption of German culture. The main obstacle to the Dionysian ethos is "optimistic science," the descendent of Socratic thought, which has convinced us that it alone can explain the nature of the world. But music has the power to show us a world beyond the scientific, opening the path to the soul of the universe itself. One gets the sense here that Nietzsche was listening to a great deal of opera as he composed this book, as his explanations definitely tend toward the dramatic.

Nietzsche uses a large excerpt from Schopenhauer to support his claim that music is the only art able to supercede the superficial layer of "phenomenon," and access the "will" itself. It is the Dionysian aspect of music that gives it this power. Nietzsche contends that all those classicists before him who viewed music as a mere beautiful form were mistaken. Schopenhauer's statement that music is a universal language jives nicely with Nietzsche's portrayal of music as the essence of the Dionysian, which brings us back to the primal unity. Nietzsche must prove this point in order to separate music from "phenomenon," which he has described as the realm of the Apollonian.

In the expert opinion that Nietzsche takes from Schopenhauer, the opposition between music and concept is clarified by their relationship to 'universalia.' Concepts are the 'universalia post rem,' that is, the universal after the fact. By this he means that concepts are used to qualify reality after it takes place, and thus are separated by reality by thinking that is required to understand it. Music, on the other hand, gives the 'universalia ante rem', the universal before the fact. Music is able to access the force of will that produces the images of reality. Music taps into the well of Dionysian knowledge and thus is not limited by conscious thought.

Nietzsche argues that those who consider music to be a mere pretty form are totally shut off from a true understanding of tragedy. If one does not understand that music is Dionysian at heart, then one is unable to grasp the redemption that it brings. Nietzsche is clearly striving here to separate himself from contemporary aesthetic thinkers, by constantly insisting that he alone has succeeded in perceiving the true nature and value of art. He raises the stakes of aesthetic discussion, suggesting that those who do not understand art cannot comprehend the nature of life and truth itself. The key aspect of tragedy that those who do not understand music will miss is "the joy involved in the annihilation of the individual." Nietzsche does not mourn at the death of the hero, for he knows that the hero is but an appearance, a manifestation of the eternal will that cannot die with him. If man will only recognize Dionysus for what he is, man will see that he can access a well of immortality that will preserve man through all suffering. As in earlier passages, the Christian connotations here are clear.

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