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The Birth of Tragedy

“Oh, wretched ephemeral race, children of chance and misery, why do you compel me to tell you what it would be most expedient for you not to hear? What is best of all is utterly beyond your reach: not to be born, not to be, to be nothing. But the second best for you is – to die soon.” These sad words, uttered to King Midas by the demigod Silenus, lie at the heart of Nietzsche’s The Birth of Tragedy.

Silenus reveals to the Greeks, and indeed to all humanity, that life at its most pure and naked reality is horrible, violent, nauseating and not worth living. He imparts the wisdom that existence is suffering and pain – that death, disease, and sorrow are all that lie at its dark and terrifying core. But Nietzsche shows what he thinks is the great triumph of the Greek civilization – that through tragedy it found a way to turn the wisdom of Silenus on its head. Its artists and mystics came to realize that there is a sublime and fantastic beauty to be found in the world – and it is one that powerfully justifies existence. Greek art shows that longing for death or non-being might not be so wise after all.

Nietzsche holds that the Greeks perceived two different and opposing forces, and personified them as the gods Apollo and Dionysus. The Dionysian energy was that of “intoxicated reality,” and it was the realm of nature, drunken ecstasy, the annihilation of the individual, the beating of drums, the sound of primal and powerful music. It was the true world revealed, and thus to experience it was a necessity of life. But in order to endure the Dionysian – to face primal unity and the terrible joy of self-annihilation, Nietzsche tells us that the Greek had to use the power of the Apollinian “plastic” art. Only by donning the mask of Apollo could he stare into Dionysian reality and feel the “metaphysical comfort with which. . .every true tragedy leaves us – that life is at the bottom of things, despite all the changes of appearances, indestructibly powerful and pleasurable.”

The Apollinian was powerful because it was the only thing that made existence bearable. Through illusion it gave meaning to life – to live under the radiance of Olympus; to experience even a fraction of its joy and beauty was enough of an incentive for even the greatest hero to continue living as a day laborer instead of wanting to die . Apollo asked his worshippers to “know thyself” and to believe in the principium individuationis. He gave man the dream-state and in his dreams the Greek mystic could first visualize the supreme and glorious figures of the gods – the very fabric of dark reality’s beautiful and dazzling veil. The Apollinian force also gave Homer the inspiration for his epic, lyrical poems The Odyssey and The Iliad, two examples of art that serve to validate and energize the human spirit. But placed at odds against the Dionysian force, it produced tragedy – the art form that Nietzsche believes ultimately made the Greek life bearable.

The tragedy was an arena of sorts for Dionysus and Apollo. The boundary of the arena was the chorus, which represented Dionysian reality. It was not made up of individual people (although it appeared to be) – instead it was a Dionysian multitude of spirits who were essentially one. Each chorus member was thus required to surrender his individuality, and, “in this magic transformation the Dionysian reveler sees himself as a satyr, and as a satyr, in turn, he sees the god, which means in this metamorphosis he beholds another vision outside himself, as the Apollinian complement of his own state. With this new vision the drama is complete.” The chorus creates the vision of the tragic hero who is actually Dionysus himself. He is “. . .the god experiencing in himself the agonies of individuation” as, say, Oedipus or Prometheus. Only when the hero is destroyed – when the mask is torn to pieces and the hero looses his individuality – can Dionysus return to his natural state of true being. Thus, we are “therefore to regard the state of individuation as the origin and primal cause of all suffering, as something objectionable in itself.” The chorus creates and destroys Apollo, and by doing so “transforms the most terrible things by the joy in mere appearance and in redemption through mere appearance.”

Nietzsche’s most striking assertion is that Socrates, through his dramatized epos, replaced the Apollinian / Dionysian dichotomy with a new art – that of “cool, paradoxical thoughts” which replaced Apollinian contemplation and “fiery affects,” which replaced the Dionysian ecstasies. Aesthetic Socrates now judges art with values that appealed only to knowledge – “to be beautiful everything must be conscious.” The chorus becomes merely another actor – a “voice” on stage that tells the audience what is going on. It no longer is reality and the creator thereof. Socratic art appeals to beautiful forms – not Apollinian illusions – and has no place for Dionysian horror. Music no longer comes from the inner being of the will – it copies nature as a “pastoral” piece or whatever other phenomenon it tries to imitate. Science and religion replace the Apollinian because they seek the “why?” of things, which is deemed more important that actual experience. Thus Dionysus cannot survive, for Apollo and he depend mutually on each other for survival. All tragic insight is lost and instead we strive to search for meaning, even if we can find none. We no longer find “joy in existence,” – we want answers. Possession – of knowledge, of reason – is where happiness lies. Nietzsche likens the Socratic quest to that of a person trying to dig to the center of the earth – no matter how long he digs for, no matter how hard he tries, he will never get there. And even more likely, there is no meaning at all – the quest is a futile one. This is Silenus’ wisdom, which is forgotten with the demise of the Dionysian cult.

This is a very interesting position. For if it is true, civilization has indeed been in decline since the time of Socrates, as Nietzsche apparently believes. We have given up feeling the bliss of being in return for some silly quest for ultimate meaning. We do not remember the words of Silenus. All our Cathedrals, science laboratories, schools, mega-malls, etc. are a result of this thirst for understanding. The only time we have tragic insight is when we are unable to explain something with our current knowledge – if it is beyond its boundaries. This is where art steps in and satisfies us, until reason offers an explanation. There are only two times that we are happy – when we are in the act of doing (i.e. working for something, be it money or knowledge), or when we experience rare tragic insight (from something such as love, which rational understanding still cannot adequately explain). Nietzsche seemed to believe that a Dionysian type force was needed to balance this Socratic force – what the translator calls the “artistic Socratic”. It would be the type of music that Wagner composed, and would restore a balance of power.

The artistic Socratic might be able to harness the power of all we think of as bad in society and put it to good use. Crime, hatred, genocide – these are all realities we choose to ignore if we can – at all possible costs. But perhaps we somehow need to experience them – they are as much a part of civilization as our highest monuments are. Maybe there is wisdom in this madness – maybe unreason could teach reason something it does not quite grasp. Behind the neat and tidy suburban walls of America lurks a powerful and dark force that is terrifically exciting and frightening. We love to see our heroes rise and then fall – we see it on the news every day. What does this say about us? Why are we drawn towards this ugly force? We feel an overwhelming need to glimpse at it even though we know we shouldn’t. Everyone loves a scandal – we all watched the OJ verdict as if it had some tremendous impact on our own personal, individual lives. Perhaps it did – after all everyone knows what happened. We achieved a higher consciousness of sorts – by watching that television we became a part of it all – just like everyone else. I was not alive when JFK was shot, but everyone who was can supposedly remember where they were when they “heard the news”. Like the Greek chorus, we loose ourselves to create the god. Then we destroy him, or at least we find release when he is destroyed. And then we create beautiful monuments, libraries, and highways in his memory – and then prepare to do it all over again. It is an endless cycle for us. But maybe we would not have to sacrifice real lives to Dionysus if we understood his force more clearly. The Greek art of tragedy was true art that gave them release – we have no art as such, only the TV and newspaper to loose our individuality in. Everyone should try to understand Dionysus more clearly – to experience him in their everyday life and to be overtaken by his nature. We have enough of Socrates’ disciples working in our office buildings and Space Shuttles – we need more artistic Socrates’ who are daring enough to loose themselves and gain his art. Strike a new balance – create tension!


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