Some Random Thoughts on Nietzsche’s Birth of Tragedy

Perhaps others will recall, as I do, shouting out, sometimes successfully, words of encouragement in the midst of the perils and terrors of a dream: ‘It is a dream! I will dream on!’ – Nietzsche, The Birth of Tragedy, 16

The contrast between this genuine truth of nature and the cultural lie which pretends to be the only reality is like the contrast between the eternal core of things, the thing-in-itself, and the entire world of phenomena; and just as tragedy, with its metaphysical solace, points to the eternal life of that core of being despite the constant destruction of the phenomenal world, the symbolism of the chorus of satyrs is in itself a metaphorical expression of that original relationship between thing-in-itself and phenomenon. The idyllic shepherd of modern man is merely a counterfeit of the sum of educated illusions which modern man takes to be nature; the Dionysian Greek wants truth and nature at full strength – and sees himself transformed by magic into a satyr. – Ibid., 41-2

I recently mentioned to you, Craig, that I think Nietzsche’s The Birth of Tragedy ranks up there with Stanley Fish’s Surprised by Sin as one of the most important and elegant works of criticism.

What I meant is that it’s insuperable: once you entertain its thesis, you can’t ignore it. This is the case with Fish’s book. Try to teach Milton, and you can’t escape Fish’s description of our fallen love of Milton’s Satan as the poem’s central temptation, precisely designed to turn a critical lens back on ourselves as fallen readers of Milton.

My thought is that Nietzsche does the same thing, though with our ideas of redemption rather than reprobation. Practically speaking, Nietzsche’s account of the Apollinian and Dionysian dominates one’s thinking about Greek theatre in exactly the same way. Once you grant the idea of Apollo and Dionysus as two symbolic poles – structure and song, dream and intoxication, principle of individuation and its under-riding will – as a possible way of reading tragedy, it’s everywhere. I’m preparing to teach classical drama this fall, and the dichotomy lingers in the syllabus. The Bacchic tearing of Pentheus that we’ll read in Euripides in the middle of the course is the schizoid voice barely suppressed by Apollo’s taming of the Furies that we’ll have read in Aeschylus at then beginning.

But that’s just dialectical thinking, and Nietzsche isn’t interested in dialectic. For that matter, he isn’t interested in Euripides, whose version of Dionysus Nietzsche reads as a sign of decadence and the triumph of a kind of Platonic cynicism.

Nietzsche’s more unsettling idea is that we’re always falling into a kind of redemption, but it is the experience of that redemption and resolution as a fall that is the true Dionysian force of art. Oedipus can be Nietzsche’s heroic ideal because he is the suffering being who has not sinned. It is only the Apollinian order – the demand for justice, for judgment, and the naming of individual responsibility – that awakens Oedipus to the wisdom of his terrible guilt, though a guilt that reveals Oedipus as the sacrifice for us all: deep inside, we all wish to commit incest with our mother. The symbolicanagnorisis, or resolution, comes only with the tacit acknowledgment of that intoxicating, unrepresentable desire.

Nietzsche’s weird move is to make this experience a condition of our being-in- the-world in general but also of a certain kind of theater in particular. Our attempts to save ourselves by discerning the representations of the world around us are only desperate cries to keep dreaming, though the cry for Nietzsche itself is significant. “I will dream on!” is the urge to seize the mask of the satyr, and to pursue wisdom and redemption like men wearing funny phalluses.  What’s disturbing about this thesis is the collapsing of the one into the other: every act of criticism, every act of reading which acknowledges the fiction yet keeps on reading – like men in theatre – would thus be the genealogical symptom of the very original, very lost rites of Dionysus. Nietzsche makes it hard not to keep coming back to Nietzsche.




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