Nietzsche, The Birth of Tragedy

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Nietzsche, The Birth of Tragedy (1872)
Nietzsche’s first book was written during the Franco-Prussian War (1870–71, published in 1872): a time of great national enthusiasm: the very birth of the German Nation. It was dedicated to Richard Wagner, who championed a New Art—the “Music of the Future” (Zukunftsmusik): a spectacular unification of all the various arts: ein Gesamtkunstwerk: Just as Germany would be a unification of the heterogeneous collection of cultures scattered across Northern Europe.
Toward the end of his writing career, Nietzsche would scoff at these aspirations: both the Wagnerian dream of a Gesamtkunstwerk and the delusion of a unified German identity. At this point, on the brink of madness, Nietzsche published an “Attempt at a Self-Criticism” (1886), where he described the Birth of Tragedy as “an impossible book”—“a first book […] marked by every defect of youth,” but also “a proven book [ein bewiesenes Buch].”
How, then, should one read an “impossible” but “proven” book? How might one understand a book that denies the possibility of understanding? Is this impossibility a proven impossibility? Or is the proof something that emerges despite its impossible claims? Is this collocation of impossibility and “being proven” to be regarded as “Dionysian”—as that which exceeds the law of non-contradiction?
Is it not precisely this Dionysian quality that occasions the later “self-criticism”—the Selbstkritik that splits the subject in two: one part criticizing or passing judgment on the other?
According to Nietzsche’s later essay, in addition to serving as an occasion for self-criticism, this impossible but proven book should be regarded as a critique of German unification and the philistinism it had come to promote. As Nietzsche’s subsequent books argue, philistinism—the opinions and conventions of the herd—mark a triumph of “science” (Wissenschaft): a victory of resting complacently with what we already know.
Philistines turn to science to confirm their own conservative and self-preserving beliefs. For this reason, Nietzsche strives to show that the triumph of Wissenschaft is achieved at the expense of vitality: it prevents us from moving beyond what we already know. It keeps us secure in knowledge that is certain and unshakeable.
Nietzsche understands the attraction of science: He realizes that Wissenschaft acts as a shield against pessimism: it is an institution that saves us from the abyss of non-knowledge—an institutional evasion of danger.
We turn to science to give us a sense of security. Yet, although this security renders us carefree, it also risks making us careless. Secured in scientific knowledge, we surrender ourselves to the given: we stay in place, confined by our definitions. We foreclose the future of possibilities.
Paradoxically, it takes an “impossible” book to destroy the possibility of secure knowledge and thereby open the door to other, incalculable, unheard-of possibilities. True possibility is made possible by means of impossibility.
The opening sentence is emblematic of this pursuit:
Wir werden viel für die aesthetische Wissenschaft gewonnen haben, wenn wir nicht nur zur logischen Einsicht, sondern zur unmittelbaren Sicherheit der Anschauung gekommen sind, dass die Fortentwickelung der Kunst an die Duplicität des Apollinischen und des Dionysischen gebunden ist: in ähnlicher Weise, wie die Generation von der Zweiheit der Geschlechter, bei fortwährendem Kampfe und nur periodisch eintretender Versöhnung, abhängt.
“We shall have gained much for aesthetic science, when we have come to realize, not only through logical insight but also through the immediate security of apprehension [zur unmittelbaren Sicherheit der Anschauung], that the continuous development of art is bound up with the duplicity of the Apollonian and the Dionysian: in a similar way as generation [or reproduction] depends on the duality of the sexes, in their on-going battle and the only periodically occurring reconciliation.”
The project is driven by a desire for “gain”—for accomplishing something vitally important for “aesthetic science.”
Aesthetic science is nearly oxymoronic, insofar as it combines a mode of perceiving particulars (aisthēsis) and a mode of transcending those particulars, which are elevated to the level of generality and regularity.
Aisthēsis looks downward and science (noesis) looks upward. With this one term—aesthetic science—Nietzsche implies a reconciliation of the ancient quarrel between poetry and philosophy.
Logic promises us a kind of certainty or security (Sicherheit)—it allows us to penetrate into the essence of things, to peer inside, to gain “insight” (Einsicht). This is the work of logos, a gathering of particulars into a general rule: into a system of regularity that allows us to make predictions, to conquer future contingencies.
But immediate perception offers its own “security” – the “immediate security of what we have before our eyes”—die unmittelbare Sicherheit der Anschauung. Immediate means not mediated by logos. This kind of security depends on something that precedes the logos, something that precedes our verbal systems of meaning.
In terms of phenomenology, we could characterize the logos as the ideality of meaning, which is opposed to its material conditions.
If we remain on the level of human language, we could readily distinguish the voice from the meaning: the voice is the material medium of meaning: a mere vehicle that conveys meaning, without contributing to the meaning itself. In this view, the voice is dispensable.
But the voice is dispensable only when we regard language as semiotic—as an instrument for transmitting ideas. In contrast, when we listen aesthetically, when we pay attention to the material conditions of the voice—the intonation, the pitch, the cadence, the accent, the rhythm—then we discover new kinds of meaning: meanings that transcend what we already know, meanings that may make us uncomfortable or insecure.
As we continue to read in the first chapter of The Birth of Tragedy, we learn that the immediate, pre-verbal experience is linked to music. The Apollonian represents the image-making tendency of sculpture and the Dionysian represents the imageless tendency of music.
These two “drives” (Triebe) are in perpetual conflict: and it is out of this conflict that the ancient art of Greek tragedy was born. Ancient tragedy is the great reconciliation that emerges out of this on-going battle.
The scheme is altogether Wagnerian: an attempt to derive art from the marriage of two antithetical principles. For Wagner, opera is a rebirth of ancient tragedy, insofar as it stages the conflict between the form-granting force of verbalized melody and the formless pull of non-verbal harmony.
Wagner also portrayed this antithesis on the model of sexual reproduction: melody is the masculine principle, giving sculpted form and direction to the music, as it risks dissolving into feminine harmony.
In this light, Wagner seems to draw his theory from Schiller’s Aesthetic Letters, where he clearly differentiates the “formal drive” from the “material drive.”
For Nietzsche, art is a product of a sexual duality: Apollonian iconophilia (Plastik, dream) and Dionysian iconoclasm (Musik, intoxication).
For Wagner, “Musik ist ein Weib.” Music is a woman insofar as it is material—that which awaits the spiritual imprint of the male principle, the logos spermatikos. Music and the feminine are bodies—opaque figures that resist conceptual penetration.
Science that has lost touch with the aesthetic leads to weak complacency. We need the aesthetic risk to keep our lives alive, to give birth to new life.
Soon after he accepted his post as professor of Classical Philology at the University of Basel, Nietzsche began to frequent Wagner’s home at Tribschen. Wagner clearly serves as a surrogate for the father Nietzsche lost when he was only four years old (Wagner was born in 1813, the same year as Nietzsche’s father).
Young Nietzsche also concealed an ardent, impossible (Oedipal) passion for Cosima. For Nietzsche she could have been an Ariadne leading him through the labyrinth of his suffering—but this object of desire was absolutely prohibited by the father, whom he would later have to slaughter in The Case of Wagner (1888).
In the Birth of Tragedy, the term “Dionysian” describes a musical power that overwhelms us with its depth and intensity: Dionysian music is a music of Power, music as material Source: permitting us to experience the heart of things: das Wesen des Dinges.
Following Schopenhauer, music symbolizes the universal will itself, and thereby exceeds language, which can only symbolize phenomena. Music alone can express the interior essence of the world. Wagner’s Beethoven essay played a crucial influence on Nietzsche’s formulation. (This is the essay where Wagner cites Schopenhauer at length and explicitly adopts his terminology.)
In Nietzsche’s view, Apollo, the god of images and delightful illusion, redeems us from the overwhelming frenzy of Dionysus. But Apollonian art has become too cold, too formal, too enthralled by a representational style that Nietzsche will call Socratic or Euripidean or Alexandrian. Apollo sponsors the triumph of science over art: it instrumentalizes the aesthetic.

Nietzsche’s Fall

Months after publishing the Case of Wagner, on January 3, 1889: Nietzsche is walking the streets of Turin — he was always fond of Piedmont cuisine. In the Piazza Carlo Alberto, he sees a horse being beaten by a whip (Peitsche). In tears, he runs to embrace the animal and then falls to the street. He suffers a complete mental collapse—like Rousseau, who was run over by a dog-driven carriage, Nietzsche forgets his name and his address; like his father, he “dies” in falling.
The attraction Italy holds for German writers and thinkers: Goethe’s Italienische Reise, where he met Christiane Vulpius, whom he brought back—scandalously— to Weimar; Freud’s nearly hypnotic return to the same, uncanny piazza in Rome; Gustav von Aschenbach’s death in Venice.
Some of Nietzsche’s friends brought him back to Basel, and then to an asylum in Jena, where a well-known psychologist, Julius Langbehn agreed to cure him. His mother refused to submit Friedrich to treatment and instead brought him home.
May 1890: Nietzsche leaves his mother’s house and begins undressing on the street, wanting to go for a swim in a puddle. He spends his days staring out the window, repeating in a childish voice: “I am dead because I am stupid; I am stupid because I am dead.” Other times he’ll repeat Goethe’s “Mehr Licht!” or “I do not like horses.”

December 1890, his sister Elisabeth returned to Germany to help with the convalescence. She eventually acquires exclusive rights to Nietzsche’s writings and sues those who continue to publish Nietzsche’s books. At this point, Nietzsche is insane and an invalid. After his mother’s death in 1897, Elisabeth moves him to Weimar, where he dies three years later: in the capital of German classicism.

Nietzsche’s eventual fall into complete insanity broaches the question about his work: Did his constant flirtation with madness lead him to this sorry state? Is there something about Nietzsche’s thought—including his impossible book—that threatens to drive its readers mad?


The Birth of Tragedy may be impossible because the portrayal of the Dionysian is blatantly contradictory. Dionysus is simply assigned too many roles: on the one hand: primitive and archaic; but then post-Apollonian and modern on the other; quintessentially Greek and fundamentally non-Greek or barbaric. Ultimately, Dionysus even stands for a proto-Christian “beyond” (Jenseits) that disrupts the basic Greek appreciation for the here and now (Diesseits). That said, the Dionysian is also anti-metaphysical: the existential ground of all dream-like visions—the substratum of suffering.
Moreover, despite the claims for the necessity of duality (Zweiheit), Dionysus seems to be the singular truth, which render’s Apollo’s role unnecessary. All the same, Apollo is not unnecessary.
Indeed, at the end of §1, Dionysus is portrayed as an Apollonian artist: the sculptor god who molds mankind.
Elsewhere, Dionysus is also understood as “appearance” (§6). In accordance with Schopenhauer, visual art is an appearance of an appearance (a representation of a representation); while music is an appearance of the Will. Although at points Nietzsche will identify Dionysus as Will, it appears that Will precedes both Apollo and Dionysus.
An invitation to hear the text (Thon, tönt), and not just read it (visually). To read and listen, without the exclusion of the other.
Apollonian illusion, which includes prophecy and medicine, makes life possible and worth living—“It is a dream! I will dream on!” Apollo represents the principium individuationis (Schopenhauer): the fragile bark that protects the sailor caught within the torrential storm at sea: the illusion that permits us to live with a healthy mind.
The experience of Apollo is a kind of blindness: “a beautiful veil” that covers over something horrific (suffering, pain, mortality).
The terror that results from the collapse of the principium individuationis is the Dionysian: Bacchic, orgiastic, shamanistic. Nature is no longer the alienated other of man. All barriers are dissolved. All boundaries transgressed, including the division between Apollo and Dionysus. Complete union, reconciliation, fusion.
“Transform Beethoven’s Hymn to Joy into a painting: let your imagination conceive the multitudes bowing to the dust, awestruck—then you will approach the Dionysian” (§1):
Note the turn to the plastic arts (painting): in order to approach (understand, grasp) the non-plastic Dionysian. It is impossible to know that you are in a Dionysian experience: only an individual can be the subject of an experience; and individuality precludes the Dionysian. To know the Dionysian is to not participate in it.
Therefore, the innermost heart of music resists language (§6).
The Olympian order of Joy (analogous to Science) shielded the Greek from the Titanic order of Terror.
Homeric naïveté (and its desire to live long) is a victory over the folk-wisdom of Silenus (it is better not to be, not to have been born at all). The tension is between the lyre of Homer and the aulos of Pindar (§ 6).
Ancient Greek Tragedy emerged out of the collective lyric chorus, when individual actors stepped forward as individuals (§ 7). The individual is the Apollonian form that distinguishes itself from the collective, within which individual distinctions dissolve.
The Apollonian component of drama is best seen in the dialogues—the stichomythia: which express internal, psychological dispositions. All the while, the individual suffers, like Oedipus: feeling the pull of Dionysian confusion and dissolution.
What is born is born into time and therefore mortal. The “birth” of tragedy also implies its ultimate death. For Nietzsche, ancient Greek tragedy died by suicide (§ 11): it allowed the form-endowing, psychological components to overtake the Dionysian substrate.
Euripides is guilty of bringing an end to tragedy: Euripides put the contemporary spectator on stage—he gave the religious rite of tragedy over to “bourgeois mediocrity” (§ 11). He therefore banished Dionysus from the stage, while acknowledging that Dionysus is too powerful to be eradicated (as Euripides demonstrates in the Bacchae, see § 12).
Euripides essentially rationalized tragedy; and for this reason, Nietzsche ascribes to him a certain Socratic tendency: an ironic position, a distanced perspective, that resists self-dissolution.
With Euripides and Socrates we see the replacement of poetry with the science of philosophy. The Platonic dialogues are philosophical dramas, with the individual Socrates as the primary protagonist—a dramatic art that altogether dismisses the Dionysian.
Socrates becomes the paradigm of the “theoretical man”—the individual subject who does not participate in the objects he desires to know (§ 15). Philosophy is founded on the demusicalization of life: a life exclusively devoted to logos.

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