Friday, November 21, 2008

Dionysus Returns

Nietzsche's first major published work was The Birth of Tragedy from the Spirit of Music. It is different from most of his other books in that it has more of a dry "semi-academic" style. The work was not considered academic enough, however, by others in the philology profession and actually damaged Nietzsche's career which had begun so brilliantly at the mere age of 24.

One reason for the largely negative reaction to the work by Nietzsche's colleagues was that it is more philosophical, more a critique of art, than philological, reflecting the fact that Fritz was already disenchanted with his profession and would have preferred another career or at least a broader scope.

The Birth of Tragedy was published in 1872, as he completed his third year at Basel University as a Professor of Classical Philology. Briefly, it states that the art of Greek tragedy reached the highest form of expression when it contained a balance of Apollonian and Dionysian influences.

This balance consisted of the strength of individual freedom and expression (Apollo) and the ecstasy of undifferentiated primordial unity (Dionysus). The discovery of this fundamental unity was something Julian Young calls "intellectually stunning." Young concludes: "...the artwork can be both Apollonian and Dionysian: how it can both comfort the individual in the face of the nauseous character of human existence and promote the flourishing of community by gathering it in a celebration and affirmation of its fundamental understanding of how existence is and ought to be." (Young, page 131)


Western civilization had historically lost this balance by the ascension of Apollo as the primary influence in tragedy, chiefly through the work of Euripidus and Socrates. The effect of this forced imbalance was felt in the arts up to Nietzsche's time. But, now thanks to the works of Kant and Schopenhauer and, particularly, the music of Richard Wagner, Dionysus was re-entering the realm of artistic expression.

The Birth of Tragedy is, first and foremost, a cultural critique of not only the ancient Greeks but of contemporary German society. As such, it excited the artists that read it, but it was deemed too harsh and, indeed, unsophisticated by Nietzsche's more conservative colleagues, who also took issue with Nietzsche's representation of Germany as being in a state of cultural decline.

"Nietzsche identifies two things wrong with modern culture. First, through the domination of scientific materialism and the consequent loss of the Dionysian, we have lost that 'metaphysical comfort' which saved us from becoming 'rigid with fear' in the face of the 'horrors of individual existence', in the face, above all, of inevitable 'destruction', death. The second thing wrong with our Socratic culture is that we have lost myth. Modern man is 'mythless man'. 'Myth' for Nietzsche means, in short, just what it means for Wagner - a 'view in common of the essence of things' which constitutes 'that nation itself'. From this point of view the problem with modernity it that all we have is an incoherent and constantly changing chaos of myth-fragments, 'a pandemonium of myths...thrown into a disorderly heap'." (Young pp. 132-133)

In his analysis of the book, R.J. Hollingdale writes: "He showed a special appreciation of the Hellenic world of the sixth century - formerly considered little more than a barbarous preliminary to the glories of the fifth - an it is probable that even if he had not been an original thinker himself he would still be remembered for his exposition of this era...[H]e had discovered that the driving force behind the culture of Hellas had been a contest, agon, the striving to surpass." (page 74) Be that as it may, Nietzsche nevertheless overextended himself in the work. "His advocacy of Wagner was perhaps partly to blame, but his really serious error had been to treat in a wholly unprofessional way a subject in which he was supposed to be a professional specialist. What is of value in The Birth of Tragedy is what links it with Nietzsche's philosophy as a whole: the hypothesis that creation is a product of contest, and that the creative force is controlled and redirected passion." (page 82)

Art itself is taken to be of great cultural and existential importance. My favorite line in the work is: "Only as an aesthetic product can the world be justified to all eternity." This is the late-romantic mind at its best. Nietzsche highly valued the place of art (and particularly of music) in life. Music was the chief way Dionysus was Becoming through Art into the world again.

That Art was a force by which a culture should value itself is also indicated in this line: "But the state no less than art dipped into this current of the timeless to find rest in it from the burden and the greed of the moment. And any people--just as, incidentally, also any individual--is worth only as much as it is able to press upon its experiences the stamp of the eternal; for thus it is, as it were, desecularized and shows its unconscious inward convictions of the relativity of time and of the true, that is metaphysical, significance of life."

The relation of Art (or more precisely the artist) to "the eternal" and the way the artist might "stamp" his "unconscious inward convictions of the relativity of time" are two fundamental concepts. These factors (among others) shape Nietzsche's more mature thinking later on.

The influence of Richard Wagner upon this work was gigantic. At the time of its publication, Fritz was a disciple of Wagner, frequently visiting him, sharing ideas, writing long letters to him, and steeped in the belief that Wagner was the perfect cultural force for the rebirth of genuine art in Germany. The preface of the first edition of the work was devoted to Wagner directly.

The preface reads in part: "I picture the moment when you, my highly respected friend, will receive this essay. Perhaps after an evening walk in the winter snow, you will behold Prometheus unbound on the title page, read my name, and be convinced at once that, whatever this essay should contain, the author certainly has something serious and urgent to say; also that, as he hatched these ideas, he was communicating with you as if you were present, and hence could write down only what was in keeping with that presence."

It should be noted that the word "tragedy" here is used in the old tragedy vs. comedy mode of dramatic distinction. Tragedy as serious, not funny. Fritz would use humor extensively later on, however. Not so much in this major work.

With the passage of time, the work proved to be more important in the field of philology (and philosophy) than was originally accepted and today rightly deserves reputation of an important precursory intellectual achievement. Walter Kaufmann explains: "Nietzsche's supra-historical perspective, however, and the initially poor reception of The Birth of Tragedy in philological circles, should not blind us to the fact that this book did anticipate a new era in the interpretation of Greek culture. F. M. Cornfield, one of the foremost authorities on early Greek religion and philosophy, was to hail The Birth of Tragedy as 'a work of profound imaginative insight, which left the scholarship of a generation toiling in the rear'; and his own, as well as Jane Harrison's, painstaking scholarship has vindicated Nietzsche's intuition of the Apollinian and Dionysian." (page 153)

To that extent, the work can be judged as the birth of Fritz's brilliant, insightful, and original thinking that would lead to much greater philosophical accomplishments in just a few more years.

Regarding the book, Rudiger Safranski wrote that if the work could be summed up in one sentence "it would read roughly as follows: it is better to approach the enormity of life with art, and best of all with music." (page 83)

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