Monday, February 14, 2011

The Birth of Tragedy: Nietzche

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In this work, Nietzsche theorizes that Greek tragedy was built upon the wedding of two principles, which he associated with the deities Apollo and Dionysius. The Apollonian principle, in keeping with the characteristics of the sun god Apollo, is the principle of order, static beauty and clear boundaries. The Dionysian principle, in contrast, is the principle of frenzy, excess, and the collapse of boundaries.
These principles offered perspectives on the position of the individual human being, but perspectives that were radically opposed to one another. The Appollonian principle conceived the individual as sufficiently separate from the rest of reality to be able to contemplate it dispassionately. The Dionysian principle, however, presents reality as a tumultuous flux in which individuality is overwhelmed by the dynamics of a living whole. Nietzsche believed that a balance of these principals is essential if one is both to recognize the challenge to one's sense of meaning posed by individual vulnerability and to recognize the solution, which depends on one's sense of oneness with a larger reality. Greek tragedy, as he saw it, confronted the issue of life's meaning by merging the perspectives of the two principles.
The themes of Greek tragedy concerned the worst case scenario from an Apollonian point of view--the devastation of vulnerable individuals. Scholarship had concluded that the chanting of the chorus was the first form of Athenian tragedy. Nietzsche interpreted the effect of the chorus as the initiation of a Dionysian experience on the part of the audience. Captivated by music, audience members abandoned their usual sense of themselves as isolated individuals and felt themselves instead to be part of a larger, frenzied whole.
This sense of self as part of a dynamic whole gave a different ground for experiencing life as meaningful than one would recognize in the more typical Apollonian condition, which entails a certain psychic distance. Feeling oneself to be part of the joyous vitality of the whole, one could take participation in life to be intrinsically wonderful, despite the obvious vulnerabilities one experiences as individual. The aesthetic transformation of the audience member's sense of the significance of individual life aroused a quasi-religious affirmation of life's value. "It is only as an aesthetic phenomenon that existence and the world are eternally justified," Nietzsche concluded.
The function of characters and drama later added to tragedy depended on the fundamental, enthralled experience of oneness with the chorus, according to Nietzsche. Already incited to a Dionysian state before the tragic hero appeared on stage, the audience would see the character before them as a manifestation of the god Dionysius. Unfortunately, Euripides restructured tragedy in such a way that the chorus' role was diminished. Euripides wrote plays that would encourage an Appollonian stance of objective interest in the drama. Nietzsche contended that in his attempt to write intelligent plays, Euripides had killed tragedy. He had done so, moreover, because he had fallen under the influence of Socrates.
The Birth of Tragedy is the first of many works in which Nietzsche re-evaluates the traditional view that Socrates was the quintessential philosopher. Although granting that Socrates was a turning point in world history, Nietzsche contends that Socrates was responsible for directing Western culture toward an imbalanced, exaggerated reliance on the Apollonian point of view. A defender of reason to an irrational degree, Socrates had taught that reason could penetrate reality to the point that it could correct reality's flaws. This had become the fundamental dream of Western culture, a dream that was later manifested in the modern approach to scholarship. Unfortunately, the optimism of the Socratic rational project was doomed to failure. Reason itself, through Kant, had pointed to its own limits. Whatever reason might accomplish, it could not correct the most basic flaws in human reality--the facts of human vulnerability and mortality.
The Birth of Tragedy also involves an indictment of contemporary culture as well as an account of the significance of tragedy. Contemporary culture's reliance on reason and it's commitment to scientific optimism had rendered the modern individual largely oblivious to the Dionysian character of reality--character which engulfed all individuals in the flow of life but which also rendered everyone subject to death and devastation. The repression of vulnerability was psychologically disastrous, in Nietzsche's view. The only hope for modern culture was that it might turn to myth, which could compensate for the culture's excesses, before a crisis.
The Birth of Tragedy failed initially to secure esteem for Nietzsche among his philological colleagues. Nevertheless, the work has had enduring influence. In particular, the analysis of Apollo and Dionysius has had an impact on figures in diverse fields, among them Thomas Mann and C.G. Jung.
In The Case of Wagner (1888) and Nietzsche Contra Wagner (1895) Nietzsche analyzed and critiqued Wagner, and criticized his earlier views of Wagner. Since one of Nietzsche's early works, The Birth of Tragedy, and two of his later works were about Wagner, it would seem that the relationship between Nietzsche and Wagner was significant to Nietzsche, even though he decided not to see Wagner again more than ten years before he wrote The Case of Wagner. Although his first work was a pro-Wagner work, his last work on Wagner was an anti-Wagner work. In The Case of Wagner, Nietzsche praised Bizet's Carmen, but condemned the works of Wagner. He says that it seems that in a music drama of Wagner, it always seems that someone is being redeemed. Indeed, some of Wagner's operas are about Christian concepts, and Nietzsche was against this. Nietzsche went on to insult Wagner by stating that Wagner's music is sick and corrupt and that Wagner is a decadent, even though it seems that no one realizes even in Paris that Wagner is a decadent. Not only did he accuse Wagner of being a decadent, but he also questioned whether Wagner was a musician at all. Nietzsche also stated that Wagnerian heroines were decadents like Madame Bovary and accused Wagner of writing nihilistic music.

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