Nietzsche's Concept of Tragedy

Also Read

      Nietzsche another German philosopher in his first full-length book, The Birth of Tragedy (1872), trust evolution of tragedy from early ritual, through the journey of Apollonian and Dionysian forces, until its early death in the hands of Socrates in opposition to Schopenhauer, Nietzsche viewed tragedy as the art form of sensual acceptance of the terrors of reality and rejoicing in those terrors in love of fate (amor fati), and therefore as the antithesis to the Socratic Method, or the belief in the power of reason to unveil any and all of the mysteries of existence. Ironically, Socrates was fond of quoting from tragedies. Nietzsche in 'What I Owe to the Ancients’ in his Twilight of the Idols wrote:

"The psychology of the orgiastic as an overflowing feeling of life and strength, where even pain still has the effect of a stimulus, gave me the key to the concept of tragic feeling, which had been misunderstood both by Aristotle and even more by modern pessimists. Tragedy is so far from being a proof of the pessimism (in Schopenhauer’s sense) of the Greeks that it may, on the contrary, be considered a decisive rebuttal and counterexample. Saying Yes to life even in its strangest and most painful episodes, the will to life rejoicing in its own inexhaustible vitality even as it witnesses the destruction of its greatest heroes - that is what I called Dionysian, that is what I guessed to be the bridge to the psychology of the tragic poet. Not in order to be liberated from terror and pity, not in order to purge oneself of a dangerous effect by its vehement discharge — which is how Aristotle understood tragedy - but in order to celebrate oneself the eternal joy of becoming, beyond all terror and pity - that tragic joy included even joy in destruction."

      The first fifteen chapters of The Birth of Tragedy deal explicitly with Greek tragic drama. Nietzsche saw two trends emerge in the history of Greek art as a whole, and his analysis of them remains an important contribution to the Western philosophical and literary tradition. These trends, he argues, can be found in greater or lesser degrees in all of Greek art and philosophy, but they come together most effectively in Greek drama, especially the tragedies of the classical period, or Golden Age, of Greek culture.

      The first trend Nietzsche named was the Dionysian because he identified it with the cult of Dionysus, god of the grape harvest, wine, and ecstasy in general. To the Romans, he was known as Bacchus, and the mystery cult dedicated to him, the Bacchanalia, who was famous across the ancient world for the ritual orgies in which drunken devotees participated on a regular basis. It was this aspect of the Dionysian that Nietzsche picked up on, extending its association with revelry and ecstatic experience to the realm of the arts and culture. For Nietzsche, the Dionysian was associated with music and dance, those forms of human expression beyond language or reason that possess the power to obliterate a person’s sense of self. When we dance, sing, or play music, we get overtaken by a sense of ‘oneness’ with the world around us. All of our everyday cares pass away in the thrill of the moment. Our identities as doctors, gas station attendants, men, women, Jews, Protestants, gay, straight, pass away in the ecstasy of what Nietzsche called the primordial unity.

      The second trend of Greek art and culture that Nietzsche analyzed is the total opposite of the Dionysian. Nietzsche identified this trend with the god Apollo, so he named it the Apollonian. Apollo was the god of a wide variety of things, but his association with prophecy and especially with truth and knowledge, in Nietzsche’s mind, made him the perfect counterpart for the Dionysian worldview. Figures like Socrates (a philosopher considered to have established the tradition of rational inquiry in the West) and Euripides (a writer guilty of writing dramas that emphasized the fate of individuals and a faith in human institutions) threw the idea of a primordial unity out to the curb. These great thinkers and artists were only concerned with people’s role in the family and the state, or they thought they could explain the world exclusively in terms of rational order by cataloging the flight patterns of swallows. Both of these persuasions were sin in Nietzsche’s mind.

Previous Post Next Post