Notes and Quotes – The Birth of Tragedy Chapters 1 & 2

April 6, 2012 — 1 Comment

The basic thesis:

“Their [the Greeks] two deities of art, Apollo and Dionysos, provide the starting point for our recognition that there exists in the world of the Greeks an enormous opposition, both in origin and goals, between the Apolline art of the image-maker or sculptor and the imageless art of music, which is that of Dionysos. These two very different drives exist side by side, mostly in open conflict, stimulating and provoking one another to give birth to ever-new, more vigorous offspring in whom the perpetuate the conflict inherent in the opposition between them, an opposition only apparently bridged by the common term ‘art’ – until eventually, by a metaphysical miracle of the Hellenic ‘Will’, they appear paired and, in pairing, finally engender a work of art which is Dyonysiac and Apolline in equal measure: Attic tragedy.” (BoT; p14)

Nietzsche sees these two artistic drivers as physiological phenomena. This is crucial to his understanding of tragedy. Greek theatre is supposed to physiologically affect the audience. This is similar to theories of montage in cinema, such as those of Sergei Eisenstein.

“Every human being is fully an artist when creating the worlds of dream, and the lovely semblance of dream is the precondition of all the arts of image making, including, as we shall see, an important half of poetry.” (BoT; p15)

There seems to be a contradiction here, for surely if poetry can be considered image-making (text as image-making, so in the abstract) should not music also be considered image making? One just needs to think of a Beethoven symphony and ask oneself whether or not there is imagery in the same abstract sense as imagery generated by the written word.

The real divide between these two artistic drivers is the sense of semblance. The appearance of reality. Semblance is sensed in the image (dream) as there is form, but it is not sensed in the Dionysiac (no form, no image).

“A person with artistic sensibility relates to the reality of dream in the same way as a philosopher relates to the reality of existence: he attends to it closely and with pleasure, using these images to interpret life, and practicing for life with the help of these events.” (BoT; p15)

Tragedy as something normative, desirable, necessary:

“… our innermost being, the deep ground common to all our lives, experiences the state of dreaming with profound pleasure and joyous necessity.” (BoT; p16)

The Dionysiac and reason: possibly responding to the Enlightenment

“… Schopenhauer has described for us the enormous horror which seizes people when they suddenly become confused and lose faith in the cognitive forms of the phenomenal world because the principle of sufficient reason, in one or other of its modes, appears to sustain an exception. If we add to this horror the blissful ecstacy which arises from the innermost ground of man, indeed of nature itself, whenever this breakdown of the principium individuationis occurs, we catch a glimpse of the essence of the Dionysiac, which is best conveyed by the analogy of intoxication. These Dionysiac stirrings, which, as they grow in intensity, cause subjectivity to vanish to the point of complete self forgetting, awaken either under the influence of narcotic drink, of which all human beings and peoples who are close to the origins of things speak in their hymns, or at the approach of Spring when the whole of nature is pervaded by lust for life.” (BoT; p17)

For Nietzsche the Dionysiac is liberating for the individual:

“Now the slave is a feeman, now all the rigid, hostile barriers, which necessity, caprice, or ‘impudent fashion’ have established between human beings, break asunder.” (BoT; p18)

Nietzsche mentions just after this the “mysterious primordial unity”. These thoughts are idealistic and arguable. What’s to say that our primordial antiquity wasn’t chaotic and disparate, eventually gaining unity in the form of community? This version of things being still resonant with the Dionysian.

“Man is no longer an artist, he has become a work of art: all nature’s artistic power reveals itself here, amidst shivers of intoxication, to the highest, most blissful satisfaction of the primordial unity.”

Once again this is very idealistic and utopian. Is this really the essence, or the essential state of man? In what way could nature possibly produce something so raised above itself? Man already is a work of art within nature, he does not need to be elevated to some abstract idealistic platform in order to experience unity. Unity is experienced in breathing air, when your foot touches the earth as you carry yourself along, when any sensory activity takes place at all. There is of course higher perceptive and knowledge levels to attain; wisdom, clarity, depth, memory etc. However, humans whether they know it or not are already part of nature, in a very non abstract sense. At the heart of Nietzsche’s sensibilities in these thoughts there seems to be a dissatisfaction with the human condition expressing itself, though also reaching for an idealistic version of what the human condition could be. Just as every individual is different, and as Niezsche would argue at a different power or hierarchical state of being, any ideas of ‘unity’ or re-connecting with some ecstatic form of existence are themselves subjective, perspective based and abstract creations.

What is the dialectic structure of Nietzsche’s thoughts? Is the Dionysiac the antithesis of the evolved and formed human condition (heavily influenced by the Apolline)? If so, perhaps we can roll back Nietzsche’s argument to this point, and leave alone his vivid pictures of how this antithesis might appear, and consider simply the gap that this antithesis suggests in the human condition? Kind of like building in an anomaly to the general perception of human experience.


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  1. The Eastern/Western dialectic: the dialectic in Alice Bailey’s Theosophy « Aaron Asphar - April 7, 2012

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