Archives For Attic Tragedy

Is the Apolline and Dionysiac in Greek tragedy incommensurable/utterly disproportionate?? The proportion is potentially crucial to understanding Nietzsche’s conception of Tragedy.

“What we now see revealed, indeed brilliantly illuminated, is the tendency of Euripides, which was to expel the original and all-powerful Dionysiac element from tragedy and to re-build tragedy in a new and pure form on the foundations of a non-Dionysiac art, morality, and view of the world.” (BoT, p59)

Euripides asks the question, cast in the form of a myth, can the Dionysiac be permitted to exist at all? (BoT, p60) The Dionysiac is accepted to be inseparable from man’s condition. It requires and deserves ‘some diplomatically cautious sympathy.’ (BoT, p60) The main force opposed to the Dionysiac driver is the Socratic influence:

“This is the new opposition: the Dionysiac versus the Socratic, and the work of art that once was Greek tragedy was destroyed by it.” (BoT, p60)

Euipides is the person who employs the new Socratic influence to found drama entirely on non-Dionysiac foundations. The question Nietzsche poses is the goal of this project. Euripides is credited with the introduction of a rationalising prologue. Nietzsche claims that a modern writer for the stage would see an all-revealing and rationalising prologue as a renunciation of the effect of suspense. However, Euripides had very specific idea behind this technique:

“The effect of tragedy never rested on epic suspense, on teasing people and making them uncertain about what will happen now or later, but rather on those great rhetorical and lyrical scenes in which the passion and dialectic of the protagonist swelled into a broad and mighty stream. Everything was a preparation for pathos, not for action; and anything that was not a preparation for pathos was held to be objectionable.” (BoT, p62)

Pathos vs Action: an emotional response, rather than a physiological response. By providing the context and all the directives for the audience, Euripides enhanced the inner-emotional experience and pathos of the audience. Could this be thought of in terms of developing the ideological horizon of understanding for the audience? By subduing the audience into pathos through direct exposition and foretelling of the dramatic outcome, Euripedes was building a sphere or horizon of understanding for the audience to rest in. Perhaps the Dionysiac is the presentation of tragedy without a constructed horizon of understanding, in effect the opposite. An escape from ones horizon; a transcendence.

“As long as the nous, the sole orderer and ruler of the world, remained shut out from artistic creation, everything was together in a chaotic, primal soup; this is how Euripides must have judged things; this is why he, the forst sober man, was bound to condemn the ‘drunken’ poets.” (BoT, p63)

Euripides: “Everything must be conscious in order to be beautiful.”

Socrates: “Everything must be conscious in order to be good.”

“Socrates, however, was that second spectator who did not understand the older tragedy and therefore did not respect it; in league with Socrates, Euripides dared to be the herald of a new kind of artistic creation.” (BoT, p64)

Through this summary of Socratic and Euripidean development and criticism, pre-Socratic tragedy/drama is illuminated.


Reflection on the nature and artificiality of culture with regards to the satyr:

“…what he saw in the satyr was the original image (Urbild) of mankind, the expression of man’s highest and strongest stirrings, an enthusiastic celebrant, ecstatic at the closeness of his god, a sympathetic companion in whom the sufferings of the god are repeated, a proclaimer of wisdom from the deepest heart of nature, an emblem of the sexual omnipotence of nature which the Greek habitually regards with reverent astonishment.” (BoT, p41)

“…here the illusion of culture was wiped away by the primal image of man; here, in this bearded satyr shouting up to his god in jubilation man’s true nature was revealed. Faced with the satyr, cultured man shriveled to a mendacious caricature.” (BoT, p41)

An example of Nietzsche being highly critical and disregarding of the state of cultured man.Culture being a product of the Apolline, and of post-Socratic, post-Platonic rationalism.

“The sphere of poetry does not lie outside the world, like some fantastical impossibility contrived in a poet’s head; poetry aims to be the very opposite, the unvarnished expression of truth, and for this very reason it must cast off the deceitful finery of the so-called reality of cultured man.” (BoT, p41)

He continues into an illuminating metaphysical and hermeneutical (almost) account about the core nature of things and truth:

“The contrast between this genuine truth of nature and the cultural lie which pretends to be the only reality is like the contrast between the eternal core of things, the thing-in-itself, and the entire world of phenomena; and just as tragedy, with its metaphysical solace, points to the eternal life of that core of being despite the constant destruction of the phenomenal world, the symbolism of the chorus of satyrs is in itself a metaphorical expression of that original relationship between the thing-in-itself and phenomenon.” (BoT, p42)

Through the Dionysian we are connected to the eternal core, the thing-in-itself. Through tragedy the Dionysian connection to the eternal core is expressed.


We have established the eternal core (sort of). There are two opposing and complimenting drivers of human expression through which we connect with the world (two drivers that make up our lived experience): Dionysos and Apollo. Dionysos to the eternal core, Apollo to the veneer of image, reason and cultural boundaries and constructs.

What is the root of the objection to the image-built world of cultural constructs? (i.e. are they such a bad thing, what is the disadvantage vs. the advantage)

What benefit do we get from this primordial world where we are in close contact with the ‘eternal core’ (which in the framework of this question needs more explaining)?

“…the Dionysian Greek wants truth and nature at full strength…” (BoT, p42) (a good definition/description for tragedy??? or the purpose of tragedy??)

The event and experience of Attic Tragedy:

“…it must always be remembered that the audience of Attic tragedy identified itself with the chorus on the orchestra, so that there was fundamentally no opposition between public and chorus; the whole is just one sublime chorus, either of dancing and singing satyrs, or of those who allow themselves to be represented by these satyrs.” (BoT, p42)

The experience in the Greek theatre was interactive. There were not spectators as such, but partakers. The audience member identified and imagined that he was part of the chorus.

“The chorus of satyrs is first and foremost a vision of the Dionysiac mass, just as the world of the stage is in turn a vision of this chorus of satyrs; the strength of this vision is great enough to render the spectators gaze insensitive and unresponsive to the impression of ‘reality’ and to the cultured people occupying the rows of seats around him.” (BoT, p42)

Nietzsche’s conception of the poet:

“what makes a poet a poet is the fact that he sees himslef surrounded by figures who live and act before him, and into whose innermost essence he gazes.” He goes on: “We talk so abstractly about poetry because we are usually all bad poets. Fundamentally the aesthetic phenomenon is simple; one only has to have the ability to watch a living play (Spiel) continuously and to live constantly surrounded by crowds of spirits, then one is a poet; if one feels the impulse to transform oneself and to speak out of other bodies and souls, then one is a dramatist.” (BoT, p43)

Drama, and so tragedy, is originally an act of metamorphosis and transformation. Individuality is surrendered, in the sense that one does not merge with the music or image but sees it outside himself (by merging the idea of the physiological affect of music/tragedy) to this transformation whereby “the dithyrambic chorus is a chorus of transformed beings who have completely forgotten their civic past and their social position..” (BoT, p43)

A summary and definition for Nietzsche’s conception of drama:

“Enchantment is the precondition of all dramatic art. In this enchanted state the Dionysiac enthusiast sees himself as a satyr, and as a satyr he in turn sees the god, i.e. in his transformed state he sees a new vision outside himslef which is the Apolline perfection of his state. With this new vision the drama is complete.”

He continues:

“This insight leads us to understand Greek tragedy as a Dionusian chorus which discharges itself over and over again in an Apolline world of images […] Thus drama is the Apolline embodiment of Dionysiac insights and effects, and is thereby separated by a vast gulf from the epic.” (BoT, p44)

More on the experience of the theatre:

“Despite its entirely subservient position in relation to the god, however, the chorus is nevertheless the highest, which is to say Dionysiac, expression of nature, and therefore speaks in its enthusiasm, as does nature herself, oracular and wise words; the chorus which shares in suffering is also the wise chorus which proclaims the truth from the heart of the world.” (BoT, p45)

“Now the dithyrambic chorus is given the task of infecting the mood of the spectators with Dionysiac excitement to such a pitch that, when the tragic hero appears on the stage, they see, not some grotesquely masked human being, but rather a visionary figure, born, as it were, of their own ecstasy.” (BoT, p44)

This is the start of the discussion around the importance of the Dionysian element. It is starting to be described as a way of healing to the human condition, or even more so a celebration of the brutal nature of the world. In true nature of the world, as harsh and violent as it may be, there is cause to celebrate life, without abstractions of Apolline conception of image-driven beauty, or even religious concepts of higher being.

tragedy and the dramatic dithyramb: dithyramb is a hyme sung and danced to Dionysos in Ancient Greece.

The context of subjectivity and objectivity:

“Homer, the hoary dreamer lost in his own inner world, the archetypically Apolline, naive artist, now gazes with astonishment at the passionate head of Archilochus, the warlike servant of the Muses, driven wildly through existence; to which recent aesthetics could only add, by way of interpretation, that here the first ‘subjective’ artist was contrasted with the ‘objective’ artist.” (p29, BoT)

“…the prime demand we make of every kind and level of art is the conquest of subjectivity, release and redemption from the “I”, and the falling silent of all individual willing and desiring; indeed without objectivity, without pure, disinterested contemplation we are unable to believe that any creation, however slight, is genuinely artistic.” (p29, BoT)

Nietzsche presents in this section a hard to follow account of the pairing of lyrical poet and Dionysiac musician. He starts the in-depth thought on the psychological state of the poet with reference to Schiller who states in a letter to Goethe that a ‘musical mood’ preempts the poetic idea). He is making a statement about the different states of subjective experience:

“If we add to this the most important phenomenon in the whole of ancient lyric poetry, the combination, indeed identity, of the lyric poet with the musician, something which was regarded as natural everywhere (and in contrast to which our more recent lyric poetry resembles the statue of a god without a head), we are in a position to explain the lyric poet, on the basis of the aesthetic metaphysics presented above, in the following way. In the first instance the lyric poet, a Dionysiac artist, has become entirely at one with the primordial unity, with its pain and contradiction, and he produces a copy of this primordial unity as music, which has been described elsewhere, quite rightly, as a repetition of the world and a second copy of it; now, however, under the influence of Apolline dream, this music in turn becomes visible to him as in a symbolic dream image.” (p30, BoT)

“The Dionysiac musician, with no image at all, is nothing but primal pain and the primal echo of it. The lyric genius feels a world of images and symbols growing out of the mystical state of self-abandonment and one-ness, a world which has a quite different colouring, causality, and tempo from that of the sculptor and epic poet.” (p31, BoT)

Starting to form a picture:

Tragedy and Greece as a model for how to live life. A rejection of modernity. Tragedy and the experience of awful life events (Oedipus) was very different for the Greeks.Tragedy is a real, honest recognition of the hardships of life. The Apolline: rationalistic; tragedy happens to the individual , a real personal loss. The Dionysian; a loss of the sense of self, going with the flow; what happens to ones self is of no great consequence. In this way, a tragedy can also be seen as something beautiful.

3 Greek authors:

Sophocles and Thesesclus – balancing the two artistic drivers. In harmony.

Euripedes – Nietzsche condemns him because of his connection with Socrates. This is the beginning of rationalizing tragedy. For the other, previous two, tragedy is a mystery.

Chapter 6:

“Melody gives birth to poetry, and does so over and over again, in ever new ways […]” (BoT, p33)

It is clear by this stage that Nietzsche considers the Dionysian driver as something preliminary or more primordial to the Apolline. Hence, it would seem that Nietzsche is equating Dionysos as a more pure element.

Nietzsche opens this chapter with the question of understanding the edifice of Apolline culture, and in particular its foundations through a dismantling of its characters, it gods, its myths. He refers to a passage from Aristotle (Eudemos; of which only fragments survive):

“An ancient legend recounts how King Midas hunted long in the forest for the wise Silenus, companion of Dionysos, but failed to catch him. When Silenus has finally fallen into his hands, the King asks what is the best and most excellent thing for human beings. Stiff and unmoving, the daemon remains silent until, forced by the King to speak, he finally breaks out in shrill laughter and says: ‘Wretched, ephemeral race, children of chance and tribulation, why do you force me to tell you the very thing which it would be most profitable for you not to hear? The very best thing is utterly beyond your reach: not to have been born, not to be, to be nothing. However, the second best thing for you is: to die soon.'” (p23, BoT)

The result in Apolline culture from man’s struggle to to understand what is best for him in this world:

“Wherever we encounter the ‘naive’ in art, we have to recognise that it is the supreme effect of Apolline culture; as such, it first had to overthrow the realm of the Titans and slay monsters, and, by employing powerful delusions and intensely pleasurable illusions, gain victory over a terrifyingly profound view of the world and the most acute sensitivity to suffering.” (p24, BoT)

“Homeric ‘naivete’ can be understood only as the complete victory of Apolline illusion…” (p25, BoT)

Chpt 4:

The relationship between dream and lived experience:

“There is no doubt that, of the two halves of our lives, the waking and the dreaming half, the former strikes us as being the more privileged, important, dignified, and worthy of being lived, indeed the only half that truly is lived; nevertheless, although it may seem paradoxical, I wish to assert that the very opposite evaluation of dream holds true for that mysterious ground of our being of which we are an appearance. The more I become aware of those all powerful artistic drives in nature, and of a fervent longing in them for semblance, for their redemption and release in semblance, the more I feel myself driven to the metaphysical assumption that that which truly exists, the eternally suffering and contradictory, primordial unity, simultaneously needs, for its constant release and redemption, the ecstatic vision, intensely pleasurable semblance. We, however, who consist of and are completely trapped in semblance, are compelled to feel this semblance to be that which truly is not, i.e. a continual Becoming in time, space, and causality – in other words, empirical reality.” (p26, BoT)

Opposition of the drivers:

“The Muses of the arts of semblance grew pale and wan when faced with an art which, in its intoxication, spoke the truth; the wisdom of Silenus called out ‘Woe, woe!’ to the serene Olympians. The individual, with all his limits and measure, became submerged here in the self-oblivion of the Dionysiac condition and forgot the statutes of Apollo. Excess revealed itself as the truth; contradiction, bliss born of pain, spoke of itself from out of the heart of nature. Thus, wherever the Dionysiac broke through, the Apolline was suspended and annulled.” (p27, BoT)

Nietzsche seems to have basically said that the two artistic drivers dominated the Hellenic world by a succession of ever new births and by a process of reciprocal intensification. (p28) The struggle between these two evolved the Homeric world from the iron age and its Titanic struggles, to the ‘rigid majesty’ of Doric art and Doric view of the world. Nietzsche sees Attic tragedy as emerging from this as a sublime and exalted art, and as the common goal of both drivers.

“Although it seems that music was already familiar to the Greeks as an Apolline art, they only knew it, strictly speaking, in the form of a wave like rhythm with an image making power which they developed to represent Apolline states. The music of Apollo was Doric architectronics in sounds, but only in the kind of hinted at tones characteristic of the cithara. It keeps at a distance, as something un-Apolline, the very element which defines the character of Dionysiac music (and thus of music generally): the power of its sound to shake us to our very foundations, the unified stream of melody and the quite incomparable world of harmony.” (p21, BoT)

Here we are getting a distinction within music between the Apolline and the Dionysiac. This helps explain the real difference between the two artistic drivers. It suggests that the ‘real’ state of music is physiological; it drives a physical, unformed (improvised) response:

“”The essence of nature is bent on expressing itself; a new world of symbols is required, firstly the symbolism of the entire body, not just of the mouth, the face, the word, but the full gesture of dance with its rhythmical movement of every limb. Then there is a sudden, tempestuous growth in music’s other symbolic powers, in rhythm, dynamics, and harmony.” (p21, BoT)

Once again semblance:

“With an astonishment enlarged by the added horror of realizing that all this was not so foreign to them after all, indeed that their Apolline consciousness only hid this Dionysiac world from them like a veil.” (p21, BoT)

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.

Notes on Nietzsche

April 5, 2012 — Leave a comment

From the Stanford Encyclopedia

A few hints for perspective on Nietzsche’s conception of tragedy:

The second “untimely meditation” surveys alternative ways to write history, and discusses how these ways could contribute to a society’s health. Here Nietzsche claims that the principle of “life” is a more pressing and higher concern than that of “knowledge,” and that the quest for knowledge should serve the interests of life. This parallels how, in The Birth of Tragedy, Nietzsche looked at art through the perspective of life. The third and fourth studies — on Schopenhauer and Wagner, respectively — address how these two thinkers, as paradigms of philosophic and artistic genius, hold the potential to inspire a stronger, healthier and livelier German culture.

In Daybreak: Reflections on Moral Prejudices (Morgenröte. Gedanken über die moralischen Vorurteile, 1881), Nietzsche continues writing in his aphoristic style, but he marks a new beginning by accentuating as opposed to pleasure, the importance of the “feeling of power” in his understanding of human, and especially of so-called “moral” behavior. Always having been interested in the nature of health, his emerging references to power stem from his earlier efforts to discover the secret of the ancient Greeks’ outstanding health, which he had regarded as the effects of how “agon” (i.e., competition, one-upmanship, or contest, as conceived in his 1872 essay, “Homer’s Contest”) permeated their cultural attitudes.

Birth of Tragedy outline:

Chpt 1 -15 Theory of Attic Tragedy

Chpt 12 – 15 Its demise

Chpt 16 – 25 Extension of theory to Wagner’s opera’s

The book was generally not well received. It was considered too mystical, too ‘Wagnerian’.

The theory of Attic tradegy is to be explained through two artistic drivers: Apollonian and Dionysian. It sets out the aesthetics of tragedy, the significance of tragedy, how it works, and its component parts.

Apollo and dreams:

1. Dreams have determinate shapes and forms (things are individuated).
2. “we retain a pervasive sense that it is semblance” – a dream is appearance, and somewhere behind it is reality.
3. We experience good and bad things in dreams.