Wednesday, November 25, 2015

the delight felt at the annihilation of the individual - The Birth of Tragedy, in which Nietzsche aspires to the condition of music

My final German Literature Month book (look at all of the participants!) will be The Birth of Tragedy from the Spirit of Music (1872) by Friedrich Nietzsche, his first book, an imaginative consideration of the psychological impulses that led to the creation, degeneration, and recovery – in the works of Richard Wagner – of Greek tragedy.  It is a strange book, not scholarly yet based on the latest German classical archaeology and anthropology, leaping far beyond the actual evidence, difficult, exhilarating, and preposterous.

Greek tragedy is, for Nietzsche, in the first form visible to us, the plays of Aeschylus, a balance between the rational and the irrational, the steady Apollonian and frenzied Dionysian sides of the human personality.  The chorus, the music, is the Dionysian side.

It is vain to try to deduce the tragic spirit from the commonly accepted categories of art: illusion and beauty.  Music alone allows us to understand the delight felt at the annihilation of the individual.  (Ch. 16, p. 101)

A strongly Schopenhauer-like claim, and one with which I roughly agree.  Literature, even at its craziest, is typically way over on the Apollonian side compared to dance and music.  Poetry moves towards the Dionysian to the extent that it resembles music.  I am beginning to sound like Walter Pater, or Pater sounds like Nietzsche.

Tragedy goes into sharp decline in the hands of the innovative parodistic screwball Euripides, mostly because he pulls too much music out of the chorus, destroying the Dionysian side of tragedy.  But Nietzsche forgives Euripides, for he is just a pawn of the true villain:

For in a certain sense Euripides was but a mask, while the divinity which spoke through him was neither Dionysos nor Apollo but a brand-new daemon called Socrates.  Thenceforward the real antagonism was to be between the Dionysiac spirit and the Socratic, and tragedy was to perish in the conflict...  The marvelous temple lies in ruins; of what avail is the destroyer’s lament that it was the most beautiful of all temples?  And though, by way of punishment, Euripides has been turned into a dragon by all later critics, who can really regard this as adequate compensation?  (Ch. 12, 77)

Turned into a dragon!  Like the greedy, murderous giant Fafner in Das Rheingold and Siegfried.

The creation of opera by, let’s say, Monteverdi in the 17th century should restore the balance, but Nietzsche does not believe such a thing happened before Wagner.  To use Shaw’s phrase, Rossini and Verdi are “opera, and nothing but opera,” not tragedy.  I did not understand Nietzsche’s argument, and would be pleased to dismiss it as prejudice, but I am too ignorant to do so.

Our art is a clear example of this universal misery: in vain do we imitate all the great creative periods and masters; in vain do we surround modern man with all of world literature and expect him to name its periods and styles as Adam did the beasts.  He remains eternally hungry, the critic without strength or joy, the Alexandrian man who is at bottom a librarian and scholiast, blinding himself miserably over dusty books and typographical errors.  (Ch. 18, 112)

Non-Wagnerian opera “is the product of the man of theory, the critical layman, not the artist.  (Ch. 19, 115), not even Socratic but, per the previous passage, Alexandrian, desiccated, the province of scholiasts.  I know, this is as bizarre and wrong-headed a description of Rossini as I can imagine.

Luckily Bach and Beethoven, alongside Kant and Schopenhauer, created the superstructure – “succeeded in destroying the complacent acquiescence of intellectual Socratism” – that allowed Wagner to save the day, at least for a while.

The end of The Birth of Tragedy is extraordinary.  Nietzsche is arguing for the value of the Dionysian impulse, arguing that you Swiss and Prussian and Victorian squares seek out the Dionysian a little more.

The reader may intuit these effects if he has ever, though only in a dream, been carried back to the ancient Hellenic way of life.  (146)

What a line – “if”!  In a dream, perhaps, but also, possibly, in some other way, such as time travel, or, and this is an example from German literature, madness, like that of poor Friedrich Hölderlin who at times seemed to believe he lived in Classical Greece.  I wonder if the line is actually referring to Hölderlin.  I wonder if poor Nietzsche ever thought it might refer to himself.

After a pause for the holiday, I will return to the idea of the Dionysian with the help of Walter Pater.

Page references are to the 1956 Francis Golffing translation.


  1. How fascinating! I have never read this book, but I think I should, as this is a subject that seems, quite unaccountably, very close to my heart. The passages of Nietzsche you quote I find intriguing – mainly because I don’t understand what they mean. But I’m sure they mean something.

    Does Nietzsche mention Shakespearean tragedy at all? It is still a matter of conjecture just how well, if at all, Shakespeare knew Greek tragedy, but his concept of tragedy seems very different to the Greek concept. (To me, at least.) Greek tragedy is full of gods: these gods are sometimes revered, sometimes reviled (especially by Euripides, and, I have long felt, by Sophocles as well, though I think the critical consensus is against me on that one); but they are always present in a way they never seem to be in Shakespeare.

    There is more than an element of the Greek concept in Wagner I think – although his gods were Norse rather than Greek. It has been pointed out (I can’t remember by whom) that the entire Ring Cycle is a sort of parody of Greek drama: where a Greek tragic cycle (of which The Oresteia is the sole surviving example) typically consisted of three tragic dramas followed by a satyr play, The Ring Cycle consists of a satyr play followed by three tragic dramas. And where The Oresteia is about the emergence of a civic society out of a primeval dark, the Ring Cycle depicts a society that can but destroy itself completely – gods as well as mortals - leaving us only with a hope that what succeeds it may fare better.

    Ah – I remember now who put this idea forward: Michael Ewans (see, whose translation of the Oresteia is still the one I turn to most often.

    Wagner I respect from a distance: I am more a Verdi man, and his tragedies – for, with all due respect to Shaw, they indeed *are* tragedies – seem to me closer to the Shakespearean model: the gods aren’t present in his tragedies, so the focus falls more insistently on the mortals, without any divinities to distract. I recently read a book on what Verdi took from Shakespeare ( and will try to put together a few thoughts on that shortly.

    To my mind, tragedy did not die, either with Euripides, or with anyone else. It became transformed into other forms. We may see the spirit of the tragic in a great many works, especially of the last 150 or so years – in the plays of Ibsen; in various novels (Anna Karenina, Emma Bovary, Michael Henchard, Lily Bart, etc are all tragic figures); and also in the newest of art forms – the cinema. It would be fascinating to trace the different paths and different forms that tragedy has taken in different ages, but it would be a task well beyond my abilities.

    But what fascinates me is the contention itself that tragedy died with Euripides, and that Wagner, and, seemingly, Wagner alone, was the artist who re-created it. Is it a particular *type* of tragedy that Euripides killed? I think I’ll need to get hold of Nietzsche, and see if I can understand (for a change!) what he was on about

  2. I think I understand every quotation I used, except possibly the last one. I did not realize how much Nietzsche writes like Thomas Carlyle, in a kind of code.

    Shakespeare is mentioned rarely but always positively. At one point he is paired with Beethoven, high praise. Hamlet is given as an example of a Dionysian character.

    But FN is working with a narrower idea of tragedy with an origin in religious ritual, so music and dance are central. Only opera has a chance of recovering the Aeschylean or pre-Aeschylean religious impulse.

    It helps with this book to know what happens later, that FN is implicitly arguing with Christianity. He is looking for something to displace Christianity, and neither Shakespeare nor Beethoven work for that - but combine them! E.g., Richard Wagner! And perform the works at a special dedicated temple!

    I mean, this sound ridiculous, but I think that gets us close. Verdi is too Christian. Also possibly, in some of what you and I think of as his best (and sufficiently Dionysian) tragedies, too domestic (may also be part of Shaw's problem). How does La traviata help create or restore post-Christian paganism (or overthrow capitalism)?

    It would have been interesting to see FN respond to film. It has everything he wanted.

    The idea of the Ring as an inverted Oresteia is excellent. If only we had one of Aeschylus's satyr plays!

    Anyway, yes, I recommend this book to you. 150 pages, and more about the world outside Nietzsche's brain than much of his work.

    1. Thanks, I'll certainly get hold of this book. It's perhaps time that I immersed myself in Wagner for some time too: I have long been meaning to, but have kept putting it off.

    2. I would love to do something similar with Verdi, but I have not found the right book. I need a book!

  3. 'Difficult, exhilarating, and preposterous' - exactly my reaction when I read it years ago.

  4. Interesting reading here as always. I'm afraid I spent German Literature Month indulging in detective novels.

  5. I more or less apologized when I told the German Literature Month organizers that I was going to write on Wagner, Nietzsche, and even Gottfried Benn. They are not the writers I would choose to promote German literature as such!

    I did get that E. T. A. Hoffmann novel in there, I guess. Weird, but more friendly than Nietzsche. Maybe not, pace Hootings, any weirder than Nietzsche's book.

  6. This is really interesting especially since I just picked up Iphegenia in Tauris by Euripides, a decidedly untragic tragedy that has the author of the introduction trying to justify its happy ending. That Euripides is a dragon made me laugh. And Socrates ruining Greek tragedy, I had no idea! Also that "if" could be attained by drugs as well. Nietzsche probably tried some of them himself.

  7. "justify" - ha ha ha! It is pure Euripides. It is not like it is the only one he wrote like that.

    Hallucinogens, yes, also a possibility.