Wednesday, December 21, 2022

Nietzsche's The Birth of Tragedy Out of the Spirit of Music - enchantment is the precondition of all dramatic art

When I read Friedrich Nietzsche’s The Birth of Tragedy Out of the Spirit of Music (1872) several years ago I was interested in it as a 19th century work, as a key text in the cult of Richard Wagner and an early example of the vogue for fantasizing that stuffy Prussian or Victorian propriety will be de-stuffed by a good dose of the Dionysian, whatever that might be, Tristan and Isolde or subversive satyrs.  Here is the comparable Max Beerbohm skewering the latter.

Nietzsche’s central conceit is that the satyrs saved the Greeks, too.  They had been going through a rational, scientific Apollonian phase, as seen in their architecture, sculpture, and the naïve and beautiful Homer, “the complete triumph of the Apollonian illusion” (3, 29) – Nietzsche’s Homer is not my Homer – until the new cult of Dionysus introduced a new element of passion and nature.  The satyr chorus in particular, its music, an early Greek innovation in the Dionysian ritual, is the “rescuing deed of Greek art” (7, 47), “a copy of a more truthful, more real, more complete image of existence than the man of culture who commonly considers himself the sole reality” (8, 47).

Other Greek festivals also have music, but, for example, “the virgins who approach the temple of Apollo bearing laurel branches… remain who they are” while the satyr chorus “is a chorus of people who have been transformed…  they have become the timeless servants of their gods” (8, 50), and the audience to some extent follows along, temporarily.

It is all downhill from there.  Every step away from the satyr chorus, the pure electric guitar feedback and the suffering of Dionysus, like a narrative, or characters representing ordinary people, moves the balance back towards the Apollonian, until the villain Euripides, or really his puppet-master, the arch-villain Socrates, ruins Greek tragedy.  “[U]p to the time of Euripides Dionysus remained the tragic hero, and that all the famous figures of the Greek stage, Prometheus, Oedipus, and so on, are only masks of that original hero Dionysus” (10, 59).  Euripides killed tragedy when he brought “the man of everyday life” onto the stage, no longer depicting “the great and bold traits” but only “the botched lines of nature” (11, 63), “highly realistic imitations of thoughts and emotions devoid of any trace of the ether of art” (12, 70).  This looks like the argument we – well, some people – have about the novel once in a while: too much realism, or not enough realism.

Plus the music composed by Euripides was bad: “you [he is addressing Euripides directly] never managed to produce anything but a masked imitation music” (10, 62).  Nietzsche of course has never heard a note of any Greek music.

I had half-forgotten how much of The Birth of Tragedy is about the death of tragedy, how much of it is about the destructive “audacious intelligence” (12, 70) of Euripides.  Nietzsche has many insights about Euripides, perhaps because he is forced to give his enemy so much of his attention.

I have much doubt about the truth of Nietzsche’s imagined history of tragedy, and more doubts about its use.  “We did tire later” (I’m quoting Beerbohm; please follow the link up above).  But the origins of the plays are so murky, and the resulting works of art so powerful and complex, that I am happy to have many histories, especially when written with such vigor.

I read Douglas Smith’s translation in the Oxford World’s Classics edition.  The title quotation is from 8, 50.

Saturday, December 10, 2022

On Great Writing by Longinus - But greatness appears suddenly; like a thunderbolt it carries all before it

I will deposit my notes on On Great Writing, which is either a 3rd century text by Longinus, one of the great scholars and rhetoricians of his time, or was written earlier and is by someone else.  Who knows.  I will call the author Longinus, and call the work On the Sublime, the title that accompanied the work’s 18th century entry into the canon of literary criticism.  It hits a number of 18th century preoccupations.

Great writing does not persuade; it takes the reader out of himself.  The startling and amazing is more powerful than the charming and persuasive, if it is indeed true that to be convinced is usually within our control whereas amazement is the result of an irresistible force beyond the control of any audience .  (1, p. 4), tr. G. M. A. Grube)

The move from the “charming and persuasive” to “the startling and amazing” is the Enlightenment moving to Romanticism.

A writer’s “inventive skill” and “the structure and arrangement of his subject matter… slowly emerge from the texture of the whole work”:

But greatness appears suddenly; like a thunderbolt it carries all before it and reveals the writer’s full power in a flash.  (1, 4)

This has something in common with Nabokov urging his students to read not with the head or heart but the spine, and perhaps also with Kafka saying that the only worthwhile art is that which feels like an axe splitting the skull.  Roughly speaking, Aristotle was writing in Poetics about he big overall effect of a work, while Longinus is interested in the best individual scenes or images or lines, but they are both critics asking how it all works.

For much of On the Sublime, Longinus identifies rhetorical devices that are part of passages he finds especially great.  I can see how the author is a professional rhetorician – maybe he can teach me how to make my writing great.  But then I notice how much space he gives to bad writing.  My use of the very same devices will likely produce bad writing.  There is still a lot of mystery here.  The best I can do is emulate Homer and Demosthenes, even asking what these writers would think of my words.  “For as we emulate them, these eminent personages are present in our minds and raise us to a higher level of imaginative power” (14, 23).

Longinus mostly looks back at earlier Greek literature, mostly Homer, the three tragedians, and the 4th century BCE Athenian orator Demosthenes – as usual, mostly Athenians.  It is as if a book about great writing written today took the bulk of its examples from Chaucer, Shakespeare, and Milton, which is not implausible.  I am setting aside the surprising appearance by Moses (9, 17) and the part where Longinus inadvertently saves the first stanza of a great Sappho poem (10, 17).

 This bit is like a Twitter game:

… which should be preferred in poetry or in prose, great writing with occasional flaws or moderate talent which is entirely sound and faultless? (33, 44)

Really, would you rather be the flawed but great Sophocles or the flawless but merely good Ion of Chios?  Longinus thinks that “no sane man would count all the plays of Ion to be worth as much as the one play, Oedipus” (33, 45), so on Twitter it the vote would be fifty-fifty.  I am starting to elan towards Ion of Chios myself, out of pity.

Longinus ends by wondering why the writing today, in his day, stinks so much.  His answer is money.  Such a book written today would likely have the same ending.

I plan to read Friedrich Nietzsche’s The Birth of Tragedy (1872) soon, which will finish off this project.  My memory is that Nietzsche’s book is about two-thirds what it says in the title and one-third how Richard Wagner will save us from the cultural decadence begun by the super-villain Socrates.  I’ll write something up before Christmas.

Wednesday, December 7, 2022

Readalongs I wish someone else would organize - Cuban literature, August Wilson plays, and many more

The glory days of book blogs were full of “challenges.”  I hosted several: Scottish literature, Italian, Austrian, Scandinavian, Portuguese, always limited to the 19th century and earlier to keep the scope manageable.  The idea was that I read a lot, while others were invited to join as they found useful.  I found every one of these “challenges” to be highly useful, intellectually, meaning I read a lot of interesting books and learned a lot about the literary tradition.  Plus every time I attracted new, thoughtful, knowledgeable readers to the blog, people who did not necessarily care so much about Victorian literature but were excited about one of these other traditions.  I have even met some of these people in so-called real life.

So I occasionally think of some kind of readalong that would be exciting to me and I would hope to others.  Who knows, maybe someone else will want to borrow one of them.  I would happily read along with any of them.

My most neurotic idea is to read the ten most important American books that I have not read.  Beloved easily tops the list academically; To Kill a Mockingbird popularly.  The Woman Warrior, Ceremony, Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza, like that.  In 2017 or so I looked up, in the MLA International Bibliography, the 20th century American works most cited in academic writing.  I had not heard of Borderlands/La Frontera, a pioneering work of Chicana literature, I am told.

This one is a bad idea because it is too much about me, about what I happen not to have read.  Who cares.  But I would sure feel well-read if I did it.  Temporarily well-read.  That feeling never lasts.

Better ideas: contemporary plays.  Or within the last fifty years.   Or just read 21st century plays. Say ten or a dozen plays, once every two weeks.  They would mostly be American, British, and Irish, just based on the availability of texts. 

I have been testing this idea.  In the last year I read Women of Owu (2006) by Femi Osofisan (a Geeek adaptation), Cherokee Family Reunion (2012) by Larissa FastHorse (interracial family comedy) , The Ferryman (2017) by Jez Butterworth (family comedy mixed with The Troubles), and The Haunting of Lin-Manuel Miranda (2019) by Ishmael Reed (a surprisingly gentle lecture).  Enough to see there is a lot to enjoy out there. 

Shakespeare is the center of the English tradition, yet contemporary plays seem increasingly distant from any literary discussion I see.  I do not know why that is.  The playwrights seem to be doing their jobs.

An obvious readalong would be to work through August Wilson’s ten play “Pittsburgh Cycle,” Fences and Joe Turner’s Come and Gone and so on.  This one practically organizes itself.

My preference, though, is to work on a tradition, not an author, often one about which I know little. I thought about a year of reading Caribbean literature, meaning islands; the United States is a Caribbean country.  Wilson Harris, Derek Walcott, V. S. Naipaul, Dany Laferrière, Maryse Condé, for example.  Wouldn’t that be interesting.

Poking around, I soon saw that Cuban literature would make a great readalong on its own.  Something like this, one book per month for ten months:

First two novels by Alejo Carpentier, maybe The Kingdom of This World (1949) and The Chase (1956) on the basis that they are short.  I have a prejudice that readalong books should mostly be short.


Paradiso (1966) by José Lezama Lima

Hallucinations (1966) by Reinaldo Arenas, although his memoir Before Night Falls (1992) is the more obvious choice

Three Trapped Tigers (1967) and A View of Dawn in the Tropics (163) by Guillermo Cabrera Infante

Cobra (1972) and Maitreya (1978) by Severo Sarduy. Do these ever sound weird.

Everybody Leaves (2006) by Wendy Guerra, or Revolution Sunday (2016), or both.

Plus a poetry month to try Dulce María Loynaz or Nicolás Guillén.

Lots of strange, baroque books.  Sounds fun.  Since I drew up a plan, I might as well provide it.

I would like someone else to organize a readalong of postwar Italian literature, of Hungarian literature, of Sanskrit classics, of Arabic poetry, of contemporary American poetry, for that matter.  I suppose I could not join all of these, really.

The August Wilson plays, though, that is a sire thing.  You just have to decide on the order.  Easy.

Tuesday, December 6, 2022

Planning next year's readalong opportunities - Greek philosophy and Roman plays

If only I had another idea as good as reading all the Greek plays in order.  But I do have ideas.

1. Roman plays.  Up to five Roman playwrights have survived: the comedians Plautus and Terence and the tragedian Seneca, along with two plays under his name that were likely written by others.  The Roman creative spirit is often deeply imitative of Greek literature, and is that ever the case here, with Seneca adapting Euripides and the comedians pilfering Menander and the other New Comedy playwrights.

Twenty plays by Plautus have survived, along with six by Terence (his complete works – he died young), eight by Seneca, and the two “Seneca” plays not by Seneca.  It is certainly possible that the famous Seneca, the Stoic philosopher, did not write any of them, but I will assume that he did.

I would not want to read through all of the Roman plays.  Twenty Plautus plays!  I had enough trouble writing two posts about his model Menander.  Some of that reading is best left to graduate students.  But if you are on the road to Shakespeare, some Roman comedy and especially some Seneca are essential.  Shakespeare never read the Greeks, but he read the Romans.

So next year I will revisit the Roman plays.  Say one writer per month; maybe three or four plays per author?  No obvious reason to read the exact same plays.  Shakespearists should try, at least, The Brothers Menaechmus (for The Comedy of Errors) and The Braggart Soldier (for Falstaff) by Plautus and a couple of the more famous Seneca plays – say Medea and Phaedra and Hercules Furens.  Euripideans will be fascinated, or horrified, by what Seneca does.  A fun idea not available with the Greeks: Seneca’s plays are available in Elizabethan translation.  I read one of them twenty years ago and hope to try a couple more.

Three writers, three months, a dozen plays at most.  Easy.  Please join in if you want to continue the history of theater.  In fact, please read them all and let me know what you find.  I’ll write all of this up again in early January.

2.  Greek philosophy.  I think I have figured out how this would work as a readalong.  Each month I, or we, will focus on a specific school or writer.  We will have one central, famous text, but of course there is endless reading available.  Something like this:

Presocratics – the aphorisms of Heraclitus, or the verse of Empedocles, or both

Sophists – Theaetetus by Plato

Socrates – the three “death of Socrates” texts, Euthyphro, Apology, and Crito, by Plato

Plato – The Republic

Aristotle – The Nicomachean Ethics

Epicureanism – The Nature of Things by Lucretius (I’m cheating, this is Roman)

Stoicism, Cynicism, etc.  – still thinking about these

I’ll use Lives of the Eminent Philosophers by Diogenes Laertius as a gossipy, inaccurate guide to the subject.  The 2018 Oxford University Press edition of this 3rd century semi-classic is a wonder, newly translated, illustrated, and with a superb bibliography.

Philosophy, to me, is a branch of literature, a difficult for one for a number of reasons, one of which is that to most philosophers it something else, and perhaps I will learn to understand that idea as I read more, but until then. This will be a literary project.  There is so much Plato on that list because he was, in much of his writing, a great artist.

Again, I will write this up in more detail in January.

Please add any suggestions of your own, whether or not you are interested in reading along with this or that text.

I have a number of ideas for readalongs that are much better than these.  I will write about them tomorrow.,  Perhaps someone else will want them.

I still need to write up my notes on Longinus.  But this is easier to write.

Thursday, December 1, 2022

Thanks and praise to celebrate the happiness of this great event – the end of the Greek play readalong

I am quoting the end of Alcestis by Euripides, his early whatever it is, not a tragedy, not a satyr play, not a comedy.  Admetos has won back his wife and the play is at its end, so he declares “a feast of thanks and praise” (tr. Arrowsmith), which is what I want to do.  If we had done all this in a real-life book group I would take you all out for gyros.  But Admetos ends the play with this:

From this day forth we must remake our lives,

And make them better than they were before.

We can only try.

So, first, many thanks to anyone who participated in any way, on your own, in the comments section, or otherwise.  Anyone who wanders around in the comments of my posts will find some superb responses and insights; anyone who follows the links to posts people wrote will find the same.  Intellectually, this exercise was very good for me.  I hope for you, too.  Endless thanks to everyone.

I had read all of the plays, except Menander’s Dyskolos, about 25 years ago, and had reread a few since then.  Antigone I knew from much earlier, from Western Civ in college.  The core stories and myths and characters I knew from childhood, and they are as familiar to me as another set of stories and characters I was absorbing at the same time, “Bible stories.”

What did I learn this time?

First, there was my epistemological crisis, visible in my earlier posts before I got over it.  The evidentiary base for what we know about classical Greek plays was much weaker than I had previously understood.  For example, we all know that each playwright directed three tragic plays and a satyr play, like the Cyclops of Euripides, full of booze and nonsense.  But Alcestis was presented in the “satyr” spot, and thus the evidence is actually half satyr and half not-satyr.  What was the real ratio?  How often did writers use the satyr spot for something more unusual and innovative?  Alcestis is unique among the surviving plays, but what does that tell us.

So, second, this time I understood how we were reading these extraordinary plays in a massive void of lost plays. Nine tragedies a year, plus three satyr plays, and an indeterminate number of comedies (four to six?) every year, and we have almost none of them, even by the most famous playwrights.  For the first twenty-eight years of Sophocles’s extraordinarily long career, we have Ajax.  He did not necessarily submit plays every year, but we could easily be missing eighty or ninety early Sophocles plays, pre-Antigone.  How I would like to get to know young Sophocles.

The remarkable thing, and I think everyone saw this, was how easy it was, after a couple of plays, to get a sense of the personality and sensibility of the author: rough, mythic Aeschylus; methodical, pious Sophocles, the perfect candidate to invent the detective story; turbulent, to use William Arrowsmith’s favorite word, Euripides.  With Euripides, we are lucky to have enough plays to even see his progression, to watch him become angrier with Athenian wartime politics until he becomes disgusted with the entire Athenian, or possibly human, experiment, culminating in his astounding late works of pessimism like Orestes and Bacchae.

But this is all a construction, the reader inferring the author from the available evidence, when most of the evidence is missing.  Who knows what Aeschylus or Sophocles would look like if we had seven more plays.  It is hard to believe that there are too many more masterpieces at the level of Agamemnon or Oedipus the King among the lost plays.

Given how much we have lost, the twenty-seven year or so stretch between the Medea of Euripides (431 BCE) and Oedipus at Colonus by Sophocles (say 404 BCE) where we have a play, sometimes two, almost every year, takes on enormous meaning, especially when these plays are contemporary with the Athenian history described in detail by Thucydides.  The narrative is very strong.  Honestly, this is why I got so excited by reading the plays in chronological order, which I had not done before.  Just watching the hilarious one-sided duel between Aristophanes and Euripides.

Then, in a coda, Menander and the New Comedy come along, thinner but less alien, leading to Roman comedy, Shakespearean comedy, and television comedy.

Prmoetheus chained to the rock, Cassandra declaiming her own death, Oedipus learning the truth, Antigone arguing ethics with her uncle, the entrance of the chorus of the birds, Dionysus outsinging the chorus of the frogs, Medea murdering her children, Orestes burning it all to the ground, Dionysus dressing up Pentheus.  What things we saw.  The chorus in Agamemnon claims that Zeus “las it down as law / that we must suffer, suffer into truth” (tr. Fagles), but I feel we found a great deal of truth without much suffering, which is how great literature usually works.

I am thinking of writing a longer essay on our experience this year, and sending it – who knows – somewhere – so if you have any ideas you do not mind me stealing, please let me know.  Another debt.  My deepest thanks, as it is.