Saturday, November 28, 2015

Nietzsche, nausea and the birth of tragedy, Section 7

Nietzsche writes "For the rapture of the Dionysian stage with its annihilation of the ordinary bounds and limits of existence contains, while it lasts, a lethargic element in which all personal experiences of the past become immersed.  This chasm of oblivion separates the worlds of everyday reality and of Dionysian reality. But as soon as this everyday reality re-enters consciousness, it is experienced as such with nausea:  an ascetic, will-negating mood is the fruit of these states."  What exactly does he mean by Dionysian reality?   There seem to be at least three meanings for this term. First it refers to the extremely pessimistic vision of human reality offered by the demigod, Silenus.  Second, and perhaps more important, it represents the experience of oneness with nature associated with Dionysian ecstasy.  But here it probably means a third thing, the "reality" on stage in the Greek tragedy.  The paragraph begins with a reference to "the rapture of the Dionysian stage with its annihilation of the ordinary bounds and limits of existence."   The annihilation of ordinary bounds of existence would be a fictional one.  As we rapturously experience the events on stage it seems that the bounds of existence are broken down.

Why, however, would this be related to lethargy?  Here I feel the limits of not working with the German, but I will continue with Kaufman for now.  Writers on Nietzsche generally associate the lethargic element with the lethargy of Hamlet in the sense of his inability to act.  And the next paragraph indicates that Nietzsche is indeed thinking of Hamlet.  So somehow Hamlet represents for Nietzsche a recognition of "Dionysian truth," although there is a great distance between religious ecstasy of oneness and Hamlet's inability of act.  And we have the problem of explaining his idea that "all the personal experiences of the past" are somehow immersed in the lethargic element (immersed in the lethargy?).  So we have a rapture that certainly Hamlet is not experiencing at any time in Shakespeare's play and the lethargy which contains personal experiences of the past, as though the personal experiences themselves impede action, although one might think that rapture itself would be enough.  

The next sentence indicates that the world of everyday reality is very unlike the world of Dionysian reality: in fact, there is a chasm between them, and this chasm is doubled since it is a chasm of oblivion.  The chasm must be related closely to the oblivion, must be the oblivion of Dionysian oneness which is experienced, as we saw previously, with ecstasy.  Again, "Dionysian reality" is unclear: surely it means something related to truth of Silenus, but also something related to the rapture of Dionysian oneness, and is perhaps also related to what happens on stage in a Greek tragedy, the reality of that world.  

The next sentence puzzles again:  "But as soon as this everyday reality re-enters consciousness, it is experienced as such with nausea:  an ascetic, will-negating mood is the fruit of these states."   What would the everyday reality re-enter conscious after, and how? Would it be after an experience of religious ecstasy as had by the Dionysian revelers or would it be after leaving the theater? In connection with the second, think of the theater-goer leaving the theater, no longer under the rapturous spell of the Dionysian.  But why would he or she then experience everyday reality with nausea? Why would he/she be in a pleasure-denying and will-negating mood?  For that matter, why would the person returning from a pre-art Dionysian religious festival experience this?  Well there would be a disappointment in discovering that the world of oneness presented on stage, or experienced in the religious orgy, disappears in the everyday world.  There is no redemption, and hence nausea. But also, clearly this is not a good end-point as far as Nietzsche is concerned.  Isn't art supposed to redeem us? And aren't we supposed to say yes to the will and to sensuous life? The state that follows leaving the theater, if this is it, cannot be considered good by Nietzsche.  In reading the Birth of Tragedy I constantly think of stages.  This appears to be yet another stage, hopefully leading to something higher.  

The next paragraph observes that the Dionysian man is like Hamlet in this respect.  Presumably the Dionysian man is the man who has experienced Dionysian ecstasy, has entered imaginatively the world presented on stage, and is now faced again with dull everyday reality.  I would think also that he is confronted once again with the wisdom of Silenus, the ever-presence of suffering, without the balm either of the Apollonian world of gods or the rapturous oneness associated with the Dionysian.  Now the claim is that both he and Hamlet have seen the essence of things, and that they have "gained knowledge" and that this causes nausea that inhibits action.  The knowledge could be the knowledge that Silenus is right or perhaps that suffering may be redeemed by the combination of the Apollonian and the Dionysian that great art provides.  (This interpretation is defeated below, however.) Nietzsche just does not make clear at this point which knowledge is being discussed.  Of course, if you accepted the wisdom of Silenus then this would kill action.  But then perhaps the knowledge that the only redemption is to be found in the experience of Greek tragedy or something very much like it could also kill action. Action in the world is then radically opposed to action on stage.  Those in the audience are passive spectators, but action is still present, i.e. on stage (except when Hamlet dithers.) 

Aristotle has us leaving the theater with a very different feeling: we have experienced something purgative, a catharsis of pity and fear. We will, he thinks, be able to act even more effectively in the world after seeing a Greek tragedy.  Plato, by yet another contrast, thought that you left the theater with bad habits, for example a tendency to weep when decisive, clear-eyed action is necessary. Plato might well agree that lethargy is a natural response to the theater experience. So is Nietzsche agreeing with Plato and disagreeing with Aristotle here?  This would not be the usual response for Nietzsche, who is mainly against Plato. 

The reason Nietzsche gives that nausea inhibits action is that "action could not change anything in the eternal nature of things." The world, as Hamlet sees, is "out of joint," but it would be ridiculous to try to set it right.  In fact, in order to act one must have "the veils of illusion," which knowledge of the eternal nature of things tears away.  Nietzsche is generally more positive about veils of illusion than most philosophers.  Perhaps the redemption of art is that after the death of God we need new illusions, and these are offered by art. In this view, art makes action possible, as we shall see.

This knowledge that eliminates the veils of illusion (belief in the gods, belief in Christianity, belief in the Forms) is "insight into the horrible truth."  This leads us back to the more simplistic reason for the lethargy, i.e. that the Dionysian man and Hamlet has seen the horrible truth of Silenus.  But the truth of Silenus is not the truth of Nietzsche.  Nietzsche is not telling us that it is best we die soon.  In fact, he seems quite admiring of the Greeks insofar as they invented their Gods to deal with this wisdom in a more cheerful way.  The message of Silenus is not given us either by the Greek invention of the Apollonian gods or by the ecstatic experience of the Dionysian rapture.  

Nietzsche continues:  "Now no comfort avails any more; longing transcends a world after death, even the gods; existence is negated along with its glittering reflection in the gods or in an immortal beyond."  Our puzzlement is compounded.  Is the problem that the experience of Dionysian ecstasy somehow negates any possibility of living under the gaze of the Apollonian gods?  Why cannot we have comfort in the possibility to return to Dionysian ecstasy, perhaps through going to more plays, perhaps by practicing Zen meditation, perhaps by becoming a genius artist?  Or is it that the passage into and out of the theater entails the death of the Greek gods?   I suspect that Nietzsche is telling us that neither the Apollonian nor the Dionysian will do alone.

To say that existence is negated is to say that our own existence seems meaningless, which would be true with the illumination of the "glittering reflection in the gods" and yet there is a solution, which is Greek tragedy itself.  Isn't it ironic that the nausea that Hamlet experiences is experienced by a figure on stage in our greatest post-Greek tragic drama?  So we see him experience nausea, lethargy, and then action that is itself deeply tragic.  But then also are we supposed to experience nausea when we leave the theater? 

Or is it something closer to catharsis?   "Conscious of the truth he has once seen, man now sees everywhere only the horror or absurdity of existence."  Now he understands the wisdom of Silenus and is nauseated.  This is a strange sentence.  The participant becomes conscious of a truth he saw in the past?  When did he see it?  He sees the horror or absurdity of existence everywhere?  Why would this happen after coming out of the theater?  Nietzsche seems to be confusing the disease with the cure. It might be that the philosopher (Greek or modern) would become convinced by the suffering around him and then begin to believe that the gods (or God) does not exist, and then find horror and absurdity all around him, and yet surely he cannot stay there, and surely the Greek tragedy, and great art in general, is the only cure available for that, unless perhaps he can achieve the cure through an atheistic form of meditation.  

"Here, when the danger to his will is greatest, art approaches as saving sorceress, expert at healing."  The whole story was supposed to be about what happens after leaving the theater.  But perhaps I misunderstood "Dionysian stage" which refers not to the theatrical stage but to a stage in a sequence of being!  Notice that Nietzsche does not even distinguish between Apollonian and Dionysian art here, and in fact Apollo is associated with the art of healing.  "She [art] alone knows how to turn these nauseous thoughts about the horror and absurdity of existence into notions with which one can live.."  So it sounds as though we are told about the experience of entering the world of the theater, and this does seem to be something like catharsis:  catharsis transformed pity and fear into something with which we can live, the tragic theater transforms nausea similarly.  We come back out without the oppressive nausea.  

N. writes that "these are the sublime in the artistic taming of the horrible, and the comic in the artistic discharge of the nausea of absurdity."  The sublime for Nietzsche is very unlike the sublime for Kant or for Burke.  It is subjectively oriented, as for Kant, but in this case what happens is that the consciousness of the world as absurd after the death of God is tamed, or made funny.  Where does this happen? In the theatrical experience:  "the satyr chorus of the dithyramb is the saving deed of Greek art"  That chorus provides us with an "intermediary world" a world between the world of on stage and our own world, and it is through this that our feelings of nausea can be exhausted.  

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