Tuesday, September 16, 2008

What does Nietzsche’s Birth of Tragedy offer the Artist?

This is just an experiment. The Birth of Tragedy, although apparently short, is an enormous unwieldy book for the serious reader. I ask myself what value it can have for our own time, especially for artists and for other creative types. I have long thought of Nietzsche as someone who can speak to those atheists who still have religious tendencies. (Read this as a belief that something like eternity, redemption is needed, despite the truth of evolution and the literal falsehood of religious mythology, for example in a "living Jesus" or a loving God.) His attack on what he calls the Socratic is really an attack on tendencies to see everything, even morality, as amenable to reason. I think of my liberal friends who believe that if we all just got behind Rawls’ veil of ignorance we would recognize that we ought to vote for Obama. I think we ought to vote for Obama but, with Nietzsche, I cannot accept this optimism. There is no behind the veil of ignorance, and even if there were, there would be no agreement there. It is an interesting phenomenon that watching Justice Scalia in an interview on 60 Minutes: one does not see an evil man. From the liberal perspective he has to be not only evil but unintelligent. I oppose his policies (e.g. his rejection of the living Constitution and of the right to privacy) but I cannot say he is unintelligent. That our worldviews are incommensurable is tragic. There is no explanation beyond stories about our different upbringings and genetic makeup. (The same would go for Nietzsche’s own insensitivity to the exploitation and alienation of the working classes.)

Nietzsche helps us recognize the tragic dimension of existence: that the Socratic point of view (really the Platonic point of view) comes up against a wall at some point. I do not think we need to take literally his idea (stronger than that: we just shouldn't) that there is an underlying primal being that seeks redemption through us and through our dreams and art. What he does teach us is that the religious impulse needs to be satisfied in some way, and that there is something that artists and other creative types refer to when they say that they have tapped into a source of creativity. Religion used to address this issue, and then it began to think of itself as science: hence the fundamentalist attack on evolutionary theory. Many liberal theologians on the other hand are actually pretty close to the track Nietzsche was following, often under his influence. In the 20th century the action moved to the arts, although frankly I think that this tendency has almost been exhausted, as can be seen in the rise of fundamentalist religion and the decline of sheer excitement about art (no one is going to riot in the streets over the latest works of Cindy Sherman, as thought-provoking as they might be). Where is art to go if Nietzsche is basically right, i.e. right if understood for our own time? I think it pretty fundamental that art goes nowhere if it is thought that the Apollonian or the Socratic or the Alexandrian are sufficient in themselves for art or for man. Art is, at its best, tragic art, and this means that it combines the Dionysian and the Apollonian. The trick is to tease out what this means from Nietzsche's writings. Nietzsche believed that art expressed the Dionysian wisdom. The Dionysian wisdom, as I see it, is three-sided. First, it is the recognition of suffering. It is so easy for us to ignore it, and yet it exists all around us. Second, it is the belief in the possibility of redemption through a moment of identification with the eternal. Third, and most important, is recognition that this identification, although needed, is an illusion, that there is no eternal outside this life, that, indeed the first two realities had led us into accepting the falsehood of an afterlife or of some good Guy who will make things OK in the end (optimism).

The idea that there are necessarily illusions is the one truly major hurdle for contemporary philosophy in appropriating Nietzsche. (I don’t think any Nietzsche scholar or follower has ever really faced it.) This is not a rejection of truth: rather it is a recognition that small t truths can be sacrificed for big T truth, which is pretty much the opposite of the position of Rorty (who I much admire in other ways nonetheless). A Nietzschean form of atheism is one that can say yes to life in a deeply religious way that rejects the existence of God, at least of a god who cares for us or makes things right in the universe (redemption is not so easy as that.) The artist who seeks to deal with the underlying suffering and the need for redemption needs to steer clear of the twin illusions of science and conventional (read, “almost all”) religion. “Music” for Nietzsche signified the moment in artistic or aesthetic experience when one feels "as if" eternal. If that moment is a culmination, part of a larger organic whole, and communicable in the sense of socially-sharable, and not merely idiosyncratic or drug-induced, then that’s it, that’s the best there is.


Canadian Pragmatist said...

Interesting article although you spend very little time on what the title suggests, that is, art.

If you want to have a good understanding of Nietzsche, read Nehamas' "Nietzsche: Life as Literature." While touching on the pre-socratic influences Nietzsche felt, this book also gives the best explanation of the infamously misunderstood "will to power" doctrine in Nietzsche's writing.

I'll give you a taste of it, if you like. Nehamas, basically contends that Nietzsche viewed the world (universe) as a literary novel (not only in an artistic, but also a metaphysical sense). Each of us are characters in that novel, and a moral/good person is a good authentic and consistent character in a novel. There is no free will. There is still change, and often dramatic change, as we see from our favourite fictional characters, e.g. Ishmael "Moby Dick".

The obvious problem with that is that villians are also good characters to have in a novel, along with Ishmael, Captain Ahab, the mad man in search of revenge over an inanimate creature, but I don't have the space or the time to explain how Nietzsche deals with this criticism of his doctrine, but Nehamas does explain it, and I think his book would be a worthwhile read for anyone interested in Nietzsche.

Also, last thing. He talk about Nietzsche's insistence for our faith in grammar, that we think that we are capable to capture the reality of the universe in words. That the universe will kneel to our description of it. Nietzsche insists that we cannot give an apt description of the universe in words, and as people who believe in free will argue, "we speak using words, like 'should', 'believe', 'consent' how could the freedom we've granted ourselves through language not correspond to reality?"

Really, an amazing book, best book on Nietzsche ever. I know how many books have been written on him, and I haven't read all of them, but I can't imagine a better book than Nehamas'.


Tom Leddy said...

Dear Relentless:

Thanks for reminding me of Nehamas' excellent book ... I had actually been intending to reread it recently. I have been thinking about what Nietzsche might say about an aethetics of everyday life. One point would be that we should see ourselves as works of art. And so our entire lives would be aesthetically judged. Aesthetics then would not be limited to art or to art and nature.