Friday, March 6, 2009

Some Notes on (or a summary of) the First Four Chapter of The Birth of Tragedy

Nietzsche has an unusual approach to aesthetics. Unlike Plato, Kant, and even Hegel, Nietzsche sees humans as essentially sensuous beings, and is not critical of that aspect of ourselves. Like Hegel, he pays particular attention to history and tends to see history in terms of dialectic, that is, in terms of thesis, antithesis and synthesis. Like Hegel, he is also interested in forwarding the science of aesthetics, although it would be a stretch to think of his method as truly science-like. Unlike any previous philosopher, he defines art in terms of a duality. (However, his duality could be seen as similar to that can be seen between the beautiful and the sublime in Burke and Kant.) Borrowing from the ancient Greeks, whom he had studied extensively as a philologist (he was Professor of Philology at the University of Basel, Switzerland), he named the two basic elements in fine art after two Greek Gods, Apollo and Dionysus (also spelled Dionysos). He sees this duality in terms of dialectic: the Apollonian and the Dionysiac sides alternate between conflict and reconciliation, somewhat like a typical good marriage. He prefers understanding art in terms of these symbols rather than in terms of concepts. Like such 20th century aestheticians as Morris Weitz and Frank Sibley, he does not think that such concepts as “art” can be defined in terms of necessary and sufficient conditions. Still, he does think something valuable can be said about art’s essence and about what makes great art great. Nietzsche speaks of Dionysus and Apollo as art-sponsoring deities. This is not exactly the way the ancient Greeks saw them, but he realizes this, and I do not think that that matters very much. He believes that Apollo represents the plastic arts: i.e. painting, sculpture, and perhaps architecture. Dionysus, by contrast, represents the art of music. (We will see later that this does not include the Apollonian musical art, which focuses on calming music and the cithara or Greek guitar.) However, instead of seeing the Apollonian and the Dionysian in terms of the Greek gods it might be better to see them as creative tendencies or powers that are essentially physiological. The main theme of this book is that, although the two art tendencies were in dialectical conflict they eventually came together in ancient Greek tragedy, which Nietzsche believed was the highest form of art in ancient times. He also thought that the music of Wagner was the highest form of art in his own time, and that it represented a rebirth of ancient Greek tragedy. Nietzsche was a close friend of Wagner’s and was a leading figure in the Wagnerian cultural movement that was sweeping the German-speaking world at that time.

Nietzsche goes on to understand these art tendencies as associated with dream and intoxication. That is, he understands them in terms of something going on in our bodies. Men first saw the gods in their dreams, and then great artists like Phidias, who created the sculpture of the goddess Athena for the Parthenon, presented these images to men. Greek poets too were inspired by dreams, and they would agree with the Wagnerian character who said that poets should interpret dreams that have some truth in them.

Actually, when you think about it (I am speaking in Nietzsche's voice here), every man is an artist in the sense that every man produces dreams every night. The remarkable thing about dreams is that their forms speak to us directly, without any mediation. Still, we do tend to see them as illusions, despite their intensity. Parallel to this, philosophers tend to see everyday reality as an illusion (as Plato did in "the Cave") hiding true reality. Schopenhauer (who was Nietzsche’s favorite philosopher when he wrote this book) saw the ability to see the material world as an illusion as the mark of a good philosopher. An artist or a person who loves art looks at dream images (and at works of art) as ways to interpret life. He sees dream-life, with all its negative and scary aspects included, as a kind of play in which he is an actor, but still with a sense that it is illusion. He enjoys it, and sometimes he will want the dream to continue because, after all, it is only a dream. This seems to prove that our innermost being (the underlying unconscious reality that all humans share) enjoys dreams deeply, and really needs them. Apollo was also the god of making predictions and the god of light (the sun was said to be Apollo riding his chariot across the sky) who reigned over illusion and fantasy. He was also a god of healing. Just as nature heals us during sleep, and partly through our being able to dream, so too the arts heal us through their illusions. Insofar as they heal, Nietzsche boldly asserts, they make life worth living. But, remember, the dream image should not be seen as reality! Only then can it give us tranquility. Apollo (the Apollonian tendency) is like Schopenhauer’s man in a frail craft who relies on the principium individuationis. This principle is that each individual is its own separate thing existing in its own place and time. (Schopenhauer believed that the principle only applies to the world or representation, not to the thing-in-itself or Will.)

Schopenhauer also describes the awe men experience when the laws of science seem to be suspended (as in a miracle). For Schopenhauer, an ecstatic experience happens (or can happen) when the principium individuationis is violated. This is the Dionysiac rapture obtained by followers of Dionysus during special rituals and celebrations. Nietzsche says that this rapture is like physical intoxication. When he speaks of intoxication he means not only that induced by wine but also, more generally, by narcotics, the approach of spring, and other things that make you forget yourself entirely, including religious experience. This power drove people to engage in ecstatic dances in the Middle Ages as well as amongst the followers of Bacchus (another name for Dionysus) in Greece. Nietzsche says that these practices might be thought by some of as “endemic diseases,” i.e. ones that are passed on normally in a culture from person to person. He also observes that some people (especially Apollonians) may criticize Dionysian ecstasy. And yet their so-called sanity is really like that of a dead person: they are “benighted” in the sense of being overcome by intellectual darkness. As Nietzsche puts it, the noisy party will pass them by. The Dionysiac was especially associated with certain religious rituals that involve death and rebirth. These rites bring man back together with man (including slave and master). They also overcome the alienation of man from nature, hence all the images of Dionysus riding wild animals. (It is interesting that Marx in his 1844 Manuscripts also spoke of overcoming these two forms of alienation. Was Nietzsche somehow drawing inspiration from Marx despite his well-kwown antipathy to socialism?) The Dionysian religious experience poses the gospel of universal harmony. Here, all men become one, and obtain a vision of the mystical One.

There is a stage of the Apollonian/Dionysian duality in which artistic urges are satisfied directly: this is the stage of dreams and intoxication/ecstasy. This stage does not require any artistic genius, and in fact takes no account of the individual. It may even destroy him in mystical experience. Nietzsche observes that the artist must seem to be an imitator of this kind of experience. He then argues that the Greek tragic artist is a dream and ecstasy artist in one. Nietzsche imagines a scene in which the artist is in Dionysiac intoxication and then, separated from the crowd, perceives his own condition of mystic oneness in a dream (thus evoking Apollo, the dream-god). Nietzsche returns now to the question of the relation between Greek art and the proto-aesthetic phenomena of dreaming and intoxication. He stresses the special relationship the Greek artist had to Greek dreamers and intoxicants. Although it is difficult to determine what the dreams of Greeks were like, Nietzsche believed you can make assumptions based on looking at their colorful sculptures. (Greek sculptures were painted quite colorfully, although almost all examples that exist today have lost their paint.). He concludes that the dreaming Greek might even be seen as a Homer in the sense that the Greeks were genius-like and highly creative in their dreams. (This was wildly speculative on Nietzsche’s part!)

There was a big difference between the Greek and non-Greek followers of Dionysus. The non-Greeks were more primitive, more like the satyr (a half-goat half-man semi-deity who followed Dionysus) than like Dionysus himself. Their celebrations mainly involved sexual promiscuity, overcoming tribal laws, and ultimately a witches’ cauldron of lust and cruelty (i.e. sadistic pleasure). The Greeks were kept safe from these excesses through the image of Apollo. This can be found for example in the art of the Doric temple. (The Doric order in architecture was simple and calming compared to the two other orders, the Ionic and the Corinthian. It was the order used in the Parthenon.) But when such urges began to well up from the Greeks’ own unconscious minds all Apollo could do was make a peaceful gesture, one that constituted what Nietzsche considered to be the most important event in the history of Greek religion and art. The gesture involved a reconciliation of the two antagonists. The Dionysiac powers were transformed so that the savagery of the non-Greek barbarian festival was replaced by rituals of “universal redemption.” (The Christian terminology here is probably intentional. Nietzsche at this time must have seen the religion of Dionysus as very much like the more enthusiastic forms of Christianity.) This, Nietzsche argues, is when the overcoming of the principle of individuality becomes something aesthetically positive. Yet, although the combination of lust and cruelty is overcome in the Greek version of the Dionysian, there is still an ambiguity. Even in the Greek Dionysian a certain terror or lament underlies the joy of ecstatic experience, as though nature were sad about being divided into separate individuals. Nietzsche holds that Dionysiac music especially expressed this underlying fear, although he notes that there was actually an Apollonian music of the cithara (Greek guitar) as well. This Apollonian form, he argues, was replaced by Dionysiac music of the aolus (Greek flute), and this change was permanent. That is, the essence of music, on Nietzsche's view, is Dionysian.

Nietzsche is probably thinking of Wagner, and before him, Beethoven, when he speaks of the “the heart-shaking power of tone, the uniform stream of melody, the incomparable resources of harmony” of Dionysiac music. He then mentions the Dionysiac dithyramb. Wikipedia describes the Dithyramb in this way: “The dithyramb was originally an ancient Greek hymn (διθύραμβος - dithurambos) sung to the god Dionysus and was also a term used as an epithet of the god. Its wild and ecstatic character was contrasted by Plutarch with that of the paean. Dithyrambos seems to have arisen out of this song: just as paean was both a hymn to and a title of Apollo, Dithyrambos was an epithet of Dionysus as well as a song in his honor. Greeks recognized in the epithet "he of the miraculous birth" and constructed an etymology to confirm this. According to Aristotle, the dithyramb was the origin of the Ancient Greek theatre, and one may recognize as a dithyramb the chorus invoking Dionysus in Euripides' The Bacchae….In Athens dithyrambs were sung by a Greek chorus of up to fifty men or boys dancing in circular formation (there is no certain evidence that they may have originally been dressed as satyrs) and probably accompanied by the aulos [the Greek flute]. They would normally relate some incident in the life of Dionysus. The leader of the chorus later became the solo protagonist, with lyrical interchanges taking place between him and the rest of the chorus. Competitions between groups singing dithyrambs were an important part of festivals such as the Dionysia and Lenaia.”[1] The dithyramb tries to symbolically express the essence of nature. A new set of symbols are needed for this. This set includes symbols used by the actor in moving his body, symbols used in language, symbols used in dance, and especially the various symbolic elements of music. Nietzsche speaks of this as a freeing of symbolic powers which expresses a freedom within the self, one that could only be understood by other followers of Dionysus. All of this would have been surprising to the Apollonian, except when he realized that the Apollonian perspective is just a veil that covers the Dionysian aspect of reality. (Nietzsche is not clear whether he believes that the Dionysian aspect of reality is what he later calls the truth of Silenus, or whether he believes it is the aspect of reality that is experienced in Dionysian ecstasy. The two are really very different!)

Although Apollo is generally seen as only one of the Olympian gods (which were worshipped by the typical Greek of the time of Socrates, Plato and Aristotle), Nietzsche believes he is actually their most complete representation. The same drive or need that generated him generated their entire world. Generally speaking, Nietzsche beleived that humans create their gods, whether they be Olympian, Christian, or otherwise. He then observes that we should not think about the Olympian world in terms of the religion of Christianity, which emphasizes moral elevation, kindness and asceticism. Rather, the emphasis here is on triumphant existence. (And this shows Nietzsche's generally life-affirming philosophy and his belief that the Greeks were generally life-affirming as well.) Moreover, Nietzsche stressed, the Olympian religion does not distinguish the good from the bad, or rather, as he puts it in his later writings, between good and evil. The ancient Greeks, he argues, seem to overflow with life-affirming zest: they see a laughing beauty everywhere. To the modern Christian viewer, and to the typical intellectuals of Nietzsche’s time, ancient Greek life seemed strangely serene. But the reality, Nietzsche argued (and this was quite an innovation on his part) was very different. To make his point he tells a story about King Midas and the minor deity and follower of Dionysus, Silenus. When captured and forced to answer the question what is best for man, Silenus replies that the greatest good is to never to have been born, but, if born, to die soon. Nietzsche’s point here is that Silenus is expressing a deeply pessimistic side of the Greek character. Nietzsche thought that the Greeks invented the Olympian world with its serene optimism (and later, Plato’s world of Forms) to overcome, or to cover over, this underlying pessimism. (This pessimism, Nietzsche must have thought, paralleled the famous pessimism of Schopenhauer.)

Nietzsche then talks more about dreams and dreamers. The dreamer forgets the day with all its troubles. Nietzsche proposes that the dreaming part of life is really more important than the waking part, and that it is more truly lived. He was inclined to believe that what he called the “original Oneness: and "the ground of Being” (i.e. something like Schopenhauer’s Will, and yet more personal and thus more lGod-like) always suffers and is always full of contradictions. This being needs the vision and illusion of man in order to make sense out of its own existence. We ourselves are the illusions of such a being. It we look at ourselves as its idea then our dreams (and also our works of Apollonian art) are illusions of illusions. (This is somewhat like Plato’s idea of imitative art being three removes from reality, deep within the cave. However, in this case, Nietzsche thinks that this is a valuable thing! That is, the universe needs illusions of illusions for its redemption!) Thus, this being takes delight in the works of such “naïve” (Apollonian) artists as Raphael who produce illusions of illusions.

Nietzsche believed that Raphael himself illustrated this very idea of reduction of illusion to greater illusion in his painting, Transfiguration. The lower half, showing the boy who is possessed by some devil or illness surrounded by scared disciples of Jesus, represents the pain of human existence, which is at the very basis of being. This is the first illusion because it covers over, or is a mere expression of, the underlying “begetter of all things,” i.e. the irrational Will. Then there is a secondary illusion portrayed in the upper part of the painting. This is the image of Christ being transfigured, and it is also the image of a world of pure delight, much like that of the Olympians. Interestingly, Nietzsche never mentions Christ/Jesus in his discussion of this painting. (No doubt the young professor was worried about charges of blasphemy.) For him, the top world is that of Apollo, and the bottom is that of Silenus. And each world needs the other to exist. Apollo is the principle of individuality become god, and satisfies the need of the One to redeem itself through illusion. In short, the world of suffering is needed to produce the vision that saves us.

This Apollonian move involves the idea that there needs to be limits to the individual. Aristotle named the virtue that corresponds to these limits "sophrosyne" although Nietzsche associated it with Socrates and Plato as well. As Wikipedia puts it, “Sophrosyne (σωφροσύνη) is a Greek philosophical term etymologically meaning moral sanity and from there self control or moderation guided by true self-knowledge.” [2] Both Apollo (at Delphi) and Socrates were associated with these two sayings: “know thyself” and “nothing too much.” For Nietzsche, these sayings only captures the Apollonian side of human experience. (Later in the book he explicitly attacks Socrates. But even in these first four chapters he indirectly and implicitly criticizes Socrates in his very claim that the Apollonian is only part of the story. Like Socrates, Nietzsche wanted to deeply question human assumptions about value. But unlike Socrates he did not believe in an afterlife or in the idea that humans should try to escape their bodies.) In fact, the Apollonians attacked excess and pride, which they associated with the earlier pre-Olympian gods, the Titans. Yet for Nietzsche, one of the Titans, Prometheus, the god who brought fire to humans, is truly a hero. Nietzsche even put an image this god at the front of his book. Perhaps he thought that he, too, was bringing something dangerous and useful to man, and that he, too, would ultimately suffer horribly because of this. In any case, the theme here is that "know thyself" and "nothing too much" should not be used to limit the achievements of the courageous and bold genius.

Nietzsche observes that the Greeks tended to understand the Dionysian in terms of these earlier gods, and yet he believed that the Greeks were really quite close to these gods in that their beautiful existence (which he describes as under the eyes of the most beautiful woman of ancient Greece, Helen) depended on a hidden base of knowledge of human suffering, which was only uncovered again with the Dionysian. (Nietzsche’s rather snide reference to thin harp music is also a reference to the picture of heaven which was traditional for Christians. See the first part of the selection in which he says that he was hiding his true negative feelings about Christianity when he wrote the book. He didn’t hide them all that well.) As with Hegel, he believes that the true Dionysian art tells the truth, although he ends the selection in Goldblatt and Brown's Aesthetics which I have been discussing by mentioning that another response by the Greeks to the Dionysian was the Spartan approach to art, one that was severe and cruel.

[1] Wikipedia accessed 3/4/09.

[2] Wikipedia accessed 3/4/09