Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Section 23 of the Birth of Tragedy on myth

The last three chapters of The Birth of Tragedy are not much discussed, but they are something of a kick to the gut, especially for an atheist philosophy teacher like myself.  N. begins Section 23 by saying that you can tell whether you belong to the much despised class of Socratic critics.  That is, you do not belong to such a class if you are willing to accept miracles on stage, not as something alien but as myth, as indeed a "concentrated image of the world" and as "a condensation of phenomena."  Then it turns out that, for N., it is probable that almost no one is capable of this, that almost all people (or at least thinkers) in our time must approach myth by way of scholarship and abstractions.  This is a problem for the culture, since  "without myth every culture loses the healthy natural power of creativity." and it is only this that allows for unification of a cultural movement.  Otherwise we will engage in aimless wandering.  What is needed?  "The images of the myth have to be the unnoticed omnipresent demonic guardians, under whose care the young soul grows to maturity and whose signs help the man [i.e. the neophyte.. N using sexist language here] to interpret his life and struggles."  I could not help but think of Joseph Campbell when I read this...but that's the problem, since I cannot take Campbell seriously when he and Bill Moyers talk (in a recent PBS rerun) about the "guiding hand" of some spiritual force that gives their lives meaning, so much so that they pity people like me who do not feel this guiding hand.  One can take Nietzsche more seriously.  At this early stage in his career already we find him almost saying, "God is dead, but I am miserable about it...I need the myth of the guiding hand, and yet there is no real way to believe in it.  All I can do is suspend disbelief when I go to Wagner's operas."

N. then pictures "the abstract man" who has no training in myth and looks at education, morality, law, and state from the perspective of abstraction.  (I have known many philosophers who very much fit this mold.)  He also imagines "a culture that has no fixed and sacred primordial site but is doomed to exhaust all possibilities to nourish itself wretchedly on all other cultures." This, he says, is our culture, i.e. "the present age."  It is ours too, although only a small part of our culture is obsessed with other cultures or the past in this way. Rather we are simply obsessed with a shallow world of consumption and entertainment along with the parallel worlds of work, science and technology, which of course do have their satisfactions.  But no myth here.  "And now the mythless man stands eternally hungry, surrounded by all past ages, and digs and grubs for roots..."  The difference between N.s culture and our own is relatively minor.  For example, the following quote fits our cultural world pretty well: "Let us ask ourselves whether the feverish and uncanny excitement of this culture is anything but the greedy seizing and snatching at food of a hungry man."  Here, as N. puts it, even the most wholesome food is turned into history and criticism.

When N. turns to thinking about "our German character with sorrowful despair" one should probably replace our own American culture to make it relevant (or whatever unit you wish to insert, insert here) and just as N. finds "stupendous moments" in which there is "vigorous awakening" of the German spirit we can find such in American, for example in the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s, but not today, unfortunately.  As an aside it does seem strange to see N. speaking of Luther as an example of the Dionysian.  In any case, German music (Bach, Beethoven, Wagner, for example) was quite something to be proud of, although whether Wagner was able to create "the rebirth of German myth" was open to question, and certainly questioned by N. himself in later writings.

One thinks of Thus Spoke Zarathustra when N. begins the next paragraph by saying "I know that I must now lead the sympathizing and attentive friend to an elevated position of lonely contemplation, where he will have but few companions..."  (What a strange combination:  friendliness and loneliness in one sentence.) What he now does is ask the young companion to be guided by the Greeks, especially of course by his knowledge that Greek tragedy rose through the combination of the Apollonian and the Dionysian and fell through their dissociation, leading to degeneration of the Greek people itself, leading N. in turn to believe that there are fundamental connections between "art and the people, myth and custom, tragedy and state."  So tragedy dies and along with it myth, and then perhaps if tragedy can live again, so too myth.

The next passage I have to quote extensively (this is from the Kaufmann translation, I should have mentioned earlier)  "But the state no less than art dipped into the current of the timeless to find rest in it from the burden and the greed of the moment.  And any people -- just as, incidentally, also any individual - is worth only as much as it is able to press upon its experiences the stamp of the eternal [where the immediate present appears under the aspect of eternity, in a certain sense "timeless"] for thus it is, as it were desecularized and shows its unconscious inward convictions of the relativity of time and of the true, that is metaphysical, significance of life.  The opposite of this happens when a people begins to comprehend itself historically and to smash the mythical works that surround it."  So, the great thing about Greek art and myth was that it delayed secularization and the destruction of myth, and the great thing about the Greek (or rather, Athenian) state is that it achieved something eternal in the now.  God is dead but life is meaningless unless we have a path to some sort of eternity, even if it is just in our experiences of great art.  Seeing great art and politics tied so closely....it is an imaginative leap for our own time.

One of N.s most puzzling passages follows:  "Even now this metaphysical drive still tries to create for itself a certainly attenuated form of transfiguration, in the Socratism of science, that strives for life."  Perhaps he is thinking about what he previously thought to achieve through philology...some way to both strive for life and also hold to the Socratism of a science that explores the world of myth but then loses itself "in a pandemonium of myths and superstitions" that it has collected.  His actual reference (in the next sentence, but this does not erase the ambiguity)  is to the Alexandrian Greek who masked this fever with a pseudo Greek cheerfulness very unlike the fifth century BC one, or he numbed himself with Oriental superstition (again...a reference to Schopenhauer's love of Buddhism?)

So what was the Renaissance all about?  For N. it was about the re-awakening of only one antiquity...the Alexandrian-Roman one.  What to we get here?  Too much lust for knowledge, secularization, homeless roving, going to foreign sources, "a frivolous deification of the present, or a dully dazed retreat."  My response would be:  sure, but it was the Renaissance!  N. just ends the paragraph by noting that you cannot transplant a foreign myth without ruining the tree.

 N. concludes the section by saying that the German spirit will be able to eliminate the foreign elements and "return to itself"...perhaps by eliminating the Romanic.  The Germans should look for a leader by listening to "the luring call of the Dionysian bird."  Can you replace the Romanic with the Nietzschean Greek and come out ahead?

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