Wednesday, March 23, 2016

It is a dream, dream on! Nietzsche's Birth of Tragedy Chapters One and Two

(This is an experiment in poetic interpretation of Nietzsche which intends to be philosohical in a somewhat deeper way than is conventional.  If you want a more conventional explanation of Nietzsche on art in The Birth of Tragedy, see this earlier post)

It is a dream, dream on.  The deep difference between Nietzsche and Schopenhauer was that the former had a zest for life, one that would not go for resignation or be attracted to the Buddhistic version of negation of the self.  This is a world of illusion, for sure, but do dream on, maybe even dream the same dream for several nights.  And dream like a Greek.  There is an interesting relationship between the experience of the poet in looking at his dreams and the philosopher in looking at the world of ordinary everyday experience.  It is not an exact parallel.  The philosopher sees things differently when seeing life as a dream, or as like a dream.  The poet sees things differently when seeing dreams as life, treating them as life.  Dream on in both cases.   For dreams, and, more importantly, art, make life worth living.  Apollo is a dreamer himself.  He is like the human on that frail bark in the stormy sea, protected by an illusion.  He is calm, he looks over the seas, he brings light, he is an enlightenment thinker, and yet his conviction that everything is what it is and not something else, the principium individuationis, will fall to an exception, a violation that amounts to confusion of categories, as also will the principle that everything has an explanation, i.e. a scientific explanation.  Some things seem not to have an explanation.  It is in recognition of this that the Dionysian arises, i.e. as response to a need based on anxiety in face of the absurd.  But the Dionysian, as with the Apollonian, comes out of the anxiety of "the primordial one" itself.  The primordial one is the deepest common root of experience.  In Nietzsche's early system the primal one replaces not only God, but also the striving irrational Will of Schopenhauer.  Unlike both, it needs redemption.  It is divided from itself through the eruption of the world of experience.  Its redemption comes with wrenching away the veil of Maya, which is destruction of the separation between world of representation and underlying reality,  This destruction comes with a sense of oneness that comes with ecstatic experience.  But it also comes, in part, from the creation of another world of illusion, the world of dreams, which is like a worm hole in a black hole:  you enter into the Apollonian to come out on the Dionysian.  When Nietzsche tells us to dream on he is calling for us to move further into the cave, further away from the Platonic illusion of a world of enlightenment, the world of Forms, into the unconscious.  Life is justified by the dream and by the work of art. 

The key moment in the history of “the Greek cult,” i.e. the creation of truly great art, tragic art, is the result of a process.  First, the Greek poet creates in his dream images of the gods.  Second, he engages in the Dionysian rites, is intoxicated, is redeemed by ecstatic experience.  Third he falls onto the ground and has a vision of the dreamed gods as on the theater stage.  But wait, this must happen by way of music and, perhaps more importantly, a combination of music and dance.  It is a dance in which all of the powers of symbolism are involved.  It is a polymorphic dance that uses every part of the body.  It is here that the artist becomes a work of art, something shaped by the primordial one as artist god.  He is one not just in his soul or in his head but in his entire body.  He has been imitating not action or character, as Aristotle or Plato would suggest, but the twin art deities, Apollo and Dionysus.  Now he is one with them.  He becomes a god by becoming an exception to the principle of sufficient reason.  The world becomes enchanted around him as it does in Plato’s Ion to the poet.  Its streams are transformed into milk and honey.  The dream images are now something else, not just incredibly vivid and immediate, but symbolic.  If the dreaming Greek is a dreaming Homer, dreaming in bright colors and clear patterns, then the seeing Greek, to our shame, sees yet more sharply.  (How sharply do we see today?)  To imagine really seeing we need to imagine seeing like a Greek poet or a Greek artist.   

But if we are called on to dream on both in the Apollonian and in the Dionysian modes, and if we evoke mass experiences of the multitude as well as cries of horror, the problem of sado-masochism, the "witches' brew," raises its ugly head.  This is an extreme version of what Burke had referred to as the sublime, of a pleasure (or rather, delight) that comes with terror, with pain, although only when there is some distance.  Here, however, it is not simply that a certain delight is associated with pain or fear:  the distance Burke required is overcome, and the horror of existence becomes more prominent, and yet at the same time there is an ecstatic form of pleasure, a form that could just be called "delight."  The primitive pre-Greek Dionysian, at first held back by the Apollo wielding the Gorgon’s head, and then later by the Doric order of columns, now is incorporated into the Apollonian, now is synthesized with it in a way that makes it safer but still worrisome.  The Greek hero as sunk into the depths, has gone through the dream world to the disturbing side of it (the Inferno), has found that the principles of science and the Doric order cannot protect him, has found redemption in these dreams, has called out to "dream on," has imagined gods on his own stage set, has imitated the Dionysian and the Apollonian, has opened up the essence of nature, has overcome alienation of the primordial one, has experienced ecstasy, has created medicine out of poison, joy out of pain, has created music with emotional power, has awoken and exhausted all of his symbolic faculties, has forced all members of the body into rhythmic movement, overcoming the Apollonian world of illusion in favor of the Dionysian vision.  That is the first two chapters of The Birth of Tragedy.

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