The work of dramatic theory by Nietzsche named, “The Birth of Tragedy” has twenty-five chapters and a forward. The first fifteen chapters deal with Greek Tragedy, when the Apollonian worldview met the Dionysian. The last ten chapters use the Greek model to understand the state of modern culture, both its decline and its rebirth. The tone of the text is inspirational. Nietzsche often addresses the reader directly, saying at the end of chapter twenty,
“Dare now to be tragic men, for ye shall be redeemed!”
For these exclamations, one can hardly take his text seriously. However, if we look beyond, we find some very interesting ideas. Here Nietzsche’s enormous bias, particularly when something is or is not “art.” Nietzsche forms a very strict definition of art that excludes such things as subjective self-expression and the opera.
Nietzsche describes the state of Greek art before the influence of Dionysus as being naïve and concerned only with appearances. The appearances of Apollo shielded a man from the innate suffering of the world, and thus provide some relief and comfort.
Then came Dionysus, whose ecstatic revels first shocked the Apollonian man of Greek culture. In the end, however, it was only through the Dionysian essence of Primordial Unity that redemption from the suffering of the world could be achieved. In Dionysus, man found that his existence was not limited to his individual experiences alone, and thus a way was found to escape the fate, which is death.
As the Dionysian essence is eternal, one who connects with this essence finds an additional source of life and hope. Nietzsche thus shows Dionysus to be an uplifting alternative to the salvation offered by Christianity, which demands that man renounce life on earth altogether and focus only on heaven. For, in order to achieve salvation through Dionysus, one must immerse oneself in life now.
However, while man can only find salvation in Dionysus, he requires Apollo to reveal the essence of Dionysus through his appearances. The chorus and actors of tragedy were representations, through which they gave the essence of Dionysus’ voice to speak. Through them, man could experience the joys of redemption from worldly suffering.
These Apollonian appearances also stood as a bulwark against the chaos of Dionysus, so that it would completely lose the viewer in Dionysian ecstasy. Nietzsche emphasizes that in real tragic art, it inextricably entwined the elements of Dionysus and Apollo. As words could never hope to delve into the depths of the Dionysian essence, music was the life of the tragic art form.
Music exists in the realm beyond language, and so allows us to rise beyond consciousness and experience our connection to the Primordial Unity. Music is superior to all other arts because it does not represent a phenomenon, but the “world will” itself.
Nietzsche sees Euripides as the murderer of art, he who introduced the Socratic obsession with knowledge and ultimate trust of human thought into the theater. Euripides eliminated the musical element that is crucial to the Dionysian experience. Euripides threw Dionysus out of tragedy, and in doing so he destroyed the delicate balance between Dionysus and Apollo that is fundamental to art.
In the second half of his essay, Nietzsche explores the modern ramifications of this shift in Greek thought. He argues we are still living in the Alexandrian age of culture, which is now on its last legs. He states that science cannot explain the mysteries of the universe and thanks to the work of Kant and Schopenhauer.
The time is ripe for a rebirth of tragedy that will sweep away the dusty remains of Socratic culture. Nietzsche sees German music, Wagner in particular, as the beginning of this transformation. While German culture is decrepit, the German character is going strong, for it has an inkling of the primordial vitality flowing in its veins. Nietzsche has great hope for the coming age and has written this book to prepare us for it.
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