Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Nietzsche's The Birth of Tragedy: The Irresolvable Conflict of the Apollonian and Dionysian

The Theatre of Dionysus near Athens, Greece
In The Birth of Tragedy out of the Spirit of Music, Nietzsche criticizes classicist nostalgia for Greek culture, stating, "Greek tragedy perished differently from all the other, older sister-arts: it died by suicide, as a result of the irresolvable conflict, which is to say tragically." (Nietzsche 45) He argues that Greek tragedy is not simply in perfect harmony with the "unity of man with nature" as described by Schiller's art-word "naive." (Nietzsche 24) 

Nietzsche argues that the Greeks' view of the "image-maker or sculptor and the imageless art of music" is reflected by their respective deities of art, Apollo and Dionysus. (Nietzsche 14) He contends that duality of these drives works in open conflict to produce Greek tragedy. Nietzsche contends this conflict also causes Greek tragedy to destroy itself, giving way to the reflection and reason for which the Enlightenment reveres the Greeks as "noble, simple, elegant and grandiose!" (Johnston)

A statue of Apollo from Versailles.
Nietzsche argues that the view of Greek art as "naive" exemplifies the prevalence of the Apollonian's dominance before tragedy. The Apollonian dream gave meaning and significance to the lives of the Greeks with illusion. Tragedy gives them the ability to imagine themselves as "restored natural geniuses." (Nietzsche 42) Nietzsche theorizes that the chorus in tragedy was originally always satyrs, or goat-men. Through this dream, "the illusion of culture was wiped away by the primordial image of man," linking the Apollonian dream with Dionysian instincts. (Nietzsche 41) 

Through the actors and the plot, Greek tragedy energized the Dionysian celebration of the "inseparable ecstasy and suffering of human existence." The Dionysian impulse leads to the collapse of the Apollonian principium individuationis, joining the group's affirmation of the meaning of their existence. (17) While the Apollonian dream is an illusion, Dionysian music is "a direct copy of the Will itself." (77) 

Dionysus, God Of Wine
Nietzsche argues the Greeks' human condition is anything but simple optimism. Becoming entirely absorbed in either force leads to the destruction of the other, bringing about tragedy's death. The imbalance between the Apollonian and the Dionysian causes mystic participation in art and myth to be lost. (70) The spectators became detached from the experience of the tragedy, causing it to become art instead of ritual. 

Greek tragedy reduced the prevalence of the chorus and the reflective nature of Euripides' human drama emerged. Socrates' emphasis on rationality eliminated the value of myth, suffering and instincts to human knowledge. The deities represent two art-worlds that "differ in their deepest essence and highest goals." (76) After Aeschylus and Sophocles, the emptiness left behind in the absence of tragedy causes a turn to "tragic resignation and a need for art." (75)
The Enlightenment era's nostalgia for "Greek serenity," Nietzsche argues, may exaggerate "the cheerfulness of the theoretical man."(86) He asserts that tragedy exhibits the Greeks' struggle with pessimism.  Dionysian forces give the Greek spectator a healthy, direct experience of human suffering and reality while the Apollonian provides the audience with the protective spirit-of-tragedy dream.  Nietzsche says these natural forces manifested in"music and tragic myth are equally an expression of a people that are inseparable from each other." Nietzsche argues this shows how Greek tragedy addressed the human needs of Greek society and was not simply "naive" expression. Nietzsche reminds us that the shared world of the two gods required a struggle between one another even when they were balanced symbolically. (138)

Works Cited
Johnston, Ian C., Trans. The Birth of Tragedy out of the Spirit of Music: by Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche. Google Books, 2008. Web. 13 Mar. 2012. 
Nietzsche, Fredrich Wilhelm. The Birth of Tragedy. Raymond Guess, ed. Ronald Speirs, trans. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 1999.