The Birth of Tragedy

Yesterday: “The Persians”   Tomorrow: “Coriolanus”

Twitter: @GreatBooksDude

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Yesterday I covered Aeschylus’ classic tragedy, “The Persians”, which is one of the first complete extant plays.  Aeschylus possibly wrote as many as ninety plays, though we can only be certain of around seventy; but of these only seven are fully extant, and with one of them (“Prometheus Bound” there is a dispute about authorship (led notably by my former Classics professor at UC Berkeley, Mark Griffith).  Nevertheless it is worth noting that Aeschylus developed a genre that would in time become one of the great literary milieus in the West.

For that reason I feel compelled to look at a work of literary theory which examines the function and composition of tragedy.  I will be the first to admit that I do not have a great handle on Nietzsche.  He seems to be everyone’s favorite philosopher, but his language is, like all German thinkers, hideously unclear, and he is so prone to speaking under the surface of his language that deep understanding of his works is well nigh impossible.  I do not feel any more insecure in my understanding of the classics–which is second to none, mind you–as a result of not having complete grip on the thoughts of this second-rate philosopher.

Nevertheless, what Nietzsche presents in The Birth of Tragedy is fascinating.  He breaks tragedies down into two elements, the Apollonian and the Dionysian, citing the gods with whom he associates these elements.  As I teach my math students (I tutor math up to calculus and will continue to do so until my transition to teaching Great Books courses is complete with 100+ students), especially for the SAT, there are some equations where you need to make substitutions.  Nietzsche is the literary equivalent of this.  In this case you can roughly substitute “dreamlike state of perfection” with Apollonian–Apollo is associated with the sun, so think of the perfect day where you daydream–and “punch-drunk” for Dionysian–Dionysus is the god of wine, but he uses a different kind of infirm consciousness here, so imagine the fighter who’s been knocked down and has trouble regaining his bearings.

The book was published in 1872 and reissued a decade and a half later.  Nietzsche made plenty of enemies with it, in large part because he claimed that while the Greeks were “beautiful people”, they had lots of shit to deal with, so to speak, and their own set of troubles.  Many at the time thought of the Greeks as perpetually happy.  It is entirely unclear why they would think this, but they did.  And so Nietzsche was attacked and defended, but mostly attacked, in a pamphlet war.  He retracted his confidence in the work, then re-asserted it.  It seems that Nietzsche himself was confused by it.  He was confused by many things.  Alas, now I must speak of the contents of the book.

To Nietzsche the tragic is the fusion of the two.  The play begins in a dreamlike state.  Aristotle’s definition begins with a noble character.  He is brought down by a fatal flaw–this leaves the audience punch-drunk.  Then the audience experiences a cleansing of emotions.  The audience is brought back to the dreamlike state, a little wiser for it and still slightly confused and depressed.  Tragedy thus begins in pure Apollonian state, moves into pure Dionysian state, and then ends with a combination of the two.

Now if we look at “The Persians” we can see the trajectory of the play following this model quite closely.  The play begins with the chorus on stage, anxiously awaiting news of Xerxes’ expedition at Susa (the capital of the Persian Empire).  The expectations lie heavily in favor of a Persian victory; even the oracle at Delphi had taken a defeatist attitude about the Greeks’ chances (this last lies outside the scope of the play, but can be found in histories of the times).  The conscience is clear and we are in a dreamlike, Apollonian state.

Then the queen comes out and brings forward her dream.  All of a sudden we are confronted with an adverse element.  The messenger arrives bringing word of the issue of the battle.  Xerxes has lost.  We are punch drunk; we are confused; we are in a Dionysian state.  The queen (and we, the audience) seek an outlet for our confusion in conversation with the ghost of Darius.  He provides a small outlet.  But we find that Xerxes, while battered and beaten, arrives home alive.  We are thus now in a combination state: we are confused and upset at the tragic loss of the battle, but thankful that Xerxes has made it home safely.  The Apollonian and the Dionysian have fused.

The truth behind Nietzsche’s penetrating incision into the nature of tragedy is thus unmistakeable.  We can think of dozens of other tragedies that we have read which conform to this model.  Of course some credit must be removed from Nietzsche for in many ways merely repeating the thoughts of Aristotle in a different form and in language that is even less clear.  And some more credit must be removed just for the unclear language.  But the point is relevant, and the work a classic.

The Barnes & Noble Library of Essential Reading version of the book is 113 pages, including the Appendix but excluding the Forward by Richard Wagner and the introductory essay, “An Attempt at Self-Criticism”, by Nietzsche (the two might add an additional ten pages to it).  It is short, but it is not necessarily an easy read and it might take a full day of devoted reading.  Nevertheless I do believe it has value, and of course the real value of the classics comes from reading them in volume, not reading a few isolated individual works (or even worse, a few isolated individual selections of works), as our school system tries to do.  I believe that if we can see tragedy as moving us through certain psychological states, we can relate stage representations of it to our real lives; we can capture something essential about human nature.  I could, of course, be bat-shit crazy–but I highly encourage you to take a look, and look forward to any responses I may receive to this post!

(My friend has officially asked that when she arrives in August I get her in the Dionysian state of drunkenness.  Done.)


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