The Birth of Tragedy
Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900) is perhaps one of the most influential philosophers in history. The German poet, composer, and cultural critic wrote countless treatises on religion, morality, science, and culture. His book, The Birth of Tragedy, is an in depth examination of Greek Tragedy - a deconstruction that he then utilizes to examine the state of modern culture (particularly in relation to its decline and potential resurgence). Nietzsche’s analysis identifies two main philosophical concepts governing theatricality and the Greek arts - the Dionysian, and the Apollonian. Nietzsche goes on to berate Euripides for introducing the Socratic obsession with knowledge and human thought (traces of stoicism). The obsessive focus on the individual eliminates the essential musical element, crucial to the exploration of the Dionysian aspects within the collective. Nietzsche then proceeds to look at contemporary culture, arguing that we continue to live in a dying Alexandrian age of culture - this paradigm will soon shift, giving way to a rebirth of Dionysus (the first traces of which are Wagner’s music). Thus the final tone of his work is an optimistic one.
I mentioned before that Nietzsche identifies the Dionysian and Apollonian elements as the main duality from which stem the various traditions of Greek theatricality. Nietzsche describes the Dionysian as the purest form of creative energy, unbound, unimpeded, and collective. The Apollonian on the other hand is collected, colder, representing the element of self control and precise expression. While to Nietzsche this is a quite explicit duality, and while he leans in favor of the Dionysian, he admits that to achieve any form of expression, the Dionysian must work through the Apollonian to be transmitted. The decline of the Greek tragedy was the moment that the Apollonian became primary as opposed to secondary - emotions became inhibited, music was dismissed, and reason took over theatre. What’s interesting about Nietzsche’s theory is the ability to use it as a framework of analysis for cultural tendencies far beyond its contemporary years. Thus the question becomes - are we beginning to see a shift into a Dionysian world, or are we still living in a purely Apollonian society? Are new forms of performance and music (like Jazz, for example), revealing a shift? And how, if so, do we continue to push for a Dionysian shift in performative thinking?
I tend to agree with Nietzsche, in the same way I tend to agree with Aristotle over Plato or Kant over Hegel. Nietzsche’s search for the origins of tragedy and his later extrapolation of these concepts to contemporary society come eerily close to theoretical experiments by the likes of Lorca or Suzuki, in that they all seem to identify the source of the “creative”, and thus of art, as belonging to a natural, almost visceral root. This seems to me more than a simple coincidence, and is sensible in that I find the moment of catharsis (popular catharsis, not Aristotelian catharsis) as something only possible through Dionysian constructs (as opposed to Apollonian ones). Where I think Nietzsche fails is his optimistic temperament towards the end of The Birth of Tragedy. We seem to be living in a world of increasingly Fine as opposed to Applied Art; art that is produced conceptually, systematically, through Apollonian constructs. And yet this art can, I believe, have Dionysian payoffs. Thus the Aristotelian chain of true artistic creation is inverted - we go from the Apollonian to the Dionysian rather than from the Dionysian to the Apollonian.