The Joys of Tragedy
Nietzschean Metaphysics and a Theory of Aesthetics
This is the last essay I wrote as a philosophy major at Notre Dame. It builds on my earlier work in philosophy of mind, metaphysics, and aesthetics, and draws on my background in psych. Though my thoughts in these matters have since developed, this essay should serve as useful context as I post more on these topics in the coming months.
Nietzsche’s first published book, The Birth of Tragedy Out of the Spirit of Music, or The Birth of Tragedy as it is more simply known, provides a rousing justification of tragedy both as an art form and a way of life.Rousing as it may be, this account of tragedy can be muddled at times, failing to support some of its more enthusiastic claims. As such, I find it uncompelling to the unindoctrinated reader, especially one who is not of a similar philosophical persuasion to Nietzsche in the first place. The Birth of Tragedy contains truths that are eminently important and applicable to all lives, and yet the book keeps them obscured by assuming too much, justifying too little, and speaking too colloquially. The work consequently amounts to an unconvincing, albeit inspired, piece on the importance of tragedy in our lives. Nietzsche himself agreed with this assessment of the book. In the paragraphs that follow, then, I will bring to light some of those truths that The Birth of Tragedy contains and build upon them to further explore how tragedy in art is valuable and what this says about our lives and their meanings.
In order to effectively redeem The Birth of Tragedy, we first need to understand that it is indeed flawed, and what exactly it is that plagues it. While containing much brilliance, the book has its fair share of shortcomings. For one, it is Nietzsche’s first book and yet he speaks as if he has built up decades-worth of rapport with his readers such that he doesn’t need to explain certain concepts or terms. This amounts to a vernacular seemingly native only to Nietzsche’s mind. Ideas such as the Dionysian and the primordial One are critical to his account and yet in all the excitement he never slows down and gives them the thorough explanation that they demand. Instead we’re left to piece together what exactly they mean throughout the course of the work. Furthermore, Nietzsche never provides a proper justification for why tragedy is so valuable in art and in our lives. He relies on the force of his personality, the excitement with which he speaks, to convince us of these things. He speaks the language of intuition and feeling at the expense of reason, the true language of the philosopher. This amounts to an account that convinces only the believers, those who need no convincing. People who already agree with the sentiments shared here in The Birth of Tragedy will find truth in the work, but for those who haven’t yet found these truths in their own experience this likely will not suffice. But who better to hear all of this from than Nietzsche himself? Indeed, Nietzsche was among the more outspoken of his own critics with regard to this work. Years after the book was originally published, it was reissued, this time including at the beginning a foreword of sorts written by Nietzsche, entitled “An Attempt at Self-Criticism.” In it he remarks on the problems he sees looking back on the book as an older, more experienced thinker. Much of what he says mirrors my criticisms of the work. He notes its strengths and the validity of many of the ideas contained therein, but it is “a first work also in every bad sense of the word, afflicted...with every fault of youth, above all with its ‘excessive verbiage’ and its ‘storm and stress’” (An Attempt at Self-Criticism, Section 2). He goes on:
“Let me say again: today for me it is an impossible book — I call it something poorly written, ponderous, embarrassing, with fantastic and confused imagery, sentimental, here and there so saccharine it is effeminate, uneven in tempo, without any impulse for logical clarity, extremely self-confident and thus dispensing with evidence, even distrustful of the relevance of evidence, like a book for the initiated...” (An Attempt at Self-Criticism, Section 3).
This last bit is extremely relevant to the point that I am making: “dispensing with evidence, even distrustful of the relevance of evidence, like a book for the initiated…” Nietzsche treats the reader as if she already knows what he is talking about and consequently neglects definitions, explanations, and justifications to a significant degree. Rather than back up his statements, he tries to instill their truth through his exuberance and the hope that we identify, in our own experience, with the sentiment of what he is saying. And even in this hope of identification he doesn’t directly appeal to us to search through our experience to find value in tragedy, nor does he instruct us on any means by which we might do so. Instead, he merely speaks on the experience of tragedy through his eyes and works in which one might find beauty in the tragic, such as Tristan and Isolde. In the present state of man (though perhaps it was otherwise in some ancient state), it is not natural to come to consciously recognize the beauty in tragedy in real life unless one is shown how, a task which Nietzsche ignores. Though Nietzsche’s self-criticism is rather scathing, he makes clear that there are important ideas contained within The Birth of Tragedy “which all lay close to the threshold of something communicable” (An Attempt at Self-Criticism, Section 2). I agree, and the remainder of this paper is dedicated to moving these ideas beyond this threshold and into the light.
Nietzsche’s defense of tragedy arises as a response to the Aristotelian treatment of the cathartic emotions and the emotional experience found in tragedy. Aristotle sees the cathartic experience, the unleashing of strong negative emotions (namely pity and fear, in the Greek tradition) via the visceral experience thereof, as a mere means to a greater end. Catharsis serves to purge man of these negative emotions such that he develops into a better person beyond the context of the tragedy. Thus, per Aristotle, cathartic experiences are not inherently valuable states to be embraced by man on account of their own nature. Nietzsche takes issue with this analysis of the tragic. He finds tragedy, both in art and in life, valuable in its own right. We enjoy tragedy, he says, because we revel in the suffering itself, not merely the effects which it has a tendency to produce. But how could this be so? Most people when confronted with the question “Do you love your own suffering?” would curtly reply in the negative. Understanding this requires a shift in one’s paradigm of thought. To better understand it in Nietzsche’s terms, we must first come to comprehend a concept which he so often discusses in The Birth of Tragedy, “the Dionysian.” The definition isn’t as easy to extract from the text as one might hope. It is never given a complete, concise definition, and is only defined to a minimal extent in a few places. When he first introduces the term, he calls it “the non-visual art of music, the Dionysian” (Section 1). In An Attempt at Self-Criticism he alternately says it is marked by “the desire for the ugly,” “madness,” and a “way of evaluating life, something purely artistic” (Sections 4 and 5). Elsewhere it is exemplified and referenced numerously, and through these we may understand the concept more fully. We find that it is encountered through singing and dancing, and partaking in rituals. We thus know that the Dionysian has much to do with music, but how so, exactly? Speaking of the man who creates such art, Nietzsche gives us further insight in the following passage: “He has, first of all, as a Dionysian artist, become entirely unified with the primordial oneness, with its pain and contradiction, and produces the reflection of this primordial oneness as music, if music can with justice be called a re-working of the world and its second casting” (The Birth of Tragedy, Section 5). Here we are introduced to the concept of primordial oneness, elsewhere called the primordial One or primordial unity, an integral aspect of Nietzsche’s account of the Dionysian, which we may encounter through music. The primordial oneness describes a metaphysical reality: that everything in existence, beyond all the appearances, concepts, and illusions (the Apollonian), exists as one. There is no true distinction between one thing or another, only the illusion of such perpetuated by the egoistic self. In daily life we live under the illusion of the self, make islands of ourselves despite the deeper nature of reality, that we are all one. Music is inspired by this truth and thus expresses it, giving us the opportunity to feel it for ourselves. The Dionysian, then, involves an arrival at the visceral understanding that we are a part of the primordial oneness, and a tearing down of the illusion that reality is otherwise. Nietzsche describes this experience as it takes place through art:
“In this way we recall, from the experiences of the truly aesthetic listener, the tragic artist himself, as he, like a voluptuous divinity of individuation, creates his forms, in which sense his work can scarcely be understood as an ‘imitation of nature’— but then as his immense Dionysian drive devours this entire world of appearances in order to allow us, through its destruction, to have a premonition behind it of the primal and highest artistic joy in the womb of the primordial One” (The Birth of Tragedy, Section 22).
According to Nietzsche, in this destruction of illusion and transcendence into the primordial oneness there is joy. We may better understand this Dionysian joy by looking elsewhere. Nietzsche’s clearest description of the Dionysian comes from beyond the scope of this text, in his Twilight of the Idols. Here he manages to put into words what he never quite could in The Birth of Tragedy:
"Saying Yes to life even in its strangest and most painful episodes, the will to life rejoicing in its own inexhaustible vitality even as it witnesses the destruction of its greatest heroes — that is what I called Dionysian, that is what I guessed to be the bridge to the psychology of the tragic poet. Not in order to be liberated from terror and pity, not in order to purge oneself of a dangerous affect by its vehement discharge — which is how Aristotle understood tragedy — but in order to celebrate oneself the eternal joy of becoming, beyond all terror and pity — that tragic joy included even joy in destruction" (What I Owe to Ancients, Section 5).
The Dionysian is a concept that refers to the affirmation of everything in life, even the ugliness, destruction, and suffering, and all that which might help us in attaining this perspective. It is thus that we may find the value inherent in tragedy. Tragic art leads us to this joy by forcing an encounter with the primordial oneness. Such is Nietzsche’s account of the tragic. Though I have clarified and condensed the relevant ideas from Nietzsche’s account of tragedy, it still leaves something to be desired. He still lacks justifications and makes leaps that are difficult to follow. Critical questions have yet to be answered before this theory can be made whole. How does one come to embrace the Dionysian? How might one find joy in the primordial oneness? And can this process teach us to find joy even in the tragedies of life? We now turn to the task of answering these questions.
In order to complete this account of tragedy, I am going to employ the concepts that Nietzsche has already laid out for us. They adequately capture the ideas that a justification of the tragic must be founded upon; they simply need further explanation and justification beyond what Nietzsche offered in The Birth of Tragedy. It begins with the metaphysical concept of primordial oneness. From a substance monist perspective, the universe is a single chaotic mass of swirling, ever-changing particles. Consciousness is an evolutionarily advantageous illusion that convinces us that we are separate from the rest of it all.Through consciousness we have built language, which allows us to label not only ourselves as distinct entities, but all other aspects of existence as well. Everything is separated from everything else, and thus from itself. Yet we have the capacity to see beyond this illusion into the nature of things as they “truly” are. For the man united with the primordial oneness, there is nothing truly bad or evil to be rejected by man, because everything is himself and he is a part of everything. It is only through the illusion of separation that we come to formulate these concepts. The Dionysian is the recognition and celebration of this truth through various means, such as tragic art. Part of the difficulty in trying to articulate this truth is that it rejects the validity of language as a lens through which to see the world objectively. It exists in a place beyond words, words being arbitrary, thus making it impossible for them to capture the ultimate truth of the matter. All words can do is point. Music illustrates this idea perhaps better than any medium, because it conjures up a realm beyond the linguistic. Music expresses, and consequently induces in us, the whole gamut of emotions. Through music we feel ecstasy, fear, comfort, sadness, pity, loneliness, and more. And yet, we do not see the so-called “negative” states among these as something to flee from. This is because we are partaking in the Dionysian and are brought out of ourselves into something beyond. We are experiencing the primordial oneness, whereupon we recognize, viscerally rather than consciously, that it is all beauty. Nietzsche remarks that by the power of music, “Singing and dancing, man expresses himself as a member of a higher community” (The Birth of Tragedy, Section 1). Music is not the sole art form by which we might experience the Dionysian, though, and it would serve us well to look at some other media through which the tragic might be expressed.
Narrative forms of art (while music can assume a narrative form, it is less strictly so than others) provide examples of the tragic and the Dionysian which are more analogous to the structure of our own lives than is music, and as such might help us to better understand the value of tragedy in our own lives. Nietzsche wrote in The Birth of Tragedy about Richard Wagner’s opera, Tristan and Isolde. The modern-day reader might better relate to the media of literature and film, both of which contain rich and expansive narrative traditions. In these we witness the same workings of the Dionysian as we do in music. The audience is swept up into the art and undergoes a deindividuation whereby they lose their sense of self. The oft referred-to acts of being lost in a book or entranced by a film illustrate this occurrence. With their sense of self diffused, there is nothing restraining the audience from encountering the primordial oneness of which Nietzsche speaks and saying “Yes” to all that it entails. These narratives then cause the audience to revel in the emotions they evoke, no matter sorrowful or joyful, so long as they are deeply felt. Nietzsche speaks on the experience of the viewer of a narrative tragedy:
“He sees the tragic hero in front of him in epic clarity and beauty and, nonetheless, takes pleasure in his destruction. He understands the events on stage to their innermost core and joyfully flies off into the incomprehensible. He feels the actions of the hero as justified and is, nonetheless, still more uplifted when these actions destroy the one who initiated them. He shudders in the face of the suffering which the hero is about to encounter and, nonetheless, because of it has a premonition of a higher, much more overpowering joy” (The Birth of Tragedy, Section 22).
These narratives are not unlike our lives. Of course, most lives on a day to day basis don’t contain the level of drama that these made-for-audience narratives do, but they do similarly have highs and lows, joys and sorrows, triumphs and tragedies. Only a matter of perspective separates the two. In our own lives, we are the locus of the drama. In the case of film and literature, we are in the audience, more distant from the locus of drama and yet wholly enthralled by it. But if we can accept that we are really a part of a greater primordial oneness, that only illusion divides the universe against itself, there is no real difference between these two positions. Surely there is no qualitative difference in the emotions themselves which are felt in these two kinds of experiences. The heartbreak we feel for our tragic hero is no faux-heartbreak. The difference is in our perspective, one that we, bound by the illusion of selfhood, impose.Consider experiences in your own past. Oftentimes we undergo occurrences which we deem “negative” at the time, only to find that, given the proper amount of time having passed, we appreciate them. There is a commonly expressed sentiment that the worst experiences make the best stories, an observation which makes great sense in light of this. Even the deepest of personal suffering can be viewed from this perspective. We might hate to admit it, because it seems so contrary to what makes sense in our current cultural paradigm of thought, but we often actually have a love for our greatest sorrows, look upon them warmly, and revisit them like old friends. Sometimes we can even recognize this in the present, feeling a sweetness in our own melancholy. It then seems that coming to embrace the tragic in our own lives is merely a matter of cultivating the necessary perspective. Art has the power to guide us to a place where we transcend ourselves and see reality as it is, if only for the fleeting moments of the aesthetic experience. Here we embrace the Dionysian and say “Yes” to life in all of its forms. Our experiences with art can help us to bridge the gap between the way we see those experiences and the way we see life itself. In this way, we might encounter a reality where those fleeting moments of the aesthetic experience become an eternity.
Subscriptions sustain my emotional impetus to write. Simple support goes a long way.
Please forgive the more turgid academic vernacular employed throughout this essay.
My line of reasoning regarding consciousness and selfhood is predicated on something similar to Buddhist philosophy of mind. I had established reference to it through prior work in this class, which is why I so boldly mount this claim. I apologize for the lack of supporting arguments for those not already on board, but I’m not going to reproduce that entire body of work here at present.
This is more aptly cast as an alternative way of looking at the universe, useful in some contexts, like for the purpose of encountering primordial oneness. Less so for being a normally functioning human going about day-to-day interactions, perhaps.
See footnote #2.