The Birth of Tragedy Out of the Spirit of Music

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One of Nietzsche's earliest works, The Birth of Tragedy (1872) is a remarkable source of inspiration. It is here that the philosopher expresses his frustration with the contemporary world and urges man to embrace Dionysian energy once more. He refutes European culture since the time of Socrates, arguing that it is one-sidedly Apollonian and prevents man from living in optimistic harmony with the sufferings of life.

It is argued that the healthier culture can be perceived in the traditions of ancient Greece as the spectators of the tragic plays experienced Dionysus and Apollo in perfect harmony. However, Nietzsche has great faith in the human soul and presents a laudatory portrayal of Wagner, contending that his artistic spirit is the savior of Europe; Wagner's music has sown the seeds for a period of liberating rebirth.

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I have shown, in the phenomenon of the lyric poet, how music strives to make its essence known in Apolline images: bearing in mind that music, at its highest level, must also seek to attain its highest expression in images, we must consider it possible that it can also find the symbolic expression of its actual Dionysiac wisdom. And where else should we seek this expression if not in tragedy, and in the concept of the tragic? The tragic cannot be honestly inferred from the nature of art as it is conventionally conceived, according to the single category of illusion and beauty.

Let us stand aside for a while, concerned but not inconsolable, like contemplative men who are allowed to be witnesses of those tremendous battles and transitions. Alas – such is the magic of those battles that all who witness them must also join the fray! 27 16 We have tried with this historical example to explain how tragedy perishes when deprived of the spirit of music just as sure as it can be born only of that spirit. To mitigate the strangeness of this claim, and to demonstrate the origin of this insight, we must now frankly consider similar phenomena in the present.

Indeed, if he glimpses himself through the same medium, he sees his own image in the state of unappeased emotion: his own desire, his yearning, his moans and his jubilation become a symbol with which he interprets music to himself. This is the phenomenon of the lyric poet: as an Apolline genius he interprets music through the image of the will, while he himself, completely delivered of the greed of the will, is the pure and undimmed eye of the sun. Throughout this discussion I have relied on the idea that lyric poetry is dependent on the spirit of music to the same extent as music itself, in its absolute sovereignty, does not require images or concepts but can tolerate both.

Yet without myth all culture loses its healthy and natural creative power: only a horizon surrounded by myths can unify an entire cultural movement. Myth alone rescues all the powers of imagination and the Apolline dream from their aimless wanderings. The images of myth must be the daemonic guardians, omnipresent and unnoticed, which protect the growth of the young mind, and guide man’s interpretation of his life and struggles. The state itself has no unwritten laws more powerful than the mythical foundation that guarantees its connection with religion and its growth out of mythical representations.

Never since Aristotle have we been given an account of the tragic effect from which we might infer any artistic states or aesthetic activity on the part of the listener. Now the grave events are supposed to be leading pity and terror inexorably towards the relief of discharge; now we are supposed to feel elevated and inspired by the triumph of good and noble principles, by the sacrifice of the hero in the interest of a moral view of the world. I am certain that for many people precisely this, and this alone, is the effect of tragedy, but it is equally clear that none of them, nor any of the aestheticians who interpret on their behalf, has ever experienced tragedy as a supreme art.

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