Nietzsche: The Death of Tragedy

tragic masks

Nietzsche, in ‘The Birth of Tragedy’, details how art develops to its ultimate form of tragedy through the continuing strife and periodical reconciliation of Apollonian and Dionysian art forms.

Apollonian or “the visual arts”, concerned with representations and the analysis of appearances, in essence the “the world of dreams”, are the vehicle for human consciousness to distract itself from the “reality of suffering” with the “illusion of appearances”.

For though these representations are merely the “beautiful appearances of the inner fantasy world”, and the observer remains apart from the art, it is the “shimmering sense of their illusionary quality” itself that is quality of Apollonian art that makes “life possible and worth living”. This is because “the man trapped in the veil of Maja… sits peacefully in the midst of the world of torments.. trusting in the principle of individuation”. Such is Apollonian art, for Apollo himself is the “image of the principle of individuation” and the “joy and wisdom of illusion”.

In Contrast with the Apollonian or visual arts, as representations of the world, the Dionysian or “non-visual arts” can be explained as being direct expressions of the “world will”. Here Dionysian intoxication or ecstasy is the observer being absorbed into and “becoming the work of art”. Here the “veil of maja” or appearances, between observer and reality is “ripped apart” and man “fuses together” in the rhapsodic satisfaction of the primal unity”. Losing his illusionary sense of self and finding ultimate reality, man becomes the eternal.

It is through Apollonian appearance that Dionysian reality of suffering is represented, as evident in the tragic hero, such as Oedipus and Prometheus that are truly masks of Dionysus himself. For Tragedy and tragic feeling are rooted in the truth of primordial unity, but whereas alone this would make man cheerless, it is the Apollonian “sense of the dream” that  makes life worth living.

Nietzsche explains this commingling of the Dionysian and Apollonian is the birth of the tragic art form,  and that the life blood of tragedy is the delicate balance between them.”To separate this primitive and all-powerful Dionysian element from tragedy, and to construct a new and purified form on the basis of an un-Dionysian art, morality, and conception of the world” would be the death of Tragedy.

He argues “ this is the tendency of Euripides“; by removing the musical elements of tragedy he removed the Dionysian principle of primordial unity out of art. Euripides wrote a new style of tragedy based on Socratic moral principles of rationality and analysis, principles that overly place emphasis on the Apollonian principle of individualization, and rationalization. Thus Reason and an egotistical view of atomized self, by removing the mystery of primordial unity, killed the tragic art form.

In the modern age, this imbalance can be seen in the dominance of science over art and spiritual intuition. Where actors represent emotion and follow unnatural scripts rather than entering into sincere absorption in emotions. But there is hope, for a rebirth of tragedy, for as science and reason comes to understand there are limits to human knowledge, the power of intuition and mystery can once again be realized.

Comments are closed.