Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Nietzsche's Birth of Tragedy and Apollonian Illusion

I suppose I have the ignominy of the last posting–

My current interest lies in the way that Friedrich Nietzsche’s The Birth of Tragedy (1872) picks up on the autonomy of the artwork that we discussed in re Kant’s Critique of Judgement. The BoT is a multivalent work that seems to respond to Kant in many ways (which is perhaps not a particularly surprising thing to say about any philosopher from C18 onwards), not least of all in its conception of the figure of the artist and its relation to the Kantian genius. What I hope to sketch an outline of in this post, however, is Nietzsche’s claim that “existence and the world seem justified only as an aesthetic phenomenon,” a move that recovers art from a potential Kantian separation from experience and places it as the very foundation of all human life (141).

Much of the BoT serves as an explication of two human drives drawn from Hellenistic culture, the Apollonian and the Dionysian. These concepts defy the kind of cursory treatment I’m about to give them, but it might be helpful to think of the Dionysian as essentially a kind of mental state in which man receives wisdom regarding the reality of existence (a horrible reality, you’ll no doubt be delighted to hear), the knowledge that what is best for man is “not to be born, not to be, to be nothing,” or, failing that, “to die soon” (42). The Dionysian dithyramb, taken to its extreme as an orgiastic ritual of mass intoxication and the dissolution of the individual into a kind of seething primal unity, is indicative of this state. It finds its opposition in the Apollonian, the drive towards (to continue to speak rather generally) the active creation of beautiful illusions, a tendency represented in the plastic arts. These two tendencies can never be separated; even as they resist one another (with the Dionysian revealing true existential emptiness and the Apollonian ceaselessly fighting to conceal this truth) they fortify and strengthen each other – the horror of reality dictates a constant effort towards beautiful artistic illusion, with this self-conscious illusion only being tolerated for its artificiality because of the knowledge of that which lies beyond it. The artwork is not to be believed in any unqualified manner but becomes a powerful medium through which “the truth is symbolized” and its appearance is “decidedly not enjoyed as appearance but as a symbol, a sign for the truth”; the beautiful artwork, which (to quote Moses Mendelssohn) must “illude us aesthetically,” must be understood both as an aesthetic (in the etymological sense of aisthesis) experience but with the simultaneous knowledge that something lies beyond it (qtd. in Bennett 422).

What Nietzsche seems to be working towards here is quite illustratively opposed, I think, to some of what we discussed in Kant’s third critique. What I have in mind is the experience of the sublime, that “attunement” of the intellect that is primarily self-reflective; as the sublime “proves that the mind has a power surpassing any standard of sense,” it speaks not to the object beheld but to the powers of the beholding subject (25.250). Any attempt to understand such an experience in terms of the sensible is utterly confounded, but in the process “the subject’s own inability uncovers in him the consciousness of an unlimited ability which is also his” (27.259). Where the contrapurposiveness of the object exceeds imaginative comprehension, the inadequacy of this faculty speaks to the existence of a higher one and establishes the ultimate purposiveness of reason. It is this kind of self-affirmative and self-revelatory experience that leads the subject into the realm of the supersensible, which is in turn indicative of his capacity for “moral feeling” (29.265).

For Nietzsche, the problem with this withdrawal from the sensible to the supersensible, this exaltation of an “unlimited ability,” is its very unlimitedness. This move leads to the uninhibitedly Dionysian; in the “rapture” of the “annihilation of the ordinary bounds and limits” of experience, the Dionysian man finds himself in the position of Hamlet, the individual who has “looked truly into the essence of things” and thereby finds a “nausea” that inhibits action (60-1). In abandoning the comfort of the Apollonian that gives existence a “glittering reflection in the gods or in an immortal beyond,” man instead “sees everywhere only the horror or absurdity of existence” (60). If man takes the illusion of art as only a means for establishing the existence of “higher” faculties, he loses the will to live; the conscious and alluring artificiality of art must serve as the “completement and consummation of existence, seducing one to a continuation of life” (43). Dionysian wisdom must be tempered by the Apollonian “middle world of art,” which may not conquer truth but at least renders it “veiled and withdrawn from sight” (42).

The experience of the artwork, then, must be central to human life, for it is “the eternal and original artistic power that first calls the whole world of phenomena into existence” (143). The experience of artistic illusion is part of the active process of “creating and of illuding ourselves (Apollonianly) with a world in which human life is possible; otherwise we simply could not exist” (Bennett 429). I recognize that this may come off as a rather bold and unfounded statement to make in the context of this very brief writeup and with my still limited understanding of both Nietzsche and Kant, but I do think that the essential concepts at work here at the very least engage provocatively with a tendency towards the mistrust and rejection of artistic illusion that we have traced in various ways throughout the entire semester.

Works Cited:

Bennett, Benjamin. “Nietzsche’s Idea of Myth: The Birth of Tragedy from the Spirit of Eighteenth-Century Aesthetics.” PMLA 94.3 (1979): 420-433.

Kant, Immanuel. Critique of Judgment. Trans. Werner S. Pluhar. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 1987.

Nietzsche, Friedrich. “The Birth of Tragedy.Basic Writings of Nietzsche. Trans. and ed. Walter Kaufmann. New York: Modern Library, 2000. 1-144.

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