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Nietzsche on Tragedy

February 22, 2016


I’ve long been looking for an opportunity to teach Nietzsche.  Whenever a new module is proposed I throw his name into the hat.  The trouble is, the exigencies of module descriptors demand team players.  Pedagogic streamlining calls for things that can be grouped together with other things.   And here is Nietzsche’s trouble.  He does not play well with others.

Perhaps a way forward would be to take all the other people who do not play well with others and put them together in on module.  William Blake, the Marquis de Sade and Friedrich Nietzsche – together at last.   “Put all our rotten eggs in one basket” as the camp commandant in The Great Escape so memorably put it.  I wonder how long it would take for them to escape the module?  You could call it The League of Inappropriate Gentlemen.

But this week, I’m to teach a seminar on Antigone – so I’m going to try to get people to read Birth of Tragedy.   This early work by Nietzsche usually comes with an introduction written by an older Nietzsche saying how bad the book is.  On stylistic grounds.  But for Nietzsche, stylistic grounds are the most important grounds there are – style is always more important than substance because style is where the “will” expresses itself.

It was probably paragraphs like this that the older Nietzsche was reacting against:

“Yes, my friends, believe with me in Dionysian life and the rebirth of tragedy.  The age of the Socratic man is over; put on the wreaths of ivy, put the thyrsus into your hand, and do not be surprised when tigers and panthers lie down, fawning, at your feet.  Only dare to be tragic men; for you are to be redeemed. You shall accompany the Dionysian pageant from India to Greece.  Prepare yourselves for hard strife, but believe in the miracles of your god.”

Birth of Tragedy is an easy book to misunderstand.  It’s not about championing the Dionysian rather than the Apollonian in some straightforward Wicker Man (1973) sort of way, but rather an argument that the Apollonian needs the Dionysian in order to define itself – that the calm neoclassical vision represented by Apollo is incomplete and unconvincing without the synthetic accommodation of Dionysian elements.

For Nietzsche, the enemy of Tragedy is not the triumph of Apollo over Dionysus but rather the triumph of a Euripidean/Socratic reflexivity – a fatal optimism which strikes at the wellspring of the transcendent joys that can only come from a kind of holy pessimism.

I think.  I need to re-read Nietzsche yet again.  He’s not a man you’d want to disagree with.  Or agree with.  Secure understanding atrophies an urgency of intuitive grandeur.   Understanding Nietzsche threatens to calcify Nietzsche.  He doesn’t really want to be understood – in any consensual sense.


Although perhaps another reason why Nietzsche can’t get onto reading lists is because he’s so hard to spell in exam conditions.  Or even hasty blogging conditions.


Top ‘tache though.



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One Comment
  1. Reblogged this on conradbrunstrom and commented:

    Reblogging on the occasion of Freddie’s birthday.

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