Nietzsche’s philosophy has made for itself a unique cornerstone in the sense that it is not involved with pedantic aspects of ethics and other branches of epistemology. This seminal German thinker moves swiftly along majority of philosophical schools of thought. His exploration of the classical elements in literature, as found in the ancient Hellenic society, is manifested beautifully in Birth of Tragedy. The longstanding debate between the subjectivity and the objectivity of art is addressed to critically by Nietzsche in this book.
The basic idea he propagates in Birth of Tragedy involves reality with forms and the same without, and the comparison therein. Known as the Dionysian and the Apollonian, this classical Greek model sums up humankind’s perpetual struggle to arrive at a state of equilibrium. Nietzsche argues that in our effort to pursue a meaningful existence, we need to discard the preposterous viewpoints of the Apollonian and have to embrace the Dionysian. Similar thoughts are expressed in Hermann Hesse’s illustrious work Steppenwolf which thematically deals with the Nietzschean Apollonian versus the Dionysian.
The protagonist Haller is psychologically preoccupied with two contrasting facets of personality – the sensible and logical faculty of mind as opposed to the passionate and appetitive. Nietzsche assigns the terms ‘Apollonian’ and ‘Dionysian’ to these two primal worldviews of Greek tragedy. This essay is going to make a comparative study between the Apollonian and the Dionysian with reference to modern literature. To make the comparison, we have chosen Donna Tartt’s The Secret History, one of the originative post-modern fictions from the fatalistic school of literary works.
In many ways, this novel echoes the Athenian concept of fate as being an overpowering element responsible for altering the desirable course of events. Idiosyncrasy is the key conceptual component in Nietzsche’s ethical doctrines. Time and again, he questions the acceptability of the prevalent trends that outline the social norms and fashions. What is far less understood in a generic attempt manifests itself intelligibly when associated with a context. “Nietzsche does not present us with a systematic theory of knowledge.
Any attempt to construct one on the basis of his scattered remarks, aphorisms, poetry, and myth would be a difficult, if not impossible, task. It would, above all, be contrary to the intention of his thought and lead to a distortion of his views. Nietzsche, as Walter Kaufmann rightly asserts, is not a system builder, but a problem thinker. ” (Pfeffer, p. 95-96) Now in the context of the ancient Greek anthology, both the Apollonian and the Dionysian worldviews were present, resulting in a clash of ideologies. Nietzsche borrows these two terms from the two Greek gods Apollo and Dionysus.
The former symbolically represents clarity of form and interpretation, and therefore is suggestive of a linear human personality. Dionysus, on the other hand, stands for frolic and extravagance, hinting at the presence of multiple personalities within a single entity. On one hand he is the god of chaos and unrestrained emotions. But at the same time, he is also the divine countenance of richness and productivity. Hence the Dionysian school of thought deals with formlessness of expression which is closer to art perceived from an unbiased and liberal standpoint.
Greek tragedy in its heydays attained sublimity when the two distinctive art forms merged with one another to form a seamless continuum. The beginning of Athenian tragedy was hinged on the Dionysian tradition before the other one sprang up, neutralizing the discordant elements. In a way, fluidity of the Dionysian elements seek platitude through the Apollonian directness. It was a matter of great curiosity for Nietzsche that such contrasting ideologies should ever be able to define tragedy (Pfeffer, p. 32).
The flowing nature of Greek opera is worth mentioning in the context of the Dionysian. Music to a great extent is governed by the freedom of form and expression. Normative aspects of the Apollonian do not comply with the ecstatic jubilance conveyed through music. It evokes directly to man’s impulsive and spontaneous nature and hence, is not limited to the external forces of reason and dependence. The ingrained harmony in music is therefore counterbalanced by the Apollonian concept of plastic arts and epic poetry.
What makes Greek tragedy a culmination of the Apollonian and the Dionysian is that the poetic genre characterized by reasoning can actually strike a harmonious chord and reach a level of elevated intensity as well as greater profundity. So the expansive verticality of this blending highlights Nietzsche’s exemplary vision of thought and his engineering capacity to induct precision qualities into the philosophy of literature. His unique interpretation of art and tragedy is not based on the conventional techniques.
Rather it dissociates itself from the content and creates an aura of universality which can be aptly applied to any epoch of literary practices: “After recognizing this immense antithesis, I felt a deep need to explore the nature of Greek tragedy which is the profoundest manifestation of the Hellenic genius; only now did I seem to possess the key to probe deeply into the essential problems of tragedy that were no longer derived from conventional aesthetics. ” (Pfeffer, p. 32) What is stated in the previous part of discussion is affirmed furthermore by Ansell-Pearson in A companion to Nietzsche.
In Birth of Tragedy, he develops a style which is not only mechanical in discourse, but also highly sporadic in terms of articulating the individualistic notions so distinctive of Nietzsche (Ansell-Pearson, p. 58). The metaphysical utterance of Nietzsche deviates from what the contemporary philosophers such as Schopenhauer propagated in their doctrines. Many Greek authors, Euripides for instance, viewed the cosmos as a continuous process of creation primarily in accordance with the Apollonian traits.
The Dionysian break down of form is not associated with the fictional content of human existence. The antithetical elements inherent in any human being are overlooked by Euripides in Bacchae. Claims made by Kant and Goethe that form and matter are irreversible in nature are given a refreshing new direction by Nietzsche in Birth of Tragedy. He establishes a linkage between what Euripides calls ‘organic fiction’ and plurality of human nature. He does not try to draw any kind of imposed distinction between the two incongruous constructs.
Euripides’ Bacchae does not fit into Nietzsche’s delineation of metaphysics. If we strive to look into Bacchae in the light of the Apollonian and the Dionysian derivatives, we would be able to see clearly into the dubiousness of the latter one. Chronicling the historical event of Dionysus’ arrival to the royal court of Greece, Euripides presents a controversial topic involving man’s stance in relation with god. Even though this drama is written to question many of the old systems of belief, what remains extremely perplexing is the playwright’s ultimate focus.
Euripides questions the vague borderline between intellect and feeling, reality and vision, and logic and craziness. But at the same time, he refrains from arriving at any conclusive outcome that would give a clue to the reason behind mankind’s endless misery. What Donna Tartt portrays in The Secret History resembles the thematic literary genealogy of Bacchae. The idea which is propagated through this novel involves the secularism of spirit as the ultimate winner in modern world. The sheer fatality of occurrences at random does not leave a chance of revisiting the past to find plausible explanations.
In this sense, this novel is comparable with Birth of Tragedy and its promotion of the Dionysian worldview. This novel can be seen as a modernistic attempt to recreate the primitive world of the Dionysian rites and rituals. On the surface it is just a murder mystery which does not deserve any deeper analysis. But Tartt invests in this apparent murder mystery a profound understanding of the Apollonian versus the Dionysian, and the confrontation between reality and imagination, between social impositions and the human longing for liberation.
Aristotle’s viewpoint on the Catharsis is also dealt with effectively, creating an opening for interpreting life outside the beauty of literary premises. A deeper understanding of The Secret History is bound to reveal the classical and literary elements explored in the novel. The etymology of this representative work is closely analogous to both Nietzsche’s Birth of Tragedy and Euripides’ Bacchae. It is indeed fascinating to find a connective bonding with two earlier works dissimilar in nature.
First and foremost, Nietzsche’s confrontation with disillusionment in the context of Athenian literature dominated by the Apollonian worldview is stripped off in The Secret History. Events occurring within a timeline which is non-linear in nature do not imply Schopenhauer’s doctrine of the world as ‘maya’ (Segal, p. 361). The gradual disorientation of the lives of six students predates Nietzsche’s preoccupation with answering the question involving human individualism and its manifold expressions.
The Secret History propels the earlier school of thought introduced by Schopenhauer: “Although Nietzsche frequently speaks of “illusion” in connection with Dionysus and tragedy, he has in mind Schopenhauer’s notions of the world as “maya”, the self-deception with which human beings (with the exception of the Nietzschean philosopher) mask the emptiness and meaninglessness of their lives, and hardly the kind of theatrical, and metatheatrical, illusion of my chapter on metatragedy. ” (Segal, p. 361)
It is clear from the three readings that The Secret History along with Steppenwolf is ideologically in proximity to Nietzsche’s Birth of Tragedy. What emerges out of Euripides’ Bacchae is a different doctrinal claim which does not provide any scholarly ground for either the Apollonian or the Dionysian worldviews. Euripides leaves it ambiguous as to which school of thought should the literary definition of tragedy comply with. It is rather a mixture of the Dionysian revelry associated with choir singing and the Apollonian poetry.
However, the drama does not provide too much room for calculating the extent of each, therefore making the task of classification immensely difficult and problematic. References Pfeffer, R. (1972). Nietzsche: disciple of Dionysus. Lewisburg: University of Bucknell. Segal, C. (1997). Dionysiac poetics and Euripides’ Bacchae. Princeton: Princeton University Press. Ansell-Pearson, K. (2006). A compilation to Nietzsche. Hoboken: Wiley-Blackwell.