2 – Homer and The Epic

Before Nietzsche investigates tragedy as drama he carefully examines Apollo’s and Dionysius’ unreconciled or pure expressions through the poetry which exclusively embodies them. We suggested above that the Apollinian dream-impulse creates a film of narrative imagery through which the Greek Olympian gods enacted their fictional lives in startling clarity before the imagination of the dreaming Greek. Homer is, for Nietzsche, the paradigmatic dreaming Greek, the Apollinian poet and ancient “seer” par excellance who recorded for the Greeks the plastic beauty which cohered and visualized their entire Olympian theodicity. Nietzsche writes:

If we consider the incredibly precise and unerring power of their eyes, together with their vivid, frank delight in colors, we can hardly refrain from assuming even for their dreams (to the shame of all those born later) a certain logic of line and contour, colors, and groups, a certain pictorial sequence reminding us of their finest bas-reliefs whose perfection would certainly justify us, if a comparison were possible, in designating the dreaming Greeks as Homers and Homer as a dreaming Greek — in a deeper sense than that in which modern man, speaking of his dreams, ventures to compare himself with Shakespeare. 15

Nietzsche shifts back to the Dionysiac Greek, whom we will consider in a moment — leaving us to wonder why dreaming Greeks are more closely, in a deeper sense, than we are related to Shakespeare. This remark is magnified when he resumes his discussion of Homer:

Where we encounter the “naive” in art, we should recognize the highest effect of Apollinian culture which always must first overthrow an empire of Titans and slay monsters, and which must have triumphed over an abysmal and terrifying view of the world and the keenest susceptibility to suffering through recourse to the most forceful and pleasurable illusions. But how rarely is the naive attained — that consummate immersion in the beauty of mere appearance. How unutterably sublime is Homer therefore, who, as an individual being, bears the same relation to this Apollinian folk culture as the individual dream artist does to the dream faculty of the people and of nature in general. 16

Eric visuality, compared to lyric or dramatic imagery, is essentially linked to its origin. The pleasure of the epic universe rests wholly within its visual scenes which flow continuously from a pure dream immersion, overriding the non-imagistic struggle of the will now represented as an “Empire of Titans”. An epic expresses a need to overcome the absurdity of irrational existence through a succession of heroic acts, digressions, a broad plot-fabric with proliferating back stories, by means of a shared vision via – a story. The god, Apollo, reveals the dream interior, “the inside” of epic appearances. Apollo is the “genius” of our fascinated inner eye. Visual narrative is fundamental to the existence of the epic and to the dreaming Greek as a realization (however illusory) of our need to see then beyond our suffering, but not from self-conscious construction, nor Romantic transcendence of self:

The Homeric “naïveté” can be understood only as the complete victory of Apollinian illusion: this is one of those illusions which nature so frequently employs to achieve her own ends. The true goal is veiled by a phantasm: and while we stretch out our hands for the latter, nature attains the former by means of illusion. In the Greeks the “will” wished to contemplate itself in the transfiguration of genius and the world of art …. they had to behold themselves again in a higher sphere, without this perfect world of contemplation acting as a command or a reproach. This is the sphere of beauty, in which they saw their mirror images, the Olympians. With this mirroring of beauty the Hellenic will combated its artistically correlative talent for suffering and for the wisdom of suffering — and, as a monument of its victory, we have Homer, the naïve artist. 17

The Olympian gods were a compensation for a profound conflict with nature, with the will, suggesting a victory over the threat of reducing our existence to suffering. Consciousness of form gives way to an effortless roll as our elemental, mortal battle with dissolution, (Schopenhauer’s will to live) sets behind a screen of glowing stories with colorful heroes and gods. When Odysseus encounters Achilles in Hades, the archetypal warrior asks to be spared the honor of fame after life. Achilles would rather be a serf on the estate of a landless peasant — anyone rather than reign among lifeless wraiths of the underworld, the dead. What could constitute greater praise of our short life? Or when Odysseus refuses the goddess Calypso’s offer to eat ambrosia, which would make him immortal, choosing to age and die in with Penelope in Ithaca, choosing mortality over divinity, there occurs from within this dream narrative the origin of what Nietzsche later calls Amor Fait, or love of fate. Life with its horrors, banalities, blunders, humiliations, with its pain, dislocation, disease, old age and death is superior to immortality, to the nothingness of death, to the disembodied delights of divinity.
Had the Greeks not deeply experienced suffering, Nietzsche argues, their Olympian world would never have been so resplendent, nor held them rapt, nor provided the basis of their education, nor offered true pleasure at celebration. Nor would it inspire courage (despite Plato’s censor in The Republic) throughout their triumphs and defeats in war. They needed a transfiguring mirror not only to bathe in spectacle but to envision together, a dream. What is taken to be Greek naïveté, their captivation before this Homeric screen of pluralistic phantasm, is really a Janus-like masking of the absurdity of the will by a people deeply impressed by its power, and ready to it affirm life regardless, through the creation of narrative beauty. The characters of these dreams confirm the experience of those who dwell within the sphere of their full immediacy, and immediately affirm the enigma of that will, by responding to it.
Nietzsche has not yet explicitly rejected Schopenhauer’s dour escape from the will to live through contemplation or philosophy, aestheticism, or art, but it is refuted by the very material which Nietzsche interprets, the Greek’s heroic affirmation of mortal existence through epic poetry. The myths which rise to sharp visual or plastic power in Homer’s epic vision, which Homer condenses into one temporal fabric combining the greater stories of the sacking of Troy and Odyssey’s wanderings into one moment each, whose interiors explode with delightful miniatures and cameos, expose an imaginary, perfected temporality, and present the perfect Apollinian dream. The rolling processions of imaginary chariots, black ships and sumptuous feasts drape, cover over the Greek direct experience of the will. Like early Attic narrative sculpture or bas-reliefs, the narrative-pictorial world of Homeric epic rolls before us image after image, an illusion of “eternal” radiance, an inexhaustible world-dream which redeems the Greeks’ and our capacity to withstand suffering.
The Iliad and the Odyssey were born, then, from an exceptional capacity for experiencing the reverse of beauty (as the ugly is overcome in the overthrow of the Titans) for a lovely counter-radiance:

Let us imagine the dreamer, in the midst of the illusion of the dream world and without disturbing it, he calls out to himself: “It is a dream. I will dream on.” What must we infer? That he experiences a deep inner joy in dream contemplation …. he must have completely lost sight of the waking reality and its ominous obtrusiveness. 18

Pleasure can be sharpened to rapture, ekstasis, to an earthly redemption of beautiful imagery and ineffable goings-on, an eternal celebration under the patronage of Apollo, god of light.
Existence, then, requires illusion. The poet’s appearance of appearance soothes the beleaguered spirit long exposed to the outrage and pain hemorrhaging at the origin of our effort to survive. Epic poetry offers a veil, a mediation — a middle world — between the struggle and the redeeming tragectory of the human imagination. The epic, with its telling detail and vast story, is a glimmering imagistic film which temporarily redeems, lifts human experience above its suffering as it introduces us to an imagined realm of the gods. Nietzsche compares Homer’s epic and epic poetry as such to the dream process depicted in Raphael’s Transfiguration:

In his Transfiguration, the lower half of the picture, with the possessed boy, the despairing bearers, the bewildered, terrified disciples shows us the reflection of suffering, primal and eternal, the sole ground of the world: the ‘mere appearance’, here is the reflection of eternal contradiction, the father of things. From this mere appearance arises, like ambrosial vapor, a new visionary world of mere appearances, invisible to those wrapped in the first appearance — a radiant floating in purest bliss, a serene contemplation beaming from wide-open eyes. 19

The contradiction discloses a transition in our discovery of the will-to-illusion. The Olympian world of epic visualization particularizes and isolates the dreamer whose sense of relief and perfection must shun whatever would jar us from the charmed circle of our revery. It individuates the dreamer whose sublime musing is intensified and sustained by injunctions against excess and immoderation, against the jolt of leaving the last dreams which awake our bodies to daylight. The raw dancing or hunting ground of the world, which is the actual source of the dream-appearance of Apollo, threatens to destroy the soaring transfigurations, the visionary aspirations which Apollo offers us as a solace for our mortality. All existence depends on this original grounding of this tragic recognition, this “hidden substratum of suffering and knowledge” 20, from behind the dream.
Nietzsche, then, explains the inherent conservatism of the Apollinian world-view, which seeks to preserve beauty, its dream illusion, against the seduction of intoxicating music, and its own longing to be seduced back to the world. Apollo’s kinship to the primal rhythms which it consciously disdains, turns the “Gorgon’s head” to the “uncouth power”; laboring to maintain an ethical bulwark against the natural but amoral excesses of Dionysius. As Apollo’s rejection turns to stone, so Nietzsche connected Doric architectural austerity to moderate Apollo:

And now let us imagine how into this world, built on mere appearance and moderation and artificially dammed up, there penetrated, in tones ever more bewitching and alluring, the ecstatic sound of the Dionysian festival; how in these strains all of nature’s excess is audible, even in piercing shrieks; and let us ask ourselves what the psalmodizing artist of Apollo, with his phantom harp-sound, could mean in the face of this demon folk-song! 21