3 – The Dithyramb

If Dionysius is the inspiration to the lyric artist not as an empirical individual but as a reflection of the natural will prior to individuation, then the celebrants, the Dionysiac throng, naturally have their own untamed musical chants and dance and this constitutes the real center of the ritual worship of the god. The Greeks developed the metrical “foot” from the dance-step wherein each group-movement or strophe had a return or anti-strophe and a third dividing movement or epode. 33 Metrical poems accompanied by lyre or flute were immediately embodied as dances stanzas. This charmed identity between poetry and dance is known as the dithyramb and it is through this artistic outpouring that the Greeks both celebrated the god of wine and fertility and invented a new and stunning poetic form.
The Greek Dionysiac celebrants reappeared as satyrs in wild, orgiastic rites. There was, in this primitive state, Nietzsche speculates, no difference between participant and chorus. From these gestures the one fabric of humanity shared a seamless unity, intoxicated by the fertility and power of the will. The participants were “geniuses of nature” and spectators only in the sense that they were witnesses to the processes of nature, not as once removed or as “copies” but as incarnate elements of the eternal (dithyrambic) movement of nature itself.
According to Nietzsche, Schiller was close to the mark when he suggested that the chorus was a “living wall” which tragedy erects to protect itself from ordinary naturalism in art. This kind of ideality is closer to that of the satyr chorus from which the first forms of primitive tragedy arose. It is much closer than Schlegel’s notion that the tragic chorus is an ideal spectator. For how could an ideal spectator be involved in the action? Further, given that the chorus originally existed without characters, how could there be a spectator without a spectacle? 34
The satyr chorus, instead, represented that, “life is at the bottom of things, despite all the changes of appearances, indestructibly powerful and pleasurable.”35 The satyr celebrates unselfconsciously the sexuality of nature, he is half-divine and half-animal, a sublime and comic “metaphysical comfort” in the face of tragic recognition.
In contrast to the man of culture, the satyr offers Dionysiac wisdom an affirmation without reservation, without refinement. The satyr’s absurdity is a playful response to the insight which the horrible and yet fecund power of the will animates all sentient life:

The sphere of poetry does not lie outside the world as a fantastic impossibility spawned by a poet’s brain: it desires to be just the opposite, the unvarnished expression of the truth, and must precisely for that reason discard the mendacious finery of that alleged reality of the man of culture. 36

It was this ability to experience the presence of metaphors as immediate visions, to transform oneself, to enter into another body, another character, which provides the link between poetry and drama. Seeing oneself as a character and seeing oneself surrounded by living presences excites others into an immediate, visionary world. As engaged witnesses, we are released from solitary individuality. The empirical “I” is transformed into a higher community, as well as a more profound selfhood. And it is here, in section eight, that we find perhaps one of the most direct statements Nietzsche ever made as to the essence of poetry and poetic creation:
.. a poet is a poet only insofar as he sees himself surrounded by figures who live and act before him and into whose inmost nature we can see. Owing to a peculiar modern weakness, we are inclined to imagine the aesthetic protophenomenon in a manner much too complicated and abstract.
For a genuine poet, metaphor is not a rhetorical figure but a vicarious image that he actually beholds in place of a concept. A character is for him not a whole he has composed out of particular traits, picked up here and there, but an obtrusively alive person before his very eyes, distinguished from the otherwise identical vision of a painter only by the fact that it continually goes on living and acting. 37

It is precisely through this metamorphosis that the Dionysian votary envisions something outside himself. A link between his vision and the Apollinian film of appearances. From the incarnations of individual characters the dialogue distills from choral chant and the principal of individuation reasserts itself as these characters originate from the “vision” of the chorus. The chorus remains devoted to Dionysius, and shares the suffering and vocalizes the wisdom he carries “from the heart of the world.” For Dionysius remains what the chorus vitally represents, the deity who intoxicates, whose wisdom each hero and participant celebrate:

Dionysius, the real stage hero and center of the vision was, according to both this insight and to the tradition, not actually present at first, in the very oldest period of tragedy; he was merely imagined as present, which means that originally tragedy was only “chorus” and not yet “drama”.
Later the attempt was made to show the god as real and to represent the visionary figure together with its transfiguring frame as something visible for every eye — and thus “drama” in the narrower sense began. Now the dithyrambic chorus was assigned the task of exciting the mood of the listeners to such a Dionysian degree that, when the tragic hero appeared on the stage, they did not see the awkwardly masked human being but rather the visionary figure, born as it were from their own rapture. 38

With this “unveiling” the Apollinian impulse emerges with the onset of characters and dialogue. The contrast, which makes for the dramatic tension of early classic tragedy, surfaces first in the lyric cadences which are yet shrouded in mystery, riddled with warnings. The transparent, beautiful language which characterizes the dramatic dream-vision of the hero and the other “individuals” (whose number increases with the sophistication of tragedy from Aeschylus on) is limpid and precise, guided by Apollinian moderation and reason.
We are provided, then, with a concept for the eventual reconciliation of music and poetry, of the Dionysian nonimagistic expression of the will and Apollinian appearance. The expression of music in language, the melodic folk dance which assumes expression as the lyric, which seeks embodiment and finds itself symbolized in these rhythmic outbursts, links up with the dream-illusion just as it attracts what is more purely a dream into orgiastic revelry. As the Apollinian draws closer to the less formal eruptions of the Dionysiac lyric poet and the Dionysiac draws closer to the lucid images of the Apollinian, each is seduced by the other’s completion of his expression, and so each kind of poet offers what is scarce, exotic, lacking in the other. Here is, then, a conceptual (and, in part, a technical)* account of a poetic genesis. The struggle between Apollo and Dionysius now evolves into the tension of the plot, the conflict, the mystery, the “crime” of tragic knowledge which must violate nature in order to wring from her the “secret” of the will. Now is the time of tragic poets, the geniuses of a new art-form.