9 – Critique and Transition

“The romantic, because he thinks man infinite, must always be talking about the infinite” 65

“The classical poet never forgets this finiteness, this limit of man. He remembers always that he is mixed up with earth.” 66
T.E. Hulme

Though Nietzsche maintains the Dionysiac insight revealed by the dithyramb and choric origin of tragedy derives from Greek music, we have no notational evidence of its sound. Greek music remains as veiled to us as the nonextant works of its poets and philosophers. This point was not lost on Nietzsche’s pettiest detractors in German philology, upon original publication of The Birth of Tragedy. 67 yet it remains a valid concern beyond their misguided jealousies today. It may be the central problem of the text for no one has heard since the Greeks nor ever will hear again this music which forms the most speculative and “metaphysical” ground upon which Nietzsche based his first aesthetic.
In his appended preface to The Birth of Tragedy, Nietzsche recognized the weakness of the link he had established between the “rebirth” of tragedy and the contemporary music of Richard Wagner. The link seems logical as Schopenhauer’s The World as Will and Idea loomed large both for Wagner and Nietzsche and in it music is given primacy over all the other arts as a direct expression of the will, an imageless nuomena, Kant’s “thing-in-itself” Yet in Nietzsche’s original discoveries one of the Greeks derive from a close and creative reading of original texts. The discovery of Apollo and Dionysius as art impulses, their battle and reconciliation, along with his insights into the epic, dithyrambic and comic drama derived from the satyr are grounded first in a fresh reading of the poetic texts, which unearthed a “pessimism of strength” rather than a resignatory defeat à la Schopenhauer, which lead eventually to Nietzsche’s concept of style, the overman and the eternal return — Nietzsche’s mature philosophy.
Certainly, the early sections of The Birth of Tragedy outlined above, interpret one poet after another, drawing from their brilliance, and under their influences or spell are far more effective than the subsequent sections (section sixteen to the end) which praise and extrapolate from Wagner’s dramatic music as offering a rebirth of tragedy. And there has never been a “rebirth” of tragedy based on new developments in music. If we take Nietzsche’s remarks to be prescriptive (as he originally does) there is no rebirth of tragedy from music in Shakespeare, Racine, or Corneille, nor is there a rebirth exclusively in the world of music itself, through the works of Richard Wagner nor any other musical composer. Tragedy is fundamentally a poetic phenomenon.
Music has more affinity to the influence which finished tragedy, that is, romance and the transcendence of the specificity of language. Especially Wagner’s music. T. E. Hulme writes in an article entitled “Romanticism and Classicism”:

It is just this that Nietzsche lost following Wagner’s romantic program, and this lostness in the infinite can be traced directly to his emphasis on “imageless” music over the finite or limited imagery of classical poetry. While the god, Dionysius, is an image of the seasonal and sexual fertility and intoxication, he came to resignify in early Nietzsche — influenced by Schopenhauer and Wagner — the non-imagistic impulse to music. This disembodiment is essential to the dramatic program behind Wagner’s music, but it is not essential to Nietzsche’s theory of tragedy or to his concept of poetry. 68

Nietzsche modifies the original source of his theory denying what lay right before his eyes and followed the disembodiment of the concrete imagery, the finiteness of the texts as he intuitively and conceptually knew and understood them in favor of the histrionic “boundlessness” essential to the dramatic program behind Wagner’s music. The pseudo-philosophy Wagner promulgated in his writings is dutifully echoed in the last chapters of Nietzsche’s work. The Wagnerian (romantic) aural sounds of absolute music lead to an abstract, disembodied poetry, an “infinite” melody, as the mere medium of language disappears beneath the interpretation.
The romantic predilection for surpassing the limits of language, of any convention following an emotional inspiration is precisely what distances tragic from romantic verse. The source of inspiration which reconciles the “flux” of the senses to the heroic affirmation, the sacrifice disclosed by the will — requires no transcendence. It is immanent, this-worldly in its affirmation of a mortal horizon of limits.
Nietzsche writes:

This extraordinary contrast, which stretches like a yawning gulf between plastic art as the Dionysian art, has revealed itself to only one of the great thinkers, to such an extent that, even without this clue to the symbolism of the Hellenic divinities, he conceded to music a character and an origin different from all the other arts, because, unlike them, it is not a copy of the phenomenon, but an immediate copy of the will itself, and therefore complements everything physical in the world and every phenomenon by representing what is metaphysical, the thing in itself. (Schopenhauer, Welt als Wille und Vorstellung, I p. 310)


To this most important insight of aesthetics (with which, in the most serious sense, aesthetics properly begins), Richard Wagner, by way of confirmation of its eternal truth, affixed his seal … 69

No doubt he did, which goes a long way in explaining the philosophic reason for Nietzsche’s personal disassociation from Wagner, and all this is renounced in his appended preface. Though Nietzsche continued to pursue vague musical metaphors in relation to poetry, though some of his own lyrics could be characterized as late romantic, none of this detracts from what is original and enduring in The Birth of Tragedy, and provides a departure point for many more revisions and discoveries in his concept of poetry. Nietzsche later rejected all other-worldly sentiments claiming they were essential to “philosophies of decline”, which speak of, ” … the innermost soul, as it were, of the phenomenon without a body”, defying:
The structure of the scenes and the visual images reveal a deeper wisdom than the poet himself can put into words and concepts; the same is also observable in Shakespeare, whose Hamlet, for instance, similarly, talks more superficially than he acts, so that the previously mentioned lesson of Hamlet is to be deduced, not from his words, but from a profound contemplation and survey of the whole. 70

If we realize that Nietzsche had been caught in the vague Wagnerian dream of a mélange of the arts (a theory that he also later relentlessly attacked) a process which prefers grand statements without proof and is capable of making Shakespeare’s language inferior to a “profound” contemplation of the “whole”, we need realize that Nietzsche had to distance himself by changing his concept, and inevitably realign himself to the actual material from which first conceived his original theory — to the original text, the poetry.
This explains what is frustrating about Nietzsche’s concept of poetry in The Birth of Tragedy. He gives us a “portrait” of each poet but little of their actual poetry. There are two ways to read this: The first and most enduring is that, for Nietzsche, poetry is more than verse: it is more than rhythmic or metric language for it reveals the essential creative individuality of the will beyond the passive or static acceptance of what is merely given to the ear or eye. This is the heroic impulse which provides us with the tragic link to the reconciliation of the Dionysiac state of intoxication with that of Apollinian dreams and visionary experience. This is the genius of the Greeks which Nietzsche brilliantly reveals which became a textual question of proof. And (again) all this is embodied first in Greek poetry.
However, if we read this portraitizing of each tragic poet, we can also see that Nietzsche was dramatizing the poets, as much as choosing which works exemplified his theory. It requires no historiographic genius to know that Wagner’s life and what he said about himself was also a work of dramaturgy. Paradoxically, above all, Wagner wrote the libretto. He was the “poet” of his operas. That Nietzsche, in The Gay Science or Thus Spake Zarathustra was to characterize the poet as merely an actor or self-exploitative “liar” speaks volumes as to how he struggled without ever quite purging himself of Wagner the “mixer”, Wagner — the poet.
While this second interpretation is in many ways an unacceptably passive way of reading Nietzsche’s early concept of poetry i.e. of statically fixing upon the primacy of music, in terms of Wagner, it also leads from embodied language into the disembodiment which Nietzsche maintains is the Euripidean or Socratic “cause” of tragedy’s “suicide”.
Though many of Nietzsche’s later terms concerning the concept of style keep migrating back to the musical metaphor (tempo especially), this primacy of music clearly was not Nietzsche’s and not merely a matter of changing styles of music or composers, of allowing the dithyramb, Dionysiac lyric, or tragic poetry to rise from Wagnerian influence, or from Schopenhauerian metaphysics. The problem is more basic, for any musical mood seeks to go beyond language, beyond the limitation imposed on it by a different medium. Musically dominated poetry seeks transcendence of linguistic specificity, or more plainly, it disembodies and abstracts from the detail of language simply because music is not language. Often a matter of emphasis can make a qualitative, a crucial difference in theory, as it does here, in the Nietzsche’s early work. The Birth of Tragedy’s original insights came primarily from poetic texts. The speculations about Greek music are fantastic, “metaphysical” and crucially misleading.
Further, it is ironic that with regard to the transcedence of music over poetry, which is also the ascendence of Dionysius over Apollo (who really is favored here despite Nietzsche’s judicious declaimers), for metaphysical reasons, Nietzsche edges into a hall of mirrors with the portrait of Plato who is partly the “cause”, and in a sense, the consummation of the death of tragedy. It is ironic because Plato rejects poetry consistently and yet he is the most talented poet of all major philosophers except Nietzsche and he also held a primarily musical relation to asensual truth. Both Plato and Nietzsche have musical philosophies, both are poets, and both also use poetry directly in their philosophies. Hence, it is remarkable that Nietzsche in this first work rejects Plato while opting for a transcedence through music and a doubtful assertion of a “new rebirth” of tragedy, copying Plato’s idealistic error while blaming Socrates for the death of tragic poetry.
The embodiment of poetry in their works makes both Plato and Nietzsche creative not only as writers but also as philosophers (i.e. in the world of the nonimage). When they disembody the sensual inspiration drawn directly from but denying the source of that creativity, they deny poeisis. Plato’s position ultimately proves more paradoxical just as his denunciation of poetry seems more inevitable. Nietzsche’s situation, a photographic negative of Plato’s, rejects romanticism and criticizes disembodiment by mercilessly critiquing the lie of sentiment as he developed a mature concept of style.