I used to think Nietzche's Birth of Tragedy from the Spirit of Music (Die Geburt der Tragödie aus dem Geiste der Musik) easy enough to understand. On the one hand we have the Apollonian, all rational clarity, order, harmony and balance, Apollo the god of sunlight, poetry and the golden mean. On the other the Dionysian, all creative chaos and irrationality, Dionysus the god of theatre, wine, revels, frenzy and wildness. The greatest art is tragic art, because tragedy does what other forms of art tend not to, and looks the grim truth of reality (which is mostly suffering and is certainly death) in the face. But the greatest tragedy is neither mournful or depressing. On the contrary, it grounds a transcendent joy in its representation of suffering by balancing the Apollonian with the Dionysiac, keeping them in a creative tension with one another. Then again, says Nietzsche, only the best tragedy manages to do this properly and when we say best we're really only talking Aeschylus and Sophocles. Even so early after the birth of tragedy as Euripides the rot has set in, with too much Apollonian rationalisation and discussion unbalancing the whole. When tragedy loses touch with the dark violence and irrational chaos of Dionysus it becomes unfit for purpose. It's been all downhill since the Greeks. Or at least it has until now (that is, until 1872) when the mighty opera of my *clears throat* close personal friend actually Richard Wagner—to whom The Birth of Tragedy is dedicated—means that tragedy has once again ascended to the greatest heights of its own aesthetic possibility.
There's a temptation, which we should resist, to style the ‘Apollonian’/‘Dionysiac’ thing as a neat little binary that ‘explains’ specific instances of art and culture, this text here, that author's career there. Or we might be tempted to take Apollo/Dionysus as a dialectic in the Hegelian mode (although that is certainly not what Nietzsche is getting at: his tension between Apollo and Dionysus is never processed and synthesised: ‘the Apollonian and the Dionysian: involve perpetual conflicts with only periodically intervening reconciliations’ is how he puts it).
I put my hand up: when I first read this book, I misunderstood it. I can best explain how I did so, and what my misunderstanding says about Nietzsche's argument, by isolating two of its elements and discussing them a little. And the two are: dreams and music.
Music is particularly important to the book's argument. The birth of tragedy, N. says, right there in the damn title of his work, is out of the spirit of music, and one of the things Birth of Tragedy does is advance the thesis that the very first and now-lost-to-us tragic texts were just choral odes, sung and danced in the Dionysiac ritual. Wagner, of course, was a great composer, although it was as important for Nietzsche as it was for the Massive-Ego-That-Was-Wagner himself to see him as more than ‘just’ a composer, and to argue that that he fashioned the gesamtkunstwerk in all its totalising glory. Put that on one side for now. Dreams are important to Nietzsche's thesis too. Now: after I first read this book as a student, way way back in the late 1980s, my mind was captured by the Apollo-Dionysus binary. Very cool, I thought. Then I put the book down and did not pick it up again for a long time. When I finally returned to it, decades later, and reread it (to teach it) I discovered that I had radically misremembered the argument Nietzsche makes.
How so, you ask? Well: I'd assumed that music was the province of Apollo, and dreams the province of Dionysus. Wrong! It's the other way around.
Wrong but, I think, not randomly wrong; and here I move towards the nub of my jist, the crux of my blogpost's nub. Nietzsche says that dreams are Apollonian and music Dionysiac. That, though, goes against common sense. Doesn't it? Music, surely, is a matter of harmony and balance, of regular tempi and intricate formal patterning, of aesthetic bliss achieved by the control and proportion of sonic elements. Isn't that Apollonian? As for dreams: we're all post-Freudians now where dreaming is concerned, surely. Dreams are those fundamentally weird and often disruptive bubblings-up from the irrational id, random dislocations of cause-and-effect, laughable or sometimes nightmarish disproportions, desires thwarted or terrifyingly indulged. Dreams, surely are Dionysiac!
To understand why Nietzsche didn't think so is to rehearse the central through-line of Birth of Tragedy. And to do that is to realise that, actually, the Apollo-and-Dionysus stuff is in a sense peripheral to the main argument Nietzsche is making.
So: dreams, Nietzsche insists, belong to Apollo.
The beauteous appearance of the dream-worlds, in the production of which every man is a perfect artist, is the presupposition of all plastic art, and ... half of poetry also. We take delight in the immediate apprehension of form; all forms speak to us; there is nothing indifferent, nothing superfluous. But, together with the highest life of this dream-reality we also have, glimmering through it, the sensation of its appearance: such at least is my experience, as to the frequency, ay, normality of which I could adduce many proofs, as also the sayings of the poets. ... And perhaps many a one will, like myself, recollect having sometimes called out cheeringly and not without success amid the dangers and terrors of dream-life: “It is a dream! I will dream on!” I have likewise been told of persons capable of continuing the causality of one and the same dream for three and even more successive nights: all of which facts clearly testify that our innermost being, the common substratum of all of us, experiences our dreams with deep joy and cheerful acquiescence. [Nietzsche, Birth of Tragedy (transl. Hausmann), 23-24]You can say ‘dude, my dreams are not like that’. Mine generally aren't. But we have to believe that this is the dream-dimension as Nietzsche experienced it: a sort of heightened aestheticised fantasy realm bathed in golden light.
With music, the mistake I made is to assume that by talking about music Nietzsche was talking about the formal and structural qualities of music. But he's not. He's talking about the effect music has on us, and his argument is that its effect is to dissolve ‘the principium individuationis’. This is the sense we have of ourselves as individuals, as separate human beings all living our separate lives. That separateness is obviously part of what it means to be human, and we neither can nor should lose it entirely, even when immersing ourselves in the greatest art (hence Apollo is always part of the Apollo-Dionysis balance). But Nietzsche believes the thing-in-itself is neither individuated nor hospitable to individuation, and it's this exhilarating and terrifying fundamental reality that tragedy gives us insight into:
In these Greek festivals a sentimental trait, as it were, breaks forth from nature, as if she must sigh over her dismemberment into individuals. The song and pantomime of such dually-minded revellers was something new and unheard-of in the Homeric-Grecian world; and the Dionysian music in particular excited awe and horror. If music, as it would seem, was previously known as an Apollonian art, it was, strictly speaking, only as the wave-beat of rhythm, the formative power of which was developed to the representation of Apollonian conditions. The music of Apollo was Doric architectonics in tones, but in merely suggested tones, such as those of the cithara. The very element which forms the essence of Dionysian music (and hence of music in general) is carefully excluded as un-Apollonian; namely, the thrilling power of the tone, the uniform stream of the melos, and the thoroughly incomparable world of harmony. In the Dionysian dithyramb man is incited to the highest exaltation of all his symbolic faculties; something never before experienced struggles for utterance—the annihilation of the veil of Mâyâ, Oneness as genius of the race, ay, of nature. ... To comprehend this collective discharge of all the symbolic powers, a man must have already attained that height of self-abnegation, which wills to express itself symbolically through these powers. With what astonishment must the Apollonian Greek have beheld him! With an astonishment, which was all the greater the more it was mingled with the shuddering suspicion that all this was in reality not so very foreign to him, yea, that, like unto a veil, his Apollonian consciousness only hid this Dionysian world from his view. [Nietzsche, Birth of Tragedy, 31-33]Now I'm not a dunce, or at least not markedly more duncelike than the next person. And I can see that there are situations in which this dissolution of the principium individuationis certainly is facilitated by music. The crowd at Live Aid, when Freddie Mercury led that collective ay-oh, ay-ay-ay-oh singalong, was made up of individuals who were, in their holistic antiphonal musical responses to the Queenman, joyously dissolving their individuality into their collectivity. I'm a fiftysomething professor, so obviously I'm not off clubbing of a weekend, but I assume that people who do go to crowded nightclubs where drinks cost five times what they do in a regular bar and the music is nonstop and much much too loud are seeking precisely to subsume their individuality in a collective Dionysiac frenzy. This kind of thing:
You can see how out of touch I am by the fact that my idea of a rave is a scene from a science fiction movie released full fifteen years ago. So it goes. My point is: when I listen to music it tends to accentuate my individuation rather than anything else. I put on headphones, and wrap my subjectivity in a hermetic layer of personalised sound. Often I'm in a public space (I write, for instance, in coffee shops, surrounded by people) where putting music through my headphones seals me away from all of everybody-else. I don't think I'm alone in this. The technologies that mediate music for us nowadays, undreamt of in Nietzsche's day, are hyper-individuation devices. I mean: aren't they?
I don't mean to romanticize the old days; and indeed, I'm very happy (or at least I think I am) in my little cell, listening to my music, reading my books. For Nietzsche, I suppose, appreciating music just did mean sitting in an audience as the whole group lost its individuation and immersed itself en masse in, say, Götterdämmerung—that for him listening to music was by its nature a collective matter. The point of art, for N., is its capacity to de-alienate us, to reintegrate us into something more holistic than our isolated, lonely, miserable existences, turning what for an individual is distress and misery into the ground of transcendent joyousness by virtue of collectivising it. And that's the through-line of the Birth of Tragedy: not the formal stuff bracketing certain things with Apollo and certain other things with Dionysis, but the utopian possibilities of redeeming human suffering via a tragic art reborn.
And so I wonder (I wah-wah-wah-wah-wo-onder) whether our reading of the Birth of Tragedy must necessarily encounter it as a document out of time. Surely, now, it finds itself in a radically altered modernity. Wagner was not, as it turned out, the new aesthetic messiah, ushering in a revivified age of great tragic art. The twentieth- and twenty-first centuries have increasingly brought with them new technologies of cultural production and dissemination in service of the commodified reification of art, blah blah: you all know the Frankfurt School drill. Individuation principium has become the cultural dominant under a tyrannical neoliberalism that wants us separated and weak en masse, rather than collectivisied and strong en masse. I don't know. Honestly I don't. I do know that I, personally, make for a very poor case study, and if my dreams are Dionsyiac splurges and my music an über-Apollonian reinforcement of the individuation of my Late Capitalism reified subjectivity, then perhaps that is just me.
It brings me back to a subject over which I fret, sometimes. Fret probably overstates it: but the cultural regime, or logic, of the present is surely one of an absolutely massive connectivity. We're all connected with everybody else who has a means to get online, and that's almost everyone nowadays. Twitter and instagram and all the other social media link us in with global millions. Does this make us a global mob, easily manipulated by unscrupulous influence-peddlers to vote for Brexit or support Trump, or vice versa? Or is there any sense in which this massive interconnectivity actualises, in a radically new magisterium, precisely the aesthetically liberating life-art Nietzsche theorises in Birth of Tragedy? Do social media give us the simulacrum of social interaction whilst actually sealing us away, or are these technologies in fact creating a new Dionysiac collectiveness in which we can glimpse the escape from the prison of individuation of which Nietzsche writes?
I'm not sure I know. Indeed, I wonder if I'm too old to know. I grew up before these technologies and I was a largely solitary, rather bookish child. I did not, for example, have anything like the number, range and easy intimacy of friendship my teenage daughter has; and although she has this wide circle of supportive and brilliant friends partly because she is a more charming and less mulish human being than I was at her age, she also belongs to this wide circle because she has these new technologies with which to stay in continual inwardness of friend-communion. We tend to catastrophize these media, but maybe we shouldn't. They seem to be enabling genuine community in my kids, even as I fume and splutter over the horrorshow that Twitter has become.
I think it would be hard to deny that there is an erotic energy to Nietzsche's inspired babblings in The Birth of Tragedy, and that his escape from the principium individuationis is modelled less on (say) a pseudo-religious mystical communion, and even less upon the kind of political collectivity Marx spun out of his reading of Hegel, and more on a sense of the blurring of subjectivities that happens in really good sex. That is also, or so I understand, the other reason people go to nightclubs.