[The Table of Contents is listed below.]
Looking back on The Birth of Tragedy fourteen years after its publication,1 Nietzsche described his book as questionable, odd, forbidding, poorly written, unwieldy, painful, arrogant, and extravagant. Twice he deems it “impossible.” Built “from precocious, purely personal insights, all but incommunicable,” it is a first book “in the worst sense of that term,” riddled with “every conceivable fault of adolescence.”2
Its creator’s low opinion has not, however, deterred Paul Daniels from devoting a book to the study of The Birth of Tragedy. Instead, Daniels finds in Nietzsche’s troubled and ambivalent relationship to this work an irresistible invitation for energetic exploration of a tense and challenging text. It is a great relief to report that none of the adjectives Nietzsche hurls at his book apply to Daniels’ study, which is clear, engaging, and very well written. Far from being incommunicable, its ideas and arguments are directed at the non-specialist, although there is much here for Nietzsche scholars to enjoy.
Daniels provides a nice, clear account of some of The Birth of Tragedy ’s basic claims. Greek tragedy unites two artistic drives, the Apolline and the Dionysian. The Apolline represents clarity, beauty, order, form, and individuation, while the Dionysian offers its opposite: chaos, intoxication, obscurity, excess, and fusion. Greek tragedy, at least that by Aeschylus and Sophocles, exposes its audience to the terrors of existence such as the role of fate, the helplessness of even the good individual, and the inevitability of suffering. But, at the same time, by forging these harsh realities into a magnificent art work, it rises above the abyss of misery and pessimism to ultimately affirm life, or at least to affirm aesthetic power and its potential to redeem pain and suffering.
In telling the story of tragedy’s birth, Nietzsche also provides a postmortem that reveals its murderers. This supreme achievement of Greek culture was destroyed by Socrates, aided and abetted by Euripides. But Nietzsche goes on to prophesy its rebirth, in Germany at least, with the arrival of Wagnerian opera. The time is ripe for tragedy’s reincarnation because the thought of Kant and Schopenhauer reveals that the rationalism launched by Socrates and which killed tragedy has exhausted itself and reached its limits. The thing in itself proves, pace rationalism, to be ultimately unknowable.
Daniels freely and refreshingly acknowledges that The Birth of Tragedy is a difficult book and wrestles throughout his study with a number of issues central to its interpretation. Perhaps the most important among these is the extent to which Nietzsche’s intimate involvement with Schopenhauer’s ideas enhances or compromises his illumination of Greek tragedy in particular and Greek culture more generally. Daniels reminds us that “as a philologist his fluency in ancient Greek was legendary among his contemporaries; … his knowledge of the Greek tragic plays was intimate, and … the works of the Greek poets – from Homer to Pindar – were always at his fingertips.” (7) To help readers negotiate this question about whether Nietzsche’s depiction of Greek art and culture is overdetermined, and even distorted, by his philosophical loyalty to Schopenhauer, Daniels supplies a clear and helpful summary of some of Schopenhauer’s central ideas. He ultimately plumps for the view that despite using Schopenhauerean concepts, The Birth of Tragedy departs quite significantly from those ideas, particularly about the function of art and the opportunities to embrace but escape pessimism. Daniels is not the first commentator to have probed the exact nature of Nietzsche’s relationship to Schopenhauer in The Birth of Tragedy, and he deftly engages other contributions to the secondary literature on both sides of this debate.
Jacob Burckhardt’s influence on Nietzsche’s thinking at this time is also examined by Daniels. Burckhardt was Nietzsche’s senior colleague at Basel, and Nietzsche attended a number of his lectures. Daniels suggests that Nietzsche was particularly persuaded by Burckhardt’s belief that works of art provide windows onto a culture. One of the ways in which Burckhardt’s influence can be felt appears in an area of divergence Daniels identifies between Nietzsche and Schopenhauer. Unlike the latter, who privileges philosophy and its translation of all matters into abstract ideas, Nietzsche strives in The Birth of Tragedy to give his readers intuitive, non-philosophical access to the experience of the Greeks. He writes not to appeal primarily to his audience’s reasoning faculties but “to impart a vision of Greek culture in terms of the art forms themselves ” (67, emphasis original).
In his last chapter, Daniels builds on his claim that, appearances notwithstanding, Nietzsche’s thinking in The Birth of Tragedy was quite independent of Schopenhauer’s, in order to mount a strong case for the significance of Nietzsche’s first book for the rest of his oeuvre. The questions Nietzsche poses in this early work, such as the relationship between art and science, the appropriate response to the horrors of existence, the value of Schopenhauer’s philosophy, the significance of ancient Greek art and philosophy for modernity, and his own relationship to Socrates, persist throughout his career, even if his answers to them change somewhat. Nietzsche’s view that Socratic rationalism was itself born of the same drive as Greek tragedy – to make life not just bearable but also affirmable – means that rationalism and modern science are themselves ultimately aesthetic, rather than purely epistemological, responses to the world. This also becomes an important preoccupation in the rest of his thinking.
But it struck me as odd that in this final chapter where Daniels makes the claim for The Birth of Tragedy ’s relevance for the remainder of Nietzsche’s corpus, he ignores the works that immediately followed it. We get no discussion of the essays that comprise the Untimely Meditations, nor any reference to what are known as the middle period works. In this latter set of writings, Nietzsche seems to overturn dramatically his preference for art over science. The middle period works also contain a number of positive references to Socrates. Some account of how and why The Birth of Tragedy ’s author would change his mind so markedly would have been very welcome.
This final chapter does include a consideration of how successful Nietzsche was and could be in a work like this in promoting an aesthetic, intuitive approach ahead of a philosophical one. This leads Daniels into a comparison of Nietzsche with Rilke which contends that Rilke sings while Nietzsche merely speaks. While this is an important question, the digression into Rilke struck me as unnecessary and out of place. In thinking about whether Nietzsche is more a philosopher than an artist, Daniels spends some time discussing Nietzsche’s own poetry but makes no reference to his musical compositions, which is a curious omission given the important role music occupies in The Birth of Tragedy. Since the publication in 2010 of Julian Young’s massive biography of Nietzsche, recordings of his compositions have been readily accessible via the Cambridge University Press website for the book.3
On this note, I would have liked this last chapter to reflect more fully on Nietzsche’s relationship with Wagner, which is obviously central to The Birth of Tragedy ’s motivation. This relationship is raised at the start of the book when Daniels outlines the influences on Nietzsche at the time he was preparing The Birth of Tragedy, but coming back to the Wagner question seems essential to assessing the book’s achievement and continuing significance. Alternatively or additionally in lieu of the Rilke comparison, I would have preferred Daniels to discuss the controversy The Birth of Tragedy generated among Nietzsche’s fellow philologists, and to have summarized and assessed von Wilamowitz-Möllendorff’s strenuous attack on the book.
In this last chapter Daniels also takes up the question of the extent to which The Birth of Tragedy presaged Nietzsche’s later critiques of Christianity. He suggests that Nietzsche is rewriting history when he points to the work’s “consistently cautious and hostile silence about Christianity” (173). But this is a case where I take Nietzsche’s retrospective interpretation to be undoubtedly correct and therefore not to warrant the scrutiny Daniels brings to bear. In late nineteenth-century Europe, how can Nietzsche’s claim that only as an aesthetic phenomenon can existence be justified not be seen as an assault on Christianity? To speak the language of redemption, as Nietzsche repeatedly does in The Birth of Tragedy, and not to invoke religion, amounts to a tacit but potent criticism of religion in my view. To uphold the pre-Christian world as the paradigm for a better future must also be read as such a criticism of religion.
Although I have voiced some minor reservations about the last chapter, overall the book must be deemed a success. It is a careful, engaging, enjoyable, provoking yet accessible study of a book that remains mysterious to Nietzsche scholars and, as Daniel points out, remained so to Nietzsche himself.
Table of Contents
1. Nietzsche and the Influences on The Birth of Tragedy
2. Apollo and Dionysos in Dialectic (§§1 – 6)
3. The Tragic Moment (§§7 – 10)
4. The Decline and Death of Greek Tragedy (§§11 – 15)
5. Modernity and the Rebirth of Tragedy (§§16 – 25)
6. Appraising The Birth of Tragedy : Nietzsche in his Later Writings
Nietzsche’s Life and Works
Guide to Further Reading
(The Guide to Further Reading is broken down according to each of the chapters.)
1. These remarks appear in the Preface Nietzsche attached to the book in 1886, entitled “Versuch einer Selbskritik.” If this is Nietzsche merely attempting self-criticism, one can only wonder what achieved self-criticism looks like for him. During that year and the next, he appended prefaces to a number of his earlier works as part of their re-publication. Because they are motivated by his own changing sense of purpose, all these prefaces should be read as post-scripts or afterwords in my view.
2. He means intellectual adolescence: he was in his late twenties when the book appeared.