BMCR 2021.02.11

Dionysus after Nietzsche: The Birth of Tragedy in twentieth-century literature and thought

, Dionysus after Nietzsche: The Birth of Tragedy in twentieth-century literature and thought. Classics after antiquity. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2020. Pp. xiv, 244. ISBN 9781108482561 $99.99.


Dionysus after Nietzsche traces a reception history of Nietzsche’s Dionysus that ‘reverberate[s]’ (12) through the work of Jane Harrison, D.H. Lawrence, Martin Heidegger, Richard Schechner, and Wole Soyinka in the hundred years following the publication of The Birth of Tragedy in 1872. The book’s central thesis is that Nietzsche’s ‘empathetic’ and ‘sensuous’ (13) version of antiquity, a version removed from the constraints of idealism and historicism imposed by nineteenth-century classicists, offers his modern readers an emblem of an untimely anthropological and tragic encounter between the ancient and modern worlds. In one moment, as emblematic of his own approach to writing classical reception as it is to the Nietzschean tradition he identifies, Lecznar argues that the temporality Nietzsche offers is not ‘the tyrannical after of the classical’ (15). Instead, the Nietzschean tradition and Lecznar’s book offer a series of iterated, re-articulated nows in which ancient culture participates in the crises of the present. Each of the central chapters shows how the ‘symbolic lexicon’ (15) of Nietzsche’s Dionysus has been used variously to intervene in classical scholarship (Harrison), to advocate for an anti-tragic literary sensibility (Lawrence), to rethink philosophical origins (Heidegger), to shock theatre (Schechner), and to call for the globalization of tragedy (Soyinka). ‘Nietzsche’s Greeks’, in Lecznar’s formulation, disrupt chronologies, genres, and disciplines.

Previous studies of the reception of Nietzsche’s Dionysus have tended either to track the development of Dionysus as a symbol from Germanophone Romanticism to Anglophone modernism, or to use Dionysus as an empty synecdoche for Nietzschean philosophy more broadly. In contrast, Lecznar stays focused on Nietzsche’s text: the opening three chapters of Dionysus after Nietzsche focus on the Dionysiac resonances of The Birth of Tragedy in anthropology, literature and literary criticism, and philosophy; and the final two chapters explore the ways in which Nietzsche’s Dionysus informed two twentieth-century performances of Euripides’ Dionysus from the Bacchae. Each chapter examines its selected writer’s negotiation of Nietzsche’s antiquity in relation to the book’s three key concepts of (un)timeliness (human relationships to history), difference (human relationships to others), and tragedy (here defined as a way of understanding ‘human beings fundamentally riven by their untimeliness and difference’, 20). The book is dense with secondary material, and at points in the thesis it can be difficult to discern the author’s voice clearly through the clamour of the Nietzschean commentary tradition. Where Lecznar’s voice does emerge, his tone is engaging and his treatment of these writers’ often oblique engagements with Nietzsche’s Dionysus is refreshing in its resistance to the ungenerous philological urge to establish direct inheritance or adjudicate interpretation: Lecznar prefers to focalise the relation between ancient and modern and draw connections between these writers’ images and ideas and the ‘impressionism’ (3) of Nietzsche’s own Greeks.

After an introductory chapter provides a contextualized précis of The Birth of Tragedy and a sketch of Nietzsche’s conception of the Dionysiac drive or consciousness, the first chapter discusses Jane Harrison’s attempt to re-vision ancient Greece and classical scholarship alike through the lens of her engagement with Nietzsche’s Dionysus. Lecznar shows how Harrison’s shifting reading of Nietzsche’s Dionysus and the Dionysiac before and after the First World War (from disruptively creative to destructively chaotic) underpins her shifting conception of Greek religion from Prolegomena through the first and second editions of Themis. Harrison is used as a prime example of ‘the controversial conclusions that this Nietzschean philology might encourage scholars to draw’ (29) in the period leading up to the First World War, and Lecznar takes care to draw the reader’s attention to the replication of racist colonial power structures in Harrison’s Dionysiac anthropology and its ‘polarity of the savage and the civilised’ (56).

Chapter Two moves on to the period between the First and Second World Wars and examines D. H. Lawrence’s negotiation of two competing visions of Nietzsche valent in contemporary politics and culture beyond the confines of classical scholarship: Nietzsche the philosopher of German violence, and Nietzsche the lyric prophet of modernity. In this chapter, the representations of tragedy and the Dionysiac in The Birth of Tragedy act as foils to Nietzsche’s later reassessment of tragedy’s moral implications in The Gay Science, a text that emerges as significant for the ‘anti-tragic sensibility’ (87) of Lawrence’s fiction (Women in Love), travel writings (Sketches of Etruscan Places), and criticism (Study of Thomas Hardy). The variety of genres in the chosen case studies provide an insight into Lawrence’s interest in the relation of tragedy to form, and the ways in which his representations of the ‘tragic’ shift in intermedial translation. Again, Lecznar is careful to show how the Dionysiac is deployed to underpin ideologies of social Darwinism, nationalism, primitivism, and gendered relations in addition to Lawrence’s literary aesthetics. Yet he also shows how an understanding of Lawrence’s participation in the Nietzschean tradition both elucidates Lawrence’s controversial formulation of ‘repressed consciousness’ as an anti-tragic mentality (one that rejects the morality and custom of the ‘tragic age’), and firmly places the antagonistic Lawrence within literary modernism.

The third chapter turns to Martin Heidegger and his participation in the Nazi appropriation of a particular version of Nietzsche’s Greeks to effect ‘a philosophical and cultural revolution’ (99) between 1933 and 1946. Heidegger’s engagement with the figure of Dionysus is often ‘oblique’ (101) or absent from his most explicit engagements with Nietzsche’s Greeks. Instead, the chapter focuses on tracing how Heidegger’s reflections on Nietzsche’s ‘rendition’ of Presocratic philosophy ‘altered in step [both] with his rapidly changing relationship to the emergence and dissolution of National Socialism’ (100) and with his understanding of the temporality of the Presocratics. In doing so, Lecznar reinserts time and history into the story of Heidegger (a time and history on which Heidegger himself was infamously reticent), and sketches out the implications of this for Heidegger’s philosophy. The chapter shows how Heidegger’s anti-Semitic obsession with establishing Hellenic beginnings (focalised around the figure of Prometheus) shifts, after the fall of the National Socialists, towards a self-justifying conception of the tragic as an eternal law of endings (focalised around the thought of Anaximander).

Chapter Four considers Nietzsche’s Dionysus as a countercultural force in the 1960s using the work of playwright Richard Schechner. This chapter’s focus on the ‘performative possibilities’ (130) of Nietzsche’s Dionysus brings together the previous chapters’ themes of ritual, violence, and fascism, and explores how performance offered a response to ‘contemporary philosophical debates about the limits of rationality’ (130-1). In contrast to previous treatments of Schechner’s version of Euripides’ Bacchae, Dionysus in 69, which have tended to focus either on the play’s performative elements or its sexual politics, Lecznar pays attention to Schechner’s intellectual and conceptual concerns and to the play’s specifically Nietzschean elements, arguing that the play’s exploration of violence, philosophy, and ecstasy is ‘structure[d] … around a response to Nietzsche’s Dionysus and his tragic vision of antiquity’ (132). In drawing on Schechner’s theoretical writings as well as the performance itself, Lecznar enriches the critical conversation around Dionysus in 69, showing how Schechner privileged the physical and the non-literary in his response to Nietzsche’s Greeks and ‘transmuted Nietzsche’s tragic philosophy into a tragic performance’ (132). At the same time, the chapter demonstrates how central ‘the vocabulary of performance’ (133) is to The Birth of Tragedy: the festival or choral unity of Schechner’s Greeks, whose gestures ‘take us into the realm of the unrepresentable’ (145) thus emerge as ‘perhaps the closest to replicating Nietzsche’s original philosophical concerns’ (133). For a sharp critique of Schechner’s appropriation for his play of a ritual of rebirth from the Asmat people of Indonesia, however, the reader must wait until the next chapter, where we find Wole Soyinka’s direct rebuke of Schechner’s ‘white bourgeois hippie American culture’ (165) and its show of inhibition without intellectual liberation: ‘I see nothing significantly anti-bourgeois in a bare arse clambering over the audience’ (166).

Chapter Five, on Soyinka’s The Bacchae of Euripides: A Communion Rite, begins with a reflection on the ways in which all the writers discussed so far have engaged with Nietzsche’s racialised discussions of antiquity in The Birth of Tragedy, whether by primitivism, or an appropriation or rejection of ‘other’ cultural traditions. This final chapter proceeds to trace Soyinka’s engagement with this ‘Nietzschean tradition that held the question of race as fundamental to the idea of tragedy’ (171), examining both the relevance of Nietzsche’s Dionysus to ‘postcolonial conceptions of the world as a place of hybrid cultural forms’ (161) and Nietzsche’s resonance in the anticolonial philosophy of black nationalism with which Soyinka ambivalently engaged. Drawing on Soyinka’s 1969 essay, ‘The Fourth Stage: Through the Mysteries of Ogun to the Origins of Yoruba Tragedy’, Lecznar shows how Soyinka—via The Birth of Tragedy—proposed a theory of Yoruba tragedy that challenged European tragic hegemony and the rational discourses of white European culture. While Harrison and Schechner looked to a universalising racial tradition, Soyinka embraces localised cultural traditions; and while Schechner’s Dionysus offered only abstract ecstatic liberation, Soyinka’s Dionysus also offers ‘concrete political emancipation’ (179). Lecznar’s analysis of Soyinka’s play in relation to négritude and Yoruba politics and mythology, in addition to the Nietzschean, is a welcome attempt to understand Soyinka’s work beyond—in Patrice Rankine’s phrasing—the solipsistic gaze of much reception studies, which searches only for classicism in the work of reception rather than seeking to understand the receiving subject (a gaze which, as Rankine points out, has dogged treatments of Soyinka’s Bacchae).[1]

The book’s conclusion reflects explicitly on reception methodologies and the future of reception studies, which has not yet infiltrated Classics ‘in a way that might influence the conclusions drawn about the nature of the ancient world’ (197), despite its revolutionary potential to do so. Lecznar’s hope is that ‘[r]ecuperating these post-Nietzschean attitudes towards Greece and the Greeks can help us to reflect on our own approach to antiquity’ (196)—in terms of ‘presence, mutability and possibility’ (203)—and to ‘redefine’ the untimeliness of Classics ‘as something futural’ (202). Lecznar’s vision of ‘Classics after Nietzsche’ is thus a call to use the objects of our study to reflect on the most contemporary of concerns, and, like the book’s case studies, deploy our Nietzschean interventions to divert a renewed discipline on a fresh tangent.


[1] P. Rankine, comments in a paper presented at the “Critical Ancient World Studies” conference, 7 September 2020, excerpted from his forthcoming book Theater and Crisis: Performance in the Age Of Covid-19 And Black Lives Matter.