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It is often assumed that the main assertions of the Birth of Tragedy about the Apollonian, the Dionysian, and more generally the function of art, rest on an implicit core of Schopenhauerian metaphysics, which Nietzsche would later have criticised and rejected.(1) As stated by J. Young, there is 'fairly wide agreement that the Birth incorporates without modification Schopenhauer's metaphysics' (Young 2001: 26).(2) According to him, the real core of dispute among commentators is whether Nietzsche adopts Schopenhauer's pessimistic conclusions about the value of life, Young's own controversial stance on this being that 'on the crucial question of pessimism, the Schopenhauerian assessment of the worth of human existence is (...) endorsed'.(3) In this paper, I shall argue that this conclusion, based on the assumption that the Birth's metaphysics is thoroughly Schopenhauerian, must be rejected because the premise itself is unwarranted. I am aware that this is a paradoxical claim: there are many Schopenhauerian elements in the Birth, in particular the idea that the Grundstimmung of the will is pain, or that individuation is illusory.(4) However, if one tries to read them as supporting Nietzsche's claims about art and its redemptive power, then many difficulties and even contradictions appear. For example, if the primal affect of the world is purely pain, as in the World as Will and Representation, how can the Dionysian, which mimics it, be both painful and pleasurable? If individuation is, as in Schopenhauer's thought, an illusion due to the principle of sufficient reason, how can the Dionysian, which lifts this illusion and reunites us with the will, be also defined as 'an illusion spread over things' (BT: 109)? Along the same lines, if individuation is, again in Schopenhauerian fashion, the 'primary cause of evil' (BT: 74), or a 'curse' (BT: 71), how can the Apollonian, which glorifies it, be a desirable illusion? And if human existence is absurd suffering, how can art, which tells us, both in its Apollonian and Dionysian forms, that life is worth living 'eternally', be truthful, as Nietzsche claims? I shall argue that the main reason for these difficulties is not really that Nietzsche's allegedly Schopenhauerian assumptions do not support his own conclusions about art: it is that his metaphysical assumptions are extremely complex and, in fact, often of a very unschopenhauerian nature. Indeed, if we focus on the metaphysical core of the Birth, leaving temporarily aside the question of the Apollonian and the Dionysian, more tensions and contradictions appear. These are centred mostly around three issues: the nature of the will (one or divided), the status of individuation (illusory or real) and the possibility of artistic redemption, both for the will and for us. In the first part of this paper, I shall identify both the Birth's Schopenhauerian elements and the reasons why Nietzsche's early metaphysics should, overall, be construed as non-Schopenhauerian. I shall then show that once teased out, this 'artist's metaphysics' provides a much better ground to understand the Apollonian and the Dionysian and the redemptive function of art. Finally, I shall question the status of this metaphysics in Nietzsche's thought, with a view to establishing a) whether Nietzsche attributed any truth value to it (and in which sense) and b) the role it plays in his early work. Many commentators (in particular De Man 1979; Poellner 1998; Porter 2000) have argued that Nietzsche cannot have been serious about the Birth's metaphysics and that consequently it must be seen as a myth and ultimately discarded (although the proposed interpretations of the nature and function of myth differ quite widely). In response to these claims, I shall suggest that Nietzsche was serious about this metaphysics precisely insofar as he saw and offered it as a myth, a somewhat paradoxical statement which, in order to be backed up, will need a re-examination of early Nietzsche's understanding of the relation between knowledge, myth and metaphysical truth.
Nietzsche’s Metaphysics in the
Birth of Tragedy
´atrice Han-Pile
It is often assumed that the main assertions of the Birth of Tragedy about the
Apollonian, the Dionysian, and more generally the function of art, rest on an
implicit core of Schopenhauerian metaphysics, which Nietzsche would later have
criticised and rejected.
As stated by J. Young, there is ‘fairly wide agreement that
the Birth incorporates without modification Schopenhauer ’s metaphysics’ (Young
2001: 26).
According to him, the real core of dispute among commentators is
whether Nietzsche adopts Schopenhauer’s pessimistic conclusions about the
value of life, Young’s own controversial stance on this being that ‘on the crucial
question of pessimism, the Schopenhauerian assessment of the worth of human
existence is (. . .) endorsed’.
In this paper, I shall argue that this conclusion, based
on the assumption that the Birth’s metaphysics is thoroughly Schopenhauerian,
must be rejected because the premise itself is unwarranted. I am aware that this is
a paradoxical claim: there are many Schopenhauerian elements in the Birth,in
particular the idea that the Grundstimmung of the will is pain, or that
individuation is illusory.
However, if one tries to read them as supporting
Nietzsche’s claims about art and its redemptive power, then many difficulties
and even contradictions appear. For example, if the primal affect of the world is
purely pain, as in the World as Will and Representation, how can the Dionysian,
which mimics it, be both painful and pleasurable? If individuation is, as in
Schopenhauer’s thought, an illusion due to the principle of sufficient reason, how
can the Dionysian, which lifts this illusion and reunites us with the will, be also
defined as ‘an illusion spread over things’ (BT: 109)? Along the same lines, if
individuation is, again in Schopenhauerian fashion, the ‘primary cause of evil’
(BT: 74), or a ‘curse’ (BT: 71), how can the Apollonian, which glorifies it, be a
desirable illusion? And if human existence is absurd suffering, how can art, which
tells us, both in its Apollonian and Dionysian forms, that life is worth living
‘eternally’, be truthful, as Nietzsche claims?
I shall argue that the main reason for these difficulties is not really that
Nietzsche’s allegedly Schopenhauerian assumptions do not support his own
conclusions about art: it is that his metaphysical assumptions are extremely
complex and, in fact, often of a very unschopenhauerian nature. Indeed, if we
focus on the metaphysical core of the Birth, leaving temporarily aside the
question of the Apollonian and the Dionysian, more tensions and contradictions
appear. These are centred mostly around three issues: the nature of the will (one
or divided), the status of individuation (illusory or real) and the possibility of
European Journal of Philosophy 14:3 ISSN 0966-8373 pp. 373–403 r2006 The Author. Journal compilation rBlackwell
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artistic redemption, both for the will and for us. In the first part of this paper,
I shall identify both the Birth’s Schopenhauerian elements and the reasons why
Nietzsche’s early metaphysics should, overall, be construed as non-Schopen-
hauerian. I shall then show that once teased out, this ‘artist’s metaphysics’
provides a much better ground to understand the Apollonian and the Dionysian
and the redemptive function of art. Finally, I shall question the status of this
metaphysics in Nietzsche’s thought, with a view to establishing a) whether
Nietzsche attributed any truth value to it (and in which sense) and b) the role it
plays in his early work. Many commentators (in particular De Man 1979; Poellner
1998; Porter 2000) have argued that Nietzsche cannot have been serious about the
Birth’s metaphysics and that consequently it must be seen as a myth and
ultimately discarded (although the proposed interpretations of the nature and
function of myth differ quite widely). In response to these claims, I shall suggest
that Nietzsche was serious about this metaphysics precisely insofar as he saw and
offered it as a myth, a somewhat paradoxical statement which, in order to be
backed up, will need a re-examination of early Nietzsche’s understanding of the
relation between knowledge, myth and metaphysical truth.
At first sight, the Birth’s metaphysics does seem rather Schopenhauerian.
Nietzsche describes the will as the ‘Ur-Eine’, the ‘mysterious primordial unity’
(BT: 37). In accordance with Schopenhauer’s teaching, it is ‘indivisible’, the
‘nucleus of nature, the true being, (. . .) the sphere of eternal being, the
inaccessible One and Eternal’
(KSA: I 7 [167]). The will is the metaphysical
essence of the physical world, and its fundamental affect is pain thus, the Birth
evokes ‘suffering, primal and eternal, the sole ground of the world’ (BT: 45,
my italics), or the ‘inchoate, intangible reflection of the primordial pain in music’
(BT: 49 my italics). As in chapter 28 of the World as Will and Representation, the
cause of this pain is attributed to the will’s ever wanting nature, which makes
fulfilment and thus happiness impossible: ‘suffering, nostalgia, lack as originary
sources of things. Can true being avoid suffering? Pain is being in itself’ (KSA: I 7
This fundamental pain is aggravated by the phenomenal divisions born
from the use of the principle of individuation, which is thus seen by Nietzsche
too as ‘the origin and the primal cause of all suffering’ (BT: 72), and ‘something
objectionable in itself’ (BT: 73). The reason for this is, again, Schopenhauerian:
book IV of WWR shows us that the will’s suffering is deepened by the fact that
although it is one in essence, it is torn apart by the constant wars that its
objectifications (i.e. empirical entities) wage against each other. Therefore the
will, although noumenally united, is phenomenally divided, or, in Nietzsche’s
words, ‘torn asunder and shattered into individuals’ (BT: 73) which permanently
enter into conflict. Conversely, although the sufferings caused by individuation
are real, for both authors there is the (desirable) possibility that if we manage to
shift from our perspective to that of the will, the ‘veil of Maya (Schopenhauer’s
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other name for the principle of individuation) will be, again in Nietzsche’s words,
‘torn aside and now fluttering in tatters before the mysterious primordial unity’
(BT: 37), and the will shall be reunited with itself (Nietzsche’s ‘gospel of universal
harmony’, ibid).
However, this Schopenhauerian reading makes the Birth’s account of both the
Apollonian and the Dionysian very problematic. The first is defined as a ‘blessed
continuance in will-less contemplation’ (BT: 131). The notion of a ‘will-less
contemplation’ of the beautiful images of the Apollonian dream world comes
directly from Schopenhauer, who defined artistic contemplation as the result of
the genius’ native ability to shift from the empirical perspective, from which
phenomenal struggles are real, to the transcendental standpoint, from which
phenomenal individuation and its woes vanish. In book III of WWR, this shift is
symbolised by the transition from the empirical individual, caught in the
network of his everyday interests, to the ‘pure subject of knowledge’ whose
disinterestedness allows him to become the ‘clear mirror of the world’ (WWR II:
380). Nietzsche explicitly takes up this idea in the following passage: ‘[the self of
the artist] is not the same as that of the walking, empirically real man, but the
only truly existent and eternal self resting at the basis of things, through whose
images the lyric genius sees this very basis’ (BT: 51). Both for Schopenhauer and
for Nietzsche, the main effect of this detached, visionary ability (and the reason
why it is valuable) is a stilling of the will, which, lulled by the beauty of the ideas,
temporarily stops its endless striving and is thus freed from the evils of
phenomenal individuation. However, the logical precondition for the required
shift from the empirical to the transcendental perspective is the possibility for the
genius to bypass the use of the principle of sufficient reason—otherwise the
empirical standpoint would be maintained and no identification with the will
would be possible. This is why in WWR, artistic contemplation has its specific
objects, the ideas. As ‘permanent, unchangeable forms’ (WWR II: 364), the
perception of which is usually obscured by the phenomenal world,
these ideas
are transcendentally individuated, in a way which remains mysterious as it is
meant to be independent from time, space and causality, which form the
conditions for empirical individuation. The existence of such objects is crucial
because it grounds the artist’s claim to beauty and to a higher truth than
empirical forms of knowledge, which only focus on changeable phenomena; it is
also what makes Schopenhauer’s views on artistic contemplation consistent.
As we have just seen, for Nietzsche too the Apollonian artist is supposed to
perform the shift from the empirical standpoint to its transcendental counterpart,
and to adopt a universal perspective from which phenomenal distinctions appear
dreamlike and induce a state of fascinated repose. Thus, the Apollonian is
a ‘dream reality’ (BT: 34), a ‘continuously manifested representation of the
primal unity’ (BT: 45). However, nowhere in the Birth does Nietzsche take up
Schopenhauer’s notion of ‘grades of beings’ (WWR II: chap. 23), nor of the
ideas as a higher and truer degree of objectification of the will (WWRII: chap.
More generally, there is no indication that he wants to take up
Schopenhauer’s revival of Platonism. Consequently, the only objects left for
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Apollonian contemplation are empirical appearances, while the difference
between Apollonian ‘will-less contemplation’ and the everyday use of the
principle of sufficient reason becomes the fact that in artistic contemplation, these
appearances are glorified. Thus the Apollonian is also called by the Birth the
sublime expression’ of the ‘unshaken faith in the principium [individuationis] and
the calm repose in it’ (BT: 36). The clearest example of this glorification of
phenomenal appearances is the Greek projection of the Olympian world, in
which the Gods are the magnified images of human individuals. Thus, ‘in order to
glorify themselves, [the will’s] creatures had to (. . .) behold themselves again in a
higher sphere (. . .). This is the sphere of beauty, in which they saw their mirror
images, the Olympians’ (BT: 44, my italics). However, the idea that the proper
objects of Apollonian contemplation are glorified phenomenal appearances is
incompatible with the other requirement examined above, i.e. the necessity for
the artist of a shift to the transcendental standpoint. As we have seen, such a shift
must by definition cause the genius to turn away from all empirical appearances
(hence Schopenhauer’s fundamental claim that artistic contemplation is ‘beyond
the use of the principle of sufficient reason’,
and the introduction of the ideas as
specific objects). Thus on the metaphysical premises examined so far, one has to
conclude that the Birth exhibits a contradiction between the method whereby the
Apollonian state can be achieved (the shift to the transcendental standpoint) and
its objects (glorified phenomena, which from that standpoint should vanish as
transcendentally ideal).
This metaphysical difficulty is compounded in the Birth by a moral one, which
was absent from Schopenhauer’s account of art. The problem is that since
phenomenal individuation has been identified as ‘the primary evil’, it makes little
sense to think that the will could truly find salvation in its magnification. This is
why in WWR the artist must turn away from all forms of empirical
individuation, towards the ideas—the highest form of art being the one that
doesn’t even need the mediation of the ideas, i.e. music. On this Schopenhauerian
logic, the Apollonian glorification of individuation suggested by the Birth is
actually dangerous, because it hides the real nature of the empirical world and
seduces the will into wanting the very thing that worsens its suffering—a world
of individuated phenomena.
In a similar way, the Schopenhauerian premises examined so far, while
illuminating some aspects of the Dionysian, also make its definition fairly
inconsistent. Again, the difficulties are of a moral and metaphysical nature. From
a moral perspective, the notion of a primordial noumenal suffering grounds the
Nietzschean idea that human existence, as its phenomenal objectification, is
essentially doomed to the ‘horrors’ so intensely felt by the archaic Greeks (BT: 42),
which in turn justifies the darker sides of the Dionysian: the wisdom of Silenus
(‘what is best is utterly beyond your reach: not to be born, not to be, to be nothing.
But second best for you is—to die soon!’ (BT: 42)), or the nausea that strikes the
Dionysian man once he has acquired an ‘insight into the horrible truth’ and ‘now
sees everywhere only the horror or the absurdity of existence’
(BT: 61).
However, on these Schopenhauerian premises it is difficult to see why the
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Dionysian should be a joyful principle, let alone as a redemptive one. Nietzsche
speaks of the ‘joyous hope that the spell of individuation may be broken in
augury of a restored oneness’ (BT: 74): That there should be hope in the shattering
of individuation is consistent with his Schopenhauerian premises—book IV of
WWR is devoted to the analysis of the various ways
in which the will can
become aware of itself, and thus avoid tearing at itself through its objectifications.
However, ‘restoring oneness’ would hardly be sufficient to guarantee joy, since
the will is doomed by its ever wanting nature to eternal suffering. This is why in
Schopenhauer’s thought the only reasonable course of action for the ascetic or the
burned out individual is self extinction—not suicide, which would be the
paradoxical assertion of a failed aspiration to live, but a passive relinquishing of
the desire to exist, such as death by starvation.
From a metaphysical point of view, the problem is that the Birth’s alleged
Schopenhauerian metaphysics makes it very hard to understand how the
Dionysian could be seen as an illusion. Most commentators read the opposition
between the Apollonian and the Dionysian as one between illusion and truth,
and indeed there are quotes which suggest that such is the case. On this reading,
whereas the Apollonian covers over the dark nature of existence by generating
beautiful images, the Dionysian removes the mirages of Maya and thus reveals
the true nature of the will. However, the Dionysian too is defined by Nietzsche as
an illusion. This is suggested by his recurrent insistence on intoxication: the
Birth mentions that under the ‘charm of the Dionysian’, man’s ‘very gestures
express enchantment’ (BT: 37), and defines the Dionysian as an ‘intoxicated reality’
which tries to redeem the individual ‘by a mystic feeling of oneness’ (BT: 38).
the most explicit passage is in Section 18, which sees it as ‘an illusion spread over
things’, more precisely as one of the ‘three stages of illusion designed (. . .) for the
more nobly formed natures’ (BT: 110). The other two illusions are the ‘Socratic
love of knowledge’ and ‘art’s seductive veil of beauty’. The first is illusory
because theoretical optimism thinks that existence is intelligible for human
beings, and that it can even be corrected, i.e. made entirely happy, and the
second, because it hides the necessity of human suffering by means of its
beautiful Apollonian images. However, from a Schopenhauerian perspective the
Dionysian lifting of the veil of Maya makes no sense as an illusion: the breaking
down of the principle of individuation is seen by Schopenhauer not only as
desirable, but also as truthful, in the adequationist sense that it gives human
knowledge a content which reflects the real nature of the world: it shows the
noumenal unity of the will behind its empirical multiplicity. This is why WWR
deems the knowledge of both the artist and the ascetic superior to that of the
historian or the scientist, who focus on the world of individuation and only
acquire an understanding of phenomena. Consequently, if the Birth’s perspective
was fully Schopenhauerian, it would make no sense for Nietzsche to state that the
Dionysian is an illusion, an idea which, I shall argue, can only be explained from
the perspective of his own metaphysics.
So while grounding some of the aspects of the Dionysian, Nietzsche’s
Schopenhauerian assumptions fail to explain that it should be seen as an illusion,
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let alone a joyful one. As we have seen above, they also make his account of the
Apollonian inconsistent. More generally, they fail to account for the redemptive
nature of art. Indeed, if the Dionysian lifting of the Apollonian illusions shows us
nothing but the horrors of existence, how (and why) could art act as a ‘saving
sorceress, expert at healing’ (BT: 60) and persuade us that life is desirable? To use
a Schopenhauerian metaphor, this would be like giving a famished mendicant
the alms that will allow him to beg anon the next day. There thus seems to be a
blatant contradiction between the terrible content of the Dionysian vision and the
optimistic meaning attributed to it by the Birth. In his very interesting
interpretation of Nietzsche’s views on art, Julian Young partially solves this
problem by explaining that artistic redemption should be seen as pertaining
exclusively to the will. The main supporting quote for his interpretation is the
following: ‘we may assume that we are merely images and artistic projections for
the true author, and that we have our highest dignity in our significance as works
of art—for it only as an aesthetic phenomenon that existence and the world are
eternally justified—while of course our consciousness of our own significance
hardly differs from that which the soldiers painted on canvas have of the battle
represented on it’ (BT: 53). So whereas the human actors keep on waging their
endless and painful wars, the will absorbs itself in the play and forgets about its
own suffering (to say that it enjoys the drama would be too much, since on this
Schopenhauerian picture, happiness is just the cessation of pain). Existence is
justified as an aesthetic phenomenon from a noumenal point of view, because it
provides the will (not us) with a way to escape from the pain intrinsic to life.
Young’s criticism of this thesis is that although it explains why art is redemptive
for the will, the vision of redemption provided is very unhelpful for human
beings. The evils of the world are justified for the Ur-Eine, not for us. The closest
we can come to partaking in salvation is by shedding our individuality and our
human perspective in order to embrace the standpoint of the will, a feat which is
only possible for the very few geniuses that history has known. For ordinary
people, there is no hope that their suffering will ever be alleviated. To say that
‘we have our highest dignity and significance as works of art’ (BT: 52) hardly
provides us with any motivation to go on living: In Young’s words, ‘to suggest
otherwise would be to suggest that because a concentration camp ‘‘justifies’’ itself
to its sadistic (. . .) commandant as a pleasurable ‘‘entertainment’’, so too must the
inmates find it justified’ (Young 2001: 52). On this view, the ‘metaphysical
comfort’ (BT: 104) of tragedy is a lie.
However, this negative assessment is dependent on the premise (adopted by
Young) that Nietzsche’s metaphysics is thoroughly Schopenhauerian. I would
now like to suggest a different account of the Birth’s metaphysics, and show that
it provides a better grounding for the Apollonian, the Dionysian, and the
redemptive function of art.
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The first modification brought by this second reading is the claim that
contradiction is a noumenal feature of the will, not the result of individuation.
Thus, a fragment indicates that ‘individuation is a result, not the cause of
suffering’ (KSA: I 7 [117]) a point to which I’ll get back soon. The Birth mentions
the ‘eternal contradiction, father of things’ (BT: 45), the ‘primordial pain and
contradiction at the heart of the Ur-Eine’ (BT: 55), or again ‘the primal unity, its
pain and its contradiction’ (BT: 49). The reason why the will is now seen as
contradictory is that it is torn between two opposite affects, pain and pleasure.
Thus ‘the belonging together of pain and pleasure in the essence of the world is
what we live from’ (KSA: I 7 [196]). A passage of the Birth describes this
noumenal co-belonging in more metaphoric terms: ‘suppose a human being has
thus put his ear, as it were, to the heart chamber of the world will and felt the
roaring desire for existence pouring from there into all the veins of the world
(. . .), how could he (. . .) endure to perceive the echo of innumerable shouts of
pleasure and woe in the ‘‘wide space of the world night’’, enclosed in the
wretched glass capsule of the human individual, without inexorably fleeing
toward his primordial home?’ (BT: 130). How do the ‘shouts of pleasure and woe’
relate to each other? The Nachlass suggests that pleasure is constantly generated
by the will in an effort to counterbalance its suffering: ‘present life as an
incredible suffering which produces endlessly, at each moment, a strong feeling
of pleasure through which, insofar as we feel, we reach a certain balance and
even quite often an excess of pleasure’ (KSA: I 7 [202]). Although the will’s
suffering remains primary in that it is the motivating drive for the production of
pleasure, Nietzsche departs doubly from the Schopenhauerian model: firstly, he
sees pleasure as a positive force, not only the cessation of pain; secondly, he also
asserts the possibility of pleasure overcoming pain (‘an excess of pleasure’). This
overcoming is not dialectical in the sense that the contradiction cannot be
aufgehoben by means of a third term: ‘insofar as contradiction is the essence of the
Originary One, the latter can be at the same time supreme pain and supreme
pleasure’ (KSA: I; 7 [157]). Nor is the production of pleasure a cumulative process
which would allow for a final reckoning, an Erinnerung which would reveal that
the final sum of pleasures weighs more than that of pain. The overcoming of pain
by pleasure is an instantaneous process compared by Nietzsche to a ‘continual
The idea that the primordial affects of the will are contradictory, and that
pleasure might, at each moment, exceed pain is enough in itself to open up a
possibility which was closed on the Schopenhauerian picture, i.e. the notion that
existence might be, after all, pleasurable and thus worthwhile, at least for the
will. It also offers a much more promising ground to understand the redemptive
function of art for human beings, a point to which I’ll come back later. What we
now have to understand, however, is how pleasure is produced out of suffering
(the Schopenhauerian view would rather be that pain just begets more pain), and
why it can even exceed pain. Nietzsche’s vision of this process becomes radically
un-schopenhauerian. The will, far from being ‘the inaesthetic in itself ’ (BT: 55), a
blind noumenal principle endlessly striving for more (and constantly thwarted
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because of the infinite nature of this striving), becomes a ‘Dionysian world artist’
who exults in creating and destroying worlds in order to alleviate its pain, in an
endlessly repeated cycle. Its main characteristic is now its ‘prodigious artistic
capacity’ (KSA: I 7 [169]). Thus, ‘the artistic power of all nature reveals itself to
the highest gratification of the primordial unity. The noblest clay, the most costly
marble, man, is here kneaded and cut, and to the sound of the chisel strokes of
the Dionysian world artist rings out the cry of the Eleusinian mysteries: ‘do you
prostrate yourselves, millions? Do you sense your Maker, world?’ (BT: 37–8).
The activity of the will is now seen as an ontological form of poiesis whereby
worlds are endlessly generated and destroyed. The will is the ‘eternally creative
primordial mother, eternally impelling to existence, eternally finding satisfaction
in this change of phenomena’ (BT: 104). Correlatively, individuation, far from
being the result of our use of the principle of sufficient reason, now becomes
transcendentally real (phenomena are ‘impelled to existence’ in the sense of being
produced by the will as its ‘creatures’ (BT: 44)). The world and its entities are
created, not constituted—thus, the tragic artist ‘creates his figures like a fecund
divinity of individuation’ (BT: 132), while another passage mentions the ‘eternal
and original artistic power that first calls the whole world of phenomena into
existence’ (BT: 143).
In this second metaphysics, the distinction between the phenomenal world
and noumenal reality undergoes a deep transformation: the world is now seen as
an artistic creation by the will, not as the subjective transposition of an
unknowable in itself by means of the principle of sufficient reason. The new
ontological model is in part provided by the Pre-Socratics: ‘thus the dark
Heraclitus compares the world-building force to a playing child that places
stones here and there and builds sand hills only to overthrow them again’
(BT: 142).
In Fragment 30, Heraclitus identified the fundamental power of Pyr,
fire, as that of poiesis, i.e. a creative power (as opposed to praxis as the dimension
of action, not production). This power must be distinguished from the human
forms of poiesis in the sense that it does not obey the mundane logic of
production: it does not aim at making useful or valuable objects, and more
importantly, it is both creative and destructive. The most original form of poiesis,
therefore, takes the form of a cosmic game whereby the will randomly creates
and destroys human individuals in order to alleviate its pain:—Nietzsche evokes
the ‘playful construction and destruction of the individual world as the overflow
of primordial delight’ (BT: 142). This model is expanded upon by Eugen Fink in
Spiel als Weltsymbol, for whom play becomes a ‘cosmic metaphor for the
apparition and the disappearance of things, beings, in the time and space of
the world’.
In his interpretation of Heraclitus, Fink too insists on the duality of the
cosmic fire, which both begets individuals and kills them: ‘the drunken, foaming
flow of life, which in the joy of begetting carries living beings, is mysteriously
identified with the dark water which throws the living into death’.
For the will, the way to redemption now lies in artistic creation and play. Thus
‘even the ugly and the disharmonic are part of an artistic game that the will in the
eternal amplitude of its pleasure plays with itself’ (BT: 141). How do we
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understand this ‘eternal amplitude of pleasure’? From the perspective of its
genesis, the best clue is provided by the analysis of the chorus as the matrix of the
tragic vision in section 8. Nietzsche’s central idea is that the Dionysian chorus
‘ever anew discharges itself in an Apollonian world of images. (. . .) In several
successive discharges this primal ground of tragedy radiates this vision’ (BT: 65).
Since in order to generate this tragic vision the chorus must first identify with the
will, this analysis can legitimately be applied to the will itself (which is also
anthropomorphised by the reference to the Heraclitean child). The notion of a
‘discharge’ suggests, in a pre-Freudian way, that the pleasure is generated by the
release of tension in the artist (either human or cosmic) by means of the creative
act, and thus as a form of sexual sublimation. From the onset, the Birth is ripe
with sexual undertones—thus Apollo and Dionysus ‘coupled with each other,
and through this coupling ultimately generated (. . .) Attic tragedy’ (BT: 33).
A later passage explicitly points the sexual undertones of Nietzsche’s vision of
the will: ‘Yes to life beyond all death and change: true life as the overall
continuation of life through procreation, through the mysteries of sexuality’.
Bataille famously picked up on this aspect of Nietzsche’s thought by defining
eroticism as ‘the approbation of life even unto death’,
and the sexual act,
whereby the ‘forms of regular, social life which ground the discontinuous order
of the defined individualities which we are’
is dissolved, as an analogon of
death. More generally, Bataille’s analyses of transgression provide another useful
clue to understand the ambivalent nature of the pleasure experienced by the will.
Thus, the Theory of Religion describes the sacred as a squandering of energy which
transgresses the rational, productivity-based economy of the everyday world.
Similarly, the ontological creation and the destruction of worlds should be seen as
an endlessly repeated sacrifice whereby the will constantly regenerates itself, its
pleasure coming from the gratuitous excess of squandered forces (the ‘overflow
of primordial delight’ mentioned above).
At first sight, this second metaphysics does not seem bring any obvious
change as far as human beings are concerned: our situation is now fairly close to
the one evoked by Plato in the Laws,
which saw men as the frequently sacrificed
‘toys of the Gods’, doomed to ‘spend their lives performing the most beautiful
games according to this principle, and against their real inclinations’.
In what
follows, I’ll try to show that it does provide a way to solve the problem of
redemption, both for the will and for human beings. But before turning to this,
I want to examine the consequences of this metaphysical shift on the Apollonian
and the Dionysian, and try to solve the difficulties previously noted. Remember
that on Nietzsche’s Schopenhauerian premises, his conception of the Apollonian
was met with two difficulties: the first was that there was a contradiction
between the main requirement for Apollonian contemplation (the shift from the
empirical to the transcendental perspective) and its focus on phenomenal
individuation. The second problem was that given the negative nature of
individuation, neither the will nor human beings were likely to be redeemed by
its glorification. We are now in a position to deal with both problems. We have
seen that Nietzsche’s second metaphysics departs from transcendental idealism
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and reverts to a view inspired by Heraclitus, in which the distinction between
noumenon and phenomena is supplanted by the opposition between a creative
principle (the will) and its productions (individuated entities). On this second
reading, the difference between the will and individuals is not one of perspective
(the will and the phenomenal world would be the same thing, considered either
in itself or through the use of the principle of sufficient reason); it is one of nature,
and refers to the ontological distance between the Demiurgos, the artisan of the
world, and its creations. Correlatively, what is required of the artist is not a shift
from the empirical to the transcendental standpoint, but an identification with
the will’s activity (not perspective) which analogically allows him to find a similar
pleasure in the production and destruction of individuated images. Thus the very
transcendental framework which made Nietzsche’s definition of the Apollonian
problematic becomes irrelevant. From the perspective of this return to a pre-
critical metaphysics, it is now perfectly consistent for the Apollonian artist to
focus on individuation; in fact, such a focus is required for the identification with
the will’s poietic activity to work in the first place.
There remains the moral difficulty, i.e. the glorification of individuation as an
evil principle. But individuation is now seen positively, as a pleasurable way for
the will to discharge its primal tension and thus to find temporary fulfilment in
the creation of individuated worlds. Transposed at the level of the human artist,
and thus seen as a psychological state, the Apollonian performs an analogical
task: it ‘lets us find delight in individuals; it attaches our pity to them and by
means of them it satisfies our sense of beauty which longs for great and sublime
forms’ (BT: 128). The Apollonian relieves us of suffering by showing a heroic
vision of individuation which makes human existence seem more beautiful than
it really is: ‘so do the Gods justify the life of man: they themselves live it—the
only satisfactory theodicy! Existence under the bright sunshine of the Gods is
regarded as desirable in itself, and the real pain of Homeric men is caused by
parting from it, especially by the early parting’ (BT: 43). As noted later by G.
Lukacs in his Theory of the Novel,
the trademark of Homeric epic is that it
simplifies the puzzling complexity of phenomena in order to provide us with
attractively monolithic characters and simple, foundational narratives. Thus the
Apollonian artist offers us maximised types of humanity: each of the Gods is
defined by a main characteristic, of which it is the perfect embodiment (beauty
for Aphrodite, a hot temper and warlike abilities for Ares, matronly qualities for
Hera, etc).
Correlatively, the Apollonian artist generates the pleasurable illusion
that the world is ‘universally intelligible’ (BT: 35) for us, by contrast with ‘the
incompletely intelligible everyday world’. The paradigms of the Gods, light or
dark, give us a model to understand our often conflictual emotions and lead our
lives in a more purposeful way. They also provide us with a rationale for our
existence (the heroes are often descended from divinities, which in turn
legitimates their aspirations to rule),
and thus imbue us with a sense of our
place in the universe, which ‘makes life possible and worth living’ (BT: 35).
Two features in particular make the Apollonian transfiguration of individua-
tion interesting: firstly, although it does not have a true content in the
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adequationist sense (not because individuation is not real, as in the Schopen-
hauerian picture, but because it is glorified), it is nevertheless true in that it is
truthful. It does not pretend that the images shown are the real state of the world.
The illusion must never be overwhelming: thus ‘even when this dream reality is
most intense, we still have, glimmering through it, the sensation that it is mere
appearance’ (BT: 34), and there remains a ‘delicate boundary which the dream
image must not overstep lest it have a pathological effect (in which case mere
appearance would deceive us as if it were reality)’ (BT: 35). Secondly, the
Apollonian does not present us with an overly sweetened vision of life in which
the darker sides of existence would be erased out. The Iliad is rife with grim
scenes and poignant descriptions.
Homer, the sublime ‘naı
¨ve artist’ (BT: 44),
does not hide the pathos of Hector’s and Andromache’s suffering; there is no
Hollywoodian pretense that things are fine, or that they will end well: ‘the
serious, the troubled, the sad, the gloomy, the sudden restraints, the tricks of
accident, anxious expectations, in short the whole divine comedy of life,
including the inferno, also pass before him’ (BT: 34–5). The pleasure generated by
the Apollonian is of a paradoxical kind: it stems from an acute awareness of the
precariousness of the human condition, combined with an epic transfiguration of
human finitude whereby our ability to withstand these precarious conditions and
morally rise above them is revealed. Thus there is a specifically Apollonian form
of sublime, as opposed to the better known Dionysian kind (the exceeding of
subjectivity and the dissolution of self-awareness through the Masslo
analysed by J. Sallis in Crossings), a sublime which paradoxically focuses on
individuation, on form, and transfigures it from the inside.
Just as the creation of an individuated world brings pleasure to the will, in the
same way the Apollonian production of epic images whereby finitude is
transfigured brings us a bittersweet kind of pleasure whereby our existence is, at
least temporarily, redeemed. In neither case is individuation the source of evil,
quite on the contrary. What about the Dionysian, then? We have seen that
Nietzsche’s Schopenhauerian assumptions created two main problems: the first
concerned the illusory nature of the Dionysian (which became unintelligible),
and the second, its ambivalent characterisation as both painful and ‘the blissful
ecstasy that wells from the innermost depths of man’ (BT: 32). The first difficulty
can easily be explained from the perspective of his second metaphysics: given
that individuation is real, not the transcendentally ideal consequence of our use
of the principle of sufficient reason, the communion with the will and its primary
affects offered by the Dionysian can only be an illusion, whereby individuals,
beholden to the ‘spell of such moods and insights (. . .) imagine that they are
beholding themselves as restored geniuses of nature’.
The ‘surrendering of
individuality’ (BT: 64) remains symbolical in the sense that it is temporary, and
does not involve the actual disappearance of the individual (hence the analogy
with intoxication, and Nietzsche’s repeated references to the ‘influence of the
narcotic draught’ (BT: 33)). Whereas the God was truly sacrificed, the Dionysian
revellers only experience an imaginary death, which is also the reason why the
Dionysian illusion is, as we shall see, paradoxically protective.
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These characteristics are most clearly visible in the often overlooked
Nietzschean distinction between the ‘barbarian’ and the ‘Greek’ forms of the
Dionysian. In the more archaic, barbarian manifestations of the Dionysian, ‘the
most savage instincts were unleashed, including even that horrible mixture of
sensuality and cruelty which has always seemed to me the real ‘‘witches brew’’’
(BT: 39). One may think of the Bacchae lovingly dismantling the body of
Orpheus, or of queen Agave (mis)led by Dionysus to kill Pentheus, her husband,
and unknowingly parading his head in the streets of Thebes. In both cases, the
sacrifice is real, and accompanied by the sinking of the actors of the drama into
animality (the ‘reversion of man to the tiger and the ape’ (BT: 35) mentioned by
Nietzsche). By contrast, with the ‘Dionysian orgies of the Greeks (. . .) for the first
time the destruction of the principium individuationis becomes an artistic
phenomenon’ (BT: 40). This passage from the literal killing of the victim to the
metaphorical death of the individual is expressed by the newly symbolic aspect of
the Greek Dionysian: thus, ‘in the Dionysian dithyramb man is incited to the
greatest exaltation of all his symbolic faculties. (. . .) The essence of nature is now
to be expressed symbolically’ (BT: 40). Contrary to the Apollonian artistic forms,
which operate through the vision or the production of glorified images from
which the poet keeps a distance, Dionysian symbolism works directly, through
dramatic action. Thus the chorus, whose members ‘consider themselves and one
another transformed’ (BT: 64), re-experiences the fundamental duality of the
will’s affects, the fact that ‘pain begets joy, that ecstasy may wring sounds of
agony from us’ (BT: 36), and gives this duality a symbolic expression by means of
dance, rhythmic moment, ‘music, dynamics and harmony’
(BT: 40), which all
involve a taking over of the whole body. The ‘surrendering of individuality’
generated by the ‘Dionysian excitement’ is symbolical in that it is ‘a way of
entering into another character’, or again ‘to see oneself transformed before one’s
own eyes and to act as if one had actually entered another body, another
character’ (BT: 64). In doing so, the Greek Dionysian channels cosmic affects
which would otherwise be too powerful for the individual and destroy him: thus
the ‘horrible ‘‘witches brew’’ of sensuality and cruelty [which was the
characteristic of the barbarian Dionysian] becomes ineffective’ (BT: 36). The only
thing that remains of the primal Stimmungen of the will is ‘the curious blending
and duality in the emotions of the Dionysian revellers’, which stands to them as
‘medicines remind us of deadly poisons’ (BT: 36). The Greek Dionysian stands as
apharmakon, a source of intoxication, but also a symbolic shield against the more
primitive forms of the Dionysian. Therefore, it is essential to the definition of the
Dionysian that it should be illusory. The illusion does not come from the sublime
glorification of individuation, as in the case of the Apollonian, but from another
form of sublime, the symbolic annihilation of the individual, which allows the
Dionysian actor to metaphorically re-live the God’s agony and bliss. Correla-
tively, one of the reasons for its joyful character should also have become clear:
insofar as its re-enacts the fundamental contradiction of the will, the Dionysian
also repeats its affective tonality, which on Nietzsche’s second metaphysics is
both painful and pleasurable.
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However, this only accounts for the ambivalent aspect of the Dionysian, not for
the overall joyful quality of the tragic. More generally, the fact is that although
both illusions are protective, neither can on its own provide a full redemption.
The distance which enables the Apollonian artist to project epic dream images
also prevents him from fully experiencing the affects of the Ur-Eine: he is a ‘close
and willing observer’ (BT: 34), but precisely for this reason he cannot truly
identify with the creative force of the will. In Nietzsche’s words, he ‘does not
become fused with his images but, like a painter, sees them outside of himself as
objects of contemplation’ (BT: 64). Therefore Apollonian art, although beautiful,
remains somehow existentially shallow in the sense that it is too reflective (hence
the frailty of the illusion): it ‘presents images of life to us, and incites us to
comprehend in thought the core of life they contain’ (BT: 128), but this emphasis on
intelligibility somehow kills the vitality of the images and tends to make them
didactic (which is one of Lukacs’ criticisms of epics). Conversely, the Dionysian is
not reflective enough: the symbolic identification with the will it generates has a
purely affective content (the pleasure/pain duality), and works exclusively
through unreflective action (thus the chorus is a ‘community of unconscious
actors’ (BT: 64)). These two characteristics make the experience of the Dionysian a
totally enthralling one (contrary to the Apollonian, which as we have seen
requires the ‘awareness of the dreamer’); but they also prevent it from becoming
meaningful, and thus from having any lasting effects on human beings. Once
freed from the Dionysian trance, the Dionysian reveller just reverts to his
everyday self, and ‘Greek pessimism’ is not durably overcome: thus ‘the rapture
of the Dionysian state with its annihilation of the ordinary bounds and limits of
existence contains, while it lasts, a lethargic element in which all personal
experiences of the past become immersed. (. . .) But as soon as everyday reality
re-enters consciousness, it is experienced as such, with nausea: as ascetic,
will-negating mood is the fruit of these states’ (BT: 59–60). For all its existential
strength, the Dionysian does not, considered in isolation, have any real
transforming or redemptive power.
Thus, although the above reconstruction provides better support to under-
stand the Apollonian and the Dionysian, so far it has not provided a solution to
the question of artistic redemption, to which I shall turn now. As far as the will is
concerned, Nietzsche’s artist’s metaphysics puts us in a good position to account
for the redemptive character of art. As we have seen, the idea of a cosmic play
suggests various possibilities to understand the way in which suffering can
generate and even be exceeded by pleasure (sublimation or Bataillean
squandering of energy). In either case, the Schopenhauerian characterisation of
the will’s primary affect as pain is overcome by art, which changes radically the
meaning of existence. Creation does not only provide sedation for the will: it
generates the ‘indestructible and eternal’ (BT: 104–5). ‘Infinite primordial joy in
existence’ is analogically experienced by the human artist. In turn, this solves the
motivational problem formerly evoked, as this ‘creative joy’ becomes per se the
incentive to life and legitimates the will’s struggles. Thus the ultimate
justification for life is not moral, but pragmatic. Thanks to art, the rewards of
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existence exceed its costs; the will is not noumenally doomed to endless
suffering. Correlatively, the idea of an ontological poiesis allows Nietzsche to
move away from the excessively Apollonian aspect of the previous picture of
redemption. The production of individuated phenomena is not a dream of the
will, it is real, and so is their annihilation. For the poietic sublimation of pain into
pleasure to be effective, the affects unleashed, both in the creation and the
destruction of individuals, must be fully experienced by the will, without the
protective distance of the Apollonian self-awareness of the dreamer.
However, so far these arguments have not answered Julian Young’s main
objection to the Nietzschean picture of redemption, i.e. the fact that even if it were
to work for the will, it would mean nothing to us. Why should we not succumb to
pessimism, and how can art make our lives meaningful and worthwhile? Just as
in the case of the will, the answer lies in Nietzsche’s view of artistic creation. His
fundamental intuition is that ‘what creates there [the will], what creates in an
artistic way, acts within the artist himself’ (KSA: I 7 [117], my italics). Or again, ‘the
work of art (. . .) is a repetition of the originary process from which the world as
emerged’ (ibid). The same, irresistible impulse to create is driving both the will
and the artist: thus, ‘the will needs the artist, in whom the originary process is
repeated’ (KSA: I 7 [117]). Just as the will is able to transfigure pain into pleasure
by means of the creative act, in the same way the artist can sublimate his own
suffering through the production of the work.
Thus human art is the
transposition of the will’s ontological poiesis: ‘the creation by the artist is the
imitation of nature in the deepest sense’ (KSA: I 7 [196]), i.e. the imitation, not of
the objects found in the natural world, nor even, in the Schopenhauerian sense of
the ideas as the primary degrees of objectification of the will. What art imitates is
the activity of a nature itself understood in the Greek sense, i.e. as physis, the
fundamentally creative force at work in the universe, from which entities spring
forward. In the poetic terms of the Birth, ‘be as I am! Amid the ceaseless flux of
phenomena I am the eternally creative primordial mother ’ (BT: 104). If this
identification is successful, then art equally provides the human artist and the
will with a way to overcome suffering and make existence joyful, and
What still needs exploring, in order to give this notion of a human salvation its
content, is the way in which the artist’s ‘repetition of the originary process’
works, which brings me to Nietzsche’s thoughts about the tragic. Given the
considerable amount of secondary literature on this question, I’ll limit myself to
the aspects particularly relevant to this study. Perhaps the first thing to say is that
because of the ontological distance between the will and human beings
introduced by Nietzsche’s second metaphysics, tragic repetition can only be an
analogical one. Otherwise, there would be an identity of nature, not only of
activity, between the will and the human artist—a claim that his early
metaphysics prevents Nietzsche from making. This is why, in the Birth, both
the Apollonian and the Dionysian must be illusions, and the artist’s identification
with the will must remain analogical (hence the many references to dream and
intoxication). Among the many passages describing this analogy, the following is
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perhaps the clearest: ‘In the first place, as a Dionysian artist [the lyricist] has
identified himself with the primal unity, its pain and contradiction. (. . .) He
produces the copy of this primal unity as music. Now, however, under
the Apollonian dream inspiration, this music reveals itself to him again as a
symbolic dream image (. . .), a specific symbol or example’ (BT: 49). The Dionysian
illusion (the symbolic dissolution of individuation) allows for the first step, while
its Apollonian counterpart (the projection of a beautiful dream image, whereby
the artwork is generated) completes the process. The reason why the first
symbolisation is musical is that as we have seen, the Dionysian identification
with the will works by enabling the artist to re-experience directly its primal
affects, and Nietzsche follows Schopenhauer in understanding music in an
expressionist way, as a ‘primary and universal’
translation of emotions. As it
‘stands in symbolic relation to the primordial contradiction (. . .) in the heart of
the primordial unity’ (BT: 55), the flow of music communicates immediately the
nuances and intensity of the fluctuating Dionysian affects (the best example of
this symbolisation of the primal contradiction being for Nietzsche the
pleasurable/painful quality of dissonance). In doing so, music gives Apollonian
images a depth that they couldn’t achieve on their own, and ‘allows the symbolic
image to emerge in its highest significance’ (BT: 103). Thus ‘[the harmonies of
drama and music] make the relations of things immediately perceptible to us in a
sensuous, by no means abstract manner, and thus we perceive that it is only in
these relations that the essence of a character (. . .) is revealed clearly’ (BT: 128).
Conversely, the Apollonian ‘examples’ confer to music a clarity of meaning
which it wouldn’t have on its own: they bring some articulacy to the Dionysian
emotions, which in turns strengthens the aesthetic experience by allowing for
finer distinctions between the affects: ‘the drama, with the aid of music, unfolds
itself before us with such inwardly illuminated distinctness in all its movements and
figures, as if we saw the texture coming into being on the loom as the shuttle flies
to and fro’ (BT: 130). Therefore the tragic artist, by identifying with the will’s
pathos and activity (the Dionysian illusion), recreates its primary Stimmungen;
but by combining them with Apollonian clarity, he gives us in his work a way not
only to experience the will’s transmutation of its primary affects, but also to
understand that through this creative process, suffering is redeemed and life
becomes worthwhile. One ‘shudders at the sufferings which will befall the hero
and yet anticipates in them a higher, much more overpowering joy’ (BT: 131).
While the effects of the Dionysian become much more long-lasting, Apollonian
intelligibility in turn acquires a metaphysical content that it could never achieve
on its own. This content is the ‘metaphysical comfort’ (BT: 59; See also 62 and 104)
of tragedy, the idea that even when ‘forced to look into the terrors of the
individual existence, yet we are not to become rigid with fear ’ (BT: 104–5),
because we can still ‘become one with the infinite primordial joy of existence’
(BT: 105).
It thus appears that the key to answering Young’s criticism is to focus on the
idea that salvation lies in artistic creation, not in contemplation, and this, both for
the will and the individual. In Nietzschean terms, one must embrace the
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perspective of the creator, not that of the spectator, a point that the Birth makes
explicitly in its analysis of the chorus.
This shift constitutes a radical break from
the Schopenhauerian aesthetics still presupposed by Young’s version of
salvation, in which the will was just the dreamy spectator of the human
struggles. What is required for artistic redemption to work is identification of the
artist (or of the spectator, through the influence of the work) with the will in its
creative power—therefore, an identification with the chorus, not with the hero of
tragedy, as it is usually claimed. Just as the chorus, in its ‘successive discharges’,
frees itself from suffering, in the same way the artist can sublimate the pain of
existing by means of the creation of the work. The reason why Young fails to
understand the redemptive power of human art is that he implicitly accepts the
Schopenhauerian idea that redemption should be equated with an absence of
pain. The rationale for renunciation, in book IV of WWR, is indeed that since
existence is noumenally doomed to endless suffering, the only consistent attitude
for the will is to negate itself. Although Schopenhauer insists that avoidance of
pain is not the primary motivation for such a renunciation (which is called for on
logical grounds), his final apology of nothingness shows clearly that for him, the
ideal state is one in which nothing is felt, neither pleasure nor pain.
By contrast,
in the Birth true salvation lies in our willingly accepting pain and finding the
strength, not only to bear it passively, but to actively transmute it into pleasure
through artistic creation. Both the individual and the will must accept the fact
that this transmutation of pain into pleasure is not a permanent result, and that
the creative process must endlessly be repeated. Properly understood, early
Nietzsche’s metaphysics thus shows us that although life may seem to the
uncreative individual a vale of suffering, its overall meaning is positive as
suffering can be overcome through art. This is perhaps the most radical way in
which the Birth departs from Schopenhauer, anticipating strikingly later themes
in Nietzsche’s thought, in particular that of artistic sublimation in Twilight of the
Idols and of amor fati as a heroic endorsement of finitude (as opposed to the
Schopenhauerian flight beyond the human condition). As we shall see, under-
standing the redemptive function of this metaphysics properly also has
important consequences for the question of its status, to which I shall now turn.
A survey of the considerable literature devoted to this topic shows that
commentators have focused on and implicitly linked two questions: 1) whether
Nietzsche did believe in the metaphysical claims he put forward in the Birth and
2) if not, how we should view this metaphysics—in particular, whether it should
be seen as a myth, and in which sense. Depending on the answer to these
questions, a normative judgment is issued regarding the value of Nietzsche’s
early metaphysics. In reaction to interpretations such as Kaufmann’s (Kaufmann
1974), which took the Birth literally and assumed that early Nietzsche had an
uncritical stance towards its claims, more recent works have tended to answer
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1) negatively, 2) positively and to conclude from the conjunction of the two
answers that the metaphysics should be discarded. Before putting forward my
own interpretative claims, and in order to recontextualise them, I have chosen to
examine two of the most notable interpretations, namely Porter ’s and Poellner ’s.
Porter’s fairly influential reading, following De Man, asserts that ‘it is not even
a foregone conclusion that Nietzsche himself believed, or needed to believe,
whatever he wrote’ (Porter 2000: 29). Arguing from the influence of Lange’s
Geschichte des Materialismus on Nietzsche’s early thought and from his 1868 essay
on Schopenhauer, in which the latter is strongly criticised for having forgotten the
Kantian prohibition about the unknowability of things-in-themselves and thus
relapsed into dogmatic metaphysics by attributing to the will qualities which can
only pertain to phenomena, Porter concludes that ‘Nietzsche’s book seems to
project a myth drawn with deliberate perspectival distortion’ (Porter 2000: 157).
Porter’s reading is deconstructionist in that he thinks that the ultimate purpose of
such a projection is to undermine both the possibility of metaphysical thinking
and of myth, by launching ‘an inexorable attack on the credibility of all myths.
Here we detect a sense of strain, of extremity: plausibility is taxed, myths
counteract myths and all but cancel each other out in an overwhelming dubiety’
(Porter 2000: 148). There are, however, serious problems with Porter’s reading.
The first is methodological and consists in his tendency to proceed from post-
modern assumptions for which he offers no justification: thus, he claims that
‘Nietzsche has no philosophy in the proper senses of ‘having’ and of
‘philosophy’. This is an argument that can only be suggested here’ (Porter
2000: 4). This lack of argumentation, already problematic given the importance of
the claim and its consequences on interpretative strategies, is compounded by the
absence of any definition of what ‘proper’ philosophy, or the possession of it,
might amount to. Perhaps as an indirect answer to this, Porter asserts in a
footnote (again without any demonstration) that ‘Nietzsche attacks philosophical
presuppositions, without making any truth claims of his own’ (Porter 2000: 184).
Not only is it difficult to see how Nietzsche could do so and say anything of
philosophical relevance about the criticised presuppositions—it might also be
more profitable, as Poellner suggests elsewhere (Poellner 1995: 13 f) to read his
work, especially in his mature period, as an attempt to methodically refute
metaphysical conceptions of truth, which is not tantamount to rejecting all claims
to truth; moreover, many passages from the Birth make it clear that Nietzsche
does make some claims to truth (for example, in asserting that life has a ‘true, i.e.
metaphysical significance’ (BT: 136, my italics), or that ‘we shall have gained
much for the science of aesthetics, once we perceive (. . .) that the continuous
development of art is bound up with the Apollonian and the Dionysian duality’
(BT: §1, 33, my italics).
The second problem with Porter’s interpretation (perhaps a consequence from
his assumption that Nietzsche makes no truth claims of his own, which removes
the need to examine the content of his assertions too closely, or to reconstruct his
thought in as coherent a way as possible) is that it is often mistaken. Perhaps the
most damaging instance, given his interpretation, is the claim that the Birth aims
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at destroying mythical thought, which flies in the face of textual evidence (see BT:
§23, 136, to which I shall come back in detail). But there are other examples, in
particular the following argument offered in favour of the paradoxical thesis that
the Dionysian is ‘the invention of the Apollonian’ (Porter 2000: 49): ‘the
conditions of possibility of the Dionysian principle are located within the realm
of appearances (. . .). The metaphysical is a pleat within the surface of
appearances’ (ibid). This argument rests on an implicit confusion between
conditions of existence and conditions of intelligibility. As we have seen, all that
can be concluded from Nietzsche’s analysis of the relation between the
Apollonian and the Dionysian is that in the case of tragedy, the second is
dependent on the first in order to be understood as such (as opposed to simply
being experienced). There is no indication that the existence of the Dionysian is
dependent on that of the Apollonian (on the contrary, Nietzsche insists on the
anteriority, both chronological and ontological, of the former over the latter). And
if the Dionysian is to be understood as a metaphysical principle (as suggested by
the last sentence of the quote), then the claim is equally mistaken as the existence
of the thing-in-itself is by definition independent from the conditions which
make it phenomenally accessible to finite beings (only an intuitus originarius
would create the object of its intuition in the process of intuiting it).
Because of
its methodological problems and inaccuracies, Porter ’s reading, although
suggestive, thus remains in my view of little philosophical interest.
I shall now turn to Poellner’s interpretation of the Birth’s metaphysics, which
is considerably more rigorous and philosophically grounded. Although his
approach to Nietzsche is radically different—in another work, he dubs himself a
‘reconstructionist’ (Poellner 1995: 10), a label under which my own endeavour
probably falls too—Poellner’s earlier article on the Birth has in common with
Porter’s book that he too answers 1) negatively and 2) positively.
Thus ‘there
can be no doubt that [Nietzsche] considered [this artist’s metaphysics] arbitrary,
logically arbitrary, even at the time of writing it’ (Poellner 1998: 67). Yet contrary
to Porter, Poellner (rightly) sees Nietzsche’s attitude to myth as serious and
positive ‘what he did not consider arbitrary or fantastic, and certainly not futile,
was the general (. . .) schema this metaphysics exemplifies or satisfies. This is the
schema of myth in the second sense I indicated earlier’ (Poellner 1995: 67–68).
Poellner is careful to distinguish three meanings for the notion of myth: i) ‘a story
or image which connects the temporal flux of appearances to an underlying
ontological ground and which presents that ground (. . .) as not, or not fully,
accessible to rational explanation’ (Poellner 1995: 64), ii) ‘a narrative relating
transient human experiences to a purposeful, time-transcending order of reality’
(ibid.) and iii) ‘myth as an illusory or erroneous, i.e. false, story—as Illusion, or
Wahn (ibid.). Meanings i) and ii) both presuppose the metaphysical distinction
between two orders of reality and work in opposite but complementary
directions: while the first is focused on presenting the ontological ground
through appearances, the second relates appearances to the ground and thus
reveals their true meaning while transfiguring the everyday. Poellner grounds
this reading of myth in an important passage of the Birth which states that
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‘any people—just as, incidentally, any individual—is worth only as much as it is
able to press upon its experiences the stamp of the eternal; for thus it is, as it
were, de-secularised and shows its unconscious inward convictions of the
relativity of time and of the true, i.e. metaphysical, significance of life’ (BT: §23,
136). For from being bent on undermining mythical thought, Nietzsche would
thus have put forward both the Birth’s Artisten Metaphysik and the teleological
narrative heralding the revival of the Dionysian through such works as
Schopenhauer’s or Wagner’s as ‘second order myths’ (the first order myth being
the reconstruction of the ‘tragic myth of the pre-socratics’, Poellner 1995: 65)
meant to counterbalance the effects of Socratism and to revitalise German culture.
Poellner then turns to the question of whether the metaphysics can truly play this
role, or whether it should be seen as a myth in the third sense, i.e. as an error or
His answer takes the form of the following argument: a) the myth is
supposed to transfigure appearances by expressing the ‘true, i.e. metaphysical
significance of life’. Yet b) the latter is encapsulated by the ‘Schopenhauerian
wisdom of Silenus which Nietzsche, without any doubt, continues to accept’
(Poellner 1995: 67), and according to which ‘existence is ‘terrible’ and ‘horrific’
(ibid.). Given this content, it is difficult to see how the myth could perform its
redemptive role. Therefore c) Nietzsche is caught in a no-win situation: to avoid
the contradiction, the myth must be seen as an illusion. Yet if it is known to be
illusory, then it loses the power to ‘motivate the (. . .) transfigurative project of BT’
(Poellner, 1995: 67),
and thus cannot function as a myth in the Nietzschean
sense. Poellner logically concludes that ‘Nietzsche’s abandonment of [his early]
philosophy is perhaps most fruitfully interpreted as the consequence of his
realisation of this aporia’ (Poellner 1995: 75).
Although I have great sympathy for Poellner ’s argumentative and rigorous
approach and agree with his view that the Birth should be seen as
‘mythopoietical’ (although for reasons of my own, cf. below), I must disagree
with his final criticism. Two things should be noted: firstly, he offers no direct
argument for the claim that ‘there is no doubt that [Nietzsche] considered [this
artist’s metaphysics] arbitrary, logically arbitrary’. The assertion can be seen to
follow both from Poellner’s summary, in the first part of his paper, of Nietzsche’s
early essay on Schopenhauer, and from the argument outlined above. Yet the
latter does not show that Nietzsche did not believe in the metaphysics, only that
if he did so, he would have ended up in an inconsistent position. But he may well
have done so without being aware of it—as could be hinted at by the ‘Attempt at
Self-Criticism’s well known assertion that the book was ‘constructed of a lot of
immature, overgreen personal experiences’ (BT: 18), which doesn’t suggest that
the young Nietzsche had much self-critical distance at the time. Secondly, and
more importantly, there are reasons to believe that the inconsistency underlined
by Poellner results from an interpretative mistake about the ‘true’ meaning of life.
Strangely enough given that his interpretation of the Birth is bent on highlighting
the theoretical rift between early Nietzsche and Schopenhauer, Poellner asserts
that the Schopenhauerian view that existence is ‘terrible’ remains Nietzsche’s
‘unquestioned presupposition in the Birth’ (Poellner 1998: 67). By contrast, and
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from my own reconstruction as outlined in the preceding pages, I would argue
that it is only his starting point: as we have seen, what the metaphysics shows us
is that the true meaning of existence, both for the will and for us (pace Young),
resides in the overcoming of pain by pleasure through artistic creation. It teaches
us that far from being ‘horrific’, ‘life is at the bottom of things, despite all the
changes of appearances, indestructibly powerful and pleasurable’ (BT: §7, 59).
The aesthetic process, which is instantiated both noumenally (in the will’s
constant creation of ‘worlds’) and phenomenally (actively, through artistic
creation, or more passively, through our identification with the chorus in the case
of tragedy) provides the purposiveness that Schopenhauer wrongly denied both
the will (as a blind, mindless principle) and human existence, and from which the
terrors of existence stem. Through Nietzsche’s aesthetic theodicy
pain and
suffering are not denied reality (as was often the case in earlier theodicies) but
become meaningful as part of the process of creation whereby the will is
‘continuously redeemed’ (BT: §4, 45). The main difference between us and the
will, then, and the reason why for some people existence can be experienced as
fundamentally horrible, is that while the will is constantly creative (and thus
continuously overcomes its pain), we, as finite beings, are not so. Artists are
limited by physiology in their ability to respond to and channel stimuli;
moreover, it is possible, especially in a decadent age such as the one Nietzsche
describes, that many individuals’ artistic potential may have atrophied (although
Nietzsche’s optimism in the Birth suggests that it never disappears entirely). This
means that while for the will the meaning of existence is overwhelmingly
positive, for us the recognition of the positive metaphysical significance of life,
although always possible in principle, can take the form of a struggle (hence the
perceived need for redemption). We have to learn the crucial importance of
artistic creation, and also to acquire the distance and skill required to balance the
creative moments, in which pain is transmuted into pleasure, with other times at
which suffering may seem predominant (hence the above examined need for an
interaction between the Dionysian and the Apollonian). However, no matter how
difficult the metaphysical truth may be for us to see, the main point here is that
the premise held to by Poellner in b) is wrong, which in turn invalidates the
conclusion expressed in c). There is no contradiction between the content of
the myth and its function, and therefore no need to see the latter as an illusion (in
the sense of a false narrative) or to worry about its motivational power. Since the
Birth shows that contrary to appearances, existence is pleasurable, it is perfectly
consistent for Nietzsche to claim that his metaphysics can play a mythical and
transfigurative role in revealing the true meaning of life. Correlatively, the
potential contradiction between i) the claim that existence is fundamentally
pleasurable and ii) the idea that it would still need to be redeemed is easily
avoided if one takes into account that it is pain, not existence, which needs to be
redeemed, and that the process whereby this happens and pain is transmuted
into pleasure encapsulates the true, overall meaning of life. Existence itself (like
becoming) is ‘innocent’. Moreover, it is only from the unenlightened perspective
of the non creative individuals (whom the Birth has to convince) that such
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redemption is necessary. From Nietzsche’s own perspective, the problem is not to
redeem existence but to recognise its true meaning and to find the proper medium
to communicate it.
However, this does not address Poellner’s other, more implicit point, namely
the idea that given his criticism of Schopenhauer, it would make little sense for
Nietzsche to do exactly what he accuses the latter of doing, i.e. to ‘drape an
altogether dark incomprehensible X with predicates taken from a world foreign
to it, the phenomenal world, like colourful clothes’ (S: 357). With respect to this
issue, perhaps the first thing to note is that in the few passages in which
Nietzsche reflects on the Birth’s metaphysics, he is careful to present it as an
assumption (Annahme): thus ‘the more clearly I perceive in nature those
omnipotent art impulses (. . .), the more I feel myself impelled to the metaphysical
assumption that the truly existent primal unity. . .’ (BT: §4, 45, my italics). Another
passage is equally cautious in suggesting that ‘we may assume that we are merely
images and artistic projections of the true author. . .’ (BT: §5, 52, my italics). This is
perfectly consistent with the Kantian prohibition against attributing any
phenomenal predicates to the thing-in-itself (as is the idea that we are ‘impelled’
to make metaphysical assumptions, which seems to echo Kant’s own reflections
about the ‘tendency of [pure reason’s] nature’ to reach beyond experience in the
‘Canon of Pure Reason’).
Of course, the question then arises of why Nietzsche
should feel impelled to make this particular assumption (rather than other,
perhaps more plausible ones), and of whether his cautiousness results in
depriving his metaphysics—which, following up on the reference to Kant, would
then have to be considered, at best, as an idea of pure reason—of any claim to
truth, and thus of any theoretical strength. As one can imagine, both parts of the
question are difficult to answer: for lack of space, I shall confine myself to a brief
sketch of what I take Nietzsche’s views to be on these issues.
Perhaps the best way to approach the question is negatively, by pointing out
that for early Nietzsche all forms of knowledge, and not only metaphysical
knowledge, reflect the conditions under which they are formed and are thus
deemed illusory (in the sense that they fail to grasp the state of the world as it is
independently of any observer): ‘today philosophy can only underline the relative
character of all knowledge, its anthropomorphism, as well as the everywhere
sovereign force of illusion’ (KSA: III 19 [37], Nietzsche’s italics). Nietzsche’s
reasons for thinking so are twofold, and can be seen as (non Kantian)
developments of the analyses of the conditions of possibility of knowledge put
forward in the ‘Transcendental Aesthetics’ and in the ‘Analytic of Judgment’.
Firstly, the transcendental forms of perception, namely time and space, are
subjective (in the sense of being relative to us as perceiving beings) and thus fail
to capture the real essence of things.
Secondly, knowledge is by definition
conceptual, and concepts are arbitrary: ‘our understanding is a surface force, it is
superficial. It knows by concepts (. . .). At the end of the day, it is thus something
which refers to man’s arbitrariness, and does not reach the thing itself ’ (KSA: III
19 [66], Nietzsche’s italics). This reasoning rests on the claim, made elsewhere,
that concepts are second-order ways of relating to the world, and that the first
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order manner (from which they derive), namely perception, is itself arbitrary.
The two lines of argument can be seen to converge in the following passage:
‘When an entity, for example a tree, appears to us as a multiplicity of properties,
of relations, there is a double anthropomorphism: firstly, this ‘‘tree’’ does not exist
as a separate entity, it is arbitrary to carve an object in this way (according to eye,
form), and secondly each relation is not the true absolute relation, but is in turn
tainted with anthropomorphism’ (KSA: III 19 [236]). Although he starts from
Kantian premises, Nietzsche thus arrives at the thoroughly anti-Kantian
conclusion that ‘nature has installed man in the midst of illusion. This is his
specific element’ (KSA: III 19 [179]), or again that ‘one must establish this
principle: we only live through illusions—our consciousness only touches the
surface’ (KSA: III 19 [48]). I shall (regretfully) leave aside the question of whether
such phenomenalism is justified
to focus on its consequences for Nietzsche’s
view of metaphysics and myth.
Early Nietzsche’s radical skepticism about the possibility of true knowledge
has three main implications. Firstly, since all knowledge is illusory there is no
standpoint available to us from which the ‘fantastical’ content of the Birth’s
metaphysics can be criticised as particularly ungrounded (although, by the same
token, it is equally impossible to show that it is right):
to say that it is ‘illusory’,
as Poellner does, is not an objection which would carry great weight on
Nietzsche’s terms. Secondly (and consequently), whatever reason one may have
to endorse its content must not rely on its truth value, but on other
considerations. Thirdly, the role of the philosopher (and thus Nietzsche’s own
role) has to be redefined: it is not to establish truth but to ‘help to live’, to
‘demonstrate the necessity of illusion, of art and of art dominating life’ (KSA: III
19 [36]). Another passage is even clearer: ‘[The philosopher] feels in a tragic way
the fact that the ground of metaphysics has withdrawn, and yet cannot be satisfied
with the kaleidoscopic play of the sciences. He works towards the edification of a
new life: he gives art its rights back’ (KSA: III 19 [35], Nietzsche’s italics). It is on
this background that both Nietzsche’s metaphysics and his reflections on myth
should be understood. Indeed, given the above criticism of knowledge and his
attack on Schopenhauer, it is unlikely that Nietzsche regarded the metaphysics as
literally true (in the adequationist sense of offering an exact representation of the
way things are in themselves), and thus I find myself inclined to agree with
Poellner that he saw it as a myth. Apart from the passage of the Birth quoted by
Poellner, there is evidence for this in the Nachlass, which characterises
philosophical activity as ‘poetic invention outside of the limits of experience, a
prolongation of the mythical instinct [which] also works essentially by images’
(KSA: III 19 [63], my italics). However, this does not mean that Nietzsche viewed
the Birth’s metaphysics as inconsistent, or as illusory in the sense of being
particularly deceptive. As we have seen, there is no contradiction between the
content of the metaphysics and its transfigurative function. Moreover, one could
argue that the metaphysics’ openly ‘fantastical’ character makes it more truthful
(although no truer in the metaphysical sense) than the rationalist discourses
criticised by Nietzsche, which hide their illusory nature behind scientific forms. It
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doesn’t mean either that Nietzsche saw the metaphysics as ‘rationally arbitrary
filling in’ of the schema of myth (Poellner 1998: 67). It is arbitrary in the above
examined sense that all knowledge is arbitrary; but if one shifts from an
epistemological to an ethical perspective, then there is nothing arbitrary about the
‘filling in’ of the schema. The content of the metaphysics is chosen for its
particular usefulness for life (or in the terms of the Birth for its ‘healing’ power),
which is not an irrational choice. This concern for the revival of German culture
also governs the choice of the form of the metaphysics: its mythical character,
which involves a heavy reliance on metaphors and images, enables it to work as
an art form,
and thus to counterbalance the deleterious effects of Socratism on
modernity. Following ‘existentialist’ interpretations of myth such as Bult-
I would thus suggest that Nietzsche intended the metaphysics, not
as an explanatory device nor as a literal representation of the real state of affairs
in the world, but as a symbolisation of the meaning of life,
belief in which is
pragmatically justified by its potentially positive effects on us. To say that the
metaphysics is symbolical means that Nietzsche did not require us (nor himself)
to believe in its literal content, but to be able both to appreciate its images
aesthetically and to extract their existential meaning, which is enriched from
being embodied in the images. This calls for a change of attitude from the part of
the reader, who must bracket his ‘historical sense’ so that he can accept the myth
as a ‘concentrated image of the world that, as a condensation of phenomena,
cannot dispense with miracles’ (BT: §23, 135) and, by understanding the part
played by artistic creation in the metaphysics, feel its revitalising benefits.
Provided it is carefully reconstructed and pried out from Schopenhauer ’s, the
Birth’s metaphysics does not display the kind of inconsistency or contra-
dictoriness for which it is often indicted. If it is to be seen as a myth, it is not by
default (i.e. as opposed to ‘true’ knowledge, which early Nietzsche deems
unattainable anyway) but because in a world of illusions, only myth has the
power to counterbalance the degenerescence of contemporary culture. However
two difficulties remain: the first pertains to the pragmatic argument suggested
above, according to which the main reason to believe in the artist’s metaphysics is
that it is helpful for life. It could be objected that for one to be able to feel the
healing power of the myth (and thus to be sensitive to the pragmatic justification
for belief) one must already believe in it, and thus have effected the existential
transformation that the myth is supposed to help perform. As we have seen,
mere intellectual consideration of myths deprives them of their power. While it is
not contradictory for the initiated to believe in a myth knowing that it’s a myth
(because the symbolisation performed by myths relies on the implicit claim that
although the mythical narrative may seem ungrounded from an empirical
perspective, it presents a correct symbolisation of the ontological state of affairs),
it is almost impossible to be convinced by one unless we already have had the
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kind of experience symbolically conveyed by the myth, in which case the myth is
not truly needed. Given this, it may seem that in offering his metaphysics to us
decadents as a mythical remedy against Socratism, Nietzsche is begging the
question. Artists won’t need it, and theoretical men won’t be convinced by it.
Secondly, there is the problem of justification for Nietzsche’s own belief in the
symbolical value of the myth. While it seems clear that he cannot have believed the
metaphysics to be literally true, he certainly did think that its symbolical meaning
has real truth content—in particular, the belief that artistic creation is the only
desirable way to overcome pain was retained throughout his philosophical
career. This is entailed by his very definition of the mythical ability of a people as
showing the latter’s ‘unconscious inward convictions of the relativity of time and
of the true, i.e. metaphysical, significance of life’ (BT: §23, 136, my italics). Myth
presupposes by definition the distinction between two orders of reality and the
possibility of an adequate symbolic presentation (although not rational knowl-
edge) of the ontological ground. While the distinction itself is not a problem for
early Nietzsche
and is in fact required by the Kantian premises that govern his
criticism of knowledge, the second is problematic, for it is difficult to see how the
symbolisation could be pronounced adequate without breaching the Kantian
prohibition Nietzsche still adheres to.
Perhaps significantly, Nietzsche does not
offer any criteria, and describes the way his belief was acquired as the ‘immediate
certainty of vision’ (BT: §1, 33). Yet given that one of the main reasons why
Nietzsche criticised Schopenhauer in his early essay was precisely because the
latter resorted to the notion of an immediate, non representational intuition (in
book II of WWR) to bypass the Kantian prohibition, it seems strange to see
Nietzsche himself appealing to an intuition of the same kind. It thus seems that
while Nietzsche forcefully denied the possibility for us to attain metaphysical
truth (as correspondence between the view expressed by a statement and the
state of things as they are independently of us), either by rational or by intuitive
means, his very belief in the symbolical content of the metaphysics as myth still
relies on it.
´atrice Han-Pile
University of Essex
Wivenhoe Park
Colchester CO4 3SQ
in particular in his 1886 ‘Attempt at Self Criticism’, published in BT: §2, 18.
See for example (by chronological order): Deleuze 1983, especially section 5, ‘The
Problem of Tragedy’, p. 11: ‘if one looks at the Birth of Tragedy it is clear that Nietzsche
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wrote it (. . .) as a disciple of Schopenhauer ’; Schacht 1992, in particular section VIII,
‘Art and Artists’ p. 478: ‘Nietzsche makes no attempt to conceal the influence of
Schopenhauer on both his concept of reality and his thinking about the arts in The Birth of
Tragedy. He was initially convinced of the soundness of much of what Schopenhauer had
to say about the world, life and art’. Like Young, Schacht develops the view that while
early Nietzsche disagreed with Schopenhauer on the function of art, he ‘does not question
the soundness of this picture [i.e.: the Schopenhauerian metaphysics briefly outlined by
Schacht]. And even though he later rejected Schopenhauer’s metaphysics, which he here
accepts. . .’ (p. 479). See also Nussbaum 1998, and Hollingdale 2001, in particular chapter 5,
p. 66: ‘in his first enthusiasm, Nietzsche accepted Schopenhauer tout court’ and p. 70:
‘Nietzsche took over Schopenhauerian dualism in his early philosophy’. In the same vein,
see Geuss 1999: 105-6 (I am grateful to the anonymous referee who reviewed this paper for
this last reference, and more generally for the quality of his/her comments, which helped
me to produce a substantially improved version of the paper). There are, however,
exceptions, in particular Haar 1996 and more recently, Poellner 1998. Haar’s reading is
substantially different from mine in that he holds that even at the time of the Birth,
Nietzsche had already abandoned the distinction between the thing-in-itself and
appearances, a claim which, as the third part of this paper will suggest, is false. There
are more affinities between Poellner’s reading of BT and mine (in particular concerning
early Nietzsche’s distance from Schopenhauer, the question of the illusory nature of both
the Apollonian and the Dionysian, and the emphasis on the poietic activity of the will).
However there are also substantial differences which will be examined in the third part of
this paper.
Ibid. Young also thinks that Nietzsche never really moved away from Schopenhauer.
It is worth mentioning that for Schopenhauer himself the status of individuation is
highly ambiguous, although this ambiguity remains implicit throughout WWR. Thus,
Book I follows Kant in seeing individuation as transcendentally ideal (because it is the
correlate of the necessity for us to perceive through the a priori framework of time, space
and with the use of causality) but empirically real (hence the possibility for such sciences
as physics, to which Schopenhauer devotes a whole chapter, to state meaningful and true
propositions). But in book III, Schopenhauer tries (unsuccessfully) to combine transcen-
dental idealism and Platonism, by introducing the notion of the ideas as the primary
degrees of objectification of the will. These ideas are seen as eternal and unchanging
beings, as archetypes the perception of which is obscured in the phenomenal world;
correlatively, the principle of sufficient reason is redefined as an illusory principle, the veil
of Maya, which hides from us the true nature of the ideas (and of the will). On this second
view, individuation becomes empirically ideal, a position which obviously conflicts with
Schopenhauer’s former Kantian premises.
All translations are mine; see also 7 [153].
See also 7 [166], ‘the originary One is identical with pain’.
Correlatively, the principle of sufficient reason is redefined as the delusory ‘veil of
Maya’, a move which implicitly collapses the difference between Erscheinung and Schein
and generates severe difficulties for Schopenhauer’s version of transcendental idealism.
Young claims (in Young 2001: 33) that the objects of Apollonian contemplation are
‘modeled upon Schopenhauer’s Platonic ideas’. However this claim is partially dependent
on Young’s phenomenological interpretation of the ideas in WWR, which I don’t find
conclusive enough. Moreover, even on his interpretation the difficulty would remain as in
the examples he gives, individuation is still achieved by means of the use of the principle
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of sufficient reason, which is contradictory with the requirement of a shift to the
transcendental standpoint.
This is made explicit by the subtitle of book III of WWR.
Nietzsche’s reference to Hamlet in the same passage is directly inspired by
Schopenhauer, who in the chapter of the Supplements devoted to tragedy used the same
paradigm (along with that of Marguerite in Goethe’s Faust) to describe the burning out of
the desire to live in the individuals who, through an excess of suffering, have seen beyond
appearances, into the noumenal nature of the will, and thus lost the impetus to perpetrate
the phenomenal contradiction through their actions.
Mainly excessive suffering, or the painful realization by the ascetic that he is one
with the world.
John Sallis’ Crossings is a good example of this tendency.
See also BT: 50.
Although Young does not say so, this claim, again, partially rests on Schopenhauer-
ian assumptions. In WWR, the function of genius is to provide the will with a ‘mirror’ in
which it can both find some respite from the torments of the phenomenal world, and
achieve the self-consciousness required as a precondition to renunciation. This idea is
hinted at by a passage of the Birth, which explains that ‘in the Greeks, the ‘will’ wished to
contemplate itself in the transfiguration of genius and the world of art’ (BT: 44). It is
expanded on more explicitly in the Nachlass: ‘we are on the one hand pure intuition, i.e. the
projected images of a Being (. . .) which finds supreme rest in this intuition; on the other
hand we are the unique Being itself. (. . .) When we feel ourselves as the unique Being, we
are immediately elevated to the sphere of pure intuition, which is devoid of pain, although
we also are, at the same time, pure will, pure suffering. But as long as we ourselves are
merely the ‘‘represented’’, we do not partake in this absence of suffering, whereas the
‘‘representing’’ enjoys it in its purity’ (KSA: I 7 [175], see also 7 [157]). The first part of the
quote takes up the idea that our very existence is an artistic projection of the will, meant to
alleviate its suffering; it also confirms that there is no noumenal individuation (‘we are the
unique Being itself’). The rest of the passage emphasises the difference, on the one hand,
between the perspective of the genius, which mirrors the will’s standpoint, and that of
ordinary men on the other: because of his excess of intellectual energy, which allows him
to detach himself from the interested concerns of the everyday and thus to disclose ideas,
not phenomena (cf WWR: II 379: ‘always to see the universal in the particular is precisely
the fundamental characteristic of genius, whereas the normal man recognises in the
particular only the particular as such’), the genius ‘feels himself as the unique being’ and
partakes in the stilling of the will, which makes it ‘devoid of pain’. But the rest of us, who
are unable to achieve this state and become the ‘eternal eye of the world’, keep on suffering
blindly, like the soldiers painted on canvas mentioned by the Birth.
Although I strongly disagree with Young’s more general claim that the Birth’s
metaphysical assumptions are fully Schopenhauerian, and also with his conclusion that
Nietzsche’s version artistic redemption does not work, I do agree with him that
on Schopenhauerian premises, this negative conclusion is valid. I actually would add three
points to his criticism: the first is that even for the will, the redemption provided is
unsatisfactory in the sense that it is never definitive: the will ceaselessly needs the
influence of art to lull its pain—salvation is a promise constantly withheld. Secondly, on
this Schopenhauerian-like view, the best art can do is to provide the will with a way to put
up with life, but not generate the ‘raging desire for existence and joy in existence’ (BT:
104–5) that Nietzsche evokes repeatedly (see also 59, which claims that ‘life is at the bottom
of things (. . .) indestructibly powerful and pleasurable’). It can only provide a Quietiv,as
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Schopenhauer says, a sedative, not the positive motivation to go on living that Nietzsche
insists on. Finally, the manner in which this sedation is effected is thoroughly dependent
on the production of Apollonian illusions (the ‘images and artistic projections’ of the will);
the Dionysian plays not part at all in it (otherwise, the illusions would be exposed as such
and lose their rapturous power), which is inconsistent with Nietzsche’s claim that tragedy
is a play between the Apollonian and the Dionysian, at the end of which, Apollo ‘speaks
the language of Dionysus’ (BT: 130). Therefore, this interpretation of artistic redemption is
not only unsatisfactory; it also requires us to abandon the more Nietzschean aspects of the
Birth to revert to a position that Schopenhauer himself explicitly rejected as inconsistent,
namely the idea of a purely aesthetic redemption. For Schopenhauer indeed, art can only
bring a temporary respite, a lull in which the will becomes aware for the first time, in
particular through such art forms as tragedy, that its existence is noumenally doomed to
pain. Therefore the only consistent attitude consists in the conversion described in book IV
of WWR, whereby the ascetic takes the place of the genius in providing the will with a
specific phenomenon through which it can not only acquire awareness, but also act on
itself. The ascetic will then make the only logical choice and let the will to life extenuate
itself as he starves his body; because there is no noumenal individuation, his death will be
that of the whole world, and the circle of pain and boredom will be at last broken.
‘Life as a continual spasm, projecting phenomena, and doing so with pleasure’ 7
See also BT: 104 ‘We are really for a brief moment primordial being itself, feeling its
raging desire for existence and joy in existence; the struggle, the pain, the destruction
of phenomena now appear necessary to us, in view of the excess of countless forms
of existence which force and push one another into life, in view of the exuberant fertility of
the universal will’.
This is a reference to Heraclitus’ fragment 52: ‘the time (aio
ˆn) of the world is a child
playing: its kingdom is that of a child’. See also ‘Attempt at Self Criticism’, p. 22.
Fink 1982: 62 (my translation).
Fink 1982: 62 (my translation).
Twilight of the Idols: X, 4. Quoted by Young on p. 137.
´rotisme, Paris: editions de Minuit, 1957, p. 18.
Ibid.: 25.
VII, 803: ‘one must treat seriously all that is serious, and it is the God who is worthy
of seriousness, while man is made to be a toy of the God’.
Lukacs 1971.
This also applies to the heroes ; thus Achilles is defined by his wrath, on which the
Iliad opens up.
For example, Caesar claimed that he was descended from Aeneas, and therefore
from Venus. On the justificatory function of the Greek myths, see Richer 1998.
When Hector comes to say farewell to his wife and son on the walls of Troy, before
his fight with Achilles, he knows that he will die, and that Andromache will suffer a cruel
fate: ‘deep in my heart I know the day is coming when holy Ilium will be destroyed, with
Priam and the people of Priam of the good ashen spear. Yet I am not so much distressed by
the thought of what the Trojans will suffer (. . .) as by the thought of you, dragged off in
tears by some Achaean man-at-arms in slavery. I see you there in Argos, toiling for some
other woman at the loom, or carrying water from an alien well, a helpless drudge with no
will of your own. . . Ah, may the earth lie deep on my dead body before I hear the scream
you utter as they drag you off!’ (Iliad: canto VI, 405). Andromache too is perfectly aware of
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her incoming fate: ‘Hector, you do not think of your little boy or your unhappy wife,
whom you will make a widow soon. . . And when I lose you I might as well be dead. There
will be no comfort left when you have met your doom—nothing but grief. I have no father,
no mother, now. My father fell to the great Achilles when he sacked our lovely town. I had
seven brothers, too, at home. In one day all of them went down to Hades’ House. . . So you,
Hector, are father and mother and brother to me, and well as my beloved husband. Do not
make your boy an orphan and your wife a widow’.
BT: 62, my emphasis. The ‘geniuses of nature’ are satyrs, cf. below.
To see music as symbolical represents another point of departure from the
Schopenhauerian view, which considers music as the direct expression of the will.
The Birth provides an ontological explanation of the creative process. Nietzsche’s
later work, however, will discard the metaphysical assumptions of the Birth and produce a
psychological analysis of this sublimation process. The precondition for artistic production
becomes ‘physiological’, and is identified as ‘frenzy’ (Rausch, which is the term used by
the Birth to characterise the Dionysian). ‘Frenzy must have enhanced the excitability of the
whole machine; else, there is no art’ (TI: IX 8). A passage of the Will to Power specifies the
nature of the artistic process. The artist must experience both ‘intoxication’, as a ‘feeling of
enhanced power’, and an ‘extreme sharpness of certain senses’ (WP: §428); when both
reach an almost unbearable point, he feels the ‘need to get rid of oneself, as it were,
through signs and gestures, (. . .) through a hundred speech media’ (WP: §429), whereby
the work is created. Good, classical art reaches a perfect balance between the richness of
the perceptive content and its expression through figure and form—the ‘yoke’ (WP: §446)
characteristic of grand style.
‘We must conceive of the folk song as the musical mirror of the world, as the
original melody, now seeking for itself a parallel dream phenomenon and expressing it in
poetry. Melody is therefore primary and universal’ (BT: 53).
Cf. also 66: ‘Dionysus no longer speaks through forces but as an epic hero, almost in
the language of Homer’.
On the ‘metaphysical joy’ induced by tragedy, see the chapter, ‘Tragic joy’ in Haar
See also: ‘the demand of the artist that he should practice the perspective of the
audience (. . .) means to demand that he should impoverish himself and his creative
power’ (WP: §429).
Schopenhauer criticizes the privative understanding of nothingness inherited from
Descartes, and hints that true nothingness is a positive state (a Hinduist idea which comes
from his reading of the Vedantas).
Another example is Porter’s claim that ‘[the will’s] ultimate grounding appears to
lie in its mere conceivability and (what amounts to the same thing) in its incoherence’
(Porter 2000: 62). I hope to have shown above that Nietzsche’s views on the will, when
analysed carefully and pried away from Schopenhauer ’s, are not incoherent; moreover, it
is difficult to see how the conceivability of something can rightfully be identified with its
Poellner’s article does not only focus on the Birth but also on the Second Untimely
Meditation. For lack of space, I shall only summarise and address here his criticisms of the
Birth’s metaphysics.
The implicit assimilation between illusion and error is debatable as one could argue,
as did Kant, that illusion is caused by faulty perception while error results from defective
judgment, and thus that illusions are not in themselves erroneous.
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Neville Morley makes a similar argument in a later paper, Morley 2004, in particular
in the following passage: ‘As history, [BT] is implausible; but the account is offered
explicitly as a parable, a new myth. If, as Nietzsche argues, we can never gain a true
knowledge of the past, if our stories about it are always determined by our present
concerns, then the main criterion for judging between different versions must be their
"usefulness". One can idealise the Greeks as the first historians, a myth that serves to
legitimise us and our activity as their heirs and as the culmination of what they began. (. . .)
The question remains: if a myth is known to be a myth, can it still work?’.
Cf. ‘Attempt at Self-Critique’, §5 p. 23.
Cf. ‘Attempt at Self-Critique’, §2 p. 18, the book is said to be ‘close to the limits of
communication’, which brings me to my next point.
Kant 1995: A 797/B825, p. 630. It is also a Schopenhauerian theme. Cf. WWR, ‘The
metaphysical need of humanity’. The notion of a ‘metaphysical drive’ is taken up in the
Nachlass, cf. for example KSA: III, 19 [138].
Cf. KSA: III 19 [140]: ‘time in-itself is an absurdity: time only exists for a being
endowed with sensibility. Idem for space’. See also 19 [156]: ‘a quality only exists for us, i.e.
as measured by us. If we remove measure, what remains of the quality!’ and 19 [158].
Cf. ‘On Truth and Lies in the Non Moral sense’, in Philosophy and Truth: Selections
from Nietzsches Notebooks of the Early 1870s(editor and translator D. Breazale, New York:
Humanity books, 1979, p. 79–100) where Nietzsche develops this idea through the famous
example of the Chladni figures. For an interesting interpretation of this controversial text,
which shows De Man’s influential reading to be wrong, see Clark 1990: 63–96.
Perhaps its most objectionable consequence is that because it invalidates the
possibility of objective empirical knowledge (which Kant was very keen to preserve), it
removes the very distinction between empirical and metaphysical claims.
Cf KSA: III 19 [123]: ‘one cannot demonstrate the metaphysical signification
of existence, nor its ethical signification, nor its aesthetic signification’ (Nietzsche’s
Cf. KSA: III 19 [76]: ‘That an impossible to demonstrate philosophy may retain its value
more, generally speaking, than a scientific theorem, that is explained that the aesthetic
value of such a philosophy, i.e. by its beauty and its sublimity. It still exists as an artwork’
(Nietzsche’s italics).
Cf. for example: ‘the real purpose of myth is not a present an objective picture of the
world as it is, but to express man’s understanding of himself in the world in which he
lives. Myth should be interpreted not cosmologically, but anthropologically, or better still,
existentially’. (Bultmann 1953: 10). See also Bultmann 1958, in particular p. 19f. For a short
analysis of Bultmann’s understanding of myth, see Segal 1998.
As seen above, the notion of symbolisation is heavily used by Nietzsche in the Birth
to characterise artistic processes (in particular, the relation of the Apollonian to the
Dionysian, of music to the will, of man to nature).
For a criticism of the rationalist approach to myth, see BT: §10, 75 and §23, 136.
One could argue (pretty much as Spinoza does in the Ethics to account for the
passage from knowledge of the first type to knowledge of the second type) that a
fortuitous encounter with the myth may reawaken our atrophied artistic abilities and thus
indicate to us the way to transmute pain into pleasure, but (as with Spinoza) the likelihood
of this happening is low.
Thus a passage of the Birth equates the contrast between the ‘real truth of nature
and the lie of culture’ with ‘that between the eternal core of things, the thing-in-itself, and
the whole world of appearances’ (BT: §8, 61). Cf. also Schopenhauer Educator: ‘To be truthful
Nietzsche’s Metaphysics in the Birth of Tragedy 401
rThe Author 2006. Journal compilation rBlackwell Publishing Ltd. 2006
means: to believe in an existence that can in no way be denied and which is itself true and
without falsehood. That is why the truthful man feels that the meaning of his activity is
metaphysical, explicable through the laws of another and higher life, and in the
profoundest sense affirmative’ (SE: 153).
(Only from the Gay Science onwards will he reject it, along with the distinction
between the in-itself and appearances.)
List of Abbreviations:
(a) For Nietzsche’s works (by chronological order of the original, German publications)
S: ‘Zu Schopenhauer’, in Werke. Historisch-Kritische Gesammtausgabe, eds. H. J. Mette and
K. Schlechta. Munich: Anhang, 1933ff, III, 352–361.
BT: The Birth of Tragedy, trans. W. Kaufmann. New York: Vintage Books, 1967.
KSA: Nachgelassene Fragmente, Herbst 1869 bis Herbst 1872. Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 1978.
GS: Gay Science, trans. W. Kaufmann. New York: Vintage Books, 1974.
BGE: Beyond Good and Evil, trans W. Kaufmann. New York: Vintage Books, 1989.
TI: Twilight of the Idols, trans. R. Polt. Hackett Publishing: Indianapolis, 1997.
WP: The Will to Power, trans. W Kaufmann. New York: Vintage Books, 1968.
(b) For Schopenhauer’s works
WWR: The World as Will and Representation, trans. E.F.J. Payne. New York: Dover
Publications, 1958. Volume I contains the original text, and volume II the Supplements.
Other Works:
Bataille, G. (1957), L’e
´rotisme. Paris: Editions de Minuit.
— (1974), The
´orie de la religion. Paris: Gallimard.
Bultmann, R. (1953), ‘New Testament and Mythology’, in Hans-Werner Bartsch (ed.),
Kerygma and Myth. London: S.P.C.K.
— (1958), Jesus Christ and Mythology. New York: Scribner.
Clarke, M. (1990), Nietzsche on Truth and Philosophy. Cambridge: Cambridge University
De Man, P. (1979), Allegories of Reading. New Haven & London: Yale University Press.
Deleuze, G. (1983), Nietzsche and Philosophy. London: Athlone Press.
Fink, E. (1982), Spiel as Welt Symbol. Kohlhammer: Stuttgart (no English translation).
Geuss, R. (1999), ‘Art and Theodicy’, in his Morality, Culture, History: Essays on German
Philosophy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Haar, M. (1996), Nietzsche and Metaphysics. Albany: State University of New York Press.
Hollingdale, R. J. (2001), Nietzsche: The Man and His Philosophy. Cambridge: Cambridge
University Press.
Homer (1950), Iliad. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books.
Kant, I. (1995), Critique of Pure Reason, trans. Norman Kemp Smith. London: Macmillan.
Kaufmann, W. (1974), Nietzsche: Philosopher, Psychologist, Antichrist. Princeton: Princeton
University Press.
Lukacs, G. (1971), The Theory of the Novel: a Historico-Philosophical Essay on the Forms of Great
Epic Literature. London: Merlin Press.
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´atrice Han-Pile
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Morley, N. (2004), ‘Unhistorical Greeks’, in Paul Bishop (ed.), Nietzsche and Antiquity: His
Reaction and Response to the Classical Tradition. Rochester: Camden House.
Nussbaum, M. (1998), ‘The Transfigurations of Intoxication: Nietzsche, Schopenhauer and
Dionysus’, in Salim Kemal, Ivan Gaskell and Daniel W. Conway (eds), Nietzsche,
Philosophy and the Arts. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Poellner, P. (1995), Nietzsche and Metaphysics. Oxford: Clarendon Press.
— (1998), ‘Myth, Art and Illusion in Nietzsche’, in M. Bell and P. Poellner (eds) Myth and
the Making of Modernity: The Problem of Grounding in Early Twentieth-Century Literature.
Atlanta: Rodopi.
Porter, J. (2000), The Invention of Dionysus: An Essay on the Birth of Tragedy. Stanford:
Stanford University Press.
Richir, M. (1998), La Naissance des Dieux. Paris: Editions du Seuil, collection ‘Points’.
Sallis, J. (1991), Nietzsche and the Space of Tragedy. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Schacht, R. (1992), Nietzsche. London: Routledge.
Segal, R. A. (1998), ‘The Existentialist Interpretation of Myth’, in M. Bell and P. Poellner
(eds), Myth and the Making of Modernity: The Problem of Grounding in Early Twentieth-
Century Literature. Atlanta: Rodopi.
Young, J. (2001), Nietzsche’s Philosophy of Art. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
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