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Dionysian historiography

Schopenhauer’s philosophy certainly had a profound attraction for the young Nietzsche. Well known is how deeply Nietzsche absorbed aspects of his metaphysics, epistemology, and aesthetics, even if in contemporaneous private writing he had formulated important critiques thereof.[1] My contention is that this influence also impacted Nietzsche’s historiography in a transformative way, a way, however, which is both internally incoherent and which Schopenhauer never would have endorsed. It is from the perspective of Schopenhauer’s artistic genius and not just of the critical philologist, as the first sentence of The Birth of Tragedy states, that Nietzsche believed he could intuit the real ‘idea’ of tragedy,[2] behind the phenomenal evidence of its transmission through the relevant ancient texts, and apart from ‘logical insight.’ And by recognizing Nietzsche’s Birth of Tragedy as a historiographical adoption of Schopenhauer’s aesthetics, Wilamowitz was right to disqualify Nietzsche’s work as a bastardization of historiography.

Although the connection between Schopenhauer’s aesthetics and Nietzsche’s historiographical method has not been sufficiently noticed by Nietzsche scholars, certainly Nietzsche’s friends like Ritschl, Burckhardt, Wagner, and Rohde saw it plainly. The former two lamented that hereby Nietzsche had turned his back on the academy, while the latter two saw it as a great triumph of art over scholarship. Consider what Rohde, himself a card-carrying Schopenhauerian, writes in an intended but never-published review of GT:

The philologist and aesthetician must be equally interested by seeing the solution to such astonishing problems here through a happy combination of historical and aesthetic observation [historischer und aesthetischer Betrachtung] [...] From this profound education the most elated piece of art [erhabenste Kunstwerk] wants to spring forth like the most marvelous flower, tragedy born from German music. Yes, whosoever with equally pious devotion as the author already feels the highest delights of such noble art is able to assimilate the artistic creations of the great master himself: Richard Wagner, a man ofthe same mind, to whom this writing is dedicated. Like all the purest and innermost convictions of his friend, so too does the author share the fundamental intuition of music as a (Platonic) idea of the world [Grundanschauung der Musik als einer (platonischen) Idee der Welt], which presents Richard Wagner [.. .] in affirmative connection with that singular sufficient meaning of music which Arthur Schopenhauer had achieved from the depths of his world-knowledge [ Welterkenntnifi].[3]

If Rhode knew Nietzsche’s intentions better than we today, then we must trust that the justification for Nietzsche’s claims about the ‘inner’ or ‘real’ nature of tragedy was never intended to have been of the same sort as his earlier philology, not - as we saw in the previous chapters - a straightforward correspondence between the account and what the evidence portrays to be real. Here, in addition to many individual empirically verifiable claims, we are presented an overarching intuition about the birth of tragedy that transgresses the boundaries of empirical observation even in principle. But beyond traditional historical versions of intuition in the manner of Herder or Collingwood, Nietzsche believes his own intuitions about tragedy are true precisely insofar as he has left the phenomenal realm behind and become identified with the inner nature of the tragic world in-itself. Through a sort of mystical echo of the ancient standard of truth as identity between the knower and the thing known, the principle that “like is known by like,”[4] Nietzsche thinks he can communicate the real inner Idea of tragedy. And he proclaims precisely this:

Only insofar as the genius, during the act of artistic procreation, merges fully with that original artist of the world does he know anything of the eternal essence of art; for in this condition he resembles, miraculously, that uncanny image of fairy-tale which can turn its eyes around and look at itself; now he is at one and the same time subject and object, simultaneously poet, actor, and


Nietzsche means this literally. Like Wagner,[6] who in his own aesthetic ecstasy was claimed by Nietzsche to have attained a “sort of omniscience [Allwissenheit] ... as if the visual power of his eyes hovered not only upon surfaces, but 4ns Innere,’”[7] Nietzsche believed himself to inhabit the sort of aesthetic state of Schopenhauer’s genius, to have made possible, “das volle sich Versenken und interesselose Anschauen des KUnstlers [the entirely sunk-into-himself and interest-less aesthetic intuition of the artist].”36 The aesthetic genius is the opposite of - again in precisely Schopenhauerian terms - “a non-genius, that is, as his own ‘subject,’ that entire unruly crowd of subjective passions and striving of his own will aiming at something particular, which appears real to him,”37 who can in no way understand the character of the tragic play as an instantiation of the undulation of the two manifested forces, the Dionysian and Apolline. “If the philologists fail, and are reduced to mere scholars, it is because they lack aesthetic sense.”38 Such non-geniuses cannot, in fact, ever understand the true nature of the world as will, which may “only be justified as an aesthetic phenomenon.”39

Let’s not forget, that every process [proceeds] only from our necessary form of appearance [unsere nothwendige Erscheinungsform], insofar as it remains without any metaphysical reality: that we with all our proofs cannot overstep these limitations and they are at best only able to be understood as such. But if in the preceding I dared to speak of genius and appearance as if in my disposal stood a knowledge that had exceeded those bounds and as if I were able to gaze out from the pure, great world eye [reinengraven Weltauge]: well, it will be explained in what follows why I don’t think I’m overstepping the anthropomorphic circle with that image. But who could endure to exist without such mystical possibilities [mystische Moglichkeiten]? And yet I



Non-geniuses deal with knowledge within the fourfold root of sufficient reason. Great artists and geniuses, in the Schopenhauerian sense, deal with the true essences that lie beyond the possibility of empirical knowledge. “In the artist,” Nietzsche confirms, “the Will comes to the ecstasy [Entziickung] of Anschauung.”41 More than detached spectators of the tragedy, in the ecstatic state we are the chorus - immanent revelers in the ongoing and already determined play. “Der Mensch ist nicht mehr Kunstler, er ist Kunstwerk geworden [The man is no longer an artist, but has become an artwork].”42 Through our participation we intuit the object beyond its phenomenal representation, i.e., non-conceptually, outside the boundaries of space, time, and causality, only insofar as a change has taken place in us, only insofar as we are able to suspend our individuated subjectivity. We are Prometheus unbound from the chains of our subjectivity. “[E]ach person feels himself to be not simply united [vereinigt], reconciled or merged with his neighbor, but as one [eins] with him, as if the Veil of Maya had been torn apart, so that mere shreds of it flutter before the mysterious primordial being [Ur-Einen].”43 The non-conceptual apprehension that enables Nietzsche to grasp the real Idea of tragedy with allegedly perfect objectivity is precisely what he would later criticize in the retrospection of Ecce homo: “Listen to the world-historical accent that introduces the concept of the ‘tragic attitude’ [...]. This is the strangest ‘objectivity’ that there can be: absolute certainty about what I am projects itself onto some accidental reality - the truth about myself speaks from out of an awesome depth.”44

After an extensive quotation of Schopenhauer on the characteristics of the lyric poet,45 who “is conscious of himself as pure, will-less knowing,” Nietzsche brings home more personally the same attribution. “But where the subject is an artist, he is already released and redeemed from his individual will and has become, as it were, a medium, the channel through which the one truly existing subject celebrates its release and redemption in semblance.”46 Just as the Dionysian frenzy identifies the spectator and the performer, the Anschauungdissolves the subject-object dichotomy in such a way that allows an unmediated apprehension of the object in question, from the inside, as it were. As Nietzsche says in the contemporary essay “Die dionysische Weltanschauung,” whose very title is striking, “The Dionysiac power of enchantment proves itself even here, at the very summit of this Weltanschauung, all that is real is dissolved in semblance, and behind it the unified nature of the Will manifests itself.. .”47 In this higher form of direct apprehension, both Schopenhauer and Nietzsche believed that the subject approaches an ecstatic release from the phenomenal affects of the individual will and comes closer to merging with the Ur-Eine and the Dionysian ecstasy.48 “[T]he Dionysiac enthusiast is stimulated to the highest intensity of all his symbolic powers [hochsten Steigerung aller seiner symbolischen Vermogen]; something never felt before demands expression: the annihilation of individuation [Individuatio], one-ness [Einssein] in the genius of the species, indeed of nature.”49

It is only by understanding this aspect of Schopenhauer’s philosophy that we can contextualize historiographically the mystical pronouncements and dogmatic statements which notoriously lack the possibility of verification in The Birth of Tragedy. “I had discovered the only historical simile and facsimile of my own innermost experience [meiner innersten Erfahrung] - and this led me to apprehend the amazing phenomenon of the Dionysian.”[8] Another retrospective evaluation claims the work was, “Constructed entirely from precocious, overgreen personal experiences [tibergriinen Selbsterlebnissen], all of which lay at the very threshold of what could be communicated.”[9] This is because the work was not scientific-philology, but was “located in the realm of art [...] perhaps a book for artists with some subsidiary capacity for analysis and retrospection (in other words, for an exceptional type of artist [...]), full of psychological innovations and artist-mysteries, with an artist’s metaphysics [Artisten- Metaphysikk] in the background.”[10] Nietzsche acknowledges that in place of logical argumentation, The Birth of Tragedy was, or should have been, a musical expression: “It should have sung, this ‘new soul’ - and not spoken!”[11] - a not-so-veiled reference to Schopenhauer’s belief that the inner nature of the world is best expressed through music. Talk of “transcending subjectivity,” of “disengaging the will,” of “seeing into true essences,” and the dogmatic claims about the true nature of Greek tragedy and the Greek spirit that derive from this peculiar mode of apprehension are firmly entrenched in “aesthetic intuition.”

Indeed, the deep truths of the book were to have been expressed, not just by means of logical insight but through aesthetic intuition. Nietzsche says just this.

In the Anschauungen described here we have already all the constituent elements of a profound and pessimistic way of looking at the world and thus, simultaneously, the doctrine of the mystery-teaching of tragedy: the fundamental recognition that everything given is a unity [Einheit]; the observation of individuation [Individuation] as the primal source of all evil; and art as the joyous hope that the spell of individuation [Bann der Individuation] can be broken, the sense of recreated unity [Ahnung einer wiederhergestellten Einheit].54

In this statement we hear the notes of Nietzsche’s early metaphysics, ethics, and aesthetics: that the unity of Will is the true noumenon ‘behind’ all phenomenal appearances, that empirical existence is delusion and the root of misery, and that one way to momentarily stave off that misery is by disengaging from the phenomenal self through aesthetic contemplation. Most importantly, these are themselves the ‘deep truths’ about ancient tragedy. They were not said to have been reached through ‘logical insight’ - for how could critical philology ever have reached beyond appearances to the tragic inner character of the world? - but again, through Anschauung. “The genius reaches at every moment from that monstrous allcontemporaneous point of view of the Ur-Einen the entire pyramid of appearance up to its very peak.”[12]

Nietzsche, in sum, regards himself in The Birth of Tragedy as speaking from this contemplative-aesthetic position wherein his claims are to be considered objectively ‘true’ because he is in position to express the Idea of the object in question: in this case, the eternal essence of tragedy. Nietzsche assumes he has, in terms of Schopenhauer’s notion of Anschauung, a privileged access into the real idea of tragedy beyond its shifting phenomenal appearances within textual evidence and stakes the justification of his historical claims there - not to textual evidence - but to the alleged fact that he, Nietzsche, has, as the clear mirror of the objective nature of the world, the aesthetic intuition of the way things ‘really were.’ As such Nietzsche retains his earlier realism insofar as his apprehension is of an allegedly real state of things. Yet the means by which he has access to it are no longer tied to that combination of skeptical realism and armchair psychological speculation. His aesthetic intuition could not be further from his earlier naturalism, and involves the assumptions, as he himself admits, of “miracles” in away analagous to “fairy-tales.”[13]

This view, however, is deeply problematic for several reasons. Not least of which is that Schopenhauer, from whom this peculiar conception of intuition arose, clearly did not think it applicable to historiography. Since historiographical judgment is both interested in its objects of investigation and bound to supply time-beholden claims about the events in its purview, it cannot as a subject be raised to the level of genuine anschauliche Auffassung of a timeless, non-relational object.[14] Nietzsche’s application of Schopenhauer’s aesthetic intuition to history bares an obvious inconsistency, since by definition it was supposed to take the subject beyond the merely sensible forms of experience, including space and time. “History, because it is the inexhaustable, timeless, eternal.”[15] But how could any historical claim about a temporal origin seriously entertain a non-temporal framework of judgment?

There are other problems beyond Nietzsche’s ill-advised appropriation. Under a common contemporary meta-historical framework wherein a proposition only has meaning insofar as it is verifiable, Nietzsche’s claim about the extra-natural origin of tragedy would not be taken seriously.59 Worse, the mysticism involved in thinking a historian-artist could somehow break free of the bonds of the empirical self and become a ‘medium,’ as he said, who has “merged fully with the original artist of the world” is incredibly farfetched. Even if particular theses in his work have since become popular - for example about the deeply irrational aspects of tragedy and prePlatonic culture generally - the methods by which Nietzsche reached these conclusions were speculative and even mystical, but not historical. The fact that Nietzsche was himself a very fine historical scholar who had command over a number of philological resources shows that his meta-historical framework was no accident:60 Nietzsche intentionally left philology behind.

To his credit, Nietzsche recognized it. His 1886 “Attempt at a SelfCriticism” summarizes his dissatisfaction: the book was an attempt to view a properly historical question “under the optic of the artist,”61 under the sway of the Schopenhauerian aesthetic theory ... even though Schopenhauer said almost nothing of value about tragedy.62 The Birth of Tragedy “lacks the will to logical cleanliness, [it is] very convinced and therefore too arrogant for proof, mistrustful even of the propriety of proving things, a book for the initiated, ‘music’ for those who were baptized in the name of music.”63 Nietzsche had, then, quickly and roundly rejected his earlier mystical account of the mind and with it the hope of seeing into the essence of tragedy apart from the conditions of his own subjectivity. And if the earlier notion of Anschauung is not tenable within this newly naturalized philosophy of mind, then with it must go Nietzsche’s justification for his claims about the “real Idea” of tragedy that depended on it - no wonder that Nietzsche would in 1886 label The Birth of Tragedy “an impossible book.” It was not wrong in the sense that its insights were incorrect; just impossible in the sense that the means he employed to reach them were meta-historically untenable.

  • [1] Nietzsche sketches a criticism of Schopenhauer’s attempt to logically adduce the character of Will inhis 1868 notes “Zur Schopenhauer,” noting that it may only be apprehended with the help of “poeticintuition.” See “On Schopenhauer” in Ansell-Pearson and Large (2006), 25. Recent research hascome forth showing that Nietzsche’s early relationship to Schopenhauer was more critical than purelyadulatory. See Janaway (1998), 18—22 and Barbera (1994), 217—233. I would agree with their argumentsthat Nietzsche was privately critical of Schopenhauer from the start, but also emphasize that hispublished work, especially The Birth of Tragedy, does not genuinely shift from the Schopenhauerianmetaphysics, epistemology, or aesthetics until after about 1875.
  • [2] Cf. EH “Geburt,” 1; KSA 6, 310: “An ‘idea’ [‘Idee’] translated into metaphysics — the opposition of theDionysiac and Apollonian; history itself as the development of this ‘idea.’”
  • [3] Cited from Nietzsche-Online: Erwin Rohdes nicht veroffentlichte Rezension der GT. DOI: 10.1515/NO_W0I5l82_0222.
  • [4] Though in a different context, see HL 6; KSA 1, 293^ 33 GT 5; KSA 1, 47—48.
  • [5] 34 An earlier draft of the Births discussion of the metaphysics of music from spring 1871 makes clear howdeeply indebted he was to an apprehension of it “aufGrund einer beliebten aesthetischenAnschauungT
  • [6] KSA 7, 359—369; here 363.
  • [7] GT22; KSA 1,140. 36 NFspring 1871, i2[i]; KSA 7, 364.
  • [8] EH “Geburt,” 2; KSA 6, 311. 2 GT “Versuch,” 2; KSA 1, 13.
  • [9] 52 Ibid. Nietzsche suggests even that a parallel transition between ‘mythical’ and ‘historical pragmatic’
  • [10] historiography took place in Greek itself, about which we will say more in Chapter 4. See GT 10; KSA1 74.
  • [11] GT“Selbstkritik,” 3; KSA 1,15. 54 GT 10; KSA 1, 72ff.
  • [12] This passage comes from an extensive notebook entry which is likely an earlier draft of GT. Theadoption of the standpoint of the Schopenhauerian genius is substantial. See KSA 7, 333-349; here 334.
  • [13] Also the position of Alexander Nehamas, though the conclusion is reached by a much differentargument. See Nehamas (1985), 42ff.
  • [14] See his chapter “Uber Geschichte”; WWV11, §38; 11/2, 516-525.
  • [15] NFwinter 1869-spring 1870, 3[3]; KSA 7, 59.
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