O birth of tragedy

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By ERNANI CHAVES*

Commentary on Friedrich Nietzsche's Book

The “Afterword” of the new edition of the first book by this famous German philosopher begins with a brief and accurate sentence: “O birth of tragedy is, in many respects, Nietzsche's most difficult work. This assertion must be taken absolutely seriously, since we are dealing with one of Nietzsche's most quoted books, alongside the Zarathustra and genealogy of morals. Cited from the most erudite theses to the warm manifestations in the so-called “social networks”.

The pair Apollo and Dionysus has undoubtedly become almost synonymous with Nietzsche's philosophy. The quick, dithyrambic reading, fascinated by the style, by a writing that tried to break the rigid limits between the demands of the academic dissertation, typical of studies in philology, his university education, and an effort to write closer to the literary and poetic, ended up building a set of clichés, which stuck to the book – and to Nietzsche's philosophy as a whole – in such a way that it prevented an apprehension of the concepts that were at stake in his analysis of Greek tragedy.

The difficulties that the book's style provokes even today, immediately resonated with first-time readers, most of whom are deeply critical. There were countless defects attributed to it, which gave rise to a “complaint”, which became a fundamental part of its evaluation. With the exception of Wagner, to whom the book was dedicated and his friend and philologist Erwin Rhode, not even his master and mentor, the renowned philologist Friedrich Ritschl, who had appointed him to the chair of Philology at the University of Basel, showed any great enthusiasm. and appreciation for the analysis of what he considered his most brilliant student.

Nietzsche never publicly responded to the violent criticisms of another philologist, Ulrich Willamowitz-Möllnedorf, who started the controversy. Which is not to say that he left them out entirely. Not by chance, both in the preface to the 1886 edition and in the chapter of Ecce Homo dedicated to the book, Nietzsche himself made a severe self-criticism. However, by the way, it is as if he were saying that the criticism of the book was not correct and that he himself was, at the same time, correcting himself and his critics.

Reading quickly, in a hurry and uncomfortable with the style, I had not noticed, for example, how much the book was critically confronted both with the older tradition, but still in full force in the heated debates of the second half of the XNUMXth century – such as its confrontation with the Poetics, by Aristotle – as well as with the more recent tradition, under construction, which went back to the images of a certain serene and harmonious Greece, such as that of Winckelmann and also that of Goethe; or even that it sought to found Aesthetics as a science, as in Baumgarten; finally, that earthquakes were already taking place in this building under construction, as among the First Romantics. Even Nietzsche himself remembered how much he "stinked" (the expression is from Nietzsche himself in the Ecce Homo) to Hegelianism, by thinking of the “aesthetic” Dionysian as a kind of reconciling and consoling synthesis between the “Apollonian” that covers the terrifying of the world with the veil of “beautiful appearance” and the Dionysian “barbaric” that opens wide this terrifying, for in the midst of a self-destructive intoxication.

But, the most important thing, from my point of view, escaped these first critics and several others that followed, that is, how much in this first book Nietzsche already rebelled against the historicist perspective of the research methods established by the Philology of his era. His main interest was not, in fact, in reconstructing Greece and the history of tragedy “such as it was” – to take up the sentence of Leopold von Ranke – but in thinking about his own time, in order to find again in the vital cycle of Greek tragedy the basic guidelines that would, from then on, lead our culture.

From this perspective, it is possible to divide the book into two large parts: a first, in which an absolutely daring thesis is proposed, that tragedy arises from the reconciliation between Apollo and Dionysus, and a second that deals precisely with the death of the suffocated tragedy. by Socratic rationalism. All this, with Wagner's music as a soundtrack, soaked in Schopenhauer's philosophy.

The conclusion of the book, that the death of tragedy caused by the victory of Socratic rationalism echoes in the XNUMXth century, to the extent that this rationalism would have found a kind of completion in the triumphant science of that moment, shows very well that Nietzsche's objective was less to take us back to Greece and more to make us think to what extent the understanding of our time requires a confrontation with the Greeks. In short, Nietzsche's aim was much more to make a kind of diagnosis of his present.

To the reluctance of the academic environment we can oppose the warm reception of the book among writers, artists, poets, literati. Read in conjunction with Zarathustra, O birth of tragedy and his assertion that the world's only and legitimate justification is always of an "aesthetic" order, became a source of inspiration for the spirit of the nascent avant-garde as Group Expressionism"die brucke”, by poets like Gotfried Benn, writers like Thomas Mann and playwrights like Frank Wedekind, not forgetting the young Brecht.

A philosopher-poet, far from being a kind of downgrading of his properly philosophical sense, meant for an entire generation the best response to the difficult situation that would lead Europe to the war of 1914. This junction between art, politics and culture, which marked this book since its origin – under “the rumble of the battle of Wörth”, during the Franco-Prussian war of 1870-1871, says its own author, in the preface of the 1886 edition – has become an ever-present theme of its reception. recurrent.

The echoes will be of various hues, the supposedly heavy artillery of the young man, until then still soaked in Bismarck's cultural project, if not, it hits its most immediate target - the disappointment with Wagner's aesthetic-political project or even with the nihilism of Schopenhauerian hue soon took hold – it became more like a bow shooting arrows that, here and there, at this or that point, helped to awaken a generation of young philosophers beset by “dogmatic sleep”: from philosophers of the first generation of Critical Theory to those who, in soon, they will be the architects of the great philosophy that emerged from the interior of the second world war, that of French existentialism. Like a wildfire, these arrows poisoned the XNUMXth century with a growing mistrust, a “suspicion” in relation to the great values ​​of the Western philosophical and cultural tradition.

Nietzsche returned several times to the ideas of his first book. We could say that he tried to rewrite it several times. His posthumous notes from 1887 and 1888 abound with references to it, as if he wanted, at all times, to “update” it, to make it consonant with the great theses of the so-called late period of his work. That is, it was not a question of simply resuming it, but of rewriting and inscribing it at that other moment. Thus, the youthful influx has here not a role of simple return to an origin that should never be abandoned, but of creating a dissonance, which fed his present, based on a certainty, perhaps one of the few certainties he had: that “youth is the lack of nuances”. If it continues to be, for today's reader, the sign of a dissonance, then he will have found what Nietzsche sometimes called his "ideal reader".

The re-edition of this book, with translation and notes by Paulo César de Souza, closes with a golden key the work of this translator, so important for the Brazilian reception of Nietzsche, who thus bequeaths us the set of works published by Nietzsche himself . Such a contribution is invaluable. The edition also has a very enlightening “Afterword” by André Luís Mota Itaparica, professor at the Federal University of Recôncavo da Bahia and a well-known interpreter of Nietzsche's thought among us. Add to that that it is published in the “pret-à-porter” series of Companhia das Letras: a great book, in a well-prepared, cheap and accessible edition.

* Ernani Chaves He is a professor at the Faculty of Philosophy at UFPA. Author, among other books, of On the threshold of modern (Pakatatu).

Reference

Nietzsche, Friedrich. O birth of tragedy. Translation by Paulo César de Souza. Afterword by André Itaparica. São Paulo: Companhia das Letras, 2020 (https://amzn.to/45bCxS0).

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