Thursday, December 2, 2010

Raymond Williams,Schopenhauer and Nietzsche on tragedy

Only the dull, optimistic, Protestant-Rationalistic or peculiarly Jewish view of life will make the demand for poetical justice and find satisfaction in it. The true sense of tragedy is the deeper insight, that it is not his own individual sins that the hero atones for, but original sin, i.e. the crime of existence itself. What we see in tragedy, Schopenhauer insists, is the unspeakable pain, the wail of humanity, the triumph of evil, the scornful mastery of chance, the irretrievable fall of the just and innocent. Thus we can see the greatest misfortune, not as an exception, not as something occasioned by rare circumstances or monstrous characters, but as arising easily and of itself out of the actions and characters of men, indeed almost as essential to them, and this brings it terribly near to us.




‘Tragedy guides us to the final goal, which is resignation.’


Tragedy, that is to say, in Nietzsche’s view, dramatises a tension which it resolves in a higher unity. There is a structural reminiscence of Hegel in this, but the terms are entirely altered. Tragedy is ‘an Apollonian embodiment of Dionysiac insights and powers.’ It creates heroes, but in order to destroy them, as a way of asserting the primal unity and joy of life. ‘The hero, the highest manifestation of the will, is destroyed, and we assent, since he too is merely a phenomenon, and the eternal life of the will remains unaffected.’






The action of tragedy is not moral, not purgative (in spite of the image of healing), but aesthetic: tragedy absorbs the highest orgiastic music and in so doing consummates music. But then it puts beside it the tragic myth and the tragic hero. Like a mighty Titan, the tragic hero shoulders the whole Dionysiac world and removes the burden from us. At the same time, tragic myth, through the figure of the hero, delivers us from our avid thirst for earthly satisfaction and reminds us of another existence and a higher delight. For this delight the hero readies himself, not through his victories but through his undoing … Myth shields us from music, while at the same time giving music its maximum freedom. In exchange, music endows the tragic myth with a convincing metaphysical significance, which the unsupported word and image could never achieve, and, moreover, assures the spectator of a supreme delight—though the way passes through annihilation and negation, so that he is made to feel that the very womb of things speaks audibly to him.


Tragedy, in this sense, became one of the many powerful ideas through which the opposition between humanity and actual contemporary society was expressed and dramatised. But characteristically, in Nietzsche, this widespread experience was lifted at once into an absolute, and generalised into an opposition between ‘life’ and ‘the phenomenal world’.


I think we have to reject the false contrast between ‘aesthetic’ and ‘moral’, and pursue the real contrast which it masks, between ‘moral’ and ‘metaphysical’. It is at this point that one major element of Nietzsche’s argument has become historically important: his account of myth. ‘Only a horizon ringed about with myths can unify a culture. … The disappearance of tragedy also spelled disappearance of myth.’ The cause of the disappearance, in Greek culture, was, Nietzsche argues, the rise of the ‘Socratic spirit’, which ‘considers knowledge to be the true panacea and error to be radical evil.’ Ever since Socrates,’ the dialectical drive toward knowledge and scientific optimism has succeeded in turning tragedy from its course’. Tragedy ‘could be reborn only when science had at last been pushed to its limits, and, faced with these limits, been forced to renounce its claim to universal validity’.

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