Friday, June 12, 2009

A Sense of Community: Political Implications of Nietzsche’s Aesthetics

“State is the name of the coldest of all cold monsters. Coldly it lies; and this lie slips from its mouth: ‘I, the state, am the people.’” – Zarathustra

Most readings of Nietzsche’s The Birth of Tragedy concentrate on his aesthetics, which offers an analysis of Attic tragedy and its subsequent cultural implications. Differentiating between what he sees as the two art impulses of nature—the Apollinian and the Dionysian—he demonstrates how these impulses “run parallel to each other, for the most part openly at variance” until by the metaphysical miracle of Hellenic will they united in classical Greece to give birth to the tragedy (1:33*). This distinction is not simply between characteristics and attributes of the two namesakes but an entire host of cultural material as well. Nowhere, however, does Nietzsche privilege any one aspect of the Apollinian nor of its counterpart. Within this “neutral” classification system, he matches each Apollinian phenomenon with an equally important and valuable Dionysian one:
Sculpture/plastic energies
Dreams/illusions/mere appearance
Principle of individuation (principium individuationis)
Olympian (Zeus)
Homer/Epic (epos)

Self-forgetfulness/self-oblivion/unification of men/unification of man & nature/higher community
Titanic (Kronos)/barbarian
Archilochus (personal, satiric poetry)/Folk
Considering that the main argument of this book concerns these two art impulses, it would be easy to dismiss Nietzsche as being only interested in aesthetics here. However, by extrapolating his argument a bit further, one can begin to approach its contribution to political philosophy. In Nietzsche’s 1888 self-assessment Ecce Homo, he describes The Birth of Tragedy as “indifferent toward politics” (1:726), yet with a little work, one can indeed ferret out a concomitant politics from among the aesthetics.

The way to approach the political dimension of The Birth of Tragedy is to take into account what Nietzsche refers to as the principle of individuation. Nietzsche has set up a theoretical schematic that fluctuates between not only the Apollinian and Dionysian but also between the individual and the community. By way of the Apollinian principium individuationis, humans are capable of experiencing the joy, wisdom, and beauty of illusion (1:36). This illusion, however, is a veil hiding the true nature of nature itself, and as is clear from the above table, only half of the story.

To those trapped within this world of mere appearance, the ecstasies of Dionysian revelers appear as “folk-diseases” à la St. Vitus’ dance (1:37). Such ecstasies, nevertheless, are the reaffirmation of the union of person with person as well as the reconciliation of humanity with nature. The Apollinian principium corresponds to a Dionysian “higher community” in which the individual is subsumed under both a convergence of all of humanity and of nature: “Now, with the gospel of universal harmony, each one feels himself not only united, reconciled, and fused with his neighbor, but as one with him, as if the veil of māyā had been torn aside and were now merely fluttering in tatters before the mysterious primordial unity” (1:37).

Within the Dionysian, there is only the community; it is within the Apollinian that nature is dismembered into individuals (2:40). A society that accepts Dionysianism would have no problem with social games such as the “orgiastic Sacaea”—a Babylonian festival in which slaves rule their masters and a criminal is given all royal rights before being put to death at the end of the five-day celebration (cf. n. on pp. 36-37). Despite the eventual return to Apollinian order, the Dionysian allows for a more sublime appreciation of that order by turning it on its head, if only for a few days. In addition, recognition of the illusory nature of the Apollinian is liberating: “Now the slave is a free man; now all the rigid, hostile barriers that necessity, caprice, or ‘impudent convention’ have fixed between man and man are broken” (1:37). However, the pure Dionysian is not privileged either. Nietzsche warns against the “most savage natural instincts” and the “horrible mixture of sensuality and cruelty” (2:39). It is the constant fluctuation between the Apollinian and Dionysian as well as between the individual and unified community within nature that gives life its meaning and not the choice of one over the other.

Nietzsche’s conception of community, therefore, is necessarily political, yet he is not automatically pro-democracy. Instead, his attitude toward democracy is markedly ambivalent. Perhaps this ambivalence is tied to what he sees as democracy’s origin and its relation to the Apollinian drive and the subsequent herd. In his 1886 “Attempt at a Self-Criticism,” he ties democracy to “a leveling mediocrity” (6:25). This appraisal of democracy, however, is not unique and certainly cannot be read as essentially Nietzschean or postmodern. Plato himself—the founder of political philosophy—decried what he saw as little better than mob rule and often ranked democracy below other, less free forms of government.

To get at what he might mean by democracy’s mediocrity, one only need look elsewhere in his work. In On the Genealogy of Morals, Nietzsche posits that only the good have a sense of community because all interaction—even that with an enemy—is predicated on (the possibility of) repayment: “the community … stands to its members in that same vital basic relation … of the creditor to his debtors” (II:9:507). But the conception of evil can ruin any tribe: “While every noble morality develops from a triumphant affirmation of itself, slave morality from the outset says No to what is ‘outside,’ what is ‘different,’ what is ‘not itself’ … in order to exist, slave morality always first needs a hostile external world” (I:10:472-473). Apollinian individuals, therefore, can form a type of inferior community—one based on ressentiment which prevents any true community from forming: “With the growth of the community, a new interest grows for the individual, too, and often lifts him above the most personal element in his discontent, his aversion to himself…. All the sick and sickly instinctively strive after a herd organization as a means of shaking off their dull displeasure and feeling of weakness: … it is the instinct of weakness that has willed the herd” (III:18:571-572). Hence, we have Nietzsche’s “herd” where others might use the term “democracy.”

The political implications of Nietzsche’s aesthetics are problematized further when he refuses to offer a new foundation for politics, an alternative neither to the herd nor to the continual flux. However, he is willing to entertain the notion that by staying in flux, politics can become utterly superfluous in an almost post-dialectical sense: “As its power increases, a community ceases to take the individual’s transgressions so seriously, because they can no longer be considered as dangerous and destructive to the whole as they were formerly” (II:10:508). By allowing its penal system to become more moderate, a strong society can eventually overcome itself by attaining “the noblest luxury possible to it—letting those who harm it go unpunished … mercy remains the privilege of the most powerful” (II:10:508-509). Until that time, however, we are left to fend for ourselves against one another as well as against the cold monster of the state that lies and tells us we are a part of it.

In this way, the political institutions and sociopolitical order can be read as the necessary Apollinian aspect that attempts to reign in the terror of the real world, expressed by Dionysian anarchy and terror itself. On an institutional level, how are we to deal with individuals as individuals when the artificial order of politics ignores the “primal unity” of all people as well as the Dionysian “community” outside that order? With Euripides, we see the privileging of mere appearance above reality, the privileging of the individual above the community. In this way, tragedy serves as an analogue of reality as well as an analogue of society itself—a merging of the individual and the communal. After the death of tragedy, the simulacrum of the theater reflects the artificiality of society; appearance reflects back mere appearance until all has been reduced to pure image. Even the gods atop Mount Olympus merely reflect the Greek social structures. Nevertheless, beneath the surface of illusion and beyond the principium remains the primordial Dionysian terror and ecstasy. All good Apollinian citizens still will cling to their stable sociopolitical institutions, but they will only be making themselves more vulnerable to those instances when the veil of illusion is lifted to reveal the chaos and terror behind it.

* Citations from The Birth of Tragedy and Ecce Homo include both section number and page number; citations from On the Genealogy of Morals include a preceding Roman numeral indicating the essay number.

Works Cited

Nietzsche, Friedrich. The Birth of Tragedy, or Hellenism and Pessimism. New Edition with an Attempt at a Self-Criticism. In Basic Writings of Nietzsche. Trans. and ed. Walter Kaufmann. New York: Modern Library, 1992. 15-144.

---. Ecce Homo: How One Becomes What One Is. In Basic Writings of Nietzsche. Trans. and ed. Walter Kaufmann. New York: Modern Library, 1992. 671-791.

---. On the Genealogy of Morals: A Polemic. In Basic Writings of Nietzsche. Trans. and ed. Walter Kaufmann. New York: Modern Library, 1992. 449-599.

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