Today when we are asked to name the most significant philosopher of the nineteenth century, we are likely to choose a man who was not a professional philosopher at all, whose work is aphoristic rather than formally rigorous, suffused with a rhetoric rooted more in Luther and Wagner than in the Western philosophical tradition. Nietzsche’s particular modernity reflects the fact that, in contrast with his predecessors who took the human scene of representation as an a priori ethical model, Nietzsche situates the emergence of scenic self-consciousness, in its ethical as well as its esthetic mode, in human history.

The Birth of Tragedy, Nietzsche’s first book, proposes an originary hypothesis of what is presented as the exemplary scenic form; by a paradox taken for granted since the German Enlightenment, the paradoxical tragic dynamic is the highest revelation of the human. In contrast stand, on one hand, the twin components of the tragic, the collective “witches’ brew” of the Dionysian, artistically exemplified in music, and the Apollonian art of the principium individuationis, as manifested in sculpture and in “naïve” Homeric epic; and, on the other, the anesthetic, rational-scientific attitude whose original exemplar is Socrates, which has dominated European culture since the Renaissance. Yet there is hope, for Germany at any rate: Wagnerian opera reconstitutes the tragic tension between Dionysian sound and Apollonian words and images. We should recall that The Birth of Tragedy appeared at the moment of the formation of the Second Reich after victory in the 1870-71 Franco-Prussian War–a moment explicitly referred to in the original dedication of the work to Richard Wagner. German opera extends into the cultural sphere the geopolitical hegemony attained by the newly formed German nation over the nation of Descartes and Voltaire, the homeland of modern Socratic optimism.

For Nietzsche, Athenian tragedy emerges when the Dionysian “spirit of music” is supplemented by Apollonian language. Yet the emergence of this exemplary articulation of human unconsciousness and self-consciousness is never staged in the text. Nietzsche’s formulations of the origin of tragedy always stop short of describing a specific scene:

1. I don’t think I’m saying anything illogical when I claim that the problem of [the origin of Greek tragedy] has not once been seriously formulated up to now, let alone solved . . .

This tradition tells us very emphatically that tragedy developed out of the tragic chorus and originally consisted only of a chorus and nothing else. This fact requires us to look into the heart of this tragic chorus as the essential original drama . . . (7)

2. Enchantment is the precondition for all dramatic art. In this enchantment the Dionysian reveler sees himself as a satyr, and then, in turn, as a satyr he looks at his god. That is, in his transformed state he sees a new vision outside himself as an Apollonian fulfillment of his condition. With this new vision drama is complete.

With this knowledge in mind, we must understand Greek tragedy as the Dionysian chorus which over and over again constantly discharges itself [entladet] in an Apollonian world of images. (8)

3. It is an incontestable tradition that Greek tragedy in its oldest form had as its subject only the suffering of Dionysus and that for a long time later the individually present stage heroes were only Dionysus. But with the same certainty we can assert that right up to the time of Euripides Dionysus never ceased being the tragic hero, that all the famous figures of the Greek theatre, like Prometheus, Oedipus, and so on, are only masks of that primordial hero Dionysus. (10)

4. For this is the way religions tend to die out, namely, when the mythical pre-conditions of a religion, under the strong, rational eyes of an orthodox dogmatism become classified as a closed totality of historical events and people begin anxiously to defend the credibility of their myths, but to resist the naturally continuing life and growth of those myths, and when the feeling for the myth dies out and in its place the claim to put religion on a historical footing steps onto the scene.

The newly born genius of Dionysian music now seized these dying myths, and in its hands myth blossomed again [i.e., in tragedy], with colors which it had never shown before, with a scent which stirred up a longing premonition of a metaphysical world. (10; all emphasis mine)

The Dionysian-Apollonian dichotomy restores to the Kantian distinction between beautiful form and its sublime transcendence a temporal, dialectical dimension. The “discharge” of Dionysian energy into Apollonian form is the process by which the unconscious mimetic rhythm of desire is transformed into a formal opposition between sign and sacred object; in other words, it is a model of the originary event. The “suffering of Dionysius,” the “myth” to which Nietzsche refers in the fourth passage, is that of the originary sparagmos, yet the chorus that “discharges itself” through the figural vision of the god is never designated as the cause of this suffering, nor is the latter presented as the link between the mortal victim and the “Apollonian” figure of the god. Nietzsche’s theory of the scene begins in medias res with the esthetic already in place and the witches’ brew of sacrificial ritual well behind us. The contrast with Hegel is striking; where the latter, unconcerned with the historical genesis of the scene of representation, defines the central human confrontation as mortal combat, Nietzsche theorizes the scene as constituted precisely by the esthetic transcendence of any such violence. Tragedy is conceived less as a functioning institution than as a privileged cultural state in which the Athenians of a certain period were privileged to dwell, where the Apollonian principium individuationis stands in perfect equilibrium with the depersonalizing Dionysian flux of mimetic desire. The temporal flow of the latter is “discharged” in the stability of the former through anthropogenic suffering, death, and transfiguration in which mimetic conflict is nonetheless always already transcended in esthetic unanimity.

Thus the central figure who emerges from within the chorus of satyrs is already transcendent; the single actor playing the role of the god is not opposed to the others, but merely incarnates their “vision.” Nietzsche’s scene eliminates the constitutive tension between sacred center and human periphery. On the contrary, elsewhere he describes the scene as constituted by unanimous suffering in imitation of Dionysus:

[W]e have now come to the insight that the scene (Scene) together with the action is basically and originally thought of only as a vision, that the single “reality” is the chorus itself, which creates the vision out of itself and speaks of that with the entire symbolism of dance, tone, and word.

This chorus in its vision gazes at its lord and master Dionysus and is thus always the chorus of servants. The chorus sees how Dionysus, the god, suffers and glorifies himself, and thus it does not itself act. But in this role, as complete servants in relation to the god, the chorus is nevertheless the highest, that is, the Dionysian expression of nature and, like nature, thus in its frenzy speaks the language of oracular wisdom, as the fellow-sufferer as well as wise person reporting the truth from the heart of the world. So arises that fantastic and apparently jarring figure of the wise and frenzied satyr, who is, at the same time, “the naïve man” in contrast to the god: an image of nature and its strongest drives, the very symbol of nature and at the same time the announcer of its wisdom and art: musician, poet, dancer, visionary–in a single person.

Dionysus, the essential stage hero and centre of the vision is, according to this insight and to tradition, not really present in the very oldest periods of tragedy, but only imagined as present. That is, originally tragedy was only “chorus” and not “drama.” Later the attempt was made to show the god as real and then to present in a way visible to every eye the visionary figure together with the transfiguring setting. At that point “drama” in the strict sense begins. Now the dithyrambic chorus takes on the task of stimulating the mood of the listeners right up to a Dionysian level of excitement, so that when the tragic hero appeared on the stage, they did not see something like an awkward masked person but a visionary shape born, as it were, out of their own enchantment. (8)

What appears on the Nietzschean scene is not violence and deferral, but the chorus’s “vision” of the suffering god, seeing which “they do not act,” yet combine in their inaction all cultural roles: wise and frenzied, natural and artistic. Nietzsche’s collectivity only “later” takes on the role of the divinity to the end of “stimulating the mood of the listeners,” who in turn see the actor as the Apollonian “visionary shape” of the god.

Nietzsche’s concern with the tragic scene is neither antiquarian nor anthropological; it is a manifesto of cultural nationalism, both the most extreme and the most insightful of the countless efforts of German thinkers since Herder to identify the emerging German nation with the cultural glory of Greece. Thus the sole “tragic” scene described in any detail is taken from a Wagner opera:

To these genuine musicians I direct the question whether they can imagine a human being who would be able to perceive the third act of Tristan and Isolde, without any aid of word and image, purely as a tremendous symphonic movement, without expiring in a spasmodic unharnessing of all the wings of the soul?

. . . But if such a work could nevertheless be perceived as a whole, without denial of individual existence; if such a creation could be created without smashing its creator–whence do we take the solution of such a contradiction?

Here the tragic myth and the tragic hero intervene between our highest musical emotion and this music–at bottom only as symbols of the most universal facts, of which only music can speak so directly. But if our feelings were those of entirely Dionysian beings, myth as a symbol would remain totally ineffective and unnoticed, and would never for a moment keep us from listening to the re-echo of the universalia ante rem [universals before things]. Yet here the Apollonian power erupts to restore the almost shattered individual with the healing balm of blissful illusion: suddenly we imagine we see only Tristan, motionless, asking himself dully: “The old tune, why does it wake me?” And what once seemed to us like a hollow sigh from the core of being now merely wants to tell us how “desolate and empty the sea.” And where, breathless, we once thought we were being extinguished in a convulsive distention of all feelings, and little remained to tie us to our present existence, we now hear and see only the hero wounded to death, yet not dying, with his despairing cry: “Longing! Longing! In death still longing! for very longing not dying!” And where, formerly after such an excess and superabundance of consuming agonies, the jubilation of the horn cut through our hearts almost like the ultimate agony, the rejoicing Kurwenal now stands between us and this “jubilation in itself,” his face turned toward the ship which carries Isolde. However powerfully pity affects us, it nevertheless saves us in a way from the primordial suffering of the world, just as the symbolic image of the myth saves us from the immediate perception of the highest world-idea, just as thought and word save us from the uninhibited effusion of the unconscious will. The glorious Apollonian illusion makes it appear as if even the tone world confronted us as a sculpted world, as if the fate of Tristan and Isolde had been formed and molded in it, too, as in an exceedingly tender and expressive material. (21)

The opera-goer participates in the originary passage from “expiring” to a “blissful illusion” that is presented as a remedy for “the primordial suffering of the world.” The “symbolic image” of myth and its “thought and word” save us from the “unconscious will” that is nothing other than the potentially deadly force of mimetic desire. Tristan is dying, but the Dionysian music of death has now been imaginarily transformed into the “sculpted world” of immortal form.

Here the tragic saves us from the temporal necessity of death by suspending time in “sculpted” form. This opposition does not coincide exactly with the spectator’s oscillation between identification with the work’s desiring content (fulfillment of Tristan’s love) and that with sacrificial form (which requires his death). In the latter case, the transcendent meaning of tragic representation emerges from the opposition between the states of the human condition in which the spectator participates: fulfillment of desire (as if it were mine) and its necessary sacrifice (as the desire of the tragic victim). Nietzsche’s opposition is rather between two modes of participation: the impersonal Dionysian flux and the individualized Apollonian vision, each one of which is already formalized in art. Just as the Bacchic chorus is never accused of the murder of Dionysus, so the opera-goer is never accused of desiring the hero’s death. To identify with Tristan as an individual is to separate oneself from the participatory flux and imagine him as “sculpted,” that is, as immortal. When, in contrast, we participate in his death, it is not as his sacrificers but by “expiring” along with him “in a spasmodic unharnessing of all the wings of the soul.” Whether I lose or affirm the individual self, there is no question of my affirming my self through the death of the other. In his desire to see tragedy as a dynamic equilibrium between the mortal world and the timeless world of representation, Nietzsche ignores the agon at its center from which this equilibrium emerges.

The Birth of Tragedy bears the seeds of the horrors that would emerge from German estheticism in the following century. The “tragic” as an antidote to decadence replaces the petty pleasures of worldly exchange and conflict with a utopian communion in death and life. We all know of Nietzsche’s contempt for vulgar antisemitism–that of his brother-in-law, for example; yet he is not loath to put forth tragedy as the sign of Aryan masculine dignity in contrast with the “feminine frailties” of the Semitic:

The legend of Prometheus is indigenous to the entire community of Aryan races and attests to their prevailing talent for profound and tragic vision. In fact, it is not improbable that this myth has the same characteristic importance for the Aryan mind as the myth of the Fall has for the Semitic, and that the two myths are related as brother and sister. . . . Man’s highest good must be bought with a crime and paid for by the flood of grief and suffering which the offended divinities visit upon the human race in its noble ambition. An austere notion, this, which by the dignity it confers on crime presents a strange contrast to the Semitic myth of the Fall–a myth that exhibits curiosity, deception, suggestibility, concupiscence, in short a whole series of principally feminine frailties, as the root of all evil. What distinguishes the Aryan conception is an exalted notion of active sin as the properly Promethean virtue; this notion provides us with the ethical substratum of pessimistic tragedy, which comes to be seen as a justification of human ills, that is to say of human guilt as well as the suffering purchased by that guilt. (9; emphasis the author’s)

The same retrospectively sinister opposition between Aryan and Semite will reappear in the Genealogy of Morals at the moment of Nietzsche’s most consequent philosophical achievement, the promotion of ressentiment to its rightful anthropological role. Ressentiment is a Semitic vice, in contrast with Achilles’ noble “wrath”; Christianity is the triumph of “the slave revolt in morality” begun by the Jews. This contrast, however ill-founded, remains with us to this day. In Nietzsche’s eyes, the scene of esthetic representation is constituted by the suspension of the ethical. I need not elaborate on how the dignity of crime was interpreted in Germany between 1933 and 1945.

Nietzsche is both the first genuine theoretician of the scene of representation and a dangerous mystifier whose historical hypothesis presents the scenic as the transcendence of the ethical, “beyond good and evil.” We will be able to evaluate objectively Nietzsche’s anthropological achievement only when neither the Right, as in the Nazi era, nor the Left, as in our own, is able to exploit this transcendence for its own ends.