Tragedy, Pessimism, NietzscheAuthor(s): Joshua Foa DienstagReviewed work(s):Source: New Literary History, Vol. 35, No. 1, ...
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Tragedy, pessimism, nietzsche, by joshua foa dienstag
Tragedy, pessimism, nietzsche, by joshua foa dienstag
Tragedy, pessimism, nietzsche, by joshua foa dienstag
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Tragedy, pessimism, nietzsche, by joshua foa dienstag

  1. 1. Tragedy, Pessimism, NietzscheAuthor(s): Joshua Foa DienstagReviewed work(s):Source: New Literary History, Vol. 35, No. 1, Rethinking Tragedy (Winter, 2004), pp. 83-101Published by: The Johns Hopkins University PressStable URL: .Accessed: 23/09/2012 12:13Your use of the JSTOR archive indicates your acceptance of the Terms & Conditions of Use, available at . is a not-for-profit service that helps scholars, researchers, and students discover, use, and build upon a wide range ofcontent in a trusted digital archive. We use information technology and tools to increase productivity and facilitate new formsof scholarship. For more information about JSTOR, please contact The Johns Hopkins University Press is collaborating with JSTOR to digitize, preserve and extend access to New Literary History.
  2. 2. Tragedy, Pessimism, Nietzsche Joshua Foa Dienstag All the tragedies which we can imagine return in the end to the one and only tragedy: the passage of time. ?Simone Weil Who today would the label of pessimist for themselves? claim We employ the word "pessimism" today largely to name an unhealthy psychological disposition. Like a mysterious tropical disease, pessimism is something we fear to catch without quiteknowing what its symptoms are. While tragedy and its history have been the of intense academic for more than a subject scrutiny century,pessimism and its history have languished in obscurity. Indeed, it stillneeds pointing out today that pessimism has a history, and a complicated one at that. In fact, pessimism is a philosophy?a philosophy at the heart of thedebate, both aesthetic and political, about tragedy. Today, "pessimistic" is also a that we are to attach to those views we find predicate eagerobjectionable. But when Friedrich Nietzsche reissued The Birth of Tragedyin 1886, he added the subtitle Hellenism and Pessimism and emphasized, in the new introduction, that what he still approved of in the book was its examination of "the good severe will of the older Greeks to pessimism, to the Since that time, the link between tragic myth."1 pessimismand tragedy, the claim that tragedy is "the art form of pessimism" (BT17), has been the object of a kind of sub-rosa debate in the scholarshipon tragedy. It has often been equated (quite wrongly, I think) with theidea that tragedy is distinctly and purely an ancient Greek form ofaesthetic activity. And this has been the dividing line between those whohave sought to impose strict boundaries on the genre of tragedy and those who have urged a more expansive view. The terms of this debatehave, in many ways, changed very little since George Steiner andRaymond Williams set out opposing positions on these questions in theearly 1960s. And yet much of this debate has taken place in ignorance of thepessimistic tradition, or even of the distinctive way in which NietzscheNew Literary History, 2004, 35: 83-101
  3. 3. 84 NEW LITERARY HISTORYunderstood the he ascribed to the ancient Greeks. Pessi "pessimism"mism is not a Greek term, of course, and Nietzsches use of it was ananachronism. But while he did want, with this label, to indicate thedistinctiveness of tragic feeling, his intent was hardly to isolate it in thefifth century BCE. Indeed, Nietzsches ultimate term for his own (verymodern) philosophy is "Dionysian pessimism," where "Dionysus" indicates the ultimate author and actor of all tragedy (BT 73). It would bewell then for scholars of tragedy to re-examine its relations withpessimism, both to get at the roots of this debate as well as to get somepurchase on the question of tragedys social and philosophical origins. Much more is at stake than the proper meaning of terms. Thecontinuing political charge in questions of tragedy also finds its genesishere. This is clear enough in Terry Eagletons recent study of tragedy.For the claim that tragedy issues from pessimism has been linked (questionably, as we shall see) to the claim that the tragic is perspectiveno longer readily available to us. And this claim has also been linked (again, questionably) to the idea that tragedy is a naturally elitistperspective. Eagleton refers breezily to the "right-wing death-of-tragedy thesis," as if the connection between and antidemocratic pessimism were so well-established as to no whatever.2politics require explanationLess blithely, Paul Gordon attempts to liberate a "rapturous" Nietzschean onperspective tragedy from its association with Steiner. It is striking that, in so, he denies that Nietzsches views in doing specifically originate Nietzsches we are told, "is not atpessimism; pessimism, really pessimismall."3 The idea that and Gordon share, then, is a one: if Eagleton simple is it must lead nowhere, or else nowhere fromtragedy pessimistic, gooda political perspective. It is this presumption I want to challenge. While Nietzsches pessimism not to our use of the term, I would may correspond easily everydayargue that it is our blindness about pessimism, combined with ouranxiety about it, that are the real stumbling blocks here. "The idea thata is necessarily one of discouragement," Camus pessimistic philosophyonce wrote, "is a idea, but one that needs too a refutation."4 puerile longTaking up Camuss challenge will not only deepen our understanding of tragedy but itwill also show that the political implications of pessimism are not those often assumed. The fact that Camus, aom-tragedy veryradical egalitarian, would defend pessimism, gives some indication of its to unsettle, rather than confirm,potential existing political arrangements. To say that tragedy is pessimistic is not to say that it encouragesquietism or that it is antidemocratic. In the right hands, pessimism hasbeen?and can still be?an and even liberating ethic. This energizingneeds to be taken into account, both in our estimation of tragedy itself,and in our evaluation of Steiners claims in The Death of Tragedy and the reactions to them.many
  4. 4. TRAGEDY, PESSIMISM, NIETZSCHE 85 I While the word "pessimism" itself came into widespread use only in the nineteenth it names a or set of century, clearly persistent thought, thoughts, that has recurred often in social and political theory, in tandem with its opposite, at least since the Enlightenment. Leibniz firstused the term as a correlate to "maximum" (and as "optimum," opposed to "minimum"), in his Th?odic?e of 1710. French writers then began to refer to his doctrine as one of The term crosses optimisme. apparently into English with the popularity of Voltaires Candide ou VOptimisme of 1759. The first known printed appearance of "pessimism" in English then follows a few decades later, although the context seems to indicate that the term was in use.5 however, one already Philosophically, mightdate the emergence of pessimism to the appearance in 1750 of RousseausDiscourse On the Arts and Sciences, with its characterization of modern manas a moral While Rousseaus ideas were seconded, in the degenerate. nineteenth in such works as Moral as wellearly century, Leopardis Essaysas in his poetry, pessimism achieved its brief period of genuine popular ity through the work of Schopenhauer, whose Parerga and Paralipomenawent through many editions after its initial publication in 1851. Thereaf ter, pessimism, while never a dominant school in was a well philosophy,recognized position for at least several generations.6 And this work waspart of the context that made possible the literature (for example,Dostoyevsky, Ibsen, Strindberg) which we now readily refer to aspessimistic. What the pessimists share, as I have argued elsewhere, is aview of human existence as time-bound and, hence, fundamentally to the vicissitudes of time, in any features.7 subject lacking permanent is most famous for this view: "Time and thatSchopenhauer perhapsperishability of all things existing in time that time itself brings about....Time is that by virtue of which everything becomes nothingness in ourhands and loses all real value."8 Nietzsches relationship to the pessimists who preceded him was one of uniform celebration. He called Rousseau a "moralhardly tarantula" and although initially inspired by Schopenhauers philosophy, he eventually dissociated himself from its systematic conclusions a respect for its critical was also (while retaining spirit). Nietzscheunkind toward the pessimists popular in the Germany of his day,especially Eduard von Hartmann, the prominent Berlin philosopher;Nietzsche called him "completely abysmal."9 Nietzsche believed that thepessimism of both Hartmann and Schopenhauer led directly to nihilism. Indeed, the very popularity of this form of pessimism in the latenineteenth was one of the factors that convinced Nietzsche that centurynihilism would soon enjoy a temporary dominance of European society.
  5. 5. 86 NEW LITERARY HISTORY then, Nietzsche does not mean either of two By "pessimism," thingswith which we might be tempted to identify it?it indicates neither adepressive personality nor the of Arthur philosophy Schopenhauer.Indeed, in the same introduction where Nietzsche insists on thepessimistic origin of tragedy, he goes to great pains to differentiate theview he has in mind from that of Schopenhauer, which was at the heightof its popularity in Germany when Nietzsche wrote. His own "strangeand new valuations," the introduction claims, "were at odds basicallywith ... Schopenhauers spirit and taste!" (BT24). Intermixed with his however, is an account of another kind of Nietzschecritique, pessimism.viewed it as "that that is . . . the to to courageous pessimism way myself, task."10 he his alternative the namemy Ultimately, gave "Dionysianpessimism."11 II Thetask that The Birth of Tragedy set itself was to explain not only theappearance of Greek tragedy, but also its decline in Greek society afterEuripides. As is well known, Nietzsche hypothesizes that Socratesintroduction (and Platos furtherance) of a rationalistic philosophydestroyed the preexisting cultural grounds for Greek tragedy (BT Slfi.).But what exactly did Socrates destroy, and how was this possible? Why, inany case, should a philosopher have had the power to affect the theater?The answer lies in the that Nietzsche associates with the pessimism preSocratic philosophers and his belief that their ideas reflected theoriginal character of early Greek culture. "Tragedy," as he put it in a notefrom this "is the outlet of period, mystic-pessimistic knowledge."12Pessimism was the philosophical basis for the plays of Aeschylus andSophocles. This was the wisdom that the pre-Socratics possessed and thatlater generations first denied and then forgot. Socrates is the agent ofthis change because his philosophy is essentially optimistic (BT 91ff.) .13 Nietzsche did not think of optimism and pessimism as two equal, ifopposite, ways of looking at the world, as we might today; rather ... is older and more than"pessimism original optimism" (KGW4.1.208). Pessimism is the domain of the Ionian philosophers who Socrates and whose we inpreceded teachings possess only fragments.Instead of trying to construct a systematic, ordering as philosophy,Socrates and Plato were to do, the the chaotic and pre-Socratics graspeddisordered nature of the world and only attempted to cope with it,insofar as that was possible: "Pessimism is the consequence of knowledgeof the absolute illogic of the world-order" (KGW3.3.74).
  6. 6. TRAGEDY, PESSIMISM, NIETZSCHE 87 In other notes from this period, Nietzsche first attributes to Democritus the doctrine that "the world [is] without moral and aesthetic meaning"and calls this idea "the pessimism of accidents" (KGW 3.4.151). InPhilosophy in the Tragic Age of the Greeks (written at about the same time asThe Birth but published only posthumously), he likens Anaximander to Schopenhauer and calls him "the first philosophical author of the ancients." He on to describe Anaximander as a "true and goes pessimist"quotes his only extant fragment to justify the label: "Where the source of is, to that must also to things place they pass away, according necessity, for they must pay penance and be judged for their injustices, in accordance with the ordinance of Time."14 In other words, the as Nietzsche them, pre-Socratics, interpretedgrasped the animating principle of pessimism: that time is an unshakableburden for human beings because it leads to the ultimate destruction ofall things?and that this fate belies any principle of order that may, on the surface, to the course of events. Of course, whether appear guide any of the pre-Socratics would have put things this way is debatable (although Heraclitus, in particular, is certainly often understood in thisfashion). What is important here is that Nietzsche understood them tobe doing so, that he understood the root of pessimism to be, as he laterwrote, "time-sickness [Zeit-Krankheit" (KGW7.2.51). The epigraph fromWeil captures the thought exactly: it is the destructive power of time that stands behind any particular cause of suffering in the world. Nietzsche considered tragic theater to be an outgrowth of this view of the universe as in flux, in the of something constantly constantly processbecoming and, thus, in the process of The ravages constantly destroying.of time could not be cured or compensated for through tragedy, onlyunderstood: ... is in its essence Existence is in "Tragedy pessimistic. itself something very terrible, man something very foolish" (KGW 3.2.38). Nietzsche rejects the conclusion, popular since Aristotle, that tragedy offers some kind of purification of the emotions generated by the terrible truths of the human condition.15 He also rejects the idea that contain some sort of moral lesson meant to instruct us in tragedies ethical behavior. Instead, he argues, tragedy simply serves to lay bare forus the horrible situation of human existence that the pre-Socraticphilosophers describe, a situation from which our minds would otherwise flee: "The hero of tragedy does not prove himself ... in a struggleagainst fate, just as little does he suffer what he deserves. Rather, blindand with covered head, he falls to his ruin: and his desolate but nobleburden with which he remains standing in the presence of this wellknown world of terrors presses itself like a thorn in our soul" (KGW 3.2.38). The tragic outlook is thus generated from a base of pessimistic It recommends no cure for the of existence, aknowledge. pains onlypublic recognition of their depth and power.
  7. 7. 88 NEW LITERARY HISTORY From the beginning, too, this view is associated with the Dionysian, "the mother of the mysteries, tragedy, pessimism" (KGW 3.3.309). TheAthenian public theatrical festivals were known as the Dionysia, andNietzsche goes so far as to claim the existence of a tradition "that Greek tragedy in its earliest form had for its sole theme the sufferings ofDionysus" (BT73).16 In Nietzsches account, Dionysus suffers the proto typical agonies of existence inflicted by time. He is severed from theeternal flux and individuated, then torn to pieces and reunited with thewhole: "This view of things already provides us with all the elements of aprofound and pessimistic view of the world, together with the mysterydoctrine of tragedy: the fundamental knowledge of the oneness of every the conception as thething existent, of individuaci?n primal cause ofevil, and of art as the joyous hope that the spell of individuation may bebroken in augury of a restored oneness" (BT 10). Dionysian suffering is essentially human suffering. In tragedy, this is indicated by a connection between the various elements involved in thepublic performance of the drama. The tragic hero, to Nietzsche, simplypersonifies the "Dionysian state" of the chorus as a whole (BT73). Thechorus is likewise "the mirror-image in which the Dionysian mancontemplates himself and also "a vision of the Dionysian mass of (BT63). Thus, actor, chorus, and are all connected inspectators" publictragedy through their Dionysian character (PT165). Each is a fragmenttorn from the whole. Nietzsche is here but also reconstitut critiquing, ing, the traditional philological stance that the chorus represents theGreek public itself. Although he sharply attacks the original proponentsof this view, he, in fact, proposes not to reject it but to modify it. He will the connection of citizens and chorus on the condition thataccept onlythe Greek public is understood as a unique a phenomenon, "Dionysianthrong," that is, as a public already infected with the pessimistic wisdomof the pre-Socratics.17 Nietzsches conception is, then, just the opposite of the elitism it isoften associated with. Tragic knowledge is not something to which onlya few have access. Instead, the theater can function, on privileged tragichis account, only when the ethos of pessimism is shared throughout thedemos. When Nietzsche rails against the "democratization" of taste inpost-Socratic Athens, he does not mean the larger population has anatural distaste for tragedy; his complaint is only that the lower classesare to Socrates to their particularly susceptible optimism. Appealingsuffering, it has the effect of stoking their resentments against the rich. (If people were naturally optimistic, Socrates role would be unimportant. If anything is "natural," it is pessimism, though Nietzsche, whoeschews such terms, will only speak of it as "older and more original.")So, he writes, in a lecture on has contained Sophocles, "Tragedy always
  8. 8. TRAGEDY, PESSIMISM, NIETZSCHE 89a pure democratic character, as it springs from the people" (KGW2.3.17).18 Against this account of pessimism and tragedy as a kind of Dionysianwisdom, Nietzsche the new Socratic whose counterposes philosophy,characteristic feature now appears to be its optimism.19 Even while its ignorance, Socratic inquiry rejects the pessimistic ideaproclaiming that inquiry, like every human activity, is ultimately doomed: "For whocould mistake the optimistic element in the nature of dialectic, whichcelebrates a with conclusion . . . the element triumph every optimisticwhich, having once penetrated tragedy must gradually overgrow its regions and impel it necessarily to self-destruction" (BT 91).DionysianSocrates does not promise eternal happiness, but he does affirm boththat virtue results in happiness and that virtue can be taught?thushappiness theoretically is within the grasp of all.20 He denies that there is anything ultimately mysterious about life or inevitable about suffering: contrast with this practical pessimism, Socrates is the prototype of "By the theoretical optimist who, with his faith that the nature of things canbe fathomed, ascribes to knowledge and insight the power of a panacea" (BT 97). Notwithstanding Socrates fate at the hands of his fellow citizens,Nietzsche has no doubt that this approach, developed by Plato, wasultimately victorious in its struggle with tragedy: "Optimistic dialecticdrives music out of tragedy with the scourge of its syllogisms" (BT92).Just as the pessimism of an older generation of Greeks explains theorigin of tragedy, so the Socratic turn in Greek philosophy explains itsdemise. When the population adopted the optimistic perspective, the cultural context for tragedy evaporated (PT 161). From Nietzschesviewpoint, this was anything but a theoretical advance. Greek pessimismhad a fundamental honesty that Socratic-Platonic philosophy lacks. This in particular, he reemphasized in the 1886 introduction to Thepoint,Birth of Tragedy. While pessimism today, as it was in Nietzsches time, is commonly associated with ideas of cultural decay, he takes the Greek experience to indicate precisely the opposite: "Is pessimism necessarily a of decline ... as it once was in India and now is, to all sign appearances, us, modern men and Is there a of among Europeans? pessimism . . .And of strength? again: that of which tragedy died, the Socratismmorality, the dialectics, frugality, and cheerfulness of the theoreticalman?how now? Might not this very Socratism be a sign of decline ... Is the resolve to be so scientific about everything perhaps a kind of fear of, an escape from, pessimism? A subde last resort against?truth?" (BT 17-18). The Greeks of Socrates generation could no longer bear to live with the brutal truths of the human condition and sought refuge in an optimistic philosophy. To Nietzsche this was "morally speaking, a sort of
  9. 9. 90 NEW LITERARY HISTORYcowardice . . . a ruse" Either it was an amorally speaking, (BT 18). way,active self-deception that made life more tolerable but less genuine. Itwas a retreat from a real look at time-bound existence to a pleasingfantasy of progress and happiness. Thus, Nietzsche concludes, it is theoptimists who are the true harbingers of cultural decline. What else canwe call their weakening of resolve in comparison with the stance of theearlier Greeks? Nietzsches attack on Socrates and Plato is often taken tobe a defense of irrationalism, but from his perspective it is they who haveretreated from an honest assessment of the world. The vision pessimisticof the world as disordered, untamable, unfair, and fundamentallydestructive is the "truth" against which they close their eyes andwithdraw to a cave.21 Ill Tragic art is the organization of a small portion of an otherwisemeaningless world that gives purpose to an individual existence (WP585). It is the attempt to impose a temporary form on the inevitable transformation of the world. Since the world must some acquire particu lar forms in its art is in miniature, as it were, metamorphoses, "repeating the tendency of the whole" ( WP6l7)-only now by an effort of will. Thus,art is not an to the of existence, but rather to really attempt fight patternshape that pattern into something recognizable, "to realize in oneself theeternal joy of becoming-that joy which also encompasses joy in destruc tion (77110). When art assumes this it becomes "the seduction to life, shape, great the great stimulant to life" (WP 853). This is not to say, however, that such art must be "uplifting" in the conventional sense. Since joy indestruction may be a stimulant to life, even depictions of the mostmiserable things may be included: "The things they display are ugly: but that they display them comes from their pleasure in the ugly . . .How liberating is Dostoevsky!" (WP 821). If we can understand why an artist like Dostoyevsky, who knows that art is devoid of metaphysical value,would still want to write, then we can understand why Nietzsche thinkspessimism can result in a creative pathos. Similarly, if we can see how tragedy, the "repetition in miniature" of worldly chaos, can represent the liberating joy of becoming," then we can get a sense for the politicalproductivity of a pessimistic ethic. The normal situation of an architect, I think, helps us to get somepurchase on this: any sane architect must know that no building lastsforever. Built in opposition to nature but using the unstable materials ofnature (as, to some extent, human structure must be), every every
  10. 10. TRAGEDY, PESSIMISM, NIETZSCHE 91 edifice will be attacked by nature so (by wind, by water, by gravity, and forth) the moment it is completed. Whatever the purpose for which it is initially designed, that purpose will someday be superseded. Howeverbeautiful it may seem when erected, it will to another set of someday, Yet, all this, architects pursue their craft. eyes, appear ugly. knowingKnowing that the universe will ultimately not tolerate their work, they continue to a small of that same universe for local organize portionpurposes. The lack of an objective or metaphysical meaning for the work is no obstacle; indeed, architects often think of the generation of locally environments out of natural waste to be a ameaningful particular goal, to spur activity. then, is an ethos of a similar kind, an art of Dionysian pessimism, In it as a Nietzsche is, in some living.22 recommending life-practice, sense, the of life. But since, as he was thereby recommending practice fond of pointing out, there is really no perspective from which to view life as a whole (whether to deny or affirm it), such an assent can only be a kind of gamble or risk-taking. It is an affirmation in the dark, an approval given in ignorance. Above all, in keeping with the emphasis on the centrality of temporal experience, it is a decision to welcome theunknown future and the unseen rather than to a accept past, clinging familiar present.23 While other pessimisms (such as Schopenhauers) also conclude that the universe has no order and human no historyprogress, Dionysian pessimism is the one that can find something to like about this situation: new to new version of "My way yes- My pessimism as a for fearful and of beings. ... A voluntary quest questionable aspectspessimist such as that could in that way lead to a Dionysian yes-saying tothe world as it is: as a wish for its absolute return and eternity: with whicha new ideal of philosophy and sensibility would be given" (KGW 8.2.121). The phrase "fearful and questionable," which recurs frequently inNietzsches texts, is chosen to indicate what is at issue here.24 carefullyThe aspects of existence that we will have the greatest difficulty grasping and affirming are not the cruel and disgusting; rather, they are those so threatening to our sense of order that we have heretofore denied theirvery being, so that initially we find them "questionable" or "dubious."Which are these? In Twilight of the Idols, Nietzsche ridicules "the almost laughable poverty of instinct displayed by German philologists whenever they approach the Dionysian" (77108). Why laughable? Because these cannot the "instinct," so to underphilologists recognize speak, right their noses. The are "the of "Dionysian mysteries" simply mysteries . . . the sexual as sexuality symbol was to the Greeks the symbol venerable such, the intrinsic profound meaning of all antique piety" (77109). The absurdity of post-Socratic philosophy is ultimately demonstrated in its
  11. 11. 92 NEW LITERARY HISTORYattitudes toward sex and the body. What ought to be the most obviousand immediate source of knowledge and pleasure is not merely ob scured but almost entirely obliterated. Cruelty may be condemned bymorality but at least it is acknowledged; sexuality is eliminated from view through a process of "moral castrationism" WP204, ( 383). Pessimism, bycontrast, puts the terrible power of sexuality at the center of tragicdrama. Sexuality, not cruelty or violence, represents that part of life withwhich it is most difficult to come to terms. It is the most difficult notbecause it is inherently shameful ("It was only Christianity . . .whichmade of sexuality something impure" [77 109]). The difficulty lies inaffirming the necessity for pain and suffering that accompanies anygrowth. That is, it involves admitting that we ourselves (and not just theworld) are essentially flux and change, as our sexual experiencesdemonstrate. With its constant dissolution of ego-boundaries, sexuality is more threatening to the optimist than is the human tendency tocruelty. This violation of self?simultaneously painful and pleasurable? is the and best evidence that our own nature is as unstable and simplesttumultuous as that of the rest of the universe and that, therefore, nocalculation of our best interest can ever be permanent. It is this situationthat tragedy makes visible. The Dionysian is "the triumphant Yes to life beyond death and true life as collective continuation of lifechange; through procreation" (7/109). But this can come only at the cost of suffering, as the price tobe paid for continuous rebirth: "In the teaching of the mysteries, pain issanctified: the pains of childbirth sanctify pain in general?all becom and all that the . . .All ing growing, guarantees future, postulates pain.this is contained in the word Dionysus" (7/ 109). The Dionysian is notsimply sexuality (Nietzsche is not Freud); rather, the repression ofsexuality represents the repression of the "fearful and questionable" assuch. (Likewise, Greek tragedies are not simply sexual conflicts, thoughsuch conflicts are often at the core of them.) Accepting the necessity ofpain in a life of growth and change, setting aside the goal of happiness as theultimate aim of a human life, iswhat the Dionysian "yes" requires. To trulyembrace becoming at the expense of being means to take pleasure in thesuffering that accompanies the demise of whatever is. "The joy of Being is onlypossible as the joy of appearance [.] The joy of becoming is only possible in the destruction of the actuality of Beings, the beautiful visions, in thepessimistic annihilation of illusions. [I]n the destruction also of beautiful illusions, Dionysian as its climax" (i?GW8.1.114). joy appears The Dionysian "yes" is not a matter of taking a sadistic pleasure in thesuffering of others. Rather, it is a decision to value the future over thepresent. To be glad that ours is a world of becoming, rather than being,
  12. 12. TRAGEDY, PESSIMISM, NIETZSCHE 93means to be glad that things are always changing, that the future is and the away. It means detachalways coming present always passingment from whatever exists at present?something that will inevitably as callousness towards others: wisdom. in theappear "Dionysian Joydestruction of the most noble and at the sight of its progressive ruin: inreality joy in what is coming and lies in the future, which triumphs overexisting things, however good" (WP417). This iswhat Nietzsche had inmind such as or eternal recurrence. Not the idea by phrases "amorfati"that we must relive the past again and again, but rather that this patternof destruction and creation is unalterable and must be borne. And itcannot be withstood by means of faith in progress. We must learn tohope in the absence of an expectation of progress. If this sounds almostnonsensical to the modern ear, perhaps it is because we have been toldfor so long that progress is the rational thing to hope for. While no element of our life is unalterable, suffering is the unalterable price to be paid for changing it. It is this condition that we have nochoice but to accept as a whole or to reject through the hypocrisy of In a famous note, Nietzsche embodies the two choices asoptimism.25 "Dionysus and the Crucified": "The problem is that of the meaning of whether a Christian or a We can suffering: meaning tragic meaning." surely struggle to alter those elements of life within our purview, but wewill still be faced with the larger question where we cannot pick and choose. One alternative is to life, and its afflictions, as a whole: reject "The god on the cross is a curse on life, a signpost to seek redemptionfrom life." The other is to embrace life, with all the suffering entailed,both for ourselves and for others: cut to is a of "Dionysus pieces promise life: it will be eternally reborn and return again from destruction" WP ( 1052). If one the assessment of the world as a of accepts pessimistic place chaos and dissonance, one faces the choice of from it retreatingwholesale or embracing it and trying to "let a harmony sound forth fromevery conflict" WP 852). ( IV George Steiner, as far as I can tell, did not use the term "pessimism,"or its cognates, in The Death of Tragedy; but his interpretation has beencharacterized as pessimistic and, it must be said, with considerable as we use Nietzsches of this term, ratherjustice?so long understanding than the conventional one. For Steiners interpretation of tragedy repeats elements of Nietzsches view. First, there is the natural important condition of disorder and flux in the world, which is expressed in tragedy: "Tragedy," Steiner writes, "would have us know that there is in
  13. 13. 94 NEW LITERARY HISTORY the fact of human existence a or a it tells us very provocation paradox; that the purposes of men sometimes run the grain of against inexplicable and destructive forces."26 It teaches us "of the bias unfaltering toward inhumanity and destruction in the drift of the world" (7)7291).As in Nietzsche, offers no for this?"the wounds tragedy compensationare not healed the broken spirit is not mended" and (DT 129)?only acontrolled repetition of it. Then, there is the historical attack on this by the forces of optimism and rationality, which occurspessimismoutside the theater itself. While Steiner transposes the cultural shift thatNietzsche describes from the fifth century BCE to the seventeenthcentury CE, the transformation described is the same: "When the newworld picture of reason usurped the place of the old tradition ... theEnglish theatre entered its long decline" (DT 23). The culprit is notSocrates, but a Socratic Rousseau, or, rather, "The Rousseauist belief in the perfectibility "such a view of the human condition of man," since isradically optimistic" (7)7127-8). More broadly, of course, Steiner claimsthat it is the rise of the bourgeoisie, the commodification of everyday life, and the final victory of Christian metaphysics that diverted the Westfrom the theater to the novel and from tragedy to melodrama. But it isthe optimism that is the common root of such seemingly contrary forcesas the Enlightenment, the Church, the market, and even Marxism, that us of the proper context for tragedy.deprives Like Nietzsche, then, Steiner derives from and tragedy pessimismaccounts for the decline of tragedy by reference to the triumph of But what follows from this account, it should now be clear,optimism.need not be a aesthetics or Whatever Steiners reactionary politics. intent (which I do not pursue here, though I think it has often beenoversimplified), Nietzsches "Dionysian pessimism" is the source of hismost radical claims, claims that have, most to a series recently, appealedof radically democratic political theorists. Tracy Strong describesNietzsches as a "politics of transfiguration," and it is this theme politicsof self-shaping and self-transformation against a tragic backgroundwhich is the key link between Nietzsche and such figures as Camus,Arendt, Foucault, and William Connolly. Each of these writers has found in Nietzsche a portrait of energetic individuality that can be supportiveof democracy while remaining distinct from the liberal assumptions thatare often assumed to be a to democratic necessary complement theory.Nietzsches does not elitism, and it does not recom pessimism requiremend Instead, as these twentieth-century inheritors of Nietzsche passivity.have seen, it sanctions a of based not on an process identity-renovation on anassumption of the selfs natural integrity but, to the contrary,acknowledgment of its fundamental instability and perishability. While acknowledging limits to the human condition, this is a politics of
  14. 14. TRAGEDY, PESSIMISM, NIETZSCHE 95 more radical than most. It makes little sense, therefore, topossibility link pessimism (or pessimism-cwm-tragedy) with conservative politics.The pessimistic spirit is a restless one, unlikely to be enamored of the status quo. Relatedly, while the derivation of tragedy from pessimism does, asSteiner argued, require marking off a boundary of genre betweentragedy and cathartic, but ultimately hopeful, optimistic art forms, suchas melodrama, this account should not be taken to limit to a tragedyparticular time, place, or (least of all) class of people. To say that not allsuffering is tragedy is very different from saying that tragic suffering israre or to cultures. Indeed, there are several reasons specific particularfor thinking that the pessimistic account of tragedy, though not as limitless in its definition of the genre as others, is still an expansive one. In the first place, the insistence on the overpowering force of temporal flux means that there are no cultural conditions to permanent oppose (or foster) tragedy. Rather, it is the lack of such permanence that fosters tragedy. From this perspective, Raymond Williams is right to insist (contra Steiner) that tragedy emerges not from static belief but from "the real tension between old and new," that occurs in a something was no less negativevariety of contexts.27 Though Nietzsche than Steineron the baleful condition of modernity, he wrote The Birth at least in partbecause he thought the production of a new kind of musical tragedy waspossible.28 And even after he lost his faith inWagners abilities in thisregard, Nietzsche continued to insist on the openness of the future andthe potential for both new pessimistic art forms and new forms of life togo with them.29 When he came to classify Wagners work as a kind of romanticism and, hence, he turned to other modern pseudo-tragic,works, such as the of and Bizets Carmen. In the writings Dostoyevsky latter in particular, he found the "tragic joke" of our existence so well that he returned to see the his own account, no lessexpressed opera, by than twenty times (CW157-9). So, while the pessimistic conception of tragedy may remain hostile toworks of easy there is no barrier to in redemption, tragedys appearingour time or outside of the theater. Indeed, a pessimist must insist on theuniversal availability of tragic themes, if not on their perennial appearance.30 Not only did Nietzsche believe his own philosophy was one suchmanifestation, but he also found writing like Dostoyevskys to reflect, notnihilism, but precisely a pessimistic ethic. Nor should Nietzsches labeling of Dostoyevsky (and himself) as "liberating" surprise us. Pessimism is as much an ethic of radical possibility as it is of radical insecurity; indeed, the former is grounded in the latter. It is the lack of any naturalboundaries to human character that our permits, simultaneously, capac ity for novelty and distinctiveness as well as our capacity for enormous
  15. 15. 96 NEW LITERARY HISTORY we cannot have one without the other. characterscruelty; Dostoyevskyssometimes react to this lack of boundaries with actions that are hideous,but this is due to a lack of imagination that does not, on Nietzschesaccount, afflict Dostoyevsky himself. Raskolnikov does not define the condition; rather, he is its worst consequence. Butpessimistic possible the effect of the book is still liberating, because, like tragedy, it alerts us to, even as it warns us about, the freedom that is our lot. double-edged Or, perhaps, instead of speaking of freedom as double-edged, we should refer to as the universal, simulta pessimistic tragedy teachingneous presence of freedom lives. To political and theorists terror in our such as Hannah Arendt, the tread the political arena idea that we "without a banister" announces both the danger of totalitarianism and the condition of possibility for true individuality. Modern fascism haddemonstrated that there are no innate limits to human but our cruelty, of that fact could, allow us to reach theacknowledgement curiously, true conclusion that "with each birth something uniquely newequallycomes into the world" from which "the can be unexpected expected."31Steiner argued that Greek drama demonstrated the capricious cruelty ofthe world, as well as revealing the independence and humanity of thosewho are the victims of it. But even a social drama as and microscopicmodern (and bourgeois) as Edith Whartons The House ofMirth (or, I think, the recent film Amores Perros) has the requisite dual sense offreedom and terror. In both of these, the of individuals is most shape revealed as the social structures that themvividly support collapse? or Ajax}2precisely as in Antigone This is not the idea that we see the "true" individual in a time ofadversity. Rather, it is the view that the sources of individuality and ofthat which destroys individuality are the same. From this perspective, itmakes no sense to ask whether the is one who tragic personage willfully themselves from their or whether are out separates society they pushed or circumstance (neither for Antigone nor for Lily Bart isby malicethere a good answer to this question). To a pessimist, all of thesesituations arise equally from the fundamental instability of humanbeings and human institutions, anchorless in time. We are all equallysubject to the freedom and terror of the tragic situation. And if some stories are "more tragic" than others, this is due merely to (a) the circumstance that some situations exemplify a fundamental conditionbetter than others, and (b) our limited, but real enough, capacity to insulate ourselves from this circumstance ourselves in a life of by burying conformity. It is one of the special marks of tragedy, I think, that it oftencauses us to the of a safe and life, even as it question pursuit painlesspromises us that in abandoning this pursuit we will come to a bad end. In
  16. 16. TRAGEDY, PESSIMISM, NIETZSCHE 97 the of human we will necessarenlarging envelope possible experience, ily mark a unique out path of suffering. Perhaps, instead of "sweetviolence," should speak of a terror that liberates. we Among political theorists, I think it is Arendt, particularly in TheHuman Condition, who gives us the best image of a stance that is and democratic. It has simultaneously pessimistic, tragic, energetic,often seemed difficult to reconcile Arendts praise for the fiercelyagonistic and individualistic spirit of Athenian democracy (which, to acertain, limited degree, she saw reflected in American politics) with hercritique of modern liberal institutions, as well as with her long-termhistorical dread of the rise of technology and the market. But putting these views in a context make sense of them. Modern pessimistic helpsdemocracy is, to her, too often optimistic, in the sense that it values thecontributions of individuals only insofar as they to contribute to a larger of historical Athenian on the other hand,process progress. democracy, lacking a sense of progress, indeed, possessed of the pessimistic belief in the absence of historical was better able to value long-term patterns, individual actions for their own sake. To her, then, it is no coincidence that Athens, the democratic city, is also the city of tragedy. For Athenian treasures, as Athenian does, the memory of vitaldemocracy just tragedy individuals?even when their efforts came to And Athenian nothing.democracy encourages individuals not with promises of progress, butonly of remembrance. Similarly, in Camuss Myth of Sisyphus we see the to translate a into an active, democraticattempt "tragic myth" political idiom. The futility of Sisyphuss task, we are told, is no obstacle to hisembracing it, so long as we understand that futility is the ordinary orderof things.33 Indeed, for Camus, the universality of futility is the basis fora kind of pessimistic equality of citizenship. Pessimism thus liberates us from a dull submission to a historicalmeta-narrative that we did not author. It insists that, for better andworse, our lives are not historical or social ties, pre-scripted by processeseven as it insists that we act in a context that we cannot control and that therefore we act, in all likelihood, tragically. And yet, as "author," each ofus is, like the world that we face, an with no ever-changing multiplicity or desire that is not to revision, loss, and renewal?mostpurpose openoften, but not exclusively, through the medium of eros, which attachesus to others by the boundaries of each. Arendt is perhaps more violating true to this insight than Camus is, in insisting that every political action,no matter how individual in origin, is always an interaction with others.Tragic drama, it is said, truly began to differentiate itself from religious ritual with the introduction of the second actor onto the stage. Likewise,Arendt insists on the condition of human plurality as the starting pointfor all political reasoning.
  17. 17. 98 NEW LITERARY HISTORY The of and then, even on an account that politics pessimism tragedy, insists on some traditional boundaries of are not at all those of genre, reaction or elitism. Indeed, democratic the tragic politics requireviewpoint if they are to liberate themselves from the dubious optimisticmeta-narratives of It is this element of Nietzsches outlook, I modernity.would argue, that has so appealed to the contemporary democratic theorists whose work I have hastily described. Pessimism insists on an on the of flux and eros thatequality of (tragic) condition; ubiquityframe this condition; on the and dangers that follow from possibilitiesthis; and on the uniqueness of every individual. It does chasten politics inthat it discourages utopianism; it discounts the belief either in theperfectibility of the species or of our political conditions. But to claimthat it deflates our political energies in general is to mistake utopianismfor the whole of politics. I have argued, on the contrary, that tragicpessimism liberates us by replacing the pseudo-natural boundaries ofself and history with the terrifying limitless horizon of time-bound existence. V Schopenhauer wrote: "The life of every individual, viewed as a whole ... isand in general really a tragedy; but gone through in detail it has the character of a While I have taken some time here to defend comedy."34 the association of and of pessimism tragedy against misinterpretations its meaning, I nonetheless do not want to be understood as simply identifying the two. Tragedy may issue from pessimism, but it is not the that can do so. Even before Socrates, there was a Greek comiconly thing theater, which, if my is to make sense, must also, in some argument any sense, have been in I would argue, furthermore, grounded pessimism. that we can easily find modern examples of pessimistic comedy; the first in prominence might be Don Quixote. But that argument must be the to recall thesubject for another paper. Failing this, I think itworthwhilevery fine line between tragedy and comedy that Schopenhauer describes. To him, the two genres depict the same human condition, only,we at might say, varying speeds. and then, are not one and the same. But there is Tragedy pessimism, a strong link between them that has, I have argued, been misunder stood. Pessimism is neither to ancient Greek theater nor to equivalent aristocratic It does, however, claim to describe the funda resignation.mental ontology of the human condition?one of radical insecurity and radical possibility, freedom and terror?that is the potential ground of While teaching us the limitations of time-bound life, pessimistic tragedy.