Nietzsche’s ‘Birth of Tragedy’ – Is there a Pessimism of Strength?

“To say it once again: today I find it an impossible book – badly written, clumsy and embarrassing, its images frenzied and confused, sentimental, in some places saccharine-sweet…”
—Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche, The Birth of Tragedy 

“Flight from boredom is the mother of all art” (8,432). 
—Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche

Who will from adolescence forget these lines penned by a convalescent recuperating from some ailment:

“A few weeks later, and he himself was to be found beneath the walls of Metz, still struggling with the question mark that he had appended to the supposed ‘cheerfulness’ of the Greeks and Greek art; until at last, in a month of the most profound suspense, when peace was under debate in Versailles, he too made peace with himself and, slowly convalescing from an illness contracted in the field, gave definitive form to The Birth of Tragedy out of the Spirit of Music. Out of music? Music and tragedy? Greeks and the music of tragedy? Greeks and the pessimistic art form? The most accomplished, most beautiful, most universally envied race of mankind, those most capable of seducing us into life – they were the ones who needed tragedy? Or even more – art? What for? – Greek art?…

The reader might guess where the big question mark of the value of existence was raised. Is pessimism inevitably the sign of decline, decadence, waywardness, of wearied, enfeebled instincts? – As once it was with the Hindus, as it seems to be with us ‘modern’ Europeans? Is there a pessimism of strength? An intellectual predilection for what is hard, terrible, evil, problematic in existence, arising from well-being, overflowing health, the abundance of existence? Is it perhaps possible to suffer from over-abundance? A tempting and challenging, sharp-eyed courage that craves the terrible as one craves the enemy, the worthy enemy, against whom it can test its strength? Wishing to learn from it the meaning of ‘fear’? What is the meaning, for those Greeks of the best, strongest, most courageous age, of the tragic myth? And of the tremendous phenomenon of the Dionysiac? And of the tragedy that was born from it? And on the other hand, that which brought about the death of tragedy: the Socratism of morality, the dialectics, modesty and cheerfulness of theoretical man – could not that very Socratism be a symptom of decline, fatigue, infection and the anarchical dissolution of the instincts? And might the ‘Greek cheerfulness’ of the later Greeks be nothing but the glow of sunset? The epicurean will against pessimism merely a precaution of the afflicted? And science itself, our own science – what does all of science mean as a symptom of life? Might the scientific approach be nothing but fear, flight from pessimism? A subtle form of self-defence against – the truth? And, morally speaking, something like cowardice and falsehood? Amorally speaking, a piece of cunning? Oh Socrates, Socrates, was that, perhaps, your secret? Oh, secretive ironist, was that, perhaps, your – irony?”
Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche, The Birth of Tragedy

This is what grabbed me then and still does: “Is there a pessimism of strength? An intellectual predilection for what is hard, terrible, evil, problematic in existence, arising from well-being, overflowing health, the abundance of existence?

Nietzsche would battle with Schopenhauer’s version of pessimism his whole philosophical life. He’d come to his notion of this difference in his conceptual framework of the difference between “active” and “passive” nihilism. But Nietzsche was a sick man, ailing from both physical and then mental ailments that would be his undoing. We still do not know for sure, all we do know is this would drive much of his philosophy. A throwback to the poets and sophists he’d question the whole truth-bearing stance of the Platonic-Socratic tradition and find it wanting. In his vitalistic turn he’d seek out a philosophy of life and health rather than truth. Nietzsche’s flamboyant, rhetorical style with all its verbosity and over-the-top extravagance and exuberance always seemed a little too hysterical, a little too much on the edge of madness as if he were about to take flight for parts unknown. One wanted a sober creature who could dip his pen in the viperous wit of the cynic rather than the hyperbolic vats of the poets. 

As a young man I loved this chirping extravagance, the poetic philosophy of a vitalist exuberance. Weaned on the poetry of William Blake and the Romantic poets of England this style triggered in me a sense of mysteries about to be unleashed, the dithyrambs of ancient Dionysiac women dancing and tearing flesh. Now it only exasperates me for what it is: the scribblings of a lonely man whose mind sought in the texts of the Greeks what he could not find in real life. His slow disenchantment with Wagner and the German world of art and music, philosophy and history became for him a despairing revelation and torment. Unable to find outer love in women, he’d visit the brothels and whores of various cities as he journeyed across Italy, Switzerland, and Germany. Lost among his own solitudes he would dream of a future man. Saddened by the capitalist spirit, and the philistines of the market democracies of his day he would invent the fantasies of the Übermensch, the Death of God, and a hatred of the Christian mythos which in its pathetic manifestation in Enlightenment Man he felt led to decay, ruin, and decadence of society. A decadence he believed would end in ‘The Last Man’. 

His love of music would never falter, and as his biographer puts it,

Nietzsche experienced music as authentic reality and colossal power. Music penetrated the core of his being, and it meant everything to him. He hoped the music would never stop, but it did, and he faced the quandary of how to carry on with his existence. On December 18,1871, Nietzsche traveled from Basel to Mannheim to hear Wagnerian music conducted by the composer. Upon his return to Basel, he wrote to his friend Erwin Rohde: Everything that. . . cannot be understood in relation to music engenders …. downright aversion and disgust in me. And when I returned home from the concert in Mannheim, I actually had a peculiarly exaggerated weary dread of everyday reality, because it no longer seemed real to me, but ominous” (Β 3,257; Dec 21,1871).1

Music seemed to buffer and protect him from the ‘ominous’ sense of a world gone wrong, a world of misery, pain, and suffering which he would seek to forget and sublimate through philosophy and music. Commenting on this need for music against the mundane world of everyday life and boredom Rüdiger Safranski suggests of Nietzsche: 

However, even “boredom” has its aura of mystery and is imbued with a singular pathos by Nietzsche. Boredom, from which art provides a refuge, becomes terrifying—the yawning abyss of being. When people are bored, they regard the moment as an empty passage of time. External events, as well as people’s sense of self, become inconsequential. The phases of life lose their intentional tension and cave in on themselves like a soufflé removed from the oven too soon. Routines and habits that otherwise provide stability suddenly prove to be nothing more than façades. Finally, the eerie scenario of boredom reveals a moment of true feeling. When people find nothing to do with themselves, nothingness besets them. Against this backdrop of nothingness, art performs its task of self-stimulation—a virtually heroic enterprise, because people on the verge of a breakdown need to be entertained. Art steps in as a bridge to prevent succumbing to nihilist ennui. Art helps us live; without it, life cannot stem the onslaught of meaninglessness. (20).

That would be one of Nietzsche’s downfalls, his inability to accept this universe on its own terms, he needed art —sublimation of experience into some form of artistic expression to keep him sane. When this failed, he would enter that stage of his own delirium. Whether it was brought on by some physical ailment or not, it was his slow withdrawal from the world that would entrap him in his own night and delusions. Sadly. 

  1. Safranski, Rüdiger. Nietzsche: A Philosophical Biography. W. W. Norton & Company; F First Paperback Edition Used (January 17, 2003)

Eugene O’Neill: The Darkness of America

“We are such things as rubbish is made of, so let’s drink up and forget it.”
― Eugene O’Neill, Long Day’s Journey into Night

“We are such stuff as dreams are made on” – William Shakespeare’s The Tempest. The line appears in Act IV, Scene 1.

This parody of Shakespeare’s famed line befits the Irish Bard of pain, misery, and drunkenness. Harold Bloom even though he didn’t much like Eugene O’Neill’s worldview based as it was on Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, and Freud would give him an underhand compliment as the progenitor of American Drama. Before O’Neill there was nothing of repute on the stage worth notice.

“O’Neill would appear to be the most non-Emersonian author of any eminence in our literature. Irish-American through and through, with an heroic resentment of the New England Yankee tradition, O’Neill from the start seemed to know that his spiritual quest was to undermine Emerson’s American religion of self-reliance.”

I’ve read and reread O’Neill most of my adult life, watched some of the best adaptations in screen and stage (Chicago theatre, not Off-Broadway!). I agree with Bloom’s estimation of O’Neill’s undermining of Emersonianism with its incessant optimism and up-beat American myth of exceptionalism and transcendence. Not sure if O’Neill ever read the late Emerson whose Conduct of Life essays would turn against his own optimistic heritage, but that is no import, what we have is the inheritor of that ancient lineage of pessimism found in Sophocles. O’Neill would return us to Sophocles and the pessimism of Racine among others for his dramatic thought on that irrational force that conquers us all. Only that old curmudgeon, Robert Penn Warren, the Agrarian conservative of the Old South clap track would be more anti-Emersonian. Unlike Warren, O’Neill would not pretend to political prophet, but rather keep to the loner, the solitary nihilist on the edge and margins of life: the drunk, loser, and all those failed and broken creatures that emerge from the hinterlands of the American Nightmare.

“Happy roads is bunk. Weary roads is right. Get you nowhere fast. That’s where I’ve got—nowhere. Where everyone lands in the end, even if most of the suckers won’t admit it.”
― Eugene O’Neill, Long Day’s Journey into Night

Talking of O’Neill’s The Iceman Cometh Bloom suggest the play’s “true argument is that your own soul cannot be possessed, whether by possessing something or someone outside it, or by joining yourself to a transcendental possibility, to whatever version of an Emersonian Oversoul that you might prefer. The United States, in O’Neill’s dark view, was uniquely the country that had refused to learn the truths of the spirit, which are that good and the means of good, love and the means of love, are irreconcilable.” (Bloom’s Critical Views) In a world where transcendence is a inherent myth handed down from the times of the Greeks and Romans, central to the whole Judeo-Christian worldview, we are left in our secular world of atheistic and Enlightenment humanism within an immanent cosmos of nihilism where there is no escape, no reprieve, no exit.

O’Neill was a metaphysical nihilist, whose desperate faith in art, and phantasmagoric naturalism left him in a world bereft of hope and any promise of transcendence. A solitary voyager of our nihilism he would stare into the abyss, but nothing would stare back of its silent black void. “His strength was neither in stance nor style, but in the dramatic representation of illusions and despairs, in the persuasive imitation of human personality, particularly in its self-destructive weaknesses.” (Bloom) We see this in the various family tragedies and in his own life. Bloom’s Gnosticism is not O’Neill’s tragic view, but the notion that O’Neill’s characters live in the kenoma – the great emptiness of things seems fitting in its nihilistic vectors. Comparing him to Beckett he states: “All that O’Neill and Beckett have in common is Schopenhauer, with whom they share a Gnostic sense that our world is a great emptiness, the kenoma, as the Gnostics of the second century of the common era called it.”

His biography tells us,

In the winter of 1952, the intolerable possibility that some intrepid director might produce what he’d finished off his Cycle after his death moved O’Neill to a desperate act: he and Monterey must destroy the manuscripts. For hours, according to Monterey, they tore the pages up into little pieces, and she flung them into a fire. “It was awful,” she recalled. “It was like tearing up children.” After that, he lost any will to live. “He died when he could no longer work,” Monterey said. “He died spiritually. And it was just a matter of dragging a poor, diseased body along for a few more years until it too died.”  All the while, O’Neill refused any comfort from the possibility of God or an afterlife. “When I’m dying,” he’d insisted, “don’t let a priest or Protestant minister or Salvation Army captain near me. Let me die in dignity. Keep it as simple and brief as possible. No fuss, no man of God there. If there is a God, I’ll see Him and we’ll talk things over.”1

The irony of that last sentence seems fitting for a man who did not believe in God. A nihilist joke at having been born into a Catholic world he hated and yet could not escape.

  1. Robert M. Dowling. Eugene O’Neill (Kindle Locations 9079-9087). Yale University Press. Kindle Edition.

Cornell Woolrich’s Dark City of Evil

“I had that trapped feeling, like some sort of a poor insect that you’ve put inside a downturned glass, and it tries to climb up the sides, and it can’t, and it can’t, and it can’t.”
― Cornell Woolrich, Blues of a Lifetime: The Autobiography of Cornell Woolrich

In Cornell Woolrich’s Deadline at Dawn our old friend the evil demiurge shows up again as the female protagonist personifies the intelligence that pervades the city corrupting everything in it:

“‘It’s the city itself. You think of it as just a place on the map, don’t you? I think of it as a personal enemy, and I know I’m right . . . I only know there’s an intelligence of its own hanging over this place, coming up from it . . . and when you breathe too much of it for too long, it gets under your skin, it gets into you. . . . Then you can go anywhere—home or anywhere else—and you just keep on being what it made you from then on.’”
The notion that a city can take on the corrupting shape and dark power of this demiurgic force comes out in this grim picture of a hotel: ‘Doors, dark, oblivious, inscrutable. . . . All hope gone from them, and from those who passed in and out through them. Just one more row of stopped-up orifices in this giant honeycomb that was the city. . . . No moon ever entered there, no stars, no anything at all. They were worse than the grave, for in the grave is absence of consciousness. And God . . . ordered the grave, for all of us; but God didn’t order such burrows in a third-class New York City hotel.’

This notion of the city as an evil force, a dark intelligence in which the people, the buildings, the streets and every aspect of its workings is bound to an overarching ‘active darkness’ – a personal daimon or force of evil ‘genie loci’ (Spirit of Place – yet, inverted in this instance!) is central to much of noir and horror fiction alike.

Before the spread of Christianity, the ancient people believed in the Genius Loci also known as spirits of place. Rivers, wells, and springs were guarded by powerful water spirits. Mountains and caves were the residence of land spirits. Whether the ancient people believed these were the actual spirits of the mountains or rivers or merely spirits that lived and guarded these sacred places is left for debate. One thing is for sure – there are too many legends, folktales, and sagas in which the ancient people not only believed in spirits of place, but they also worshiped them. These were natural and elemental daimons, but with the rise of city life such entities took a dark turn and are no longer protective but rather harbor ill-will against humans. Mix this with the strange anti-Platonic notions of the 2nd Century Gnostics which were suffused with an anti-Cosmic overturning of the Old Testament God of War, Yahweh, and one gets a dark daimon indeed.

Even his scenes of the inner-city bar life where those ‘walking dead men’ he is famed for show up reveals the daimonic power of darkness: “‘It was a dive, and the squirming, wriggling forms of life that infested it belonged below the ground, should never have come up out of it . . . blind worms, invisible slits for eyes, seeming to try to climb down inside their own glasses.’” This is no longer a human world but a zone of inhuman decay, corruption, and slow annihilation under the auspices of darkness. As Joel Lane – an astute critic of Woolrich and weird tale author of some accomplishment – puts it such scenes are an apt metaphor of Woolrich’s own career: “The public want the darkness, but only if it’s fake: a real darkness is too much for them.” When humans are confronted with the stark existential truth of the darkness of their own lives and environments they run, they seek escape rather than confrontation with the evil they live in like worms in a cesspool of slime.

Thomas Ligotti’s Politics of Despair

“We are gene-copying bio-robots, living out here on a lonely planet in a cold and empty physical universe.”
― Thomas Ligotti, The Conspiracy Against the Human Race: A Contrivance of Horror

Been slowly rereading aspects of Thomas Ligotti for signs of political critique. He leans toward the socialist, but for the most part Ligotti himself is a-political due to his non-involvement with society in its outer worldly forms. Close off in his private hell he lives in an agoraphobic state most of the time, only allowing himself contact with a few friends and family. I was rereading The Frolic again today and realized there is a subtle critique of the liberal reforming ideology coming out of the Rousseau’s traditions. The notion of prisoners being brought up in bad situations which mark them for life and become if not the cause of their criminality at least shaping it. In the story Dr. Munck comes to this new prison with all the liberal enthusiasm of a young Idealist full of hope of social reform, but soon turns cynical and despairing, his disenchantment of the whole liberal reform movement suddenly turning dark as he says:

“I’m no aesthete of pathology. It’s never been my ambition to study mental disease without effecting some improvement. So why should I waste my time trying to help someone like John Doe, who doesn’t live in the same world as we do, psychologically speaking. I used to believe in rehabilitation, not a purely punitive approach to criminal behavior. But those people, those things at the prison are only an ugly stain on our world. The hell with them. Just plow them all under for fertilizer, I say.” Dr. Munck then drained his glass until the ice cubes rattled.

“Want another?” Leslie asked with a smooth therapeutic tone to her voice.

David smiled now, his illiberal outburst having purged him somewhat of his ire. “Let’s get drunk and fool around, shall we?””
—Thomas Ligotti, Songs of a Dead Dreamer

At the heart of Ligotti’s stance is his notion of freedom: “This is the form of Decadence that has always interested me–the freedom, after thousands of years under the whip of uplifting religions and the tyrannical politics of the positive–which are nothing more than a means for crowd control–to speak to others who in their hearts could no longer lie to themselves about what they thought concerning the value, or rather lack of value, of human life.” (Interview: Neddal Ayyad)

On Social Progress he states: “Human life moves in only one direction-toward disease, damage, and death. The best you can hope for is to remain stagnant or, in certain cases, return to a previous condition when things weren’t as bad as they’ve become for you. For instance, I now work on a freelance basis for my former employer, except the sort of work that I do outside of the company is the work I used to do twenty years ago as an employee of the company. For me, this is a “change” for the better. Broadly speaking, you can argue that there’s such a thing as “social progress” because, for example, people are no longer literally enslaved to other people. But slavery was an innovation, a progressive solution to labor shortage I don’t think that things ever change for the better in the way that many people believe they do. They only assume different masks of the worst. One can only hope that these masks hold tight as long as possible before revealing what is beneath them.” (Interview: Thomas Wagner)

He speaks of his antagonistic relation to sci-fi and especially the sociological fiction of such writers as Ursala K. LeGuin: “I didn’t care for Le Guin’s agenda and didacticism, and I couldn’t help but extrapolate that all sci-fi would have some social or political agenda that wasn’t anything I cared about. And in general, I don’t care about humanity’s future, or futuristic parables about humanity’s state in the here and now.” (Interview: Venger Satanis)

The closest he comes to a political stance is in this interview: “I really haven’t heard much about pessimists being apolitical. Like any other quality of temper, I think this depends on the person and doesn’t have anything to do with pessimism. While I’m what is called a moral anti-realist, it seems obvious to me that some forms of social circumstances are innately better than others. Much of this has to do with those in power at any given time, but I do hold that a society that leans toward socialism is superior to one that favours capitalism. Of course, much of my feeling is a function of the intensity with which a certain form of socio-political life coheres. Paleo libertarianism, anarcho-capitalism, and practically every type of conservativism appears conspicuously abhorrent to me, and I can’t understand the mentality of people who adhere to these types of social organization.” (Interview: Xavier Aldana Reyes)

Some have tried to discover politics in his short novel My Work Is Not Yet Done which deals with corporate America and the horror of office jobs, but as Ligotti told one interviewer: “While My Work Is Not Yet Done uses the corporate system as a starting point, this is only so that the story can go on to depict the all-encompassing system of human existence-in fact, all organic existence-as something fundamentally and inescapably evil.” (Interview: Thomas Wagner)

Ligotti’s worldview is based on pessimism, but his pessimism is personal and non-metaphysical: “My pessimism doesn’t have a metaphysical basis like Schopenhauer’s Will-to-Live, which I never understood as a reading of the universe that would necessarily lead one to a grim view of life. To me, it seems closely related to Bergson’s elan vital. At the same time, I’ve used the idea of anima mundi in a few stories to represent the same kind of driving force as the Will-to-Live, with the difference that it’s a personal evil not an indifferent type of energy that makes the world move as it does. Schopenhauer’s Will-to-Live is as difficult to swallow as any other monist explanation for everything.”

Closer to those noirish writers whose dark novels of the horrors of modernity and urban decay, squalor, and despair deal with the broken lives of the working-class men and women who litter the ruins of our cities Ligotti’s philosophy and art instill a deep sense of the wrong turn humans made as they developed civilization. In many ways his works resemble those of such noir writers as “John Franklin Bardin, Jim Thompson, David Goodis, Derek Raymond and James Ellroy” even as he extrapolates it into existential horror. His horror like theirs deals with the loneliness and hollowness of modern life, of the despair and hopelessness of humans in the face of cosmic indifference and malevolence. Yet, unlike his pessimist forbears he moves in a very personal direction and offers us an existential vision of horror rather than some supernatural and metaphysical mode of transcendence. For Ligotti there is not beyond only the dark realization of consciousness cut off in a cosmos it did not make much less understands. “This is the great lesson the depressive learns: Nothing in the world is inherently compelling.” (Thomas Ligotti, The Conspiracy Against the Human Race: A Contrivance of Horror)