The Stranger-God

That night he had a terrible dream, if dream is the right word for a bodily and mental experience which did indeed overtake him during deepest sleep, in complete independence of his will and with complete sensuous vividness, but with no perception of himself as present and moving about in any space external to the events themselves; rather, the scene of the events was his own soul, and they irrupted into it from outside, violently defeating his resistance — a profound, intellectual resistance — as they passed through him, and leaving his whole being, the culture of a lifetime, devastated and destroyed.

It began with fear, fear and joy and a horrified curiosity about what was to come. It was night, and his senses were alert; for from far off a hubbub was approaching, an uproar, a compendium of noise, a clangor and blare and dull thundering, yells of exultation and a particular howl with a long-drawn-out u at the end — all of it permeated and dominated by a terrible sweet sound of flute music: by deep-warbling, infamously persistent, shamelessly clinging tones that bewitched the innermost heart. Yet he was aware of a word, an obscure word, but one that gave a name to what was coming: “the stranger-god!” There was a glow of smoky fire: in it he could see a mountain landscape, like the mountains round his summer home. And in fragmented light, from wooded heights, between tree trunks and mossy boulders, it came tumbling and whirling down: a human and animal swarm, a raging rout, flooding the slope with bodies, with flames, with tumult and frenzied dancing. Women, stumbling on the hide garments that fell too far about them from the waist, held up tambourines and moaned as they shook them above their thrown-back heads; they swung blazing torches, scattering the sparks, and brandishing naked daggers; they carried snakes with flickering tongues which they had seized in the middle of the body, or they bore up their own breasts in both hands, shrieking as they did so. Men with horns over their brows, hairy-skinned and girdled with pelts, bowed their necks and threw up their arms and thighs, clanging brazen cymbals and beating a furious tattoo on drums, while smooth-skinned boys prodded goats with leafy staves, clinging to their horns and yelling with delight as the leaping beasts dragged them along. And the god’s enthusiasts howled out the cry with the soft consonants and the long-drawn-out final u, sweet and wild both at once, like no cry that was ever heard: here it was raised, belled out into the air as by rutting stags, and there they threw it back with many voices, in ribald triumph, urging each other on with it to dancing and tossing of limbs, and never did it cease. But the deep, enticing flute music mingled irresistibly with everything. Was it not also enticing him, the dreamer who experienced all this while struggling not to, enticing him with shameless insistence to the feast and frenzy of the uttermost surrender? Great was his loathing, great his fear, honorable his effort of will to defend to the last what was his and protect it from the Stranger, against the enemy of the composed and dignified intellect. But the noise, the howling grew louder, with the echoing cliffs reiterating it: it increased beyond measure, swelled up to enrapturing madness. Odors besieged the mind, the pungent reek of the goats, the scent of panting bodies and an exhalation as of staling waters, with another smell, too, that was familiar: that of wounds and wandering disease. His heart throbbed to the drumbeats, his brain whirled, a fury seized him, a blindness, a dizzying lust, and his soul craved to join the round-dance of the god. The obscene symbol, wooden and gigantic, was uncovered and raised on high: and still more unbridled grew the howling of the rallying cry. With foaming mouths they raged, they roused each other with rude gestures and licentious hands, laughing and moaning they thrust the prods into each other’s flesh and licked the blood from each other’s limbs. But the dreamer now was with them and in them, he belonged to the Stranger-God. Yes, they were himself as they flung themselves, tearing and slaying, on the animals and devoured steaming gobbets of flesh, they were himself as an orgy of limitless coupling, in homage to the god, began on the trampled, mossy ground. And his very soul savored the lascivious delirium of annihilation.

Out of this dream the stricken man woke unnerved, shattered and powerlessly enslaved to the daemon-god. . . .

— Thomas Mann, Death in Venice [translated by David Luke]

Letter to Mário de Sá-Carneiro :: Fernando Pessoa


I’m writing to you today out of sentimental necessity — I have an anguished, painful need to speak to you. It’s easy to see that I have nothing to tell you. Just this: that I find myself today at the bottom of a bottomless depression. The absurdity of the sentence speaks for me.

I’m having one of those days in which I never had a future. There is only a present, fixed and surrounded by a wall of anguish. The other bank of the river, because it is the other bank, is never the bank we are standing on: that is the intimate reason for all my suffering. There are ships sailing to many ports, but not a single one goes where life is not painful; nor is there any port of call where it is possible to forget. All of this happened a long time ago, but my sadness began even before then.

On days of the soul like today, I feel, with all the awareness in my body, that I am a sad child abused by life. I was abandoned in a corner where I could hear other children playing. I feel in my hands the broken toy I was given out of malicious irony. Today, March 14, at 9:10 P.M., my life knows just how much all that is worth.

In the garden I can just make out through the silent windows of my cell, someone has thrown all the swings over the branches they hang from; they’re tangled up, high and out of reach; the result is even the idea I have in my imagination of myself running away cannot have swings to play with.

And that is, more or less, but without style, the state of my soul at this time. Like the woman who waits in “The Sailor,” my eyes burn from having thought about weeping. Life pains me bit by bit, in sips, through interstices. All this is printed in very small type in a book whose binding is already coming apart.

If I weren’t writing to you, I would have to swear to you that this letter is sincere and that the hysterically linked things in it spring spontaneously from what I feel. But you must sense that this unstageable tragedy is of a rigorous reality — full of the here and now — and taking place in my soul just like the green on the leaves.

It was for that reason the Prince did not rule. This sentence is entirely absurd. But in this moment I feel it’s the absurd sentences that really make me want to cry.

If I don’t mail this letter today, it may be that when I reread it tomorrow, I’ll make a typescript of it, so I can insert sentences and expressions from it into The Book of Disquiet. But that would not deprive it of any of the sincerity with which I’m writing it, nor the dolorous inevitability with which I feel it.

This is the latest news. So is our being at war with Germany, but even before that, pain made me suffer. From the other side of Life, all this must seem like the caption for some caricature.

This is not exactly madness, but madness must bestow a relaxation on the person who suffers it, the astute pleasure of the soul’s bounces, not very different from these.

What color can feeling be?

Thousands of hugs from yours truly, always truly yours,

Fernando Pessoa


P.S. I wrote this letter in one rush. Rereading it, I see that I will definitely copy it over tomorrow before sending it to you. I have rarely written out my state of mind — with all its sentimental and intellectual attitudes, with all its essential hysterico-neurasthenia, all those interstices and corners in its self-awareness that are so characteristic of it — so completely…

You think I’m right, don’t you?


Mário de Sá-Carneiro, a major Portuguese avant-garde poet who collaborated with Fernando Pessoa on numerous occasions, committed suicide in Paris in 1916, at the age of twenty-six. [editor's note]

Nietzsche’s Jesus

“. . . . he had denied any chasm between God and man, he lived this unity of God and man as his ‘glad tidings’ . . . .”

“One sees what came to an end with the death on the Cross: a new, an absolutely primary beginning to a Buddhistic peace movement, to an actual and not merely promised happiness on earth.”

— Friedrich Nietzsche, The Anti-Christ (translated by R. J. Hollingdale): in the following seven sections, Nietzsche develops his vision (reinterpretation) of Jesus Christ:


What I am concerned with is the psychological type of the redeemer. For it could be contained in the Gospels in spite of the Gospels, however much mutilated and overloaded with foreign traits: as that of Francis of Assisi is contained in the legends about him in spite of the legends. Not the truth about what he did, what he said, how he really died: but the question whether his type is still conceivable at all, whether it has been ‘handed down’ by tradition. — The attempts I know of to extract even the history of a ‘soul’ from the Gospels seem to me proofs of an execrable psychological frivolity. Monsieur Renan, that buffoon in psychologics, has appropriated for his explication of the type Jesus the two most inapplicable concepts possible in this case: the concept of the genius and the concept of the hero. But if anything is unevangelic it is the concept hero. Precisely the opposite of all contending, of all feeling oneself in struggle has here become instinct: the incapacity for resistance here becomes morality (‘resist not evil!’: the profoundest saying of the Gospel, its key in a certain sense), blessedness in peace, in gentleness, in the inability for enmity. What are the ‘glad tidings’? True life, eternal life is found — it is not promised, it is here, it is within you: as life lived in love, in love without deduction or exclusion, without distance. Everyone is a child of God — Jesus definitely claims nothing for himself alone — as a child of God everyone is equal to everyone else. . . . To make a hero of Jesus! — And what a worse misunderstanding is the word ‘genius’! Our whole concept, our cultural concept  ‘spirit’ had no meaning whatever in the world Jesus lived in. To speak with the precision of the physiologist a quite different word would rather be in place here: the word idiot. We recognize a condition of morbid susceptibility of the sense of touch which makes it shrink back in horror from every contact, every grasping of a firm object. Translate such physiological habitus [i.e., condition] into its ultimate logic — as instinctive hatred of every reality, as flight into the ‘ungraspable’, into the ‘inconceivable’, as antipathy towards every form, all that is custom, institution, Church, as being at home in a world undisturbed by reality of any kind, a merely ‘inner’ world, a ‘real’ world, an ‘eternal’ world. . . . ‘The kingdom of God is within you‘ . . .


Instinctive hatred of reality: consequence of an extreme capacity for suffering and irritation which no longer wants to be ‘touched’ at all because it feels every contact too deeply.

Instinctive exclusion of all aversion, all enmity, all feeling for limitation and distancing: consequence of an extreme capacity for suffering and irritation which already feels all resisting, all need for resistance, as an unbearable displeasure (that is to say harmful, as deprecated by the instinct of self-preservation) and knows blessedness (pleasure) only in no longer resisting anyone or anything, neither the evil nor the evil-doer — love as the sole, as the last possibility of life . . .

There are two physiological realities upon which, out of which the doctrine of redemption has grown. I call it a sublime further evolution of hedonism on a thoroughly morbid basis. Closest related to it, even if with a considerable addition of Greek vitality and nervous energy, is Epicureanism, the redemption doctrine of the pagan world. Epicurus a typical decadent: first recognized as such by me. — The fear of pain, even of the infinitely small in pain — cannot end otherwise than in a religion of love . . .


I have anticipated my answer to the problem. Its presupposition is that the type of the redeemer has been preserved to us only in a very distorted form. That this distortion should have occurred is in itself very probable: there are several reasons why such a type could not remain pure, whole, free of accretions. The milieu in which this strange figure moved must have left its mark upon him, as must even more the history, the fate of the first Christian community: from this the type was retrospectively enriched with traits which become comprehensible only with reference to warfare and the aims of propaganda. That strange and sick world to which the Gospels introduce us — a world like that of a Russian novel, in which refuse of society, neurosis and ‘childlike’ idiocy seem to make a rendezvous — must in any case have coarsened the type: the first disciples in particular had to translate a being immersed entirely in symbols and incomprehensibilities into their own crudity in order to understand anything of it at all — for them such a type could not exist until it had been reduced to more familiar forms. . . . The prophet, the Messiah, the judge who is to come, the moral preacher, the miracle worker, John the Baptist — so many opportunities for misunderstanding the type. . . . Finally, let us not underestimate the proprium [i.e., characteristic] of all extreme, and in particular sectarian veneration: it extinguishes the original often painfully unfamiliar traits and idiosyncrasies in the revered being — it even fails to see them. One has to regret that no Dostoyevsky lived in the neighborhood of this most interesting décadent; I mean someone who could feel the thrilling fascination of such a combination of the sublime, the sick and the childish. One final viewpoint: [. . . .] I myself have no doubt that [a] plentiful measure of gall (and even of espirit) has only overflowed on to the type of the Master out of the excited condition of Christian propaganda: for one knows very well how resolutely all sectarians adjust their Master into an apologia of themselves. When the first community had need of a censuring theologian to oppose the theologians they created their ‘God’ according to their requirements: just as they unhesitatingly put into his mouth those totally unevangelic concepts which they could not do without, ‘Second Coming’, ‘Last Judgment’, every kind of temporal promise and expectation. —


I resist, to repeat it, the incorporation of the fanatic into the type of the redeemer: the word impérieux alone which Renan employs already annuls the type. The ‘glad tidings’ are precisely that there are no more opposites; the kingdom of Heaven belongs to children; the faith which here finds utterance is not a faith which has been won by struggle — it is there, from the beginning, it is as it were a return to childishness in the spiritual domain. The occurrence of retarded puberty undeveloped in the organism as a consequence of degeneration is familiar at any rate to psychologists.  — Such a faith is not angry, does not censure, does not defend itself: it does not bring ‘the sword’ — it has no idea to what extent it could one day cause dissention. It does not prove itself, either by miracles or by rewards and promises, and certainly not ‘by the Scriptures’:  it is every moment its own miracle, its own reward, its own proof, its own ‘kingdom of God’. Neither does this faith formulate itself — it lives, it resists formulas. Chance, to be sure, determines the environment, the language, the preparatory schooling of a particular configuration of concepts: primitive Christianity employs only Judeo-Semitic concepts (– eating and drinking at communion belong here, concepts so sadly abused, like everything Jewish, by the Church). But one must be careful not to see in this anything but a sign-language, a semeiotic, an occasion for metaphors. It is precisely on condition that nothing he says is taken literally that this anti-realist can speak at all. Among Indians he would have made use of Sankhyam concepts, among Chinese those of Lao-tse — and would not have felt the difference. — One could, with some freedom of expression, call Jesus a ‘free spirit’ — he cares nothing for what is fixed: the word killeth, everything fixed killeth. The concept, the experience ‘life’ in the only form he knows it is opposed to any kind of word, formula, law, faith, dogma. He speaks only of the inmost thing: ‘life’ or ‘truth’ or ‘light’ is his expression for the inmost thing — everything else, the whole of reality, the whole of nature, language itself, possesses for him merely the value of a sign, a metaphor. — On this point one must make absolutely no mistake, however much Christian, that is to say ecclesiastical prejudice, may tempt one to do so: such a symbolist par excellence stands outside of all religion, all conceptions of divine worship, all history, all natural science, all experience of the world, all acquirements, all politics, all psychology, all books, all art — his ‘knowledge’ is just the pure folly of the fact that anything of this kind exists. He has not so much as hear of culture, he does not need to fight against it — he does not deny it. . . . The same applies to the state, to society and the entire civic order, to work, to war — he never had reason to deny ‘the world’. . . . Denial is precisely what is totally impossible for him. — Dialectics are likewise lacking, the idea is lacking that a faith, a ‘truth’ could be proved by reasons (– his proofs are inner ‘lights’, inner feelings of pleasure and self-affirmations, nothing by ‘proofs by potency’ –). Neither can such a doctrine argue: it simply does not understand that other doctrines exist, can exist, it simply does not know how to imagine an opinion contrary to its own. . . . Where it encounters one it will, with the most heartfelt sympathy, lament the ‘blindness’ — for it sees the ‘light’ — but it will make no objection . . .


In the entire psychology of the ‘Gospel’ the concept of guilt and punishment is lacking; likewise the concept reward. ‘Sin’, every kind of distancing relationship between God and man, is abolished — precisely this is the ‘glad tidings’. Blessedness is not promised, it is not tied to any conditions: it is the only reality — the rest is signs for speaking of it . . .

The consequence of such a condition projects itself into new practice, the true evangelic practice. It is not a ‘belief’ which distinguishes the Christian: the Christian acts, he is distinguished by a different mode of acting. Neither by words nor in his heart does he resist the man who does him evil. He makes no distinction between foreigner and native, between Jew and non-Jew (‘one’s neighbor’ is properly one’s co-religionist, the Jew). He is not angry with anyone, does not disdain anyone. He neither appears in courts of law nor claims their protection (‘not swearing’). Under no circumstances, not even in the case of proved unfaithfulness, does  he divorce his wife. — All fundamentally one law, all consequences of one instinct. —

The life of the redeemer was nothing else than this practice — his death too was nothing else. . . . He no longer required any formulas, any rites for communicating with God — not even prayer. He has settled his accounts with the whole Jewish penance-and-reconciliation doctrine; he knows that it is through the practice of one’s life that one feels ‘divine’, ‘blessed’, ‘evangelic’, at all times a ‘child of God’. It is not ‘penance’, not ‘prayer for forgiveness’ which leads to God: evangelic practice alone leads to God, it is God!  — What was abolished with the Evangel was the Judaism of the concepts ‘sin’, ‘forgiveness of sin’, ‘faith’, ‘redemption by faith’ — the whole of Jewish ecclesiastical teaching was denied in the ‘glad tidings’.

The profound instinct of how one would have to live in order to feel oneself ‘in Heaven’, to feel oneself ‘eternal’, while in every other condition one by no means feels oneself ‘in Heaven’: this alone is the psychological reality of ‘redemption’. — A new way of living, not a new belief . . .


If I understand anything of this great symbolist it is that he took for realities, for ‘truths’, only inner realities — that he understood the rest, everything pertaining to nature, time, space, history, only as signs, as occasion for metaphor. The concept ‘the Son of Man’ is not a concrete person belonging to history, anything at all individual or unique, but an ‘eternal’ fact, a psychological symbol freed from the time concept. The same applies supremely to the God of this typical symbolist, to the ‘kingdom of God’, to the ‘kingdom of Heaven’, to ‘God’s children’. Nothing is more un-Christian than the ecclesiastical crudities of a God as a person, of a ‘kingdom of God’ which comes, of a ‘kingdom of Heaven’ in the Beyond, of a ‘Son of God’, the second person in the Trinity. All this — forgive the expression — a fist in the eye — oh in what an eye! — of the Gospel: world-historical cynicism in the mockery of symbolism. . . . But it is patently obvious what is alluded to in the symbols ‘Father’ and ‘Son’ — not patently obvious to everyone, I grant: in the word ‘Son’ is expressed the entry into the collective feeling of the transfiguration of all things (blessedness), in the word ‘Father’ this feeling itself, the feeling of perfection and eternity. — I am ashamed to recall what the Church has made of this symbolism: has it not set an Amphitryon story at the threshold of Christian ‘faith’? And a dogma of ‘immaculate conception’ into the bargain? . . . But it has thereby maculated conception —

The ‘Kingdom of Heaven’ is a condition of the heart — not something that comes ‘upon the earth’ or ‘after death’. The entire concept of natural death is lacking in the Gospel: death is not a bridge, not a transition, it is lacking because it belongs to quite another world, a merely apparent world useful only for the purpose of symbolism. The ‘hour of death’ is not a Christian concept — the ‘hour’, time, physical life and its crises, simply do not exist for the teacher of the ‘glad tidings’. . . . The ‘kingdom of Heaven’ is not something one waits for; it has no yesterday or tomorrow, it does not come ‘in a thousand years’ — it is an experience within a heart; it is everywhere, it is nowhere . . .


This ‘bringer of glad tidings’ died as he lived, as he taughtnot to ‘redeem mankind’ but to demonstrate how one ought to live. What he bequeathed to mankind is his practice: his bearing before the judges, before the guards, before the accusers and every kind of calumny and mockery — his bearing on the Cross. He does not resist, he does not defend his rights, he takes no steps to avert the worst that can happen to him — more, he provokes it. . . . And he entreats, he suffers, he loves with those, in those who are doing evil to him. His words to the thief on the Cross contain the whole Evangel. ‘That was verily a divine man, a child of God!’ — says the thief. ‘If thou feelest this’ — answers the redeemer — ‘thou art in Paradise, thou art a child of God.’ Not to defend oneself, not to grow angry, not to make responsible. . . . But not to resist even the evil man — to love him . . .

The Pleasures of Rereading :: David Gates


Published Jun 27, 2009 From the magazine issue dated Jul 13, 2009

Above the table on which I’m now writing hangs an old framed print showing Mr. Pickwick’s street-smart servant, Sam Weller, prophetically pointing out to his chubby little master—in tights, gaiters, and spectacles—a vast, teeming mob of tiny figures: the characters Charles Dickens was to create in the novels to come after The Pickwick Papers. I still haven’t identified all of them, but I see Fagin and the Artful Dodger from Oliver Twist, Little Nell and her grandfather from The Old Curiosity Shop, the sanctimonious Mr. Pecksniff from Martin Chuzzlewit, the choleric Major Bagstock from Dombey and Son, and Bob Cratchit from A Christmas Carol carrying Tiny Tim. Ah, and that must be the mad old dealer in secondhand clothes from DavidCopperfield. His name, in what appears to be an odd self-tribute, is Charley—Dickens names another madman in that same novel Mr. Dick—but I remember him best, as you will if you’ve read the book, for his greeting to young David: “Oh, my eyes and limbs, what do you want? Oh, my lungs and liver, what do you want? Oh, goroo, goroo!” It’s because I can’t get enough of characters like these that half my Dickens paperbacks now have their covers held on with duct tape.

Top 100 Books: The Meta-List

The other day I went to the bookstore and laid in a couple of newly published volumes I’ve been eager to read—Samuel Beckett’s letters and Blake Bailey’s biography of John Cheever—but I’ll be spending most of this summer revisiting all of Dickens yet again. (So far I’ve gone through Chuzzlewit, Bleak House, A Tale of Two Cities, and Little Dorrit; next up, Oliver Twist.) This time I’ve got an excuse—I’m teaching a Dickens course in the fall—but I’ve never considered that I needed one. Most of the “joys of rereading” pieces you come across tuck in an obligatory apology for indulging in the “childish” pleasure—this is a bad thing?—of “obsessive” repetition. You often hear a distinction made between strictly literary rereading, the kind of close study scholars and writers undertake, and the “comfort” reading relegated to the beach, the bathroom, and the bedroom. But is there really such a sharp line between the respectably energizing and the shamefully narcotizing? I’d never put Dracula on a syllabus, or read myself to sleep with Samuel Beckett’s The Unnamable. (Though some people might find it a sovereign cure for insomnia.) Still, I suspect that the most widely reread writers in English have been Dickens, Shakespeare, and Jane Austen—hardly a month goes by without my revisiting one of them—who combine the sleepy-time comforts of story and character with all the challenge and complexity, the inexhaustible newness, that anyone could ask for. I’ve taught them all in the classroom, while in the bedroom their books have slipped from my hands as their stories shaded into my dreams.

In a recent New York Times op-ed in defense of rereading, Verlyn Klinkenborg lists some of his old favorites—he turns out to be a Dickens hound too—and concludes: “This is not a canon. This is a refuge.” And in an even more recent New Yorker piece, Roger Angell refers to “a sweet dab of guilt attached to rereading. We really should be into something new, for we need to know all about credit-default swaps and Darwin and steroids and the rest, but not just now, please.” Most of us, though, have our own musical canon—or why do they sell so many iPods?—and no one feels guilty about listening to, say, Talking Heads’ “Once in a Lifetime” just once in a lifetime. My own list of perennial rereads ranges from Jim Bouton’s Ball Four and Galen Rowell’s In the Throne Room of the Mountain Gods—about a K2 expedition that entertainingly falls apart over the climbing team’s acrimonies—to John Dean’s Watergate memoir Blind Ambition and Brendan Gill’s magazine memoir Here at the New Yorker, to Humphrey House’s biography of Ezra Pound, A Serious Character, and Boswell’s Life of Samuel Johnson. This is beyond a refuge. It’s a world, with continent after continent, each as densely populated with heroes, villains, and oddballs as that Dickens print on my wall. They give me a circle of friends and acquaintances far wider, and in some cases far deeper, than I—or anyone—could have in what we’re pleased to call the real world.

In W. H. Auden’s essay “The Guilty Vicarage”—collected in The Dyer’s Hand, which I’ve kept on my night table for years—he analyzes his self-confessed “addiction” to whodunits: “I suspect that the typical reader of detective stories is, like myself, a person who suffers from a sense of sin.” I share Auden’s fondness for Sherlock Holmes and G. K. Chesterton’s Father Brown, but his reading habits could hardly be more different from mine. “I forget the story as soon as I have finished it, and have no wish to read it again. If, as sometimes happens, I start reading one and find after a few pages that I have read it before, I cannot go on.” I’ve reread all the Sherlock Holmes stories, and many of the Father Browns, more times than I could count, and I seldom have fewer than a half dozen of Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe mysteries there on the night table next to The Dyer’s Hand. In fact, I never travel overnight without one or two in my bag. And, as far as I can tell, without a sense of sin.

Lovers of these stories—can we not call them addicts?—often note that part of their appeal lies in their comfortingly familiar atmospheres: Holmes and Watson’s rooms on Baker Street, with the “gasogene” (whatever that is) and the Persian slipper filled with pipe tobacco, or Wolfe’s townhouse on West 35th, with its kitchen on the first floor and its plant rooms on the roof. But the real draw is the people: the arrogantly rational Holmes (whose impenetrable reserve compensates for God knows what); the stolid yet insecure Watson; the petulant, sedentary, impossibly erudite Wolfe—a fellow rereader, whose office is lined with favorite books—and his Watson, the hyperkinetic, never-insecure Archie Goodwin, wielder of one of the most engaging first-person narrative voices in all of fiction. And don’t forget the villains. Not just the recurring archenemies—Dr. Moriarty and Arnold Zeck (Wolfe’s Moriarty)—but such wonderfully nasty specimens as the fraudulent “solar priest” exposed by Father Brown in The Eye of Apollo, or the drab middle-aged lady in Stout’s A Right to Die who turns out to be a murderous racist. I’ve just spoiled two endings, by the way, but they were spoiled for me years ago without diminishing my pleasure a bit.

In the books I reread over and over, I always come back for the people, and often simply for their voices. I return to Ball Four just to hear Joe Schultz, manager of the hapless Seattle Pilots, tell his players to “pound that ol’ Budweiser.” Or to Peter Golenbock’s Dynasty: The New York Yankees, 1949–1964, to hear the team’s former third baseman Clete Boyer lamenting his eroded skills. “And it’s a shame,” he tells Golenbock. “Like old ballplayers—like myself. I should quit now. But s–t, I have to go back to Japan for the money. I hate to be embarrassed like that, to just hang on, hang on for the money.” Or to Donald Honig’s Baseball When the Grass Was Real, to hear the long-retired pitcher Wes Ferrell reminisce: “But I’ve still got those memories. I played against a lot of great stars. You name ’em. Ruth, Gehrig, Greenberg, Simmons, Foxx, Grove, DiMaggio, Cochrane, Feller. I saw them all. And they saw me. You bet they did.” Honig’s book also has a brilliantly told Ernest Hemingway anecdote, from Brooklyn Dodgers Hall of Famer Billy Herman. When the team was training in Havana in the 1940s, Hemingway, who “took a lot of pride in all this manly stuff,” invited some players to his house. Late in the evening he cajoled pitcher Hugh Casey into a “friendly” boxing match, sucker-punched him, kicked him “in the balls,” then challenged him to a duel: ” ‘We’ll use swords, pistols, whatever you want. You pick it.’ And he’s dead serious about it …c The next day Hemingway’s wife brought him down to the ball park. You never saw a man so embarrassed, so ashamed. He apologized to everybody. ‘Don’t know what got into me,’ he said. Well, I can tell you what got into him. About a quart.”

I also reread Hemingway’s own stories, to hear his characters’ voices again—he’s got an even better ear than Billy Herman. There’s the narrator of “After the Storm,” who’s the first to come upon a sunken ocean liner, but can’t get down there to loot it. “Well, the Greeks got it all. They must have come fast all right. They picked her clean. First there was the birds, then me, then the Greeks, and even the birds got more out of her than I did.” And “the girl” in “Hills Like White Elephants,” whose lover is pestering her to get an abortion. “Would you please please please please please please please stop talking?” (That’s seven “please”s. Who says less is more?) But my favorite is the lumber-town prostitute in “The Light of the World,” with her addled aria about a once famous prizefighter. “Did I know him? Did I know him? Did I love him? You ask me that? I knew him like you know nobody in the world and I loved him like you love God. He was the greatest, finest, whitest, most beautiful man that ever lived, Steve Ketchel, and his own father shot him down like a dog.” In all of short fiction, she has only one serious rival for my affections: the spinster postmistress in Eudora Welty’s “Why I Live at the P.O.” “Papa-Daddy woke up with this horrible yell and right there without moving an inch he tried to turn Uncle Rondo against me …c All the time he was just lying there swinging as pretty as you please and looping out his beard, and poor Uncle Rondo was pleading with him to slow down the hammock, it was making him as dizzy as a witch to watch it. But that’s what Papa-Daddy likes about a hammock. So Uncle Rondo was too busy to get turned against me for the time being. He’s mama’s only brother and is a good case of a one-track mind. Ask anybody. A certified pharmacist.” If you’ve got Talking Heads on your iPod, why would you want to hear this loony music only once in your life?

And it’s not just the characters who’ve become my companions—it’s also the writers themselves. Some of them, I feel, I would never have wanted to deal with in person, but on the page, they’re some of my favorite people to hang out with. In Strong Opinions, a collection of interviews and letters to editors, the arch-mandarin Vladimir Nabokov sets me straight again and again about Conrad (“I cannot abide [his] souvenir-shop style, bottled ships and shell necklaces of romanticist clichés”), Freud (“Let the credulous and the vulgar continue to believe that all mental woes can be cured by a daily application of old Greek myths to their private parts”), and “the corny Philistine fad of flaunting four-letter words.” I never weary of his reply when asked about his “position in the world of letters”: “Jolly good view from up here.” And in The Sixties, the last of the posthumously published journals by Nabokov’s friend (and sometime enemy) Edmund Wilson, I get to keep company with the august curmudgeon when he goes to see Yellow Submarine—”Amusing but almost two hours of animated cartoon is perhaps a little too much”—and a performance at a Paris music hall. “I… sat through the first act of a show that … consisted of American-type entertainment of the coarsest and most raucous kind: a jazz orchestra; everybody doing the twist; women torch singers, tremendously applauded, who … would sing with the microphone in the right hand, like a piece of garden hose.” Still, huff as he did, even in his last years Wilson was always game to check out something new. Not—ahem—like some of us.

It might be that the shame attached to rereading has less to do with all the new books you feel you ought to be encountering than with what your choice of old books reveals. In my case, I can see a strong tendency toward nostalgia (for the New York Yankees of my childhood; for the sum-mer of 1973, when I watched the Watergate hearings on television) and toward Anglophilia—which appears to be my favored form of multiculturalism. I can’t help but notice the glaring whiteness of all my most-reread authors; it might be righteous to pretend otherwise, but it is what it is: as John-son said, “No man is a hypocrite in his pleasures.” And for a heterosexual, I seem to have quite a taste for all-male subcultures (baseball, mountaineering), mostly male adventures (The Lord of the Rings, Moby-Dick, the Watergate saga), male solitaries (John-son, Philip Larkin, Father Brown), and male couples (Holmes and Watson, Jeeves and Bertie, Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin, Mr. Pickwick and Sam, Frodo and his Sam). Then again, maybe having a taste for Hemingway says it all. I suppose I could go on to look at why I’m always rereading Tom Wolfe’s The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby, or Tom Piazza’s True Adventures With the King of Bluegrass, or Paul Fussell’s Thank God for the Atom Bomb and Other Essays, or certain stories by Cheever, Bruce Jay Friedman, Flannery O’Connor, James Thurber, and Ring Lardner. Not to mention Harold Bloom’s The Western Canon, his eminently rereadable rereading of some of the all-time great rereads. The simple answer is that they give me joy. They fill me with the voices of people I know, thousands of them—many times the number in that old Dickens print—the real and the imagined, the living and the dead. Heaven may be like this eventually, but why wait around when it’s right here, right now?

Rapture of the Nerds

The Coming Superbrain

Published: May 23, 2009
The New York Times

Mountain View, Calif. — It’s summertime and the Terminator is back. A sci-fi movie thrill ride, “Terminator Salvation” comes complete with a malevolent artificial intelligence dubbed Skynet, a military R.&D. project that gained self-awareness and concluded that humans were an irritant — perhaps a bit like athlete’s foot — to be dispatched forthwith.

The notion that a self-aware computing system would emerge spontaneously from the interconnections of billions of computers and computer networks goes back in science fiction at least as far as Arthur C. Clarke’s “Dial F for Frankenstein.” A prescient short story that appeared in 1961, it foretold an ever-more-interconnected telephone network that spontaneously acts like a newborn baby and leads to global chaos as it takes over financial, transportation and military systems.

Today, artificial intelligence, once the preserve of science fiction writers and eccentric computer prodigies, is back in fashion and getting serious attention from NASA and from Silicon Valley companies like Google as well as a new round of start-ups that are designing everything from next-generation search engines to machines that listen or that are capable of walking around in the world. A.I.’s new respectability is turning the spotlight back on the question of where the technology might be heading and, more ominously, perhaps, whether computer intelligence will surpass our own, and how quickly.

The concept of ultrasmart computers — machines with “greater than human intelligence” — was dubbed “The Singularity” in a 1993 paper by the computer scientist and science fiction writer Vernor Vinge. He argued that the acceleration of technological progress had led to “the edge of change comparable to the rise of human life on Earth.” This thesis has long struck a chord here in Silicon Valley.

Artificial intelligence is already used to automate and replace some human functions with computer-driven machines. These machines can see and hear, respond to questions, learn, draw inferences and solve problems. But for the Singulatarians, A.I. refers to machines that will be both self-aware and superhuman in their intelligence, and capable of designing better computers and robots faster than humans can today. Such a shift, they say, would lead to a vast acceleration in technological improvements of all kinds.

The idea is not just the province of science fiction authors; a generation of computer hackers, engineers and programmers have come to believe deeply in the idea of exponential technological change as explained by Gordon Moore, a co-founder of the chip maker Intel.

In 1965, Dr. Moore first described the repeated doubling of the number transistors on silicon chips with each new technology generation, which led to an acceleration in the power of computing. Since then “Moore’s Law” — which is not a law of physics, but rather a description of the rate of industrial change — has come to personify an industry that lives on Internet time, where the Next Big Thing is always just around the corner.

Several years ago the artificial-intelligence pioneer Raymond Kurzweil took the idea one step further in his 2005 book, “The Singularity Is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology.” He sought to expand Moore’s Law to encompass more than just processing power and to simultaneously predict with great precision the arrival of post-human evolution, which he said would occur in 2045.

In Dr. Kurzweil’s telling, rapidly increasing computing power in concert with cyborg humans would then reach a point when machine intelligence not only surpassed human intelligence but took over the process of technological invention, with unpredictable consequences.

Profiled in the documentary “Transcendent Man,” which had its premier last month at the TriBeCa Film Festival, and with his own Singularity movie due later this year, Dr. Kurzweil has become a one-man marketing machine for the concept of post-humanism. He is the co-founder of Singularity University, a school supported by Google that will open in June with a grand goal — to “assemble, educate and inspire a cadre of leaders who strive to understand and facilitate the development of exponentially advancing technologies and apply, focus and guide these tools to address humanity’s grand challenges.”

Not content with the development of superhuman machines, Dr. Kurzweil envisions “uploading,” or the idea that the contents of our brain and thought processes can somehow be translated into a computing environment, making a form of immortality possible — within his lifetime.

That has led to no shortage of raised eyebrows among hard-nosed technologists in the engineering culture here, some of whom describe the Kurzweilian romance with supermachines as a new form of religion.

The science fiction author Ken MacLeod described the idea of the singularity as “the Rapture of the nerds.” Kevin Kelly, an editor at Wired magazine, notes, “People who predict a very utopian future always predict that it is going to happen before they die.”

However, Mr. Kelly himself has not refrained from speculating on where communications and computing technology is heading. He is at work on his own book, “The Technium,” forecasting the emergence of a global brain — the idea that the planet’s interconnected computers might someday act in a coordinated fashion and perhaps exhibit intelligence. He just isn’t certain about how soon an intelligent global brain will arrive.

Others who have observed the increasing power of computing technology are even less sanguine about the future outcome. The computer designer and venture capitalist William Joy, for example, wrote a pessimistic essay in Wired in 2000 that argued that humans are more likely to destroy themselves with their technology than create a utopia assisted by superintelligent machines.

Mr. Joy, a co-founder of Sun Microsystems, still believes that. “I wasn’t saying we would be supplanted by something,” he said. “I think a catastrophe is more likely.”

Moreover, there is a hot debate here over whether such machines might be the “machines of loving grace,” of the Richard Brautigan poem, or something far darker, of the “Terminator” ilk.

“I see the debate over whether we should build these artificial intellects as becoming the dominant political question of the century,” said Hugo de Garis, an Australian artificial-intelligence researcher, who has written a book, “The Artilect War,” that argues that the debate is likely to end in global war.

Concerned about the same potential outcome, the A.I. researcher Eliezer S. Yudkowsky, an employee of the Singularity Institute, has proposed the idea of “friendly artificial intelligence,” an engineering discipline that would seek to ensure that future machines would remain our servants or equals rather than our masters.

Nevertheless, this generation of humans, at least, is perhaps unlikely to need to rush to the barricades. The artificial-intelligence industry has advanced in fits and starts over the past half-century, since the term “artificial intelligence” was coined by the Stanford University computer scientist John McCarthy in 1956. In 1964, when Mr. McCarthy established the Stanford Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, the researchers informed their Pentagon backers that the construction of an artificially intelligent machine would take about a decade. Two decades later, in 1984, that original optimism hit a rough patch, leading to the collapse of a crop of A.I. start-up companies in Silicon Valley, a time known as “the A.I. winter.”

Such reversals have led the veteran Silicon Valley technology forecaster Paul Saffo to proclaim: “never mistake a clear view for a short distance.”

Indeed, despite this high-technology heartland’s deeply held consensus about exponential progress, the worst fate of all for the Valley’s digerati would be to be the generation before the generation that lives to see the singularity.

“Kurzweil will probably die, along with the rest of us not too long before the ‘great dawn,’ ” said Gary Bradski, a Silicon Valley roboticist. “Life’s not fair.”

[A version of this article appeared in print on May 24, 2009, on page WK1 (Week in Review, page 1) of the New York edition (of the New York Times).]

O my brothers, break, break the old tablets!

For the old gods, after all, things came to an end long ago; and verily, they had a good gay godlike end. They did not end in a “twilight,” though this lie is told. Instead: one day they laughed themselves to death. That happened when the most godless word issued from one of the gods themselves — the word: “There is one god. Thou shalt have no other god before me!” An old grimbeard of a god, a jealous one, thus forgot himself. And then all the gods laughed and rocked on their chairs and cried,

“Is not just this godlike that there are gods but no God?”


In a dream, in the last dream of the morning, I stood in the foothills today — beyond the world, held scales, and weighed the world. . . .


I flew, quivering, an arrow, through sun-drunken delight, away into distant futures where no dream had yet seen, into hotter souths than artists ever dreamed of, where gods in their dances are ashamed of all clothes — to speak in parables and to limp and stammer like a poet; and verily, I am ashamed that I must still be a poet.

Where all becoming seemed to me the dance of gods and the prankishness of gods, and the world seemed free and frolicsome and as if fleeing back to itself — as an eternal  fleeing and seeking each other  again of many gods, as the happy controverting of each other, conversing again with each other, and converging again of many gods.

Where all time seemed to me a happy mockery of moments, where necessity was freedom itself playing happily with the sting of freedom.


Now I wait for my own redemption — that I may go to them for the last time. For I want to go to men once more; under their eyes I want to go under; dying, I want to give them my richest gift. From the sun I learned this: when he goes down, overrich; he pours gold into the sea out of inexhaustible riches, so that even the poorest fisherman still rows with golden oars. For this I once saw and I did not tire of my tears as I watched it.


My brothers, the firstling is always sacrificed. We, however, are firstlings. All of us bleed at secret sacrificial altars; all of us burn and roast in honor of old idols. What is best in us is still young: that attracts old palates. Our flesh is tender, our hide is mere lamb-skin: how could we fail to attract old idol-priests? Even in ourselves the old idol-priest still lives who roasts what is best in us for his feast. Alas, my brothers, how could firstlings fail to be sacrifices?

But thus our kind wants it; and I love those who do not want to preserve themselves. Those who are going under I love with my whole life: for they cross over.


Everything that the good call evil must must come together so that one truth may be born.

O my brothers, are you evil enough for this truth? The audacious daring, the long mistrust, the cruel No, the disgust, the cutting into the living — how rarely does all this come together. But from such seed is truth begotten.


“Thou shalt not rob! Thou shalt not kill!” Such words were once called holy; one bent the knee and head and took off one’s shoes before them. But I ask you: where have there ever been better robbers and killers in this world than such holy words?

Is there not in all life itself robbing and killing? And that such words were called holy — was not truth itself killed thereby? Or was it the preaching of death that was called holy, which contradicted and contravened all life? O my brothers, break, break the old tablets!


“To the clean all is clean,” the people say. But I say unto you, “To the mean all becomes mean.”

Therefore the swooners and head-hangers, whose hearts also hang limply, preach, “The world itself is a filthy monster.” For all these have an unclean spirit — but especially those who have neither rest nor repose except when they see the world from abaft, the afterworldly. To these I say to their faces, even though it may not sound nice: the world is like man in having a backside abaft; that much is true. There is much filth in the world; that much is true. But that does not make the world itself a filthy monster.

There is wisdom in this, that there is much in the world that smells foul: nausea itself creates wings and water-divining powers. Even in the best there is still something that nauseates; and even the best is something that must be overcome. O my brothers, there is much wisdom in this, that there is much filth in the world.


To gain knowledge is a joy for the lion-willed! But those who have become weary are themselves merely being “willed,” and all the billows play with them. And this is always the manner of the weak: they get lost on the way. And in the end their weariness till asks, “Why did we ever pursue any way at all? It is all the same.” Their ears appreciate the preaching, “Nothing is worth while! You shall not will!” Yet this is an exhortation to bondage.


There stands the bark; over there perhaps the great nothing lies. But who would embark on this “perhaps”? No one of you wants to embark on the bark of death. Why then do you want to be world-weary? World-weary! And you are not even removed from the earth. Lusting after the earth I have always found you, in love even with your own world-weariness. Not for nothing is your lip hanging; a little earthly wish still sits on it. And in your eyes — does not a little cloud of unforgotten earthly joy float there?

There are many good inventions on earth, some useful, some pleasing: for their sake, the earth is to be loved. And there is such a variety of well-invented things that the earth is like the breasts of a woman: useful as well as pleasing.

But you who are world-weary, you who are earth-lazy, you should be lashed with switches: with lashes one should make your legs sprightly again. For when you are not invalids and decrepit wretches of whom the earth is weary, you are shrewd sloths or sweet-toothed, sneaky pleasure-cats. And if you do not want to run again with pleasure, then you should pass away. To the incurable, one should not try to be a physician — thus Zarathustra teaches — so you shall pass away!

But it takes more courage to make an end than to make a new verse: all physicians and poets know that.


What is the highest species of all and what is the lowest? The parasite is the lowest species; but whoever is of the highest species will nourish the most parasites. For the soul that has the longest ladder and reaches down deepest — how should the most parasites not sit on that? The most comprehensive soul, which can run and stray and roam farthest within itself; the most necessary soul, which out of sheer joy plunges itself into chance; the soul which, having being, dives into becoming; the soul which has, but wants to want and will; the soul which flees itself and catches up with itself in the widest circle; the wisest soul; which folly exhorts most sweetly; the soul which loves itself most, in which all things have their sweep and countersweep and ebb and flow — oh, how shoud the highest soul not have the most parasites?


Thus I want man and woman: the one fit for war, the other fit to give birth, but both fit to dance with head and limbs.

And we should consider every day lost on which we have not danced at least once. And we should call every truth false which was not accompanied by at least one laugh.


O thou my will! Thou cessation of all need, my own necessity! Keep me from all small victories! Thou destination of my soul, which I call destiny! Thou in-me! Over-me! Keep me and save me for a great destiny!

And thy last greatness, my will, save up for thy last feat that thou mayest be inexorable in thy victory. Alas,  who was not vanquished in his victory? Alas, whose eye would not darken in this drunken twilight? Alas, whose foot would not reel in victory and forget how to stand?

That I may one day be ready and ripe in the great noon: as ready and ripe as glowing bronze, clouds pregnant with lightning, and swelling milk udders — ready for myself and my most hidden will: a bow lusting for its arrow, an arrow lusting for its star — a star ready and ripe in its noon, glowing, pierced, enraptured by annihilating sun arrows — a sun itself and an inexorable solar will, ready to annihilate in victory!

O will, cessation of all need, my own necessity! Save me for a great victory!

Thus spoke Zarathustra.

A Clockwork Orange Resucked


I first published the novella A Clockwork Orange in 1962, which ought to be far enough in the past for it to be erased from the world’s literary memory. It refuses to be erased, however, and for this the film version of the book made by Stanley Kubrick may be held chiefly responsible. I should myself be glad to disown it for various reasons, but this is not permitted. I recieve mail from students who try to write theses about it, or requests from Japanese dramaturges to turn it into a sort of Noh play. It seems likely to survive, while other works of mine that I value more bite the dust. This is not an unusual experience for an artist. Rachmaninoff used to groan because he was known mainly for a Prelude in C Sharp Minor which he wrote as a boy, while the works of his maturity never got into the programmes. Kids cut their pianistic teeth on a minuet in G which Beethoven composed only so that he could detest it. I have to go on living with A Clockwork Orange, and thismeans I have a sort of authorial duty to it. I have a very special duty to it in the United States, and I had better now explain what this duty is.

Let me put the situation badly. A Clockwork Orange has never been published entire in America. The book I wrote is divided into three sections of seven chapters each. Take out your pocket calculator and you will find that these add up to a total of twenty-one chapters. 21 is the symbol of human maturity, or used to be, since at 21 you got the vote and assumed adult responsibility. Whatever its symbology, the numer 21 was the number I started out with. Novelists of my stamp are interested in what is called arithmology, meaning that number has to mean something in human terms when they handle it. The number of chapters is never entirely arbitrary. Just as a musical composere starts off with a vague image of bulk and duration, so a novelist begins with an image of length, and this image is expressed in the number of sections and the number of chapters into which the work will be disposed. Those twenty-one chapters were important to me.

But they were not important to my New York publisher. The book he brought out had only twenty chapters. He insisted on cutting out the twenty-first. I could, of course, have demurred at this adn taken my book elsewhere, but it was considered that he was being charitable in accepting the work at all, and that all other New York, or Boston, publishers would kick out the manuscript on its dog-ear. I needed money back in 1961, even the pittance I was being offered as an advance, and if the condition of the book’s acceptance was also its truncation — well, so be it. So there is a profound difference between A Clockwork Orange as Great Britain knows it and the somewhat slimmer volume that bears the same name in the United States of America.

Let us go further. The rest of the world was sold the book out of Great Britain, and so most versions — certainly the French, Italian, Spanish, Catalan, Russian, Hebrew, Rumanian, and German translations — have the original twenty-one chapters. Now when Kubrick made his film — though he made it in England — he followed the American version and, so it seemed to his audiences outside America, ended the story somewhat prematurely. Audiences did not exactly clamour for their money back, but they wondered why Kubrick left out the denouement. People wrote to me about this — indeed much of my later life has been expended on Xeroxing statements of intention and the frustration of intention — while both Kubrick and my New York publisher coolly bask in the rewards of their misdemeanour. Life is, of course, terrible.

What happens in that twenty-first chapter? You now have the chance to find out. Briefly, my young thuggish protagonist grows up. He grows bored with violence and recognises that human energy is better expended on creation than destruction. Senseless violence is a prerogative of youth, which has much energy but little talent for the constructive. Its dynamism has to find an outlet in smashing telephone kiosks, derailing trains, stealing cars and smashing them and, of course, in the much more satisfactory activity of destroying human beings. There comes a time, however, when violence is seen as juvenile and boring. It is the repartee of the stupid and ignorant. My young hoodlum comes to the revelation of the need to get something done in life — to marry, to beget children, to keep the orange of the world turning in the rookers of Bog, or hands of God, and perhaps even create something — music, say. After all, Mozart and Mendelssohn were composing deathless music in their teens or nadsats, and all my hero was doing was razrezzing and giving the old in-out. It is with a kind of shame that this growing youth looks back on his devastating past. He wants a different kind of future.

There is no hint of this change of intention in the twentieth chapter. The boy is conditioned, then deconditioned, and he forsees with glee a resumption of the operation of free and violent will. ‘I was cured all right,’ he says, and so the American book ends. So the film ends too. The twenty-first chapter gives the novel the quality of genuine fiction, an art founded on the principle that human beings change. There is, in fact, not much point in writing a novel unless you can show the possibility of moral transformation, or an increase in wisdom, operating in your chief character or characters. Even trashy bestsellers show people changing. When a fictional work fails to show change, when it merely indicates that human character is set, stony, unregenerable, then you are out of the field of the novel and into that of the fable or the allegory. The American or Kubrickian Orange is a fable; the British or world one is a novel.

But my first New York publisher believed that my twenty-first chapter was a sellout. It was veddy veddy British, don’t you know. It was bland and showed a Pelagian unwillingness to accept that a human being could be a model of unregenerable evil. The Americans, he said in effect, were tougher than the British and could face up to reality. Soon they would be facing up to it in Vietnam. My book was Kennedyan and accepted the notion of moral progress. What was really was a Nixonian book with no shred of optimism in it. Let us have evil prancing on the page and, up to the very last line, sneering in the face of all the inherited beliefs, Jewish, Christian, Muslim and Holy Roller, about people being able to make themselves better. Such a book would be sensational, and so it is. But I do not think it is a fair picture of human life.

I do not think so because, by definition, a human being is endowed with free will. He can use this to choose between good and evil. If he can only perform good or only perform evil, then he is a clockwork orange — meaning that he has the appearance of an organism lovely with colour and juice but is in fact only a clockwork toy to be wound up by God or the Devil or (since this is increasingly replacing both) the Almighty State. It is as inhuman to be totally good as it is to be totally evil. The important thing is moral choice. Evil has to exist along with good, in order that moral choice may operate. Life is sustained by the grinding opposition of moral entities. This is what the television news is all about. Unfortunately there is so much original sin in us all that we find evil rather attractive. To devastate is easier and more spectacular than to create. We like to have the pants scared off us by visions of cosmic destruction. To sit down in a dull room and compose the Missa Solemnis or The Anatomy of Melancholy does not make headlines or news flashes. Unfortunately my little squib of a book was found attractive to many because it was as odorous as a crateful of bad eggs with the miasma of original sin.

It seems priggish or pollyannaish to deny that my intention in writing the work was to titillate the nastier propensities of my readers. My own healthy inheritance of original sin comes out in the book and I enjoy raping and ripping by proxy. It is the novelist’s innate cowardice that makes him depute to imaginary personalities the sins that he is too cautious to commit for himself. But the book does also have a moral lesson, and it is the weary traditional one of the fundamental importance of moral choice. It is because this lesson sticks out like a sore thumb that I tend to disparage A Clockwork Orange as a work too didactic to be artistic. It is not the novelist’s job to preach; it is his duty to show. I have shown enough, though the curtain of an invented lingo gets in the way — another aspect of my cowardice. Nadsat, a Russified version of English, was meant to muffle the raw response we expect from pornography. It turns the book into a linguistic adventure. People preferred the film because they are scared, rightly, of language.

I don’t think I have to remind readers what the title means. Clockwork oranges don’t exist, except in the speech of old Londoners. The image is a bizarre one, always used for a bizarre thing. “He’s as queer as a clockwork orange” meant he was queer to the limit of queerness. It did not primarily denote homosexuality, though a queer, before restrictive legislation came in, was the term used for a member of the inverted fraternity. Europeans who translated the title as Arancia a Orologeria or Orange Mécanique could not understand its Cockney resonance and they assumed that it meant a hand grenade, a cheaper kind of explosive pineapple. I mean it to stand for the application of a mechanistic morality to a living organism oozing with juice and sweetness.

Readers of the twenty-first chapter must decide for themselves whether it enhances the book they presumably know or is really a discardable limb. I meant the book to end in this way, but my aesthetic judgments may have been faulty. Writers are rarely their own best critics, nor are critics. “Quod scripsi scripsi” said Pontius Pilate when he made Jesus Christ the King of the Jews. “What I have written I have written.” We can destroy what we have written but we cannot unwrite it. I leave what I wrote with what Dr. Johnson called frigid indifference to the judgment of that .00000001 [percent] of the American population which cares about such things. Eat this sweetish segment or spit it out. You are free.


[Anthony Burgess’ introduction to the 1986 American edition of A Clockwork Orange]

Suicide: the one truly serious philosophical problem — Camus

O my soul, do not aspire to
immortal life, but exhaust the limits of the possible.

— Pindar, Pythian iii

An Absurd Reasoning

Absurdity and Suicide

There is but one truly serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide. Judging whether life is or is not worth living amounts to answering the fundamental question of philosophy. All the rest — whether or not the world has three dimensions, whether the mind has nine or twelve categories — comes afterwards. These are games; one must first answer. And if it is true, as Nietzsche claims, that a philosopher, to deserve our respect, must preach by example, you can appreciate the importance of that reply, for it will precede the definitive act. These are facts the heart can feel; yet they call for careful study before they become clear to the intellect.

If I ask myself how to judge that this question is more urgent than that, I reply that one judges by the actions it entails. I have never seen anyone die for the ontological argument. Galileo, who held a scientific truth of great importance, abjured it with the greatest ease as soon as it endangered his life. In a certain sense, he did right. . . . That truth was not worth the stake. Whether the earth or the sun revolves around the other is a matter of profound indifference. To tell the truth, it is a futile question. On the other hand, I see many people die because they judge that life is not worth living. I see others paradoxically getting killed for the ideas or illusions that give them a reason for living (what is called a reason for living is also an excellent reason for dying). I therefore conclude that the meaning of life is the most urgent of questions. How to answer it? On all essential problems (I mean thereby those that run the risk of leading to death or those that intensify the passion of living) there are probably but two methods of thought: the method of La Palisse and the method of Don Quixote. Solely the balance between evidence and lyricism can allow us to achieve simultaneously emotion and lucidity. In a subject at once so humble and so heavy with emotion, the learned and classical dialectic must yield, one can see, to a more modest attitude of mind deriving at one and the same time from common sense and understanding.

Suicide has never been dealt with except as a social phenomenon. On the contrary, we are concerned here, at the outset, with the relationship between individual thought and suicide. An act like this is prepared within the silence of the heart, as is a great work of art. The man himself is ignorant of it. One evening he pulls the trigger or jumps. Of an apartment-building manager who had killed himself I was told that he had lost his daughter five years before, that he had greatly changed since, and that the experience had “undermined” him. A more exact word cannot be imagined. Beginning to think is beginning to be undermined. Society has but little connection with such beginnings. The worm is in man’s heart. That is where it must be sought. One must follow and understand this fatal game that leads from lucidity in the face of existence to flight from light.

There are many causes for a suicide, and generally the most obvious ones were not the most powerful. Rarely is suicide committed (yet the hypothesis is not excluded) through reflection. What sets off the crisis is almost always unverifiable. Newspapers often speak of “personal sorrows” or of “incurable illness.” These explanations are plausible. But one would have to know whether a friend of the desperate man had not that very day addressed him indifferently. He is the guilty one. For that is enough to precipitate all the rancors and all the boredom still in suspension.

But if it is hard to fix the precise instant, the subtle step when the mind opted for death, it is easier to deduce from the act itself the consequences it implies. In a sense, and as in melodrama, killing yourself amounts to confessing. It is confessing that life is too much for you or that you do not understand it. Let’s not go too far in such analogies, however, but rather return to everyday words. It is merely confessing that that “is not worth the trouble.” Living, naturally, is never easy. You continue making the gestures commanded by existence for many reasons, the first of which is habit. Dying voluntarily implies that you have recognized, even instinctively, the ridiculous character of that habit, the absence of any profound reason for living, the insane character of that daily agitation, the uselessness of suffering.

What, then, is that incalculable feeling that deprives the mind of the sleep necessary to life? A world that can be explained even with bad reasons is a familiar world. But, on the other hand, in a universe suddenly divested of illusions and lights, man feels an alien, a stranger. His exile is without remedy since he is deprived of the memory of a lost home or the hope of a promised land. This divorce between man and his life, the actor and his setting, is properly the feeling of absurdity. All healthy men having thought of their own death, it can be seen, without further explanation, that there is a direct connection between this feeling and the longing for death. . . .

. . . . Hitherto, and it has not been wasted effort, people have played on words and pretended to believe that refusing to grant a meaning to life necessarily leads to declaring that it is not worth living. In truth, there is no necessary common measure between these two judgments. One merely has to refuse to be misled by the confusions, divorces and inconsistencies previously pointed out. One must brush everything aside and go straight to the real problem. One kills oneself because life is not worth living, that is certainly a truth — yet an unfruitful one because it is a truism. But does that insult to existence, that flat denial in which it is plunged come from the fact that it has no meaning? Does its absurdity require one to escape it through hope or suicide — that is what must be clarified, hunted down, and elucidated while brushing aside all the rest. Does the Absurd dictate death? This problem must be given priority over others, outside all methods of thought and all exercises of the disinterested mind. Shades of meaning, contradictions, the psychology that an “objective” mind can always introduce into all problems have no place in this pursuit and this passion. It calls simply for an unjust — in other words, logical — thought. That is not easy. It is always easy to be logical. It is almost impossible to be logical to the bitter end. Men who die by their own hand consequently follow to its conclusion their emotional inclination. Reflection on suicide gives me an opportunity to raise the only problem to interest me: is there a logic to the point of death? I cannot know unless I pursue, without reckless passion, in the sole light of evidence, the reasoning of which I am here suggesting the source. This is what I call an absurd reasoning. Many have begun it. I do not yet know whether or not they kept to it.

When Karl Jaspers, revealing the impossibility of constituting the world as a unity, exclaims: “This limitation leads me to myself, where I can no longer withdraw behind an objective point of view that I am merely representing, where neither I myself nor the existence of others can any longer become an object for me,” he is evoking after many others those waterless deserts where thought reaches its confines. After many others, yes indeed, but how eager they were to get out of them! At that last crossroad where thought hesitates, many men have arrived and even some of the humblest. They then abdicated what was most precious to them, their life. Others, princes of the mind, abdicated likewise, but they initiated the suicide of their thought in its purest revolt. The real effort is to stay there, rather, in so far as that is possible, and to examine closely the odd vegetation of those distant regions. Tenacity and acumen are privileged spectators of this inhuman show in which absurdity, hope, and death carry on their dialogue. The mind can then analyze the figures of that elementary yet subtle dance before illustrating them and reliving them itself.

Absurd Walls

Like great works, deep feelings always mean more than they are conscious of saying. The regularity of an impulse or a repulsion in a soul is encountered again in habits of doing or thinking, is reproduced in consequences of which the soul itself knows nothing. Great feelings take with them their own universe, splendid or abject. They light up with their passion an exclusive world in which they recognize their climate. There is a universe of jealousy, of ambition, of selfishness, or of generosity. A universe — in other words, a metaphysic and an attitude of mind. What is true of already specialized feelings will be even more so of emotions basically as indeterminate, simultaneously as vague and as “definite,” as remote and as “present” as those furnished us by beauty or aroused by absurdity.

At any streetcorner the feeling of absurdity can strike any man in the face. As it is, in its distressing nudity, in its light without effulgence, it is elusive. But that very difficulty deserves reflection. It is probably true that a man remains forever unknown to us and that there is in him something irreducible that escapes us. But practically I know men and recognize them by their behavior, by the totality of their deeds, by the consequences caused in life by their presence. Likewise, all those irrational feelings which offer no purchase to analysis. I can define them practically, appreciate them practically, by seizing and noting all their aspects, by outlining their universe. It is certain that apparently, though I have seen the same actor a hundred times, I shall not for that reason know him any better personally. Yet if I add up the heroes he has personified and if I say that I know him a little better at the hundredth counted off, this will be felt to contain an element of truth. For this apparent paradox is also an apologue. There is a moral to it. It teaches that a man defines himself by his make-believe as well as well as by his sincere feelings, inaccessible in the heart but partially disclosed by the acts they imply and the attitudes of mind they assume. It is clear that in this way I am defining a method. But it is also evident that that method is one of analysis and not of knowledge. For methods imply metaphysics; unconsciously they disclose conclusions that they often claim not to know yet. Similarly, the last pages of a book are already contained in the first pages. Such a link is inevitable. The method defined here acknowledges the feeling that all true knowledge is impossible. Solely appearances can be enumerated and the climate make itself felt.

Perhaps we shall be able to overtake that elusive feeling of absurdity in the different but closely related worlds of intelligence, of the art of living, or of art itself. The climate of absurdity is in the beginning. The end is the absurd universe and that attitude of mind which lights the world with its true colors to bring out the privileged and implacable visage which that attitude has discerned in it.

* * *

All great deeds and all great thoughts have a ridiculous beginning. Great works are often born on a street corner or in a restaurant’s revolving door. The absurd world more than others derives its nobility from that abject birth. In certain situations, replying “nothing” when asked what one is thinking about my be pretense in a man. Those who are loved are well aware of this. But if that reply is sincere, if it symbolizes that odd state of soul in which the void becomes eloquent, in which the chain of daily gestures is broken, in which the heart vainly seeks the link that will connect it again, then it is as it were the first sign of absurdity.

It happens that the stage sets collapse. Rising, streetcar, four hours in the office or the factory, meal, streetcar, four hours of work, meal, sleep,  and Monday Tuesday Wednesday Thursday Friday and Saturday according to the same rhythm — this path is easily followed most of the time. But one day the “why” arises and everything begins in that weariness tinged with amazement. “Begins” — this is important. Weariness comes at the end of the acts of a mechanical life, but at the same time it inaugurates the impulse of consciousness. It awakens consciousness and provokes what follows. What follows is the gradual return into the chain or it is the definitive awakening. At the end of the awakening comes, in time, the consequence: suicide or recovery. In itself weariness has something sickening about it. Here, I must conclude that it is good. For everything begins with consciousness and nothing is worth anything except through it. There is nothing original about these remarks. But they are obvious; that is enough for a while, during a sketchy reconnaissance in the origins of the absurd. Mere “anxiety,” as Heidegger says, is at the source of everything.

[From Albert Camus’  essay The Myth of Sisyphus]

Each time it tries to say more than this
The tip of the tongue must wrestle a leech.

— Bill Knott, Lines from Future Poems

For all things have been baptized in the well of eternity and are beyond good and evil


The world is deep —
and deeper than day had ever been aware.
Not everything may be put into
words in the presence of day.
But the day is coming,
so let us part.

O heaven above me, pure and deep! You abyss of light! Seeing you, I tremble with godlike desires. To throw myself into your height, that is my depth. To hide in your purity, that is my innocence.

Gods are shrouded by their beauty; thus you conceal your stars. You do not speak; thus you proclaim your wisdom to me. Today you rose for me silently over the roaring sea; your love and your shyness are a revelation to my roaring soul. That you came to me, beautiful, shrouded in your beauty, that you speak to me silently, revealing your wisdom — oh, how should I not guess all that is shy in your soul! Before the sun you came to me, the loneliest of all.

We are friends from the beginning: we share grief and ground and gray dread; we even share the sun. We do not speak to each other, because we know too much; we are silent to each other, we smile our knowledge at each other. Are you not the light for my fire? Have you not the sister soul to my insight? Together we have learned everything; together we have learned to ascend ourselves to ourselves and smile cloudlessly — to smile down cloudlessly from bright eyes and from a vast distance when constraint and contrivance and guilt steam beneath us like rain.

And when I wandered alone, for whom did my soul hunger at night, on false paths? And when I climbed mountains, whom did I always seek on the mountains, if not you? And all my wandering and mountain climbing were sheer necessity and a help in my helplessness: what I want with all my will is to fly, to fly up into you.

And whom did I hate more than drifting clouds and all that stains you? And I hated even my own hatred because it stained you. I loathe the drifting clouds, those stealthy great cats which prey on what you and I have in common — the uncanny, unbounded Yes and Amen. We loathe these mediators and mixers, the drifting clouds that are half-and-half and have learned neither to bless nor to curse from the heart.

Rather would I sit in a barrel under closed heavens, rather sit in the abyss without a heaven, than see you, bright heaven, stained by drifting clouds.

And often I had the desire to tie them fast with the jagged golden wires of the lightning, that, like thunder, I might beat the big drums on their kettle-belly — an angry kettle-drummer — because they rob me of your Yes and Amen, O heaven over me, pure and light! You abyss of light! Because they rob me of my Yes and Amen. For I prefer even noise and thunder and storm-curses to this deliberate, doubting cats’ calm; and among men too I hate most of all the soft-treaders and those who are half-and-half and doubting, tottering drift clouds.

And “whoever cannot bless should learn to curse” — this bright doctrine fell to me from a bright heaven; this star stands in my heaven even in black nights.

But I am one who can bless and say Yes, if only you are about me, pure and light, you abyss of light; then I carry the blessings of my Yes into all abysses. I have become one who blesses and says Yes; and I fought long for that and was a fighter that I might one day get my hands free to bless. But this is my blessing: to stand over every single thing as its own heaven, as its round roof, its azure bell, and eternal security; and blessed is he who blesses thus.

For all things have been baptized in the well of eternity and are beyond good and evil; and good and evil themselves are but intervening shadows and damp depressions and drifting clouds.

Verily, it is a blessing and not a blasphemy when I teach: “Over all things stand the heaven Accident, the heaven Innocence, the heaven Chance, the heaven Prankishness.”

“By Chance” — that is the most ancient nobility of the world, and this I restored to all things: I delivered them from their bondage under Purpose. This freedom and heavenly cheer I have placed over all things like an azure bell when I taught that over them and through them no “eternal will” wills. This prankish folly I have put in the place of that will when I taught: “In everything one thing is impossible: rationality.”

A little reason, to be sure, a seed of wisdom scattered from star to star — this leaven is mixed in with all things: for folly’s sake, wisdom is mixed in with all things. A little wisdom is possible indeed; but this blessed certainty I found in all things: that they would rather dance on the feet of Chance.

O heaven over me, pure and high! That is what your purity is to me now, that there is no eternal spider or spider web of reason; that you are to me a dance floor of divine accidents, that you are to me a divine table for divine dice and dice players. But you blush? Did I speak the unspeakable? Did I blaspheme, wishing to bless you? Or is it the shame of twosomeness that makes you blush? Do you bid me go and be silent because the day is coming now?

The world is deep — and deeper than day had ever been aware. Not everything may be put into words in the presence of day. But the day is coming, so let us part.

O heaven over me, bashful and glowing! O you, my happiness before sunrise! The day is coming, so let us part.

Thus spoke Zarathustra.

Naked Lunch On Trial

The method must be purest meat
and no symbolic dressing,
actual visions and actual prisons
as seen then and now.

Prisons and visions presented
with rare descriptions
corresponding exactly to those
of Alcatraz and Rose.

A naked lunch is natural to us,
we eat reality sandwiches.
But allegories are so much lettuce.
Don’t hide the madness.

— “On Burroughs’ Work” by Allen Ginsburg

[Edward De Grazia was the attorney appearing on behalf of the book Naked Lunch and its publisher at the Boston trial that preceded the July 7, 1966 Supreme Court of Massachusetts decision declaring Naked Lunch by William S. Burroughs NOT OBSCENE. At the Boston trial (excerpted here), Norman Mailer and Allen Ginsberg were among the witnesses who testified on behalf of Naked Lunch.]

MAILER: . . . . [A]s I was reading the book, I started thinking about a matter that is one of the mysteries of writing. It is very often you can wake up in the morning and start writing and you have this experience: what you are writing about is what you haven’t been thinking about. It will come out in detail. One’s best writing seems to bear no relation to what one is thinking about. There is an unconscious calculation that seems to go on in one’s sleep. The work is done while you sleep; and the discipline of writing is almost to keep from interfering with that creative work that is done by the unconscious. In other words, if a man is working on a novel, that his habits are regular and precise — I am getting long-winded here for a point. The best of his habits are regular because he doesn’t portray the work he is performing while conscious.

. . . . [W]hat is fascinating to me is that there is a structure to the book [i.e., Naked Lunch], you see, which is doubtless imperfect. I think one reason we can’t call it a great book like Remembrance of Things Past or Ulysses, is the imperfection of the structure. There is no doubt as to the man’s talent; while it was, perhaps, excited and flamed by drug addiction, it was also hurt. This man might have been one of the greatest geniuses of the English language if he had never been an addict. Through this there is a feeling of great torture in the composition of the book. What comes through to me is that there also is style, the subconscious going through all the various trials and ordeals of addiction, he still holds on to a scheme in the book; and there is a deep meaning. It is curious the way these themes keep recurring.

. . . . William Burroughs is in my opinion — whatever his conscious intention may be — a religious writer. There is a sense in Naked Lunch of the destruction of soul, which is more intense than any I have encountered in any other modern novel. It is a vision of how mankind would act if man was totally divorced from eternity. What gives this vision a machine-gun-edged clarity is an utter lack of sentimentality. The expression of sentimentality in religious matters comes forth usually as a sort of saccharine piety which revolts any idea of religious sentiment in those who are sensitive, discriminating, or deep of feeling. Burroughs avoids even the possibility of such sentimentality (which would, of course, destroy the value of his work), by attaching a stringent, mordant vocabulary to a series of precise and horrific events, a species of gallows humor which is a defeated man’s last pride, the pride that he has, at least, not lost his bitterness. So it is the sort of humor which flourishes in prisons, in the Army, among junkies, race tracks and pool halls, a graffiti of cool, even livid wit, based on bodily functions and the frailty of the body, the slights, humiliations and tortures a body can undergo. It is a wild and deadly humor, as even and implacable as a sales tax; it is the small coin of communication in every one of those worlds. Bitter as alkali, it pickles every serious subject in the caustic of the harshest experience; what is left untouched is as dry and silver as a bone. It is this sort of fine, dry residue which is the emotional substance of Burroughs’ work for me.

Just as Hieronymus Bosch set down the most diabolical and blood-curdling details with a delicacy of line and a Puckish humor which left one with a sense of the mansions of horror attendant upon Hell, so, too, does Burroughs leave you with an intimate, detailed vision of what Hell might look like, a Hell which may be waiting as a culmination, the final product of the scientific revolution. At the end of medicine is dope; at the end of life is death; at the end of man may be the Hell which arrives from the vanities of the mind. Nowhere, as in Naked Lunch‘s collection of monsters, half-mad geniuses, cripples, mountebanks, criminals, perverts, and putrefying beasts is there such a modern panoply of the vanities of the human will, of the excesses of evil which occur when the idea of personal or intellectual power reigns superior to the compassions of the flesh.

We are richer for that record; and we are more impressive as a nation because a publisher can print that record and sell it in an open book store, sell it legally, It even offers a hint that the “Great Society,” which Lyndon Johnson speaks of, may not be merely a politician’s high wind, but indeed may have the hard seed of a new truth; for no ordinary society could have the bravery and moral honesty to stare down into the abyss of Naked Lunch. But a Great Society can look into the chasm of its own potential Hell and recognize that it is stronger as a nation for possessing an artist who can come back from Hell with a portrait of its dimensions.

* * *

DE GRAZIA: . . . . With Your Honor’s permission, I would like at this point to read from a letter I received not very long ago from William Burroughs. “The question: What is sex? and the concomitant questions as to what is obscene, impure, is not asked, let alone answered, precisely because of barriers of semantic anxiety which precludes our free or, I think, objective scientific examination of sexual phenomena. How can these phenomena be studied if one is forbidden to write or think about them?

“Unless and until a free examination of sexual manifestations is allowed, man will continue to be controlled by sex rather than controlling. A phenomena totally unknown because deliberately ignored and ruled out as a subject for writing and research.

“What we are dealing with here is a barrier of what can only be termed medieval superstition and fear, precisely the same barrier that held up the natural sciences for some hundreds of years with dogma rather than examination and research. In short, the same objective methods that have been applied to natural science should now be applied to sexual phenomena with a view to understand and control these manifestations. A doctor is not criticized for describing the manifestations and symptoms of an illness, even though the symptoms may be disgusting.

“I feel that a writer has the right to the same freedom. In fact, I think that the time has come for the line between literature and science, a purely arbitrary line, to be erased.”

That is the end of the quote.

. . . . Let me quote once more, very briefly this time, from the founder of modern psychiatric science, Sigmund Freud: “Imaginative writers are valuable colleagues and their testimony is to be rated very highly because they draw on sources we have not yet made accessible to science. The portrayal of the psychic life of human beings is, of course, the imaginative writer’s most special demand. He has always been the forerunner of science and thus scientific psychology, too.” A very similar expression was made by one of this country’s leading educators, John Dewey; and I quote: “The freeing of the artist in literary presentation is as much a precondition of the desirable creation of adequate opinion on public matters as is the freeing of social inquiry. Artists have always been the real purveyors of news, for it is not the outward happening in itself which is news, but the kindling by it of emotion, perception and appreciation.”

On Natural Death :: Lewis Thomas

There are so many new books about dying that there are now special shelves set aside for them in bookshops, along with the health-diet and home-repair paperbacks and the sex manuals. Some of them are so packed with detailed information and step-by-step instructions for performing the function that you’d think this was a new sort of skill which all of us are now required to learn. The strongest impression the casual reader gets, leafing through, is that proper dying has become an extraordinary, even an exotic experience, something only the specially trained get to do.

Also, you could be led to believe that we are the only creatures capable of the awareness of death, that when all the rest of nature is being cycled through dying, one generation after another, it is a different kind of process, done automatically and trivially, more “natural,” as we say.

An elm in our backyard caught the blight this summer and dropped stone dead, leafless, almost overnight. One weekend it was a normal-looking elm, maybe a little bare in spots but nothing alarming, and the next weekend it was gone, passed over, departed, taken. Taken is right, for the tree surgeon came by yesterday with his crew of young helpers and their cherry picker, and took it down branch by branch and carted it off in the back of a red truck, everyone singing.

The dying of a field mouse, at the jaws of an amiable household cat, is a spectacle I have beheld several times. It used to make me wince. Early in life I gave up throwing sticks at the cat to make him drop the mouse, because the dropped mouse regularly went ahead and died anyway, but I always shouted unaffections at the cat to let him know the sort of animal he had become. Nature, I thought, was an abomination.

Recently I’ve done some thinking about that mouse, and I wonder if his dying is necessarily all that different from the passing of our elm. The main difference, if there is one, would be in the matter of pain. I do not believe that an elm tree has pain receptors, and even so, the blight seems to me a relatively painless way to go even if there were nerve endings in a tree, which there are not. But the mouse dangling tail-down from the teeth of a gray cat is something else again, with pain beyond bearing, you’d think, all over his small body.

There are now some plausible reasons for thinking it is not like that at all, and you can make up an entirely different story about the mouse and his dying if you like. At the instant of being trapped and penetrated by teeth, peptide hormones are released by cells in the hypothalamus and the pituitary gland; instantly these substances, called endorphins, are attached to the surfaces of other cells responsible for pain perception; the hormones have the pharmacologic properties of opium; there is no pain. Thus it is that the mouse always seems to dangle so languidly from the jaws, lies there so quietly when dropped, dies of his injuries without a struggle. If a mouse could shrug, he’d shrug.

I do not know if this is true or not, nor do I know how to prove it if it is true. Maybe if you could get in there quickly enough and administer naloxone, a specific morphine antagonist, you could turn off the endorphins and observe the restoration of pain, but this is not something I would care to do or see. I think I will leave it there, as a good guess about the dying of a cat-chewed mouse, perhaps about dying in general.

Montaigne had a hunch about dying, based on his own close call in a riding accident. He was so badly injured as to be believed dead by his companions, and was carried home with lamentations, “all bloody, stained all over with the blood I had thrown up.” He remembers the entire episode, despite having been “dead, for two full hours,” with wonderment:

It seemed to me that my life was hanging only by the tip of my lips. I closed my eyes in order, it seemed to me, to help push it out, and took pleasure in growing languid and letting myself go. It was an idea that was only floating on the surface of my soul, as delicate and feeble as all the rest, but in truth not only free from distress but mingled with that sweet feeling that people have who have let themselves slide into sleep. I believe that this is the same state in which people find themselves whom we see fainting in the agony of death, and I maintain that we pity them without cause. . . . In order to get used to the idea of death, I find that there is nothing like coming close to it.

Later, in another essay, Montaigne returns to it:

If you know not how to die, never trouble yourself; Nature will in a moment fully and sufficiently instruct you; she will exactly do that business for you; take you no care for it.

The worst accident I’ve ever seen was on Okinawa, in the early days of the invasion, when a jeep ran into a troop carrier and was crushed nearly flat. Inside were two young MPs, trapped in bent steel, both mortally hurt, with only their heads and shoulders visible. We had a conversation while people with the right tools were prying them free. Sorry about the accident, they said. No, they said, they felt fine. Is everyone else okay, one of them said. Well, the other one said, no hurry now. And then they died.

Pain is useful for avoidance, for getting away when there’s time to get away, but when it’s end game, and no way back, pain is likely to be turned off, and mechanisms for this are wonderfully precise and quick. If I had to design an ecosystem in which creatures had to live off each other and in which dying was an indispensable part of living, I could not think of a better way to manage.

[From The Medusa and the Snail: More Notes of a Biology Watcher, by Lewis Thomas]

The Madman :: Friedrich Nietzsche

The madman.- Have you not heard of that madman who lit a lantern in the bright morning hours, ran to the market place, and cried incessantly: “I seek God! I seek God!” -As many of those who did not believe in God were standing around just then, he provoked much laughter. Has he got lost? asked one. Did he lose his way like a child? asked another. Or is he hiding? Is he afraid of us? Has he gone on a voyage? emigrated? -Thus they yelled and laughed.

The madman jumped into their midst and pierced them with his eyes. “Whither is God?” he cried; “I will tell you. We have killed him-you and I. All of us are his murderers. But how did we do this? How could we drink up the sea? Who gave us the sponge to wipe away the entire horizon? What were we doing when we unchained this earth from its sun? Whither is it moving now? Whither are we moving? Away from all suns? Are we not plunging continually? Backward, sideward, forward, in all directions? Is there still any up or down? Are we not straying as through an infinite nothing? Do we not feel the breath of empty space? Has it not become colder? Is not night continually closing in on us? Do we not need to light lanterns in the morning? Do we hear nothing as yet of the noise of the gravediggers who are burying God? Do we smell nothing as yet of the divine decomposition? Gods, too, decompose. God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him.

“How shall we comfort ourselves, the murderers of all murderers? What was holiest and mightiest of all that the world has yet owned has bled to death under our knives: who will wipe this blood off us? What water is there for us to clean ourselves? What festivals of atonement, what sacred games shall we have to invent? Is not the greatness of this deed too great for us? Must we ourselves not become gods simply to appear worthy of it? There has never been a greater deed; and whoever is born after us-for the sake of this deed he will belong to a higher history than all history hitherto.”

Here the madman fell silent and looked again at his listeners; and they, too, were silent and stared at him in astonishment. At last he threw his lantern to the ground, and it broke into pieces and went out. “I have come too early,” he said then; “my time is not yet. This tremendous event is still on its way, still wandering; it has not yet reached the ears of men. Lightning and thunder require time; the light of the stars requires time; deeds, though done, still require time to be seen and heard. This deed is still more distant from them than the most distant stars-and yet they have done it themselves.”

It has been related further that on the same day the madman forced his way into several churches and there struck up his requiem aeternam deo. Led out and called to account, he is said always to have replied nothing but: “What after all are these churches now if they are not the tombs and sepulchers of God?”

[Aphorism 125, from Friedrich Nietzsche’s The Gay Science]

Birth of Tragedy: Sections 9 – 15 :: Nietzsche

**** Kaufmann, following the precedent of Crane Brinton’s Nietzsche (1965), George A. Morgan, Jr.’s What Nietzsche Means (1941) and the English version of Oswald Spengler’s The Decline of the West (1926-28), translates “Apollinisch” as “Apollinian”—rather than “Apollonian.” Accordingly, here, Golffing’s “Apollonian” has been changed to “Apollinian.” ****


Everything that rises to the surface in the Apollinian portion of Greek tragedy (in the dialogue) looks simple, transparent, beautiful. In this sense the dialogue is a mirror of the Greek mind, whose nature manifests itself in dance, since in dance the maximum power is only potentially present, betraying itself in the suppleness and opulence of movement. The language of the Sophoclean heroes surprises us by its Apollinian determinacy and lucidity. It seems to us that we can fathom their innermost being, and we are somewhat surprised that we had such a short way to go. However, once we abstract from the character of the hero as it rises to the surface and becomes visible (a character at bottom no more than a luminous shape projected onto a dark wall, that is to say, appearance through and through) and instead penetrate into the myth which is projected in these luminous reflections, we suddenly come up against a phenomenon which is the exact opposite of a familiar optical one. After an energetic attempt to focus on the sun we have, by way of remedy almost, dark spots before our eyes when we turn away. Conversely, the luminous images of the Sophoclean heroes—those Apollinian masks—are the necessary productions of a deep look into the horror of nature; luminous spots, as it were, designed to cure an eye hurt by the ghastly night. Only in this way can we form an adequate notion of the seriousness of “Greek cheerfulness”; whereas we find that cheerfulness generally misinterpreted nowadays as a condition of undisturbed complacence.

Sophocles conceived doomed Oedipus the greatest sufferer of the Greek stage, as a pattern of nobility, destined to error and misery despite his wisdom, yet exercising a beneficent influence upon his environment in virtue of his boundless grief. The profound poet tells us that a man who is truly noble is incapable of sin; though every law, every natural order, indeed the entire canon of ethics, perish by his actions, those very actions will create a circle of higher consequences able to found a new world on the ruins of the old. This is the poet’s message, insofar as he is at the same time a religious thinker. In his capacity as poet he presents us in the beginning with a complicated legal knot in the slow unraveling of which the judge brings about his own destruction. The typically Greek delight in this dialectical solution is so great that it imparts an element of triumphant cheerfulness to the work, and thus removes the sting lurking in the ghastly premises of the plot. In “Oedipus at Colonus” we meet this same cheerfulness, but utterly transfigured. In contrast to the aged hero, stricken with excessive suffering and passively undergoing his many misfortunes, we have here a transcendent cheerfulness issuing from above and hinting that by his passive endurance the hero may yet gain a consummate energy of action. This activity (so different from his earlier conscious striving, which had resulted in pure passivity) will extend far beyond the limited experience of his own life. Thus the legal knot of the Oedipus fable, which had seemed to mortal eyes incapable of being disentangled, is slowly loosened. And we experience the most profound human joy as we witness this divine counterpart of dialectics. If this explanation has done the poet justice, it may yet be asked whether it has exhausted the implications of the myth; and now we see that the poet’s entire conception was nothing more nor less than the luminous afterimage which kind nature provides our eyes after a look into the abyss. Oedipus, his father’s murderer, his mother’s lover, solver of the Sphinx’s riddle! What is the meaning of this triple fate? An ancient popular belief, especially strong in Persia, holds that a wise magus must be incestuously begotten. If we examine Oedipus, the solver of riddles and liberator of his mother, in the light of this Parsee belief, we may conclude that wherever soothsaying and magical powers have broken the spell of present and future, the rigid law of individuation, the magic circle of nature, extreme unnaturalness—in this case incest—is the necessary antecedent; for how should man force nature to yield up her secrets but by successfully resisting her, that is to say, by unnatural acts? This is the recognition I find expressed in the terrible triad of Oedipean fates: the same man who solved the riddle of nature (the ambiguous Sphinx) must also, as murderer of his father and husband of his mother, break the consecrated tables of the natural order. It is as though the myth whispered to us that wisdom, and especially Dionysian wisdom, is an unnatural crime, and that whoever, in pride of knowledge, hurls nature into the abyss of destruction, must himself experience nature’s disintegration. “The edge of wisdom is turned against the wise man; wisdom is a crime committed on nature” [see Sophocles’ Oedipus the King, 316–17]: such are the terrible words addressed to us by myth. Yet the Greek poet, like a sunbeam, touches the terrible and austere Memnon’s Column of myth, which proceeds to give forth Sophoclean melodies!

Now I wish to contrast to the glory of passivity the glory of action, as it irradiates the Prometheus of Aeschylus. Young Goethe has revealed to us, in the bold words his Prometheus addresses to Zeus, what the thinker Aeschylus meant to say, but what, as poet, he merely gave us to divine in symbol:

“Here I sit, forming men
in my own image,
a race to be like me,
to suffer, to weep,
to delight and to rejoice,
and to defy you,
as I do!”

Man, raised to titanic proportions, conquers his own civilization and compels the gods to join forces with him, since by his autonomous wisdom he commands both their existence and the limitations of their sway. What appears most wonderful, however, in the Prometheus poem—ostensibly a hymn in praise of impiety—is its profound Aeschylean longing for justice. The immense suffering of the bold “individual,” on the one hand, and on the other the extreme jeopardy of the gods, prefiguring a twilight of the gods—the two together pointing to a reconciliation, a merger of their universes of suffering—all this reminds one vividly of the central tenet of Aeschylean speculation in which Moira [fate], as eternal justice, is seen enthroned above men and gods alike. In considering the extraordinary boldness with which Aeschylus places the Olympian world on his scales of justice, we must remember that the profound Greek had an absolutely stable basis of metaphysical thought in his mystery cults and that he was free to discharge all his skeptical velleities on the Olympians. The Greek artist, especially, experienced in respect of these divinities an obscure sense of mutual dependency, a feeling which has been perfectly symbolized in the Prometheus of Aeschylus. The titanic artist was strong in his defiant belief that he could create men and, at the least, destroy Olympian gods; this he was able to do by virtue of his superior wisdom, which, to be sure, he must atone for by eternal suffering. The glorious power “to do,” which is possessed by great genius, and for which even eternal suffering is not too high a price to pay—the artist’s austere pride—is of the very essence of Aeschylean poetry, while Sophocles in his Oedipus intones a paean to the saint. But even Aeschylus’ interpretation of the myth fails to exhaust its extraordinary depth of terror. Once again, we may see the artist’s buoyancy and creative joy as a luminous cloud shape reflected upon the dark surface of a lake of sorrow. 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. The presupposition of the Prometheus myth is primitive man’s belief in the supreme value of fire as the true palladium of every rising civilization. But for man to dispose of fire freely, and not receive it as a gift from heaven in the kindling thunderbolt and the warming sunlight, seemed a crime to thoughtful primitive man, a despoiling of divine nature. Thus this original philosophical problem poses at once an insoluble conflict between men and the gods, which lies like a huge boulder at the gateway to every culture. 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. The tragedy at the heart of things, which the thoughtful Aryan is not disposed to quibble away, the contrariety at the center of the universe, is seen by him as an interpenetration of several worlds, as for instance a divine and a human, each individually in the right but each, as it encroaches upon the other, having to suffer for its individuality. The individual, in the course of his heroic striving towards universality, de-individuation, and wishing himself to be the world being, comes up against that primordial contradiction and learns both to sin and to suffer. The Aryan nations assign to crime the male, the Semites to sin the female gender; and it is quite consistent with these notions that the original act of hubris should be attributed to a man, original sin to a woman. Incidentally, the chorus of wizards says:

“If that is so, we do not mind it:
With a thousand steps the women find it;
But though they rush, we do not care:
With one big jump the men get there.”
[Goethe’s Faust, I, 3982-85]

Once we have comprehended the substance of the Prometheus myth—the imperative necessity of hubris for the titanic individual—we must realize the non-Apollinian character of this pessimistic idea. It is Apollo who tranquilizes the individual by drawing boundary lines, and who, by enjoining again and again the practice of self-knowledge, reminds him of the holy, universal norms. But lest the Apollinian tendency freeze all form into Egyptian rigidity, and in attempting to prescribe its orbit to each particular wave inhibit the movement of the lake, the Dionysian flood tide periodically destroys all the little circles in which the Apollinian will would confine Hellenism. The swiftly rising Dionysian tide then shoulders all the small individual wave crests, even as Prometheus’ brother, the Titan Atlas, shouldered the world. This titanic urge to be the Atlas of all individuals, to bear them on broad shoulders ever farther and higher, is the common bond between the Promethean and the Dionysian forces. In this respect the Aeschylean Prometheus appears as a Dionysian mask, while in his deep hunger for justice Aeschylus reveals his paternal descent from Apollo, god of individuation and just boundaries. We may express the Janus face, at once Dionysian and Apollinian, of the Aeschylean Prometheus in the following formula: “All that exists is just and unjust and equally justified in both.”

That is your world! A world indeed! — [Goethe’s Faust, I, 409]


It is an unimpeachable tradition that in its earliest form Greek tragedy records only the sufferings of Dionysus, and that he was the only actor. But it may be claimed with equal justice that, up to Euripides, Dionysus remains the sole dramatic protagonist and that all the famous characters of the Greek stage, Prometheus, Oedipus, etc., are only masks of that original hero. The fact that a god hides behind all these masks accounts for the much-admired “ideal” character of those celebrated figures. Someone, I can’t recall who [Aristotle: Poetics, v, 1448a], has claimed that all individuals, as individuals, are comic, and therefore untragic; which seems to suggest that the Greeks could not tolerate individuals at all on the tragic stage. And in fact they must have felt this way. The Platonic distinction between the “idea” and the “idol” is deemed rooted in the Greek temperament. If we wished to use Plato’s terminology we might speak of the tragic characters of the Greek stage somewhat as follows: the one true Dionysus appears in a multiplicity of characters, in the mask of warrior hero, and enmeshed in the web of individual will. The god ascends the stage in the likeness of a striving and suffering individual. That he can appear at all with this clarity and precision is due to dream interpreter Apollo, who projects before the chorus its Dionysian condition in this analogical figure [gleichnissartige Erscheinung]. Yet in truth that hero is the suffering Dionysus of the mysteries. He of whom the wonderful myth relates that as a child he was dismembered by Titans now experiences in his own person the pains of individuation, and in this condition is worshipped as Zagreus [alternative name for Dionysus in the Orphic myths]. We have here an indication that dismemberment—the truly Dionysian suffering—was like a separation into air, water, earth, and fire, and that individuation should be regarded as the source of all suffering, and rejected. The smile of this Dionysus has given birth to the Olympian gods, his tears have given birth to men. In his existence as a dismembered god, Dionysus shows the double nature of a cruel, savage daemon and a mild, gentle ruler. Every hope of the Eleusinian initiates pointed to a rebirth of Dionysus, which we can now interpret as meaning the end of individuation; the thundering paean of the adepts addressed itself to the coming of the third Dionysus. This hope alone sheds a beam of joy on a ravaged and fragmented world—as is shown by the myth of sorrowing Demeter, who rejoiced only when she was told that she might once again bear Dionysus. In these notions we already find all the components of a profound and mystic philosophy and, by the same token, of the mysterious doctrine of tragedy; a recognition that whatever exists is of a piece, and that individuation is the root of all evil; a conception of art as the sanguine hope that the spell of individuation may yet be broken. as an augury of eventual reintegration. —

I have said earlier that the Homeric epic was the poetic expression of Olympian culture, its victory song over the terrors of the battle with the Titans. Now, under the overmastering influence of tragic poetry, the Homeric myths were once more transformed and by this metempsychosis proved that in the interim Olympian culture too had been superseded by an even deeper philosophy. The contumacious Titan, Prometheus, now announced to his Olympian tormentor that unless the latter promptly joined forces with him, his reign would be in supreme danger. In the work of Aeschylus we recognize the alliance of the Titan with a frightened Zeus in terror of his end. Thus we find the earlier age of Titans brought back from Tartarus and restored to the light of day. A philosophy of wild, naked nature looks with the bold countenance of truth upon the flitting myths of the Homeric world: they pale and tremble before the lightning eye of this goddess, until the mighty fist of the Dionysian artist forces them into the service of a new divinity. The Dionysian truth appropriates the entire realm of myth as symbolic language for its own insights, which it expresses partly in the public rite of tragedy and partly in the secret celebrations of dramatic mysteries, but always under the old mythic veil. What was the power that rescued Prometheus from his vultures and transformed myth into a vehicle of Dionysian wisdom? It was the Heraclean power of music, which reached its highest form in tragedy and endowed myth with a new and profound significance. Such, as we have said earlier, is the mighty prerogative of music. For it is the lot of every myth to creep gradually into the narrows of supposititious historical fact and to be treated by some later time as a unique event of history. And the Greeks at that time were already well on their way to reinterpreting their childhood dream, cleverly and arbitrarily, into pragmatic childhood history. It is the sure sign of the death of a religion when its mythic presuppositions become systematized, under the severe, rational eyes of an orthodox dogmatism, into a ready sum of historical events, and when people begin timidly defending the veracity of myth but at the same time resist its natural continuance—when the feeling for myth withers and its place is taken by a religion claiming historical foundations. This decaying myth was now seized by the newborn genius of Dionysian music, in whose hands it flowered once more, with new colors and a fragrance that aroused a wistful longing for a metaphysical world. After this last florescence myth declined, its leaves withered, and before long all the ironic Lucians of antiquity caught at the faded blossoms whirled away by the wind. It was through tragedy that myth achieved its profoundest content, its most expressive form; it arose once again like a wounded warrior, its eyes alight with unspent power and the calm wisdom of the dying.

What were you thinking of, overweening Euripides, when you hoped to press myth, then in its last agony, into your service? It died under your violent hands; but you could easily put in its place an imitation that, like Heracles’ monkey, would trick itself out in the master’s robes. And even as myth, music too died under your hands; though you plundered greedily all the gardens of music, you could achieve no more than a counterfeit. And because you had deserted Dionysus, you were in turn deserted by Apollo. Though you hunted all the passions up from their couch and conjured them into your circle, though you pointed and burnished a sophistic dialectic for the speeches of your heroes, they have only counterfeit passions and speak counterfeit speeches.


Greek tragedy perished in a manner quite different from the older sister arts: it died by suicide, in consequence of an insoluble conflict, while the others died serene and natural deaths at advanced ages. If it is the sign of a happy natural condition to die painlessly, leaving behind a fair progeny, then the decease of those older genres exhibits such a condition; they sank slowly, and their children, fairer than they, stood before their dying eyes, lifting up their heads in eagerness. The death of Greek tragedy, on the other hand, created a tremendous vacuum that was felt far and wide. As the Greek sailors in the time of Tiberius heard from a lonely island the agonizing cry “Great Pan is dead!” so could be heard ringing now through the entire Greek world these painful cries: “Tragedy is dead! And poetry has perished with it! Away with you, puny, spiritless imitators! Away with you to Hades, where you may eat your fill of the crumbs thrown you by former masters!”

When after all a new genre sprang into being which honored tragedy as its parent, the child was seen with dismay to bear indeed the features of its mother, but of its mother during her long death struggle. The death struggle of tragedy had been fought by Euripides, while the later art is known as the New Attic Comedy. Tragedy lived on there in a degenerate form, a monument to its painful and laborious death.

In this context we can understand the passionate fondness of the writers of the new comedy for Euripides. Now the wish of Philemon—who was willing to be hanged for the pleasure of visiting Euripides in Hades, providing he could be sure that the dead man was still in possession of his senses—no longer seems strange to us. If one were to attempt to say briefly and merely by way of suggestion what Menander and Philemon had in common with Euripides, and what they found so exemplary and exciting in him, one might say that Euripides succeeded in transporting the spectator onto the stage. Once we realize out of what substance the Promethean dramatists before Euripides had formed their heroes and how far it had been from their thoughts to bring onto the stage a true replica of actuality, we shall see clearly how utterly different were Euripides’ intentions. Through him the common man found his way from the auditorium onto the stage. That mirror, which previously had shown only the great and bold features, now took on the kind of accuracy that reflects also the paltry traits of nature. Odysseus, the typical Greek of older art, declined under the hands of the new poets to the character of Graeculus, who henceforth held the center of the stage as the good humored, cunning slave. The merit which Euripides, in Aristophanes’ “Frogs,” attributes to himself, of having by his nostrum rid tragic art of its pompous stoutness, is apparent in every one of his tragic heroes. Now every spectator could behold his exact counterpart on the Euripidean stage and was delighted to find him so eloquent. But that was not the only pleasure. People themselves learned to speak from Euripides—don’t we hear him boast, in his contest with Aeschylus, that through him the populace had learned to observe, make transactions and form conclusions according to all the rules of art, with the utmost cleverness? It was through this revolution in public discourse that the new comedy became possible. From now on the stock phrases to represent everyday affairs were ready to hand. While hitherto the character of dramatic speech had been determined by the demigod in tragedy and the drunken satyr in comedy, that bourgeois mediocrity in which Euripides placed all his political hopes now came to the fore. And so the Aristophanic Euripides could pride himself on having portrayed life “as it really is” and shown men how to attack it: if now all members of the populace were able to philosophize, plead their cases in court and make their business deals with incredible shrewdness, the merit was really his, the result of that wisdom he had inculcated in them.

The new comedy could now address itself to a prepared, enlightened crowd, for whom Euripides had served as choirmaster—only in this case it was the chorus of spectators who had to be trained. As soon as this chorus had acquired a competence in the Euripidean key, the new comedy—that chesslike species of play—with its constant triumphs of cleverness and cunning, arose. Meanwhile choirmaster Euripides was the object of fulsome praise; in fact, people would have killed themselves in order to learn more from him had they not known that the tragic poets were quite as dead as tragedy itself. With tragedy the Greeks had given up the belief in immortality: not only the belief in an ideal past, but also the belief in an ideal future. The words of the famous epitaph “Inconstant and frivolous in old age” [from Goethe’s poem Epigrammatische Grabschrift 2 (Epigrammatic Inscription 2)] apply equally well to the last phase of Hellenism. Its supreme deities are wit, whim, caprice, the pleasure of the moment. The fifth estate, that of the slaves, comes into its own, at least in point of attitude, and if it is possible at all now to speak of “Greek cheerfulness,” then it must refer to the cheerfulness of the slave, who has no difficult responsibilities, no high aims, and to whom nothing, past or future, is of greater value than the present. It was this semblance of “Greek cheerfulness” that so outraged the profound and powerful minds of the first four centuries after Christ. This womanish escape from all seriousness and awe, this smug embracing of easy pleasure, seemed to them not only contemptible but the truly anti-Christian frame of mind. It was they who handed on to later generations a picture of Greek antiquity painted entirely in the pale rose hues of cheerfulness—as though there had never been a sixth century with its birth of tragedy, its Mysteries, its Pythagoras and Heracleitus, indeed as though the art works of the great period did not exist at all. And yet none of the latter could, of course, have sprung from the soil of such a trivial ignoble cheer, pointing as they do to an entirely different worldview as their raison d’etre [Existenzgrund].

When I said earlier that Euripides had brought the spectator on the stage in order to enable him to judge the play, I may have created the impression that the older drama had all along stood in a false relation to the spectator; and one might then be tempted to praise Euripides’ radical tendency to establish a proper relationship between art work and audience as an advance upon Sophocles. But, after all, “audience” is but a word, not a constant unchanging value. Why should an author feel obliged to accommodate himself to a power whose strength is merely in numbers? If he considers himself superior in his talent and intentions to every single spectator, why should he show respect for the collective expression of all those mediocre capacities rather than for the few members of the audience who seem relatively the most gifted? The truth of the matter is that no Greek artist ever treated his audience with greater audacity and self-sufficiency than Euripides; who at a time when the multitude lay prostrate before him disavowed in noble defiance and publicly his own tendencies—those very tendencies by which he had previously conquered the masses. Had this genius had the slightest reverence for that band of Bedlamites called the public, he would have been struck down long before the mid point of his career by the bludgeon blows of his unsuccess. We come to realize now that our statement, “Euripides brought the spectator on the stage”—implying that the spectator would be able henceforth to exercise competent judgment —was merely provisional and that we must look for a sounder explanation of his intentions. It is also generally recognized that Aeschylus and Sophocles enjoyed all through their lives and longer the full benefit of popular favor, and that for this reason it would be absurd to speak in either case of a disproportion between art work and public reception. What was it, then, that drove the highly talented and incessantly creative Euripides from a path bathed in the light of those twin luminaries—his great predecessors—and of popular acclaim as well? What peculiar consideration for the spectator made him defy that very same spectator? How did it happen that his great respect for his audience made him treat that audience with utter disrespect?

Euripides—and this may be the solution of our riddle— considered himself quite superior to the crowd as a whole; not, however, to two of his spectators. He would translate the crowd onto the stage but insist, all the same, on revering the two members as the sole judges of his art; on following all their directions and admonitions, and on instilling in the very hearts of his dramatic characters those emotions, passions and recognitions which had heretofore seconded the stage action, like an invisible chorus, from the serried ranks of the amphitheater. It was in deference to these judges that he gave his new characters a new voice, too, and a new music. Their votes, and no others, determined for him the worth of his efforts. And whenever the public rejected his labors it was their encouragement, their faith in his final triumph, which sustained him.

One of the two spectators I just spoke of was Euripides himself—the thinker Euripides, not the poet. Of him it may be said that the extraordinary richness of his critical gift had helped to produce, as in the case of Lessing, an authentic creative offshoot. Endowed with such talent, such remarkable intellectual lucidity and versatility, Euripides watched the performances of his predecessors’ plays and tried to rediscover in them those fine lineaments which age, as happens in the case of old paintings, had darkened and almost obliterated. And now something occurred which cannot surprise those among us who are familiar with the deeper secrets of Aeschylean tragedy. Euripides perceived in every line, in every trait, something quite incommensurable: a certain deceptive clarity and, together with it, a mysterious depth, an infinite background. The clearest figure trailed after it a comet’s tail which seemed to point to something uncertain, something that could not be wholly elucidated. A similar twilight seemed to invest the very structure of drama, especially the function of the chorus. Then again, how ambiguous did the solutions of all moral problems seem! how problematical the way in which the myths were treated! how irregular the distribution of fortune and misfortune! There was also much in the language of older tragedy that he took exception to, or to say the least, found puzzling: why all this pomp in the representation of simple relationships? why all those tropes and hyperboles, where the characters themselves were simple and straightforward? Euripides sat in the theater pondering, a troubled spectator. In the end he had to admit to himself that he did not understand his great predecessors. But since he looked upon reason as the fountainhead of all doing and enjoying, he had to find out whether anybody shared these notions of his, or whether he was alone in facing up to such incommensurable features. But the multitude, including some of the best individuals, gave him only a smile of distrust; none of them would tell him why, notwithstanding his misgivings and reservations, the great masters were right nonetheless. In this tormented state of mind, Euripides discovered the other spectator—one who did not understand tragedy and for that reason spurned it. Allied with him he could risk coming out of his isolation to fight that tremendous battle against the works of Aeschylus and Sophocles—not by means of polemics, but as a tragic poet determined to make his notion of tragedy prevail over the traditional notions. —


Before giving a name to that other spectator, let us stop a moment and call to mind what we have said earlier of the incommensurable and discrepant elements in Aeschylean tragedy. Let us recollect how strangely we were affected by the chorus and by the tragic hero of a kind of tragedy which refused to conform to either our habits or our tradition—until, that is, we discovered that the discrepancy was closely bound up with the very origin and essence of Greek tragedy, as the expression of two interacting artistic impulses, the Apollinian and the Dionysian.

Euripides’ basic intention now becomes as clear as day to us: it is to eliminate from tragedy the primitive and pervasive Dionysian element, and to rebuild the drama on a foundation of non-Dionysian art, custom and philosophy.

Euripides himself, towards the end of his life, propounded the question of the value and significance of this tendency to his contemporaries in a myth. Has the Dionysian spirit any right at all to exist? Should it not, rather, be brutally uprooted from the Hellenic soil? Yes, it should, the poet tells us, if only it were possible, but the god Dionysus is too powerful: even the most intelligent opponent, like Pentheus in the “Bacchae,” is unexpectedly enchanted by him, and in his enchantment runs headlong to destruction. The opinion of the two old men in the play—Cadmus and Tiresias—seems to echo the opinion of the aged poet himself: that the cleverest individual cannot by his reasoning overturn an ancient popular tradition like the worship of Dionysus, and that it is the proper part of diplomacy in the face of miraculous powers to make at least a prudent show of sympathy; that it is even possible that the god may still take exception to such tepid interest and—as happened in the case of Cadmus—turn the diplomat into a dragon. We are told this by a poet who all his life had resisted Dionysus heroically, only to end his career with a glorification of his opponent and with suicide—like a man who throws himself from a tower in order to put an end to the unbearable sensation of vertigo. The Bacchae acknowledges the failure of Euripides’ dramatic intentions when, in fact, these had already succeeded: Dionysus had already been driven from the tragic stage by a daemonic power speaking through Euripides. For in a certain sense Euripides was but a mask, while the divinity which spoke through him was neither Dionysus nor Apollo but a brand new daemon called Socrates. Thenceforward the real antagonism was to be between Dionysian spirit and the Socratic, and tragedy was to perish in the conflict. Try as he may to comfort us with his recantation, Euripides fails. The marvelous temple lies in ruins; of what avail is the destroyer’s lament that it was the most beautiful of all temples? And though, by way of punishment, Euripides has been turned into a dragon by all later critics—who can really regard this as adequate compensation?

Let us now look more closely at the Socratic tendency by means of which Euripides fought and conquered Aeschylean tragedy.

What, under the most auspicious conditions, could Euripides have hoped to effect in founding his tragedy on purely un-Dionysian elements? Once it was no longer begotten by music, in the mysterious Dionysian twilight, what form could drama conceivably take? Only that of the dramatized epic, an Apollinian form which precluded tragic effect. It is not a question here of the events represented. I submit that it would have been impossible for Goethe, in the fifth act of his projected “Nausicäa,” to render tragic the suicide of that idyllic being: the power of the epic Apollinian spirit is such that it transfigures the most horrible deeds before our eyes by the charm of illusion, and redemption through illusion. The poet who writes dramatized narrative can no more become one with his images than can the epic rhapsodist. He too represents serene, wide-eyed contemplation gazing upon its images. The actor in such dramatized epic remains essentially a rhapsodist; the consecration of dream lies upon all his actions and prevents him from ever becoming in the full sense an actor.

But what relationship can be said to obtain between such an ideal Apollinian drama and the plays of Euripides? The same as obtains between the early solemn rhapsodist and that more recent variety described in Plato’s “Ion”: “When I say something sad my eyes fill with tears; if, however, what I say is terrible and ghastly, then my hair stands on end and my heart beats loudly.” [Plato: Ion, 535c] Here there is no longer any trace of epic self forgetfulness, of the true rhapsodist’s cool detachment, who at the highest pitch of action, and especially then, becomes wholly illusion and delight in illusion. Euripides is the actor of the beating heart, with hair standing on end. He lays his dramatic plan as Socratic thinker and carries it out as passionate actor. So it happens that the Euripidean drama is at the same time cool and fiery, able alike to freeze and consume us. It cannot possibly achieve the Apollinian effects of the epic, while on the other hand it has severed all connection with the Dionysian mode; so that in order to have any impact at all it must seek out novel stimulants which are to be found neither in the Apollinian nor in the Dionysian realm. Those stimulants are, on the one hand, cold paradoxical ideas put in the place of Apollinian contemplation, and on the other fiery emotions [Affecte] put in the place of Dionysian transports. These last are splendidly realistic counterfeits, but neither ideas nor affects are infused with the spirit of true art.

Having now recognized that Euripides failed in founding the drama solely on Apollinian elements and that, instead, his un-Dionysian tendency led him towards inartistic naturalism, we are ready to deal with the phenomenon of aesthetic Socratism. Its supreme law may be stated as follows: “Whatever is to be beautiful must also be sensible” —a parallel to the Socratic notion that “knowledge alone makes men virtuous.” Armed with this canon, Euripides examined every aspect of drama—diction, character, dramatic structure, choral music—and made them fit his specifications. What in Euripidean, as compared with Sophoclean tragedy, has been so frequently censured as poetic lack and retrogression is actually the straight result of the poet’s incisive critical gifts, his audacious personality. The Euripidean prologue may seen to illustrate the efficacy of that rationalistic method. Nothing could be more at odds with our dramaturgic notions than the prologue in the drama of Euripides. To have a character appear at the beginning of the play, tell us who he is, what preceded the action, what has happened so far, even what is about to happen in the course of the play—a modern writer for the theater would reject all this as a wanton and unpardonable dismissal of the element of suspense. Now that everyone knows what is going to happen, who will wait to see it happen? Especially since, in this case, the relation is by no means that of a prophetic dream to a later event. But Euripides reasoned quite otherwise. According to him, the effect of tragedy never resided in epic suspense, in a teasing uncertainty as to what was going to happen next. It resided, rather, in those great scenes of lyrical rhetoric in which the passion and dialectic of the protagonist reached heights of eloquence. Everything portended pathos, not action. Whatever did not portend pathos was seen as objectionable. The greatest obstacle to the spectator’s most intimate participation in those scenes would be any missing link in the antecedent action: so long as the spectator had to conjecture what this or that figure represented, from whence arose this or that conflict of inclinations and intentions, he could not fully participate in the doings and sufferings of the protagonists, feel with them and fear with them. The tragedy of Aeschylus and Sophocles had used the subtlest devices to furnish the spectator in the early scenes, and as if by chance, with all the necessary information. They had shown an admirable skill in disguising the necessary structural features [Formelle] and making them seem accidental. All the same, Euripides thought he noticed chat during those early scenes the spectators were in a peculiar state of unrest—so concerned with figuring out the antecedents of the story chat the beauty and pathos of the exposition were lost on them. For this reason he introduced a prologue even before the exposition, and put it into the mouth of a speaker who would command absolute trust. Very often it was a god who had to guarantee to the public the course of the tragedy and so remove any possible doubt as to the reality of the myth; exactly as Descartes could only demonstrate the reality of the empirical world by appealing to God’s veracity, his inability to tell a lie. At the end of his drama Euripides required the same divine truthfulness to act as security, so to speak, for the future of his protagonists. This was the function of the ill-famed deus ex machina. Between the epic prologue and epilogue stretched the dramatic-lyrical present, the actual “drama.”

As a poet, then, Euripides was principally concerned with rendering his conscious perceptions, and it is this which gives him his position of importance in the history of Greek art.

With regard to his poetic procedure, which was both critical and creative, he must often have felt that he was applying to drama the opening words of Anaxagoras’ treatise: “In the beginning all things were mixed together; then reason came and introduced order.” [A saying attributed to Anaxagoras by Diogenes Laertius, Lives and Opinions of Eminent Philosophers, ii. 6.] And even as Anaxagoras, with his concept of “Nous,” [“mind,” “reason”] seems like the first sober philosopher in a company of drunkards, so Euripides may have appeared to himself as the first rational maker of tragedy. Everything was mixed together in a chaotic stew so long as Nous, the sole principle of universal order, remained excluded from the creative act. That’s how Euripides must have thought about it; that’s how he, the first “sober” poet must have passed sentence on the “drunken” poets. Euripides would never have endorsed Sophocles’ statement about Aeschylus—that this poet was doing the right thing, but unconsciously; instead he would have claimed that because Aeschylus created unconsciously he couldn’t help doing the wrong thing. Even the divine Plato speaks of the creative power of the poet for the most part ironically and as being on a level with the gifts of the soothsayer and interpreter of dreams [see Plato’s: Ion, 533e–534d; Phaedrus, 244a–245a; Laws, 719c], since according to the traditional conception the poet is unable to write until reason and conscious control have deserted him. Euripides set out, as Plato was to do, to show the world the opposite of the “irrational” poet; his aesthetic axiom, “whatever is to be beautiful must be conscious” is strictly parallel to the Socratic “whatever is to be good must be conscious.” We can hardly go wrong then in calling Euripides the poet of aesthetic Socratism. But Socrates was precisely that other spectator, incapable of understanding the older tragedy and therefore scorning it, and it was in his company that Euripides dared to usher in a new era of poetic activity. If the old tragedy was wrecked’ aesthetic Socratism is to blame, and to the extent that the target of the innovators was the Dionysian principle of the older art we may call Socrates the god’s chief opponent, the new Orpheus who, though destined to be torn to pieces by the maenads of Athenian judgment, succeeded in putting the overmastering god to flight. The latter, as before, when he fled from Lycurgus, king of the Edoni, took refuge in the depths of the sea; that is to say, in the flood of a mystery cult that was soon to encompass the world.


The fact that the aims of Socrates and Euripides were closely allied did not escape the attention of their contemporaries. We have an eloquent illustration of this in the rumor, current at the time in Athens, that Socrates was helping Euripides with his writing [see Diogenes Laertius, Lives and Opinions of Eminent Philosophers, ii. 18]. The two names were bracketed by the partisans of the “good old days’? whenever it was a question of castigating the upstart demagogues of the present. It was they who were blamed for the disappearance of the Marathonian soundness of body and mind in favor of a dubious enlightenment tending toward a progressive atrophy of the traditional virtues. In the comedy of Aristophanes both men are treated in this vein—half indignant, half contemptuous—to the dismay of the rising generation, who, while they were willing enough to sacrifice Euripides, could not forgive the picture of Socrates as the arch Sophist. Their only recourse was to pillory Aristophanes in his turn as a dissolute, Lying Alcibiades of poetry. I won’t pause here to defend the profound instincts of Aristophanes against such attacks but shall proceed to demonstrate the close affinity between Socrates and Euripides, as their contemporaries saw them. It is certainly significant in this connection that Socrates, being a sworn enemy of the tragic art, is said never to have attended the theater except when a new play of Euripides was mounted. The most famous instance of the conjunction of the two names, however, is found in the Delphic oracle which pronounced Socrates the wisest of men yet allowed that Euripides merited the second place.

The third place went to Sophocles, who had boasted that, in contrast to Aeschylus, he not only did the right thing but knew why he did it. Evidently it was the degree of clarity of their knowledge that designated them as the three “wise men” of their age.

It was Socrates who expressed most clearly this radically new prestige of knowledge and conscious intelligence when he claimed to be the only one who acknowledged to himself that he knew nothing. He roamed all over Athens, visiting the most distinguished statesmen, orators, poets and artists, and found everywhere merely the presumption of knowledge. He was amazed to discover that all these celebrities lacked true and certain knowledge of their callings and pursued those callings only from instinct. The expression “only from instinct” [Plato’s Apology, 22b] seems to focus perfectly the Socratic attitude. From this point of view Socrates was forced to condemn both the prevailing art and the prevailing ethics. Wherever his penetrating gaze fell he saw nothing but lack of understanding, fictions rampant, and so was led to deduce a state of affairs wholly discreditable and perverse. Socrates believed it was his mission to correct the situation: a solitary man, arrogantly superior and herald of a radically dissimilar culture, art, and ethics, he stepped into a world whose least hem we should have counted it an honor to have touched. This is the reason why the figure of Socrates disturbs us so profoundly whenever we approach it, and why we are tempted again and again to plumb the meaning and intentions of the most problematical character among the ancients. Who was this man who dared, single-handed, to challenge the entire world of Hellenism—embodied in Homer, Pindar, and Aeschylus, in Phidias, Pericles, Pythia, and Dionysus—which commands our highest reverence? Who was this daemon daring to pour out the magic philter in the dust? this demigod to whom the noblest spirits of mankind must call out: “Alas! Alas! You have shattered the beautiful world with brazen fist; It falls, it is scattered!” [Goethe’s Faust, I, 1607-11.]

We are offered a key to the mind of Socrates in that remarkable phenomenon known as the “daemonium of Socrates.” In certain critical situations, when even his massive intellect faltered, he was able to regain his balance through the agency of a divine voice, which he heard only at such moments. The voice always spoke to dissuade [mahnt]. The instinctual wisdom of this anomalous character manifests itself from time to time as a hindrance, ready to defy his rational judgment. Whereas in all truly productive men instinct is the strong, affirmative force and reason the dissuader and critic, in the case of Socrates the roles are reversed: instinct is the critic, consciousness the creator—truly a monstrosity per defectum [from weakness, infirmity]! Because of this monstrous defectus of every mystical talent Socrates emerges as the perfect pattern of the non-mystic, in whom the logical side has become, through superfetation, as overdeveloped as has the instinctual side in the mystic. Yet it was entirely impossible for Socrates’ logical impetus to turn against itself. In its unrestrained onrush it exhibited an elemental power such as is commonly found only in men of violent instincts, where we view it with awed surprise. Whoever in reading Plato has experienced the divine directness and sureness of Socrates’ whole way of proceeding must have a sense of the gigantic driving wheel of logical Socratism, turning, as it were, behind Socrates, which we see through Socrates as through a shadow. That he himself was by no means unaware of this relationship appears from the grave dignity with which he stressed, even at the end and before his judges, his divine mission. It is as impossible to controvert him in this as it is to approve of his corrosive influence upon instinctual life. In this dilemma his accusers, when he was brought before the Athenian forum, could think of one appropriate form of punishment only, namely exile: to turn this wholly unclassifiable, mysterious phenomenon out of the state would have given posterity no cause to charge the Athenians with a disgraceful act. When finally death, not banishment, was pronounced against him, it seems to have been Socrates himself who, with complete lucidity of mind and in the absence of every natural fear of death, insisted on it. He went to his death with the same calm Plato describes [Plato: Symposium, 223c–d] when he has him leave the symposium in the early dawn, the last reveler, to begin a new day; while behind him on the benches and on the floor his sleepy companions go on dreaming of Socrates, the true eroticist. The dying Socrates became the idol of the young Athenian elite. The typical Hellenic youth, Plato, prostrated himself before that image with all the fervent devotion of his enthusiastic mind.


Let us now imagine Socrates’ great Cyclops’ eye—that eye which never glowed with the artist’s divine frenzy—turned upon tragedy. Bearing in mind that he was unable to look with any pleasure into the Dionysian abysses, what could Socrates see in that tragic art which to Plato [Gorgias, 502b] seemed “noble and meritorious”? Something quite abstruse and irrational, full of causes without effects and effects seemingly without causes, the whole texture so checkered that it must be repugnant to a sober disposition, while it might act as dangerous tinder to a sensitive and impressionable mind. We are told that the only genre of poetry Socrates really appreciated was the Aesopian fable. This he did with the same smiling complaisance with which honest Gellert sings the praise of poetry in his fable of the bee and the hen:

“Poems are useful: they can tell
The truth by means of parable
To those who are not very bright.”
[Die Biene und die Henne (The Bee and the Hen) (1744) by Christian Fiirchtegott Gellert (1715–69)]

The fact is that for Socrates tragic art failed even “to speak the truth,” although it did address itself to those who were “a bit backward,” which is to say to non-philosophers: a double reason for leaving it alone. Like Plato, he reckoned it among the beguiling arts which represent the agreeable, not the useful, and in consequence exhorted his followers to abstain from such unphilosophical stimulants. His success was such that the young tragic poet Plato burned all his writings in order to qualify as a student of Socrates [see Diogenes Laertius, Lives and Opinions of Eminent Philosophers, iii. 5]. And while strong native genius might now and again manage to withstand the Socratic injunction, the power of the latter was still great enough to force poetry into entirely new channels.

A good example of this is Plato himself. Although he did not lag behind the naive cynicism of his master in the condemnation of tragedy and of art in general, nevertheless his creative gifts forced him to develop an art form deeply akin to the existing forms which he had repudiated. The main objection raised by Plato to the older art (that it was the imitation of an imitation and hence belonged to an even lower order of empiric reality) must not, at all costs, apply to the new genre; and so we see Plato intent on moving beyond reality and on rendering the idea which underlies it. By a detour Plato the thinker reached the very spot where Plato the poet had all along been at home, and from which Sophocles, and with him the whole poetic tradition of the past, protested such a charge. Tragedy had assimilated to itself all the older poetic genres. In a somewhat eccentric sense the same thing can be claimed for the Platonic dialogue, which was a mixture of all the available styles and forms and hovered between narrative, lyric, drama, between prose and poetry, once again breaking through the old law of stylistic unity. The Cynic philosophers went even farther in that direction, seeking, by their utterly promiscuous style and constant alternation between verse and prose, to project their image of the “raving Socrates” in literature, as they sought to enact it in life. The Platonic dialogue was the lifeboat in which the shipwrecked older poetry saved itself, together with its numerous offspring. Crowded together in a narrow space, and timidly obeying their helmsman Socrates, they moved forward into a new era which never tired of looking at this fantastic spectacle. Plato has furnished for all posterity the image of a new art form, the image of the novel, viewed as the Aesopian fable raised to its highest power; a form in which poetry played the same subordinate role with regard to dialectic philosophy as that same philosophy was to play for many centuries with regard to theology: namely, as ancilla [maidservant]. This, then, was the new status of poetry, and it was Plato who, under the pressure of daemonic Socrates, had brought it about.

It is at this point that philosophical ideas begin to entwine themselves about art, forcing the latter to cling closely to the trunk of dialectic. The Apollinian tendency now appears disguised as logical schematism, just as we found in the case of Euripides a corresponding translation of the Dionysian affect into a naturalistic one. Socrates, the dialectical hero of the Platonic drama, shows a close affinity to the Euripidean hero, who is compelled to justify his actions by proof and counterproof, and for that reason is often in danger of forfeiting our tragic compassion. For who among us can close his eyes to the optimistic element in the nature of dialectics, which sees a triumph in every syllogism and can breathe only in an atmosphere of cool, conscious clarity? Once that optimistic element had entered tragedy, it overgrew its Dionysian regions and brought about their annihilation and, finally, the leap into genteel domestic drama Consider the consequences of the Socratic maxims: “virtue is knowledge; all sins arise from ignorance; only the virtuous are happy”—these three basic formulations of optimism spell the death of tragedy. The virtuous hero must henceforth be a dialectician; virtue and knowledge, belief and ethics, be necessarily and demonstrably connected; Aeschylus’ transcendental concept of justice be reduced to the brash and shallow principle of “poetic justice” with its regular deus ex machina.

What is the view taken of the chorus in this new Socratic optimistic stage world, and of the entire musical and Dionysian foundation of tragedy? They are seen as accidental features, as reminders of the origin of tragedy, which can well be dispensed with—while we have in fact come to understand that the chorus is the cause of tragedy and the tragic spirit. Already in Sophocles we find some embarrassment with regard to the chorus, which suggests that the Dionysian floor of tragedy is beginning to give way. Sophocles no longer dares to give the chorus the major role in the tragedy but treats it as almost on the same footing as the actors, as though it had been raised from the orchestra onto the scene. By so doing he necessarily destroyed its meaning, despite Aristotle’s endorsement of this conception of the chorus [Aristotle: Poetics xviii, 1455b]. This shift in attitude, which Sophocles displayed not only in practice but also, we are told, in theory, was the first step toward the destruction of the chorus: a process whose rapid phases we can follow in Euripides, Agathon, and the New Comedy. Optimistic dialectics took up the whip of its syllogisms and drove music out of tragedy. It entirely destroyed the meaning of tragedy—which can be interpreted only as a concrete manifestation of Dionysian conditions, music made visible, an ecstatic dream world.

Since we have discovered an anti-Dionysian tendency antedating Socrates, its most brilliant exponent, now we must not shrink back from posing the question where such a figure like Socrates points. Faced with the evidence of the Platonic dialogues, we are certainly not entitled to see in Socrates merely an agent of destruction. While it is clear that the immediate result of the Socratic strategy was the destruction of Dionysian drama, we are forced, nevertheless, by the profundity of the Socratic experience to ask ourselves whether, necessarily, art and Socratism are diametrically opposed to one another, whether there is really something of an inherent contradiction in the idea of an “artistic Socrates.”

It appears that this despotic logician had from time to time a sense of void, loss, unfulfilled duty with regard to art. In prison he told his friends how, on several occasions, a voice had spoken to him in a dream, saying “Practice music, Socrates!” [Plato: Phaedo, 60e.] Almost to the end he remained confident that his philosophy represented the highest art of the muses, and would not fully believe that a divinity meant to remind him of “common, popular music.” Yet in order to unburden his conscience he finally agreed, in prison, to undertake that music which hitherto he had held in low esteem. In this frame of mind he composed a Proömium [proem] on Apollo and rendered several Aesopian fables in verse. What prompted him to these exercises was something very similar to that warning voice of his daemon: an Apollinian perception that, like a barbarian king, he had failed to comprehend the nature of a divine effigy, and was in danger of offending his own god through ignorance. These words heard by Socrates in his dream are the only indication that he ever experienced any uneasiness about the limits of his logical universe. He may have asked himself: Have I been too ready to view what was unintelligible to me as being devoid of meaning? Perhaps there is a realm of wisdom, after all, from which the logician is excluded? Perhaps art must be seen as the necessary complement of rational discourse?


In the spirit of these last suggestive questions it must now be said how the influence of Socrates, down to the present moment and even into all future time, has spread over posterity like a shadow that keeps growing in the evening sun, and how it again and again prompts a regeneration of art—of art in the metaphysical, broadest and profoundest sense—and how its own infinity also guarantees the infinity of art.

Before this could be recognized, before the innermost dependence of every art on the Greeks, from Homer to Socrates, was demonstrated conclusively, we had to feel about these Greeks as the Athenians felt about Socrates. Nearly every age and stage of culture has at some time or other sought with profound irritation to free itself from the Greeks, because in their presence everything one has achieved oneself, though apparently quite original and sincerely admired, suddenly seemed to lose life and color and shriveled into a poor copy, even a caricature. And so time after time cordial anger erupts against this presumptuous little people that made bold for all time to designate everything not native as “barbaric.” Who are they, one asks, who, though they display only an ephemeral historical splendor, ridiculously restricted institutions, dubious excellence in their mores, and are marked by ugly vices, yet lay claim to that dignity and pre-eminence among peoples which characterize genius among the masses? Unfortunately, no one was lucky enough to find the cup of hemlock with which one could simply dispose of such a character; for all the poison that envy, calumny, and rancor created did not suffice to destroy that self-sufficient splendor. And so one feels ashamed and afraid in the presence of the Greeks, unless one prizes truth above all things and dares acknowledge even this truth: that the Greeks, as charioteers, hold in their hands the reins of our own and every other culture, but that almost always chariot and horses are of inferior quality and not up to the glory of their leaders, who consider it sport to run such a team into an abyss which they themselves clear with the leap of Achilles.

In order to vindicate the dignity of such a leader’s position for Socrates, too, it is enough to recognize in him a type of existence unheard of before him: the type of the theoretical man whose significance and aim it is our next task to try to understand. Like the artist, the theoretical man finds an infinite delight in whatever exists, and this satisfaction protects him against the practical ethics of pessimism with its Lyncaeus eyes that shine only in the dark. Whenever the truth is uncovered, the artist will always cling with rapt gaze to what still remains covering even after such uncovering; but the theoretical man enjoys and finds satisfaction in the discarded covering and finds the highest object of his pleasure in the process of an ever happy uncovering that succeeds through his own efforts. There would be no science if it were concerned only with that one nude goddess and with nothing else. For in that case her devotees would have to feel like men who wanted to dig a hole straight through the earth, assuming that each of them realized that even if he tried his utmost, his whole life long, he would only be able to dig a very small portion of this enormous depth, and even that would be filled in again before his own eyes by the labors of the next in line, so a third person would seem to do well if he picked a new spot for his drilling efforts. Now suppose someone proved convincingly that the goal of the antipodes cannot be reached in this direct manner: who would still wish to go on working in these old depths, unless he had learned meanwhile to be satisfied with finding precious stones or discovering laws of nature? Therefore Lessing, the most honest theoretical man, dared to announce that he cared more for the search after truth than for truth itself—and thus revealed the fundamental secret of science, to the astonishment, and indeed the anger, of the scientific community. [“If God had locked up all truth in his right hand, and in his left the unique, ever-live striving for truth, albeit with the addition that I should always and eternally err, and he said to me, ‘Choose!’—I should humbly clasp his left hand, saying: ‘Father, give! Pure truth is after all for thee alone!'”—Gotthold Ephraim Lessing (1729-81), Eine Duplik (1778).] Beside this isolated insight, born of an excess of honesty if not of exuberance, there is, to be sure, a profound illusion that first saw the light of the world in the person of Socrates: the unshakable faith that thought, using the thread of logic, can penetrate the deepest abysses of being, and that thought is capable not only of knowing being but even of correcting it. This sublime metaphysical illusion accompanies science as an instinct and leads science again and again to its limits at which it must turn into art: which is really the aim of this mechanism.

With the torch of this thought in our hands, let us now look at Socrates: he appears to us as the first who could not only live, guided by the instinct of science, but also—and this is far more—die that way. Hence the image of the dying Socrates, as the human being whom knowledge and reasons have liberated from the fear of death, is the emblem that, above the entrance gate of science, reminds all of its mission—namely, to make existence appear comprehensible and thus justified; and if reasons do not suffice, myth had to come to their aid in the end—myth which I have just called the necessary consequence, indeed the purpose, of science.

Once we see clearly how after Socrates, the mystagogue of science, one philosophical school succeeds another, wave upon wave; how the hunger for knowledge reached a never-suspected universality in the widest domain of the educated world, became the real task for every person of higher gifts, and led science onto the high seas from which it has never again been driven altogether; how this universality first spread a common net of thought over the whole globe, actually holding out the prospect of the lawfulness of an entire solar system; once we see all this clearly, along with the amazingly high pyramid of knowledge in our own time—we cannot fail to see in Socrates the one turning point and vortex of so-called world history. For if we imagine that the whole incalculable sum of energy used up for this world tendency had been used not in the service of knowledge but for the practical, i.e., egoistic aims of individuals and peoples, then we realize that in that case universal wars of annihilation and continual migrations of peoples would probably have weakened the instinctive lust for life to such an extent that suicide would have become a general custom and individuals might have experienced the final remnant of a sense of duty when, like the inhabitants of the Fiji islands, they had strangled their parents and friends—a practical pessimism that might even have generated a gruesome ethic of genocide [Völkermord] motivated by pity, and which incidentally is, and was, present in the world wherever art did not appear in some form—especially as religion and science—as a remedy and a preventive for this breath of pestilence.

By contrast with this practical pessimism, Socrates is the prototype of the theoretical optimist who, with his faith that the nature of things can be fathomed, ascribes to knowledge and insight the power of a panacea, while understanding evil in itself as the error. To fathom the depths and to separate true knowledge from appearance and error, seemed to Socratic man the noblest, even the only truly human vocation. And since Socrates, this mechanism of concepts, judgments, and inferences has been esteemed as the highest occupation and the most admirable gift of nature, above all other capacities. Even the most sublime ethical deeds, the stirrings of pity, self-sacrifice, heroism, and that calm sea of the soul, so difficult to attain, which the Apollinian Greek called sophrosyne, were derived from the dialectic knowledge by Socrates and his like-minded successors, down to the present, and accordingly designated as teachable. Anyone who has ever experienced the pleasure of Socratic insight and felt how, spreading in ever-widening circles, it seeks to embrace the whole world of appearances, will never again find any stimulus toward existence more violent than the craving to complete this conquest and to weave the net impenetrably tight. To one who feels that way, the Platonic Socrates will appear as the teacher of an altogether new form of “Greek cheerfulness” and blissful affirmation of existence that seeks to discharge itself in actions—most often in maieutic and educational influences on noble youths, with a view to eventually producing a genius.

But science, spurred by its powerful illusion, speeds irresistibly towards its limits where its optimism, concealed in the essence of logic, suffers shipwreck. For the periphery of the circle of science has an infinite number of points; and while there is no telling how this circle could ever be surveyed completely, noble and gifted men nevertheless reach, e’er half their time and inevitably, such boundary points on the periphery from which one gazes into what defies illumination. When they see to their horror how logic coils up at these boundaries and finally bites its own tail—suddenly the new form of insight breaks through, tragic insight which, merely to be endured, needs art as a protection and remedy.

Our eyes strengthened and refreshed by our contemplation of the Greeks, let us look at the highest spheres of the world around us; then we shall see how the hunger for insatiable and optimistic knowledge that in Socrates appears exemplary has turned into tragic resignation and destitute need for art—while, to be sure, the same hunger on its lower levels can express itself in hostility to art and must particularly detest Dionysian-tragic art, as was illustrated earlier with the fight of Socratism against Aeschylean tragedy.

Here we knock, deeply moved, at the gates of present and future: will this “turning-over” lead to ever-new configurations of genius and especially of the Socrates who practices music? Will the net of art, even if it is called religion or science, that is spread over existence be woven even more tightly and delicately, or is it destined to be torn to shreds in the restless, barbarous, chaotic whirl that now calls itself “the present”? — Concerned but not disconsolate, we stand aside a little while, contemplative men to whom it has been granted to be witnesses of these tremendous struggles and transitions. Alas, it is the magic of these struggles that those who behold them must also take part and fight!

Birth of Tragedy: Sections 1 – 8 :: Nietzsche

The Birth of Tragedy

**** Kaufmann, following the precedent of Crane Brinton’s Nietzsche (1965), George A. Morgan, Jr.’s What Nietzsche Means (1941) and the English version of Oswald Spengler’s The Decline of the West (1926-28), translates “Apollinisch” as “Apollinian”—rather than “Apollonian.” Accordingly, here, Golffing’s “Apollonian” has been changed to “Apollinian.” ****


Much will have been gained for aesthetics once we have succeeded in apprehending directly—rather than merely ascertaining—that art owes its continuous evolution to the Apollinian- Dionysian duality, even as the propagation of the species depends on the duality of the sexes, their constant conflicts and periodic acts of reconciliation. I have borrowed my adjectives from the Greeks, who developed their mystical doctrines of art through plausible embodiments, not through purely conceptual means. It is by those two art sponsoring deities, Apollo and Dionysus, that we are made to recognize the tremendous split, as regards both origins and objectives, between the plastic, Apollinian arts and the nonvisual art of music inspired by Dionysus. The two creative tendencies developed alongside one another, usually in fierce opposition, each by its taunts forcing the other to more energetic production, both perpetuating in a discordant concord that agon which the term art but feebly denominates: until at last, by the thaumaturgy of an Hellenic act of will, the pair accepted the yoke of marriage and, in this condition, begot Attic tragedy, which exhibits the salient features of both parents.

To reach a closer understanding of both these tendencies, let us begin by viewing them as the separate art realms of dream and intoxication, two physiological phenomena standing toward one another in much the same relationship as the Apollinian and Dionysian. It was in a dream, according to Lucretius [De Rerum Natura (On the Nature of Things), v. 1169–82 (English TXT)], that the marvelous gods and goddesses first presented themselves to the minds of men. That great sculptor, Phidias, beheld in a dream the entrancing bodies of more than human beings, and likewise, if anyone had asked the Greek poets about the mystery of poetic creation, they too would have referred him to dreams and instructed him much as Hans Sachs instructs us in Die Meistersinger [III. ii]:

The poet’s task is this, my friend,
to read his dreams and comprehend.
The truest human fancy seems
to be revealed to us in dreams:
all poems and versification
are but true dreams’ interpretation.

The fair illusion of the dream sphere, in the production of which every man proves himself an accomplished artist, is a precondition not only of all plastic art, but even, as we shall see presently, of a wide range of poetry. Here we enjoy an immediate apprehension of form, all shapes speak to us directly, nothing seems indifferent or redundant. Despite the high intensity with which these dream realities exist for us, we still have a residual sensation that they are illusions; at least such has been my experience— and the frequency, not to say normality, of the experience is borne out in many passages of the poets. Men of philosophical disposition are known for their constant premonition that our everyday reality, too, is an illusion, hiding another, totally different kind of reality. It was Schopenhauer who considered the ability to view at certain times all men and things as mere phantoms or dream images to be the true mark of philosophic talent [The World as Will and Representation, I.1, 5]. The person who is responsive to the stimuli of art behaves toward the reality of dream much the way the philosopher behaves toward the reality of existence: he observes exactly and enjoys his observations, for it is by these images that he interprets life, by these processes that he rehearses it. He experiences not only the agreeable and friendly images with that universal understanding: but also the serious, the gloomy, the sad, the dark aspects of life, the sudden inhibitions, the teasing of chance, the fearful expectations, in short the whole “divine comedy” of life, including the Inferno, passes before him, not only as a game of shadows—since he participates in the life and suffering of these scenes—yet also not without that fleeting sense of their status as appearance; and I imagine that many persons have reassured themselves amidst the perils of dream by calling out, “It is a dream! I want it to go on.” I have even heard of people spinning out the causality of one and the same dream over three or more successive nights. All these facts clearly bear witness that our innermost being, the common substratum of humanity, experiences dreams with deep delight and a sense of real necessity. This deep and happy sense of the necessity of dream experiences was expressed by the Greeks in the image of Apollo. Apollo is at once the god of all plastic powers and the soothsaying god. He who is etymologically the “lucent” one, the god of light, reigns also over the fair illusion of our inner world of fantasy. The perfection of these conditions in contrast to our imperfectly understood waking reality, as well as our profound awareness of nature’s healing powers during the interval of sleep and dream, furnishes a symbolic analogue to the soothsaying faculty and quite generally to the arts, which make life possible and worth living. But the image of Apollo must incorporate that thin line which the dream image may not cross, under penalty of becoming pathological, of imposing itself on us as crass reality: a discreet limitation, a freedom from all extravagant urges, the sapient tranquillity of the plastic god. His eye must be sunlike, in keeping with his origin. Even at those moments when he is angry and ill-tempered there lies upon him the consecration of fair illusion. In an eccentric way one might say of Apollo what Schopenhauer says, in the first part of The World as Will and Representation [I:1, 3], of man caught in the veil of Maya: “Even as on an immense, raging sea, assailed by huge wave crests, a man sits in a little rowboat trusting his frail craft, so, amidst the furious torments of this world, the individual sits tranquilly, supported by the principium individuationis [principle of individuation] and relying on it.” [The World as Will and Representation, I:4, 63] One might say that the unshakable confidence in that principium has received its most magnificent expression in Apollo, and that Apollo himself may be regarded as the marvelous divine image of the principium individuationis, whose looks and gestures radiate the full delight, wisdom, and beauty of “illusion.”

In the same context Schopenhauer has described for us the tremendous awe which seizes man when he suddenly begins to doubt the cognitive modes of experience, in other words, when in a given instance the law of causation seems to suspend itself. If we add to this awe the glorious transport which arises in man, even from the very depths of nature, at the shattering of the principium individuationis, then we are in a position to apprehend the essence of Dionysian rapture, whose closest analogy is furnished by physical intoxication. Dionysian stirrings arise either through the influence of those narcotic potions of which all primitive races speak in their hymns, or through the powerful approach of spring, which penetrates with joy the whole frame of nature. So stirred, the individual forgets himself completely. It is the same Dionysian power which in medieval Germany drove ever increasing crowds of people singing and dancing from place to place; we recognize in these St. John’s and St. Vitus’ dancers the Bacchic choruses of the Greeks, who had their precursors in Asia Minor and as far back as Babylon and the orgiastic Sacaea. There are people who, either from lack of experience or out of sheer stupidity, turn away from such phenomena, and, strong in the sense of their own sanity, label them either mockingly or pityingly “endemic diseases.” These benighted souls have no idea how cadaverous and ghostly their “sanity” appears as the intense throng of Dionysian revelers sweeps past them.

Not only does the bond between man and man come to be forged once more by the magic of the Dionysian rite, but nature itself, long alienated or subjugated, rises again to celebrate the reconciliation with her prodigal son, man. The earth offers its gifts voluntarily, and the savage beasts of mountain and desert approach in peace. The chariot of Dionysus is bedecked with flowers and garlands; panthers and tigers stride beneath his yoke. If one were to convert Beethoven’s “Hymn to Joy” into a painting, and refuse to curb the imagination when that multitude prostrates itself reverently in the dust, one might form some apprehension of Dionysian ritual. Now the slave emerges as a freeman; all the rigid, hostile walls which either necessity or despotism has erected between men are shattered. Now that the gospel of universal harmony is sounded, each individual becomes not only reconciled to his fellow but actually at one with him—as though the veil of Maya had been torn apart and there remained only shreds floating before the vision of mystical Oneness. Man now expresses himself through song and dance as the member of a higher community; he has forgotten how to walk, how to speak, and is on the brink of taking wing as he dances. Each of his gestures betokens enchantment; through him sounds a supernatural power, the same power which makes the animals speak and the earth render up milk and honey. He feels himself to be godlike and strides with the same elation and ecstasy as the gods he has seen in his dreams. No longer the artist, he has himself become a work of art: the productive power of the whole universe is now manifest in his transport, to the glorious satisfaction of the primordial One. The finest clay, the most precious marble—man—is here kneaded and hewn, and the chisel blows of the Dionysian world artist are accompanied by the cry of the Eleusinian mystagogues: “Do you fall on your knees, multitudes, do you divine your creator?” [Quote from Schiller’s “Ode to Joy”] —


So far we have examined the Apollinian and Dionysian states as the product of formative forces arising directly from nature without the mediation of the human artist. At this stage artistic urges are satisfied directly, on the one hand through the imagery of dreams, whose perfection is quite independent of the intellectual rank, the artistic development of the individual; on the other hand, through an ecstatic reality which once again takes no account of the individual and may even destroy him, or else redeem him through a mystical experience of the collective. In relation to these immediate creative conditions of nature every artist must appear as “imitator,” either as the Apollinian dream artist or the Dionysian ecstatic artist, or, finally (as in Greek tragedy, for example) as dream and ecstatic artist in one. We might picture to ourselves how the last of these, in a state of Dionysian intoxication and mystical self-abrogation, wandering apart from the reveling throng, sinks upon the ground, and how there is then revealed to him his own condition—complete oneness with the essence of the universe—in a dream similitude.

Having set down these general premises and distinctions, we now turn to the Greeks in order to realize to what degree the formative forces of nature were developed in them. Such an inquiry will enable us to assess properly the relation of the Greek artist to his prototypes or, to use Aristotle’s expression, his “imitation of nature.” Of the dreams the Greeks dreamed it is not possible to speak with any certainty, despite the extant dream literature and the large number of dream anecdotes. But considering the incredible accuracy of their eyes, their keen and unabashed delight in colors, one can hardly be wrong in assuming that their dreams too showed a strict consequence of lines and contours, hues and groupings, a progression of scenes similar to their best bas reliefs. The perfection of these dream scenes might almost tempt us to consider the dreaming Greek as a Homer and Homer as a dreaming Greek; which would be as though the modern man were to compare himself in his dreaming to Shakespeare.

Yet there is another point about which we do not have to conjecture at all: I mean the profound gap separating the Dionysian Greeks from the Dionysian barbarians. Throughout the range of ancient civilization (leaving the newer civilizations out of account for the moment) we find evidence of Dionysian celebrations which stand to the Greek type in much the same relation as the bearded satyr, whose name and attributes are derived from the goat, stands to the god Dionysus. The central concern of such celebrations was, almost universally, a complete sexual promiscuity overriding every form of established tribal law; all the savage urges of the mind were unleashed on those occasions until they reached that paroxysm of lust and cruelty which has always struck me as the actual “witches’ cauldron.” It would appear that the Greeks were for a while quite immune from these feverish excesses which must have reached them by every known land or sea route. What kept Greece safe was the proud, imposing image of Apollo, who in holding up the head of the Gorgon to those brutal and grotesque Dionysian forces subdued them. Doric art has immortalized Apollo’s majestic rejection of all license. But resistance became difficult, even impossible, as soon as similar urges began to break forth from the deep substratum of Hellenism itself. Soon the function of the Delphic god developed into something quite different and much more limited: all he could hope to accomplish now was to wrest the destructive weapon, by a timely gesture of pacification, from his opponent’s hand. That act of pacification represents the most important event in the history of Greek ritual; every department of life now shows symptoms of a revolutionary change. The two great antagonists have been reconciled. Each feels obliged henceforth to keep to his bounds, each will honor the other by the bestowal of periodic gifts, while the cleavage remains fundamentally the same. And yet, if we examine what happened to the Dionysian powers under the pressure of that treaty we notice a great difference: in the place of the Babylonian Sacaea, with their throwback of men to the condition of apes and tigers, we now see entirely new rites celebrated: rites of universal redemption, of glorious transfiguration. Only now has it become possible to speak of nature’s celebrating an aesthetic triumph; only now has the abrogation of the principium individuationis become an aesthetic event. That terrible witches’ brew concocted of lust and cruelty has lost all power under the new conditions. Yet the peculiar blending of emotions in the heart of the Dionysian reveler—his ambiguity if you will—seems still to hark back (as the medicinal drug harks back to the deadly poison) to the days when the infliction of pain was experienced as joy while a sense of supreme triumph elicited cries of anguish from the heart. For now in every exuberant joy there is heard an undertone of terror, or else a wistful lament over an irrecoverable loss. It is as though in these Greek festivals a sentimental trait of nature were coming to the fore, as though nature were bemoaning the fact of her fragmentation, her decomposition into separate individuals. The chants and gestures of these revelers, so ambiguous in their motivation, represented an absolute novum in the world of the Homeric Greeks; their Dionysian music, in especial, spread abroad terror and a deep shudder. It is true: music had long been familiar to the Greeks as an Apollinian art, as a regular beat like that of waves lapping the shore, a plastic rhythm expressly developed for the portrayal of Apollinian conditions. Apollo’s music was a Doric architecture of sound—of barely hinted sounds such as are proper to the cithara. Those very elements which characterize Dionysian music and, after it, music quite generally: the heart shaking power of tone, the uniform stream of melody, the incomparable resources of harmony—all those elements had been carefully kept at a distance as being inconsonant with the Apollinian norm. In the Dionysian dithyramb man is incited to strain his symbolic faculties to the utmost; something quite unheard of is now clamoring to be heard: the desire to tear asunder the veil of Maya, to sink back into the original oneness of nature; the desire to express the very essence of nature symbolically. Thus an entirely new set of symbols springs into being. First, all the symbols pertaining to physical features: mouth, face, the spoken word, the dance movement which coordinates the limbs and bends them to its rhythm. Then suddenly all the rest of the symbolic forces—music and rhythm as such, dynamics, harmony—assert themselves with great energy. In order to comprehend this total emancipation of all the symbolic powers one must have reached the same measure of inner freedom those powers themselves were making manifest; which is to say that the votary of Dionysus could not be understood except by his own kind. It is not difficult to imagine the awed surprise with which the Apollinian Greek must have looked on him. And that surprise would be further increased as the latter realized, with a shudder, that all this was not so alien to him after all, that his Apollinian consciousness was but a thin veil hiding from him the whole Dionysian realm.


In order to comprehend this we must take down the elaborate edifice of Apollinian culture stone by stone until we discover its foundations. At first the eye is struck by the marvelous shapes of the Olympian gods who stand upon its pediments, and whose exploits, in shining bas-relief, adorn its friezes. The fact that among them we find Apollo as one god among many, making no claim to a privileged position, should not mislead us. The same drive that found its most complete representation in Apollo generated the whole Olympian world, and in this sense we may consider Apollo the father of that world. But what was the radical need out of which that illustrious society of Olympian beings sprang?

Whoever approaches the Olympians with a different religion in his heart, seeking moral elevation, sanctity, spirituality, loving kindness, will presently be forced to turn away from them in ill-humored disappointment. Nothing in these deities reminds us of asceticism, high intellect, or duty: we are confronted by luxuriant, triumphant existence, which deifies the good and the bad indifferently. And the beholder may find himself dismayed in the presence of such overflowing life and ask himself what potion these heady people must have drunk in order to behold, in whatever direction they looked, Helen laughing back at them, the beguiling image of their own existence [Goethe’s Faust, I, 2603-4: “Having taken this potion, you will soon see Helen in every woman”]. But we shall call out to this beholder, who has already turned his back: Don’t go! Listen first to what the Greeks themselves have to say of this life, which spreads itself before you with such puzzling cheerfulness. An old legend has it that King Midas hunted a long time in the woods for the wise Silenus, companion of Dionysus, without being able to catch him. When he had finally caught him the king asked him what he considered man’s greatest good. The daemon remained sullen and uncommunicative until finally, forced by the king, he broke into a shrill laugh and spoke: “Ephemeral wretch, begotten by accident and toil, why do you force me to tell you what it would be your greatest boon not to hear? What would be best for you is quite beyond your reach: not to have been born, not to be, to be nothing. But the second best is to die soon.”

What is the relation of the Olympian gods to this popular wisdom? It is that of the entranced vision of the martyr to his torment.

Now the Olympian magic mountain opens itself before us, showing us its very roots. The Greeks were keenly aware of the terrors and horrors of existence; in order to be able to live at all they had to place before them the shining fantasy of the Olympians. Their tremendous distrust of the titanic forces of nature: Moira [fate], mercilessly enthroned beyond the knowable world; the vulture which fed upon the great philanthropist Prometheus; the terrible lot drawn by wise Oedipus; the curse on the house of Atreus which brought Orestes to the murder of his mother: that whole Panic philosophy, in short, with its mythic examples, by which the gloomy Etruscans perished, the Greeks conquered—or at least hid from view—again and again by means of this artificial Olympus [Mittelwelt der Olympier]. In order to live at all the Greeks had to construct these deities. The Apollinian need for beauty had to develop the Olympian hierarchy of joy by slow degrees from the original titanic hierarchy of terror, as roses are seen to break from a thorny thicket. How else could life have been borne by a race so hypersensitive, so emotionally intense, so equipped for suffering? The same drive which called art into being as a completion and consummation of existence, and as a guarantee of further existence, gave rise also to that Olympian realm which acted as a transfiguring mirror to the Hellenic “will.” The gods justified human life by living it themselves—the only satisfactory theodicy ever invented. To exist in the clear sunlight of such deities was now felt to be the highest good, and the only real grief suffered by Homeric man was inspired by the thought of leaving that sunlight, especially when the departure seemed imminent. Now it became possible to stand the wisdom of Silenus on its head and proclaim that it was the worst evil for man to die soon, and second worst for him to die at all. Such laments as arise now arise over short-lived Achilles, over the generations ephemeral as leaves, the decline of the heroic age. It is not unbecoming to even the greatest hero to yearn for an afterlife, though it be as a day laborer. So impetuously, during the Apollinian phase, does man’s will desire to remain on earth, so identified does he become with existence, that even his lament turns to a song of praise.

It should have become apparent by now that the harmony with nature which we late comers regard with such nostalgia, and for which Schiller has coined the cant term “naïve” [Friedrich Schiller: Über naïve und sentimentalische Dichtung (On Naïve and Sentimental Poetry) (1795)], is by no means a simple and inevitable condition to be found at the gateway to every culture, a kind of paradise. Such a belief could have been endorsed only by a period for which Rousseau’s Emile was an artist and Homer just such an artist nurtured in the bosom of nature. Whenever we encounter “naïveté” in art, we are face to face with the ripest fruit of Apollinian culture—which must always triumph first over titans, kill monsters, and overcome the somber contemplation of actuality, the intense susceptibility to suffering, by means of illusions strenuously and zestfully entertained. But how rare are the instances of true naïveté, of that complete identification with the beauty of appearance! It is this achievement which makes Homer so magnificent, who, as a single individual, stood to Apollinian popular culture in the same relation as the individual dream artist to the oneiric capacity of a race and of nature generally. The “naïveté” of Homer must be viewed as a complete victory of Apollinian illusion. Nature often uses illusions of this sort in order to accomplish its secret purposes. The true goal is covered over by a phantasm. We stretch out our hands to the latter, while nature, aided by our deception, attains the former. In the case of the Greeks it was the “will” wishing to behold itself in the work of art, in the transcendence of genius; but in order so to behold itself its creatures had first to view themselves as glorious, to transpose themselves to a higher sphere, without having that sphere of pure contemplation either challenge them or upbraid them with insufficiency. It was in that sphere of beauty that the Greeks saw the Olympians as their mirror images; it was by means of that aesthetic mirror that the Hellenic “will” opposed suffering and the somber wisdom of suffering which always accompanies artistic talent. As a monument to its victory stands Homer, the naïve artist.


We can learn something about that naïve artist through the analogy of dream. We can imagine the dreamer as he calls out to himself, still caught in the illusion of his dream and without disturbing it, “This is a dream, and I want to go on dreaming,” and we can infer, on the one hand, that he takes deep delight in the contemplation of his dream, and, on the other, that he must have forgotten the day, with its horrible importunity, so to enjoy his dream. Apollo, the interpreter of dreams, will furnish the clue to what is happening here. Although of the two halves of life—the waking and the dreaming—the former is generally considered not only the more important but the only one which is truly lived, I would, at the risk of sounding paradoxical, propose the opposite view. The more I have come to realize in nature those omnipotent formative tendencies and, with them, an intense longing for illusion, the more I feel inclined to the hypothesis that the original Oneness, the ground of Being, ever suffering and contradictory, time and again has need of rapt vision and delightful illusion to redeem itself. Since we ourselves are the very stuff of such illusions, we must view ourselves as the truly non-existent, that is to say, as a perpetual unfolding in time, space, and causality—what we label “empiric reality.” But if, for the moment, we abstract from our own reality, viewing our empiric existence, as well as the existence of the world at large, as the idea of the original Oneness, produced anew each instant, then our dreams will appear to us as illusions of illusions, hence as a still higher form of satisfaction of the original desire for illusion. It is for this reason that the very core of nature takes such a deep delight in the naive artist and the naive work of art, which likewise is merely the illusion of an illusion. Raphael, himself one of those immortal “naive” artists, in a symbolic canvas has illustrated that reduction of illusion to further illusion which is the original act of the naive artist and at the same time of all Apollinian culture. In the lower half of his Transfiguration, through the figures of the possessed boy, the despairing bearers, the helpless, terrified disciples, we see a reflection of original pain, the sole ground of being: “illusion” here is a reflection of eternal contradiction, begetter of all things. From this illusion there rises, like the fragrance of ambrosia, a new illusory world, invisible to those enmeshed in the first: a radiant vision of pure delight, a rapt seeing through wide open eyes. Here we have, in a great symbol of art, both the fair world of Apollo and its substratum, the terrible wisdom of Silenus, and we can comprehend intuitively how they mutually require one another. But Apollo appears to us once again as the apotheosis of the principium individuationis, in whom the eternal goal of the original Oneness, namely its redemption through illusion, accomplishes itself. With august gesture the god shows us how there is need for a whole world of torment in order for the individual to produce the redemptive vision and to sit quietly in his rocking rowboat in mid sea, absorbed in contemplation.

If this apotheosis of individuation is to be read in normative terms, we may infer that there is one norm only: the individual—or, more precisely, the observance of the limits of the individual: moderation in the Hellenic sense. As a moral deity Apollo demands self-control from his people and, in order to observe such self-control, a knowledge of self. And so we find that the aesthetic necessity of beauty is accompanied by the imperatives, “Know thyself,” and “Nothing too much!” Conversely, excess and hubris [Selbstüberhebung] come to be regarded as the hostile spirits of the non-Apollinian sphere, hence as properties of the pre-Apollinian era—the age of Titans —and the extra-Apollinian world, that is to say the world of the barbarians. It was because of his Titanic love of man that Prometheus had to be devoured by vultures; it was because of his extravagant wisdom which succeeded in solving the riddle of the Sphinx that Oedipus had to be cast into a whirlpool of crime: in this fashion does the Delphic god interpret the Greek past.

The effects of the Dionysian spirit struck the Apollinian Greeks as “titanic” and “barbaric”; yet they could not disguise from themselves the fact that they were essentially akin to chose deposed Titans and heroes. They felt more than that: their whole existence, with its temperate beauty, rested upon a base of suffering and knowledge which had been hidden from them until the reinstatement of Dionysus uncovered it once more. And lo and behold! Apollo found it impossible to live without Dionysus! The elements of “titanism” and “barbarism” fumed out to be quite as fundamental as the Apollinian element! And now let us imagine how the ecstatic sounds of the Dionysian rites penetrated ever more enticingly into that artificially restrained and discreet world of illusion, how this clamor expressed the whole excess of nature—delight, grief, knowledge—even to the most piercing cry; and then let us imagine how the Apollinian artist with his thin, monotonous harp music must have sounded beside the demoniac chant of the multitude! The muses presiding over the illusory arts paled before an art which enthusiastically told the truth, and the wisdom of Silenus cried Woe! Woe! against the serene Olympians. The individual, with his limits and moderations, forgot himself in the Dionysian vortex and became oblivious to the laws of Apollo. Excess revealed itself as truth, and contradiction, a delight born of pain, spoke out of the bosom of nature. Wherever the Dionysian voice was heard, the Apollinian norm seemed suspended or destroyed. Yet it is equally true that, in those places where the first assault was withstood, the prestige and majesty of the Delphic god appeared more rigid and threatening than before. The only way I am able to view Doric art and the Doric state is as a perpetual military encampment of the Apollinian forces. An art so defiantly austere, so ringed about with fortifications—an education so military and exacting—a polity so ruthlessly cruel—could endure only in a continual state of resistance against the titanic and barbaric menace of Dionysus.

Up to this point I have developed at some length a theme which was sounded at the beginning of this essay: how the Dionysian and Apollinian elements, in a continuous chain of creations, each enhancing the other, dominated the Hellenic mind; how from the “Iron” Age, with its battles of Titans and its austere popular philosophy, there developed under the aegis of Apollo the Homeric world of beauty; how this “naive” splendor was then absorbed once more by the Dionysian torrent, and how, face to face with this new power, the Apollinian code rigidified into the majesty of Doric art and contemplation. If the earlier phase of Greek history may justly be broken down into four major artistic epochs dramatizing the battle between the two hostile principles, then we must inquire further (lest Doric art appear to us as the acme and final goal of all these striving tendencies) what was the true end toward which that evolution moved. And our eyes will come to rest on the sublime and much lauded achievement of the dramatic dithyramb and Attic tragedy, as the common goal of both urges; whose mysterious marriage, after long discord, ennobled itself with such a child, at once Antigone and Cassandra.


We are now approaching the central concern of our inquiry, which has as its aim an understanding of the Dionysian-Apollinian spirit, or at least an intuitive comprehension of the mystery which made this conjunction possible. Our first question must be: where in the Greek world is the new seed first to be found which was later to develop into tragedy and the dramatic dithyramb? Greek antiquity gives us a pictorial clue when it represents in statues, on cameos, etc., Homer and Archilochus side by side as ancestors and torchbearers of Greek poetry, in the certainty that only these two are to be regarded as truly original minds, from whom a stream of fire flowed onto the entire later Greek world. Homer, the hoary dreamer, caught in utter abstraction, prototype of the Apollinian naive artist, stares in amazement at the passionate head of Archilochus, soldierly servant of the Muses, knocked about by fortune. All that more recent aesthetics has been able to add by way of interpretation is that here the “objective” artist is confronted by the first “subjective” artist. We find this interpretation of little use, since to us the subjective artist is simply the bad artist, and since we demand above all, in every genre and range of art, a triumph over subjectivity, deliverance from the “I” and the silencing of every personal will and desire; since, in fact, we cannot imagine the smallest genuine art work lacking objectivity and disinterested contemplation. For this reason our aesthetic must first solve the following problem: how is the “lyrical poet” at all possible as artist—he who, according to the experience of all times, always says “I” and recites to us the entire chromatic scale of his passions and appetites? It is this Archilochus who most disturbs us, placed there beside Homer, with the stridor of his hate and mockery, the drunken outbursts of his desire. Isn’t he—the first artist to be called subjective—for that reason the veritable non-artist? How, then, are we to explain the reverence in which he was held as a poet, the honor done him by the Delphic oracle, that seat of “objective” art, in a number of very curious sayings?

Schiller has thrown some light on his own manner of composition by a psychological observation which seems inexplicable to himself without, however, giving him pause. Schiller confessed that, prior to composing, he experienced not a logically connected series of images but rather a musical mood (“With me emotion is at the beginning without dear and definite ideas; those ideas do not arise until later on. A certain musical disposition of mind comes first, and after follows the poetical idea” [Schiller to Goethe: March 18, 1796]). If we enlarge on this, taking into account the most important phenomenon of ancient poetry, by which I mean that union— nay identity—everywhere considered natural, between musician and poet (alongside which our modern poetry appears as the statue of a god without a head), then we may, on the basis of the aesthetics adumbrated earlier, explain the lyrical poet in the following manner. He is, first and foremost, a Dionysian artist, become wholly identified with the original Oneness, its pain and contradiction, and producing a replica of that Oneness as music, if music may legitimately be seen as a repetition of the world; however, this music becomes visible to him again, as in a dream similitude, through the Apollinian dream influence. That reflection, without image or idea, of original pain in music, with its redemption through illusion, now produces a second reflection as a single simile or example. The artist had abrogated his subjectivity earlier, during the Dionysian phase: the image which now reveals to him his oneness with the heart of the world is a dream scene showing forth vividly, together with original pain, the original delight of illusion. The “I” thus sounds out of the depth of being; what recent writers on aesthetics speak of as “subjectivity” is a mere figment. When Archilochus, the first lyric poet of the Greeks, hurls both his frantic love and his contempt at the daughters of Lycambes, it is not his own passion that we see dancing before us in an orgiastic frenzy: we see Dionysus and the maenads, we see the drunken reveler Archilochus, sunk down in sleep—as Euripides describes him for us in the Bacchae, asleep on a high mountain meadow, in the midday sun—and now Apollo approaches him and touches him with his laurel. The sleeper’s enchantment through Dionysian music now begins to emit sparks of imagery, poems which, at their point of highest evolution, will bear the name of tragedies and dramatic dithyrambs.

The sculptor, as well as his brother, the epic poet, is committed to the pure contemplation of images. The Dionysian musician, himself imageless, is nothing but original pain and reverberation of the image. Out of this mystical process of un-selving, the poet’s spirit feels a whole world of images and similitudes arise, which are quite different in hue, causality, and pace from the images of the sculptor or narrative poet. While the last lives in those images, and only in them, with joyful complacence, and never tires of scanning them down to the most minute features, while even the image of angry Achilles is no more for him than an image whose irate countenance he enjoys with a dreamer’s delight in appearance—so that this mirror of appearance protects him from complete fusion with his characters—the lyrical poet, on the other hand, himself becomes his images, his images are objectified versions of himself. Being the active center of that world he may boldly speak in the first person [“Ich” sagen], only his “I” [Ichheit] is not that of the actual waking man, but the “I” dwelling, truly and eternally, in the ground of being. It is through the reflections of that “I” that the lyric poet beholds the ground of being. Let us imagine, next, how he views himself too among these reflections—as non-genius, that is, as his own “subject” matter, the whole teeming crowd of his passions and intentions directed toward a definite goal; and when it now appears as though the poet and the nonpoet joined to him were one, and as though the former were using the pronoun “I,” we are able to see through this appearance, which has deceived those who have attached the label subjective to the lyrical poet. The man Archilochus, with his passionate loves and hates, is really only a vision of genius, a genius who is no longer merely Archilochus but the genius of the universe, expressing its pain through the similitude of Archilochus the man. Archilochus, on the other hand, the subjectively willing and desiring human being, can never be a poet. Nor is it at all necessary for the poet to see only the phenomenon of the man Archilochus before him as a reflection of Eternal Being: the world of tragedy shows us to what extent the vision of the poet can remove itself from the urgent, immediate phenomenon.

Schopenhauer, who was fully aware of the difficulties the lyrical poet creates for the speculative aesthetician, thought that he had found a solution, which, however, I cannot endorse. It is true that he alone possessed the means, in his profound philosophy of music, for solving this problem; and I think I have honored his achievement in these pages, I hope in his own spirit. Yet in the first part of The World as Will and Representation [I.3, 51] he characterizes the essence of song as follows: “The consciousness of the singer is filled with the subject of will, which is to say with his own willing. That willing may either be a released, satisfied willing (joy), or, as happens more commonly, an inhibited willing (sadness). In either case there is affect here: passion, violent commotion. At the same time, however, the singer is moved by the contemplation of nature surrounding him to experience himself as the subject of pure, unwilling ideation, and the unshakable tranquillity of that ideation becomes contrasted with the urgency of his willing, its limits, and its lacks. It is the experience of this contrast, or tug of war, which he expresses in his song. While we find ourselves in the lyrical condition, pure ideation approaches us, as it were, to deliver us from the urgencies of willing; we obey, yet obey for moments only. Again and again our willing, our memory of personal objectives, distracts us from tranquil contemplation, while, conversely, the next scene of beauty we behold will yield us up once more to pure ideation. For this reason we find in song and in the lyrical mood a curious mixture of willing (our personal interest in purposes) and pure contemplation (whose subject matter is furnished by our surroundings); relations are sought and imagined between these two sets of experiences. Subjective mood—the affection of the will—communicates its color to the purely viewed surroundings, and vice versa. All authentic song reflects a state of mind mixed and divided in this manner.”

Who can fail to perceive in this description that lyric poetry is presented as an art never completely realized, indeed a hybrid whose essence is made to consist in an uneasy mixture of will and contemplation, i.e., the aesthetic and the non-aesthetic conditions. We, on our part, maintain that the distinction between subjective and objective, which even Schopenhauer still uses as a sort of measuring stick to distinguish the arts, has no value whatever in aesthetics; the reason being that the subject—the striving individual bent on furthering his egoistic purposes—can be thought of only as an enemy to art, never as its source. But to the extent that the subject is an artist he is already delivered from individual will and has become a medium through which the true subject celebrates his redemption in illusion. For better or worse, one thing should be quite obvious to all of us: the entire comedy of art is not played for our own sakes—for our betterment or education, say—nor can we consider ourselves the true originators of that art realm; while on the other hand we have every right to view ourselves as aesthetic projections of the veritable creator and derive such dignity as we possess from our status as art works. Only as aesthetic phenomenon can the world be justified to all eternity—although our consciousness of our own significance does scarcely exceed the consciousness a painted soldier might have of the battle in which he takes part. Thus our whole knowledge of art is at bottom illusory, seeing that as mere knowers we can never be fused with that essential spirit, at the same time creator and spectator, who has prepared the comedy of art for his own edification. Only as the genius in the act of creation merges with the primal architect of the cosmos can he truly know something of the eternal essence of art. For in that condition he resembles the uncanny fairy tale image which is able to see itself by turning its eyes. He is at once subject and object, poet, actor, and audience.


Scholarship has discovered in respect of Archilochus that he introduced folk song into literature, and that it was this feat which earned him the unique distinction of being placed beside Homer. Yet what does folk song represent in contrast to epic poetry, which is wholly Apollinian? Surely the perpetuum vestigium [permanent vestige] of a union between the Apollinian and the Dionysian. Its tremendous distribution, as well as its constant proliferation wherever we look, attests the strength of that dual generative motive in nature: a motive which leaves its traces in folk song much the way the orgiastic movements of a nation leave their traces in music. Nor should it be difficult to show by historical evidence that every period which abounded in folk songs has, by the same token, been deeply stirred by Dionysian currents. Those currents have long been considered the necessary substratum, or precondition, of folk poetry.

But first of all we must regard folk song as a musical mirror of the cosmos, as primordial melody casting about for an analogue and finding that analogue eventually in poetry. Since melody precedes all else, it may have to undergo any number of objectifications, such as a variety of texts presents. But it is always, according to the naive estimation of the populace, much superior in importance to those texts. Melody gives birth to poetry again and again: this is implied by the atrophic form of folk song: for a long time I wondered at this phenomenon, until finally the following explanation offered itself. If we examine any collection of folk poetry—for example, Des Knaben Wunderhorn [The Youth’s Magic Horn (1805-1808): a collection of folk songs assembled by the Romantic writers Achim von Arnim and Clemens von Brentano]—in this light, we shall find countless examples of melody generating whole series of images, and those images, in their varicolored hues, abrupt transitions, and headlong forward rush, stand in the most marked contrast to the equable movement, the calm illusion, of epic verse. Viewed from the standpoint of the epic the uneven and irregular imagery of folk song becomes quite objectionable. Such must have been the feeling which the solemn rhapsodists of the Apollinian rites, during the age of Terpander, entertained with regard to popular lyric effusions.

In folk poetry we find, moreover, the most intense effort of language to imitate the condition of music. For this reason Archilochus may be claimed to have ushered in an entirely new world of poetry, profoundly at variance with the Homeric; and by this distinction we have hinted at the only possible relation between poetry and music, word and sound. Word, image, and idea, in undergoing the power of music, now seek for a kind of expression that would parallel it. In this sense we may distinguish two main currents in the history of Greek verse, according as language is used to imitate the world of appearance or that of music. To understand more profoundly the significance of this distinction, let the reader ponder the utter dissimilarity of verbal color, syntax and phraseology in the works of Homer and Pindar. He then cannot fail to conjecture that in the interval there must have sounded the orgiastic flute notes of Olympus, which, as late as Aristotle’s time, in the midst of an infinitely more complex music, still rouses men to wild enthusiasm, and which at their inception must have challenged all contemporaries to imitate them by every available poetic resource. I wish to instance in this connection a well-known phenomenon of our own era which our modish aestheticians consider most exceptionable. We have noticed again and again how a Beethoven symphony compels the individual hearers to use pictorial speech—though it must be granted that a collocation of these various descriptive sequences might appear rather checkered, fantastic, even contradictory. Small wonder, then, that our critics have exercised their feeble wit on these musical images, or else passed over the phenomenon—surely one worthy of further investigation—in complete silence. Even in cases where the composer himself has employed pictorial tags in talking about his work— calling one symphony “Pastoral,” one movement “Brook Scene” and another “Jolly Concourse of Peasants”—these tropes are properly reducible to purely musical elements rather than standing for actual objects expressed through music. It is true that such musical representations can neither instruct us much concerning the Dionysian content of music nor yet lay claim to any distinctive value as images. But once we study this discharge of music through images in a youthful milieu, among a people whose linguistic creativity is unimpaired, we can form some idea of how atrophic folk song must have arisen and how a nation’s entire store of verbal resources might be mobilized by means of that novel principle, imitation of the language of music.

If we are right in viewing lyric poetry as an efflorescence of music in images and ideas, then our next question will be, “How does music manifest itself in that mirror of images and ideas?” It manifests itself as will, using the term in Schopenhauer’s sense, that is to say as the opposite of the aesthetic, contemplative, unwilling disposition. At this point it becomes necessary to discriminate very clearly between essence and appearance—for it is obviously impossible for music to represent the essential nature of the will; if it did, we would have to banish it from the realm of art altogether, seeing that the will is the non-aesthetic element. Rather we should say that music appears as the will. In order to express that appearance through images the lyrical poet must employ the whole register of emotions, from the whisper of love to the roar of frenzy; moved by the urge to talk of music in Apollinian similitudes [Gleichnissen], he must first comprehend the whole range of nature, including himself, as the eternal source of volition, desire, appetite. But to the extent that he interprets music through images he is dwelling on the still sea of Apollinian contemplation, no matter how turbulently all that he beholds through the musical medium may surge about him. And when he looks at himself through that medium he will discover his own image in a state of turmoil: his own willing and desiring, his groans and jubilations, will all appear to him as a similitude by which music is interpreted. Such is the phenomenon of the lyric poet. Being an Apollinian genius, he interprets music through the image of the will, while he is himself turned into the pure, unshadowed eye of the sun, utterly detached from the will and its greed.

Throughout this inquiry I have maintained the position that lyric poetry is dependent on the spirit of music to the same degree that music itself, in its absolute sovereignty, needs neither image or concept, though it may tolerate both. The poet cannot tell us anything that was not already contained, with a most universal validity, in such music as prompted him to his figurative discourse. The cosmic symbolism of music resists any adequate treatment by language, for the simple reason that music, in referring to primordial contradiction and pain, symbolizes a sphere which is both earlier than appearance and beyond it. Once we set it over against music, all appearance becomes a mere analogy [nur Gleichniss]. So it happens that language, the organ and symbol of appearance, can never succeed in bringing the innermost core of music to the surface. Whenever it engages in the imitation of music, language remains in purely superficial contact with it, and no amount of poetic eloquence will carry us a step closer to the essential secret of that art.


At this point we need to call upon every aesthetic principle so far discussed, in order to find our way through the labyrinthine origins of Greek tragedy. I believe I am saying nothing extravagant when I claim that the problem of these origins has never even been posed, much less solved, no matter how often the elusive rags of ancient tradition have been speculatively sewn together and ripped apart That tradition tells us in no uncertain terms that tragedy arose out of the tragic chorus [Aristotle: Poetics, iv, 1449a] and was, to begin with, nothing but chorus. We are thus bound to scan the chorus closely as the archetypal drama, disregarding the current explanations of it as the idealized spectator, or as representing the populace over against the noble realm of the set. The latter interpretation, which sounds so grandly edifying to certain politicians (as though the democratic Athenians had represented in the popular chorus the invariable moral law, always right in face of the passionate misdeeds and extravagances of kings) may have been suggested by a phrase in Aristotle [Politics, iii. 8. 6, 1284b], but this lofty notion can have had no influence whatever on the original formation of tragedy, whose purely religious origins would exclude not only the opposition between the people and their rulers but any kind of political or social context. Likewise we would consider it blasphemous, in the light of the classical form of the chorus as we know it from Aeschylus and Sophocles, to speak of a foreshadowing of a “constitutional popular representation,” though others have not stuck at such blasphemy. No ancient polity ever embodied constitutional popular representation in praxi [in practice], and one dares to hope that ancient tragedy did not even “foreshadow” it.

Much more famous than this political explanation of the chorus is the notion of A. W. Schlegel [Über dramatische Kunst und Literatur (On Dramatic Art and Literature) (1808)], who advises us to regard the chorus as the quintessence of the audience, as the “ideal spectator.” If we hold this view against the historical tradition according to which tragedy was, in the beginning, nothing but chorus, it turns out to be a crude, unscholarly, though dazzling hypothesis—dazzling because of the effective formulation, the typically German bias for anything called “ideal,” and our momentary wonder at the notion. For we are indeed amazed when we compare our familiar theater audience with the tragic chorus and ask ourselves whether the former could conceivably be construed into something analogous to the latter. We tacitly deny the possibility, and then are brought to wonder both at the boldness of Schlegel’s assertion and at what must have been the totally different complexion of the Greek audience. We had supposed all along that the spectator, whoever he might be, would always have to remain conscious of the fact that he had before him a work of art, not empiric reality, whereas the tragic chorus of the Greeks is constrained to view the characters enacted on the stage as veritably existing. The chorus of the Oceanides think that they behold the actual Titan Prometheus, and believe themselves every bit as real as the god. Are we seriously to assume that the highest and purest type of spectator is he who, like the Oceanides, regards the god as physically present and real? That it is characteristic of the ideal spectator to rush on stage and deliver the god from his fetters? We had put our faith in an artistic audience, believing that the more intelligent the individual spectator was, the more capable he was of viewing the work of art as art; and now Schlegel’s theory suggests to us that the perfect spectator viewed the world of the stage not at all as art but as reality. Oh these Greeks! we moan; they upset our entire aesthetic! But once we have grown accustomed to it, we repeat Schlegel’s pronouncement whenever the question of the chorus comes up.

The emphatic tradition I spoke of militates against Schlegel: chorus as such, without stage—the primitive form of tragedy—is incompatible with that chorus of ideal spectators. What sort of artistic genre would it be that derived from the idea of the spectator and crystallized itself in the mode of the “pure” spectator [“Zuschauer an sich”]? A spectator without drama is an absurdity. We suspect that the birth of tragedy can be explained neither by any reverence for the moral intelligence of the multitude nor by the notion of a spectator without drama, and, altogether, we consider the problem much too complex to be touched by such facile interpretations.

An infinitely more valuable insight into the significance of the chorus was furnished by Schiller in the famous preface to his Bride of Messina [Über den Gebrauch des Chors in der Tragödie (On the Use of the Chorus in Tragedy), published as the preface to his play Die Braut von Messina (The Bride of Messina) (1803)], where the chorus is seen as a living wall which tragedy draws about itself in order to achieve insulation from the actual world, to preserve its ideal ground and its poetic freedom.

Schiller used this view as his main weapon against commonplace naturalism, against the illusionistic demand made upon dramatic poetry. While the day of the stage was conceded to be artificial, the architecture of the set symbolic, the metrical discourse stylized, a larger misconception still prevailed. Schiller was not content to have what constitutes the very essence of poetry merely tolerated as poetic license. He insisted that the introduction of the chorus was the decisive step by which any naturalism in art was openly challenged. This way of looking at art seems to me the one which our present age, thinking itself so superior, has labeled “pseudo-idealism.” But I very much fear that we, with our idolatry of verisimilitude, have arrived at the opposite pole of all idealism, the realm of the waxworks. This too betrays a kind of art, as do certain popular novels of today. All I ask is that we not be importuned by the pretense that such art has left Goethe’s and Schiller’s “pseudo-idealism” behind.

It is certainly true, as Schiller saw, that the Greek chorus of satyrs, the chorus of primitive tragedy, moved on ideal ground, a ground raised high above the common path of mortals. The Greek has built for his chorus the scaffolding of a fictitious state of nature and placed thereon fictitious beings of nature. Tragedy developed on this foundation, and so has been exempt since its beginning from the embarrassing task of copying actuality. All the same, the world of tragedy is by no means a world arbitrarily projected between heaven and earth; rather it is a world having the same reality and credibility as Olympus possessed for the devout Greek. The satyr, as the Dionysian chorist, dwells in a reality sanctioned by myth and ritual. That tragedy should begin with him, that the Dionysian wisdom of tragedy should speak through him, is as puzzling a phenomenon as, more generally, the origin of tragedy from the chorus. Perhaps we can gain a starting point for this inquiry by claiming that the satyr, that fictitious being of nature, stands to cultured man in the same relation as Dionysian music does to civilization. Richard Wagner has said of the latter that it is absorbed by music as lamplight by daylight [in Wagner’s essay Beethoven (1870)]. In the same manner, I believe, the cultured Greek felt himself absorbed into the satyr chorus, and in the next development of Greek tragedy state and society, in fact all that separated man from man, gave way before an overwhelming sense of unity which led back into the heart of nature. The metaphysical solace—with which, I wish to say at once, all true tragedy sends us away—that, despite every phenomenal change life is at bottom indestructibly joyful and powerful, was expressed most concretely in the chorus of satyrs, beings of nature who dwell behind all civilization and preserve their identity through every change of generations and historical movement.

With this chorus the profound Greek, so uniquely susceptible to the subtlest and deepest suffering, who had penetrated the destructive agencies of both nature and history, solaced himself. Though he had been in danger of craving a Buddhistic denial of the will, he was saved by art, and through art life reclaimed him.

While the transport of the Dionysian state, with its suspension of all the ordinary barriers of existence, lasts, it carries with it a lethargical element in which everything that has been experienced by the individual is drowned. This chasm of oblivion separates the quotidian reality from the Dionysian. But as soon as that quotidian reality enters consciousness once more it is viewed with loathing, and the consequence is an ascetic, abulic state of mind. In this sense Dionysian man might be said to resemble Hamlet: both have looked deeply into the true nature of things, they have gained knowledge and are now loath to act. They realize that no action of theirs can work any change in the eternal condition of things, and they regard the imputation as ludicrous or debasing that they should set right the time which is out of joint. Knowledge kills action, for in order to act we require the veil of illusion—such is Hamlet’s doctrine, not to be confounded with the cheap wisdom of Jack the Dreamer, who through too much reflection, as it were a surplus of possibilities, never arrives at action!— What, both in the case of Hamlet and of Dionysian man, overbalances any motive leading to action, is not reflection but knowledge, the apprehension of truth and its terror. Now no comfort any longer avails, desire reaches beyond the transcendental world, beyond the gods themselves, and existence, together with its glittering reflection in the gods and an immortal Beyond, is denied. The truth once seen, man is aware everywhere of the ghastly absurdity of existence, comprehends the symbolism of Ophelia’s fate and the wisdom of the wood sprite Silenus: nausea invades him.

Then, in this supreme jeopardy of the will, art, that sorceress expert in healing, approaches him; only she can turn his fits of nausea into imaginations with which it is possible to live. These are on the one hand the sublime, which subjugates terror by means of art; on the other hand the comic, which releases us, through art, from the tedium of absurdity. The satyr chorus of the dithyramb was the salvation of Greek art; the threatening paroxysms I have mentioned were contained by the intermediary of those Dionysian attendants.


The satyr and the idyllic shepherd of later times have both been products of a desire for naturalness and simplicity. But how firmly the Greek shaped his wood sprite, and how self-consciously and mawkishly the modern dallies with his tender, fluting shepherd! For the Greek the satyr expressed nature in a rude, uncultivated state: he did not, for that reason, confound him with the monkey. Quite the contrary, the satyr was man’s true prototype, an expression of his highest and strongest aspirations. He was an enthusiastic reveler, filled with transport by the approach of the god; a compassionate companion re enacting the sufferings of the god; a prophet of wisdom born out of nature’s womb; a symbol of the sexual omnipotence of nature, which the Greek was accustomed to view with reverent wonder. The satyr was sublime and divine—so he must have looked to the traumatically wounded vision of Dionysian man. Our tricked out, contrived shepherd would have offended him, but his eyes rested with sublime satisfaction on the open, undistorted limnings of nature. Here archetypal man was cleansed of the illusion of culture, and what revealed itself was authentic man, the bearded satyr jubilantly greeting his god. Before him cultured man dwindled to a false cartoon. Schiller is also correct as regards these beginnings of the tragic art: the chorus is a living wall against the onset of reality because it—the satyr chorus—depicts reality more truthfully and more completely than does civilized man, who ordinarily considers himself the only reality. Poetry does not lie outside the world as a fantastic impossibility begotten of the poet’s brain; it seeks to be the exact opposite, an unvarnished expression of truth, and for this reason must cast away the trumpery garments worn by the supposed reality of civilized man. The contrast between this truth of nature and the pretentious lie of civilization is quite similar to that between the eternal core of things and the entire phenomenal world. Even as tragedy, with its metaphysical solace, points to the eternity of true being surviving every phenomenal change, so does the symbolism of the satyr chorus express analogically the primordial relation between the thing in itself and appearance. The idyllic shepherd of modern man is but a replica of the sum of cultural illusions which he mistakes for nature. The Dionysian Greek, desiring truth and nature at their highest power—he sees himself metamorphosed into the satyr.

Such are the dispositions and insights of the reveling throng of Dionysus; and the power of these dispositions and insights transforms them in their own eyes, until they behold themselves restored to the condition of genii, of satyrs. Later the tragic chorus came to be an aesthetic imitation of that natural phenomenon; which then necessitated a distinction between Dionysian spectators and votaries actually spellbound by the god. What must be kept in mind in all these investigations is that the audience of Attic tragedy discovered itself in the chorus of the orchestra. Audience and chorus were never fundamentally set over against each other: all was one grand chorus of dancing, singing satyrs, and of those who let themselves be represented by them. This granted, Schlegel’s dictum assumes a profounder meaning. The chorus is the “ideal spectator” inasmuch as it is the only seer, the seer of the visionary world of the proscenium [Visionswelt der Scene]. An audience of spectators, such as we know it, was unknown to the Greeks. Given the terraced structure of the Greek theater, rising in concentric arcs, each spectator could quite literally survey [übersehen] the entire cultural world about him and imagine himself, in the fullness of seeing, as a chorist. Thus we are enabled to view the chorus of primitive proto-tragedy as the projected image of Dionysian man. The clearest illustration of this phenomenon is the experience of the actor, who, if he is truly gifted, has before his eyes the vivid image of the role he is to play. The satyr chorus is, above all, a vision of the Dionysian multitude, just as the world of the stage is a vision of that satyr chorus: a vision so powerful that it blurs the actors’ sense of the “reality” of cultured spectators ranged row on row about him. The structure of the Greek theater reminds us of a lonely mountain valley: the architecture of the stage resembles a luminous cloud configuration which the Bacchae behold as they swarm down from the mountaintops; a marvelous frame in the center of which Dionysus manifests himself to them.

Our scholarly ideas of elementary artistic process are likely to be offended by the primitive events which I have adduced here to explain the tragic chorus. And yet nothing can be more evident than the fact that the poet is poet only insofar as he sees himself surrounded by living acting shapes into whose innermost being he penetrates. It is our peculiar modem weakness to see all primitive aesthetic phenomena in too complicated and abstract a way. Metaphor, for the authentic poet, is not a figure of rhetoric a representative image standing concretely before him in lieu of a concept. A character, to him, is not an assemblage of individual traits laboriously pieced together, but a personage beheld as insistently living before his eyes, differing from the image of the painter only in its capacity to continue living and acting. What is it that makes Homer so much more vivid and concrete in his description than any other poet? His lively eye, with which he discerns so much more. We all talk about poetry so abstractly because we all tend to be indifferent poets. At bottom the aesthetic phenomenon is quite simple: all one needs in order to be a poet is the ability to have a lively action going on before one continually, to live surrounded by hosts of spirits. To be a dramatist all one needs is the urge to transform oneself and speak out of strange bodies and souls.

Dionysian excitation is capable of communicating to a whole multitude this artistic power to feel itself surrounded by, and one with, a host of spirits. This process of the tragic-chorus is the primary dramatic phenomenon: projecting oneself outside oneself and then acting as though one had really entered another body, another character. This constitutes the first step in the evolution of drama. This art is no longer that of the rhapsodist, who does not merge with his images but, like the painter, contemplates them as something outside himself; what we have here is the individual effacing himself through entering a strange being. It should be made clear that this phenomenon is not singular but epidemic: a whole crowd becomes rapt in this manner. It is for this reason that the dithyramb differs essentially from any other kind of chorus. The virgins who, carrying laurel branches and singing a processional chant, move solemnly toward the temple of Apollo, retain their identities and their civic names. The dithyrambic chorus on the other hand is a chorus of the transformed, who have forgotten their civic past and social rank, who have become timeless servants of their god and live outside all social spheres. While all the other types of Greek choric verse are simply the highest intensification of the Apollinian musician, in the dithyramb we see a community of unconscious actors all of whom see one another as enchanted.

Enchantment is the precondition of all dramatic art. In this enchantment the Dionysian reveler sees himself as satyr, and as satyr, in turn, he sees the god—that is, in his transformation he sees a new vision, which is the Apollinian completion of his state. And by the same token this new vision completes the dramatic act.

Thus we have come to interpret Greek tragedy as a Dionysian chorus which again and again discharges itself in Apollinian images. Those choric portions with which the tragedy is interlaced constitute, as it were, the matrix of the dialogue, that is to say, of the entire stage-world of the actual drama. This substratum of tragedy irradiates, in several consecutive discharges, the vision of the drama—a vision on the one hand completely of the nature of Apollinian dream-illusion and therefore epic, but on the other hand, as the objectification of a Dionysian condition, tending toward the shattering of the individual and his fusion with the original Oneness. Tragedy is an Apollinian embodiment of Dionysian insights and powers, and for that reason separated by a tremendous gulf from the epic.

On this view the chorus of Greek tragedy, symbol of an entire multitude agitated by Dionysus, can be fully explained. Whereas we who are accustomed to the role of the chorus in modem theater, especially opera, find it hard to conceive how the chorus of the Greeks should have been older, more central than the actual “action”—although we have clear testimony to this effect—and whereas we have never been quite able to reconcile with this position of importance the fact that the chorus was composed of such lowly beings as, originally, goatlike satyrs; and whereas, further, the orchestra in front of the stage has always seemed a riddle to us—we now realize that the stage with its action was originally conceived as vision and that the only “reality” was the chorus, who created that vision out of itself and proclaimed it through the symbolism of dance, music [Tones], and spoken word. Since, in this vision, the chorus beholds its lord and master Dionysus, it remains forever an attending chorus, it sees how the god suffers and transforms himself, and it has, for that reason, no need to act. But, notwithstanding its subordination to the god, the chorus remains the highest expression of nature, and, like nature, utters in its enthusiasm oracular words of wisdom. Being compassionate as well as wise, it proclaims a truth that issues from the heart of the world. Thus we see how that fantastic and at first sight embarrassing figure arises, the wise and enthusiastic satyr who is at the same time the “simpleton” [“der tumbe mensch”] as opposed to the god. The satyr is a replica of nature in its strongest tendencies and at the same time, a herald of its wisdom and art. He combines in his person the roles of musician, poet, dancer and visionary.

It is in keeping both with this insight and with general tradition that in the earliest tragedy Dionysus was not actually present but merely imagined. Original tragedy is only “chorus” and not “drama” at all. Later an attempt was made to demonstrate the god as real and to bring the visionary figure, together with the transfiguring frame, vividly before the eyes of every spectator. This marks the beginning of “drama” in the strict sense of the word. It then became the task of the dithyrambic chorus so to excite the mood of the listeners that when the tragic hero appeared they would behold not the awkwardly masked man but a figure born of their own rapt vision. If we imagine Admetus brooding on the memory of his recently departed wife Alcestis, consuming himself in a spiritual contemplation of her form—how a figure of similar shape and gait is led toward him in deep disguise: if we then imagine his tremor of excitement, his impetuous comparisons, his instinctive conviction—then we have an analogue for the excitement of the spectator beholding the god, with whose sufferings he has already identified himself, stride onto the stage. Instinctively he would project the shape of the god that was magically present to his mind onto that masked figure of a man, dissolving the latter’s reality into a ghostly unreality. This is the Apollinian dream state, in which the daylight world is veiled and a new world—clearer, more comprehensible, more affecting than the first, and at the same time more shadowy—falls upon the eye in ever changing shapes. Thus we may recognize a drastic stylistic opposition: language, color, pace, dynamics of speech are polarized into the Dionysian poetry of the chorus, on the one hand, and the Apollinian dream world of the scene on the other. The result is two completely separate spheres of expression. The Apollinian embodiments in which Dionysus assumes objective shape, are no longer “an eternal sea, a changing weaving, a glowing existence,” [Goethe’s Faust I, 505–7] as is the case with the music of the chorus, no longer those powers deeply felt by the enthusiast, but which he is incapable of condensing into a clear image. The adept no longer obscurely senses the approach of the god: the god now speaks to him from the proscenium with the clarity and firmness of epic, as an epic hero, almost in the language of Homer.

Dreamtigers Epiloge :: J. L. Borges

God grant that the essential monotony of this miscellany (which time has compiled – not I -and which admits past pieces that I have not dared to revise, because I wrote them with a different concept of literature) be less evident than the geographical and historical diversity of its themes. Of all the books I have delivered to the presses, none, I think, is as personal as the straggling collection mustered for this hodgepodge, precisely because it abounds in reflections and interpolations. Few things have happened to me, and I have read a great many. Or rather, few things have happened to me more worth remembering than Schopenhaur’s thought or the music of England’s words.

A man sets himself the task of portraying the world. Through the years he peoples a space with images of provinces, kingdoms, mountains, bays, ships, islands, fishes, rooms, instruments, stars, horses, and people. Shortly before his death, he discovers that that patient labyrinth of lines traces the image of his face.

J. L. B

Buenos Aires, October 31, 1960.

[From Dreamtigers, by Jorges Luis Borges, translated by Harold Morland]