NIETZSCHE AND THE PARADOX OF TRAGEDY.
There is a problem in the philosophy of art that is motivated by Aristotle's discussion, in the Poetics, of our response to tragic drama.(1) If the tragic emotions (fear and pity) are essentially painful, how is it that we derive pleasure from tragic dramas that essentially involve or are defined by or awaken these normally painful emotions? And assuming that we celebrate tragic dramas such as Euripides' Bacchae or Shakespeare's King Lear precisely because of the experiences that they provide, what could account for this value, given that emotionally disagreeable experiences in themselves (the events and the attendant emotions) are not so valued? Nietzsche's later writings on tragedy are primarily devoted to deciphering this classic problem. My argument is that Nietzsche's analysis of (i) the distinction between the value of tragic drama as art and the value of our experience of tragic drama, and (ii) what tragic pleasure is actually pleasure in, possesses an explanatory power lacking in other accounts. I will concentrate on the philosophies of Aristotle, Schopenhauer, and Hume. Interpretations of Aristotle's philosophy attempt to explain tragic pleasure through his mechanism of katharsis. Schopenhauer claims that the pleasure in and value of tragedy lie in its clear and compelling demonstration of the metaphysics of the meaning and scope of human action.(2) And Hume believes that the pleasure that we take in the beauty of the artistry of the play captures and reverses the strength and hedonic tone of the emotions of pity and fear that we experience for the tragic characters.(3) Hence, I shall examine Nietzsche's later observations and determine the scope and worth of their contribution to the explanation of the nature and the value of the tragic emotions.
II. THE NATURE OF THE TRAGIC EMOTIONS
The philosophical quest to understand the nature of our response to represented tragedy has, historically, centred around the attempt to come to terms with the oxymoronic idea of `tragic pleasure'. Why do we enjoy the dramatic portrayal of vice, deceit, human corruption, and death? Aristotle's notion of katharsis has been interpreted(4) as locating the pleasure of tragic drama in the quiet that follows the forced arousal and subsequent purgation of the socially debilitating emotions of pity and fear. Schopenhauer holds that we delight in the artistic representation of a rejection of a world whose design is necessarily contrary to all human happiness and, in this way, feel the pleasure of the hero's renunciation as if it were our own. Hume posits an associationist theory of emotional response which holds that when two hedonically opposite emotions are simultaneously evoked by the drama, the stronger of the two--and Hume believes this to be our pleasure in the artistic spectacle--will necessarily capture and reverse the strength and direction of the weaker: we essentially feel our pain as pleasure. While ostensibly resolving the paradox, these theories fail to give a comprehensive and convincing account of the tragic emotions. These failures, as recognized by Nietzsche, will become apparent in my discussion of Nietzsche's subsequent attempt to solve the puzzle.
Nietzsche offers two explanations as to why we might enjoy or find pleasure in tragic art. They occur in The Gay Science and Beyond Good and Evil, respectively.
The Greeks liked to hear people speak well.... Even of passion on the stage they demanded that it should speak well, and they endured the unnaturalness of dramatic verse with rapture.... [The Greeks] did everything to counteract the elementary effect of images that might arouse fear and pity--for they did not want fear and pity.... The Athenian went to the theatre in order to hear beautiful speeches.(5) That which constitutes the painful voluptuousness of tragedy is cruelty; that which produces a pleasing effect in so-called tragic pity ... derives its sweetness solely from the ingredient of cruelty mixed in with it.... [W]e must put aside the thick-witted psychology of former times which had to teach of cruelty only that it had its origin in the sight of the sufferings of others: there is also an abundant, over-abundant enjoyment of one's own suffering, of making oneself suffer ...(6)
These two passages, however, prima facie appear to reaffirm the paradox under question: for how can the spectator `not want fear and pity' and at the same time find `enjoyment [in] one's own suffering'? The confusion is cleared when we recognize that (i) Nietzsche is analysing two distinct pleasures, pleasures with distinct intentional objects; and (ii) that neither of these pleasures is the stuff of paradoxes. The first pleasure described, that in beautiful speeches, is simply the Humean pleasure in the artistry, whilst the second, our pleasure in feeling pain, is a second-order response, and as such is not actually a component of the experience of the play but a response to our experience of the play. Neither pleasure can be said to be in the clutches of a paradox. The first is aesthetic pleasure, pleasure in the beautiful. The second does not have the drama as its object: pleasure in experiencing the emotions aroused by tragedy is not pleasure in the tragedy. This pleasure, when appearing as such a second-order response, is not a necessary part of the experience of tragic drama, but an expression of the attitude of the sufferer
to his pain. This expression, while extremely interesting for Nietzsche, and a prelude to his discussion of the value of tragedy, does not exhibit the properties of a philosophical paradox.(7)
Nietzsche's distinctions make us aware that when (and if) we do talk about tragic pleasure, that is, pleasure in the tragic art itself, we are involved in a confusion. This confusion is generated by a failure to distinguish between (i) the feelings (often non-hedonistic) that ensue from the recognition that an experience is valuable and rewarding and (ii) the feelings that ensue from engagement with the quotidian objects of pleasure. Once we heed this distinction, we see how little an account of pleasure figures in an analysis of our experience of tragedy. We are not pleased with the dismemberment of Pentheus or the blinding of Gloucester in the same sense that we are pleased by a delicious meal or a happy wedding. Or (if we must avoid the charge that this merely amounts to a difference between fiction and reality), we are not pleased by Desdemona's death in the same sense that we are pleased with the eventual and deserved union of Tom Jones and Sophia Western. Tragic pleasure is not pleasure that something is the case. In fact we are rarely pleased about anything in the plot of a tragedy. Nietzsche affirms this distinction in The Will to Power where he says that the tragic drama presents `such terrible images to knowledge that "Epicurean delight" is out of the question. Only a Dionysian joy is sufficient'.(8) The explanation of this `Dionysian joy' is the key to Nietzsche's philosophy of tragic drama and will be addressed below. But that which this brief passage highlights is Nietzsche's observation that we may be pleased with the artistry--the beautiful speeches--or the philosophy of human perseverance that informs the characters reactions to their situations, but neither the speeches nor the philosophy would be rewarding or pleasing if they did not in fact move us to pity and fear.(9) Pleasure, in fact, is not at the heart of the philosophical problem of tragic drama, as its existence in the overall experience is derivative at best, and inappropriate at worst.
Moreover, the fear and pity that the Greeks, according to The Gay Science, wished to avoid is not the fear and pity that is welcomed in the passage from Beyond Good and Evil. The Greeks did not want the pessimistic fear of Schopenhauer, or the pity in which `Aristotle ... saw ... a morbid and dangerous condition which one did well to get at from time to time with a purgative',(10) just so that they could find `enjoyment [in] one's own suffering'. But this acknowledgement does not place pleasure at the heart of the tragic response. The `over-abundant enjoyment', the `sweetness', the `voluptuousness' are derived solely from, are supervenient upon, the elements of cruelty that inform the drama and which cause us to suffer. Nietzsche is explicit: there is no pleasure in experiencing the cruelty--this is inherently painful. In watching or reading Medea we are `making [ourselves] suffer'. The Dionysian joy attendant upon this (self-made) suffering is the exhilarating, but non-hedonic, recognition that we can expose ourselves to these ugly truths, learn from them, and live with them. Two important points follow from this. Firstly, of the pleasures that do ensue from the engagement with tragic drama--Epicurean, kathartic, resigned, or masochistic--none are pleasures in the horror of the drama, but are some kind of pleasure in our experience of the drama, in what the drama does to us and for us. Secondly, only one kind of response, Dionysian joy, is really appropriate to, and of a piece with, the very high value we place on the experience of tragic drama, and this value distinguishes Dionysian joy from the hedonic responses. (I will discuss this value in Section III.) Our joy in the experience of tragic drama, expressed succinctly in The Twilight of the Idols, is characterized by
Affirmation of life even in its strangest and sternest problems, the will to life rejoicing in its own inexhaustibility through the sacrifice of its highest types--that is what I call Dionysian.... Not so as to get rid of pity and terror ... but, beyond pity and terror, to realise in oneself the eternal joy of becoming--that joy which also encompasses joy in destruction ...(11)
At this point one, still unconvinced, may ask to what extent Nietzsche's analysis constitutes not a dissolution of the paradox, but a mere evasion of its crux: we feel that the existence of pleasure is the problem, but Nietzsche responds by telling us that the pleasure is not even part of the problem. I maintain that Nietzsche is not ignoring our normal response to represented tragedy, nor is he prescribing another to suit his argument.(12) Pleasure is not an intrinsic part of the experience of tragedy as its existence is dependent either upon the prior painful recognition of certain truths about human existence (which makes the pleasure derivative and hence unproblematic) or upon the artistry of the production (making the pleasure unparadoxical). Even assuming that one does experience pleasure in (represented) tragedy itself--pleasure that is not supervenient upon the pain, we just enjoy watching (represented) people suffer--this would not be a philosophically interesting phenomenon as the occurrence of Schadenfreude (towards represented or real misfortune) can be explained exclusively in psychological terms. The philosophical interest stems entirely from the ascription of value to an experience whose primary and defining component is pain.(13)
Hence, Nietzsche's novel contribution to the tragic pleasure debate is his realization that the debate is in fact wrongly motivated. Aristotle, Schopenhauer, and Hume feel pressed to explain tragic pleasure and in so doing severely restrict the explanatory scope of their theories. The purgation account of katharsis is not available to those who, maintaining an emotional equilibrium in everyday life, do not need to be purged. Schopenhauer's account is only plausible for a certain kind of tragic drama and spectator: a drama where the hero possesses a spirit of resignation, and a spectator who, valuing such resignation, delights in its positive reinforcement in the drama. Hume refuses to acknowledge that there is any pain at all in the experience of a disturbing tragedy,(14) making his account unhelpful to those who do suffer in the theatre from feelings of pity and fear, but would like an account of why they continue to attend such performances nevertheless. Each of these theories assumes that an account of tragedy must provide an explanation of the pleasure. But their explanations account only for some of the reasons why some of us may gain pleasure from a tragic drama. But emphasizing the element of pleasure is on the one hand misleading, as the concept of pleasure in this instance suffers from an ambiguity, and, on the other hand counterproductive, as it essentially fuels a false paradox.
If Nietzsche's explanation is correct, his dissolution of the paradox of tragic pleasure only makes more urgent the need for an explanation of why we seek out and celebrate artistic portrayals of gruesome human demise. For without the expectation of pleasure in the art, and without the guarantee that we are the kind of human being who can experience such knowledge without falling into despair, we are left wondering why any reasonable, emotionally well-adjusted person, living in a world whose reality is plagued by the real thing, would freely choose to subject himself to a fictional experience of suffering and cruelty and all of the painful emotions such an experience involves. The real paradox of tragedy does not involve why we are pleased with a production of Hamlet, but indeed why we seek out, why we value the experience that it provides.
III. THE VALUE OF THE TRAGIC EMOTIONS
Accordingly, Nietzsche's interest in tragic drama does not end with an explanation of the nature of the tragic emotions. As ever, he is concerned with the value that the experience of such emotions holds, primarily because he feels that the kind of experience that tragic drama offers involves a particular combination of insight and response that is not epoch- or culture-relative. Nietzsche thinks that it is important for any human being to understand fully the tragic underpinnings of his existence, and to live as if these underpinnings were necessary to his complete and welcomed life. It is with this attitude that cultures prosper. It is in the discussion of the value of tragic emotions that Nietzsche introduces the opposition between the Christian or Schopenhauerian responses to misfortune and that of the Greeks, and argues that the nature and value of the tragic response are intimately related. Not just any tragic response is intrinsically valuable. A guilt-ridden Christian or a resigned Schopenhauerian response is not valuable to life; and if it were protested that indeed many have such reactions nonetheless, Nietzsche would just reply that the responses that these spectators were having were not responses to the tragedy in the drama, but responses motivated by, and in line with, a mistaken world view.
Nietzsche's argument is as follows:
... it appears that, broadly speaking, a preference for questionable and terrifying things is a symptom of strength.... It is the heroic spirits who say Yes to themselves in tragic cruelty: they are hard enough to experience suffering as a pleasure. It is a sign of one's feeling of power and well-being how far one can acknowledge the terrifying and questionable character of things; and whether one needs some sort of `solution' at the end. The type of artist's pessimism is precisely the opposite of that religio-moral pessimism that suffers from the `corruption' of man and the riddle of existence--and by all means craves a solution, or at least a hope for a solution.... The profundity of the tragic artist lies in this, that his aesthetic instinct surveys the more remote consequences, that he does not halt short-sightedly at what is closest at hand, that he affirms the large-scale economy which justifies the terrifying, the evil, the questionable--and more than merely justifies them.(15)
Is Nietzsche guilty, however, of the crime he attributes to the pusillanimous? Does the value of tragic art stem merely from the fact that it is the kind of art that the strong desire, create, and find rewarding? It appears so. The only escape for Nietzsche is to demonstrate that his values are indeed more valuable than the mistaken values of other philosophies. He must persuade us to admire his tragic spectator rather than Schopenhauer's. Nietzsche must independently demonstrate the value of his nobly strong ideal before he can make claims that tragic art reinforces this ideal. This demonstration is the project of On the Genealogy of Morals, but we can locate a defence, or at least part of a defence, within his discussions of tragedy alone. A quality of the strong or tragic man, and a necessary condition of the tragic experience as Nietzsche sees it, is an adroit perspicacity regarding the conditions of one's existence. Knowledge of this kind is valuable. This is disputed by neither Schopenhauerian, Aristotelian, nor Christian philosophy. The value that Nietzsche recognizes in his tragic response is that of an informed knowledge of the world--the knowledge being that there is no solution to, or way out of, earthly tragedy. Both Christianity and Schopenhauer, for their own reasons, desperately search for palliative solutions, which, given the nature of the problem, can only be located supernaturally. But, as such, their solutions involve a fundamental self-devaluation and self-negation, and hence cannot be intrinsically valuable to the subject. Nietzsche, in this way, has independently justified his `value feelings' and vindicated his interpretation of the experience of tragedy.
But this still has not resolved the question of the value we place on tragic knowledge communicated by fiction as opposed to that communicated, in an entirely sufficient dosage, by reality. Nietzsche's answer is simple and is located in The Gay Science ([sections] 80):
We have developed a need that we cannot satisfy in reality: to hear people in the most difficult situations speak well and at length; we are delighted when the tragic hero still finds words, reasons, eloquent gestures, and altogether intellectual brightness, where life approaches abysses and men in reality usually lose their heads and certainly linguistic felicity ...
Tragic drama is a valuable educative tool because it offers us not only a knowledge of suffering or a knowledge that suffering exists--for the newspapers do this well enough--but a knowledge, stunningly precise, clear, and articulated, of what it is like to suffer.(16) This idea also protects Nietzsche from any charges of vulgar aestheticism. Nietzsche does not believe that violent reality is in any way placated or excused by violent artistic representations, nor does he hold the absurd position that art can render the ugliness of reality beautiful: matricide, violent jealousy, or the false values of everyday society are not made acceptable because they pervade the content of high art. Nor is the reason why we value such treasures as the Oresteia trilogy, Othello, or Death of a Salesman because their beauty cancels out or makes up for all of the ugliness of reality. It is rather that the ways in which Orestes, Othello, and the Loman family approach the tragic underpinnings of their existence force us to examine the nature of our approach to the cruelty of life. Nietzsche's world view, his understanding that there are no moral or rational explanations for the earthly misfortune that is great and constant, is not pessimistic or dark. The members of his ideal culture are all marked by their ability to elicit from the artistic representation of tragedy an understanding of the contingency of their lives that is not coloured by remorse, resignation, or decline. Nietzsche's ideal response is, of course, not one of Schadenfreude; we are not urged to respond to senseless disasters with glee. But we are also not to ignore them or pretend that they exist because a higher being has so planned it as our punishment or trial. The paradigmatic spectator/human being does not welcome particular pain but the fact that there must necessarily be pain in human life. What we learn when we experience tragic drama is a way to acknowledge misfortune within the boundaries of our human capabilities. And in turn it is these capabilities that Nietzsche feels are enhanced by representations of tragic situations.
In conclusion I must briefly address an issue that could potentially inhibit acceptance of Nietzsche's philosophy of tragedy. Does Nietzsche, in his characterization of the experience according to which we value the art of tragic drama, assign to the art a merely instrumental value? If we value the art form in virtue of the kind of experience that it offers (in this case, the acquisition of a heightened and privileged insight into the workings and expressions of human suffering), are we not then depriving it of, or at least failing to locate, an artistic value? If Nietzsche finds in tragic drama only cognitive value, doesn't he malign the artistic element somewhat as does the purgation theory of Aristotle's katharsis, which locates the value of tragedy purely in its therapeutic effects? In order to release Nietzsche from this dilemma we must bear in mind an important trichotomy: there is a meaningful difference between (i) an `art for art's sake' approach to value, (ii) the belief that art should be valued purely on the basis of its consequences or after-effects, and (iii) the idea that if a work is experienced with understanding, artistic value just is the intrinsic value of the experience that the work of art provides.(17)
Nietzsche expresses his antagonism towards the first member of the trichotomy in The Twilight of the Idols (`Expeditions of an Untimely Man,' [sections] 24):
When one has excluded from art the purpose of moral preaching and human improvement it by no means follows that art is completely purposeless, goalless, meaningless, in short l'art pour l'art ... [W]hat does all art do? does it not praise? does it not glorify? does it not select? does it not highlight? ... Art is the great stimulus of life: how could it be thought purposeless, aimless, l'art pour l'art?
But his disapproval of the straightforward consequentialist interpretation of the value of art is equally trenchant. In opposition to his `strong' ideal, he notices that:
... the art of the terrifying, in so far as it excites the nerves, can be esteemed by the weak and exhausted as a stimulus ... (The Will to Power, [sections] 852)
This estimation, a product of weakness, advocates the use of art as an emotional springboard. Nietzsche's ideal spectator `can acknowledge the terrible and questionable character of things' without the subsequent need of `some sort of "solution" at the end' (ibid.), without a dramatic or personal resolution or satisfaction.
The third limb of the trichotomy is the account that Nietzsche's theory of tragedy embodies. The tragic wisdom that we gain from witnessing the disturbing transformation of Othello is an intrinsic feature or aspect of the artistic experience; experiencing Shakespeare's Othello just is understanding the ruinous effect of jealousy on human lives. If we then, supervenient upon this experience, happen to undergo a kathartic release of debilitating emotions, or experience a self-satisfaction in countenancing such a travesty and having such a sympathetic response, or delight in the lucid and insightful delivery of tragic verse, these after-effects--in themselves reasons we may value the play--are irrelevant to the artistic value of the tragic drama.(18)
(1) Aristotle, Poetics, trans. Stephen Halliwell (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1987), chs 6 and 14.
(2) See Arthur Schopenhauer, The World as Will and Representation, trans. E. F. J Payne (New York: Dover, 1969), vol. I, [sections] 51, and vol. II, [sections] 37.
(3) See David Hume, `Of Tragedy', Essays: Moral, Political and Literary (Oxford: Oxford U.P., 1963).
(4) And Nietzsche believes this to be the correct interpretation. See Malcolm Budd, Values of Art: Pictures, Poetry and Music (London: Allen Lane, The Penguin Press, 1995), p. 110, n. 43.
(5) F.W. Nietzsche, The Gay Science, trans. Walter Kaufmann (New York: Vintage Books, 1974), [sections] 80.
(6) F.W. Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil, trans. R. J. Hollingdale (London: Penguin Books, 1990), [sections] 229.
(7) In her well-known paper `The Pleasures of Tragedy', American Philosophical Quarterly, vol. 20 (1983), pp. 95-104, Susan L. Feagin offers a similar account in term of `meta-response'. But whereas Nietzsche's spectator in Beyond Good and Evil derives pleasure from feeling pain, Feagin's derives pleasure from being the kind of person who can feel pain. Malcolm Budd, Values of Art, pp. 117-118, esp. n. 57, recognizes that these pleasures, being responses to our feelings and not to the tragedy, are not essential to the nature of tragedy or its intrinsic value. Notice how, in their respective attempts to make the tragic pleasure non-paradoxical, Aristotle, Hume and Schopenhauer also construe it as a meta-response. I will argue that Nietzsche's non-hedonic notion of `Dionysian joy' is different in important respects from these second-order pleasurable responses.
(8) [sections] 1029, trans. Walter Kaufmann and R. J. Hollingdale (New York: Vintage Books, 1968).
(9) Cf. Flint Schier, `The Claims of Tragedy', Philosophical Papers, vol. XVIII (1989) no. 1, p. 19, who also notices that our admiration of the artistry of a tragic performance is dependent upon that artistry moving us to fear and pity: `We don't admire [Schofield's performance of Lear] simply because it possesses merits that we would appreciate even if it failed to move us. On the contrary, our admiration for Schofield's diction would hardly move us to admire his performance if that performance did not move us to pity and fear.'
(10) F. W. Nietzsche, Twilight of the Idols/The Antichrist, trans. R. J. Hollingdale (London: Penguin Books, 1990), [sections] 7 of The Antichrist. See also Aristotle, Politics, trans. T. A. Sinclair (London: Penguin Books, 1981), Book 8, vii.
(11) Nietzsche, Twilight of the Idols, `What I Owe to the Ancients', [sections] 5. See also Twilight of the Idols, `Expeditions of an Untimely Man', [sections] 10; The Will to Power, [sections] 853, iii; and The Gay Science, [sections] 1.
(12) Even if it could be argued that Nietzsche's ideal response of `Dionysian joy' is one had only by the higher type of person he finds so valuable, he still shows that any `pleasure' of tragedy is not only philosophically unproblematic but also irrelevant to why we value the experience as we do.
(13) Nietzsche's theory of Dionysian joy renders unstable an interpretation of Nietzsche's philosophy of tragedy considered by Christopher Williams in a recent article (`Is Tragedy Paradoxical?', British Journal of Aesthetics, vol. 38 , no. 1). Referring to a passage in Thus Spoke Zarathustra (`The Convalescent') where Zarathustra says that man feels his best and is in his heaven-on-earth at tragedies, bullfights, crucifixions, and in self-created hells, Williams wonders if Nietzsche just believes man to be a creature of `fairly feral tastes' (p. 60). This `gloss' (p. 60) would indeed render any pleasure derived from tragedy unproblematic. But this gloss is not Nietzsche. Firstly, the passage from Zarathustra makes a value-laden distinction between great men and little men; and secondly, Nietzsche makes it perfectly clear that the responses of pleasure experienced by the little men are not responses to the tragedy at all (for they are not strong enough to deal with that) but degraded responses: `Man is the cruellest animal towards himself; and with all who call themselves "sinners" and "bearers of the cross" and "penitents" do not overlook the sensual pleasure that is in this complaint and accusation!' Williams claims that it is unclear to him `whether this remark [about man enjoying tragedies, etc.] is inconsistent with Nietzsche's view in The Birth of Tragedy' (p. 60, n. 17). But if, as I take it to be, the very point of The Birth is to lay bare the distinction between the weak (nineteenth-century bourgeois) and the strong (Greek, Wagnerian) approach to the creation of and reaction to tragic art, this passage from Zarathustra, apart from underscoring what the weak approach is, serves to reaffirm the consistency which characterizes Nietzsche's views on this matter. (I expand upon these thoughts in Section III.)
(14) Although the tragic pleasure retains `all the features and outward symptoms of distress and sorrow', i.e. `tears, sobs, cries' (Hume, `Of Tragedy', p. 221) it lacks the unpleasantness that such distress and sorrow intrinsically possess when experienced towards real-life tragedy, the unpleasantness having been captured and reversed by the stronger pleasure we take in the artistic representation.
(15) Nietzsche, The Will to Power, [sections] 852. See also The Will to Power, [sections] 851 and F. W. Nietzsche, Human, all too Human, trans. R.J. Hollingdale (Cambridge: Cambridge U.P., 1986), [sections] 212.
(16) See Schier, `The Claims of Tragedy', p. 23.
(17) See Budd, Values of Art, p. 5.
(18) I am grateful to Professor Malcolm Budd for supervision in this area. This paper has benefited from valuable suggestions by Professor Peter Lamarque and by a referee for this journal.
Amy Price, 3 Sydenham Terrace, Cambridge CB4 3PZ, UK.