Tragic, All Too Tragic: Towards a New Understanding of Tragedy
Havi Carel Department of Philosophy University of York
In The Birth of Tragedy Nietzsche sets two options before his reader: either to live an illusion or to die. Choosing the illusion of temporary reconciliation between Apollo and Dionysus as expressed in tragedy, which the early Nietzsche valued so highly, is the choice to continue living despite the fact that the only things that are guaranteed in human existence are horror and disintegration. Although tragic myth is Schein, an illusion, it is a life-affirming one and is therefore valuable, for it is the capacity for the Dionysiac that measures the vitality of a people. Tragedy (and music) “‘justify by their play the existence of even the ‘worst of all worlds’”, and hence make living worthwhile, even in a terrible world.
But does this argument still hold today? Or are we already living in a tragic culture, without consciously celebrating the Dionysiac in any political, religious or social form? Do we nonetheless exist within a tragic reality, a reality that begins and ends in disappointment, radical insecurity and alienation? And is this reality’s only justification an aesthetic one, as Nietzsche claims?
This paper argues that tragedy can take a mundane form, that although far removed from Nietzsche’s Romantic appeal to Greek tragedy, is nonetheless tragic. Through Freud’s secular and thoroughly disenchanted view of reality and of human existence (as expressed in “Mourning and Melancholia” and “On Transience”) I would like to reread Nietzsche’s view of tragedy, and offer an understanding of the tragic as an everyday experience. This understanding begins with Freud’s view of life as a route of disappointment and loss, as a life-long process of learning mourning. In mourning one learns to lose without ceasing to exist; to lose an object without losing oneself. In this sense there is strength in sorrow, self-knowledge acquired through pathos. The capacity to mourn is also the capacity to carry on, and is therefore a source of strength, life-affirming as much as the Dionysiac experience is, according to Nietzsche.
The mundane notion of the tragic has affinities with the Classical form of Attic tragedy, the focus of Nietzshce’s study. I will explore these affinities in order to offer a view of the tragic that shifts away from the dramatic events of Homeric heroes, towards a mundane micro-tragedy. Mourning, death and fallibility, the senselessness of desire and the uncontrollable force of the unconscious control us in the same sense that fate controlled Oedipus. The inability to control our fate and the sense in which we are nonetheless morally responsible for our vicissitudes, create a reality that cannot be tolerated as such. This modern reality has, as a response, proliferated into countless forms of aesthetic justification, from the hedonism of pop culture to minimalist art pointing towards the nothing and annihilation and Beckett’s expression of its absurdity. This paper argues that all of these elements are consistent with Nietzsche’s understanding of tragedy and therefore introduce an aesthetic dimension into the everyday experience of the tragic.
Moreover, the Freudian understanding of conflict as a human condition harks back to Hegel’s view of the tragic as a process of conflict and reconciliation, which preserves its tragic element. The paper will end by arguing that conflict, a concept central to all three thinkers’ views, is the essence of tragedy, tying its metaphysical aspects with the aesthetic affect of the conflict between Apollo and Dionysus.