The Tragic Life

Epic            -          Tragedy
Apollo        -          Dionysus
Inflate         -          Deflate
Complete    -          Lacking

The problem-solving fundamentalism of the Optimiser is a denial of the Tragic Life, because it is not willing to accept that difficulties - darkness, loss, misery and death - are all necessary parts of life.

Tragedy confronts the heroic will with its limitations and compels it to acknowledge its inherent vulnerability. Infinity is bounded.

If all heroism is, at root, a revolt against feminine nature, then 'heroic femininity' becomes self-defeating.

Tragedy springs from opposition, not collaboration; from excess, not moderation. Having struck a deal with nature - all things in good measure - traditional cultures had no sense of tragedy.

“The true goal is veiled by a phantasm: and while we stretch out our hands for the latter, nature attains the former by means of an illusion.”

This mechanism, Nietzsche had argued, could be observed in the functioning of tragedy itself. Too much (“Dionysian”) insight into the reality of life leads to despair and inaction: “Knowledge kills action; action requires the veils of illusion: that is the doctrine of Hamlet.” 

The action of tragedy shows the most powerful individuals trying, and failing, to have an effect on the “eternal nature of things.”

But juxtaposed with this most powerful representation of the vanity of all effort is the tragic chorus, assuring its spectators that even in their efforts to change nature, the tragic heroes, like those spectators themselves, are its products and elements, and the realisation that one is a part of everything that lives makes life “indestructibly powerful and pleasurable” and therefore worth living after all.

A main reason for Nietzsche’s continuing admiration of the Greeks is what he takes as their ability to exploit mechanisms of this sort. Having glimpsed the truth, personified in The Gay Science as Baubo, they were, according to his unsettling view, revolted by it. Accordingly they turned away from its pursuit. They made the preliminary stages of its conquest their final purpose: “Oh, those Greeks! They knew how to live. What is required for this is to stop courageously at the surface, the fold, the skin, to adore appearance, to believe in forms, tones, word, in the whole Olympus of appearance. Those Greeks were superficial - out of profundity.”

[Alexander Nehamas]
Nietzsche: Life as Literature, p. 119

Nietzsche seems to have believed that there are some ultimate facts, some noninterpretive truths, concerning the real nature of the world. But he denied that these facts could ever correctly be stated through reason, language, and science.

Yet he also believed […] that tragedy, primarily through the musically inspired, “Dionysian” chorus, can intimate the final truth that the ultimate nature of the world is to have no orderly structure: in itself the world is chaos, with no laws, no reason, and no purpose.

Tragedy gives a non discursive glimpse of the contrast between “the real truth of nature and the lie of culture that poses as if it were the only reality,” a contrast that “is similar to that between the eternal core of things, the thing-in-itself, and the whole world of appearances.” It shows that the orderly, apparently purposeful world within which we live is a creation we have placed between ourselves and the real world, which pursues its own course without any regard for our views, and our desires.

But what makes tragedy even more remarkable in Nietzsche’s eyes is that in the very process of revealing this painful truth, it offers a consolation for the negative and desperate reaction this is bound to generate. It shows that ultimately we are not different from the rest of nature, that we are part and parcel of it, and belong totally to it. 

It leaves its audience, which at least for a moment ceases to regard itself as separate from the rest of the world, with the “metaphysical comfort … that life is at the bottom of things, despite all the changes of appearance, indestructibly powerful and pleasurable,” and that its blind, purposeless, constant ebb and flow is to be admired and celebrated.

[Alexander Nehamas]
Nietzsche: Life as Literature, p. 42-3

A Blackfoot Elder said that the white race is the youngest race. It has great energy and potential, but, for the past few thousand years it has been playing like a child while it is watched by the black, yellow, and red peoples.

Now the time has come for the white race to begin to learn, and assume its responsibilities along with the three other colors in the world.

As we Western thinkers listen and learn, we will begin to understand the achievements of Native American societies and acknowledge their worldviews as viable alternatives to our currently dominant industrial worldview.

[F. David Peat]
Blackfoot Physics, p.311

Friedman’s mission, like Cameron’s, rested on a dream of reaching back to a state of ‘natural’ health, when all was in balance, before human interferences created distorting patters.

[Naomi Klein]
The Shock Doctrine, p.44

The Social Contract (1762) begins: “Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains.” Pitting benign Romantic nature against corrupt society, Rousseau produced the progressivist strain in nineteenth-century culture, for which social reform was the means to achieve paradise on earth.

The bubble of these hopes was burst by the catastrophes of two world wars. But Rousseauism was reborn in the postwar generation of the Sixties, from which contemporary feminism developed.

Rousseau rejects original sin, Christianity’s pessimistic view of man born unclean, with a propensity for evil. Rousseau’s idea, derived from Locke, of man’s innate goodness led to social environmentalism, now the dominant ethic of American human services, penal codes, and behaviorist therapies. It assumes that aggression, violence, and crime come from social deprivation—a poor neighborhood, a bad home.

Thus feminism blames rape on pornography and, by a smug circularity of reasoning, interprets outbreaks of sadism as a backlash to itself. But rape and sadism have been evident throughout history and, at some moment, in all cultures.

[Camille Paglia]
Sexual Personae, p.2

Our focus on the pretty is an Apollonian strategy. The leaves and flowers, the birds, the hills are a patchwork pattern by which we map the known. What the west represses in its view of nature is the chthonian, which means “of the earth”—but earth’s bowels, not its surface.

Jane Harrison uses the term for pre-Olympian Greek religion, and I adopt it as a substitute for Dionysian, which has become contaminated with vulgar pleasantries. The Dionysian is no picnic. It is the chthonian realities which Apollo evades, the blind grinding of subterranean force, the long slow suck, the murk and ooze. It is the dehumanizing brutality of biology and geology, the Darwinian waste and bloodshed, the squalor and rot we must block from consciousness to retain our Apollonian integrity as persons. Western science and aesthetics are attempts to revise this horror into imaginatively palatable form.

The daemonism of chthonian nature is the west’s dirty secret. Modern humanists made the “tragic sense of life” the touchstone of mature understanding. They defined man’s mortality and the transience of time as literature’s supreme subjects. In this I again see evasion and even sentimentality.

The tragic sense of life is a partial response to experience. It is a reflex of the west’s resistance to and misapprehension of nature, compounded by the errors of liberalism, which in its Romantic naturephilosophy has followed the Rousseauist Wordsworth rather than the daemonic Coleridge.

[Camille Paglia]
Sexual Personae, p.5-6

Aristotle's belief in the unity of the virtues is one of the few parts of his moral philosophy which he inherits directly from Plato. As with Plato, the belief is one aspect of an hostility to and denial of conflict either within the life of the individual good man or in that of the good city.

Both Plato and Aristotle treat conflict as an evil and Aristotle treats it as an eliminable evil.

The virtues are all in harmony with each other and the harmony of individual character is reproduced in the harmony of the state. Civil war is the worst of evils. For Aristotle, as for Plato, the good life for man is itself single and unitary, compounded of a hierarchy of goods.

It follows that conflict is simply the result either of flaws of character in individuals or of unintelligent political arrangements.

This has consequences not only for Aristotle's politics, but also for his poetics and even his theory of knowledge. In all three the agon has been displaced from its Homeric centrality. Just as conflict is not central to a city's life, but is reduced to a threat to that life, so tragedy as understood by Aristotle cannot come near the Homeric insight that tragic conflict is the essential human condition - the tragic hero on Aristotle's view fails because of his own flaw, not because the human situation is sometimes irremediably tragic - and dialectic is no longer the road to truth, but for the most part only a semi-formal procedure ancillary to enquiry.

[...] there is a certain tension between Aristotle's view of man as essentially political and his view of man as essentially metaphysical.

[Alasdair MacIntyre]
After Virtue, p.184

Consider in this light Aquinas' claim that if we encounter genuine moral conflict, it is always because of some previous wrong action of our own.

Clearly this is one source of conflict. But will it cover Antigone and Creon, Odysseus and Philoctetes, or even Oedipus? Will it cover Henry Il and Thomas Becket? For [...] each of these conflicts could as genuinely be within a single individual as between individuals.

Aquinas' point of view, like Aristotle's, precludes tragedy that is not the outcome of human flaws, of sin and error. And, unlike Aristotle, this is the outcome of a theology which holds that the world and man were made good and are only flawed as the result of acts of human will.

[Alasdair MacIntyre]
After Virtue, p.208-9

The United States has, in these fortuitous conditions, become a society which today by a powerful optimistic alchemy transforms the prophetic pessimism of Judaism, and the injunctions of asceticism, humility, and self-sacrificing charity of Christianity, into the sentimental and vulgar consolations of a bourgeoise […]

Such phenomena […] are integrally related to an American international politics that assumes the possibility - indeed, the proximate possibility - of a fundamental reform of the institutions and behaviour of mankind at large. They are evidences of the continuing, and (as yet) invincible, isolation of American civilisation from the major experiences of Western history and modern politics.

They evidence the American national isolation from, or, more deeply, the American suppression of, the perception of human tragedy and desolation, or irrationality and perversity.

[Edmund Stillman & William Pfaff]
The Politics of Hysteria

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