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The birth of a tragic literary and philosophical life
on 26 May 2014
This is a fine translation of a book that seems to be largely overlooked in studies of Nietzsche these days. After 1880 Nietzsche did the majority of the work for which he is best known but this, his first book, is well worth reading.
The Nietzsche who wrote this short book was a 26 year old classicist who had decided to major in classical philology but who had also experienced the Franco Prussian war as a medical orderly and been invalided out after a bout of dysentery. One has to concede that Nietzsche was from the outset not a conventional classical philologist. Indeed from a classicist's point of view and from that of the philologist this is a weird book. Ostensibly Nietzsche is seeking to explore and explain the origins of classical Greek drama.Nietzsche does this by seeking to identify Apollonian and Dionysian aspects to Greek culture and to place them in opposition. The main part of the book is then a development of these ideas in parallel and in opposition.
One key aspect of the book is that it is only partly about the origins of Greek classical drama. It is at least as much about the possibility of a regeneration of great art through the spirit of music and specifically the music of Richard Wagner. A few short years later Nietzsche would turn on Wagner and also on Schopenhauer but in this book the young Nietzsche is still the ardent disciple of both.
Nietzsche here is already the strident voice he will become in the 1880s. It is just that he is strident in the service of ideas which are not yet fully fledged Nietzschean ideas. Here he is towards then end of the book, "Music and tragic myth are equal expressions of the Dionysian capacity of a people and are inseparable from one another. Both stem originally from an artistic domain which lies beyond the Apollonian."
One interesting aspect of the book is that while there is much reasonably sober exposition there are plenty of moments when Nietzsche launches into " passages of lyrical evocation, moral exhortation and disdainful invective". (this last quotation from Douglas Smith's excellent introduction to the book). It was this latter side of his style that Nietzsche went on to develop. He is never a convincing reasoner in a conventional philosophical sense (even here) but he is more convincing in this book than anywhere else in his work because his tone here is less hectoring and, let's face it when we reach the very last works, less borderline hysterical. Those last comments may seem unfair but Nietzsche is a thinker I left behind when I was about 25 but I do still recognise that his thought has an appeal and was certainly very influential in some areas of 20th century thought.
The book does contain Nietzsche's own introduction to the 1886 2nd edition in which the older Nietzsche explains his changes of mind in a ten page "attempt at self criticism"
There is an excellent introductory essay by Douglas Smith and his notes on the text are thorough, clear and very useful.
I have read a couple of other translations of this book and this is the one I strongly recommend.