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Douglas Burnham and Martin Jesinghausen, Nietzsche’s "The Birth of Tragedy": A Reader’s Guide

London and New York: Continuum International Publishing, 2010. vi + 196 pp. ISBN. 978-1-84706-585-8. $24.95 (paper).

Reviewed by Willow Verkerk

In this detailed reader’s guide to The Birth of Tragedy, authors Burnham and Jesinghausen explain that their exegetical study of BT is to be read beside Nietzsche’s text. Their systematic analysis of BT proceeds section by section, interjecting notes when they deem it necessary to pay attention to a thinker of influence, a particular concept of relevance, or a problem in Nietzsche’s work. One of the greatest strengths of the text is the historical and philosophical contextualization of Nietzsche’s thought. Aimed towards undergraduate students, this guide allows for BT to become more accessible to the reader through the comparison of Nietzsche to other thinkers and strong analysis of the central themes at work in Nietzsche’s text.

At the start of the guide, the authors explain how Nietzsche’s difficult relationship with Wagner, as well as his self-critical attitude, contributed to the 1886 addition to BT of “An Attempt at Self-Criticism”. Their suggestion that the body of the text should be read first and the “Attempt” later is a good recommendation for first time readers because the “Attempt” undermines BT. This is especially the case for those interested in Nietzsche’s early philosophy of art and aesthetics.

In order to explain Nietzsche’s central contention that art is an expression of natural drives that are in turn fundamental to the experience of being human, the authors turn to Schiller’s anthropological aesthetics and German Idealism more generally. They state that Nietzsche’s use of the term 'Schein' to describe Apollo has a particular history in this tradition that is often lost in English translation and is important for understanding fully what the power of the Apolline represents in BT. The authors explain that in Schiller’s aesthetics Schein always implies Sein because art is explained by Schiller as a beautiful appearance of being (40). They state that this is similar to Nietzsche’s conception of the Apolline in that its presence also suggests that of the Dionysiac. As Burnham and Jesinghausen point out, in BT, the individuating power of appearance of the Apolline allows for the raw nature of the Dionysiac, which is originally one, das Ureine, to be symbolized and made accessible to the human being. By tracing the activities of the Apolline and Dionysiac in cultural history, Nietzsche examines how metaphysics is manifested in culture and art.

In section 3 of BT, Nietzsche begins to “dismantle” the cultural history of the Apolline and, in doing so, exhibits the genealogical method that becomes central to his philosophical style as a critic of culture. The authors claim that Nietzsche’s genealogical analysis of tragedy works to undermine the idealism of German Hellenism by examining the historical and psychological factors that allowed Greek tragedy to first be possible. By asking, for example, where Greek serenity came from, Nietzsche exposes how such admirable states came out of a subconscious need for a more fundamental protection from madness and universal suffering.

Burnham and Jesinghausen explain that when Nietzsche introduces the rather obscure figure of Archilochus in section 5 of BT and raises him above Homer, he not only challenges the classical views of philologists, but also provides a historical description of the tragic artist type with a new status of appearance (Schein) and being (Sein). In Archilochus, the lyrical poet-artist, “being corresponds symbolically with appearance” because Archilochus is able to both enact and observe the artistic phenomena, to glimpse into das Ureine and live to tell a story about the journey. The authors state that this account explains Nietzsche’s metaphysics of art in BT and his strong claim, in both sections 5 and 24, that “only as an aesthetic phenomenon is existence and the world eternally justified” (65).

During Nietzsche’s analysis of the chorus as the central element of tragedy, Burnham and Jesinghausen turn our attention to a problem of translating the term “aufheben,” a problem that they propose is related to the fact that it is a key term for Hegel. They note that in the Cambridge edition of BT a number of words, including “absorbed,” “elevated,” and “extinguished,” are used to explain what is understood in Hegel as “sublation.” Whereas in Hegel the conception of aufheben is used to explain how conflict between two negating concepts can be transcended through a synthesis, in Nietzsche the term takes on another purpose. The authors claim that, like Wagner, Nietzsche uses the term in a provocative fashion, namely to challenge the Hegelian notion that there is some movement towards logical synthesis. The meaning of “aufheben” for Nietzsche is one that adds to his genealogical conceptualization of the Dionysiac and Apolline. For Nietzsche, art (as well as history and culture) is ruled by the principle of permanent differentiation rather than synthesis (72).

The authors point to section 13 as the major pivotal center of BT.  It is literally at the center of the book, but also the moment at which Nietzsche’s role as critic shifts from philological analysis of antiquity to cultural critique of modernity (93). After naming Euripides as the figure who was at the center of the death of tragedy, Nietzsche links Socrates to him as the second spectator who provides non-Dionysiac ideals from which Euripides shapes his new tragedy. Thus, Socrates is introduced as the instigator of new values in which beauty and reasonableness are linked and consciousness is raised above the instincts. Burnham and Jesinghausen explain that the underlying value of consciousness over instinct is at the foundation of the “neurosis of modern culture” (96) for Nietzsche and it is this theme that permeates Nietzsche’s more nuanced critique of modernity in sections 14 to 25 (97). 

During their discussion of sections 19, 21 and 22, Burnham and Jesinghausen describe what Nietzsche means by “the rebirth of tragedy.” Although the same Apolline and Dionysiac underlying drives will be at work in the new tragedy, their activity will occur in a new cultural-historical form specific to Germany and post-modernity (129). What allows for Nietzsche’s vision to remain particularly unique, even in light of his overly enthusiastic praise of Wagner and Schopenhauer (as well as modeling his own ideas on them), is his radical dismissal of “pure or absolute states” in favor of conflict and interplay (133). The authors explain that Nietzsche’s new musical aesthetics is formed by taking the elements of tragedy discussed in the first half of the book, as myth, and joining them with Schopenhauer’s treatment of music. The aesthetic listener or spectator no longer finds solace in the Apolline semblance, but instead recognizes its limits. When the spectator is brought to his limits of sense perception during the experience of musical tragedy in which myth and music come together, he gains a new symbolic understanding of the “inner nature of things”(151).

This is an important and much needed text for English speaking Nietzsche readers, and in particular, for students of philosophy. Burnham and Jesinghausen allow for a text that Nietzsche himself called inaccessible and deeply personal to become accessible. Perhaps, one limitation is the breadth of the comparisons made between Nietzsche and other thinkers. The authors point to three groups or types of influences: The first, which Nietzsche “absorbs” as part of the cultural and academic climate of his time; the second, which he knowingly adopts but does not acknowledge; the third, which he names in the text itself. These first two groups are speculative and the authors make some exploratory claims about who Nietzsche likely read (see, for example, note 4 on p.5). They also call Hegel “the unacknowledged bête noire” of BT, but do not provide sufficient evidence for why they believe this to be so (7).

Although it is interesting to learn about who may have influenced Nietzsche, the authors often fail to substantiate these claims and even admit that other scholars have maintained Nietzsche neither read nor accorded much relevance to them. For this reason the continuing references throughout the book regarding the similarities between Nietzsche and other thinkers is not always convincing and seems to lack historical accuracy. One of the advantages of this process, however, is that the authors do explain how Nietzsche’s treatments of similar concepts differ: this is particularly helpful for students who have read one (or more) of the thinkers mentioned by the authors before reading Nietzsche and are inclined to read him through that lens. In doing so, it may help to prevent misinterpretation while also making Nietzsche’s ideas more graspable.

This book is part of a series of reader’s guides from Continuum aimed towards undergraduate students and does accomplish what it sets out to do, namely to be a comprehensive, yet detailed reader’s guide to BT. In addition to explaining the literal meaning of each section of BT, the authors spend considerable time discussing the methodology at work behind each section, as well as connecting many of the key themes at work to other German thinkers. This is a useful text to be read alongside BT in the context of a seminar on BT, for any student new to the book, as well as those familiar with the text aiming to strengthen or challenge their understanding.

University of Leuven