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Below is an excerpt of Birth of Tragedy by Friedrich Nietzsche as translated by Ian Johnston. To preview the book in pdf format, you can do so via our "Preview This Book" page here.

Friedrich Nietzsche

The Birth of Tragedy

An Attempt at Self‑Criticism[1]

 

Whatever might have been be the basis for this dubious book, it must have been a question of the utmost importance and charm, as well as a deeply personal one at the timetestimony to that effect is the period in which it arose, in spite of which it arose, that disturbing era of the Franco‑Prussian war of 1870‑71.While the thunderclap of the Battle of Wrth was reverberating across Europe, the meditative lover of enigmas whose lot it was to father this book sat somewhere in a corner of the Alps, extremely reflective and perplexed, thus simultaneously very distressed and carefree, and wrote down his thoughts about the Greeksthe kernel of that odd and difficult book to which this later preface (or postscript) should be dedicated.[2] A few weeks after that, he found himself under the walls of Metz, still not yet free of the question mark which he had set down beside the alleged serenity of the Greeks and of Greek culture, until, in that month of the deepest tension, as peace was being negotiated in Versailles, he finally came to peace with himself and, while slowly recovering from an illness he had brought back home with him from the field, finished composing the Birth of Tragedy out of the Spirit of Music.[3]From music? Music and tragedy? The Greeks and the Music of Tragedy? The Greeks and the art work of pessimism? The most successful, most beautiful, most envied people, those with the most encouraging style of life so farthe Greeks? How can this be? Did they of all people need tragedy? Even moreart? What forGreek art?

One can guess from all this just where the great question mark about the worth of existence was placed. Is pessimism necessarily the sign of collapse, destruction, of disaster, of the exhausted and enfeebled instinctsas it was with the Indians, as it is now, to all appearances, among us, the modern peoples and Europeans? Is there a pessimism of strength? An intellectual inclination for what in existence is hard, dreadful, evil, problematic, emerging from what is healthy, from overflowing well being, from living existence to the full? Is there perhaps a way of suffering from the very fullness of life? A tempting courage of the keenest sight which demands what is terrible as the enemy, the worthy enemy, against which it can test its power, from which it wants to learn what to fear means? What does the tragic myth mean precisely for the Greeks of the best, strongest, and bravest age? What about that tremendous phenomenon of the Dionysian?[4] And what about what was born out of the Dionysianthe tragedy? And by contrast, what are we to make of what killed tragedy Socratic morality, dialectic, the satisfaction and serenity of the theoretical man?[5] How about that? Could not this very Socratism [Sokratismus] be a sign of collapse, exhaustion, sickness, the anarchic dissolution of the instincts? And could the Greek serenity of later Greek periods be only a red sunset? Could the Epicurean will hostile to pessimism be merely the prudence of a suffering man?[6] And even science itself, our scienceindeed, what does all science in general mean considered as a symptom of life? What is the point of all that science and, even more seriously, where did it come from? What about that? Is scientific scholarship perhaps only a fear and an excuse in the face of pessimism? A delicate self‑defence againstthe Truth? And speaking morally, something like cowardice and falsehood? Speaking unmorally, a clever trick?[7] O Socrates, Socrates, was that perhaps your secret? O you secretive ironist, was that perhaps yourirony?

What I managed to seize upon at that time, something fearful and dangerous, was a problem with horns, not necessarily a bull exactly, but in any event a new problem; today I would state that it was the problem of science itselfscience for the first time grasped as problematic, as dubious. But that book, in which my youthful courage and suspicion then spoke, what an impossible book had to grow out of a task so contrary to the spirit of youth! Created out of merely premature, really immature personal experiences, which all lay close to the threshold of something communicable, built on the basis of artfor the problem of science cannot be understood on the basis of sciencea book perhaps for artists with analytical tendencies and a capacity for retrospection (that means for exceptions, a type of artist whom it is necessary to seek out and whom one never wants to look for . . .), full of psychological innovations and artists secrets, with an artists metaphysics in the background, a youthful work, full of the spirit of youth and the melancholy of youth, independent, defiantly self‑sufficient, even where it seemed to bow down with special reverence to an authority, in short, a first work also in every bad sense of the word, afflicted, in spite of the problem better suited for old men, with every fault of youth, above all with its excessive verbiage and its storm and stress. On the other hand, looking back on the success the book had (especially with the great artist to whom it addressed itself, as if in a conversation, that is, with Richard Wagner), the book proved itselfI mean it was the sort of book which at any rate was effective enough among the best people of its time.[8] For that reason the book should at this point be handled with some consideration and discretion. However, I do not want totally to hide how unpleasant the book seems to me now, how strangely after sixteen years it stands there in front of mein front of an older man, a hundred times more discriminating, but with eyes which have not grown colder in the slightest and which have themselves not become estranged from the work which that bold book dared to approach for the first time: to look at science from the perspective of the artist, but to look at art from the perspective of life.

Let me say again: today for me it is an impossible bookI call it something poorly written, ponderous, embarrassing, with fantastic and confused imagery, sentimental, here and there so saccharine it is effeminate, uneven in tempo, without any impulse for logical clarity, extremely self‑confident and thus dispensing with evidence, even distrustful of the relevance of evidence, like a book for the initiated, like Music for those baptized into music, those who are bound together from the start in secret and esoteric aesthetic experiences as a secret sign recognized among blood relations in artibus [in the arts]an arrogant and rhapsodic book, which right from the start hermetically sealed itself off from the profanum vulgus [profane rabble] of the educated, even more than from the people, but a book which, as its effect proved and continues to prove, must also understand this issue well enough to search out its fellow rhapsodists and to tempt them to new secret pathways and dancing grounds. At any rate, here a strange voice spokepeople admitted that with as much curiosity as aversionthe disciple of an as yet unknown God, who momentarily hid himself under the hood of a learned man, under the gravity and dialectical solemnity of the German man, even under the bad manners of a follower of Wagner. Here was a spirit with alien, even nameless, needs, a memory crammed with questions, experiences, secret places, beside which the name Dionysus was written like one more question mark. Here spokeso people said to themselves suspiciouslysomething like a mystic and an almost maenad‑like soul, which stammered with difficulty and arbitrarily, in a foreign language, as it were, almost uncertain whether it wanted to communicate something or hide itself.[9] This new soul should have sung, not spoken! What a shame that I did not dare to utter as a poet what I had to say at that time; perhaps I might have been able to do that! Or at least as a philologist even today in this area almost everything is still there for philologists to discover and dig up! Above all, the issue that there is a problem right hereand that the Greeks will continue to remain, as before, entirely unknown and unknowable as long as we have no answer to the question, What is Dionysian? . . .


1This opening section of the Birth of Tragedy was added to the book many years after it first appeared, as the text makes clear. Nietzsche wrote this Attempt at Self‑ Criticism in 1886. The original text, written in 1870‑71, begins with the Preface to Richard Wagner, the second major section in this text.

2The Battle of Wrth occurred in August 1870. The German army defeated the French forces.

3Nietzsche contracted a serious and lingering illness while serving as a medical orderly with the Prussian forces in the Franco-Prussian War. The illness forced him eventually to give up his academic position.

1In Greek mythology, Dionysus, son of Zeus and the mortal Semele, was the god of wine, associated with ecstatic and intoxicated group rituals.

2Socrates: (470-399 BC), Athenian philosopher famous for his devotion to challenging the beliefs of his contemporaries with intense questioning. Also as the main character in Platos early dialogues, Socrates becomes the chief spokesman for a more rational understanding of life.

3Epicurus: (341-270 BC), Greek philosopher who stressed that the purpose of thinking was the attainment of a tranquil, pain-free existence.

4The German word Wissenschaft, a very important part of Nietzsches argument, has a range of meanings: scholarship, science, scholarly research. In this translation I have normally used science or scientific knowledge or scholarship. The meaning of the term is by no means confined to the physical sciences.

1Richard Wagner: (1813-1883), German composer and essayist, most famous for his operas. Early in Nietzsches career he and Wagner (who met in 1868) were close friends.

1 . . . maenad-like: a maenad is an ecstatic follower of the god Dionysus.

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