Johnston: The beauty of tragedy

N ietzsche describes Greek tragedy as a union of two divine forces: the Apollonian and the Dionysian. The Apollonian is found in the dream of a well-ordered world. It is the force of harmony, clarity, beauty, and individuation. The Dionysian reflects a darker, primal side of human nature. Revealed in intoxication, it is chaotic, orgiastic, destructive, and undifferentiated.

According to Nietzsche, Greek tragedy was remarkable for stitching the two together in one artistic form, reflective of human experience. But the aesthetic integrity of tragedy was corrupted by the work of Euripides, who limited the use of the Dionysian chorus and reduced the content of the formerly Apollonian dialogue to the prosaic concerns of the everyday. Nietzsche associates Euripides with the logic of Socrates, whose eponymous questioning stood in contrast to both the Apollonian and the Dionysian. The content of Socrates’ questioning revealed the inconsistencies of Apollonian Greek mythology, while the form of questioning itself precluded the Dionysian.

Abstracting from Greek tragedy for a moment, it is possible to use the categories of Apollonian and Dionysian to illuminate other tragedies. For example, driving a car while listening to rock music is an aesthetically tragic experience. Driving requires a visualization, extended in time, of velocity and acceleration, of proximate vehicles, all according to geometrical road patterns and abstract rules. It is a clear example of Apollonian experience. But rock music strikes to the core, destroys inhibitions according to chaotic rhythms, and releases primal ambitions.

The fusion of the two forms the essence of tragedy. But the advance of artificial intelligence will instigate the end of this tragedy. When computers drive cars, the computer has monopolized the Apollonian. And while the Dionysian will still be available, rock radio will enter decline as passengers take advantage of more time to attend to their everyday affairs.

Consider another example. Liberal political aesthetes must be overjoyed by the current presidential race. After all, does not Barack Obama seek to create a world of justice and harmony, an Apollonian paragon of individuality? John McCain’s campaign would be nowhere without the support of the dark, teeming currents of hatred, racism, and bigotry, emanating especially from middle America.

Reading The New York Times has thus become a pinnacle of human experience — what with Apollonian hope on the front page and Dionysian devilry inside. But the delicious tragic experience will come to an end, and the liberal political aesthetes are not happy with the force that will bring about that end: the people. Though the Dionysian will be frustrated when the people vote on Nov. 4., the remaining actor will be forced to turn to everyday concerns, his Apollonian vision set aside.

As progress ushers in the everyday, tragedy seems to be doomed to die out. The everyday demands a logical ordering of means and ends, a dialectical demonstration of inconsistency, a deductive drive toward efficiency. Does this mean that tragedy, and aesthetic experience generally, is inevitably opposed to rationality? Is reason the great leveler?

Not if reason includes more than logic. A distinction must be drawn between the logical and the analogical. Deductive logic merely draws out what is already inherent in the premises. Logic is incapable of providing an account of that which is unknown. The analogical, on the other hand, endeavors to reveal the unknown by analogy. Where premises lack explanatory power, analogies cast them in a new light, illuminating and filling in the gaps. Analogy is as integral as logic in successful reasoning.

Reason, then, is not opposed to aesthetics. Indeed, philosophy is itself a species of tragedy. The Apollonian is the logical mode, which clears the path of contradiction and clarifies along the way. The Dionysian is the analogical mode, which creatively supplies to premises the possibility of understanding. Philosophy is the logical and the analogical bound together in one aesthetic work. Perhaps that is why it is so beautiful and so rare.