TAYLOR: Nietzsche in the Stands

“The horror! The horror!” — Joseph Conrad, “Heart of Darkness”

There is a word for my experience of Yale-Harvard, and that word is “tragedy.”

Please do not misunderstand me. I mean to extol The Game, not undermine it.

For Aristotle, tragedy was a ritual of catharsis. For Nietzsche, it was the artistic experience of purest reality, a Dionysian rite of terrifying, transcendent primal unity in the face of the terrible secret of living. When I say, “The Yale-Harvard game is a tragedy,” that’s what I mean. I mean, as Nietzsche would have meant, that when I watch the Harvard football team demolish the Yale football team, I approach the horrifying truth of existence.

I realize that life is suffering.

At the heart of all great Greek tragedies, Nietzsche posited, is the story of the Dying God, through whose agony we are reborn and in whose death we know life in all its abjection and glory.

The Yale football team is our Dying God: the central character in the tragedy, like Oedipus or Pentheus. We are the audience. Aided and united by the impassioned music of the satyr chorus (the YPMB), our eyes are forced open to the monstrosity of this yearly ritual. Together, we behold the brutish, Cantabrigian Titans — those proto-Ivy Leaguers still caught in the dark, primordial eons before Yale shed Light on the Truth — as they savagely rip our noble deity limb from limb. In the team’s sparagmos — its literal and symbolic death by dismemberment — we find our own unity. We come into our identity. We experience Dionysus, and we become him.

Dionysus, according to J.G. Frazer, was the death-rebirth god. His was the sacred life that continually renews itself, the frenzy of distilled vitality, life’s pure and terrifying eternal essence.

His is the soul of The Game, whose sacrament is the Tailgate.

Let no one forget the importance of the Tailgate to the ritual tragedy of Yale-Harvard. As Nietzsche tells us, it is only through the power of Dionysus that we may shed the Apollonian illusion of identity. Without the Tailgate, we are a mass of miserable individuals — artists, editors, nerds and athletes in the myriad other sports that receive the remaining 5 percent of Yale’s limited interest in athletics — watching a football game. Through the Tailgate we shed our inhibitions; we enter into empathy, into community, into Bacchic frenzy. We prepare ourselves for our rite of suffering. The Greeks, unlike members of Yale’s and Harvard’s administrations, understood the necessity of this. Who can withstand the agony of life-as-it-is without the support and intoxication of Dionysus, life’s god and champion? Who can watch football without getting drunk first?

Not me.

I cannot comprehend the madness; I cannot stand the slaughter; I cannot bear to wait for five minutes every time the mass of men-in-spandex moves approximately 10 feet in either direction — unless united in primal unity with my comrades. I need to lose myself in a good mimosa and the admirable, Dionysian fury of school spirit to appreciate the essence of The Game. If I don’t, I’ll spend it thinking about my senior essay and watching the scoreboard — both of which will be, I am sure, in miserable condition.

The Yale-Harvard game isn’t about the scoreboard, and it isn’t about my impending academic failure. Also, it isn’t about football. Not really. Yale-Harvard is about life and living. It’s about how bad things happen to good people, and bad sportsmen still win at football, and bad schools are still somehow ranked higher than Yale by U.S. News and World Report. It’s about how Nietzsche might be right, and life might really be suffering. But life is still essentially worthwhile. When we look into the horror, we can’t really say why it’s worthwhile, but — freezing together in that stadium, loving and hoping and hurting and screaming “Harvard sucks!” — we know somehow that it is. Because we are alive.

Which is more than we can say for the brain-dead idiots on the other team.

We are Yale. We look, like the ancient Greeks, into the brutal heart of life, and we raise the wineskin to our lips in praise. Harvard sucks; life is suffering. Long live Dionysus. Boola boola.

Michelle Taylor is a senior in Davenport College. Contact her at michelle.a.taylor@yale.edu.

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