“The Dionysian Artwork: An Image in Three Anecdotes” By David Kilpatrick

It is possible to present the image of a man with three anecdotes.
(Nietzsche, Philosophy in the Tragic Age of the Greeks 25).

Does Nietzsche still suffer from an image problem?[1]  What image of Nietzsche should we promote?  I don’t mean an image in terms of endorsement, branding and commerce.  Despite the timeliness, for tonight I’ll avoid (at least overtly) the question concerning politics and the will to power and promise to abstain from making any Mein Trumpf jokes.[2]

At the springtime of the Nietzschean corpus we find this provocation: “Under the charm of the Dionysian not only is the union between man and man reaffirmed, but nature which has become alienated, hostile, or subjugated, celebrates once more her reconciliation with her lost son, man” (The Birth of Tragedy 37).  It is this charm of the Dionysian that must be overcome for the metaphysical conception of the human essence, an opposition to the physical (which is feminized), to emerge as a world-historical determinative construct.  The result of the success of the Socratic project, the overcoming which is metaphysics, is the estrangement of humanity – of humans from one another and of humanity from nature.  The Socratic project, grounded in the Apollonian divine signifier, is an exultation of the principium individuationis.  In contrast, the Dionysian, as Nietzsche explains, “seeks to destroy the individual and redeem him by a mystic feeling of oneness” (38).  This process of a redemptive destruction is the formula for sacrifice, dramatized by the tragedians and mimicked/reconstituted with Socrates, whose individuality is redeemed (according to the metaphysically-reconstituted myth) despite the destruction of his body.  The Birth of Tragedy is an attempt to reopen the wound.  Perhaps unwittingly, Nietzsche sets the stage for his own destruction with a writing that communicates an ecstatic, tragic consciousness.  Nietzsche is therefore (using his own terminology) writing mysticism, but a form of mysticism intimately bound with the sacrificial, for it is with the representation of violence that the subject is brought outside itself.

Nietzsche then turns his attention to the individual who communicates this collapse of individuality, with an attempt to “solve the problem of how the ‘lyrist’ is possible as an artist – he who [. . .] is continually saying ‘I’” (48).  Nietzsche’s understanding of the problem of the “lyrist” is crucial to an understanding of the problem of Nietzsche: how is it possible to identify a constellation of texts with one who undermines, repeatedly, formulations and constructions of identity?  Nietzsche gives us a hint when he suggests that “as a Dionysian artist he has identified himself with the primal unity . . . the artist has already surrendered his subjectivity in the Dionysian process” (49).  The poetic self is the self which surrenders, indeed, sacrifices itself.  Thus, at the beginning of the corpus of texts which are signified as Nietzsche’s, a critique of subjectivity is announced, dismissing the Socratic project of stabilizing identity as a “fiction” (49).  Of course, all that Nietzsche suggests regarding the artist is already exposed in Plato, but as corrupt – as that which must be refused.  In his solution to the problem of the lyrist, Nietzsche establishes (a re-establishment of what is acknowledged/ refused in Plato) a poetics that is essentially a theory of the sacrificial author.  This poetics is established through a description of the state of (tragic) consciousness that the Dionysian artist enters: “in this state he is, in a marvelous manner, like the image of the fairy tale, which can turn its eyes at will and behold itself; he is at once subject and object, at once poet, actor, and spectator” (52).  It is through this identification of the subject and object, through the poet who performs what he watches, that the thematic motif of the sacrificial becomes the figure for the artistic practice, that the writer of sacrifice writes his own sacrifice.[3]

The next to last section of Twilight of the Idols marks a return to, or reaffirmation of, the theory of the Dionysian espoused in The Birth of Tragedy.   Far from a purgative refusal of suffering, the dramatization of the tragic is an affirmative response to existence: “Saying Yes to life even in its strangest and hardest problems, the will to life rejoicing over its own inexhaustibility even in the very sacrifice of its highest types – that is what I called Dionysian, that is what I guessed to be the bridge to the psychology of the tragic poet” (562).  The tragic poet identifies himself with existence, suffering into this identity, through his own sacrifice (for it is his type which is the “highest”), which is re-presented with the tragic work.  Through finding this bridge to the psychology of the tragic poet, Nietzsche gains access to the tragic consciousness, and makes this psychology his own.

With his last (complete) work, Ecce homo, Nietzsche attempts a bridge to his own psychology, emerging at the end of his literary corpus as (tragic) character.  Nietzsche begins by claiming that, “Seeing that before long I must confront humanity with the most difficult demand ever made of it, it seems indispensable to me to say who I am” (673).  The first answer he gives is, “I am a disciple of the philosopher Dionysus” (673).  Thus, his identity, his radical singularity which must be understood for humanity to understand the most difficult demand which he will place upon it, is conditioned by its relation to the god that collapses individuality.  Dionysus remains the key figure in Nietzsche’s thought.  Since the god is understood as a philosopher, as his disciple, Nietzsche claims for himself the title “the first tragic philosopher” during his discussion of The Birth of Tragedy (729).   He is the first tragic philosopher, for he uncovers, “The affirmation of passing away and destroying, which is the decisive feature of a Dionysian philosophy; saying Yes to opposition and war; becoming, along with a radical repudiation of the very concept of being – all this is clearly more closely related to me than anything else to date” (729).  He concludes his discussion of this early work with an assertion of its agenda (a challenge to those who dismiss it as immature faulty scholarship, inconsistent with his later philosophical work), reaffirming the “tremendous hope [that] speaks out of this essay” as that which will occur long after his death: “I promise a tragic age: the highest art in saying Yes to life, tragedy, will be reborn when humanity has weathered the consciousness of the hardest but most necessary wars without suffering from it” (730).  What he means by “wars” here is ambiguous.  Are they military, cultural, or both?  What is clear is that tragedy will emerge with the preparation of a form of consciousness that is its condition.

In his discussion of Zarathustra, Nietzsche relates how his consciousness underwent the ek-stasis of sacrificial dramatization.  Suggesting that the late nineteenth century has lost the understanding of what poets call inspiration, considering it may have been thousands of years since anyone else had a similar experience, he describes “A rapture” in which “one is altogether beside oneself”  (756).  The brilliance of the ecstatic experience of inspiration condemns him to suffering, he claims, for “One pays dearly for immortality: one has to die several times while still alive” (759).  Here it is clear that Nietzsche equates the experience of inspiration with sacrifice.  In this experience, the “concept of the ‘Dionysian’ [. . .] became a supreme deed” (760).  Inspiration, therefore, is experienced as a hieratic event, in which consciousness is sacrificed, allowing for dramatization (manifest in the words of Zarathustra received by Nietzsche).

Nietzsche makes clear in Ecce homo how he understands himself to be a turning point and vortex in world history, even more pivotal than Socrates, whom he cited as such in Birth: “One day my name will be associated with the memory of something tremendous – a crisis without equal on earth, the most profound collision of conscience, a decision that was conjured up against everything that had been believed, demanded, hallowed so far.  I am no man.  I am dynamite” (782).  Nonetheless, he conveys his apprehension as to how his legacy will be received, that he may be transformed into precisely the kind of religious figure that he despised.  Afraid of Nietzscheans to come, he claims: “I want no ‘believers’ [. . .] I have a terrible fear that one day I will be pronounced holy” (782).  It may be that the fear he expresses here is that a doctrine may be founded upon him, whereas he sought to abolish doctrines, or that his example may be reconstituted somehow in accordance with those forms of the holy/sacred against which his life was dedicated.  Nonetheless, his sacrificial example, enhanced by the “myth” surrounding his collapse into madness, necessarily produces a sacred mystique.[4]

So we see Nietzsche’s conception of the Dionysian.  But how might we see the Dionysian in Nietzsche?  If the title for tonight’s gathering is a promised proposition, how must we consider the preposition?  Not of Nietzsche, but in Nietzsche.  This is a matter of image.  If Nietzsche indeed submitted himself to the Dionysian process, how might his figure be justified as an aesthetic phenomenon?

If, as Nietzsche suggests in Philosophy in the Tragic Age of the Greeks, “It is possible to present the image of a man with three anecdotes” (25), what three episodes from his life do we select to depict his tragic figure?  They cannot be random, but must contain within them a kernel of necessity.  The settings for these three episodes – essential for this drama – are Köln, Roma and Torino.

The first comes to us from his friend Deussen:

Nietzsche traveled alone to Cologne one day, took a guided tour of the sights, and then asked the tour guide to take him to a restaurant.  The tour guide took him instead to a house of ill repute.  Nietzsche told me the next day, “I suddenly saw myself surrounded by a half dozen apparitions in tinsel gauze, staring at me expectantly.  I was speechless at first, but then I went instinctively to a piano, as if it were the only being in the group with a soul, and struck several chords.  They broke the spell and I hurried outside…” (qtd. Safranski 20-21).

The second, from his love, if not lover, Lou Salome, who told the story of how they met.  Setup as if on a blind date in St. Peter’s Basilica, the near-sighted Nietzsche squinted at her in the Vatican before uttering this pickup line: “From which stars did we fall to meet each other here?” (qtd. Safranski 250-251).

The third anecdote is well known, and of the three perhaps the one episode most urgent and unavoidable.  As the myth is told, in Turin’s Piazza Carlo Alberto, on 3 January 1889, he witnessed a horse being beaten, at which he desperately tried to rescue the beast, throwing his arms around it before falling unconscious – his sanity never to return.

This moment rivals the deaths of Socrates and Jesus as world-historical turning points, with the most obvious difference being that their sacrifices both call for an end to sacrifice, and provide its closure, whereas Nietzsche’s tragedy begets further tragedy, a renewal of sacrificial mimesis.

I would like to leave you to consider how the image of Nietzsche that emerges from these three anecdotes might contrast with the popular perception of an immoral Antichrist, how the emergence of character from these three episodes reveals the Dionysian process of the artist becoming the artwork – for with these three events we may discover the destruction of the individual in order to reconcile nature with her lost son, three anecdotes that disclose the Dionysian in Nietzsche.

Works Cited

Kilpatrick, David. Writing with Blood: The Sacrificial Dramatist as Tragic Man. Roskilde, Denmark: EyeCorner, 2011.
Nietzsche, Friedrich. The Birth of Tragedy. Ecce homoBasic Writings of Nietzsche.  Ed. and trans. Walter Kaufmann.  New York: The Modern Library, 1968.
—. Philosophy in the Tragic Age of the Greeks.  Trans. Marianne Cowan.  Washington, DC: Regnery, 1962.
—.  Selected Letters of Friedrich Nietzsche.  Ed. and trans. Christopher Middleton.
Indianapolis: Hackett, 1996.
—. Twilight of the IdolsThe Portable Nietzsche.  Trans. Walter Kaufmann.  New York: Penguin, 1968.
Safranski, Rüdiger.  Nietzsche: A Philosophical Biography.  Trans. Shelley Frisch. New York: Norton, 2002.
Wehner, Peter. “The Theology of Donald Trump.”  5 July 2016.  The New York Times.
[1] Has the damage done to Nietzsche’s image when his sister gave his walking stick to Adolf Hitler at the Nietzsche-Archiv in Weimar on 2 November 1933 ever been undone?
[2] Nietzsche has been dragged into the present Presidential election crisis. Cf. the claim in The New York Times that “Trump embodies a Nietzschean morality” (Wehner).
[3][3] Portions from the preceding two paragraphs appear in Kilpatrick, Writing with Blood, pp. 60-61.
[4] Portions from the preceding four paragraphs appear in Kilpatrick, Writing with Blood, pp. 87-89.