Philosophy Essays By James Chester 
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The Demise of Dithyrambic Tragedy in Ancient Greece and Its Rebirth in Modern Times, According to Nietzsche

Twenty-six hundred years ago, in the sixth century before Christ, the ancient Greeks began writing and performing tragic dramas. These dramas were the first tragedies that the world had ever seen, and the Greeks are rightly credited with the birth of tragedy.

I am not speaking of the Sophoclean tragedies of the fifth century B. C., which were actually second generation tragedies, an evolved genre of the original, and the model upon which the modern Shakespearean tragedies were fashioned. Instead, I am speaking of the very first tragedies, those that were written by Aeschylus. The distinction between the two genres is significant.

The second-generation tragedies are the modern theatrical dramas with which we are all familiar. As we know, a theatrical drama is played out upon a stage by an assembly of actors who individually portray characters involved in a drama arising out of worldly circumstances. If the drama is tragic, we watch intently as a single heroic individual struggles mightily against tremendous odds and succeeds in ascending the steps of heroism to a majestic and noble height, whereupon a mysterious flaw of character or other predestined misfortune trips him up and plunges him into abyssal torment.

In contrast, the very first or classical tragedies were not theatrical dramas; they were dithyrambic dramas. A dithyrambic drama does not play out upon a stage. Rather, it plays out within the heart and mind of a single actor as a spiritual odyssey during which the actor undertakes and wrestles with the "monsters of his past," the insurmountable conflicts of conscience and passion which seemed overwhelming in the heat of battle and were wrested to the subconscious realm in a last ditch effort to manage them or, at least, to subdue them. The drama in all this resides in the adventurous discovery and reclamation of Self. The tragedy in all this is a little more difficult to understand.

As the actor delves ever deeper into his vaulted subconscious, he comes upon the subliminal torment in which his conscience has become mired the way a workhorse becomes mired in mud. Like a hero facing tremendous odds, he wrestles with these conflicts to free himself, and, as he succeeds, his spirit becomes exalted upon the steps of his victories. And then, wanting to rise even higher, he plumbs deeper still, whereupon he senses his Self in those depths, and it is at this point that the tragedy occurs. His Ego, which had previously protected him from his torment, collapses like a false flooring that is no longer useful. But the actor rejoices in this tragic collapse because it gives way to a state of mind which is much more deeply rooted in nature and reality than is the egotistical state of mind into which man recoils the way a turtle recoils into its shell when threatened. This collapse is the tragedy which the Greeks celebrated in the very beginning, and, as you can see, there was nothing "tragic" about it.

In such a way, the ancient Greeks reclaimed themselves and healed their broken spirits with their dithyrambic tragedies. In such a way, they showed that the tragic collapse of an egotistical state of being is the singlemost important event in a process of spiritual reclamation and growth. With their tragedies, they became the only culture ever to have understood and embodied! life's most precious secret: all life requires some measure of death and disintegration. Thus, the plant sheds its leaves in the fall so as to give way to new growth in the spring. Thus, the lamb surrenders its life that the lion may grow even stronger. Thus, the Ego gives way to the emerging Self that the broken man may confront his torment and thereby transcend it. Drama has never played a more meaningful role in any subsequent culture as dithyrambic drama did for the ancient Greeks during the sixth century B. C.

The practice of dithyrambic drama ended in the fifth century B. C. when the great philosophers, who were the only ones wise enough to write dithyrambic tragedies, stopped composing in the dithyramb. At that time, Socrates began to teach the dialectical (or logical) mode of thought upon which science and jurisprudence are founded, and, under his influential tutelage, every corner of Greek culture was overhauled and brought into conformance with the new norms. The arts were not spared. Since rendition of the dithyramb required keenly intuitive thought, which is antithetical to the dialectical mode of thought that Socrates taught, and since the dithyrambic drama engendered within the actor highly intelligible insights whose development defied logic, the art form was devalued and became obsolete. Thereupon, tragedy devolved into the purely theatrical art form in which tragedians have composed for the last two millennia.

As a result of this loss, which was profound but unnoticed, western philosophers ever since beginning with Aristotle have been struggling to understand how tragedy plays out as a good and necessary event in a process of spiritual growth within man, and classical scholars have been trying to understand the dithyrambic art form in which the world's first tragedies were written. No one had succeeded with either effort until the Germans undertook the work in the 18th and 19th centuries, twenty-four hundred years later.

In 1872, Friedrich Nietzsche, a German philosopher, wrote a book in which he explained the meaning and value of tragedy in a process of growth that becomes manifest within the human spirit as life itself. The book is a milestone in the history of occidental philosophy. More importantly, in the course of his work into the metaphysics of tragedy, Nietzsche also discovered the ancient art of the dithyramb in which the world's first tragedies had been written. In 1885, Friedrich Nietzsche wrote the first dithyrambic tragedy to be composed in more than two millennia. The drama is called Thus Spoke Zarathustra . Then, upon completing it, he succumbed to the final stage of a terminal illness without ever writing a word about how to render a dithyramb or how to practice dithyrambic drama.

In the hundred years since Nietzsche wrote 'Zarathustra, contemporary philosophers and classical scholars around the world have been scrambling to make sense of the book. Volumes of literature have been published, but no one has succeeded in rendering even one of the eighty-one dithyrambs that make up the drama.

The difficulty lies in the fact that a dithyramb is composed entirely in verisimilar metaphor, but, without rendering the metaphors, the text easily reads like a story but makes no sense. Some have tried to read the book as if it were an allegory, and others have treated it like a fable, but no one has treated it as a book of dithyrambs. In fact, no one has even ascertained the simple fact that the book is indeed a dithyrambic drama. But how could they? No one has seen a dithyrambic drama in more than two millennia, so no one knows what a dithyramb looks like.

The problem in all this is that the modern world's only dithyrambist died without ever explaining what he had succeeded in doing. Though he knew full well that this was what needed to be done:

My work will not be finished, not brought to a conclusion, if I entrust [my dithyrambic drama] to posterity only as a mute score; I must publicly demonstrate and give instruction in what cannot be guessed, in what I alone know, of the new style needed for its performance and representation, so as to provide a model no other could provide and thus found a [new art] . . . .

However, while the above statement indicates that Nietzsche felt a desperate need to explain his art form, the next statement indicates that Nietzsche deliberately left his art form for the world to figure out by itself.

To make [ Thus Spoke Zarathustra ], as a sacred deposit and true fruit of [my] existence, ... the property of mankind, to lay it down for a posterity better able to judge it, has become to [me] a goal which takes precedence over all other goals and for the sake of which [I wear] the crown of thorns which shall one day blossom into a laurel-wreath: [my] efforts are consecrated on the safeguarding of [my] work just as decidedly as are those of the insect in its final stage on safeguarding its eggs and on caring for the brood whose existence it will never know: it deposits the eggs where it knows for sure they will one day find life and nourishment, and dies contented.

In any case, henceforth, let there be no doubts whatsoever that Thus Spoke Zarathustra is indeed a dithyrambic tragedy, as Nietzsche himself stated, in Ecce Homo : " I am the inventor of the dithyramb " and " My entire Zarathustra is a dithyramb . . . . "

URL: www.publicappeal.org/0902/exagium/intro_to_new_dithyramb.htm
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