|Oedipe et Antigone, by Charles Jalabert|
In writing about Attic tragedy, Nietzsche states,
The metaphysical solace which, I wish to suggest, we derive from every true tragedy, the solace that in the ground of things, and despite all changing appearances, life is indestructibly mighty and pleasurable, this solace appears with palpable clarity in the chorus of satyrs, a chorus of natural beings whose life goes on ineradicably behind and beyond all civilization, as it were, and who remain eternally the same despite all the changes of generations and in the history of nations (Nietzsche 39).
The “metaphysical solace” Nietzsche speaks of, is the human experience that is at the very ground of life, an experience that nullifies those things we usually consider as bringing well-being to a person, such as wealth and success. The phrase is misnamed because it really has nothing at all to do with the “metaphysical,” taken to mean, “the supernatural or incorporeal.” The solace Nietzsche is referring to here is perfectly natural and requires no external world or transcendent deity to produce it.
Early in his career, Nietzsche sought after metaphysical solace in the “revitalization of myth and activation of the myth-building potential of consciousness” (Safranski 86), as opposed to the attempts to find metaphysical solace in religion, philosophical idealism, or the quest for knowledge, as in science. To these latter solace-seekers, Nature needs to be corrected or compensated for in some way. Somehow, it is not sufficiently equipped to bring about the state of solaciousness we are discussing. But in Nietzsche’s mind, solace is to be derived solely from Nature in the form of the tragic tension that emerges from the conflict between Apollinian and Dionysian forces.
The satyr, half-man, half-goat stands in stark opposition to the Apollonian man. The satyr is a carefree being, totally devoid of the mundane worries of life. He knows how to have a good time. He doesn’t concern himself with bills, mortgages, a job, etc. The natural life is all he knows. We would do well to allow some of this attitude into our own lives. The movement of Bohemianism, as well as the Beat movement, was in tune with the satyr.
Even though we value life and the world for its good things, Nature is notorious for being, at times, unjust, unfair, and filled with misery. Life itself is tragic and we are all tragic characters. We all suffer. As the Buddha said, the essence of life is suffering. Most attempt to transcend the world through religion, philosophy, drugs, sex, even suicide, but life is what it is.
Since the time of Socrates, our world has been dominated by, and an overemphasis placed upon, the forces of Apollo. The Dionysian forces of our world have been suppressed, usually by social viewpoints that consider these as sinful, evil, or just uncivilized. Apollo, of course, is the god of order, rationality, and the visual arts. Dionysus is the god of wine, ecstasy, the fertility of nature, and music. These two powers are in perpetual conflict, not only within our world, but within ourselves. Nietzsche believed that Attic tragedy was the synthesis of these forces.
We have emphasized Apollo for so long that it is very difficult for us to embrace Dionysus, especially if we have been brought up in Christianity, truly an Apollonian religion if there ever was one. Christ is light, just as Apollo is the god of the Sun. In I John 1:5, the Apostle states, “This then is the message which we have heard of him, and declare unto you, that God is light, and in him is no darkness at all” (KJV). This is a one-sided understanding of reality, and is the typical Western viewpoint. It is Apollonian to the core.
The metaphysical solace Nietzsche refers to is the primordial experience of unity. It is a unity of the contrary forces of Nature that makes our lives worth living. It is naive to ignore one side of reality, as many times we do in our orderly, capitalist, consumer-driven world. Under the streets of our very civilized and ordered societies, the earth is rumbling. The cthonic forces of Nature, having been repressed for so long, seek an outlet. If Apollo and Dionysus cannot be reconciled in some way, as Sophocles and Aeschylus did when they wrote their tragedies, the unfettered powers of the Underworld will be unleashed on the world, and in the lives of individuals.
The way to solace is not the avoidance of suffering, but the phenomenological embracing of Nature. It is not the embracing of pie-in-the-sky idealism or social Utopianism. It is not waiting until we get to heaven. A wonderful life awaits us here in this world now. The understanding that there are contrary forces within all of Nature, and that they require equal recognition, will foster new imagination and birth new creations.
Nietzsche, F.W. The Birth of Tragedy. Trans. Ronald Speirs. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999.
Safranksi, Rüdiger. Nietzsche, a Philosophical Biography. Tr. Shelley Frisch. New York: Norton, 2002.