The Birth of Tragedy and other Cultural Lies

‘This dynamic…is the original dramatic phenomenon: to see oneself transformed before one’s eyes and now to act as if one really had entered another body, another character’ (Nietzsche, The Birth of Tragedy).

It is my understanding that with this quote Nietzsche was referring to classical Greek drama wherein dramatists seize upon a metaphor or image that when presented to the audience through mimesis or imitation, conveys a ‘seminal truth’ rather than a ‘cultural lie’. In other words, if a tragedy is to achieve ‘transformation’ in the sense to which Nietzsche was referring, then it must provide audiences with something more deeply meaningful than mere entertainment or political party line. For Nietzsche, transformation was not simply a matter suspending audience disbelief, but instead allowing the audience to actually enter the world of the Greek god Dionysus, in whose realm lies all primordial truths and with it, the tragic suffering inherent in comprehending these truths.images

If by action we are referring to stage performance (rather than theme or underlying plot), then to the extent audiences were encouraged to see such performance as mere entertainment, I would suggest that Renaissance tragedy more often than not misses Nietzsche’s mark. Bottom line, most Elizabethan and Jacobean playwrights were by necessity as interested (if not more) in making money than they were in imparting seminal truths. According to Mike Pincombe in his article ‘English Renaissance Tragedy: Theories and Antecedents’ in the Cambridge Companion to English Renaissance Tragedy, Elizabethan audiences were in tune with the idea that ‘tragedy’ required ‘the fall of a great man and a lot of shouting to go with it’. To the extent Renaissance dramatists played to that idea, then if most of the audience focus was more on the ‘shouting’ than the gathering of primordial truths, it would seem ‘transformation’ would not likely have often occurred.

For example in her introduction to the New Mermaids edition of the A-Text of Christopher Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus, Ros King notes that the popularity of the play was due in large part to the audience’s interest in the special effects (the trip to the Vatican to annoy the pope must have been a feat). Even the side story of Rafe and Robin having ‘stolen one of Doctor Faustus’ conjuring books’ and playing at their own conjuring in order to obtain ‘the kitchen maid’ for ‘thy own use’ would seem for the most part although entertaining also distractive – not contributing in any meaningful way to the main plot of Faustus’ struggle regarding Christian redemption and most certainly not reflective of a primordial truth.

Rather than conveying a ‘seminal truth’, the trip to the Vatican to annoy the pope would seem to be more easily justified as an attempt to further a ‘cultural lie’ in the sense that although first printed in 1604, the play was most definitely written when the staunchly protestant Elizabeth I was still on the throne. The connection between Renaissance tragedy and the politics of the moment is also addressed by other Renaissance writers such as Sir Phillip Sidney in his The Defense of Posey, where he suggested tragedy ought to teach kings to avoid tyranny. In his article Tragedy and the nation state (Cambridge Companion to English Renaissance Tragedy) remarks that the relationship between English tragedy and the nation-state was ‘there from the start’.

This does not mean that because a tragedy conveys a ‘cultural lie’ such as political party line and is also entertaining (lots of ‘shouting’ going on) that it cannot also deliver that (Dionysian) ‘seminal truth’. Indeed in Kyd’s Spanish Tragedy, there was not only the fall and tragic suffering of Hieronomo, (albeit not really a ‘great man’) but also the seminal truth that justice is not able to be achieved even when the king is not a tyrant (this of course also likely another ‘cultural lie’ in the sense that if it had been otherwise the censors of the time would likely have refused for the play to be presented – or worse).

In summary, if Nietzsche’s conception of ‘transformation’ required tragedy to deliver seminal truths rather than cultural lies to the audience, then I would have to conclude that for the most part Renaissance tragedy likely most often failed to achieve it. Renaissance dramatists were for the most part economically dependent on having their plays well-received and if audiences had the notion that tragedy should include the fall of a (more or less) great man with a good deal of shouting going on then it only made sense that is what the dramatists delivered; focused on the ‘shouting’, it would have been hard to focus also on seminal truths. That is not to suggest that in many cases seminal truths were not available, as with Dr Faustus and The Spanish Tragedy. However I would suggest that such well-entertained Renaissance audiences most likely had to work harder to find them than classic Greek audiences might have done. Finally, as the connection between tragedy and nation-state was always present, it is unlikely that any seminal truths would have been conveyed undiluted by some very necessary ‘cultural lies’.

Use of Fragmentation in the modernist work of Forster, Eliot, and Woolf

montageIn large part, modernist writers responded to the social conditions of modernity which, for a variety of reasons, spelt a serious disconnect with the past; naturally the old has always given way to the new but such transition had never before been perceived as so obtrusive – so fragmented – as it was in the early 20th century.

Not only had scientific advances thrown prior conceptions of physical reality out of the window (for example, the installation of city street lamps had all but eliminated the distinction between night and day) but also philosophers like Nietzsche had undercut traditional notions of an ordered, meaningful metaphysical reality by, for example, eliminating God. If that were not bad enough, psychologists such as Freud and Jung undercut traditional notions of perceived reality with suggestions that it was not human rationality running the show (as had been believed for almost 400 years) but instead an uncontrollable unconscious manifesting either as unruly, repressed personal desires or collective archetypal patterns reflected in myth and dreams.

Hence for purposes of this essay, I define fragmentation as any technique used by modernist writers to address these many fragmented, often seemingly disconnected, strands underlying modern constructions of reality. I suggest that whether or not such techniques are useful depends on the purpose for which the writer chose to use them and whilst we can never know what that purpose was, it is virtually impossible to determine if they were useful except in the limited sense that we as readers get a sense of the turmoil that society must have in some degree felt during this period.

Some modernist writers like EM Forster sought to connect fragmented bits of reality. For example in Howards End, Forster juxtaposed physical manifestations of the old and new; the idyllic countryside (‘untroubled meadows’) is viewed by Mrs Munt from the train on her journey to Howard’s End. She sees it as ‘awakening after a nap of a hundred years’ to such ‘life’ as is conferred by the ‘stench of motor-cars’. But if Mrs Munt was ‘equally indifferent’ to ‘history’ – ‘tragedy’ – the ‘past’ and the ‘future’, Forster was not. He uses that stinky motor-car as a symbol for death and destruction – Charles (with his fit-for purpose ‘gloves and spectacles’) who virtually becomes his car (his father admonishes – your ‘one idea is to get into a motor’) kills Mr Bast, and the paddock is sacrificed for a garage to house the motor, and the motor-car ‘flattens’ a cat. But no matter how often characters urge each other to ‘bridge’ the gap (between what is never made precisely clear) for the most part they seem to fail except perhaps through the marriage of Margaret (old order) and Henry Wilcox (new order) – neither of whom (interestingly) drives a ‘motor’!

But whilst Forster seeks connections, TS Eliot seems to glorify in disconnectedness especially in regards to metaphysical reality; in his poem The Wasteland, there are numerous references to a troubled Christianity – for example in the section entitled A Game of Chess, a reference to the ‘sylvan scene’ (an allusion to the 4th book of Paradise Lost by John Milton where Satan came in the view of Eden) serves as an appropriate forecast for the immediately following allusion to Philomela who was violently raped by her sister’s husband, Tiresias (who may be equated with Satan). The message would appear to be that all hell is breaking loose in creation.

Most certainly as each different section of The Wasteland shifts to the next without transition (or sometimes without even obvious links), we get a sense of how frustrated and lost that society must have felt when all around them they got the same message. But unlike Howards End, The Wasteland seems to suggest connections cannot be made. In What the Thunder Said, we learn from the poem’s speaker that he will be unable to ‘set my lands in order” because ‘London bridge is falling down’ – and that the ‘fragments’ have been ‘shored against my ruins’.

Whilst both Forster and Eliot draw attention to the problems inherent in making connections a fragmented reality, Virginia Woolf seems to suggest everything will sort itself out in the natural course of time. For example, in her autobiographical writings, Moments of Being, she states that she personally takes ‘great delight’ in pulling together her own ‘severed parts’ by dredging through memories (perceptions of time) – much in the same way that many of her fictional characters appear to do.

For example, in Mrs Dalloway, the ebb and tide of Clarissa’s day are a jumble of events, places, and people bound together solely by (often disparate and fragmented) memories spanning more than thirty years. Quite how reflections on the ‘most exquisite moment of her whole life’ when she had been kissed by Sally Seton are connected with her own ‘faults, jealousies, vanities, and suspicions’ (conjured up by Lady Bruton having not asked her to lunch) is left to the reader’s (vivid) imagination. But the way they are presented as a given – we sense that Woolf was never in doubt that they were connected. In Orlando, the only continuity between the hero turned heroine after a four-hundred year romp through history is his/her memories and face. Indeed, memory or personal perceptions of reality, are again here the binding thread – ‘running her needle in and out – up and down – hither and thither’ in a way that clock ‘time’ (which makes ‘animals and vegetables bloom with amazing punctuality’) can never do.

In summary, if we evaluate the usefulness of techniques of fragmentation for modernist writers in terms of whether their readers get some sense of the frustration that 20th century western society must have felt in the wake of changes on so many levels of ‘reality’, I suggest that at least in regards to Forster, Eliot, and Woolf it has been useful albiet in different ways; Forster suggesting that connections can be made between the fragments and provides clues how this might be achieved. Eliot suggests that such connections are inconcievalbe and we had better just make do with what we have with the fragmented ‘ruins’. Finally Woolf suggests that connections are not only are possible (through our perceptions of reality) as we grow older (and presumably wiser) these connections will be naturally be made.

The Pinch of Pisces

pisces-tiny-blueAccording to mundane astrologers, the conjunction of Neptune/Pluto heralds transformation on a mass scale – old empires dissolve and ancient institutions crumble.

Almost overnight art, science, and religion change direction and people change their whole outlook on life. Although the effect will be felt immediately, it will take well over 100 years until the seeds sown at the conjunction will have fully sprouted with the incoming square (the average synodic cycle of Neptune/Pluto is 492 years).

The current Neptune/Pluto cycle commenced in the 1880’s-1890’s when perceptions of ‘reality’ underwent an extreme makeover: for example – Sigmund Freud published Studies in Hysteria (a significant breakthrough in the study of the human mind) and William James published The Principles of Psychology, another boundary-pushing landmark in humanistic psychology.

In The Astrological Neptune and the Quest for Redemption, Liz Greene suggests that the Neptune/Pluto expresses itself primarily through religion.

Perhaps it’s no coincidence that in 1882 (The Gay Science), Nietzsche proclaimed that ‘God is dead’?

Imagine that it’s now 2063 and that incoming square is upon us.

Not only has post humanism made redundant our most fundamental assumption that God is superior to man but also that man is in turn superior to nature. This leaves nothing left but nature and the funny thing is that the distinctions were all manmade in the first place.

If you want to learn how this all turns out, the follow this blog as, building on the work of William James, I commence my next novel  – The Pinch of Pisces.

As one character will so aptly put it:

“Today, the idea that there’s a separate God, or whatever you like to call the numen driving the universe, is clearly bunk.  It’s all a matter of perception.”

Political Posturing or Master-Slave Morality – in the ‘Free World’

Treasury Minister David Gauke has just told us that paying tradesmen cash (in order to secure a discount against 20% VAT) is morally wrong.

This should come as no surprise.  It’s long been a popular ploy for leaders to suggest that their mandate is God-given.

In the olden days, this was accomplished through invoking the Divine Right of Kings.  Today, it is accomplished through invoking ‘morality’ – which – at least in Judeo-Christian cultures – comes fully loaded with notions of Divine reward and retribution through heaven and hell.

I suggest that those who so easily invoke ‘morality’ on their side,  have given little serious thought as to what it might mean or perhaps more interesting – from whence the concept might come.

Luckily for us, Nietzsche has done just that.

In his essay Good and Evil, Good and Bad, Nietzsche illustrates two different moral codes, with origins appearing to date back to ancient times.  The first applies to the nobility – or masters – while the second applies to the lower class – or slaves.

Nietzsche suggests that while the upper class moral code was designed to be better than that of the lower class (i.e. to hold superiority over the lower classes by suggesting that being rich is good while being poor is bad), the lower class – through spite and resentment – have created their own moral code which in some respects is ultimately superior.

In the case of Mr Gauke’s ‘cash payments to tradesmen’, it would seem that the lower class ‘slaves’ (i.e. tradesmen and those who employ them) have indeed created their own moral code, which Mr Gauke as coined the hidden economy.   In laymen’s lingo, it’s known as just trying to ‘get on’.

While Mr Gauke may believe his moral code to be superior, Nietzsche would suggest that it is not.

This is because the government’s master morality (however dressed up) defines itself solely by reference to that which furthers the rich and noble.

In other words (unlike slave morality which at least seeks to further the interests of society as a whole), the master morality of Mr Gauke is self serving, self-centred, and self-fullfilling.

Given that we believe ourselves to live in the ‘free world’, is it any wonder that the slaves have rebelled?

The Unbearable Lightness of Being – Saturn & Jupiter in Existential Balance

Astrologically, we equate responsibility with Saturn.  With Saturn, we undertake our duties and obligations seriously and in this way, we achieve.

When things go wrong however, we’re more reluctant to take responsibility. Thus the downside of Saturn is fault and blame.

In On the Genealogy of Morals (3:15), Nietzsche has suggested that fault and blame are the bitter fruits of ‘responsibility’.  This is because in our society, responsibility is not understood in terms of our ‘ability to respond’ but instead in terms of the spirit of revenge.

In existentialist terms, the spirit of revenge is a powerful narcotic that numbs the inevitable pain and misery of existence.  ‘Shit happens’.  It happens despite the ‘best laid plans of mice and men’.

When we respect misfortune as an inevitable part of living, we can utilise our innate ability to respond to life  (Nietzsche).

But whilst embraced by the spirit of revenge, no man can respect true misfortune.  He can have no understanding of the context in which misfortune manifests.  Focused on channelling his passions into vengefulness and spite, such a man can never respect, let alone love,  anybody or anything.

Only a foolish man believes that each misfortune which befalls him, was intentionally directed at him.   Yet many of us do just that.

A more productive approach might be to take ourselves less seriously.   This might be achieved through the more positive aspects of irresponsibility – i.e. having lightheaded fun.  Not only does  light-heartedness promote health, but it also helps us to learn – and accept – basic realities about life.

The natural antidote of Saturn is Jupiter.  When Jupiter  functions properly,  we are optimistic, take chances and have good luck.  Too much Jupiter however leads to extravagance and frivolity – hence the bad associations with irresponsibility.

In my book, balance is the key to health and happiness.  It would seem Nietzsche might agree.  According to him (in a theme developed by Kundera in his novel The Unbearable Lightness of Being), the heaviest burden (responsibility) is also boundless freedom (irresponsibility).

In this regard, taking responsibility for your own life allows you to accept it for what it is – a game of chance in which sometimes you win… and sometimes you lose.

Blaming yourself or others achieves nothing but more pain.