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Dossier : Phantasia


Dynamics and variations of Nietzsche’s couple

Pietro Pucci


Cet article analyse l’éblouissante invention métaphorique de Nietzsche dans la Naissance de la Tragédie pour décrire les pulsions et les principes apolliniens et dionysiens : c’est en partie à cause de cet apparat métaphorique créatif, mais débridé et parfois confus que ses lecteurs et interprètes ont souvent privilégié l’opposition et même la polarité entre les deux dieux plutôt que leur conciliation, ce que Nietzsche appelle leur « mariage » et création, à savoir la tragédie. Cette préférence a été renforcée par la conception romantique qui voyait, et voit encore, la tragédie grecque comme un conflit entre des forces inégales. Cet article analyse la critique récente de la tragédie qui, implicitement ou explicitement, se réfère à ces thèmes nietzschéen, à savoir celle de Dodds, de Carlo Diano, de l’école ritualiste, et enfin de Nicole Loraux avec son explicite retour à Nietzsche.

Texte intégral

Apollo and Dionysos

1The pair Apollo and Dionysus in Nietzsche’s The Birth of Tragedy (1870-1871) has been fortunate and succesfull in the classical and non classical critical literature in the same measure in which it has been simultaneously misred and misinterpreted.

  • 1 I refer to the pages and the paragraphs of the German edition of Die Geburt der Tragodie, ed. by Gi (...)

2The text of The Birth of Tragedy is of course complicit with this sort of misreadings. It is infinitely suggestive, explosive, polysemic, and in some way uncontrollable ; its aesthetic, physiological, philosophical registers constantly crissscross and tinge different aspects of the main characters in colorful, alive traits. Apollo is dream-illusion, sheltering power ; on a philosophical register, he is the condition of « appearance » and of the principium individuationis etc. ; Dionysus is intoxication, music, myth, loss of the self, and finally is identifiable with the thing in itself. All these traits are made alive and picturesque by rich figures of speech producing a delirious, revelling, and ecstatic style. Nietzsche was fully aware of at least some of these peculiar aspects of his work when 16 years later he wrote an « Attempt at a Selfcriticism » (Versuch einer Selbstcritic)1.

3He conceded : « It [the book] was terribly diffused (viel zu lang) and full of « Sturm und Drang »… (p. 13) It is poorly written, heavy handed, embarrassing (peinlich). The imagery is both frantic and confused (bilderwüthig und bilderwirrig…) » (p. 14). All readers sensitive to the rhetoric of the work recognize the caotic and inconsistent nature of the figures and, above all, of the metaphors, especially when these concern both the polarity and the reconciliation of the two divine entities.

4One of the most telling features of the « Selbstcritic » is that the name of Apollo never appears and that Dionysus and his attributes become sufficient and necessary to understand the birth and the spirit of tragedy, even in its Wagnerian rebirth. This absence of Apollo from the « Selbstcritic » confirms the reading of the critics who have studied the rhetorical rush and drive of the work and recognized the weak even problematic role of Apollo and the absolute preeminence of Dionysus. As Apollo represents appearance, the pictorial, the image, the illusion that bespeaks the thing in itself, i.e. Dionysus, this apollonian function is unraveled, in Nietzsche’s text, through various metaphors which sometimes enhance its necessity (the Apollonian appearance and illusion are the necessary shelter against the terrible truth of the dionysian) or its conciliation with Dionysus in the creation of tragedy, but often, on the contrary, marginalize, reduce or even nullify its role.

5I am going to read some of the images and metaphors that sustain the poetic presence and autonomy of Apollo, but will focus on those that bespeak the reconciliation of the two gods in the « procreation » of tragedy. This latter situation is both the most problematic and critically the most interesting, as we will see.

6The necessity and the dominance of the Apollonian role becomes explicit and assured only in the poetry of Homer and in the Doric art. In these artistic manifestations, the Apollonian spirit is appearance, dream, and beauty in so far it represents the artistic illusion. Through that spirit the Greeks could face the terrible wisdom of Silenus, according to which the best thing for man is not to be born. That spirit created the Homeric Olympus, with its anthropomorphic gods, enjoying a luxuriant, triumphant existence (Dasein), and constantly intermingling with the humans, what Nietzsche calls « the only satisfactory theodicy ever invented ». Only through Apollo the Greeks were saved from savagery and could reach the sublime serenity of Homer, that serenity that Nietzsche in later works will attribute to the artists in general, as they operate in full consciousness of the illusory quality of their language.

« All that which he [Apollo] could accomplish now was to wrest the destructive weapon by a timely gesture of pacification (Vesöhnung) from his adversary’s hand » (p. 32, § 20-23).

7This shelter however is nullified by the invasion of Dionysus in tragedy. The opposition (Gegensatz) between Apollo and Dionysus, so orgiastically described in many pages of the work, turns into a sort of collaboration, of reconciliation, as Nietzsche often calls it. In a very often quoted passage (p. 42), Nietzsche writes :

« And our eyes will come to rest on the sublime and most lauded achievement of the dramatic dithyramb and Attic tragedy, as the common goal of both urges : whose mysterious marriage after long discord ennobled itself in such a child, at once Antigone and Cassandra ».

  • 2 Concerning the happy combination of apollonian and dionysiac seeds in the creation of tragic childr (...)

8Mysterious marriage indeed : two male gods becoming a fertile couple and producing children ! Mysterious also because the relationship between the two gods is not always described with such a productive image as here through the procreation of tragic children : in one passage, as we will soon see, the apollonian element comes out from the dionysiac « womb » much less powerful than the « marriage » metaphor here would lead us to surmise2.

9The reconciliation and the marriage between the two gods in the privileged event of the tragedy, imply of course the differential accord of principles that remain opposed : this difficult and « mysterious » collaboration constitutes an important critical point for it is not accounted for by a sort of dialectical ‘thesis’, with the resolution of the opposites but by an arcane collaboration and contiguity of original differences.

  • 3 Allegories of Reading, New Haven-London, 1979.

10But the text does not speak of differences and of contiguity : it revels in picturesque metaphors. One way to understand how this colaboration works is offered by Paul De Man who realizes the symbolic role of the apollonian in this marriage. He writes3 : « The actual meaning of the Apollonian appearance is not the empirical reality it represents, but the Dionysian insight into the illusory quality of this reality » (p. 92). In what way does the apollonian « represent » the Dionysiac insight ?

11De Man interprets the role of the Apollonian as appearance in analogy with the meaning of the metaphor, a meaning that springs out from the meaning of something in which meaning and being supposedly coincide. « The meaning engenders and determines the metaphor as the appearance or the sign of this meaning » (p. 90). In effect the metaphorical meaning, what today we call the vehicle, would be a symbolic extension of the « real » meaning, of the tenor. According to this Nietzschean view of metaphor, the assumption remains unchallenged that a coincidence between meaning and being exists outside the tropoi, and that all language has a symbolic meaning, since it recalls through various degrees of mediation (or of genetic derivation) being in itself. Namely, and ultimately, Dionysus.

12This interpretation correctly explains why finally Apollo disappeared from the couple. In the same wake, but grounding my analysis on some Nietzschean metaphors, I prefer to see the role that Nietzsche attributes to Apollo as the role of a mere signifier, in the classical conception of the signifier as an unobtrusive, transparent carrier of the signified. In effect the apollonian simply allows the dionysiac signified to appear and be perceived, and if this is the marriage between the two gods it is a sort of unconsummated marriage. In a passage in which a number of extravagant and pictorially conspicuous metaphors pile caotically one upon the other, we read (p. 62, 5 ff.) :

«…we have to understand Greek tragedy as the dionysiac chorus, which again and again discharges itself (entladet) in a world of Apollonian images. Those chorus parts with which tragedy is interlaced, are also, so to speak, the womb (Mutterschoss) of the dialogue, i.e. of the whole stage world of the actual drama. This original ground of tragedy irradiates (aus strahlt), in several consecutive discharges (Entladungen), that vision of the drama, a vision that is absolutely Dream Illusion (Traumer = scheinung) in so far it is of epic nature, but on the other hand also objectivation of a dionysiac condition, not the apollonian redemption (Erlöslung) in illusion, but on the contrary the shattering of the individual and its becoming one with the original being (Ursein). Therefore drama is the apollonian « making perceivable » (Versinnlichung) of Dionysian knowledge and powers and therefore is separated by an enormous chiasm from the epic ».

13To follow the delirious play of these metaphors is not simple, but highly instructive. The apollonian images are the « irradiations » of dionysian « discharges » (Entladungen) – squirts of some Dionysiac liquid (wine, sperm, and so on), or, more plausibly the rays of some Dionysiac light, or spiritual intensity. Then, the apollonian is identified with the dialogue that comes out from the « womb » of the Dionysiac chorus : the female mate for the marriage of the two gods finally appears, but what pops out from the « womb » is a sort of enfeebled entity, since, as Nietzsche will say later, the dialogue is either a transparent surface, therefore scarsely active (p. 64 § 26), or it is inadequate to represent the full dionysiac spirit (p. 109, § 18). We realize that Apollo cannot function as a potent mate in the fertile marriage between himself and Dionysus.

14These problematic apollonian « irradiations » in the dramatic dialogue show an apollonian vision to the extent that its epic derivation is recognizable, but actually they objectify, i.e. give an objective look, to the dionysiac vision of oneness with the Ursein. Summarizing, Nietzsche resorts to the metaphor of Versinnlichung : this figure seems to declare that the apollonian images, « irradiations », « squirts », and whatever gets out from the dionysiac womb, simply serves to make sensorially perceivable the vision of Dionysus. Apollo, therefore, is a signifier.

15The apollonian role as a signifier would not, by itself, lose its combined and equal importance with Dionysus’, if Nietzsche were not reducing its own distictiveness and effects, by making it, as in this last metaphor (Versinnlichung), the most unobtrusive and the most transparent medium of Dionysus’ spirit. Notwithstanding the rich density of the apollonian matter that bespeaks the dionysiac, the apollonian in fact is added to the Dionysiac fullness as a maimed signifier. This mutilation or dispossession of the signifier occurs in various other passages. Speaking a little later of the characters’ dialogue in tragedy Nietzsche writes (p. 64, § 26) :

« Everything that comes to the surface in the Apollonian parts of the Greek tragedy, i.e. in the dialogue, looks simple, transparent (durchsichtig), beautiful. In this sense the dialogue is a mirror (Abbild) of the Greek whose nature manifests itself in the dance, since in dance the maximum power is only potentially present, but betrays itself in the suppleness and opulence of the movement. The language of Sophocles surprises us by its determinacy and lucidity so that we imagine (wähnen) that we can glance at its innermost being, and we are somewhat surprised that we had such a short way to go ».

  • 4 Another image used by Nietzsche is that of the « veil » (Schleier) : see for instance (p. 34, § 9-1 (...)

16As it is clear from these figures, the dialogue has a surface veneer of beauty, that is diaphanous (durchsichtig), a mere trasparency (copy Abbild) of the Greek’s nature : it allows us to go through it to the innermost being, directly, quickly, without any obtrusion. All this description shows that the dialogue as a form, as a signifier, as a mirror, has no real body by itself, no modifying, interfering nature, no difference from the signified, no arbitrariness or unmotivation. Only in the analogy with the dance the signifying surface implies some difference from its signified, since it does not express its maximum of force, but it does so only potentially : though itself inadequate, it lets see what lies behind it4.

  • 5 This is a theme frequently elaborated by Derrida : see for instance De la Grammatologie, Paris, 196 (...)

17The mutilation or degradation of the signifier, either as a mere mirror that does not interfere with the meaning or as an inadequate entity that nevertheless lets us see behind it, are typical moves already present in Plato’s dialogues and are familiar within western metaphsysics. For the reduction of the signifier to a mere transparency, or to a pure non-interference opens the way to an utopian view of language as being capable of producing a pure and full rendition of the « meaning », of the « soul », of the « music », i.e. a presence5.

  • 6 In the whole work there are very few reflections on the language of tragedy, for instance, its diff (...)

18While all these metaphors, reverberation, Versinnlichung, Objectivation etc. evoke some aspects of the signifier, Nietzsche is most frequently insensitive to the force and function of the signifier6. One of these rare reflection is found in a passage (p. 109, § 18) where Nietzsche analyzes the speeches of the tragic heroes and finds them inadequate :

« They seem to us always more superficial in their speeches than in their deeds ; the myth [music !] never [I underline] finds an adequate objective correlative (Objectivation) in the spoken words. The structure of the scene, and the alive images (anschaulichen Bilder) convey a deeper wisdom than the poet was able to put in words and concepts… »

  • 7 « Le Détour », in Poétique, 5, 1971, p. 70.

19Here the term « words » itself, signifier and signified combined together (the logos), functions merely as a signifier, the shadow we might say, of music and myth and of their contents (the deeds, the alive images). Let us remember that the tragic dialogue comes out from the womb of the Dionysiac chorus. No wonder that it is so inadequate : music is, in an often quoted passage of Schopenauer, the direct mirror (or copy, Abbild) of will itself (unmittelbares Abbild des Willens, p. 107, § 17 ff.). On this point see the illuminating commentary of Ph. Lacoue-Labarthe7. Because of this immediacy the means such as Objectivation, Versinnlichung, and reverberations that convey music/myth produce nothing really adequate, they are only vague shadows of what nevertheless is perceivable, in its entirety, behind them.

20On p. 63, § 13, we read :

« The satyr is a replica (Abbild) of nature and of its strongest urges (Triebe), yet a symbol of these and at the same time a herald (Verkünder) of its wisdom and art : musician, poet, dancer, visionary combined in one person ».

  • 8 It has been sometimes suggested that when the feverish, ecstatic spirit of Dionysius takes over, mu (...)

21Apollo, the signifier, the image, the figure, the squirt, etc. has disappeared completely, since nature and its urges are immediately embodied in a character, the Satyr, who is at once a replica of nature and a voice (verkündigen = « to announce ») of the same. Signified and signifier have collapsed in one entity or being8.

  • 9 The influence of Nietzsche on the literature and the arts is so vast that it would take volumes to (...)

22This short analysis of some metaphorical « discharges » of the Birth of Tragedy has shown two features. (1) The degradation or even the disappearance of the signifier, i.e. of the apollonian occurs often in the text, even when Apollo is explicitly and grandiloquently said to collaborate with his antagonist Dionysus in the creation of Greek tragedy. Yet, as we have seen, this degradation or even disappearance of Apollo occurs behind the veil of metaphors and remains, so to speak, hidden or unknown to the explicit statements that uphold the radical antagonism and the occasional, mysterious marriage of the two gods. (2) The result has been that most readers of the Nietzschean work, beginning immediately after its publication, have taken the explicit antagonism between the two gods as the gist of Nietzsche’s ideas, and have belittled the effects of the « mysterious » marriage between the two gods. This was bound to occur, for beside the hidden disappearance of Apollo beneath the surface of the metaphors, the text constantly proposes, on different registers, different positions : the overarching opposition between the two gods, Apollo’s early domination, their reconciliation in tragedy, Dionysos’domination, etc. So it will not be a surprise that the first artists, writers, and scholars who made an immediate use of The Birth of Tragedy, drew from it essentially the notion of the antagonism between the two gods. Here I leave aside literature and the arts to focus on the after-life of Nietzsche’s The Birth of the Tragedy in contemporary classical scholarship9.

  • 10 Nietzsche on tragedy, Cambridge, 1981, p. 178 where they quote M. P. Nilsson, A History of Greek Re (...)
  • 11 See the essay by Albert Henrichs, « Loss of Self, Suffering, Violence : the Modern View of Dionysus (...)
  • 12 See M.S. Silk and J.-P. Stern, Nietzsche on Tragedy, Cambridge University Press 1981, p. 260. Of co (...)

23A number of important scholars, (Nilsson, Guthrie, Dodds and others) who, in the beginning and in the middle of the century, followed in their own way the path of the two conflicting gods have been analysed by M.S. Silk and J.-P. Stern10. Dodds in The Greeks and the Irrational (Berkeley, 1951) occasionally accepts the antithesis, as when he writes : « Apollo promised security : Understand your station as man ; do as the Father tells you ; and you will be safe to-morrow » and « Dionysos offered freedom : Forget the difference and you will find the identity ; join the thiasos, and you will be happy to-day » (p. 76), where it is possible to hear some of Nietzsche’s metaphors, for instance the one that attributes to Apollo a protection, a « shelter »11 and to Dionysus the elimination of the individual difference. This appears to be more remarkable when one realizes that Dodds disagrees with Rohde’s use of Nietzsche’s polarity, and develops almost exclusively the dionysiac presence, especially described on an anthropological register as the physiological effects that Nietzsche has touched upon – possession, maenadism, and intoxication. The same Dodds in a famous essay of 1927 in polemic against Nietzsche, – who is however not quoted – disentangles Euripides from Socrates by defining Euripides as an « irrationalist »12.

  • 13 Aristotle’s Poetics. Translated with an Introduction and Notes by James Hutton, New York, 1982, cha (...)

24The critical success of the Nietzschean polarity has helped to preserve and sustain the conception of tragedy as the linguistic and scenic artifact through which a conflict of opposed existential, political and ethical views and powers takes place. This conception goes back to the romantic critics, especially Schlegel and Hegel. Schlegel’s exemplary or paradigmatic conflict implied a hero who, without any chance of winning, fights and asserts in this way his freedom against the forces globally identifiable as fate. This view of tragedy did succeed in silencing the Aristotelian conception which harbors no idea of conflict. As it is known, Aristotle defines tragedy as « an imitation of an action that is serious, complete, possessing magnitude ;… and effecting through pity and fear the catharsis of such emotions »13. This definition accounts for all the tragedies we possess, while the romantic one would not embrace or embrace only very partially plays like the Trachiniae, Alcestis, Trojan Women, and many others. The romantic definition would also simplify the complexities of the conflicts : in Sophocles’ Philoctetes the conflict unfolds between the historical, not to say metaphysical, destiny of Greece embodied by Odysseus and the relentless refusal of Philoctetes to support that destiny ; but Neoptolemus enters this conflict and modifies its issues. Orestes in Euripides’ Orestes does not fight only against his mother’s supporters, and the tyrannical power of the dêmos, but also against his conscience (the Furies) and his own weakness.

  • 14 Forma ed evento. Principii per una interpretazione del mondo greco, Venezia, 1960. There is a frenc (...)

25Classical scholars have also rewritten the Nietzschean polarities under different entities and ideas and on different registers. As an eccentric example of an original polarity that recalls that of Nietzsche in its ambitious comprehensiveness, as well as on some specific points, I present here the essay of Carlo Diano, Forma ed evento, an essay that enjoyed popularity in Italy in the sixties and the seventies14. In this essay, Diano tries to embrace the whole of Greek culture under two exclusive and polar phenomenological principles, « Form », (eidos) and « Event » the (accidental) happening, (tukhê). For all the generalizations and the constraints that this polarity produces on Greek culture and its texts, it also reveals fertile insights and sharp anticipations : for instance, the neat differences between the Iliad and the Odyssey on many narrative and ideal registers are sharply described by Diano under the labels of « form » for the Iliad and « event » for the Odyssey.

26« Form » (the greek eidos) is defined as that in which « being » and the « being seen » coincide : such an extraordinary conjunction gives light and presence to the gods and the heroes of the Iliad (not those of the Odyssey), to the heroes of Pindar, and to the gods and men of Phidias. Form is beauty, glory, Musean song and is congruous with other absolutes ; it coincides with the visible figure and that is why the gods are anthropomorphic. As Achilles lives only to obtain immortal kleos, he breathes the aura of an absolute that has no temporality nor geography. Like him, all the figures of Form place themselves outside space and time, and therefore outside the accidentality of the events.

  • 15 On other completely different registers it would be possible to present an analogous dichotomy and (...)
  • 16 « Un momento di un processo che si chiude in cielo, un verbo del discorso divino ».

27Plato will separate the Forms from the concrete figures in which they are visible and send them to heaven as almost ghostly manifestations or beings. The master ideologues of the Event are the Stoics who will deny the forms and interpret them as events : not the « virtue of Socrates », they will state, but « Socrates is virtuous in a specific act »15. The event is « the moment of a process that has its term in heaven, a word of the divine discourse » (p. 36)16.This divine discourse (Logos) has reason and providence. Though Diano does not deal with the question of semiotics in the relation between Event and Logos it is possible for us to draw it and illuminate it. The Stoic event, « epiphany of the Logos » as Diano calls its, is a spark of the divine Logos : it stands for it as an isolated word, whereas the Logos, knowing the myriad events, knows all the words and their ultimate reason. The Logos drags men to the accomplishment of its reason even if men do not wish it. An event is a divine word, and all the events together are the Logos itself. The signifier is missing.

28It is clear that « Form » is the reinterpretation that Diano gives to some aspects of Apollo’s drive in Nietzsche, in particular of the creative power of illusion that Apollo produces, though in Nietzsche this illusion must be scattered by the truth of the Silenus, Dionysus, and his chorus. For Diano, Apollo is, among the gods, the most representative of the Form, of the eternal eidos of gods and heroes, lighted and enlightened by the aiglê (light : compare the ‘sunlight’ Nietzsche attributes to the gods living with men in Homer) that surrounds them ; he is the god who contains for a long time the pressure of the Event (p. 20) of which Dionysus is a privileged expression :

« It is Dionysus that invades and overturns the world of the Forms, a god whose symbol is an empty mask : the empty and ephimeral figure the Event assumes in its changing moods… He [Dionysus] drags on a stage, before the orchestra where his goats dance, Homer’s gods, he strips them of their royal clothes, wrings each face off, and makes of it a mask ; beneath that mask he displays the naked man, the man that is in all of us, and teaches that man is nothing » (pp. 62-63).

29It is impossible here to miss the spirited rhetoric and the oracular onrush of some of Nietzsche’s pages and to miss the inversion of values that Diano produces, as his Dionysus administers, as the Nietzschean Dionysus does, the teaching of Silenus, thereby ruining the perfect or ideal world of Apollo and the Forms.

  • 17 See P. Pucci, « Theoloy and Poetics in the Iliad », Arethusa, 31, (2002), pp. 17-34.

30What is specifically Greek, according to Diano, is the open eye gazing at the Forms. This view of Greek specificity gives rise to objections when Diano tinges his two drives, Form and Event, with arbitrary shades of ethnicity and gender ; but to solid perplexities as well because of the absolute privilege he grants to the Form. The metaphysical stance holds in its grip the Stoic event, as we have seen, but more obviously the Forms, as they appear visibly, phenomenologically, in their identity with being. It is not that the Homeric reader fails to be fascinated precisely by this splendid metaphysical view of the gods, or that Homer did not see them exactly as Diano brings them to life for us, but Diano’s representation is blind to the many tensions, obstructions and driftings that the signifier produces. The constant presence of the gods to the human actions functions also as a narrative device that assures the listeners (and readers) of the truth of these actions and of their enormous interest. This function becomes explicit at some crucial moments17 and reveals the divine presence as a narrative expediency, without necessarily depriving them of divine power. It is Homer’s narrative that ambitions to be immortal as its gods and the kleos this narrative grants to the gods’children are : both these gods and the heroic kleos are so to speak inscribed in this narrative ambition and its overpowering rush.

  • 18 See for instance P. Mazon, Introduction à l’Iliade, Paris, 1959 : « Il n’y a pas de théologie chez (...)

31Some of these narrative tensions have driven critics to be sceptical about the divine being, the religious essence of these figures and notice a split between the figure and the being. It is easy to see a tension or even a discrepancy between the majestic nodding of Zeus in Iliad, I, 525-30 and the funny description of his uxorial troubles. Many interpreters indeed have preferred to consider the Homeric gods as literary, i.e. fictional elaborations or symbolic figures18. But even for one interpreting them as divine beings, the instability of their shape is problematic : they may appear as fire, or as possessing a much larger stature than mortals, or one similar to that of mortals or being indistinguishable from the mortal figure they take in disguise. Even when they appear as themselves (as Aphrodite partially does in book III of the Iliad) it is never clear how really they are « themselves ». They appear as the narrative needs them to appear.

32Furthermore their divine being does not simply show contradictory or discrepant aspects, it is unknowable. The language of the Muses does not deliver to the poet all the secrets of the divine beings : their motivations remain unknown or inexplicable in the most important of their decisions concerning men : they live visibly among mortals, but their minds often are elsewhere and unseen. In all these conditions, what does the identity between form and being really mean ?

  • 19 See Anton F. Harald Bierl, Dionysos und die Griechische Tragödie, Tübingen, 1991 ; John J. Winkler (...)
  • 20 Ritual and Reciprocity. Homer and Tragedy in the Developing City-State, Oxford, Clarendon Press, 19 (...)

33A return to Dionysus has been celebrated in recent years by various scholars under different skies, but especially in the Anglosaxon world19. A number of scholars have interpreted Greek tragedy as a ritualized Dionysiac representation, arguing from the nature of its plot, which they equate with cult aetiology (crisis, confusion, and re-establishment of the order), from the thematic preeminence of sacrifices and other rituals (funerals, supplications, etc.), and from its performance during the Great Festival in honor of Dionysus. As such, tragedy would constitute a powerful means of consolidating the polis’ religious and political unity. I exemplify this new tendency by one of its strong theoretician, Richard Seaford, who has presented a new face of Dionysus in Greek culture. In his 1994 book20, the result of years of research, he discovers in Dionysus a principle of order, of civic union, and stability, a role that deeply contrasts with that attributed to the same god by Nietzsche. His revised conception of Dionysus’ function and effect in Greek society attributes to this god multiple services to the community of citizens : by destroying, through his inspired madness, their tyrants and despots, he gives them the city for themselves ; he creates through his cults and tragedies a new spirit of communion which binds the city and the countryside, unifying all Attica ; and by sending the women to revel and celebrate orgiastic cults in the mountains, he liberates women from the absolute control of the males :

« The cult of Dionysos (i.e. ritual and its associated myths) transmitted a pattern of action to tragedy : the self-destruction of the ruling family, expressed in the perversion of ritual, ends in benefit, and in particular in a foundation of cult, for the whole polis. The frenzy that may accompany this self-destruction is often described in Dionysian terms, even where Dionysos himself has no part in the myth » (p. xix).

  • 21 « The force that impels the city-saving self-destruction of the households is associated with Diony (...)
  • 22 « Dionysus does not impose frenzy haphazardly » (p. 357).
  • 23 Bryn Mawr Classical Review, 6, 1995, p. 655.

34Even granting the anthropological slant from which Seaford judges tragedy, his conclusions put a strait-jacket on it. The point that Dionysos, embodying the unitary force of the city state, achieves the establishment of (democratic) order by inspiring self-destructive madness into the members of the aristocratic households21, is an unbelievable, even ridiculous move, if presented as a conscious political strategy22, and is certainly unsupported by a close reading of the texts. Even for the « model-case » of this interpretation, Euripides’Bacchants, these points are, to say the least, reductive and far-fetched. Seaford, for instance, asserts : « The Bacchae provides us with… a crisis that ends with the creation of the polis » (p. 255) : a surprising statement, since the text shows that a polis already exists at the beginning of the play, with a loyal army, and a royal household, while on the other it displays no concern on Dionysus’ part, once the royal household is ruined and dispersed, about who will replace this household, or how unified the city will be. To quote from Ch. Segal’s review of the book23 :

  • 24 Seaford’s communal Dionysus contrasts with Dionysus’alterity that is the themes of many critics. Se (...)

« Even allowing for the lost portion of Dionysus’ speech prophesying his future cult in Thebes, the play we have stresses neither the creation of order nor the benefit to the polis. The play in fact shows us very little of a polis other than what is associated with the royal family, and even that little is not positive (e.g. the clever talker from the town who makes the disastrous suggestion of attacking the maenads 717-21)…The mood of the ending is one of loss and desolation rather than regeneration or hope in some distant future24 ».

  • 25 « Nothing to do with Dionysus : Tragedy Misconceived as Ritual », Classical Quarterly, 52, 2002, pp (...)
  • 26 G. Ieranò, Il ditirambo di Dioniso, Pisa-Roma, 1997.

35This new Dionysus, reborn in tragedy as a political reformer, and as the inspirer of an exclusively edifying ecstasis, is only one version of the ritualistic interpretations of Greek tragedy that have attracted many readers. It would take too long to inquire into the reasons for this success : the presentation of Greek tragedy as a sort of primitive ritual, with its cruel human sacrifices, picturesque and pathetic supplications, profound religious and cerimonial anxiety etc., offers something bloody, original, shocking and piquing to our literary culture, so indulgent toward the narcissistic and ambivalent power of the word. The ritualistic view of Greek tragedy has been recently subjected to a severe and rigorous analysis by S. Scullion25, who has recognized in it the nostalgic heritage of Nietzsche at work : « Hypostasizing the development of tragic drama or the hard-won and constantly threatened openness of fifth- century Athenian intellectual culture as a manifestation of the god of masks who puts identity in question through ritual ecstasy is really the merest mystification, a late bloom, fertilized by Nietzsche, of Romantic Symbolik with its notion of a divine revelation through symbols of religious profundities too occult for syntax » (p. 135). Scullion’s analysis questions the absolute objectivity of Aristotle’ historical reconstruction of the derivation of tragedy from the dithyramb ; he quotes witnesses according to whom the dithyramb was not exclusively dionysiac ; in fact the Schol. Lond. in Dion. Thrac. Art. Gramm, Gr. I, 3 (p. 451 Hilgard) defines the dithyramb as the poetry sung for Dionysus or for Apollo. G. Ieranò26 connects this double attribution to the deep rooted cultual links between Dionysus and Apollo : already in the Vth century dithyrambs were performed during Apollo’s festivals and in apollonian contexts (Ieranò, pp. 170-171). A scholion in Aristoph. Ra. 320 (p. 284 Deubner) seems to assume not a genetic derivation of tragedy from dithyramb, but rather a parallel affinity between the two genres (Ieranò, p. 180).

36Scullion’ careful examination of sources and impassioned scrutiny of the main features that connect Dionysus to tragedy (festivals, masks etc.), provide substantial doubts toward, though not an irrefutable argument against, the historical and ritual grounds that are evoked as « evidence » by ritualist interpreters of Greek tragedy as a Dionysian cultic representation : the real weight of evidence would rest on the analysis of the tragedies themselves, an analysis that of course is not carried out here. Only one question is raised here concerning the metatheatrical force of passages which are thought today to provide evidence in favor of the ritualistic interpretation of Greek tragedy. One of these passages is the famous statement of the chorus in Sophocles’ Oedipus Tyrannos, lines 895-96 : at the sight of acts of irreverence and injustice, the chorus of Theban elders sing : « If such actions are held in honour, why should I dance ? » The statement is troubling for the Theban elders dance only inasmuch as they are performers in the play, and not as characters, i.e. counsellors of the King in the play. As such they have no reason to dance. The text therefore calls attention to the double identity of the elders and many scholars interpret this as a break of the dramatic illusion. Here the elders would invite the audience to understand : « Why should we Athenians citizens participate in this ritual, the tragedy, if impiety all around us dominates ? » The Athenian festival of Dionysus – during which the plays were performed – seems therefore to be evoked in the text itself. Dionysus invading the stage with his fervor and violence would annihilate tragedy’s staunch refusal to look back at and speak about itself through its own characters.

  • 27 L’Œdipe Roi de Sophocle. Le texte et ses interprétations, Lille, 1990, p. 584. See also my Oedipus (...)
  • 28 Ibid. p. 583.

37Scullion rejects this interpretation, invoking the principle that in tragedy the scenic illusion is never broken. Jean Bollack had already illustrated the necessity of this conclusion : « La loi du genre et la cohérence de la pensée poussent à laisser la réflexion du Chœur dans le cadre qu’elle-même se fixe. Le “moi” du Chœur est celui du sujet lyrique, formé par les citoyens de Thèbes, et il ne quitte pas son rôle, ni ne dit plus qu’il ne sait… »27. The audience has not perceived any double identity of the Elders as performers and as characters for the audience has taken « dance » (khoreuein) – when applied to the characters – with its figural sense of « honoring the gods by participating in their sacred rituals » (« la dance figure ici l’acte religieux par excellence, incluant tous les autres rites », Bollack)28, and with its literal meaning when applied to the performers : in this way no doubleness and no break of illusion would have come about.

38This being said, it is also clear that the audience will have recognized here Sophocles’ typical style, his enigmatic, almost oracular way of disorienting the audience’s expectations, and of producing upsetting surprises. For, in their shockingly impious reaction (« Why should I dance ? »), the Elders sound almost sceptical and contradict their edifying wish for purity at the beginning of their song. They induce the audience to think of the parallel reaction of Hesiod when in the Works and Days, being unable to see the justice of Zeus operating in the world, he cries out :

« Now I would wish not to be just among men, neither myself, nor my son, for it is bad for man to be just if the more unjust will receive more justice » (pp. 270-272).

  • 29 In the antistrophe, the Elders’ words will be even more upsetting : they demand that the oracles of (...)

39The disheartening, callous statement, dictated by the Theban Elders’ dispair, is unexpected and enigmatic for the audience, so that they may even think that the poet’s usual pious concerns are here vacillating, or at any rate are hard put : will Sophocles himself keep on complying, as he usually does as a citizen and as a writer with his religious and social commitments ? This ironic reading recognizes in the Chorus’ words the style of the poet and provides an amusing misreading, or serious suspicion of his art, without importing into the text the presence of the ritual act in honor of Dionysus29.

  • 30 The distinction between ritual and religious concerns is correctly and persuasively drawn by Fabien (...)

40The strongest arguments for questioning the correctness of the ritualistic reading of Greek tragedy should derive from internal analysis of the rituals that are mentioned and performed in the tragedies themselves. It is certainly true, as Burkert, Zeitlin, Seaford and many others have shown, that very often tragic language using sacrificial expressions and metaphors shapes the action in a fashion somewhat similar to the movement of cultic aetiology ; but the analysis of the metaphors’ figural impact and their spectrum of significance is a complex operation, requiring different interpretative keys for different authors : the assumption that these metaphors transform a plot into a sacred representation, the murders into corrupt or inverted or proleptic sacrifices excludes too readily other more complex legal, philosophical, religious, and literary motivations which should be analyzed case by case30. It is not here the occasion to discuss the import of this ritual and religious language in tragedy : a few hints may suffice to indicate the critical direction that should be taken.

  • 31 I modify slightly Lloyd Jones’ translation, The Oresteia, Berkeley-Los Angeles, 1979.
  • 32 It is of course a deviant sacrifice, but its tragic nature and effects are better analyzed through (...)
  • 33 In Aeschylus, human life is subjected to despair, famine, persecution, murder, war : the sacrificia (...)

41In Aeschylus’s Agamemnon, 228-247, the Chorus of old men describes with horror the sacrifice of Iphigenia performed by her father : « Her face downwards like a goat above the altar… she shot each of the sacrificers with a piteous dart from her eye, standing conspicuous as in the pictures… »31. The framing of this killing in the ritual register as a « corrupt sacrifice » does not give an account of its primary significance and of its true registers32. The killing of the girl is one of the two alternatives imposed by the goddess Artemis herself : accordingly it is a divinely sanctioned sacrifice. As soon as the girl is slaughtered, Artemis sends the propitious wind. The real question is how to account, in terms of Aeschylus poetics, for the peculiar cruelty and seemingly unmotivatedness of the goddess, and how to unravel the thorny question of Aeschylus’ theodicy and conception of divine persuasion33.

  • 34 We have a vase painting in an Attic amphora (c. 550 B.C.) that shows the sacrifice of Polyxena with (...)
  • 35 Pierre Judet de la Combe, L’Agamemnon d’Eschyle, Lille, 2002, tackles these questions in his commen (...)

42Even the specific procedures of the sacrifice, the binding of the victim, the theatricality of the scene, the cruelty of the father, etc. all this is the sheer and crude invention of the dramatist, since no such ceremonies had been performed during his time. Finally, the simile that equates Iphigenia’s prominence, or vividness to that which shines in the pictures (« standing conspicuous as in the pictures »), glosses over, or (we may say) sacrifices the specific ritual, the singularity of the girl and the brutality of this butchery, by tranferring them into a traditional artistic theme, which Aeschylus is imitating or competing with34. In this way, the brutal violence of this sacrifice is transformed in an artistic object, and Aeschylus’ writing mirrors itself in that object. Aeschylus’ writing becomes complicitous with Artemis’ and Agamemnon’s violence. The assessment of Aeschylus’ writerly violence should ask these questions, and see Artemis’ violence, the divine persuasion, and the theodicy as tenets of his poetics35.

  • 36 See P. Pucci, « Écriture tragique et récit mythique », in Europe, 77, 1999, pp. 209-234, where I in (...)

43The frequency of the human sacrifice in Greek tragedy increases with Euripides and, therefore, with a period and an author far removed from the time in which human sacrifices might occasionally have occurred on the battle field and long after from the religious intensity and fullheartedness of the archaic period ; this Euripidean favor for the representation of the human sacrifice must therefore be explained within the coordinates of his poetics. What he researches through these insistent, pathetic, sometimes sentimental representations of young girls or boys freely and nobly offering themselves to the sacrificial knife, must agree with the special « wisdom » (sophia) that his poetics elaborates, questions, accuses or approves, in a constant debate, a wisdom that ideally should produce, as his characters so often suggest, a remedy to human suffering36.

  • 37 The Mourning Voice : An Essay on Greek Tragedy. English translation by Elisabeth Trapnell Rawlings, (...)
  • 38 « Sous la fiction du conflit, sous la figure de l’incompatibilité ­ Apollon et le thrène, les Muses (...)

44A subtle and original return to Dionysus in Greek tragedy is celebrated by Nicole Loraux in her work The Mourning Voice37. In one masterly gesture she shows how the marriage of the antagonist gods really works and produces children in Greek tragedy. They together bring on stage strains of music that combine the apollonian lyre (greek and traditional) with the dionysiac aulos (the flute, foreign and barbarous), the song of the Muses (companions of Apollo) and the ecstatic dances of Dionysus. Appealing to Nietzsche, she redifines the « mysterious marriage » with the new term, « disconcerting complicity » : « Whether disguised as conflict, or figured as incompatibility (Apollo and the thrênos, the Muses and Dionysus, the aulos and the lyre, in short Dionysus and Apollo), what the tragedians strove to express was the disconcerting complicity of luminous speech with the alien accents of sung lamentations. Nietzsche’s greatness lies in his ability to understand and write about this. It is still important to truly read the Author of the Birth of Tragedy, rather than attributing to him a rigidity of thought that comes back to the antagonism between the Apollonian and the Dionysiac » (pp. 71-72)38.

  • 39 The Birth of Tragedy, trans. Walter Kaufmann, New York, 1967, chap. 6, p. 54. Yet Loraux does not f (...)

45Loraux’s promotion of music depends on the fact that it is Choral music that in Greek tragedy elaborates and creates the song of mourning. « Disconcerting complicity » (déroutante complicité), indeed : the music is no longer the « enthusiastic » cry of Dionysus, the dance is no longer the whirling of intoxicated choruses, the vortex in whose abyss one finds Dionysus’ identity with the thing in itself, but resounds around the stage as the apollonian-dionysiac musean music of mourning. This emphasis on music leads Loraux to approve of a passage of the Birth of Tragedy where Nietzsche discriminates « between two main currents in the history of Greek language, according to whether language imitated the world of image and phenomenon, or the world of music », and states that if there is imitation in tragedy, it occurs where language « is strained to its utmost so that it may imitate music »39.

46Music and words of mourning are performed, through dances, by the Chorus, most often by the Choruses of women, mothers, and sisters of the fallen heroes : their exacerbated intensity, close to madness, as the texts often suggests by its specific signifiers, plays on words, etc., had to strike the audience as that sort of planctus that the civic legislation was suspicious about, and had sometimes forbidden to be carried about in the funeral rites of the city (pp. 87-88).

  • 40 P. 116, note 1.

47In this way, Apollo and Dionysus perform on the stage a sung lamentation, in some sense antipolitical, since it exceeds the rigid rituals and patriarchal customs of Athens : not a ritual but a composite poetic performance that shakes to pity all human beings. La déroutante complicité between dialogue and chorus, between planctus and reasoned agones, between philosophical discussion and operatic arias costitutes in Loraux’ view some of the main tensions and oxymora of Greek tragedy, a genre, as she defines it, in conflict. This means a poetic discourse that keeps his constitutive parts in a difficult balance, in a perilous indecidability. This original conception of the pivotal terms in conflict in Greek tragedy deflates the importance so often attributed to the conflict of contents and themes. Among the themes, that become depreciated by her conception, Loraux mentions the conflict between oikos (house, household) and polis (city-state)40 that in our times occupies the pages of so many ritualist and sociological analyses of Greek tragedy. In an astonishingly rich and persuasive analysis, she redefines the term of « political conflict », by splitting it into the terms of « apolitical » and « antipolitical » (which of course implies also the political), and places tragedy in the difficult space of the « in-between » these categories. This redefinition leads her to see tragedy as a genre that from the stage makes a gesture toward notions for which there is no explicit term, notions that shake the utopian idea of « man » contained within, and defined by, the coordinates of the polis, and that let on the contrary imagine something like the « humaness » in man.

  • 41 Methodos, 3, 2003, pp. 35-60.

48Our attention is therefore drawn back to tragedy’s aesthetic values, tormented oxymora and « ideal » or conflicting religious visions. On this last point, the article of Fabienne Blaise41 is particularly illuminating, as Dionysus becomes a pointed, privileged example of the extent to which the divine is unknowable to man.

49It seems that the Nietzschean polarity and resolution between Apollo and Dionysus is finally finding a clear modus operandi. Instead of capturing in the vortex of Dionysus’ dances the manifestation of Thing- in-itself, the Ursein, we experience in the strain of the Tragic music and logos, in Aeschylus and Euripides’ planctus, an authentic mise en abyme of the « political » and of the ethic coordinates that unite the fabric of the polis. Of course, to the extent that Apollo’s and Dionysus’ work in common produces such appeals and deconstructive gestures, some of the epichoric nature of their spirits has been translated into a more comprehensive register and higher significance. And though Dionysus does not dominate any longer with his delirious and violent dancing, nor reveal the Ursein, they have lost no intensity, no antagonist spirit, no problematic complicity.


1 I refer to the pages and the paragraphs of the German edition of Die Geburt der Tragodie, ed. by Giorgio Colli and Mazzino Montinari, W. de Gruyter 1998, and I adopt and eventually modify the English translation by Francis Golffing, The Birth of the Tragedy Garden City, New York, 1956. The german title « Versuch einer Selbstcritic » is replaced by Golffing with : « A Critical Backward Glance ».

2 Concerning the happy combination of apollonian and dionysiac seeds in the creation of tragic children, it is obvious that Cassandra, for instance is mostly Apollonian in Aeschylus’Agamemnon, but acquires distinctly dionysiac features in Euripides’Trojan Women.

3 Allegories of Reading, New Haven-London, 1979.

4 Another image used by Nietzsche is that of the « veil » (Schleier) : see for instance (p. 34, § 9-12 : « And the surprise would be further increased as the latter [Apollonian Greek] realized with a shudder that all this was not so alien to him after all, that his apollonian consciousness was hiding from him, only as a veil, the whole dionysiac word »). Here the apollonian, contrary to the above examples, plays a sort of mystifying role. On the importance of the « veil » in Nietzsche’work see J. Derrida, « Question de style », in Nietzsche Aujourd’hui, Paris, 1973, vol. 1, p. 243.

5 This is a theme frequently elaborated by Derrida : see for instance De la Grammatologie, Paris, 1967, pp. 21 ff., 96 ff, with this appeal at the end of the chapter : « Que le signifié soit originairement et essentiellement (et non seulement pour un esprit fini et créé) trace, qu’il soit toujours déjà en position de signifiant, telle est la proposition innocente où la métaphysique du logos, de la présence et de la conscience, doit réfléchir l’écriture comme sa mort et sa ressource » (p. 108).

6 In the whole work there are very few reflections on the language of tragedy, for instance, its difference from the Musean one of the epic, on the singing roles of the characters that increase the musical purport of tragedy without increasing its dionysiac inspiration, on the language of the tragic heroes, as it becomes conscious of the effects it aims at, etc.

7 « Le Détour », in Poétique, 5, 1971, p. 70.

8 It has been sometimes suggested that when the feverish, ecstatic spirit of Dionysius takes over, music overcomes the metaphysics of the logos : the dreamy world of Apollo, with its theodicy would withdraw and leave space for Dionysus’ hard lesson on human nothingness. But « music » is simply another avenue to the metaphysics of the presence. As De Man has argued in the wake of Derrida, « far from weakening the grounding of philosophy in the ontology and the metaphysics of the presence, the transfer that favors voice over writing, art over science, poetry over prose, music over literature, nature over culture, symbolical over conceptual (the chain of polarities could be extended at length…) serves in fact to strengthen the ontological center (theocentric, melocentric, logocentric) and to refine the claim that truth can be made present to man » (Allegories of Reading, p. 88).

9 The influence of Nietzsche on the literature and the arts is so vast that it would take volumes to summarize. The documentation began early : for France, see Geneviève Bianquis, Nietzsche en France, Paris, 1929, for Italy, Guy de Pourtales, Nietzsche en Italie, Paris, 1929, for the Anglosaxon literature, see Patrick Bridgwater, Nietzsche in Anglosaxony : A Study of Nietzsche’s Impact on English and American Literature, Leicester, 1972, for Germany, Steven E. Ascheim, The Nietzsche Legacy in Germany, 1980, Berkeley, Los Angeles, Oxford, 1992. I am selecting here, from recent essays, two episodes that illustrate the type of influence Nietzsche’s antagonist gods had on literature and on theatrical productions. In his revealing study : « Une esthétique de l’origine : Saint John Perse », in La Grèce de Personne Paris, Seuil, 1997, pp. 223-260, Jean Bollack writes : « Jamais il [Saint-John Perse] ne se détacha du fond abyssal de l’Être. Ni de l’apparence qui en émerge. Ni du songe et de ses strates – cet insondable que rencontrent les catabases –, ni des « mensonges » et de la lumière de leurs mots, ni de la vérité de l’ivresse dionysienne. Un nom d’Apollon se couvrira des couleurs du dieu qu’il travestit : les syllabes qui forment le Délien seront accomodées au déliement délictuel… », p. 228.

On September 1910, the great Austrian director Max Reinhardt staged and directed in Munich a performance of Sophocles’ Oedipus the King : Fiona Macintosh describes the production : « Reinhardt’s Nietzschean-inspired production emphasized the extent to which those individual (Apolline) sufferings had to be seen against a background of the general (Dionysiac) suffering of the Chorus » : « Tragedy in Performance : nineteenth-and twentieth century productions », in Cambridge Companion to Greek Theatre, edited by P.E. Easterling, Cambridge, 1997, p. 299.

10 Nietzsche on tragedy, Cambridge, 1981, p. 178 where they quote M. P. Nilsson, A History of Greek Religion2 transl. F. J Fielden, Oxford 1949, p. 198 : « No other religious movement took so powerful a hold upon men’s mind as the Dionysiac ecstasy. It was something new, something in conflict with the ancestral custom. That Apollo managed to bring the ecstasy under control by the force of legalism, to fit into ancestral custom and himself to derive new vigour from it, is the strongest proof of his power… It was Apollo who overcame the epidemic, not by working against and suppressing it, but by recognizing it and regulating it… » Nilsson puts on an historical positivistic register what in Nietzsche is the antagonism and the complicity of two aesthetic drives, two tendencies ingrained in men.

11 See the essay by Albert Henrichs, « Loss of Self, Suffering, Violence : the Modern View of Dionysus from Nietzsche to Girard », HSCPh. 88, 1984, pp. 205-240, p. 228, note 51. In this essay, Henrichs analyses, among others the dionysiac portraits produced by Detienne and Girard.

12 See M.S. Silk and J.-P. Stern, Nietzsche on Tragedy, Cambridge University Press 1981, p. 260. Of course, today’s readers are aware of the problematic nature of these definitions « rationalist » and « irrationalist » that derive from the philosophy of the Enlightenment and have little to do not only with the Greek notion of logos (reason), but also with our Freudian and semantic sensibility about the realm and the nature of reason.

13 Aristotle’s Poetics. Translated with an Introduction and Notes by James Hutton, New York, 1982, chap. 6, p. 50.

14 Forma ed evento. Principii per una interpretazione del mondo greco, Venezia, 1960. There is a french translation : Forme et événement. Principes pour une interprétation du monde grec, Paris, 1994. Diano wrote also another theoretical essay : Linee per una fenomenologia dell’arte, Venezia, 1956.

15 On other completely different registers it would be possible to present an analogous dichotomy and complicity through the terms of aretê (virtue) and mêtis (shrewdness, intelligence) or those used by Archilochos under the animal characters of the hedgehog and the fox.

16 « Un momento di un processo che si chiude in cielo, un verbo del discorso divino ».

17 See P. Pucci, « Theoloy and Poetics in the Iliad », Arethusa, 31, (2002), pp. 17-34.

18 See for instance P. Mazon, Introduction à l’Iliade, Paris, 1959 : « Il n’y a pas de théologie chez Homère, il n’y a qu’une mythologie chatoyante, bien qu’un peu défraîchie, mais dénuée de toute portée morale. Les dieux de l’Iliade n’ont quelque noblesse que dans la mesure où les poètes se souviennent que certains d’entre eux incarnent les grandes forces de la nature » (p. 294) ; M. Bowra, Rise of Greek Epic, 4th ed. : « These gods are a delightful, gay invention of poets » (p. 265).

19 See Anton F. Harald Bierl, Dionysos und die Griechische Tragödie, Tübingen, 1991 ; John J. Winkler and Froma I. Zeitlin, edd., Nothing to do with Dionysus ?, Princeton University Press, 1990. The title refers to a passage by Zenobius V, 40, who explains the expression « Nothing to do with Dionysus » as a locution that came in usage when the themes of the dithyramb deviated from the traditional lays of Dionysiac cult, and the spectators accordingly mockingly coined the expression « nothing to do with Dionysus ». Aristotle maintained in the Poetics that tragedy derived from the dithyramb of Dionysus. An analogous expression is explained by Plutarch, Quaest. Conv., I, 615a : as Phrynikos and Aeschylus turned tragedy to [different] myths and passions, it was asked : « Nothing to do with Dionysus ? ». As concern the Zenobius’passage, G. Ieranò, in Il ditirambo di Dioniso, Pisa-Roma, 1997, suggests that the explanation looks like an a posteriori re-construction : the dithyramb already with Arion had developed different themes from the Dionysiac ones and this certainly did not obliterate the Dionysiac context and tradition of the dithyramb.

20 Ritual and Reciprocity. Homer and Tragedy in the Developing City-State, Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1994.

21 « The force that impels the city-saving self-destruction of the households is associated with Dionysus » (p. 348). The nature of this association is never clear : outside Dionysus, what is and where does this force reside ? It would seem that tragedy stages this force as something that impels the households to pervert the rituals that normally guarantee their solidarity (pp. 343-344). It is not clear what this perverting force is. As the citizens are never shown in tragedy to be involved in the liberating process, this force associated with Dionysus’ frenzy and Dionysus himself are alone, according to this view of Greek tragedy, in producing democracy. A miracle, indeed.

22 « Dionysus does not impose frenzy haphazardly » (p. 357).

23 Bryn Mawr Classical Review, 6, 1995, p. 655.

24 Seaford’s communal Dionysus contrasts with Dionysus’alterity that is the themes of many critics. See, for instance J.-P. Vernant’s : « Le Dionysos masqué des Bacchantes », in Mythe et Tragédie en Grèce ancienne 2, Paris, 1986, pp. 237-260 : Dionysus’« alterity » allows the author to continue to analyse the ambiguities of tragedy. Another essay that analyses the otherness in the Bacchants is Froma Zeitlin’s : « Playing the Other : Theater, Theatricality and the Feminine in Greek Drama », Representations, 11, 1985, pp. 63-94.

25 « Nothing to do with Dionysus : Tragedy Misconceived as Ritual », Classical Quarterly, 52, 2002, pp. 102-137. The part of the title « Nothing to do with Dionysus » refers to the title of the book edited by John J. Winkler and Froma I. Zeitlin in 1990 and to its Greek source, see note 19.

26 G. Ieranò, Il ditirambo di Dioniso, Pisa-Roma, 1997.

27 L’Œdipe Roi de Sophocle. Le texte et ses interprétations, Lille, 1990, p. 584. See also my Oedipus and the Fabrication of the Father : Oedipus Tyrannus in Modern Criticism and Philosophy, Baltimore-London, 1992, p. 127.

28 Ibid. p. 583.

29 In the antistrophe, the Elders’ words will be even more upsetting : they demand that the oracles of the gods and in particular those concerning Laius may become true (vv. 897-910). Whether they are aware or not of their implications, they demand that Œdipus, their beloved king, may be discovered as being the killer of his father and the husband of his mother. Here they demand Apollo and the oracular sanctuaries to be truthfull to themselves and criticize them for not being so. The text will satisfy their need to believe, but only after having shown the objective perversity of that need.

30 The distinction between ritual and religious concerns is correctly and persuasively drawn by Fabienne Blaise even in relation to Euripides’Bacchae, the play that is a model for the ritualist interpretations, see : « L’expérience délirante de la raison divine : les Bacchantes d’Euripide », in Methodos, 3, 2003, pp. 35-60, and for instance p. 55 : « La faute dont se sont rendus coupables Agavé et Penthée est donc de ne pas avoir envisagé que le divin puisse aller au delà des définitions humaines, par nature réifiantes, qui en sont données, et de borner la croyance aux dieux, aux limites de leurs représentations ».

31 I modify slightly Lloyd Jones’ translation, The Oresteia, Berkeley-Los Angeles, 1979.

32 It is of course a deviant sacrifice, but its tragic nature and effects are better analyzed through the notion of justice as Pierre Judet de la Combe does in his L’Agamemnon d’Eschyle, Lille, 2002, pp. 62-63 : he shows that « le justicier est nécessairement coupable comme l’a été Agamemnon, en tuant sa fille au nom du droit ».

33 In Aeschylus, human life is subjected to despair, famine, persecution, murder, war : the sacrificial language, real or metaphorical, constitutes the strongest dramatized act of Aeschylus’ poetry, for it gives a sort of divine justification to this human condition of violence. Each character is eager to embrace this justification. The theodicy implies to believe that at the end the violently divine persuasion creates a solution that is just (in the Eumenides), though this faith rests on very shaky grounds, since it disregards contradictions, violences, unaccountabilities of divine justice. See P. Pucci, « Peitho nell’Orestea di Eschilo », Museum Criticum, 19, 1994, pp. 75-138.

34 We have a vase painting in an Attic amphora (c. 550 B.C.) that shows the sacrifice of Polyxena with almost the exact procedure that is described in Aeschylus’ text for Iphigenia : see P. Maas, Classical Quarterly, 45, 1951, p. 94, and J.-L Durand / F. Lissarrague, « Mourir à l’autel », in Archiv für Religionsgeschichte, 1, 1999, 83-106, pp. 90-91. One of the differences is that Aeschylus’ Iphigenia has the mouth gaggled to stifle a cry, while in Polyxena’s painting her mouth is free. Is this pictorial theme the source of Aeschylus’ description ? It is important to notice that the name of Polyxena and of her sacrificers are inscribed around their figures, probably to distinguish this from the other sacrifice. The authors of « Mourir à l’autel » end their paper writing : « On voit… comment la question du sacrifice humain – existe-il ou non ? – se déplace vers un jeu iconique d’exploration des limites du système lui-même. La pratique sacrificielle que nous avons pu nommer ça et là canonique est ainsi positionnée comme centrale, avec un ensemble soigneusement régulé dans la logique des éléments articulés les uns aux autres » (p. 106).

35 Pierre Judet de la Combe, L’Agamemnon d’Eschyle, Lille, 2002, tackles these questions in his commentary ; here I quote some lines : he defines the murder of Iphigenia « l’évènement qui a été la condition décidant de la possibilité de toute l’histoire », and goes on « sur l’ordre d’une divinité olympienne, Artémis, avec l’assentiment de Zeus, le dieu qui est garant du droit. Les personnages parlent sur fond de cette contradiction, que seul le choeur thématise et qui accroit son angoisse : la justice divine qui s’est exercée contre Pâris et les Troyens a été possible grâce à un acte manifestement contraire à toute justice. Le discours sur les normes, sur la société s’appuie en réalité sur un acte qui lui est contraire, et qui condamne le justicier qui est Agamemnon… » (p. 48).

36 See P. Pucci, « Écriture tragique et récit mythique », in Europe, 77, 1999, pp. 209-234, where I interpret the many sacrifices of young maids and boys in Euripide’s plays in accordance with his poetics : his tragic poetry is a sort of tekhnê alupias (a remedy against pain) for it leads the audience to the wisdom of enduring sorrows and appeases the fear of death. In the case of the young victims, I write : « By freely offering themselves to death, in order to feel noble [as Polyxena, Macaria and others do], the Euripidean sacrificial victims provide a subtext, under the tragic text, a sort of allegory or living example of what should be the meditation of the wise man. For the wise man prepares himself for death and frees himself from the fear of death, as a character (Theseus) of one of the lost Euripidean plays states (fr. 964, 1-6, Nauck), by following a sort of Anaxagorean precept : « I learned this from a wise man : I was imagining in my mind cares, calamities, inflicting on myself exile from my fatherland and other ways of evil, so that if I had to suffer some of the things I was imagining in my mind, I would not be stung sharply by the novelty of the event ». Euripides repeats endlessly the theme of the young maids or boys that give themselves to death as to a noble liberation. Each of these edifying scenes becomes for the wise audience the concrete analogue of the meditation during which the wise persons let themselves be immersed in the thought of their death, give themselves freely to death, just as Macaria or Polyxena do on the stage; and in this way conquer a control upon their fears. See also my « Euripides, the Monument and the Sacrifice », in Euripides. Oxford Readings, edited by J. Mossman, Oxford, 2003, pp.139-169. An analysis of the different interpretations of Greek Tragedy in our time is S. Goldhill’« Modern Critical Approaches to Greek Tragedies », in The Cambridge Companion to Greek Tragedy, ed. by P.E. Easterling, Cambridge, 1997, pp. 324-247.

37 The Mourning Voice : An Essay on Greek Tragedy. English translation by Elisabeth Trapnell Rawlings, Ithaca and London, 2002, of La voix endeuillée : essai sur la tragédie grecque, Paris, 1999.

38 « Sous la fiction du conflit, sous la figure de l’incompatibilité ­ Apollon et le thrène, les Muses et Dionysos, l’aulos et la lyre, bref, Dionysos et Apollon – c’est la déroutante complicité du dire lumineux avec les accents « étrangers » de la plainte chantée que les tragiques s’efforcent de parler. La force de Nietzsche fut de l’avoir compris et de l’avoir écrit. Encore convient-il de lire vraiment l’auteur de La Naissance de la tragédie, plutôt que de le créditer, comme on l’a trop souvent fait, d’une pensé figée, ou le dernier mot reviendrait à l’antagonisme entre l’apollinien et le dionysiaque » (p. 107).

39 The Birth of Tragedy, trans. Walter Kaufmann, New York, 1967, chap. 6, p. 54. Yet Loraux does not fall in a monocentric and logocentric view of music : she is aware of the conflict between signifier and signified, and describes the strains, and the oxymora of many expressions, for instance Mousa and mousa, the lyreless lyre, the inarticulate sounds of expressions like aiai, etc. that border to madness or non-sense.

40 P. 116, note 1.

41 Methodos, 3, 2003, pp. 35-60.


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