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The Journal of Nietzsche Studies 25 (2003) 58-77

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Before the Subject:
Rereading The Birth of Tragedy

Jason Kemp Winfree

Wenn es 'nur Ein Sein gibt, das Ich' und nach seinem Bild alle anderen 'Seienden' gemacht sind,—wenn schließlich der Glaube an das 'Ich' mit dem Glauben an die Logik, d.h. metaphysische Wahrheit der Vernunft-Kategorie steht und fällt: wenn andrerseits das Ich sich als etwas Werdendes erweist: so—Nietzsche 1

Let us begin with this question: What would it mean to forget The Birth of Tragedy? Nietzsche calls on us on more than one occasion to do just this, a request that is most often tied to a claim concerning the book's untimeliness, and this in two senses. First, in what is chronologically the last such request, which comes from Ecce Homo, the first section of that part that treats the Birth, Nietzsche suggests that the book sounds as if it were written fifty years earlier than it in fact was. More precisely, 'it smells offensively Hegelian,' and this due most immediately to the language of 'Idee,' Gegensatz, and Aufheben, its most apparent sense, therefore, dialectical. 2 Let us note, then, that in spite of the fact that Nietzsche credits The Birth of Tragedy with the discovery of the Dionysian, this 'principle' is communicated through a speech that stammers and, indeed, falters under the weight of reconciliation (Versöhnung) and metaphysical comfort—Dionysus 'concealed under a scholar's hood,' not yet cruel enough. 3 And yet the text is untimely in still another manner, for according to Nietzsche it poses for the first time the question of 'cheerfulness' (Heiterkeit), which is also, according to the Genealogy, the reward of the question of morality (BT ASC 1). 4 The Birth of Tragedy is thus untimely not only because it dares to raise the question of Greek art in the midst of the Franco-Prussian War, but because in doing so, perhaps even in spite of itself, it also poses for the first time the gravest of all questions—morality the danger of all dangers? (BT ASC 5; GM P 7)—and so because it is already to a certain extent genealogical. Thus, if the first sense of the text's untimeliness concerns its communication, the second sense of its untimeliness [End Page 58] provides the mode of access to the first. To forget The Birth of Tragedy would therefore be to remember the selective principle of the genealogical work that it initiates with the question of cheerfulness and the chain of implication that follows from it, and to practice this question and all it entails vis-à-vis the Birth itself, to trace the emergence of this selection in a selective manner. And this requires experiencing the failure of The Birth of Tragedy, not simply in order that what is to be forgotten first be remembered, but rather, so as to recall that what is to be re-membered always already suffers oblivion, that genealogy everywhere upsets the order of origins, especially its own. An 'impossible book,' therefore, not in spite of its fundamental discoveries, but because of them.

All of this is indicated obliquely at the outset by a change in the appearance of the text itself, announced by a modification in the title that occurs in the 1886 edition, where the "Attempt at Self-Criticism" also first appears. Still The Birth of Tragedy, but no longer out of the Spirit of Music. Instead, we now have a subtitle that obliquely reflects the discovery of genealogy. It reads: Or, Hellenism and Pessimism. To be sure, the Birth concerns the struggle and relation between these two forces, and it traces the emergence of tragedy out of a transformation of pessimism that is secured by the triumph of illusion and total immersion in the delight in appearance (Schein). 5 Yet it is important to note that when Nietzsche writes of this, he continues to hold the 'cheerfulness' of this people in quotation marks. Consequently, although the question of 'Greek cheerfulness' opens onto the transformation of the wisdom of...


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