Art is mysterious. It isn’t just something we go and look at. It’s something we do. Human beings have engaged in creative, and seemingly purposeless, acts for thousands of years. “Why purposeless?” you might ask, with a suspicious mouth. Well, because pots and quilts aside (art is not craft, no matter what Plato said), artistic objects do not contribute to survival and seem to have no purpose external to themselves. Well, Nietzsche doesn’t think that human survival and art are disparate fields at all, going so far as to claim that the former is predicated upon the latter. Boldly, Nietzsche declares that “It is only as an aesthetic phenomenon that existence and the world are eternally justified.” Wow. That’s a staggering claim. First of all, why does existence need justification? And if it does, what does art have to do with it? Well, come on, let’s talk about it.
There is something inherent in the very structure of existence, Nietzsche insists, which longs for the redemptive movement of art. It is the purpose of this paper to explore the metaphysical order underlying the human world of appearance and to suggest that truth and illusion can be reconciled only through an eternal tension, the fruits of which redeem suffering humanity and render its activities and possibilities meaningful. Furthermore, the relationship of metaphysical reality and illusory appearance will be considered through a dialectical lens, despite Nietzsche’s admonitions to the contrary.
For Nietzsche, the seemingly stable world of appearance, brimming with humans and buildings and goals and forests, conceals an underlying reality. Within this more fundamental order of existence, the “Truly-Existent and Primal Unity,” a primordial indifference reigns. The dark heart of life is eternally striving, pulsing, aimless, and utterly unconcerned with finite human beings. Because the underlying reality is formless, there can be no place within it for distinguishable entities, and consequently, it dissolves the particular human form into nothingness. There is a monstrous cruelty in this sublime and savage indifference to individual life and dignity, and beholding it with human eyes is terrifying. Nietzsche recounts the myth of Silenus, who laughed at Midas and cried, “What is best of all is beyond your reach forever: not to be born, not to be, to be nothing. But the second best for you – is quickly to die.” Since the world of particular entities is merely an appearance cast upon a ceaseless, formless unity, all individualizing concepts are doomed to failure. When, armed with the tools of reason and science, humanity interrogates reality to reveal its secrets, it discovers that objectifying knowledge is powerless to grasp ultimate reality, which resists fragmentation into concepts.
The fundamental essence of reality is best exemplified by the drunken god Dionysius whose dangerous wildness conveys a primitive, metaphysical terror. His eternal counterpart is the proud god Apollo, who represents the ordering and organizing principle of humanity. Apollo’s cool hand tempers Dionysian ecstasy just as human reason imposes structure upon, and refines, an amoral and undifferentiated reality. The Apollonian tendency presents the world as if it has an objective order, a separation between good and evil, and, perhaps most importantly, as if individual beings have a meaningful identity and function within it. So, if life is inherently terrible and meaningless, and reality is ultimately unknowable, what response or course of action is possible? There are several. The first is, of course, suicide. The second is perhaps even more dangerous and is what Nietzsche terms “negation of the will.” Gazing into the Dionysian horror of life, the spectator is paralyzed with disgust. Realizing that all human endeavor is ultimately meaningless, that even the greatest accomplishments are doomed to obscurity, he recedes from activity and life itself. How can one take the details of his own life seriously, a life of mortgages and dentist appointments, when even the glory of ancient Egypt is doomed to nothingness? Paralysis ensues. How to disentangle the nauseated, paralyzed being from this cruel vision? “Art saves him,” Nietzsche tells us, “and through art life saves him.”
Humanity suffers from a metaphysical need for redemption. Given the underlying structure of reality, human life is intolerable, and must be justified prior to being lived. However, if reality is fundamentally meaningless, then redemption cannot come from reality, cannot arise from within the realm of nature. Meaninglessness, after all, cannot beget meaning. Dionysius cannot beget Apollo. Redemption, then, must come from a different source, from the opposite of reality and truth, which is appearance, exemplified in Apollonian repose. If redemption is appearance, it is necessarily illusory. It seems that Nietzsche defines art as a redemptive illusion. Such an approach to artworks seems counter-intuitive, since it advocates not the mirroring or reflecting of nature, but rather a transcendence of it. The horror of reality is not denied, but overcome, with the creation of redemptive illusions. The first philosophical question, then, is not one of ontology but one of aesthetics, since prior to positing the nature of being, one must be alive to do so in the first place.
It is interesting to revisit the seemingly self-evident claim made above: meaninglessness cannot beget meaning. But what if it can? What if Dionysius can beget Apollo? In Beyond Good and Evil, Nietzsche suggests that knowledge is born of ignorance and uncertainty, and that truth can be regarded as a refined version of falsity. Perhaps it is possible that meaning, too, is simply a higher, subtler, form of meaninglessness. The underlying reality must be countered and redeemed not by its antithesis, not by its obliteration by an opposite, but by a dialectical movement between truth and appearance which preserves the qualities of both. Art does not contradict nature, then, but rather echoes its qualities in a transfiguring gesture. This transformative, and yet preservative, approach is precisely what Nietzsche admires in the Greek culture. The Homeric worldview, with its glittering panorama of flawed and vengeful gods, enabled the Greeks to “endure existence.” Significantly, their gods were not ideal, but cruel and destructive. In deifying the angry Ares, for example, the Greeks were glorifying not only the virtuous and beautiful aspects of life, but its immoral and damaging elements, as well. The Greeks, Nietzsche purports, glimpsed the terror of reality and did not turn away, but celebrated it, elevated it to sublimity, regarding the painful aspects of life as praiseworthy. Thus, the Greeks were reconciled with nature without being overwhelmed by it, as the Buddhist is. They were capable of transcending it without denying it, as science tends to do. This transcendence reached its apotheosis in Greek tragedy. The heroes upon the stage, their triumphs and sorrows, reflect the Apollonian principle of humanity, while the musical chorus embodies the intoxicating Dionysian truth which ultimately dooms the protagonist to a tragic end. However, the spectacle creates a “metaphysical comfort… that in spite of the flux of phenomena, life at bottom is indestructibly powerful and pleasurable.” How is this comfort achieved? Certainly not by denying Dionysius, but by identifying the self as flowing from communion with Dionysius and being reconstituted in the image of Apollo. In other words, the subject is dissolved into primordial unity and then a transformed subjectivity is re-asserted. The spectator descends into the nauseating pit of existence, and then identifies himself with the tragic hero who affirms his life, and in that affirmation, the spectator regards his own life as praiseworthy.
If tragedy’s heroes are suffused with Dionysian wisdom, if they are, in fact, begotten only by passing through a Dionysian experience, then a tragic Hamlet can be regarded as simply a mask Dionysius wears.
In other words, Hamlet is representative of the entirety of humanity, and is therefore universal. The mask of Hamlet consists of the particular details of his life – his father’s murder, his love for Ophelia – but these details are not what the tragedy communicates. The tragedy of Hamlet demonstrates not the plot of the play but the underlying structure of human experience itself, when the wisdom of Silenus is revealed behind Hamlet’s face. This eternal wisdom is behind every human endeavor, beyond every disguise, and the message of Dionysian truth speaks through Hamlet’s story. However, Hamlet does not affect a complete identification with Dionysius. He retains his particularity as a human being who must make a decision and take revenge upon Claudius. The Dionysian is a launching pad, not a dwelling place. This tension between Dionysian understanding and subjective experience of an individuated self reaches its climax in proper art. The redemptive act, then, is always fundamentally Dionysian. To return to the notion that artifice may be a more refined version of truth, it becomes possible that the princely Hamlet is, similarly, a more refined version of drunk and sensual Dionysius. The mask is an extension of the concealed face, illusion arises from truth, and redemptive art does not deny reality, but simply transforms it.
It is important to note that aesthetic justification is different from the justification offered by science, or political justice, for example. In an effort to redeem existence, the scientific force seeks to render the world rational. It tries to “make existence seem intelligible, and therefore justified” because its “belief in the explicability of the nature of things attributes to knowledge and perception the power of a universal panacea.” Science seeks “panaceas” not in an effort to answer the eternal riddle of existence, but to compensate for its flaws. Nietzsche contends that science is motivated by the clear light of reason because it fears the terror of irrationality, and it shrinks back from suffering because, ultimately, the drive toward reason is a symptom of weakness. The democratic urge, too, is guided by a similar frailty, since it suffers from “a decline of strength… impending old age, and… physiological weariness.” In an effort to avoid pain, science and democracy seek to redeem life through denying and dissolving its horrors. Such a correction of life, however, prevents the reconciliation with the true heart of reality achieved by the Greeks. Although science and democracy are also attempts at redemption, they are not responsive to health and strength, but to weakness and impotence. Such correctives do not acknowledge the Dionysian core of existence because they are too weak to do so. Corrective thought does not proceed dialectically, by preserving that which it transcends, but antithetically, by cancelling out or simply ignoring its contradiction. If Hamlet were to deny his Dionysian understanding and completely embraced the particulars of his situation, his tragedy would no longer transcend nature, but would simply reflect it. In turning from truth, the corrective tendency places the mundane upon a pedestal, denying the universal problem of existence. Perhaps paradoxically, the scientific tendency turns from the Dionysian truth to embrace a scientific truth, comprised of objective facts and data. In a perpetual quest for accuracy, science denies the value of illusion. Some truths, however, have a nullifying effect upon experience, rendering the scope of human powers impotent. Nietzsche declares: “The falseness of a judgment is for us not necessarily an objection to a judgment… The question is to what extent it is life-advancing, life-preserving, species-preserving…” Here, Nietzsche is refusing to privilege the correspondence theory of truth, which renders something true inasmuch as it is congruent with reality. Yet it is more important, Nietzsche argues, to determine how well truth corresponds to human experience. Something which is factually false may be experientially true insofar as it benefits and intensifies life. The tendency to disregard the value of illusion and neglect the Dionysian core of existence succeeds only in glorifying mediocrity: “The average man forced his way from the spectators’ benches on to the stage itself; the mirror in which formerly only grand and bold traits were represented now showed the painful fidelity that conscientiously reproduces even the abortive outlines of nature.” The justificatory tendency which denies Dionysius must sweep aside the truth at the very source of human experience, thereby erasing universality from the arc of redemption. But without the universal subject gazing from behind Hamlet’s mask, Hamlet is just a tortured young man in Denmark. He is reduced to the mundane details of his particular context, and in this reduction, the spectator cannot approach transcendence. To correct nature by denying nature is to mire the subject in eternal subjectivity. If he cannot commune with the wild heart of nature, what is left? To sign the mortgage check and drive to the dentist appointment.
Thus Nietzsche distinguishes between proper and improper illusions by unmasking their source, with the former being demanded by an overflowing strength, and the latter being grasped as concessions to feebleness and frailty. The redemption of science is a poor caricature of the redemption of art because in erasing Dionysius, it fails to respond to the very problem of existence, it fails to even acknowledge it! The corrective tendency of science or democracy refuses to accept that suffering is an intrinsic part of existence. Great and noble souls are not spared this suffering – in fact, they court it in the very essence of their greatness. The Greek tragedians knew that all creative activity is essentially cruelty because it displaces or destroys what came before. Reason itself enacts violence upon the object of knowledge, appropriating it and objectifying it into thought. Furthermore, since the Apollonian movement toward refinement, knowledge, or creativity is an artificiality imposed upon nature, the creator finds himself aligned against nature, straining against inevitable truth. Rather than reclining into the tranquility of the animal, who is an inextricable part of nature, the human being opposes nature in every beautiful and powerful act: “How else could one force nature to surrender her secrets but by victoriously opposing her by means of the Unnatural? … the very man who solves the riddle of nature… must also… break the holiest laws of nature.” All achievements of culture are paid for by inordinate suffering. Again, redemptive art does not neglect or deny this dark truth, but defiantly celebrates it. Only creations which preserve this darkness, while simultaneously transforming it with light, can truly redeem human existence. Finding redemption in a trembling security, hidden behind the edifice of scientific reason or democratic justice, untouched by the harsh forces of reality, is not redemption but cowardice. Thus, through acceptance of suffering does aesthetic activity contribute to the progression of a higher culture.
Not only Greek tragedy, but Greek civilization itself was able to redeem existence aesthetically. This implies that the aesthetic gesture is irreducible to traditionally recognizable forms of art, such as painting, music, theatre, or sculpture. Aesthetic creation resides in all redemptive illusions begotten by a strength that is capable of serving life without denying truth. A philosophy which recognizes the underlying Dionysian structure of reality with symbolizing Apollonian concepts, and yet conveys a reason to celebrate life as it is, is an aesthetic philosophy. A society which, like Greek civilization, was able to capture and convey the horror of reality but still rejoice in existence, is an aesthetic civilization. But how does an individual accomplish the aesthetic act in his own life? Perhaps by accepting suffering and engaging in creativity which takes the form of forceful crimes against nature committed for the sake of human culture. The individual Hamlet must strain toward universal experience, to create a meaning that all humanity can participate in: “In the heroic effort towards universality made by the individual, in the attempt to penetrate beyond the bounds of individuation and become himself the one world-being, he experiences in himself the primordial contradiction concealed in the essence of things, that is, he trespasses and he suffers.” An aesthetic life remakes nature, presenting the world as if it were dependent upon human freedom and activity, precisely because no such dependence objectively exists. In acting out this beautiful masquerade, the suffering human artist almost makes it true. The meaning he has created becomes established into culture, which subsequently influences the aesthetic activity and redemption of others.
So, artworks are illusions which respond to truth while promoting and intensifying experience. The metaphysically true and the experientially true are not contradictions, but exist simultaneously, without denying or cancelling each other out. There is a tension between underlying reality and the transformative aesthetic gesture, but this tension is the very essence of redemption. Overcoming this tension in a complete submission to truth would result in suicide or Buddhistic denial of the will. Overcoming this tension in complete submission to illusion would result in the cowardly and sterile world of the democratic scientist. Both truth and illusion are necessary, preserving one another in an eternal and dynamic conflict. But the nature of this conflict is not reserved for the metaphysician, to be contemplated in solitary splendor from the air-conditioned comfort of academia. Rather, it must be quite literally taken “to the streets,” applied to everyday life, utilized in social and cultural contexts. To achieve and maintain this tension, to create its concrete self as a transformative response to truth, rather than as its denial, is the proper metaphysical goal of humanity. Art has been removed from museum walls and the heights of ivory towers and has found itself in the hearts and minds of human beings who must create a practical reason to live. Will this reason be Really Real, in a metaphysical sense? Well, sort of. If falsity begets a truth which is a more subtle version of falsity, and meaninglessness begets a meaning which is a more subtle version of meaninglessness, then should not we be able to step back from redemptive illusion and find its source not in redemption’s opposite, but in redemption’s echo? Perhaps.
Rather than creating two opposing values, such as truth and artifice, meaning and meaninglessness, or good and evil, Nietzsche seems to explore their interdependence. Art and nature, or illusion and reality, then, are not dichotomous. They do not simply contradict and deny each other: X or Y. They inhere in, and presuppose, one another, maintaining an allegiance to one another: X from Y, or X as response to Y. Although Nietzsche rejects a dialectical reading of The Birth of Tragedy, is not this movement profoundly dialectical? This vacillation is itself redemptive: “at this divine counterpart of dialectic we are filled with a profound human joy.” It is not truth alone, nor illusion alone, but the tension in the spaces between them which redeems and justifies human life.