Monday, March 13, 2006

A Nietzschean synthesis

I'm still wrestling with Nietzsche's ideas in The Birth of Tragedy (1871). An English translation by Ian C. Johnston of Malaspina University is available online. I copied the whole thing in HTML, pasted it in MsWord, then converted it to PDF. The entire file is now only around 305 kb. And one more good thing about PDF is that you can display the file in "facing pages" layout. Gives you an illusion of reading a printed book. That should help with the reading. Understanding Friedrich Nietzsche's work however is something else. Sparknotes provides a good albeit quite opinionated summary of the main ideas.

In The Birth of Tragedy, Nietzsche expounded on the meeting of what he called Apollonian and Dionysian worldviews in the Greek tragic drama form. Apollonian culture was associated with the logical, rational and individual experience. Its aesthetic sensibility treated works of art as "appearances", something to be observed and reflected upon. Dionysian culture on the other hand was identified with the intuitive, artistic and public experience. Aesthetically, it judges art objects based on their capacity to move beyond the "illusion" presented by the art object and reveal the essence of things which it was supposed to embody.

At a certain point, according to Nietzsche, Greek tragedy represented the meshing and balancing of both Apollonian and Dionysian elements. And the tragic drama thus presented a way for the Greeks to face suffering and death -- the inescapable givens of the human condition -- with a noble pessimism. Not by renouncing this world and relying on an external savior and the promise of a better existence beyond. But by embracing life and experiencing oneness with other beings who share the same fate.

This whole experience of the "primordial unity" is essentially a participative public phenomenon, something that was lost with the later insistence of Greek playwrights like Euripides to confine the tragic form within the ambit of Socratic rationalism. For Nietzsche, this movement in Greek thought to kill the Dionysian strand heralded the advent of today's dominant culture which is characterized by its obsession with knowledge and its unflinching and unbounded trust in human thought. In this, I think Friedrich Nietzsche echoed the post-modern criticisms of the modernist worldview: its emphasis on "eternal" and "universal" truths, the exalted status it conferred on the theoretical man, its vision of a homogenized individual, etc.

A good friend has recently shared in an egroup some thoughts about the advent of a new period of "discursive contestation" within Philippine politics. With "people power" and other similar participatory processes being easily co-opted or "domesticated" by elites, my friend has pointed to a need for engaging again with social actors in an on-going process of "re-defining" and practicing democracy. Reflecting on Nietzsche, some questions come to mind. What should we aim for with such an engagement? Where should such process lead us? Where should discursive contestation take place?

I think what this current impasse presents to us is nothing less than an opportunity to confront again our whole political culture and system. In Nietzschean terms, recent history has already shown Filipinos the limits and dangers of a unidimensional weltanschauung. Almost two decades of martial law and Marcosian dictatorship has demonstrated the horrors that could stem from the Apollonian cult of appearances (Filipino ideology, developmentalism, technocratic rule, reliance on state-sponsored solutions, and a persistent popular attraction to discipline and order). Recent episodes of popular revolts meanwhile have illustrated dark aspects of an unbridled Dionysian collective ecstasy: a seemingly natural tendency to revert to elite rule -- an Apollonian requisite, a distortion of the participatory, life-affirming and transformative ethos of the collective experience, or a possible descent into chaotic mob rule.

For those who want to break this impasse, and make way for deeper and more meaningful social transformations, I think the real task now is to weld this new organic synthesis of Apollonian and Dionysian cultural elements. Such forces should now take on struggles or social experiments where there are greater possibilities for the still emerging or existing forms of governance to accommodate processes that would allow marginalized sectors to learn from the experience of shaping their own collective future, while still retaining enough "rules" and building blocks for molding new relations and structures. Much like the way the chorus and actors in Nietzsche's ideal Greek tragedy facilitated that primordial unity among the viewers by giving expression to Dionysian essence.

Preoccupied with its "transitional revolutionary" activities and fixated with its own statist project (on which implementation of its blueprint for a transformed social order depends), I don't think the Philippine left is in a position today to pursue such a historic synthesis. Come to think of it, I don't think it has ever been seriously involved in such strategic effort to reshape Philippine political culture and reality, and give Filipinos a taste of its utopian visions. But then, I could be wrong. Maybe I should just confine myself to Nietzsche and Greek tragedy.

1 comment:

roy choco said...

Ang bigat pare wow :)

Wow.