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exponentiation ezine: issue [6.0:culture]

[ music | books | film]

Title: "The Birth of Tragedy"
Author: Friedrich Nietzsche
Publisher: NuVision Publications (April 19, 2007)
Language: English

Endless amounts of philosophical analyses have been made about the Greek tragedy and why it came to be. Modern attempts have for the most part failed, as they've approached the works from a purely scientific realm, thus disregarding the inherent artistic qualities to masterpieces such as "King Oedipus" and "Medea." During a time when Germany saw geniuses like Wagner emerge from the depths of the darkest corners of German culture, a lonely romantic soul named Friedrich Nietzsche released a work called "The Birth of Tragedy."

Drawing influences from renown pessimist Arthur Schopenhauer, the astounding composers Richard Wagner, Ludwig van Beethoven, Johann Sebastian Bach, and of course the brilliant poets by the name of Friedrich Schiller and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Nietzsche systematically builds up a philosophical-aesthetic manifesto to counter the modern materialistic soul. His focus is on the Greek culture and in specific the Greek tragedy, describing both its very origins and historical development up till the Greek comedies.

The basis for his assumptions is the balance between two different ways of artistically portraying life, symbolized by two Greek gods; Dionysus and Apollon. Dionysus being the fierce, uncontrollable, emotional god of wine and excess, and Apollon being the harmonic, curing, self-controlled god of reason and rationality, Nietzsche effectively connect these two deities to the basic two forms of art; music and poetry. Backed up by Schopenhauer's conception of "the world as will and representation," he claims that music is the highest abstraction in art since it portrays the will of life "objectively," while poetry (including painting and sculpturing) relies on representations of the will, thus concluding that music is the purest form of art as well as the foundation to the poetic art form.

Nietzsche affirms this by connecting music to Dionysus and dreaming poetry to Apollon, claiming that art is a balance between the two gods, even though Dionysus remains as its underlying force. He then applies this conception of art to the Greek tragedy and explains how the Greeks successfully managed to celebrate the most inner secrets of life, by worshipping tragedy, suffering and will power. Following the development of the Greek culture into the era of Socrates and his belief in human reason, Nietzsche sees a culture disintegrating from within due to the force of Apollon growing too strong and killing the tragic myths of Dionysus.

The despairing conclusion gradually evolves into an angry attack at modern religious belief in the virtues of science; the limits of rationality and causal logicality give birth to new myths within the scientific culture, which Nietzsche seems to be using as a proof of the power and inevitable presence of myth, at the same time declaring its universal legitimacy; the more we believe we "know" about life through science, the more we understand how little we actually know about life as a phenonemon. Without myth we lose our roots and fail to understand life as an organic process, instead - like the dissatisfied Faust - locking us into our study chambers to categorize life instead of living it.

As always, Nietzsche proves to be a provocative but enduring reading experience. While magnificently and with an admiring passionate defense of past wisdom, studying the Greek tragedy from an artist's perspective, "The Birth of Tragedy" leaves us with a remarkably sharp analysis of why our Western civilization is in decline, and like a sheep in a wolf's clothing, pointing its aim right at the very basics of philosophy and the metaphysics of existence. Controversial and problematic but at the same time promising and heroic, Nietzsche uncovers the secrets of the depths of art while dreaming of a new era where the tragic myth may be reborn and achieve a raging, idealistic artistic expression of the beauty that lies within the German folk soul. Irrevocable and uncompromising as ever, this is a must-read to understand myth and art in their mystic but proper context. - Alexis


Title: "American Gods"
Author: Neil Gaiman
Publisher: Harper Torch (2001)

"This is a bad place for Gods." America, it is posited, has forever made it difficult for the survival of the Old Ones of any tradition. The sprites, faeries, and leprechauns of the British Isles were incapable of crossing the pond with the simple country peasant folk and petty city criminals who came to the New World in search of new life or in indentured servitude. Where remnants of pagan heritage survived for the Northern European immigrants of the 19th century, America has leveled their memory to mere tales of fancy fit for children's stories. For those who continue to come, the demons of lore from their respective homelands are forced undercover, weakening as their demands for appeasement go increasingly unheralded. The old Gods, however, are far from dead, though many may believe it, or want it to be so, including the new Gods -- those Gods to whom Americans pay homage by toil and sacrifice so that they may be looked upon favorably by them: the Internet, Television, Media. There is no place for both, nor does either side wish there to be. What seems inevitable is a final conflict -- a Ragnarokian collision of Old and New to determine the fate of the otherworldly on this continent.

Neil Gaiman tells of this through the tale of Shadow, a mostly simple-minded jailbird who is released after serving a short time for a crime of violent passion. Almost immediately Shadow meets the mysterious Wednesday, becomes his gainful bodyguard after a quick series of incidents of personal tragedy, and finds himself entrenched in an escalating war between mythic past and ubiquitous, technological present. The caricatures of the New Gods are amusing and not without insight: the first encounter with a representative is with a fat, pimple-faced teenager swigging diet Coke in a fiber-optic illuminated limo; the thug agents have generic, interchangeable names like Mr. Town and Mr. Stone. On the other side are a series of entities from every conceivable background: Nordic, West African, Slavic -- with looks and mannerisms befitting of their legends, though nearly always modern and human in form. For even more divine subtext, tales of American settlers and their encounters with these Gods are interspersed with the story, all of which carry with them a sacrificial theme, which offsets the more light-hearted nature of the Gods presented in the main narrative.

Outside of these occasional forays, the plot moves quickly as Shadow and Wednesday work on securing the allegiances of Gods in various parts of the country as the war approaches. Gaiman spends a lot of time developing a thorough sense of place, which is integral to his assertions of the importance of it in American identity. Manifest Destiny, the Interstate system -- these are but two outward signs of the American desire to make subservient their geography which, unlike the Gods, at one time presented a concrete threat to American livelihood and, also unlike the Gods, have continued to receive blood sacrifice to the present day. So alluring are some places that they approach the Divine by their nature, and serve as the gathering places for the Gods in the story. An early meeting occurs at House on the Rock in Wisconsin, one of those places where unnamed inspiration possessed someone to build a monument to nothing-in-particular that inspires travelers to abandon the Interstate to find it, just because. Eventually, Shadow is stashed in Lakeside, Wisconsin, an idyllic Northwoods town in every imaginable conception. Again, the primacy of place in the story asserts itself; this is the town everyone in America wishes could exist everywhere: picturesque, close-knit, and for the most part immune to typical small town troubles.

For most of the book, Gaiman paints a picture somewhere this side of that ideal. Cheap motels, fast food joints, and the nameless towns and dirty cities along the highway are there still there for our contemplation, but we are constantly reminded of the presence of greater things around and among them. The divinities themselves work their magic throughout, their idiosyncrasies keeping the story amusing and enlightening. Indeed, this book is at its finest when their wisdom flows. There are many instances of well-played, everyday dialogue that reveal truth, as well as play on, sometimes too "cleverly," the mythological history of the Gods involved. There is a sense at one point of a thorough distaste for modernity, specifically American-styled modernity; later, a similar distaste for the Old multi-faceted Gods is apparent, the reaction one would expect from a detached, modern rendering of them as Gods of merciless bloodthirst and death. Unfortunately, the story falls apart as it nears resolution by having an identity crisis, drawing itself out far too long, and concluding ludicrously by pandering to cheap expectations of plot manipulation and gratuitous action. What had developed into a Shamanstic journey for Shadow at that point ends up becoming little more than post-script to the finale. Without the final 100 pages or so, this is still thoughtful commentary in pop-novel form, but even with the unsatisfying ending the idea that the Old Gods remain among us is a powerful one; we may only need to look more closely to realize it. - Kontinual

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