Tag Archives: Nietzsche

Friedrich Nietzsche, The Ronin Scholar

ronin (noun) In feudal Japan, a lordless wandering samurai; an outlaw. Origin: Japanese, lit. ‘drifting people’.

Nietzsche, though himself sickly, of poor constitution and poorer eyesight, saw beyond what others could see, and had the power to ignite and explode all he came in contact with.

Nietzsche’s chosen field was Altphilogie, or the study of the ancient languages and literature (i.e. Greek and Latin). It was the late 1800s, the days when Otto von Bismarck was unifying Germany and when philology was still unified, the days before the awful schism that separated Altphilologie into the branches of linguistics and classics. His teacher was none other than the great Plautus scholar Friedrich Wilhelm Ritschl, who himself traced a line back to Richard Bentley. Not only did Nietzsche have great teachers, he had the best of classmates too, chief among them Erwin Rohde, the author of Psyche, a monumental study of the idea of the soul and ancient Greek cult. They would be friends, on and off, until Nietzsche’s demise.

In his youth, Nietzsche went from peak to peak. As an undergraduate, he published an article in one of the leading journals. That was unheard of. What is more, he was granted a professorship at the University of Basel prior to receiving his doctorate. This was simply unprecedented. His good fortune was likely due to Ritschl’s glowing letter of recommendation, which closed with these words: “He will simply be able to do anything he wants to do.”

Nietzsche’s undoing after being appointed to Basel quickly followed. The “publish or perish” credo prevalent today was equally prevalent then. His first book, The Birth of Tragedy out of the Spirit of Music was an imaginative work weaving together many themes of the day: the philosophy of Schopenhauer, the music of Wagner, Dostoyevsky’s forays into the world of the subconscious, the mysteries of Greek tragedy, and the meaning of German culture. It was a timely book. But with its unsubstantiated musings on the Apollonian and the Dionysian, it was also a wild book. It wasn’t philological. It was, instead, speculative, and speculative to an extreme. Ritschl, in horror, panned it. Rohde tried defending it at first, but realized, on further examination, that to distance himself would be professionally astute. Nietzsche’s adversaries, chief among them the celebrated Ulrich von Wilamowitz-Moellendorff, pounced. Overnight, Nietzsche went from star to persona non grata. He had been cancelled.

The students taking his classes dropped precipitously. After an extended leave of absence, he was forced to resign, in 1879, his professorship at Basel altogether. But now something strange happens. Not only did his production increase following his resignation, with each publication (and in many cases self-publication), the scope of his intellectual freedom also expands. In the years that followed his resignation, he is writing quickly, purposefully, and becoming more himself. His greatest works all follow: Daybreak (1881), The Gay Science (1882), Thus Spoke Zarathustra (1885), Beyond Good and Evil (1886), On the Genealogy of Morals (1887), and Ecce Homo, Twilight of the Idols, The Wagner Case, and The Antichrist (1888). Here’s the question: if he had stayed within academia, would we still remember him today? By the time he started writing Daybreak (a fitting title, if any), he had already become a ronin scholar, a scholar without a university, an outlaw. But perhaps it is because he was a ronin that he was able to do what he did? Has anyone considered this possibility?

Today, these ronin scholars still exist. While “ronin scholar” is a cool, badass term, they are not so-called by academia. Instead, these scholars are pooh-poohed by academia as “cottage scholars” (a quaint and pastoral image) or “independent scholars.”  Both terms, while ostensibly neutral, are somewhat derogatory, a reminder that this person hasn’t quite made it.

In this blog, I’d like to celebrate these “ronin scholars” by drawing attention to how Nietzsche wouldn’t have been able to do the things he did unless he was a “cottage scholar” or “independent scholar.” As those within academia–at that time–pointed out, Nietzsche had to go because he was simply saying things that could not be said. Many of the things he said were, gasp, unsubstantiated by their sound “scientific” and “philological” approach. But, you know, when we look back now on what the other “scientific” and “philological” scholars were publishing, a lot of it looks pretty dated and just plain wrong to us today, easily as “speculative” as Nietzsche himself. Could history repeat itself? How will the scholarship of today be viewed in a hundred years?

This brings me to my point: how much freedom is there in academia today to truly express oneself? How much of academia is an echo chamber that talks of “method,” “science,” and “progress,” but is merely repeating the myths of what it needs to believe to perpetuate not knowledge, but the power structures and the institution of knowledge? Was Nietzsche critiquing academia by calling his first post-resignation book, of all things, Daybreak?

Was Daybreak so-called because it was a daybreak from having to hold back, having to self-censure any thoughts that went against the political ideologies of the academy? Consider his first book, The Birth of Tragedy, written while he was still in academia. Though scandalous, it is quite conservative when compared to his later works. In The Birth of Tragedy, he says the right things: he is pro-Wagner, the consummate German; Germany is leading the way by returning to the ancient past with Wagnerian music-drama; German philosophy is also leading the charge with the German philosopher Schopenhauer, and so on. Now, compare The Birth of Tragedy to his later writings when he was free from academia. In his later works, he rails against Wagner, Schopenhauer, and all the glories of Bismarck and German culture which he values at the worth of German beer: intoxicating but hangover inducing. The question is simple: could he have written these later works if he were still Professor of Altphilologie at Basel University? Or, are there freedoms one only enjoys when one is a ronin scholar, an outlaw, a drifter without allegiances.

The received wisdom is that if one is a cottage, independent, or ronin scholar, one cannot make it all the way. The cross-pollination with colleagues is insufficient. One is not inspired by students. One may lack access to libraries. Conferencing, done on one’s own dime, is more difficult. It is harder to come by ideas. But the received wisdom can be flipped around as well. What if all the cross-pollination, inspiration, books, and conferences condition participants into a sort of groupthink? Classics in the 1800s was part of the gentleman’s education, almost an extension of the state. If you had asked classicists in the 1800s whether this was true, they would have said: “No, that is ridiculous. We are advancing the field. In fact, with our philological science, we are even more Greek than the ancient Greeks were. With philology, we will bring back the glory days of the past.” Now, the conventional story with Nietzsche is that he left academia because of failing health and declining enrollment in his classes (because of the scandal of his first book). This story safeguards the legitimacy of academia: Nietzsche left due to health reasons and because he couldn’t make it as a teacher. But is it true? Perhaps he left because the atmosphere stifled what he had to say. Sure, Nietzsche complains about his health, but, if he was in such poor health, how did he travel so extensively and average over a book a year in the 1880s? And really, was the attendance in his classes dropping that much? Daybreak doesn’t much sound like the title of a book of an author is dire health and spurned by students. It sounds like the title of a work of someone who has found freedom of expression: it is the dawn of a new day. He had become a ronin scholar. Today, I’d like to raise a glass to toast these ronin scholars. They deserve a salute. They have paid a price.

In the late 1800s, nationalism was in the air. Academia never questioned it. Consider what is in the air today. Does academia call the dominant trends into question? And does academia ever call itself into question? Does academia argue for and against, or does it argue for the received wisdom in its halls? Who are the dominant voices in academia, and who are the intellectual ronin of our day and age? Are there, gasp, advantages of being a ronin scholar? These are all worthwhile questions.

In his youth, Nietzsche shone like a star. Then, like a Homeric hero, he paid the price for his aristeia, his finest moment. But, in paying the price, he discovered freedom. He became a ronin scholar, an outlaw working on the peripheries, a writer without allegiances. Though free, he was scorned. His books were self-published, and in small runs of a few hundred copies. Today, he is remembered as someone who saw through the veil. He was the original ronin.

If Nietzsche could make it, why couldn’t I?

– – –

Don’t forget me, I’m Edwin Wong and I do Melpomene’s work.
sine memoria nihil

Men and Women of Destiny from Helen of Troy to Cus D’Amato

Types of Individuals and Subtypes

In the Judgement of Paris, three goddesses vie for the Golden Apple. A mortal, Paris, decides who gets the Golden Apple. Not knowing what type of individual Paris is, each goddess bribes Paris according to the basic human drive she represents. Aphrodite offers sensuousness. Athena offers wisdom. Hera offers power. Three goddesses vie for the Golden Apple because there are three basic individual types: epicures, sages, and suits.

Epicures, sages, and suits: each person falls into one of these three broad categories of people. In each of these categories are various subcategories. Among the epicures there are different pleasures. Among the sages the branches of knowledge are various. Among the suits, power take on different faces. There is the face of a CEO, the one wearing cuff links on a crisp shirt. There is the face of a mob boss with the clean shorn head. There is the face a Queen who plays one suitor against another. These are the faces of temporal power. But there is yet another, rarer, face of power. There is the atemporal face of power, the call of destiny. This is power in the dative case. It is in the dative case because it is power to those for whom the world is not enough. Whereas the industrialist, the boss, and the politician project their power for reasons they grasp, those to whom destiny calls project their power for reasons they do not fully grasp. It calls. They follow. The results are larger than life.

Achilles and Agamemnon

If Paris were the first epicure of the Western world, then Achilles and Agamemnon were the first suits. But they were suits of different types. Agamemnon wore the temporal face of power. The sceptre he carries is a visual analogy of his face of power. Achilles power is different. Like Agamemnon, he is a fighter and a nobleman. He is greater as a fighter and lesser as a nobleman. But this isn’t what differentiates them. The power he projects is atemporal. He is more a mystic. Achilles understands something that Agamemnon and the other warriors can hardly comprehend, and that is the call of destiny:

My mother Thetis the goddess of the silver feet tells me
I carry two sorts of destiny toward the day of my death. Either,
if I stay here and fight beside the city of the Trojans,
my return home is gone, but my glory shall be everlasting;
the excellence of my glory is gone, but there will be a long life
left for me, and my end in death will not come to me quickly.

We know the other heroes can hardly comprehend Achilles because Homer records their reaction:

So he [Achilles] spoke, and all of them stayed stricken to silence
in amazement at his words. He had spoken to them very strongly.

Then, as now, people are wary when individuals start talking of a destiny. Those to whom a higher task was not vouchsafed have only heard the distant rumour of destiny, most often spoken by fools and lunatics.

Achilles’ words can be read literally, or as an allegory. Read literally, his twin destinies provide the pivot of the poem. When he comes back to the field, the poem will be sung forever, but he will die quick. Read allegorically, his words speak to those whom destiny has called. His words say to them that destiny comes at a great price. Achilles will pay the price, and so will those who follow him.

Helen: Woman of Destiny

It is a shame Achilles and Helen never meet in the Iliad. They would have much to talk about. Besides Achilles, Helen is the only other character who understands the weight of destiny. During one of the fifty-one or so days in the Iliad, the tide (as it so often does) turns, this time against the Trojans. Hector goes back to fortress Troy to placate the gods. While inside, he runs into his brother Paris and his sister-in-law Helen. Helen, seeing Hector gore-covered and weary–weary of war and weary of worry–placates him:

Yet since the gods had brought it about that these vile things must be,
I wish I had been the wife of a better man than this is [Paris],
one who knew modesty and all things of shame that men say.
But this man’s heart is no steadfast thing, nor yet will it be so
ever hereafter; for that I think he shall take the consequence.
But come now, come in and rest on this chair, my brother,
since it is on your heart beyond all that the hard work has fallen
for the sake of dishonoured me and the blind act of Alexandros [an alternate name for Paris],
us two, on whom Zeus set a vile destiny, so that hereafter
we shall be made into things of song for the men of the future.

Her strategy of placating Hector is fascinating. First, she denigrates herself and Paris, for whom many excellent Trojans have died. Then there is the epic cop-out, similar to the one Agamemnon uses when many excellent Achaeans die because he slighted Achilles, their best warrior. Agamemnon blames Zeus as well for blinding his wits the moment he slighted Achilles. So too, Helen blames Zeus for their “vile destiny.” But then–and this is the fascinating part–she adds a metaphysical justification for why Zeus had set a vile destiny: he did so to make them “into things of song for the men of the future.” Why is this fascinating? Helen could not have known that Homer, centuries later, would memorialize their lives in the Iliad. How then was Helen able to make this statement? She was able to because she felt destiny calling her forwards.

While Achilles’ sense of destiny highlights the sacrifice that destiny demands, Helen’s sense of destiny highlights two separate facets of destiny. First, destiny takes place within a tradition. No one feels destined to do something that has never been done before. Destiny calls you to take your place in a long line of others who have had the same calling. In the case of Helen, she understood that the Trojan War was a great war, and, just as the bards in her day recounted the wars of old, the bards of the future would recount her story. Destiny is seeing beyond the present day. It is a higher awareness. While the others can only see the day-to-day contingencies of war, destiny calls Helen to join the great ones in the days of yore. What is more, we can see another aspect of destiny in the example of Helen. Those who hear destiny’s call are not for their time: they are born posthumously in the future times when their destiny is fulfilled. Every time Troy is sung, Helen lives. Such is the destiny of those made into things of song for the men of the future. Destiny is not a phenomenon of this world and this time, but a thing for another world in the times to come.

Philip II of Macedon, Olympias, and Alexander the Great

The Oxford English Dictionary defines “destiny” as:

The predetermined course of events; that which is destined to happen; the fate of a particular person, country, etc.; the ultimate condition; a person’s lot in life.

If destiny is “predetermined,” a “fate” hurtling toward “the ultimate condition,” it would seem that it is congenital, something written in the stars or woven by the Fates, and not something learned. Or is it? Could destiny be a learned asset? The case of Alexander suggests the feeling of destiny can, like the assets of emotional intelligence or geometry, be taught.

Alexander, from a young age, was told by his mother Olympias that it was his destiny to conquer Persia, the reigning world-power. So too he was told by his father Philip: “My son, ask for thyself another kingdom, for that which I leave is too small for thee.” From the iron sense of destiny imparted on him by Olympias and Philip, we can see why he would rebuke his soldiers, exhausted from his never-ending campaigns: “Go home, and tell them you left Alexander to conquer the world alone.”

In Alexander it is possible to see how destiny can be taught. Destiny is like that unattainable peak. We may never get there, but destiny is also the belief that we can. Alexander never achieved the kingdom he sought. But by believing in destiny, he went much further than could be expected or even imagined.

We are held back so often from our true capacities from our own beliefs. Destiny in the Alexandrian sense is a belief in oneself that allows one to transcend what was thought possible. Destiny as a tool to achieve the impossible reminds me of the story of martial artist and movie star Tony Jaa. Have you seen the staircase fight scene in The Protector, the one where Jaa ascends a series of grand staircases in leaps and bounds, all while taking out a small army or martial arts mercenaries? Well, the whole four-minute sequence was done in one shot, and it includes some serious gravity defying leaps that were done without wirework. How was this possible?

While growing up, Jaa watched wuxia wire fu shows such as The Legend of the Condor Heroes. In these shows, the old masters practised a gravity-defying discipline called “quinggong.” They could ascend sheer rock faces in a bound, run across lakes, and jump over fortress walls. In the movies, actors achieved these effects with trampolines and wirework, hence the name “wire fu.” Jaa, however, wasn’t aware of this. He thought quinggong was for real. And he practised his leaps and bound every day. He never got to the point where he could fly. But, if you watch The Protector, he gets halfway there. That is the advantage of destiny. By believing the impossible, you may not get there, but you will go further than how far people tell you is possible.

Incidentally, if you found it unlikely that a child could believe in quinggong, I believed it was possible until my mid-teens. To “practise” quinggong, I would jump off all sorts of things, stairs, balconies, and, in one case, a second storey window (fortunately my legs are robust!). I never got to Jaa’s level, but one time, in grade ten, they tested the basketball team’s standing vertical jump. In this test you stand with both legs planted on the ground and jump as high as you can. Your vertical jump or “vert,” as we called it, was the distance between the ground and your feet as maximum elevation. Most of the guys had a vert between 12-18 inches. My vert at age 15 was 24 inches. The average standing vertical (e.g. stationary, not running) jump of adult NBA players today is 28 inches. This was quite an impressive result. Even if you don’t believe in destiny, belief is a game changer. The feeling of destiny is belief multiplied by infinity.

In the case of Alexander, we see that destiny can be a learned attribute. Not only that, we see that the men and women of destiny have an affinity for one another. On visiting the grave of Achilles, Alexander said: “Oh fortunate youth, who found a Homer to proclaim thy valour!” Out of a hundred people, there is likely less than one who feels the call of immortality. It is looked on by others as a strange aberration. Perhaps it is for this reason that we can see how intrigued those who feel destiny’s allure are with one another.

Julius Caesar: “The Die is Cast”

The Rubicon, a small stream 300 kilometers north of Rome, marked the point where returning governors would have to take leave of their legions. Governors could roam with their legions north of the Rubicon. In Italy proper–the area south of the Rubicon–only elected officials could maintain armies. So it was in the dying days of the Roman Republic.

When Caesar was 31, he saw a statue of Alexander. Seeing the statue put Caesar in to a state of reflection. At 31, all Caesar had to show for himself was a quaestorship while at that same age Alexander had conquered the known world. Like Alexander, Caesar also wanted immortality. Later on, he would one up Alexander. While Alexander could only marvel how Achilles had a Homer to write of his deeds, Caesar would become his own historiographer, writing both The Gallic Wars and The Civil War. Such is the call of destiny. If help is not forthcoming, one must go at it alone.

Through Caesar we can see the incredible appetite for life that makes the man of destiny: the lavish games he put on, the unending wars of conquest that he brought home after all the enemies had been conquered, the massive feats of engineering he took on. But the one element of destiny with Caesar that fascinate me most is in 49 BC when he took the thirteenth legion across the Rubicon and started the Civil War. In particular, the thing that interest me most is what Caesar said as he crossed the tiny stream: alea iacta est “The die is cast.”

When Caesar says that the die is cast, he refers to the moment one offers oneself, almost as a sacrifice, to destiny. Destiny transcends the natural processes of this world, it is a metaphysical mood. Who, in the final examination, knows the difference between the call of destiny, madness, and megalomania? When one hears destiny’s call, one must, like Caesar at the Rubicon, either accept or reject the call. And if one accepts the call, one gives oneself up to higher and indeterminate powers. One becomes thrall to the unknown. Caesar, in a brilliant image, equates this unknown quantity to the randomness of the die.

There is some magic in destiny. It may call you to immortality. But, even though it calls, you may or may not get there. And whether or not you get there is beyond your control, no matter how great your resources and ingenuity. This is Caesar’s contribution to our discussion of destiny.

The Jews: A Destined People

For thou art an holy people unto the Lord thy God, and the Lord hath chosen thee to be a peculiar people unto himself, above all the nations that are upon the earth. Deuteronomy 14:2

With the Jews, we can see the effect of destiny on an entire people. God’s covenant with Abraham and Sarah establishes the Jews as a people chosen for a greater destiny. Having a greater destiny is awesome, but we can also see that with great power comes great sacrifice: as soon as God chooses the Jews as his people, he also tells them how they must comport themselves. To be the people of destiny, there are many commandments and restrictions to follow. From the history of the Jews, we can make a general inference regarding destiny: destiny declines when discipline decays. To have a destiny means to comport oneself to the highest standards.

Because the covenant includes a whole race of people, we can see the effect of destiny on many people, many of whom we don’t typically see as being involved with destiny. Sure, we see Alexander and Caesar as people of destiny, but the covenant also involves Joe the plumber in the conversation. The first thing we notice in the history of the Jews is that it is extremely hard to live up to the demands of destiny. The nation would rather live free, would rather live under the golden calf than bear the burden of destiny. Destiny is an incredible weight.

The second thing that we notice, however, is that despite its weight, destiny compels those who feel its allure–if they don’t destroy themselves–to outperform. How many Kenites, Kenizzites, Kadmonites, Hittites, Perizzites, Amorites, Canaanites, Girgashites, or Jebusites do you know today? And how many Jews do you know today? Of the tribes living in the Promised Land, only the Jews trace an unbroken line from biblical times to the present day. We can see from the history of the Jews how destiny makes it believers robust so that, against long odds, they prevail.

In the history of the Jews, we can also observe a third facet of destiny: to have a destiny sets you apart from others. The effect of professing that one has a destiny is to be, by others, sometimes misunderstood, sometimes scorned, and at other times persecuted. If one has a destiny, one searches out for others that are also marked by destiny. At the same time, if one has a destiny, one is marked as an object of contempt by the ones who are without their own destiny. There is something of human nature in this.

Nietzsche: A Philosopher in between Destiny and Madness

From the 1870s, Nietzsche knew that his task (die Aufgabe, as he endlessly referred to it) would be all-consuming, and that it would involve him exploding the boundaries of his professional credentials as an Altphilologe, a classical philologist of ancient Greece and Rome. From the early 1880s, his destiny became ever clearer: he would change the world forevermore with his revaluation of all values. Writing to Paul Lanzsky in 1884, he claimed that Thus Spake Zarathustra was “the most significant book of all times and of peoples that ever existed.” In 1887, although he was still (and would be until long after his death) a nobody, when an earthquake struck Nice on February 23 and the hotel where he was staying had collapsed, he observed: “It will be an advantage for the posterity to have a pilgrimage less to make.” These statements go beyond the sorts of statements made by most people. In Nietzsche we see the relationship between destiny and madness. For many, destiny calls, and madness comes running up. These anecdotes, by the way, are from philosopher and psychiatrist Karl Jasper’s introduction to Nietzsche, which I reviewed here.

For many years, it was thought that syphilis drove Nietzsche mad. That diagnosis is now disputed. The current belief is that he succumbed from a slowly growing right-sided retro-orbital meningioma, or, in other words, a brain cancer behind the right eye. Left untreated, the tumour displaced his right frontal lobe giving him a frontal lobotomy. A meningioma on the right side can lead to headaches on the right side, blindness in the right eye, visual disturbances, mania, and paranoia, all symptoms which Nietzsche experienced. Consider this report from Resa von Schirnhofer who visited Nietzsche in August 1884 at Sils-Maria:

As I stood waiting by the table, the door of the adjacent room on the right opened, and Nietzsche appeared. With a distraught expression on his pale face, he leaned wearily against the post of the half-opened door and immediately began to speak about the unbearableness of his ailment. He described to me how, when he closed his eyes, he saw an abundance of fantastic flowers, winding and intertwining, constantly growing and changing forms and colors in exotic luxuriance, sprouting one out of the other. “I never get any rest,” he complained, words which were implanted in my mind. Then, with his large, dark eyes looking straight at me he asked in his weak voice with disquieting urgency: “Don’t you believe this condition is a symptom of incipient madness?”

There is a biological foundation to destiny’s call. In Nietzsche’s case, we can see how, in the months leading up to his collapse in January 1889, even as he felt more certain that he would complete his task and assure his place in the pantheon, the biological factor–the cancer that would lobotomize him–was also growing. It is easy to speculate that his euphoria and his madness have a common physical root: the meningioma displacing his frontal lobe. The feeling of the certainty of destiny may be the results of a physical aberration of the brain rather than a metaphysical call from a higher power. It may even be that, one day in the future, the sociobiologists will identify a gene behind destiny’s call. We will see.

Cus D’Amato and Mike Tyson

It took the oldest heavyweight champ to make one of the most insightful comments on the youngest heavyweight champ. At 45, George Foreman defeated Michael Moorer in 1994 to take the crown. At the other end of the age scale, at 20 years of age Mike Tyson knocked out Trevor Berbick in 1986 to become the youngest champ. Although they were both active at the same time, they never fought. Years later, when asked why the fight never happened, Foreman said he wanted nothing to do with Tyson and Cus. That was a great comment as it shows how Foreman recognized so much of Tyson’s legacy was the product not of Tyson, but of his trainer, manager, and foster parent Cus D’Amato. Despite how often–to this day–Tyson talks up Cus, including writing a book Iron Ambition: My Life with Cus D’Amato, so few understand that there could be no Iron Mike without Cus D’Amato.

D’Amato lived life for a singular purpose: to train heavyweight boxing champions of the world with the peek-a-book style of boxing he pioneered. Like Bruce Lee, it was more than about the fights. It was a way of life in which the end goal is to be remembered forever. To this end, D’Amato studied the ancient classics and history–Homer, Achilles, Alexander, and Caesar–and applied their limitless ambition to the sphere of boxing, the sweet science. He immersed himself in psychology, arguing that the ring is where the superior character prevails. He also took up philosophy to increase his odds, familiarizing himself with the works of Nietzsche and Machiavelli. D’Amato himself knew no limits. He fought the mob, and the mob backed down. He took his peek-a-boo style, disparaged for its mechanical soul and awkwardness in attack, and produced not one, but three heavyweight hall-of-famers: José Torres–the first Latin American light heavyweight champ–Floyd Patterson–the champ between Rocky Marciano and Ali–and Mike Tyson.

D’Amato felt that he had a destiny, and this feeling drove him to perform, and to get his fighters to perform (from Mike Tyson’s recollections):

Cus was a believer in destiny. Even as a young boy, he felt that he’d be famous someday; he always had a feeling that “there was something different” about him. I had the same exact feeling. So it felt right that I would move in with Cus and Camille. Cus was so happy. I couldn’t understand why this white man was so happy about me. He would look at me and laugh hysterically. Then he’d get on the phone and tell people, “Lightning has struck twice. I have another heavyweight champion. He’s only thirteen.”

One of the first nights that I stayed over at the house on one of the home visits, Cus took me into the living room, where we could talk alone. “You know I’ve been waiting for you,” he told me. “I’ve been thinking about you since 1969. If you meditate long enough on something, you get a picture. And the picture told me that I would make another champion. I conjured you up with my mind and now you’re finally here.”

Like the previous examples, we can see in the case of D’Amato that destiny involves appetite, a belief, and a euphoria going beyond reason that borders on lunacy.

In the life of D’Amato, we can see how all-consuming the call of destiny is. Though he managed three heavyweight world champs, when he died, all that he had to his name was his station-wagon that he used to drive his fighters to the gym. This reminds me of the story of another fighter, one from the ancient times:

When he [Alexander the Great] divided his revenues among his friends, while preparing his Asian campaign, and Perdiccas asked him what he retained for himself, he answered, “Hope.”

To those whom destiny calls, money is not legal tender. Glory is legal tender. In another anecdote, D’Amato uses money to get Tyson’s interests, and, at the right time, tells him it’s not about the money, but about a greater purpose: immortality:

I used to ask Cus, “What does it mean being the greatest fighter of all time? Most of those guys are all dead.” “Listen, they’re dead, but we’re talking about them now, this is all about immortality.” That fucked me up. It changed the whole game. I just thought it would be about riches, the big cars, the big mansions he used to point out to me. But now he was taking it to a whole other level. He got me hooked with the riches, but now he suddenly said, “You’re going to be a god.” This was the real deal, and the real fucked me up real good. Then he said, “Forget that money.” Once he told me that shit, it blew my mind. He was talking immortality and I’m figuring out what that is.

D’Amato met Tyson when Tyson was thirteen. Tyson could hardly read at the time. He had just started learning how to read as a precondition of weekend boxing sessions with Bobby Stewart, his juvenile detention counsellor, a Golden Glove champ who had fought on the undercard in the infamous “Rumble in the Jungle.” Stewart was a Cus D’Amato fighter and the link between Tyson and D’Amato. Once D’Amato took on Tyson, in addition to the physical training, he kindled Tyson’s interest in history and philosophy and got Tyson reading about Achilles, Alexander the Great, and Nietzsche. By sixteen, Tyson got it:

Even at sixteen years old, I believed that all the heroes and gods of war–Achilles, Ares, and all these gods, and all the old fighters–were watching me and I had to represent them, I had to be bloodthirsty, and gut-wrenching. I realized through Cus that we were fighting for immortality. Nothing else mattered than being worshipped by the entire world. When Cus talked to me about immortality he wasn’t just talking about me, he was talking about himself too. I wasn’t just fighting for my glory, I was fighting for his too. Nobody loved boxers and boxing more than Cus. He devoted his whole life to service, first to the poor Italians in his neighborhood in the Bronx and later to all the wayward kids like me, and Patterson and Kevin Rooney and Joe Juliano and on and on and on. We trained hard, we fought hard, but it was worth every minute.

Looking back decades later, many years after the belts and the limelight, Tyson would look back at it all from a retrospective position and say:

Cus’s friend the CBS boxing consultant Mort Sharnik wanted to do a program about Cus before he died. In one of the interviews for the show, he asked Cus if he thought about his legacy and the whole point of his life. Cus said, “All I want to do is make one small scratch on this big rock before I go. I want them to know that Cus D’Amato was here.” You got it, Cus. Now there are two scratches on that rock, side by side. And whenever anyone remembers Mike Tyson, they’ll know the name of Cus D’Amato too. Until the end of time.

People think of Mike Tyson as a savage. And he is. Recently, when Tyson went back into the ring at age 54 to face Roy Jones Jr., Joe Rogan interviewed Tyson. Rogan was so intimidated by Tyson’s physical presence, that he had a new table made up for his podcast, one which placed another two feet between him and his guest. In this way, Tyson is like one of his idols: Achilles. Achilles was also a savage, but also capable of the highest poetic expression: while Diomedes and Odysseus speak with power, only when Achilles talks is the audience stunned into silence. Tyson’s words on fulfilling D’Amato’s legacy are among the most beautiful I have read, in any language.

The story of D’Amato and Tyson shows the social side of destiny: it’s not enough to go at it alone. Destiny is a combination of drive, character, luck, and, above, all, love. Their story is the story of a young boy learning from the old master. As a fan of Homer, I’m so happy to see how the old stories continue to inspire–in places where one would have least thought.

The Faces of Destiny

These are the faces of destiny. From Achilles, destiny is about the price that you pay. From Helen, destiny is a higher level of awareness. From Philip, Olympias, and Alexander the Great, destiny is a sense of wonder that can be passed from generation to generation. From Caesar, to accept destiny is to place yourself in the hands of a higher power. From the Jews, destiny is an intolerable harness that allows believers to go further than the rest. From Nietzsche, destiny is a mental state with a biological foundation closely related with madness. From Cus D’Amato and Mike Tyson, destiny is the love between two driven individuals. And from all these types, destiny has always been appetite for life.

Through these portraits of destiny, we can see how the people of destiny are intrigued by one another, and learn the trade of destiny by researching one another. If you are touched by destiny, learn from the others the lightning has struck. Make yourself indispensable to the heritage within which you work, and your odds of being remembered increases. Today, no one can study Jack Dempsey, Battling Nelson, Joe Gans, and others without going through Tyson’s interpretation of them. Tyson has made himself indispensable. So too, no one can study Schopenhauer, Plato, or Hegel today without going through Nietzsche’s interpretation of them. Nietzsche has made himself indispensable to the tradition.

Those who do not feel destiny will look at those struck by destiny as aberrations. But those who have been struck will look at them as the greatest models. “If I were not Napoleon,” said Napoleon, “I would be Alexander.”

 

Don’t forget me. I’m Edwin Wong, and I do Melpomene’s work.

sine memoria nihil

Review of Nietzsche: An Introduction to the Understanding of His Philosophical Activity – Karl Jaspers

1936, English translation 1965, Johns Hopkins UP, trans. Charles F. Wallraff and Frederick J. Schmitz, 509 pages
Originally published as Nietzsche: Einführung in das Verständnis seines Philosophierens

Reading this book is a serious undertaking. It’s a book about a philosopher (Nietzsche) by a philosopher (Jaspers, one of the founders of existentialism). It is well-researched, covering Nietzsche’s published materials, unpublished fragments, and letters. In this work, Jaspers reveals the ties between Nietzsche the man and Nietzsche the philosopher. From Nietzsche’s correspondences with musician Peter Gast, theologian Franz Overbeck, classicist Erwin Rohde, his mother, his sister, and others, Jaspers paints a portrait of a lonely individual, somewhat timid, a social misfit, yet extraordinarily polite, and, above all, one bound by the consuming idea of his task: the revaluation of all values.

To Jaspers, Nietzsche’s solitude was a function of the importance Nietzsche attributed to his task of revaluing values, and how his contemporaries could not come along with him: for them, to succeed in the world, they had to also subscribe to morality, Christianity, the idea of Germany, marriage, political correctness, having the right friends, and holding the right views–even if all these notions were based on false values. Some could watch Nietzsche railing against these false values. But it was painful watching him destroy his career. Even though some could watch, no one could come with him. He had to go it alone. Perhaps his friends who watched from a distance were right. When Nietzsche collapsed in 1889, he was nobody and many of his friends were important somebodies. As Jaspers recounts, Nietzsche was self-publishing his books. There were no readers. He was admitted to the Basel asylum as a civilian, denied access to any special treatment or services. The tables have turned now, as many of the somebodies of Nietzsche’s time are only today remembered in their connection with Nietzsche.

In the revaluation of all values, Nietzsche turns the world on its head, much like how Christianity turned the Roman world and values on its head with its “first shall be the last and the last shall be the first” credo. In place of the soul, Nietzsche gives us the will to power. In place of God, Nietzsche gives us the superman. And in place of metaphysics, Nietzsche gives us the eternal recurrence. The will to power is the will to live dangerously, the will that yes “Yes.” The eternal recurrence is the sense of déjà vu, except with a much more badass name. And the superman is the individual who, with the highest form of the will to power, can say yes and affirm all of existence, both its best moments and its darkest. The superman is the individual with an appetite for life. Here I wrote a piece in an honest jest of Freddie Mercury as a modern-day superman.

Jasper’s book, lovingly written, but not to the point of worship–for example, while extolling Nietzsche’s breathtaking insights, singles him out for the crudity of his logical forms and method–is easier to read than Nietzsche himself. But it can be a tough slog for lay readers. The nice thing, however, is that Jaspers quotes so much of Nietzsche that it is a pleasure to read. Nietzsche–as Nietzsche himself described–is, along with Heinrich Heine, the best of the German stylists. His turns of phrases–whether one understands them or not–are beautiful to read. Take for example this turn of words where he talks about his process of overcoming: “Shake me together with all the tears and all the misery of mankind, and I must always rise to the top, like oil on water.” His images are powerful because they are full of action. What is more, his images and aphorisms are fascinating because they’re the sort of things I wish that I could write but know I can’t. There’s something uncanny in how he sees the world. Like how he describes his favourite philosopher (the pre-Socratic Heraclitus), there is, too, in Nietzsche, “a gap in his nature.”

For All His Power, Nietzsche Could Not Foresee His Own Demise

In 1881, while walking through the forest by Lake Silvaplana, the idea of the eternal recurrence came to Nietzsche. In 1883, the idea of the superman and the will to power dawned on him, and he recorded the discovery in Thus Spoke Zarathustra. In 1888, he was overjoyed, feeling the task of merging these three concepts into a grand unified philosophy close at hand. By merging metaphysics with mysticism, he would overcome nihilism. God is dead; long live the superman. But there was a problem: Nietzsche realized the eternal recurrence may be indefensible and the will to power unprovable. To put the plug in nihilism, he would have to demonstrate the mechanism through which the eternal recurrence recurred and establish why nature would will to power.

Jaspers recounts some of Nietzsche’s joyous letters of 1888, that great year, but not great in the sense that Nietzsche foresaw. Nietzsche felt himself close to that secret of the grand unification. Glimpses of the solution were coming to him. Soon, he would grasp the whole:

But the decisive symptom of the new condition is a euphoria which appears only occasionally in the course of the year but is constant during the last months. This tone is softly heard first in letters to Seydlitz (Febr. 12, ’88): “The days here come along with an impudent beauty; there never was a more perfect winter.” To Gast he writes (Sept. 27, ’88): “Marvelous clarity, autumnal colors, an exquisite feeling of well-being on all things.” Later on: “I am now the most grateful person in the world–of an autumnal mood in every good sense of the word: this is my great harvest time. Everything is easy for me, everything turns out well for me.” “I am now of the absolute conviction that all has turned out well, from the very beginning; all is one and has one purpose” (to Gast, Dec. 22, ’88).

For all his powers of insight, little did he know, he would come to harvest his sorrows. Less than two weeks after his December 22nd letter to Gast, he would collapse into an insanity from which he would never emerge, dying of pneumonia twelve years later.

It fills me with wonder, how faraway so close he was. And I wonder how many of us too will be struck down, faraway so close to fulfilling our task.

What Nietzsche Can Do for You

There’s so much to read these days. Why should you read Nietzsche, or, for that matter, read Jaspers reading Nietzsche? Like no other writer, Nietzsche inspires. One of the best things about Jaspers’ book are the glimpses of how Nietzsche’s contemporaries saw him through their correspondences. From the letters and correspondences, you can see how Nietzsche inspires even the greatest minds. In Nietzsche, they see the traveler, going it alone, ascending the most dangerous peaks. In that moment, how could they not be filled with awe and wonder? Here, for example, is Erwin Rohde, one of the preeminent classicists (or Altphilologen as they are called in Germany) of the nineteenth century, and author of Psyche (still in print today) writing to Nietzsche. They became acquainted while studying under Friedrich Ritschl, one of the gods of philology:

“To me it seems at times like a defection that I am unable to join you in fishing for pearls in those ocean depths and must instead amuse myself and take a childish delight in gudgeons and other philological vermin” (Dec. 22, ’71). “And so I feel again as I always did when I was together with you: for a while I am elevated into a higher rank, as though I were spiritually ennobled” (Dec. 22, ’79).

When one reads Nietzsche, one is filled with the radiance of life and possibility. Perhaps it is because Nietzsche was constantly striving to rise out of the pit of nihilism that one descends into once God is dead that he charges his writing with an infectious purpose and drive that touches all his readers. It was the case with me. Nietzsche was that distant star that I have followed for so long. If you are looking for your calling, read Nietzsche. Your destiny will beckon. Whether you can follow is another question.

I first encountered Nietzsche in my early teens through his book: The Birth of Tragedy. In that book, he said things like: “It is only as an aesthetic phenomenon that the world can be eternally justified.” Imagine the effect of this on a teen who was used to reading Hardy Boys novels and watching He-Man cartoons. Nietzsche, compared with everyone else, spoke with such immortal purpose. I was hooked. I decided that I too, would write a theory of tragedy, which, after reading Nietzsche, seemed the highest of all human endeavours.

To prepare myself for the task, I enrolled in Greek and Roman Studies: Nietzsche, before the classicists threw him out and the philosophers welcomed him, had started out as a classicist. At UVic I studied under Laurel Bowman, and at Brown, under Charles Fornara and David Konstan. Because Nietzsche was also published in a peer-reviewed journal as an undergraduate, I thought I would do the same, and wrote an article on fate and free will in Homer’s Iliad. Then, later, after two failed attempts, I succeeded in combining probability theory with literary theory and produced a new theory of tragedy based on risk as the dramatic fulcrum of the action. Finally, to take my theory from page to stage, I inaugurated the world’s largest playwriting competition for the writing of tragedy, now in its third year.

All this from a spark that shot off the embers of Nietzsche’s thought. It has been a whole life of inspiration. I promise you too, that you will be inspired if you read Nietzsche. Is that a good enough reason to pick up Nietzsche over some other writer?

Don’t forget me. I’m Edwin Wong, and I do Melpomene’s work.

Author Blurb

Karl Jaspers (1883-1969), a founder of existentialism, studied law and medicine at the University of Heidelberg in Germany and received his M.D. degree in 1909. He taught psychiatry and philosophy at the University of Heidelberg, and philosophy at the University of Switzerland. His books include General Psychopathology, also available in paperback from Johns Hopkins.

Book Blurb

Nietzsche claimed to be a philosopher of the future, but he was appropriated as a philosopher of Nazism. His work inspired a long study by Martin Heidegger and essays by a host of lesser disciples attached to the Third Reich. In 1935, however, Karl Jaspers set out to “marshall against the National Socialists the world of thought of the man they had proclaimed as their own philosopher.” The year after Nietzsche was published, Jaspers was discharged from his professorship at Heidelberg University by order of the Nazi leadership. Unlike the ideologues, Jaspers does not selectively cite Nietzsche’s work to reinforce already held opinions. Instead, he presents Nietzsche as a complex, wide-ranging philosopher–extraordinary not only because he foresaw all the monstrosities of the twentieth century but also because he saw through them.

Review of “Nietzsche and Tragedy” – Porter

pages 68-87 in A Companion to Tragedy, ed. Rebecca Bushnell, Blackwell 2009

Author Blurb

James I. Porter is Professor of Classics and Comparative Literature at the University of California, Irvine. His research areas are in literature, aesthetics, and intellectual history. He is the author of Nietzsche and the Philology of the Future (2000) and The Invention of Dionysus: An Essay on The Birth of Tragedy (2000), and editor of Construction of the Classical Body (1999) and Classical Pasts: The Classical Traditions of Greece and Rome (2006). His book, The Origins of Aesthetic Inquiry in Ancient Greece: Matter, Sensation and Experience is forthcoming from Cambridge University Press. His next projects include a study of the idea of Homer from antiquity to the present and another on ancient literary aesthetics after Aristotle.

I’ve Met Porter (a brief brush with fame)!

This is a fun review to write. I met Porter in 2004 when touring prospective grad schools. At that time, he was at the University of Michigan. We had a chance to chat at length. Not only is Porter a Nietzsche scholar, he also studies the reception of the Classics, a fascinating newer field that looks at how the idea of the classical world is constantly being reshaped with each passing generation.

Porter talks thoughtfully. There’re pregnant pauses in the conversation when he mulls responses over before speaking. He also has a scholarly sense of humour. When I mentioned I had also read Dennis J. Schmidt’s On Germans and Other Greeks (another book on reception studies), he had a good chuckle. They must have a sort of scholarly disagreement. He never told me what exactly his thoughts were about Schmidt’s book. From his chuckle, I think he was expecting that I would know just from reading it. I didn’t though. I wished I had asked him, as this question has lingered in my mind for a surprisingly long time.

In 2002 I read Porter’s provocatively titled Nietzsche and the Philology of the Future (not the subject of this review). Porter talks about how, in Nietzsche’s time, philology–or Classics as it’s called today–was at a crossroads. Nietzsche wanted philology to be more speculative. His rival, Ulrich von Wilamowitz-Moellendorf, wanted philology to be more concrete, more scientific. They were both young guns at this time and they both would later regret their childish spat. During their spat, Wilamowitz wrote a pamphlet ridiculing Nietzsche’s first book, The Birth of Tragedy, by calling it Zukunftsphilologie! (the philology of the future!), a sarcastic allusion to Richard Wagner’s concept Zukunftsmusik (the music of the future). Nietzsche’s champion Erwin Rohde defended Nietzsche by writing a pamphlet against Wilamowitz and deriding Wilamowitz’ tactics as Afterphilologie (German “after” also refers to “the rear,” so this could be translated into something like “asshole-philology”). Nietzsche also got in on it, referring to Wilamowitz as “Wilamops” or “moppish-Wilamowitz.” Ah, if only the academics of today could be so lively!

Little did they know that Wilamowitz would go on to become the most recognized classicist in the 19th and perhaps 20th century, and Nietzsche would go on to become a philosopher and cultural icon. Later, Wilamowitz would concede that he hadn’t quite grasped the scale at which Nietzsche was trying to operate: the ancient world to Nietzsche wasn’t an end in and of itself, but a springboard into the larger cultural and aesthetic questions of their day. To Wilamowitz, Classics was and end in and of itself that could be re-experienced and mentally recreated, given sufficient learning and understanding.

Nietzsche grounded his standpoint by arguing that the essence of the classical world could never be recaptured once its time was past. Classics can only mean to moderns what modernity sees. There was never any “classical world.” It’s like Heraclitus’ stream: once it flows by it’s never the same. In this way, our views of classical antiquity shift with every age and are subjective. Because the interpretation of antiquity shifts, we can gauge the shifting tides of modernity by looking at how our reception of the classical world differs from age to age, from how the Renaissance saw it to how the German idealists saw it and so on. There is only interpretation, and, since there is only interpretation, you might as well make speculative interpretations that encompass culture, religion, and aesthetics. Modernity can compare itself to any other age by comparing its interpretation of the classical world against the interpretations of other ages. To ask a question such as: “What would it have felt like to be a Greek?” or “What did a Roman feel when worshipping the gods?” is nonsensical. The study of the Classics creates an illusion that we can understand the ancients when their way of thinking is really, on a second examination, completely alien to ours.

Wilamowitz, on the other hand, took a more objective view of the classical world. To him, the classical world existed, and could be recreated by the science of philology. I think this is the pun in the title of Schmidt’s book: On Germans and Other Greeks. The pun is that the German professors, with their science of philology, could be even more Greek than the ancient Greeks. To Wilamowitz, a classicist could be more Greek than the ancient Greeks, as the classicist would be able to understand where their prayers originated, would understand the allusions in the words, would grasp the symbolic meanings of the ritual, and so on.

To Wilamowitz, it was a matter of being familiar enough with the texts to be able to think and feel as the ancient Greeks did. And yes, it was sort of a science. Where the text was corrupt or missing, the task of the philologist would be to supply a conjecture. Since they were digging up new papyri all the time, these conjectures would be testable, like hypotheses. If you got the conjecture right, it was proof that philology was working, that you had a “feel” or “grasp” of the past. But this was hard work and involved copious amounts of learning which all had to be properly documented. So, when Wilamowitz saw Nietzsche making sweeping generalizations, saying that metaphysical powers represented by Apollo and Dionysus were duking it out on the stage of tragedy (a fact not attested anywhere except in Nietzsche), he naturally freaked out.

If my memory serves me, I seem to remember that despite his colourful and outlandish claims, Nietzsche was a pretty good philologist in the traditional sense as well. As part of their spat, Wilamowitz had attacked one of Nietzsche’s proposed textual conjectures as being “crazy and impossible.” Years later, I think a papyrus surfaced which proved Nietzsche to be correct. But enough of this digression, you’re here to read about Porter’s article “Nietzsche and Tragedy” in Rebecca Bushnell’s volume A Companion to Tragedy.

“Nietzsche and Tragedy”

Porter begins his essay on a point that’s so obvious that it’s never remembered: it was Nietzsche that elevated the art form of tragedy into the utmost of human achievements. Nietzsche turned tragedy into a benchmark to judge cultures, mentalities, and historical patterns. There could be tragic cultures (nineteenth century Europe), tragic metaphysics (Dionysus versus Apollo), tragic ages (the Presocratics), and the tragic vision (a way of looking at the world). Tragedy was everywhere, and to understand contemporary culture and existence, one had to measure its understanding of tragedy–the highest art form possible–against the classical past:

Tragedy was no longer a dry article of history but a sign of possibilities hitherto untapped. It was a sign and symbol of life . . . Tragedy for Nietzsche is the single pivot around which antiquity, indeed world history, turns.

Nietzsche’s elevation of tragedy into the highest of arts inspired thinkers such as Miguel de Unamuno, Karl Jaspers, J.G. Frazer (The Golden Bough), and Raymond Williams to explore the meaning of tragedy.

Unfortunately, writes Porter, Nietzsche refers so frequently to “tragedy” and “the tragic” in The Birth of Tragedy and his later writings that it is difficult for critics to construct a unified and contradiction free view of what Nietzsche meant by these terms:

Nietzsche bequeathed to posterity not a clear view of tragedy but a series of urgent problems and questions: Did the Greeks experience a tragic age? Can modernity experience tragedy again and attain the vanished heights of the classical period? Is there such a thing as a tragic view of the world, and is that view valid today? Is Nietzsche himself possibly a tragic thinker?

The Birth of Tragedy

The traditional way of looking at The Birth of Tragedy, writes Porter, is that it occupies an uncomfortable middle ground between Nietzsche’s career as a professor of Classics and his later task as a cultural philosopher. As a series of letters between him and Rhode attest, with Birth Nietzsche was breaking free:

When one classical scholar later asked him for a bit of “proof, just a single piece of evidence, that in reality the strange images on the skene [stage] were mirrored back from the magical dream of the ecstatic Dionysian chorus,” Nietzsche soberly replied, as he only could, “Just how, then, should the evidence approximately read? . . . Now the honorable reader demands that the whole problem should be disposed of with an attestation, probably out of the mouth of Apollo himself: or would a passage from Athenaeus do just as well?”

Porter finds, however, that the traditional way of looking at Birth may be misguided. Nietzsche was never interested in presenting abstract philosophical truths, but rather was interested in illuminating the all-too-human nature of humanity. “What else is man” questions Nietzsche, if not the collection of internal dissonances? In this light, Birth fits in with the rest of Nietzsche’s writings both before and after 1872 (the year it appeared): it is an exploration of the gap in our natures. We are at one and the same time both Apollo and Dionysus.

At all times in Nietzsche’s career, he would point out mankind’s marvelous and criticizable dissonances. This dissonance, writes Porter, lies at the heart of the antagonistic pair of gods, Dionysus and Apollo:

At the heart of The Birth of Tragedy lies the opposition between the two Greek gods, Apollo and Dionysus, who in turn stand for two antagonistic aesthetic principles that are nonetheless complementary and equally vital to the production of the highest art. Apollo and his abstraction the Apollonian represent the realm of clear and luminous appearances, plastic images, dreams, harmless deception, and traits that are typically Hellenic and classical, at least to the modern imagination (simplicity, harmony, cheerfulness, tranquility, and so on), while Dionysus and the Dionysian represent hidden metaphysical depths, disturbing realities, intoxication, and traits that are typically exotic and unclassical (ecstasy, disorderliness, dance, orgy). The history of Greek art is the history of the relation between these two principles.

The antagonism between Apollo and Dionysus symbolizes the contradiction or dissonance in the human experience, and by pointing out the contradiction of a bifurcated reality, Nietzsche begins his exploration of the paradoxes in culture, religion, politics, and life that he called the “all-too-human.” What is interesting is that in having Apollo and Dionysus symbolize different aspects of the human experience, Nietzsche projects human values onto the gods. That is, to me, a signal feature of Hellenic theodicy: the gods are very much like us. And, in being like us, they raise the human bar: the spark of the gods is within us–the Greek gods were made in our image. This is the sort of theodicy I like. It is human. The monotheist religions have it backwards when they said that man is made in God’s image.

Tragedy is Nothing without the Spectator

While Nietzsche’s thesis that the Golden Age of tragedy under Aeschylus and Sophocles degenerated under Euripides due to the rise of dialectic of Socratic philosophy owed much to the German school of thought, Nietzsche did break away from his predecessors by viewing tragedy from the perspective of the audience:

Consider how membership in the satyr chorus of Dionysian revelers, the original form of tragedy and “the dramatic proto-phenomenon,” involves a complex chain of assignments: “the Dionysian reveler sees himself as a satyr, and as a satyr, in turn, he sees the god.”

Tragedy involves a doubling and trebling of consciousness. The individual audience member, viewing the chorus, sees himself as a member of the chorus. And the chorus member, seeing the action on the stage, sees the vision of god. In this doubling and trebling of consciousness, the veil of reality is lifted away. Revelation occurs when the audience witnesses god on the stage. This revelation is the aesthetic phenomenon of tragedy, and this aesthetic phenomenon of tragedy was very different than how Nietzsche’s predecessors, the German idealists, described tragedy.

Nietzsche’s predecessors in the German idealists tradition–Schelling, Hegel, Vischer, and Schopenhauer–came up with essentializing theories of tragedy, writes Porter. Essentializing means they distil the tragic into an objective event. No audience or observer is required. For example, Schelling essentializes tragedy by saying: “The essence of tragedy is an actual conflict between the freedom of the subject and objective necessity.” The idealists reduce tragedy to an archetype from which all tragedies spring. To Nietzsche, tragedy is the opposite. The tragic experience is for the spectator to enter into the consciousness of the chorus to see god revealed on stage. Tragedy is revelation.

Problems with Nietzsche’s “Tragic Age”

Tragedy and the promise of a tragic age recurs throughout Nietzsche’s writings from his debut work The Birth of Tragedy to his ultimate work Ecce Homo (“behold the man,” the words with which Pontius Pilate presents Christ crowned with thorns to a hostile crowd):

I promise a tragic age: the supreme art in the affirmation of life, tragedy, will be reborn when mankind has behind it the consciousness of the harshest but most necessary wars without suffering from it. (from Ecce Homo)

But, Porter asks, what does Nietzsche mean by a coming tragic age? And what does this tragic age have to do with tragedy? For Nietzsche, the tragic age of the Greeks was in the sixth century, in the times of Heraclitus, Empedocles, and Pythagoras, a full century before Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides. To add to this confusion, sometimes Nietzsche speaks in his own day of a coming tragic age and sometimes of living in a tragic age.

To make matters worse, sometimes Nietzsche also speaks of a coming comic age which will wipe out the tragic mood. Laughter is the other face of Dionysus, who is the patron god of both comedy and tragedy:

For the present, the comedy of existence has not yet ‘become conscious’ of itself. For the present, we still live in the age of tragedy, the age of moralities and religions.

And the final problem with Nietzsche is that it’s not entirely clear what “the tragic” actually is. Is it that all meaning is in vain? Or is it that the hero has to die to affirm life in a moment of “regenerative extinction,” as Porter puts it? Or is it the mood that happens when the Dionysian man exults in the destruction of meaning? Nietzsche, according to Porter, shifts between these definitions in his long exploration of tragedy between his first book, The Birth of Tragedy, and his last, Ecce Homo.

Risk Theatre in Relation to Nietzsche’s Theory of Tragedy

When I was sixteen, I drank Nietzsche’s Kool-Aid. After reading The Birth of Tragedy, I learned and believed that tragedy was the highest human achievement (“the greatest show on earth,” as I would later call it). The highest human labour was to write a theory of tragedy. Nietzsche’s style convinced me–I had little idea what satyrs and choruses were then. My only encounter with tragedy was through English class, and tragedy up to that point had appeared to be far from the highest human achievement. But Nietzsche talked about tragedy with such conviction, I was convinced. It’s like when you’re a kid and all you’ve heard is top 40 radio and then one day someone gives you a tape of Pink Floyd The Wall and says, “Listen to this, it will blow your mind.”

Nietzsche is a great stylist, the greatest in my mind. He also considered himself, along with the German poet Heinrich Heine, the greatest German stylists. He was never one to be humble: “the greatness of his task in the face of the smallness of man,” he would write. Urgency, a call to arms, psychological depth, seeming effortlessness when discussing the most profound topics, ideas raining down, intellectual lucidity, hyperbole in the extreme, irreverence for convention, and the ability to compact massive ideas into most compact forms (he would have been great on Twitter): these are the hallmarks of the Nietzsche style. Take this passage. Who, honestly, can write like this?–

The psychology of the orgy as an overflowing feeling of life and energy within which even pain acts as a stimulus provided me with the key to the concept of the tragic feeling, which was misunderstood as much by Aristotle as it was by our pessimists . . . Affirmation of life even in its strangest and sternest problems, the will to life rejoicing in its own inexhaustibility through the sacrifice of its highest types–that is what I called Dionysian, that is what I recognized as the bridge to the psychology of the tragic poet . . . And with that I again return to the place from which I set out–the Birth of Tragedy was my first revaluation of all values: with that I again plant myself in the soil out of which I draw all that I will and can–I, the last disciple of the philosopher Dionysus–I, the teacher of the eternal recurrence. (from Twilight of the Idols)

For comparison, here’s my favourite “purple passage” (so-called because it was expensive to make purple dye in the ancient world–tens of thousands of shells were required for one garment) from The Risk Theatre Model of Tragedy:

Beneath tragedy’s surface simplicity–the rueful choruses, ghosts clamouring for revenge, and choleric tyrants–lies its deep structure, which, although hidden from plain sight, nevertheless leaves telltale signs. Just as lifeguards can infer the presence of an undertow by watching swimmers being swept out to sea, theatregoers who watch heroes being swept out into the void–heroes who enjoyed every advantage–can infer that, beneath tragedy’s surface simplicity lies a great dark power inimical to heroes’ best-laid plans which contrives that, the least expected outcome happens every time, whether it be a thousand to one or a million to one against.

Nietzsche is ever-present in his passage. He is correcting: he has to address the problem that was “misunderstood by Aristotle.” He is coming out with new terms, his thoughts are so radical: “that is what I called Dionysian.” He exists and with grave purpose: “I, the last disciple of the philosopher Dionysus.” In my passage, I am ever-distant. The only trace of my personality is in the strange image of the inattentive lifeguard, or the lifeguard too much in awe of watching the great dark inimical power to pay attention to the swimmer-heroes. Nietzsche’s presence gives him power. Standing in his pulpit, he looms over the reader. My lack of presence takes away from the urgency of my argument.

It’s not like I haven’t tried to emulate Nietzsche’s style. Truth be told, it’s not easy to do without sounding pretentious or over-the-top or just plain silly. And you have to have the inner conviction to do it. For Nietzsche, writing is a declaration of war. With every word, he’s fighting the world, revaluating all values. I too believe I am declaring revolution with risk theatre. It is an excellent idea, worth fighting for, worth going all-in on. If I hadn’t of come up with the idea, someone else would have. Today, risk is in the air. But perhaps it was a question of self-esteem. I lacked the perfect belief in myself; there was a gap in my nature that prevented me from climbing up the lofty heights of the pulpit. I hid the “I” because I believed that I was the weakest link in the argument. I thought: “If people didn’t know that I wrote it, they would take it up. But if they didn’t know it was me, they would believe my words.” In all honesty, who will read my book?  The classicists won’t read it because it talks too much about creative writing. The playwrights won’t read it because the work contains too much philosophy. And the philosophers won’t read it because it’s a playwriting book. And all artists will hate it because it speaks to art in the language of economics: risk, opportunity cost, chance, and probability.

But I wrote it anyway. My book solves for myself some of my questions on Nietzsche’s view of tragedy, which as Porter notes, are all over the place. Take Nietzsche’s view of tragedy being the most life-affirming of arts, quoted above: “Affirmation of life even in its strangest and sternest problems, the will to life rejoicing in its own inexhaustibility through the sacrifice of its highest types–that is what I called Dionysian, that is what I recognized as the bridge to the psychology of the tragic poet.” I had often puzzled over how tragedy could affirm life. The risk theatre model comes up with a clear and succinct mechanism to demonstrate how tragedy affirms life. In doing so, my book follows Nietzsche and goes beyond Nietzsche, jenseits von Nietzsche, to use one of my favourite German prepositions.

Risk theatre argues that heroes make wagers. In a wager, what is staked is put up against what is at stake. In Doctor Faustus, Faustus stakes his soul for world domination. Notice, because it’s a wager, you can change things up. Blues guitarist Robert Johnson stakes his soul to play guitar. Vivaldi, the red priest, stakes his soul to play the fiddle. Because you can formulate the wager however you like, tragedy becomes a valuing mechanism for human qualities, values, and attributes. Tragedy affirms life because the wager demonstrates how much life is worth. If you make a crappy bet, your soul is worth a mere four seasons. But if you make the right bet, your soul if worth the entire cosmos. In this way, risk theatre provides a mechanism by which tragedy affirms life and revaluates all values. Tragedy affirms life and works the revaluation of all values through the hero’s wager. My theory of risk theatre validates Nietzsche.

To Nietzsche, tragedy was revelation. It allowed you to see behind the “dissonance that is man.” It allowed you to see the unification of Dionysus and Apollo. There is a strong metaphysical bent to The Birth of Tragedy: gods, illusions, and the subconscious lurk behind every word. Despite my enormous debt to Nietzsche, risk theatre hardly contains any metaphysics. What is more, risk theatre is closer to the German idealists in that it is an essentializing theory of tragedy. Risk theatre posits that each dramatic act is a gambling act. In the gambling act, there is a choice. To attain the object of desire, the hero must ante up something of equal worth. To get the Scottish crown, Macbeth must stake the milk of human kindness. Or, in other words, to get what one wants, one must give up the next best thing. This is called opportunity cost, and opportunity cost is what risk theatre dramatizes. Risk theatre is essentializing in that it posits that there is one Ur-drama, one dramatic archetype behind all tragedy. All subsequent dramas are images of the original gambling act.

Because risk theatre sees opportunity cost at the heart of the wager, if there’s any deeper meaning to risk theatre, it’s that there’s no free lunch. Opportunity cost, free lunch, low-probability, high-consequence events, and even the term risk itself are not philosophy or art terms but rather economics terms. Risk theatre combines art and economics. Risk theatre is a model of art based on economics. It is a daring combination. And this is something too that I learned from Nietzsche. He was the one who dared to break down all Hellenic art into Dionysian and Apollonian forms. If what he did seems tame, it’s only because over a century has passed. Perhaps in the future, risk and opportunity cost will too be seen as standard run-of-the-mill art terms. Nothing that is worthwhile in life, business, and art is achieved without sacrifice. I could have stayed away from the economics world when analyzing tragedy and stayed within the box of art. But what fun would that have been? And if I had come up with something new, it would have been more a step than a leap. But by thinking outside the box, risk theatre achieves a jump. I am ridiculed for my ideas. But that is the cost of thinking outside the box. They will hate. Let them hate.

Before signing off, one last comment about comedy and tragedy. Nietzsche argued that there were comic and tragic ages. Sometimes he spoke of a coming tragic age, one in which life would be affirmed in the fullest. But sometimes he would say that he lives in a tragic age, an age full of religion and morality. To Nietzsche, both tragedy and comedy were Dionysian arts. While risk theatre lacks metaphysical roots, it likewise finds that both tragedy and comedy revolve around a common centre: risk. Tragedy dramatizes downside risk. The hero’s bet is good. 99 times out of a 100 it should succeed. But an unexpected low-probability, high-consequence event derails the hero’s best-laid plans. Comedy, on the other hand, dramatizes upside risk. The hero’s bet is poor. 99 times out of a 100, it should fail. But an unexpected low-probability, high-consequence event makes everyone happy. In risk theatre, both comedy and tragedy are risk arts. Two sides to the same coin.

In the end, no model or theory of tragedy is perfect. But if the model or theory gives you a higher understanding of the action, then it is worthwhile. And I think that both Nietzsche and risk theatre achieve this. Without Nietzsche, we would not have Strindberg and O’Neill. And who knows, perhaps the playwrights of the future will create ever more powerful plays by taking up the risk theatre model of tragedy? Yes, yes, yes!

Until next time, I’m Edwin Wong, and I’m doing Melpomene’s work.

Full Transcript of “Why Do We Enjoy Tragedies?” – Presentation at Okanagan College

WHY DO WE ENJOY TRAGEDIES?: RISK THEATRE, A NEW 21ST CENTURY THEORY OF TRAGEDY

OKANAGAN COLLEGE, KELOWNA CAMPUS

OCTOBER 28, 2019

1 THE THEORY OF TRAGEDY

Am I at Okanagan College, home of the finest English Department in Canada? Thank you, Terry Scarborough, for the invitation. Great to see everyone here. Tonight, I have for you an amazing asset you can use to interpret and create literature. It’s a theory of tragedy called “risk theatre.” It will change the way you look at literature. Theories of tragedy are fascinating. They bind together drama, literature, and philosophy for a higher calling. They’ve been studied for over two thousand years, and will be studied for another two thousand years.

The art form of tragedy has entertained audiences for 2600 years. In fifth-century Athens, the “big three” of Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides lit up the stage. In ancient Rome the philosopher Seneca wrote tragedies, as did the emperors Augustus and Nero. Tragedy enjoyed major resurgences in the English Renaissance (Shakespeare and Marlowe) and Neoclassical France (Racine and Corneille). The German Romantics Lessing, Schiller, and Goethe had a turn and, in the twentieth century, Arthur Miller and Eugene O’Neill brought tragedy to America. Tragedy has been with us a long time, and will continue for a long time after us.

The question: “Why do we enjoy tragedy?” has captivated the greatest minds from Aristotle to Hegel and Nietzsche. If you think about it, it’s odd that we enjoy tragedy. Tragedy depicts stories full of strife and sorrow. It should be repugnant to see our most exalted heroes go down in a blaze of glory. But it fires up our emotions like no other art. To answer why we enjoy tragedy, a dedicated genre called the theory or philosophy of tragedy arose. The theory belongs to a branch of philosophy which investigates the role of art: aesthetics. And though the theory of tragedy is but a limb on a branch of philosophy, if you tally all the words written in pursuit of higher learning over the last two thousand years, you’ll find that only the field of biblical exegesis has generated more discussion. The philosophy of tragedy is a cornerstone of western thought. Tonight, you’re going to assess a new asset in the interpretation of tragedy called risk theatre.

There’s hundreds of minor theories of tragedy. Of the major theories, perhaps a dozen. And then, there’s the big three. Let’s take a look at them. In the fourth century BC, they were interested in teleology, or the final purpose of things (from telos “end” and logos “story”). Predictably, Aristotle, who was around at that time, devised a theory of tragedy which explained tragedy’s final purpose. According to The Poetics, the purpose of tragedy is to elicit a cleansing or catharsis of the emotions of pity and fear through pity and fear. The tragic protagonist, through hamartia, or an error, undergoes a reversal in fortune. Because we recognize the protagonist to be similar to ourselves, we feel pity and fear. And, in feeling pity and fear, we are cleansed of these feelings to become better judges of character.

Flash forward to the eighteenth century, Newton’s century, a clockwork and mechanistic century full of colliding and ricocheting billiard balls all obeying Newton’s laws. The German philosopher Hegel lived in Newton’s wake. Predictably, Hegel saw tragedy as the product of collisions. To describe the tragic, he took the idea of the colliding mechanical masses in Newton’s cosmos and transformed these mechanical collisions into ethical collisions. The “tragic” is the sense of wonder that arises from seeing how equally justifiable ethical positions cancel one another out.

Flash forward to the nineteenth century. The invention of the irrational world of the subconscious. Dostoyevsky illustrated the power of the subconscious in his novel The Double. Is Mr. Golyadkin’s double an actual walking and talking double or a projection of the mind? No one knows. As though taking his cue, Nietzsche devised his theory: tragedy originates in a collision of psychological forces. To Nietzsche, tragedy is the collision between the rational mind, which he referred to as the Apollinian, after the sun god Apollo, and the irrational mind, which he referred to as the Dionysian, after the god of dreams, intoxication, and ecstasy. The tragic is the higher understanding that occurs when these psychological forces collide. In the destruction of the hero we catch a glimpse of a higher reality that eludes the grasp of either the conscious or unconscious mind when considered individually.

We see from the influence of Aristotle, Hegel, and Nietzsche how the theory of tragedy transcends art. It begins as an art form; art is the spark. The spark raises aesthetic issues: why do sad stories excite us? The spark becomes a flame. Next, tragedy raises ethical issues. Why do we suffer? The flame becomes a fire. Next, tragedy raises psychological questions. Is the rational mind thrall to irrational drives? The theory of tragedy gives rise to psychology and psychiatry. It influences the development of drama, screenwriting, and the novel. It imprints its image onto the visual and plastic arts. The theory of tragedy now sweeps through culture, like a raging inferno. They are powerful creations, all ubiquitous, which shape our imaginations. If it’s one theory you master, master the theory of tragedy. It will serve you well.

In a teleological age, Aristotle devised a teleological model of tragedy. In a mechanistic age, Hegel devised a mechanistic model. In a psychological age, Nietzsche devised a psychological model. If we want a modern theory of tragedy, we must ask: in what sort of age do we live?

2 RISK

We live in an age of risk. If you count the number of scientists active today, you’ll find they outnumber the aggregate number of scientists who existed from the dawn of time to 1970. Today’s army of scientists also work faster than ever. With AI and quantum computing, they can solve equations in seconds, equation that were deemed unsolvable in the past. The totality of scientific knowledge doubles every few years.

With great knowledge, we take great risks. We gamble. We design terrible weapons to keep us safe. Yesterday, bombs could destroy a town. Today, bombs imperil civilizations. We globalize the world’s financial systems. Yesterday, a rogue financial model would ruin individual traders; today, rogue models mire the world in misery. We gene-edit and engineer all varieties of life. Yesterday, the Irish Potato Famine decimated Ireland; today, Monsanto plays God with all the world’s crops. Yesterday’s local risks are today’s global risks. We are the new titans, overreachers in an age of risk. How else do we describe an age which creates artificial black holes at CERN? They say, “Of course it’s safe, what could go wrong?” But I’ve seen risk go awry the day Deepwater Horizon blew out or the day Challenger fell from the sky. Because we live in an age of risk, we will make risk the fulcrum of the dramatic action in tragedy. Today, tragedy is a theatre of risk.

Playwrights write in and they say they want to write tragedy, but the mystique of its motivations and nobility and flaws puts the art form out of reach. Critics look at tragedy, and they see it as a barbaric relic of the past. Because we live in an age of risk, let’s reclaim tragedy by making risk the fulcrum of the dramatic action. Tonight, we’re going to talk about how it’s not hamartia or a tragic flaw, but rather, heroes blow up because they make delirious wagers. Tonight, we’re going to talk about how it’s not pity and fear, but anticipation and apprehension: anticipation for what the hero wagers and apprehension for how the perfect bet goes awry. Tonight, we’re going to talk about how it’s not the Oedipus complex, but rather, it’s about thrilling low-probability, high-consequence outcomes that happen against all odds. Tonight, we’re going to take the mystery out of tragedy so that even a young child can understand.

What is risk? To some people, it’s a four-letter word. It means danger. Avoid it. This lay definition ignores risk’s upside. Risk is also reward. Economists will tell you risk is volatility. They tell you that because they can quantify volatility in their equations. Economists define risk by measuring how many standard deviations a measurement is removed from the average. Think of the familiar bell curve. The average is the top of the curve. Risk is what happen at the tails at either end. That’s why you hear of unexpected low-probability events being referred to as “tail events.”

Here’s how statisticians quantify volatility: if the average height of a human male is 5’10,” if you’re between 5’7” and 6’1”, you’re one standard deviation from the mean. But let’s say you’re 5’4” or 6’4”. Then, you’re two standard deviations from the mean. It keeps going: if you’re 5’1” or 6’7”, you’re three standard deviations from the mean. Mathematically, 68% percent of males will be one standard deviation from the mean, or between 5’7” and 6’1”. 95% percent of males will be within two standard deviations from the mean, or between 5’4” and 6’4”. The “risk” of being short or tall can be quantified in terms of standard deviations away from the mean of 5’10”.

Volatility is wanting as way of defining risk. Volatility quantifies the likelihood of “known knowns” and “known unknowns” but fails to quantify the likelihood of “unknown unknowns.” You can’t put odds on unknown unknowns. Volatility fails because it can only predict what’s already happened. It predicts the punches you see coming, but fails to predict the punch you don’t see coming. Like any boxer knows, the knockout punch isn’t the punch you see, but the punch you don’t see. So we’re back to the question, what is risk? I propose that risk is simply that more things can happen than what we think will happen. When more things happen than what we think will happen, the consequences can be very high because we’re unprepared.

Here’s an example. Consider the fortifications of the Maginot Line. In the years leading up to the Second World War, the French war minister Maginot knew that Germany was chaffing under the punishing Treaty of Versailles. It was not a question of if Germany would attack, but when. Maginot thought Germany had two options, and he bet that he could outwit his German counterpart. Option one: attack France’s industrial heartland in Alsace-Lorraine by advancing through the southeastern border. Option two: attack from the northeastern border by going through the Benelux countries, an act that would mobilize France’s allies. Maginot went all-in by building massive fortifications to protect Alsace-Lorraine: he would force Germany into option two. This way, Germany would face the combined allied forces on Belgium soil.

Great plan. But something unexpected happened. Germany attacked through the Ardennes Forest. Seeing that the dense wood was considered impassable, it had been left open. More things happened than what Maginot thought would happen. When they attacked through the Ardennes, they got behind the French defenses: the massive fortifications were now facing the wrong way. Paris fell in a month. Low-probability does not equal low-consequence. In fact, the consequences of low-probability events may be cataclysmically high because unexpected harms hurt you the most.

What happened? It starts with a good plan. Then, because the plan is good, you invest yourself all-in. Why not, the plan is good, right? Nothing could go wrong. Then “more things happen than what you think will happen.” Oh no! By going all-in, you’ve left yourself exposed. You haven’t kept your powder dry. There’s no plan B. Because you’ve overextended yourself, you’ve left yourself open to a world of hurt. Risk hurts because low-probability events carry high-consequences. If you’re driving a shiny red sports car, risk isn’t the telephone pole you see. Risk is the telephone pole you don’t see. Risk, by this definition, naturally lends itself to drama.

3 MACBETH

Let’s map this definition of risk onto a tragedy. You know, each theory of tragedy champions a particular play. Aristotle loved Sophocles’ Oedipus rex. Hegel loved Sophocles’ Antigone. And Nietzsche was fond of Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Risk theatre champions Shakespeare’s Macbeth. Macbeth works fantastic in a risk theatre reading. It’s popularity on the stage today is a fantastic sign risk theatre is on the right track.

Macbeth. Macbeth makes a wager for the crown. Risk theatre begins with a gambling act. You need the gambling act because it triggers the low-probability, high-consequence event. This is crucial. The gambling act is to risk theatre what natural selection was to Darwin’s theory of evolution. Many talked about evolution before Darwin. They’re not remembered. Darwin is remembered because he came up with the mechanism called natural selection which explains how evolution works. So too, many have commented on unexpected endings in tragedy. What risk theatre gives you is the mechanism of the gambling act which explains how tragedy generates the unexpected outcome. The more you wager, the more you concentrate your powers in one position, leaving yourself open to unexpectation.

To be king, Macbeth bets that he can get away with murdering Duncan. Like Maginot’s plan, his plan is perfect: ply Duncan’s chamberlains with wine, kill Duncan in his sleep, frame the chamberlains for murder, murder the chamberlains in turn. Macbeth even has supernatural assurances from the witches: until Birnam Wood comes to Dunsinane Hill and until he meets a man not born of woman, he can’t be harmed. What are the odds of Birnam Wood coming to Dunsinane Hill? They are low: how can the trees, rooted into the earth, move up the hill? The odds of encountering a man not of woman born are even less, as all men are born of women.

But, see what happens. As Malcolm’s forces advance on Inverness, they hew down Birnam’s branches for camouflage. Birnam Wood comes. Then, when Macbeth meets Macduff on the ramparts, he tells Macduff he doesn’t want to fight: his hands are overstained with the blood of Macduff’s wife and babes. He tells Macduff he has a charmed life: no man of woman born can harm him. But Macduff tells him, he’s an anomaly: he was not of woman born. He was born by C-section. All is lost: Macbeth had not anticipated these low-probability, high-consequence events. Of course, the audience certainly anticipates it, and that’s what makes drama engaging, as the audience, once they hear the witches’ prophecy, tries to figure out how Shakespeare will bring Birnam Wood to Dunsinane Hill and find an avenger not of woman born. Macbeth is fascinating because risk drives the action, bringing Macbeth’s best-laid plans to naught.

4 OEDIPUS REX

Let’s turn to another well-known tragedy: Oedipus rex. If you have a theory of tragedy, it’d better be able to explain how the major tragedies work. In this play, a plague strikes Thebes. King Oedipus asks the oracle how to lift the plague. The oracle answers: “Find and remove the regicide who walks amongst you.” To do a risk theatre interpretation, find the bet. Oedipus bets that he can find the murderer of the previous king and he stakes his reputation on it. It’s a good bet, as he’s the sharpest wit. He had, remember, solved the Sphinx’ riddle. By going all-in on his bet, Oedipus exposes himself to risk, or the danger of more things happening than what he thinks may happen. That risk manifests itself, when, contrary to expectation, Oedipus finds out that he himself is the regicide. Like Macbeth, this play is fascinating because Sophocles makes risk the dramatic fulcrum of the action.

The further we look, the more we see how Sophocles builds unexpected low-probability, high-consequence events into the play’s deep structure. Oedipus knows the oracle that he would sleep with his mother and kill his father. What he doesn’t know is that he’s adopted. He thinks that Polybus and Merope, the King and Queen of Corinth, are his birth parents. Listen closely, this is how the cat comes out of the bag. Oedipus is busy conducting interviews and getting nowhere in the cold case. Then, all of a sudden, a messenger comes from Corinth to tell him: “Your dad died, congratulations, you’ve inherited the Corinthian throne!” Oedipus, perplexed, says: “How could that be, the oracle said I would kill my father … I ran away from home to avoid killing him … perhaps he died from grief because I left?” At this point, the Corinthian messenger says, “Oh, you’re worried about that? Don’t be. You’re not actually from Corinth, you’re adopted. You’re originally from Thebes. You see, by some really weird low-probability, high-consequence series of events, I’m not only some random Corinthian messenger, I had also saved you when you were a babe. You see, I used to work around here, you were left to die, I saved you and brought you to Corinth where the childless king and queen adopted you.” “Who are my parents?” asks Oedipus. “That I don’t know,” says the messenger, “I got you from the shepherd. You’d have to ask the shepherd.”

By some coincidence, they’ve already sent for the shepherd. You see, the shepherd also has an unexpected double identity: not only was he charged by Oedipus’ parents to expose Oedipus, he’s also the sole-surviving eyewitness of Laius’ murder. You see, on that day Oedipus committed his ancient act of road rage, the shepherd was also there at the crossroads, as part of Laius’ train. The shepherd, when he comes out, refuses to say anything. But under pain of torture, he speaks. Yes, Jocasta and Laius gave him a babe to expose. He shackled the babe to a crag by its feet, but relented. Yes, the babe grew up to slay his father on that fateful day. How did he recognize Oedipus after so many years? When he crucified the babe to the crag, he drove a stake through its feet. The wound left a tell-tale scar.

What we have here is absolutely extraordinary. As Oedipus conducts the investigation into Laius’ death, a messenger comes. The messenger, by some strange synchronicity, knows that Oedipus was adopted, because he had saved him years ago. Then they meet the shepherd, who had given baby Oedipus to the messenger years ago. Then, in another twist of fate, it turns out the shepherd was also part of Laius’ train that day Oedipus struck Laius down. If this isn’t the dramatization of risk, then, I don’t know what is. Oedipus rex demonstrates how heroes, by incessantly raising the stakes, trigger low-probability, high-consequence events.

Critics have fixated on catharsis; we feel pity and fear because we’re like Oedipus. But is that true? If anything, he’s different. It’s only because we’ve heard about catharsis so many times that we start to believe it. He’s not like us. He’s a king. He’s the smartest person alive.

Critics have fixated on Oedipus’ supposed tragic flaw. His pride in wanting to escape the oracle. But is that true? If someone told you that you were going to do something horrible, wouldn’t you try to avoid it? In the sequel, Oedipus at Colonus, Oedipus has come to peace with himself. “How was I to blame?” asks an older and indignant Oedipus. I agree. He did what he had to do.

Critics have fixated on the Oedipus complex. The play is about subconscious desires. This interpretation is wrongheaded as it rests on overreading Jocasta’s one line consolation to Oedipus. Oedipus worries that he will fulfill the prophecy by sleeping with his mother. Jocasta consoles him: “Have no fear, many a man, in his dreams, has shared a mother’s bed.” This line has been made too much of. Her words are a stock consolation in tragedy. The consolation: “You’re not the only one … many others have also endured this” is formulaic and hardly means a thing. The chorus, for example, in Euripides’ Hippolytus, says a similar consolation to Theseus when his wife suicides: “Not to you alone has this grief come, many others have lost a trusty wife.”  So too, in Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Claudius consoles Hamlet with the “many others also” consolation: “But you must know your father lost a father, / That father lost, lost his.” When Oedipus fears sleeping with his mother, the stock formulaic consolation would be to say, “Not to you alone has this fear come, many others have also slept with their mothers.” But, of course, Jocasta can’t say this, since everyone believes Oedipus is innocent. So, the stock consolation has to do a little twist to become: “Many a man, in his dreams, has shared a mother’s bed.” The line should not be taken to mean Oedipus has a complex. That’s the last thing Jocasta would even want to imply at this moment.

If those are the other readings, what’s the risk theatre reading? Risk theatre says that Oedipus motivates the action by raising the stakes. In the beginning, it’s a murder investigation. But then the murder investigation slowly turns into an investigation into Oedipus’ past. The stakes rise with each successive interview. First, there’s the interview with the prophet Tiresias. Since Tiresias is a prophet, he knows. But he doesn’t want to ruin Oedipus. He says: “Just send me home. You bear your burdens and I’ll bear mine. It’s better that way.” But Oedipus doesn’t stop. Risk goes up. At some point, his wife has figured it out, figured out who Oedipus really is. She begs him to stop, saying: “Stop—in the name of god, if you love your own life, call off this search. My suffering is enough.” But Oedipus doesn’t stop. Risk goes up. He has one more chance. In the final interview, the shepherd, like the others, implores him to stop: “No—god’s sake master, no more questions!” But Oedipus charges into doom.

This “charge into doom” is what I mean by saying “risk is the dramatic fulcrum of the action.” Unexpected, low-probability, high-consequence events are, by definition, unlikely. But the more you throw caution to the wind, the more you expose yourself to the fallout from random events. A one day delay in the post shouldn’t kill you. But it does in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. Friar Lawrence and Juliet have a brilliant plan to bring Romeo and Juliet together. They’ll let Romeo know by post. The letter carrier walks into his buddy’s place to say hi. The health authority happens to quarantine the house at that moment. The letter doesn’t make it to Romeo in time. You know the rest. What’s happened? The more risk you take on, the more you interconnect seemingly unrelated events until the point where any random event can blow you up. So too, Oedipus, by going all-in, exposes himself to the fateful meeting with the messenger and the shepherd. So too, Macbeth, by going all-in, exposes himself to Birnam Wood. Tragic heroes trigger low-probability, high-consequence events by raising the stakes to the point where they blow up.

5 GO BIG OR GO HOME

How do we transform risk, or the danger of more things happening than what you think will happen, into riveting drama? Let’s expand on the gambling analogy. If, at the casino, a gambler lays down $10, sometimes things happen that the gambler expects will happen. In the game of poker, the gambler wins $10 if the gambler has three of a kind, expects that the other player has a pair, and is correct. And sometimes the unexpected happens. For example, if the gambler believes the other player is bluffing, but the other player isn’t bluffing, then he loses $10. There’s risk here, as something has happened that the gambler didn’t think would happen. But these are boring nickel and dime bets. You won’t see spectators standing around the table.

Now, consider what happens if the players move to the no-limit table and start betting $1000. More spectators would crowd around as they can now invest their emotions into the outcome. Some come to see gamblers blow up. Others cheer them on. The larger the bet, the more the spectator is transformed into a speculator. They crowd around, these armchair quarterbacks, speculating on, debating, and themselves betting on the outcome. Tragedy fascinates because tragedy dramatizes helter-skelter wagers.

Remember Richard Jessup’s novel The Cincinnati Kid—the one made into a Steve McQueen movie? It capitalizes on our fascination with the big bet. To become number one poker five card stud star, the Cincinnati Kid has to take down grizzled veteran Lancey “The Man” Howard. Their epic match comes down to the last hand. They both know the Kid has two pair and maybe a full house. They also both know the Man has one high card and maybe a straight or a straight flush. The Kid knows Lady Luck smiles on him. In a two-handed game of five card stud, the odds of a straight flush (that’s what the Man has) beating a full house (that’s what the Kid has) are over 300 billion to 1 against (Anthony Holden). This is a sure fire bet, like money in the bank. The Kid makes the bet. He goes all-in. He even leverages his position, borrowing a fortune to wipe the Man out. A large crowd gathers around. The crowd murmurs assent: the Kid has the Man by the neck. But, against 300 billion to 1 odds, the Man does have the straight flush. The Kid loses all. The spectators let out a shocked gasp and wonder: how did the perfect bet go wrong?

Tragedy, by dramatizing delirious all-in wagers, engages audiences in the exact same way. If you bet $10, a 300 billion to 1 event can happen, and you’d be fine. Well you’d be out $10. Yawn. The low-probability event doesn’t have high-consequences. It’s only when you lay it all on the line that the 300 billion to 1 event has high-consequences. When the 300 billion to 1 event has high-consequences, then, we have the lights, camera, and action of true tragedy.

6 COMMONPLACES ON THE STAGE OF TRAGEDY

Critics have said that proud and boastful characters populate tragedy because pride is a tragic flaw. Tonight, I call out these critics. It’s true, tragedy is full of proud and boastful characters. Playwrights, however, create proud and boastful characters not to give them a flaw, but because proud and boastful characters love risk. Inordinate, all-in delirious risk makes drama big. When the drama is big, audiences flock to see the show, because risk transforms spectators into speculators. The more the hero bets, the more the hero engages the audience. It’s the Cincinnati Kid principle: the more they wager, the more the spectators invest their emotions into the outcome as they start speculating. Does the Man have the straight flush? Will the Kid pull it off? If they’re betting $10, who cares? Change the channel. But if they’re all-in, leveraged up to their gills with their reputations on the line—then, stay tuned.

Let’s look at how tragedy sets up big bets. Consider Caesar in Shakespeare’s play. Should he go to the Capitol? You’ve heard the warnings. The soothsayer tells him to stay at home: “Beware the Ides of March.” The haruspex inspects the entrails of the sacrificial animal: oh no, the heart is missing! His wife has a nightmare: Caesar’s statue bleeds. Spirits walk the streets. Birds shriek out of season. A lioness whelps in the square. Graves yield their dead. The sky rains blood. If one of these things happened, it would be a good sign to call in sick. When all these signs happen, definitely do not leave the house. But not Caesar.

See how Caesar ups the ante each time he’s told to stay at home. First time:

Caesar: I rather tell thee what is to be fear’d

Than what I fear; for always I am Caesar.

second time, “Caesar stay at home!”

Caesar: Caesar shall forth; the things that

threaten’d me

Ne’er look’d but on my back; when they shall see

The face of Caesar, they are vanished.

third time, “Caesar stay at home!”

Caesar: Cowards die many times before

their deaths;

The valiant never taste of death but once.

and fourth time, “Caesar stay at home!”

Caesar: I am constant as the northern star,

Of whose true-fix’d and resting quality

There is no fellow in the firmament.

Like Oedipus who continued the investigation in defiance of the warnings, so too Caesar presses on like a bull in a china shop. He’s a proud egocentric. But it’s not hubris or a fatal flaw. Shakespeare makes him proud and egocentric so that he can raise the stakes and appear believable. We find many egomaniacs in tragedy because egomaniacs are natural-born gamblers.

Any theory of tragedy must be able to explain the world of tragedy: the characters, the setting, and the other commonplaces. Ever wonder why there’re so many idealists in tragedy? Take Creon and Antigone in Sophocles’ play. Creon’s a patriot. He’s for the fatherland to the point that, when his niece is caught burying her brother, a traitor in the civil war, he sentences her to death. Risk theatre can explain his idealism: Sophocles makes him an idealist because idealists love risk. So too, Sophocles makes Antigone a religious zealot so that she can take on inordinate levels of risk and do so with conviction. She knows she shouldn’t bury her brother, but because she’s devout, she will satisfy the gods of the underworld. Because she’s an idealist, she spits out Creon’s edict by saying: “I have longer to please the dead than please the living here: in the kingdom down below I’ll lie forever.” Because they’re idealists, they love to walk the walk by raising the stakes.

We’ve explained the egocentrics and idealists. What else can we explain? Have you wondered why there are so many aides, attendants, and advisors in tragedy dispensing crappy advice? Here’s why: if you have a prudent and circumspect hero, and you need them to go all-in, you give them the reckless advisor. Take Euripides’ play Hippolytus. The goddess Aphrodite strikes Phaedra with an incestuous desire for her stepson. Phaedra resists. Rather than give in, she would rather starve to death. But she has a trusted advisor in her Nurse. Her nurse says, “I can arrange the hookup. There’ll be no loss of honour.” Phaedra trusts her. When the Nurse’s plan backfires and Phaedra’s husband finds out, she will have to lay it on the line by framing her stepson for rape.

Next. Why are there so many kings, queens, and other one-percenters in tragedy? Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, the Duchess of Malfi, Thomas Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury. Again, it’s to do with risk. It’s hard to wager the world on an empty stomach. I mean, what are you going to lay down, your hunger? But, when you have ancestral capital, military capital, and human capital all burning a hole in your pocket, it’s easy to lay it on the line.

How about the supernatural elements that seem to litter the tragic stage?—the witches, ghosts, and oracles? They’re there to instill confidence. When heroes have confidence, they love risk. Look at Macbeth. Listen to the apparition, who tells Macbeth to take on risk, “Trust me,” it says, “I’m from another world. I have inside information. You’re all good. Fire at will.”

2 Apparition: Be bloody, bold, and resolute: laugh

to scorn

The pow’r of man; for none of woman born

Shall harm Macbeth. Descends.

Macbeth: Then live, Macduff; what need I fear of thee?

Ever consider why passions run white hot in tragedy? Tragedy seems to be full of lovers, maniacs with explosive rage disorder, and revengers screaming for vengeance. Why is that? Again, it’s because these types of emotions increase risk taking. Take a look at Shakespeare’s Othello. Othello’s “constant, loving, and noble nature” makes him ill-suited to carry out crimes of passion. No problem: Shakespeare has Iago put Othello “into a jealousy so strong / That judgement cannot cure.”

What about setting? Why do tragedies feature a world on the cusp: insurrection, inquisition, war. Risk theatre explains this. Risk comes at a price: the potential for loss. During times of political and social stability, why take on extra risk? Extraordinary situations are commonplace in tragedy because they skew risk to the upside: not taking risks incurs greater risk. Take the game of football. The “Hail Mary” pass where the quarterback throws a long desperation pass into the end zone is a hazardous interception-prone affair. You don’t do it if you’re ahead. But when you’re down and the clock is down and you’re far from the end zone, the “Hail Mary” option becomes attractive. That’s why tragedy dramatizes outlier events: witch trials in Miller’s Crucible, Britain rent in three in King Lear, plague in Cadiz in Camus’ State of Siege, or civil war in Aeschylus’ Seven Against Thebes. When the world is ablaze, risk’s enticements more than compensate for its blandishments.

7 TRAGEDY AS A VALUING MECHANISM

Tragedy is a theatre of risk. The very structure of tragedy goads heroes to go all-in. No nickel and dime bets allowed! High rolling heroes and no-limit tables only! Risk theatre welcomes egocentrics or idealists. If they waver, look—here’s a trustworthy aide that speaks words of encouragement. Are they superstitious? Then goad them on with witches and oracles. Should that not suffice, souse them in the wine of passion. Give them access to the wealth of nations, armies, and all that glitters so temptation burns a hole in their pocket. Should that not suffice, destroy all they hold dear. Then, they go all-in. And when they go all-in, spectators start speculating on the outcome, investing their emotions into the action.

Risk theatre sees each dramatic act in tragedy as a gambling act. And this has the most fascinating implications, as it transforms tragedy into a valuing mechanism for human beliefs, values, and ideals. Tragedy accomplishes this through an extension of the gambling analogy. In each gambling act, what is staked is put up against what is at stake. If you bet, for example, $10k to win a golden crown, what is staked—the $10k—is put up against what is at stake—the crown. You show how much you value the crown by how much you’re willing to bet. If you really wanted it, you might wager more, say $20k. Of course, in tragedy you can’t use money to win the crown. Cash isn’t legal tender in tragedy. You have to make your wagers in the human currency of blood, sweat, and tears. We call the sorts of wagers we see in tragedy existential wagers. Through these existential wagers, tragedy becomes a valuing mechanism for human assets. 

We already know the value of material possessions. A gallon of milk is worth $4.99, but how much is compassion, or the milk of human kindness worth? We find out in Macbeth. Macbeth is too compassionate to murder Duncan. No one knows this better than Lady Macbeth, who complains he is “too full o’ th’ milk of human kindness / To catch the nearest way.” So, to become king, Macbeth must ante up the milk of human kindness. In the act of anteing up the milk of human kindness, we see how much Macbeth values it. How much is the milk of human kindness worth? In Macbeth, it is worth a Scottish crown.

Risk theatre allows us to ask and answer such questions: how much is dignity worth? In Miller’s Death of a Salesman, traveling salesman Willy Loman stakes his dignity on the American Dream. He buys the American dream at the cost of his dignity. How much is a human soul worth? In Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus, we learn that a soul can be worth twenty-four years of world domination. How about faith, how much is faith worth? In Robert Bolt’s A Man for All Seasons, we find out that one can purchase faith by laying down one’s life. How about the action of revenge, how much is that worth? In The Revenger’s Tragedy, Vindice lays to pawn his fraternal and filial bonds to become a revenger, bribing his own mother to pander his sister.

As a valuing mechanism, tragedy provides a social function. In our material world, too many things have become monetized. We value people in terms of their net worth: he’s worth 100k, she’s worth 200k. Insurance policies set a price on life and limb. We work, some for minimum wage, and others for more, exchanging life for greenback dollars. Tragedy’s social function reminds us that the things that are truly worth having are bought by blood, and not gold. Tragedy, despite its sad stories, exalts life by telling us that, the more we dare to wager, the more we set the value of life up on high. In tragedy, a soul can be worth the whole cosmos. Imagine that. Tragedy teaches us that human values lie beyond the monetary pale.

8 COMPARING RISK THEATRE WITH OTHER THEORIES OF TRAGEDY

Let’s compare risk theatre head to head with Aristotelian, Hegelian, and Nietzschean interpretations using Sophocles’ well-known Oedipus rex. In the Aristotelian analysis, we identify with Oedipus as we realize that there is a bit of Oedipus in all of us. He has a tragic flaw though: pride. He wants to defy the oracle that says he will murder his father and marry his mother. Because of the tragic flaw, or hamartia, he experiences a reversal of fortune. The elements of the plot follow the rules of probability, and are causally connected. When we witness his doom, we undergo catharsis and are purged of the emotions of pity and fear because, like a scapegoat, he has perished so that we do not have to.

In the Hegelian analysis, there’re two colliding ethical forces. There’s the will of heaven, which declares that Oedipus will marry his mother and kill his father. Then there’s the will of man, Oedipus’ will, which says: “I will not do that, heaven be damned.” Both these wills are justified. Heaven has a right to pass sentence on mortals. But Oedipus also has the free will to object to heaven’s sentence. The tragic results when these wills collide and Oedipus is destroyed. In Oedipus’ destruction, the justice of the gods is upheld. Oedipus is a scapegoat who perishes so that the justice of the gods can reaffirm itself.

In the Nietzschean analysis, there’re two colliding mental states. There’s Oedipus’ rational mind, which is Apollinian. It seeks to break free from the oracle, the oracle that’s said that he’ll kill his father and murder his mother. With the daylight of reason, thought, and logic, the conscious mind speaks: “I must get away from Corinth and avoid mom and dad.” Then there’s Oedipus’ subconscious desire which is Dionysian, primal, dark, brutal. The Dionysian desire comes out in his dreams, where he has lain with his mother and overcome his father. When these two mental states collide, Oedipus is destroyed, but, in his destruction, the veil is lifted off reality. We see how life doesn’t matter, but what matters is how we transform strife and sorrow into the aesthetic phenomenon of art.

In the risk theatre analysis, Oedipus stakes his reputation on solving the murder of the previous king—he is, after all, the original riddler, the one who solved the Sphinx. As the investigation continues, the focus on the identity of Laius’ murderer shifts to the question of the identity of Oedipus himself: they are, after all, the same person. Sophocles draws in the spectators, transforming them into speculators by having Oedipus raise the stakes by refusing to call off the investigation. Finally, Oedipus triggers the unexpected low-probability, high-consequence event by bringing the Corinthian messenger together with the shepherd, the two people who can unlock his secrets. In the risk theatre reading, contrary to Aristotle, the elements of the plot do not follow the rules of probability, but rather, the elements of the plot conspire to bring about the most improbable outcome. Because the audience sees everything Oedipus sacrifices—his crown, his eyes, the life of the queen, and his children’s legacies—the audience learns that we pay for our goals and desires by blood, sweat, and tears. The audience then leaves the theatre marveling at how low-probability, high-consequence events shape our lives more than we like to think. By comparing different theories, we can see how each casts tragedy in a drastically different light. 

9 TRAGEDY, COMEDY, AND RISK

Everyone always asks: what about comedy? Risk, remember, can skew to the downside or to the upside. Tragedy dramatizes downside risk. In tragedy, against all odds, Birnam Wood is always coming to Dunsinane Hill. Comedy, however, dramatizes upside risk: you make a bet, the odds are completely against you, but somehow you win. In Menander’s comedy, The Girl from Samos one of the characters says, “Coincidence must really be a divinity. She looks after many of the things we cannot see.” You would definitely not say this in a tragedy. In tragedy, God is not on your side.

In comedy, low-probability, high-consequence events also occur. In Greek Old Comedy, the women in the play Lysistrata bring an end to the Peloponnesian War by staging a quite unexpected sex strike. In Greek New Comedy and Roman comedy, against all odds, the miser always recovers the stolen gold, kidnapped children are always reunited with their families, and young lovers always find ways around cantankerous patriarchs, onerous marriage laws, and a host of economic and social prejudices.

In comedy, chance is on your side. Don’t have a dowry? No problem, a pot of gold turns up. Can’t get married because you don’t have citizenship? What’s this trinket you have on your wrist? Oh, many years ago I had to give up my daughter because I fell on hard times, but I gave her the very trinket you’re wearing. Oh, what do you know, you’re about her age. Could it be, are you my long lost daughter? Oh!—that means you’re a citizen and you can get married to this fine young man! Tragedy and comedy both dramatize low-probability, high-consequence events. They’re really two sides to the same coin. Think of tragedy as the art that dramatizes downside risk, and comedy as the art that dramatizes upside risk.

10 RISK THEATRE MODERN TRAGEDY COMPETITION / CLOSING REMARKS

In conclusion, I’ve given you a powerful asset for writing and interpreting literature called risk theatre. Risk theatre explains why we find tragedy fascinating. It’s fascinating because of the delirious hazards heroes take on. When you do a risk theatre reading, first, find the bet. What does the hero want, and what is the hero willing to lay on the line to get it? Once you’ve found the bet, you can see how tragedy acts as a valuing mechanism by setting a price on human ideals and beliefs. The price it sets is the price the hero is willing to pay. You will see how tragedy exalts life by imparting great value onto life. In tragedy, the milk of human kindness can buy a kingdom. Once you’ve found the bet, you’ll understand why the commonplaces of tragedy are the way they are. You’ll understand why tragedy loves instability and inquisition. You’ll understand why the hero is an egomaniac and why passions run white hot. You’ll understand the role the oracles, witches, and the supernatural play. You’ll understand why minor meddlers dispense crappy advice. You’ll understand why tragedy is populated by kings, queens, and other one-percenters. After you come to an understanding, you will marvel agape at how low-probability, high-consequence events upset the best-laid plans of mice and men. As you marvel the power of unexpectation, you will realize walking out the theatre that it is when we are most sure of ourselves that we are, paradoxically, in the greatest danger.

You’ll emerge from the theatre with a higher sensibility of risk. And this is perfect, as in this age of risk, we have a moral imperative to come to grips with risk. We dramatize unintended consequences on the stage of tragedy so that we become more robust off the stage. And because risk theatre imparts upon us a higher understanding of risk, I think that makes it a most valuable asset, as not only does it help us interpret literature, it also helps us to interpret life.

Risk theatre is more than a theory. I’ve teamed up with Langham Court Theatre in Victoria to inaugurate the Risk Theatre Modern Tragedy Competition (https://risktheatre.com/). It’s the world’s largest tragedy playwriting competition with a combined prize package worth over $17,000 dollars. The contest is in its second year. In its first year, I’m thrilled to announce 182 playwrights from 11 countries participated in this exploration of risk in the modern world. Wherever you are, please ask your local library to make my book: The Risk Theatre Model of Tragedy [Friesen Press 2019] available. Let’s share this amazing asset. Once you look at literature through the lens of risk, you’ll never look at it again the same way.

The transcript of this talk will be available on my blog melpomeneswork.com/okanagancollege/

Thank you.

Freddie Mercury as Nietzsche’s Overman

Who is, really, Nietzsche’s Overman? What do we know about his Overman, der sogennanter Übermensch? The first clue is the preposition ‘over’. The preposition may carry a sense of overlooking or passing over. The verb übersehen carries this connotation, as in “Sie hat mich auf der Party übersehen (She had ignored me at the party).” But this is not the sense in which Nietzsche uses it. He uses it more in the sense of ‘overcome’. The Overman ‘overcomes’. But what does he overcome? He overcomes man; he is ‘over’ man. Here a most interesting question arises: what does it mean to be over man?

To be over man, one does something that is hard for man to do. So then the question becomes: what is the hardest thing for a man to do? It turns out that the hardest thing is the eternal recurrence. Nietzsche calls the eternal recurrence the ‘greatest weight’ in section 341 of The Gay Science where he encapsulates the idea in the parable of the lonely demon:

The greatest weight.–What, if some day or night a demon were to steal after you into your loneliest loneliness and say to you: “This life as you now live it and have lived it, you will have to live once more and innumerable times more; and there will be nothing new in it, but every pain and every joy and every thought and sigh and everything unutterably small or great in your life will have to return to you, all in the same succession and sequence–even this spider and this moonlight between the trees, and even this moment and I myself. The eternal hourglass of existence is turned upside down again and again, and you with it, speck of dust!”

Would you not throw yourself down and gnash your teeth and curse the demon who spoke thus? Or have you once experienced a tremendous moment when you would have answered him: “You are a god and never have I heard anything more divine.” If this thought gained possession of you, it would change you as you are or perhaps crush you. The question in each and every thing, “Do you desire this once more and innumerable times more?” would lie upon your actions as the greatest weight. Or how well disposed would you have to become to yourself and to life to crave nothing more fervently than this ultimate eternal confirmation and seal?

The point of the parable of the lonely demon is, of course, that few can withstand one life, let alone the eternal recurrence of endless lives. For evidence, look around at how quickly despair sets in. In just a few decades, many tire of being alive. To handle the greatest weight, an Overman became necessary. Man was not up to the task.

Nietzsche’s Overman is greedy. He is someone insatiate of life, someone who eats up existence. He is yes saying and life affirming. Pain and joy are children’s toys from the perspective of eternity. The Overman is the one who says: ‘I want it all, I want it all, I want it all, and I want it now’. Who else can the Overman be if not Freddie Mercury?

Freddie Mercury has the life affirming spirit. He will have the pain and the joy and the small and the great. He has the force of life, which is the will to power. Only the Overman has the gall to say, ‘I want it all’ and qualify his want by saying, ‘It ain’t much I’m asking, if you want the truth’. The nerve! Remember, the song came out in 1989, right after his AIDS diagnosis. But instead of despair, he is living it all and giving it all. He will not be crushed. It is in this sense the Overman is over man. He asks for no quarter, nor gives quarter. The universe deals him a death sentence, but he still desires to have it all, to have it again and again, time without number, such is his hunger for life. The Overman is the personification of appetite for existence. And that is why Freddie Mercury is Nietzsche’s Overman.

Until next time, I’m Edwin Wong, and I’m doing Melpomene’s work.

The Art of Footnotes

Options Writing Footnotes

To all you book writers out there: have you given thought to how you would like your footnotes or citations to appear? For example, you can incorporate footnotes into the text like this:

Plato says that there is an ancient quarrel between poetry and philosophy (Pl. Resp. 607c). In fact, he bans the performance of tragedy in his ideal state…

Or, you can give the citation a footnote with a superscript numeral which refers to a citation at the bottom of the page:

Plato says that there is an ancient quarrel between poetry and philosophy.¹ In fact, he bans the performance of tragedy in his ideal state…

I guess this way is less intrusive for readers?–if they don.t want to break the flow of reading the argument, they don.t have to. Even less intrusive are endnotes. They look the same as the footnote except the citation is found at the end of the work. Hence the name. You might think endnotes even less intrusive than footnotes. In a way, you.re right. To me, however, books with endnotes necessitate keeping two bookmarks: one to mark where I.m reading and one to mark the corresponding location of all the endnotes in the back. If I don.t have both bookmarks (often the case), I find it quite distressing to be awkwardly flipping around for citations at the back of the book since, say it.s note 10. Well, every chapter has a note 10 so then you have to also find out which chapter you happen to be on. Some endnote systems get around this by placing a reference at the top of the page (something like ‘Notes from pages 353-372′) but then I think, ‘Why not just use footnotes?’.

Next are considerations of the abbreviations. In the first example at the top of the page, it could have read (PlResp. X: 607c) because it.s from book ten. If you don.t like roman numerals I suppose it could look like (Pl. Resp. 10: 607c). But if your readership is inclined to say, ‘What is Resp?’, you might be inclined to use some more space so that it becomes (Plato, Republic 607c). The abbreviation is confusing: Resp. is short not for Republic but respublica.

Then there are even more considerations. Some people will do footnotes for short citations (author, work, page number) but use endnotes for longer citations (controversial stuff that needs to be addressed but is not directly part of the argument).

Brief History of Footnotes (Nietzsche contra Wilamowitz)

There is an art to footnotes. After all, how citations are done changes the appearance of the page. It is part of the aesthetics of your piece. In an academic work, no footnotes give the impression that the writing is inspired (e.g. Nietzsche). Lay readers might find this satisfactory. But academic readers will want to know who your sources or ‘authorities’ are. Lots of footnotes gives the air of authority. Especially if your secondary sources are in different languages and are from bygone eras. So if you.re writing on Sophocles’ Oedipus rex and you quote Vernant (in French) and Rohde (19th century German scholar), you can throw off the impression of having great authority. But it.s sort of showing off as well: it could look pretentious. Speaking of pretentious, you can also quote yourself (this is like rock bands who wear their own t-shirts on tour). But hey, when you can quote yourself, you know you.ve made it!

One of my favourite scholarly articles is ‘Fussnoten: Das Fundament der Wissenschaft‘ by Stephen Nimis. No, it.s not in German. Entirely in English. The title is German because it.s the story of how the Germans shaped the use of footnotes in academic writing in the late 19th century. It was a battle between Nietzsche (whom we all know) and Wilamowitz (who is a famous guy no one knows). Professor Laurel Bowman had recommended it as a good read. And boy was it ever! Part satire and part history, it is a self-reflective look at the art of writing footnotes. If you have 15 minutes, it.s an incredibly entertaining read: click on the link above. Nietzsche and Wilamowitz were the top young philologists of there generation (like star athletes today). Nietzsche disdained the use of footnotes. Wilamowitz meticulously cited everything. In fact, if someone says ‘Wilamowitz footnote’ in describing your footnotes, it.s a sign of praise even today. Well, Nietzsche considered his writing inspired. He writes things like ‘Homer and Archilochus are two sides of the same coin from which poetry sprang’. I mean, how do you footnote that?!? Wilamowitz wrote these long and scientific footnotes. They got into a big fight. They dragged the biggest names in German scholarship into the fight with them. Even the musician Wagner joined the fray. Nietzsche eventually left (or was forced out of the establishment) because of the fight. He went on to bigger things. Wilamowitz led a very successful career as a classicist. After all the name calling, they all regretted the episode: Wilamowitz had been satirized as Wila-mops (mopish) and Nietzsche.s Zukunftsphilologie (philology of the future) had become Afterphilologie (philology of the ass) and all sorts of other pleasantries.

Anyway, after reading the Stephen Nimis article and learning of the art of writing footnotes, my writing started looking like this:

Footnotes Galore!

Footnotes Galore!

Look at that–the footnotes take up half the page! I.m particularly fond of footnote 23 which took a very long time to put together. Weeks of work and close reading. I almost went blind.  By the way, for those of you interested in fate, free will, and the problem of divine foreknowledge (how much is it decent for God to know in advance and can he change the outcome?), here.s a link to the entire article.

Choosing the Right Style of Citation

Why do I bring up the question of footnotes? I.m writing the last chapter of Paying Melpomene’s Price. It.s occurred to me now that the book works. I mean, that it.s possible. Better than possible. It represents a new contribution. This project of writing a philosophy of tragedy or a theory of tragedy has occupied me the better part of 20 years. There were false starts that took up years of effort that led nowhere: a theory based on the consolation of tragedy (it is not to you alone that this grief comes…). Then another on the different worldview of Aeschylus (go in alone), Sophocles (trust the gods), and Euripides (you get by with a little help from your friends).

When first starting work on Paying Melpomene’s Price (the working title back then was actually Wildness Waiting in Tragedy) I hadn.t kept track of citations at all. If it got published (a big If), it would appear without footnotes. But that.s not very helpful to readers. My thinking now is that that is sort of an unhappy way to write. A writer should be thankful to readers. And being thankful means making the writing easy and pleasant for readers to follow.  A book can be profound yet still a delight to read. Think of Austin.s How To Do Things With Words. It.s heavy duty theory but a delight with its examples of ‘The cat is on the mat’ (descriptive utterance) and ‘You.re fired!’ (performative utterance).

One thing self-publishing books have been recommending is to look at similar types of books to see what they do. You want your book to look like its peers. I decided to do a small sample. It seems books written in the last 20 years liked to use endnotes. Footnotes in the text would refer to the endnotes in the back of the book which were grouped according to chapter. Terry Eagleton’s Sweet Violence (2003), Nicole Louraux’ The Mourning Voice (2002), Peter Szondi’s An Essay on the Tragic (2002), Rush Rehm’s Radical Theatre (2003), and James Porter’s Nietzsche and the Philology of the Future (2000) use this arrangement. Some older titles use this arrangement, such as Richmond Hathorn’s Tragedy Myth & Mystery (1962) which is a collection of previously published essays.

Some (but not all) books which are collections of essays like to use footnotes in the text and print the notes at the end of each chapter. Examples include Richard Palmer.s Tragedy and Tragic Theory (1992) and Essays on Aristotle’s Poetics ed. Amelie Rorty (1992).

There is a distinct predilection for mid-century titles to print the footnotes at the bottom of the page. No flipping pages necessary! Titles of this ilk include George Steiner’s The Death of Tragedy (1961), Oscar Mandel’s A Definition of Tragedy (1961), Walter Kaufmann’s Tragedy and Philosophy (1969), and Herbert Weisinger’s Tragedy and the Paradox of the Fortunate Fall (1953).

Classic texts, or primary sources such as Nietzsche’s The Birth of Tragedy (which started out as a secondary source but is now considered an original creative work in its own right) are mixed. The 1993 Whiteside Penguin translation has collects the notes in the end. A 1968 Hollingdale Penguin Translation of Twilight of the Idols / The Anti-Christ by Nietzsche prints the footnotes at the bottom of the page. In addition, footnotes proceed by special characters such as §, ±, or *, instead of numbers. Fun reading. There are some ‘popular’ (but very informative) books such as Michael Tierno’s Aristotle’s Poetics for Screenwriters that have no footnotes at all.

What to Do?

Which style is best? I guess it depends what you.re trying to do. If I were doing a purely academic work, I.d have to go with the modern style of placing everything into endnotes. But Paying Melpomene’s Price isn.t just an academic title anymore. I.m too far away from the academy. It.s something else, a labour of love. A book inside of me that had to be written for its own sake. My favourite books to read conform to the mid-century footnote format: footnotes printed on the bottom of the page. I think that.s what I.m going to do. And the other thing: no more long elaborate footnotes! The sort of thing I.m arguing (tragedy as a high stakes game of death) shouldn.t really super involved notes. Either the reader grasps the idea intuitively (in which case not too many citations are necessary) or they.re not going to like it (too broad, too general, not a new contribution) and not amount of footnoting is going to convince them.

Footnotes on the bottom of each page seem to keep things more honest too: it.s visible, not swept under the carpet to the back of the book. They.re part of the aesthetic of the printed page. I think my style of writing changes according to the style of footnote (or endnote) used. With MLA style citing, I.d have less quotes. The brackets just look ugly. With endnotes, I.d treat them like a dumping place for stray thoughts–who know if anyone will actually flip to the back to read them? Footnotes on page bottoms have all the advantages. You.re giving people credit for ideas. You know readers will see them. Readers will feel they.re flipping pages faster (since pages are shorter by the space the footnote uses). Readers won.t have to swear and curse when they lose their spot looking up citations. It.s a win-win.

Thanks for working that through with me, assiduous readers! Until next time, I.m Edwin Wong and I.m Doing Melpomene’s Work, a little here and a little there until the work is done.