The Game of Death

A.D. Nuttall

Why do we enjoy tragedy? It may be thought that our best hope of answering this question lies in the psychology of Freud, who disclosed the dark side of the psyche. Behind this darkening of the mind, however, there lies another darkening, of our picture of the ancient sources of European literature. Antiquity, formerly given over to the Ego, becomes the province of the Id. Roughly speaking, a sunlit, rational, enlightened world – peopled as it were by marble figures in a state of tranquil felicity (think of Winckelmann) – was replaced, retrospectively, by an opposite world: blood guilt and sacrifice, dream and vision, orgiastic music, unreason. One way of expressing this change is to say that the pretence of Augustianism was dropped: instead of assuming that antiquity was somehow full of 18th-century rationalists having either no religion or a religion etiolated and simplified to the point of minimal Deism, it was at last noticed that the ancient world pullulates with spirits and deities, is crammed with unreasonable, alarming powers. This, by the way, is simply true.

Within this general darkening we find a particular thesis about Greek drama: namely, that Greek tragedy was fundamentally ritual, that it was religious in ways which moderns find difficult. There is an entry in one of Leonardo da Vinci’s notebooks which reads: ‘The sun has never seen any shadow.’ Leonardo is here thinking like a good Albertian perspective painter: it has suddenly struck him that for an eye which is itself the source of light, shadows will always be on the far side of any object. For such an eye, darkness is essentially and systematically suppressed. For the Greeks, the sun was Apollo (called ‘most powerful eye’ in Sophocles’s Trachiniae). But Apollo, god of unshadowed light, was not the only deity in the pantheon. There was also, for example, Dionysus, the god not only of intoxication but also of wildness, green nature, of the irrational. One way to represent the change of which I am speaking might be to say: ‘Apollo had been honoured for centuries; now Dionysus was given his due.’ And of course this antithesis is Nietzschean.

The effects of this transformation are all around us in Modernist writing. Joyce’s Ulysses is not just a 20th-century mock-heroic: Joyce used the Odyssey as a quarry, not of rational certainties to be subverted, but for magic and metamorphosis. Eliot in ‘The Waste Land’ deployed a Frazerian intuition: ancient European history and blood sacrifice linked to fertility. The movement appears in different forms in many places. Jane Harrison’s Themis and Gilbert Murray’s writings on the Dionysiac Year Spirit belong in this line.

Nor was Nietzsche the first to notice the murky side of the ancient world. Earlier rationalists were sometimes either too learned or too sharp to preserve the inherited blindness. Frazer’s The Golden Bough itself is in some ways a 19th-century rationalist work, finding the courage to be critical of antiquity for its very failures in enlightenment. Time and time again, Frazer can sound like Gibbon – for example in his account of ‘Saint Hippolytus’ or when he says that ‘the good taste and humanity of the Greeks must have recoiled from the more violent rites of the Magna Mater.’ In the pages immediately following, he explains how introversion, stemming from the East, corrupted the ideal of public service, until the Renaissance brought back ‘saner, manlier views of the world’. It will be said that the word ‘manly’ is richly Victorian, but in fact Gibbon speaks of ‘the manly pride of the Romans’. Mistrust of the Near East reappears, of course, in Nietzsche. There is a certain affinity between The Golden Bough and, say, the Pitt-Rivers Museum in Oxford, with its vast array of bloodcurdling fetishes, among which Christian votive offerings – by design – fail to stand out as different. Tantum religio potuit suadere malorum (‘So much evil could religion do’). Hume likewise, in his Natural History of Religion, written before 1757-130 years before Nietzsche’s Genealogy of Morals though not published until 1777, saw religion in naturalist, evolutionary terms rather than as a structure of revealed, unchanging verities. Hume has no doubt about the irrational character of ancient religion, I suppose we smell Modernism, not when antiquity is shown to be irrational, but when the irrationality is itself gratefully embraced.

Eliot would resist, but I feel this is palpably true of ‘The Waste Land’. There is a considerable irony in Eliot’s growing up in a time of world-weary scepticism and then finding something like religious belief only when he turned to a book designed to show the absurdity or wickedness of ritually-based religion. He disregarded the instructions on the bottle. Milton in his ‘Nativity Ode’, back in the 17th century, had beaten Frazer to some of his material (Milton’s ‘wounded Thammuz’ is Frazer’s Adonis), but for Milton, unlike Eliot, these sanguinary deities were enemies of true religion, to be hunted from their lairs at the birth of Christ. For Eliot, it is rather as if all the voices are somehow telling of one thing – resurrection, life out of death. The Eliot of ‘The Waste Land’ is not yet Christian, but I think one can smell it coming. I am suggesting, I suppose, that Eliot’s talk of tradition is, in fact, the masking of an almost solipsistic terror, and that his Christianity (which I take to be real and strong) was something reached in darkness by a route other than that of reason. He loved Dante but his thought (though never exactly Nietzschean) is much less close to Aquinas than it is to Schopenhauer – the first major European philosopher after Plato to turn to Indian religion. Schopenhauer had a bust of Buddha in his room and kept a poodle called Atma (‘World-Soul’). The Jesuit philosopher Coplestone has noticed, incidentally, that Bergson, whose influence on Eliot is undoubted, is himself remarkably like Schopenhauer. Sorry about all this rapid allusiveness. I am saying, in a way, that Eliot, unable to find a reason for his faith, found an unreason for it. Again, the cadence is Nietzschean: ‘Man would sooner will the Nothing, than not will at all.’ Nietzsche, indeed, is a theological nihilist and Eliot is not. Eliot’s God, like Nietzsche’s, died, but then, unlike Nietzsche’s, rose again.

Frazer did not fail to notice the analogy between Christian and pagan materials:

it appears from the testimony of an anonymous Christian, who wrote in the fourth century of our era, that Christians and pagans alike were struck by the remarkable coincidence between the death and resurrection of their respective deities, and that the coincidence formed the theme of bitter controversy between the adherents of the rival religions, the pagans contending that the resurrection of Christ was a spurious imitation of the resurrection of Attis, and the Christians asserting with equal warmth that the resurrection of Attis was a diabolical counterfeit of the resurrection of Christ. In these unseemly bickerings the heathen took what to a superficial observer might seem strong ground by arguing that their god was the older and therefore presumably the original, not the counterfeit, since as a general rule an original is older than its copy. This feeble argument the Christians easily rebutted. They admitted, indeed, that in point of time Christ was the junior deity, but they triumphantly demonstrated his real seniority by falling back on the subtlety of Satan, who on so important an occasion had surpassed himself by inverting the usual order of nature.

Frazer’s chosen stylistic posture is again one of Gibbonian contempt for all concerned – but especially for the Christians. Eliot conversely is like one of the benighted contestants (remember here Eliot’s defence of those who in the Middle Ages read Virgil’s Fourth Eclogue as a prophecy of Christ’s coming). If the Enlightenment had bleached the ancient world, then Nietzsche, more than anyone else, was the agent of its darkening. Yet Nietzsche’s own relation to the Enlightenment is more intimate than is commonly realised. His assault on Christianity preserves many features of the previous Enlightenment assault. The general picture here is indeed of a sunlit, healthful ancient society succeeded by a set of weak, envious, downtrodden persons, followers of a slave ethic which glorified torture and humiliation. This picture can be found in Gibbon, who, as he tells us in his Memoir, was first moved to write his great history by the sight of the barefooted friars going to sing vespers in (what had been) the temple of Jupiter Capitoline. There, as he watched in the evening September sunshine, a gust of indignation ran through him and the idea ‘started into’ his mind. He would tell the story of the decline and fall of the Roman Empire and ‘the triumph of barbarism and religion’. A foul priest-ridden religion of slaves, meeting furtively, displaced the noble civilisation of the Antonines. Gibbon even says that the Christians, finding their poverty inescapable, claimed it as a virtue. This passage immediately follows a quotation from Tertullian’s De Spectaculis – the very same paragraph which Nietzsche quotes at a parallel moment in The Genealogy of Morals.

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