One of Nietzsche’s books that keeps calling me back is his first one, The Birth of Tragedy. In a way, I think that, despite the ostensible title and focus, the book seems less about the tragic than the comic. Perhaps it even goes so far as to suggest that tragedy as a genre is grounded in a kind of comic vision. For Nietzsche uses Schopenhauer’s Kantian distinction between noumenal will and phenomenal representation to define the genre of tragedy in terms of joy, reconciliation, and, yes, a kind of immortality or indestructibility. We can take joy in the suffering and even death of the hero, because, not only does the tragedy present the hero as mere phenomenon against a background of “the eternal life of the will,” it also allows us spectators to identify precisely with the will’s “primordial unity.” Tragedy dissolves the empirical ego, the personal identity of the spectator, and floods her consciousness with the transcendental “I” of Dionysus. All the names of history, c’est moi. Perhaps then comedy as a genre simply goes one step further: it no longer requires the annihilation of the phenomenal to raise the transcendental to consciousness: it just makes the phenomenal transcendental and the transcendental phenomenal. The hero suffers, falls down cliffs, crashes into trees, but can no longer die. Apollo has become Dionysus and Dionysus Apollo.
Of course, unless one leaps in a religious direction, namely, toward personal immortality and the resurrection of the body, the comic indestructibility of the phenomenon just isn’t true. In the real world, the hero falls down the cliff, and if he doesn’t die, he’s becomes quadraplegic. In the real world, the lesion on his brain destroys the person he was and puts in his place a different person, no closer to the trancendental “I” of Dionysus than he was. In the real world, persons become corpses and corpses get chewed on by loathsome worms. (I’m getting cremated.)
So what do we do with this element of the comic? We can call it pure fiction, a lie. But what does that mean? In the name of what, and for what reason, does comedy, as it were, reject “the reality principle”?