Nietzsche & Buber (Birth of Tragedy Modern Jewish Philosophy Ur-Text)

A Zionist Elysium by Ephraim Moses Lilien

Re-reading Nietzsche’s The Birth of Tragedy has convinced me that it should stand out as the ur-text of modern Jewish philosophy. The polarity between Appolinian form and Dionysian force will re-appear throughout Buber’s body of writing, the tension between form and formlessness, the I-IT and I-Thou, and the way these philosophical figures are seen, not in a structural opposition, but in their interpenetration.

One can see, then, a general, even ambient impact of The Birth of Tragedy on Buber’s thinking. But there is also this more specific line of influence in Daniel, an early text by Buber that almost no one reads, because it’s pre-dialogical and “too aesthetic.” One of the highpoints of the text occurs in the penultimate chapter, the dialogue on polarity, after an evening in the theater. Daniel, now powerfully dis-oriented, has realized, has seen realized onstage  a vision of the god, the youth of the Baachus play transformed into and realizing the god, a creative simulacrum, the imitation of the unknown god (Daniel, p.119).

The scene, this scene of revelation as presented by Buber, comes straight out of Nietzsche. In section 8 of The Birth of Tragedy, Nietzsche had invoked this very transformation that works its way into Jewish philosophy via Buber. We find it also on stage with the Dionysian reveler who turns into a satyr, and as satyr “sees the god.” From Nietzsche, Buber would have learned that “new vision” completes the drama. In the fusion of primal being, there he is, the god, at the center surrounded by the chorus of satyrs, which is surrounded by the audience, which in turn is surrounded by a host of spirits.

Buber has in Daniel that same gathering of a host, the Bacchi onstage, not the Euripidean production, which Buber learned from Nietzsche to despise as bourgeois and feckless, the thiasos procession of revelers dancing and singing in honor of Bacchus and the horse-eared satyrs, and the young man or boy placed in the middle of “the dark intoxication,” the boy transformed into a god, who “lives the life, does the deed, works the work of the God.” “Did he not realize the God in and with his soul as in and with his body” (Daniel, p.114-15).

The image is by E.M. Lilien, a Jewish Jugendstil artist and friend of Buber. I’ve seen it referred and have referred to it as well as “Creation of the Poet.” It comes from Lieder des Ghettos (1903), Yiddish poems by Morris Rosenfeld translated into German, which Lilien illustrated. And yes, that’s Herzl, naked,  on the far left. The vision of the boy underscores again the deep aesthesis at the heart of the modern Jewish philosophical project in Germany one hundred years ago.

About zjb

Zachary Braiterman is Professor of Religion in the Department of Religion at Syracuse University. His specialization is modern Jewish thought and philosophical aesthetics.
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4 Responses to Nietzsche & Buber (Birth of Tragedy Modern Jewish Philosophy Ur-Text)

  1. efmooney says:

    Amazing ! Those coming to Nietzsche in the USA in the 60s through Kaufman translation confronted over and over a refutation of Nietzsche as Nazi. Many of the early Jewish settlers in Israel in the 30s took him to be a hero of independent thinking and action. Now we see how much Buber absorbed and transfigured his spirit. And with no irony you see him writing an ur-text for Jewish philosophy. Amazing, and utterly convincing — down to a winged nude Herzl ! This is the death of Athens vs Jerusalem

  2. Mikhal Dekel says:

    Hi Zachary, Thanks for the image and text. You might be interested in the third section of my book, The Universal Jew: Masculinity, Modernity and the Zionist Moment (Northwestern UP, 2010), entitled The Tragedy of Zionism. Best, Mikhal Dekel

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