Tragedy, Farce, and a Trial: A Literary Analysis of The Trial of God (Part 3)

Part 2

The deus ex machina, however, becomes less straightforward to identify. Certainly, the ending of The Trial of God, the pogrom, finds predictions throughout the body of the play, but it does interrupt the play’s trial. The characters themselves leave the trial to the next generation, for the trial will never end in a verdict. The arrival of Sam as God’s defendant could also fall in this category as well; Satan exists as a spiritual being, but has taken human form to become God’s defendant – the mechane, though not physical, has placed a supernatural entity into the play that changes its outcome, in Sam’s introduction of logic and rationality as a means to defend God.

However, Wiesel’s play does not follow completely this traditional set. Most notably, the protagonist of the story, Berish, cannot be described as “great person”, as Aristotle would hold the main character of any tragedy must be.1 In addition, the feelings of pity and fear are to be a cleansing experience for the audience as a response to the suffering of the characters; in The Trial of God, no resolution or catharsis can be offered, as the trial does not reach a resolution.2 This is because Berish does not perform a hamartia, best translated as a mistake but notably recognized as a “tragic action”, which causes the events of the play to occur in terrible results for the main character and those around him or her.3 A supernatural force, like God, cannot be the impetus for the tragic occurrences; otherwise, the play cannot be a tragedy, but merely a misadventure.4 Additionally, many tragedies, for Aristotle, cause the protagonist to receive a revelation that reveals something about the nature of reality, the gods, or the world in the sequence of events.5 For Berish, no such revelation occurs, as God remains as mysterious as He was before the play began. Thus, though the Trial of God retains many ancient elements of tragedy, it does not adopt all of the ancient characteristics.

These, however, are ancient conceptions of the tragic form as defined by history and Aristotle; since The Trial of God was written during the late 1970s, contemporary sources will

shed additional light as to the modern tragic form’s influence on Wiesel. Nietzsche, though known primarily as a philosopher, was also a philologist; his first book-length work, The Birth of Tragedy, represents his interpretations of the ancient creation of tragedy, in addition to why tragedy did not exist in his era except in the works of Richard Wagner’s operas. Although the work remains a highly speculative piece, it makes sense of Elie Wiesel’s work in an unforeseen fashion.

Nietzsche believed, contrary to his own contemporary scholars, that the Greeks had two impulses in themselves: the Apollonian and the Dionysian.6 These two impulses are best expressed in the arts of the ancient Greek world as well as their religion. The Apollonian sentiment represents the idea of illusion: humankind, in order to escape the possible meaninglessness of its existence, embraces the illusory qualities of dreams and, as a result, perfection.7 This characteristic finds its best expression in the art of sculpture; as Nietzsche describes it, The fair illusion of the dream sphere…is a precondition not only of all plastic art, but even, as we shall see presently, of a wide range of poetry. Here we enjoy an immediate apprehension of form…Despite the high intensity with which these dream realities exist for us, we still have a residual sensation that they are illusions… 8 Sculpture provides a solid, objective appearance; nothing changes, nothing moves, and everything can be understood directly. However, beneath this dream-like art form lies illusion; Nietzsche believes that all people subtly recognize the unreal nature of sculpture; it is in its very perfection that it belies its unreality.

Apollo, as the god of all plastic arts and prophecy, gives the name of this first impulse. Apollo remains unchanging in the face of anger and the like, and the dream world remains and gives meaning to life: “The perfection of these conditions in contrast to our imperfectly understood waking reality, as well as our profound awareness of nature’s healing powers during the interval of sleep and dream, furnishes a symbolic analogue to the soothsaying faculty and quite generally to the arts, which make life possible and worth living.9 However, once anything is seen beyond this illusory quality, such as when human reasons breaks down in the face of adversity, the Apollonian fantasy mode begins to disintegrate.

Thus, the second response of the Dionysian mode becomes both an antithesis and a reactionary response to Apollo’s failure. Instead of perfection, chaos prevails; Dionysius was the god of wine – thus, to drink to intoxication was an attempt to escape illusion.10 Dionysius was also the god of ritual ecstasy and madness; to escape illusion, the Dionysian wished to escape the boundaries of the self in total engagement with whatever events are at hand.11 Thus, the Dionysian impulse seeks a return to nature and instinct, to reject the clean-cut divisions of sculpture and objectivity. Instead, the slave to reason and objectivity become Now the slave emerges as a freeman; all the rigid, hostile walls which either necessity or despotism has erected between men are shattered. Now that the gospel of universal harmony is sounded, each individual becomes not only reconciled to his fellow but actually at one with him …”12

Finally, the idea of Dionysius removes the artist from the equation. In the Apollonian mode, the artist creates a sculpture or work of art. For a Dionysian, the person in his/herself is the art: “No longer the artist, he has himself become a work of art: the productive power of the whole universe is now manifest in his transport, to the glorious satisfaction of the primordial One.”13 Thus, the Dionysian sensibility simply refuses meaning and objectivity in human life, and embraces a return to the whole of nature. Mysteries are not revealed in the perfection of life but in total disorder and union with nature.

This is not the end of the story; neither response is sufficient in Greek culture. Either answer is a reaction to one force or the other; neither the Apollonian nor the Dionysian response sufficiently answer the quest of the Greek – what meaning is there in life if all meaning is either illusion or pleasure for pleasure’s sake? Even if one impulse affirms its conquest and validity over the other, they cannot ultimately destroy each other or claim superiority.14 These forces are ever in balance; where one force prevails, the other is temporarily removed. At some point in the future, the other form will return and destroy it, keeping both impulses in a kind of checks-and-balances situation. The Apollonian represents symbolism and definitive forms, such as in sculpture, whereas the Dionysian represents undifferentiated form, or a return to nature. Each represents a different aspect of human existence – the logical, for the Apollonian, and the irrational, for the Dionysian. Thus, their separation is an enigma; they will continue to fight unless a culture can find a way to synthesize both forms.

This, for Nietzsche, is the Greek’s great triumph: tragedy synthesizes the Apollonian and Dionysian modes into a single, coherent whole that allows the full spectrum of human experience to be displayed.15 The chorus, for example, in its mass of undifferentiated persons (in effect, the audience) and musical elements, represents the Dionysiac, whereas the Apolloniac finds its form in the specific dialogue of the actors, giving a concrete structure to the Dionysian mode.16 Thus, the abstract mode of the Dionysian gains form through the Apollonian. If the Greeks suffered from a pessimism resulting from the idea of an illusory existence, this is eliminated within the tragedy. Tragedy thus embodies both the suffering and ecstasy of human existence simultaneously.

Part 4


1Aristotle, Poetics, 29.

2Aristotle, Poetics, 26.

3Aristotle, Poetics, 24.

4Aristotle, Poetics, 29-30.

5Aristotle, Poetics, 21.

6Friedrich Nietzsche,”The Birth of Tragedy,” Basic Writings of Nietzsche, trans. Walter Kaufmann (New York: Modern Library, 2000), 33.

7Friedrich Nietzsche, “The Birth of Tragedy,” 34.

8Friedrich Nietzsche, “The Birth of Tragedy,” 35.

9Friedrich Nietzsche, “The Birth of Tragedy,” 35.

10Friedrich Nietzsche, “The Birth of Tragedy,” 36.

11Friedrich Nietzsche, “The Birth of Tragedy,” 37-38.

12Friedrich Nietzsche, “The Birth of Tragedy,” 38.

13Friedrich Nietzsche, “The Birth of Tragedy,” 38.

14Friedrich Nietzsche, “The Birth of Tragedy,” 46-47.

15Friedrich Nietzsche, “The Birth of Tragedy,” 47

16Friedrich Nietzsche, “The Birth of Tragedy,” 56.

About Zachery Oliver

Zachery Oliver, MTS, is the lead writer for Theology Gaming, a blog focused on the integration of games and theological issues. He can be reached at viewtifulzfo at gmail dot com or on Theology Gaming’s Facebook Page.