Nietzsche: Apollonian and Dionysian.

The following quote is from “The Birth of Tragedy,” (1872), Sections 1 and 2. Nietzsche discusses the two faces of art, The Apollonian and the Dionysian, but it is striking that his analysis can also be seen as a forerunner of Freud’s drive theory: Eros and Thanatos, or as Lacan’s distinction between desire and jouissance. Here is the text:

“We shall have gained much for the science of aesthetics when we have come to realize, not just through logical insight but also with the certainty of something directly apprehended (Anschauung), that the continuous evolution of art is bound up with the duality of the Apolline and the Dionysiac in much the same way as reproduction depends on there being two sexes which co-exist in a state of perpetual conflict interrupted only occasionally by periods of reconciliation. We have borrowed these names from the Greeks who reveal the profound mysteries of their view of art to those with insight, not in concepts, admittedly, but through the penetratingly vivid figures of their gods. Their two deities of art, Apollo and Dionysos, provide the starting-point for our recognition that there exists in the world of the Greeks an enormous opposition, both in origin and goals, between the Apolline art of the image-maker or sculptor (Bildner) and the imageless art of music, which is that of Dionysos. These two very different drives (Triebe) exist side by side, mostly in open conflict, stimulating and provoking (reizen) one another to give birth to ever-new, more vigorous offspring in whom they perpetuate the conflict inherent in the opposition between them, an opposition only apparently bridged by the common term ‘art’ – until eventually, by a metaphysical miracle of the Hellenic ‘Will’, they appear paired and, in this pairing, finally engender a work of art which is Dionysiac and Apolline in equal measure: Attic tragedy.

In order to gain a closer understanding of these two drives, let us think of them in the first place as the separate art-worlds of dream and intoxication (Rausch). Between these two physiological phenomena an opposition can be observed which corresponds to that between the Apolline and the Dionysiac. As Lucretius envisages it, it was in dream that the magnificent figures of the gods first appeared before the souls of men; in dream the great image-maker saw the delightfully proportioned bodies of superhuman beings; and the Hellenic poet, if asked about the secrets of poetic procreation, would likewise have reminded us of dream and would have given an account much like that given by Hans Sachs in the Meistersinger:

My friend, it is the poet’s task
To mark his dreams, their meaning ask.
Trust me, the truest phantom man doth know
Hath meaning only dreams may show:
The arts of verse and poetry
Tell nought but dreaming’s prophecy.

Every human being is fully an artist when creating the worlds of dream, and the lovely semblance of dream is the precondition of all the arts of image-making, including, as we shall see, an important half of poetry. We take pleasure in dreaming, understanding its figures without mediation; all forms speak to us; nothing is indifferent or unnecessary. Yet even while this dream-reality is most alive, we nevertheless retain a pervasive sense that it is semblance; at least this is my experience, and I could adduce a good deal of evidence and the statements of poets to attest to the frequency, indeed normality, of my experience. Philosophical natures even have a presentiment that hidden beneath the reality in which we live and have our being there also lies a second, quite different reality; in other words, this reality too is a semblance. Indeed Schopenhauer actually states that the mark of a person’s capacity for philosophy is the gift for feeling occasionally as if people and all things were mere phantoms or dream-images. A person with artistic sensibility relates to the reality of dream in the same way as a philosopher relates to the reality of existence: he attends to it closely and with pleasure, using these images to interpret life, and practising for life with the help of these events. Not that it is only the pleasant and friendly images which give him this feeling of complete intelligibility; he also sees passing before him things which are grave, gloomy, sad, dark, sudden blocks, teasings of chance, anxious expectations, in short the entire ‘Divine Comedy’ of life, including the Inferno, but not like some mere shadow-play – for he, too, lives in these scenes and shares in the suffering – and yet never without that fleeting sense ofits character as semblance. Perhaps others will recall, as I do, shouting out, sometimes successfully, words of encouragement in the midst of the perils and terrors of a dream: ‘It is a dream! I will dream on!’ I have even heard of people who were capable of continuing the causality of one and the same dream through three and more successive nights. All of these facts are clear evidence that our innermost being, the deep ground (Untergrund) common to all our lives, experiences the state of dreaming with profound pleasure (Lust) and joyous necessity.

The Greeks also expressed the joyous necessity of dream-experience in their Apollo: as the god of all image-making energies, Apollo is also the god of prophecy. According to the etymological root of his name, he is ‘the luminous one’ (der Scheinende), the god of light; as such, he also governs the lovely semblance produced by the inner world of fantasy. The higher truth, the perfection of these dream-states in contrast to the only partially intelligible reality of the daylight world, together with the profound consciousness of the helping and healing powers of nature in sleep and dream, is simultaneously the symbolic analogue of the ability to prophesy and indeed of all the arts through which life is made possible and worth living.

But the image of Apollo must also contain that delicate line which the dream-image may not overstep if its effect is not to become pathological, so that, in the worst case, the semblance would deceive us as if it were crude reality; his image (Bild) must include that measured limitation (massvolle Begrenzung), that freedom from wilder impulses, that wise calm of the image-making god. In accordance with his origin, his eye must be ‘sunlike’; even when its gaze is angry and shows displeasure, it exhibits the consecrated quality of lovely semblance. Thus, in an eccentric sense, one could apply to Apollo what Schopenhauer says about human beings trapped in the veil of maya: “Just as the boatman sits in his small boat, trusting his frail craft in a stormy sea that is boundless in every direction, rising and falling with the howling, mountainous waves, so in the midst of a world full of suffering and misery the individual man calmly sits, supported by and trusting in the principium individuationis […]” (World as Will and Representation, I, p. 416)

Indeed one could say that Apollo is the most sublime expression of imperturbable trust in this principle and of the calm sitting-there of the person trapped within it; one might even describe Apollo as the magnificent divine image (Goetterbild) of the principium individuationis, whose gestures and gaze speak to us of all the intense pleasure, wisdom and beauty of ‘semblance’. In the same passage Schopenhauer has described for us the enormous horror which seizes people when they suddenly become confused and lose faith in the cognitive forms of the phenomenal world because the principle of sufficient reason, in one or other of its modes, appears to sustain an exception. If we add to this horror the blissful ecstasy which arises from the innermost ground of man, indeed of nature itself, whenever this breakdown of the principium individuationis occurs, we catch a glimpse of the essence of the Dionysiac, which is best conveyed by the analogy of intoxication.

These Dionysiac stirrings, which, as they grow in intensity, cause subjectivity to vanish to the point of complete self-forgetting, awaken either under the influence of narcotic drink, of which all human beings and peoples who are close to the origin of things speak in their hymns, or at the approach of spring when the whole of nature is pervaded by lust for life. In the German Middle Ages, too, ever-growing throngs roamed from place to place, impelled by the same Dionysiac power, singing and dancing as they went; in these St John’s and St Vitus’ dancers we recognize the Bacchic choruses of the Greeks, with their pre-history in Asia Minor, extending to Babylon and the orgiastic Sacaea. There are those who, whether from lack of experience or from dullness of spirit, turn away in scorn or pity from such phenomena, regarding them as ‘popular diseases’ while believing in their own good health; of course, these poor creatures have not the slightest inkling of how spectral and deathly pale their ‘health’ seems when the glowing life of Dionysiac enthusiasts
storms past them. Not only is the bond between human beings renewed by the magic of the Dionysiac, but nature, alienated, inimical, or subjugated, celebrates once more her festival of reconciliation with her lost son, humankind. Freely the earth offers up her gifts, and the beasts of prey from mountain and desert approach in peace. The chariot of Dionysos is laden with flowers and wreaths; beneath its yoke stride panther and tiger. If one were to transform Beethoven’s jubilant ‘Hymn to Joy’ into a painting and place no constraints on one’s imagination as the millions sink into the dust, shivering in awe, then one could begin to approach the Dionysiac. Now the slave is a freeman, now all the rigid, hostile barriers, which necessity, caprice, or ‘impudent fashion’3o have established between human beings, break asunder. Now, hearing this gospel of universal harmony, each person feels himselfto be not simply united, reconciled or merged with his neighbor, but quite literally one with him, as if the veil of maya had been torn apart, so that mere shreds of it flutter before the mysterious primordial unity (das Ur-Eine). Singing and dancing, man expresses his sense of belonging to a higher community; he has forgotten how to walk and talk and is on the brink of flying and dancing, up and away into the air above. His gestures speak of his enchantment. Just as the animals now talk and the earth gives milk and honey, there now sounds out from within man something supernatural: he feels himself to be a god, he himself now moves in such ecstasy and sublimity as once he saw the gods move in his dreams. Man is no longer an artist, he has become a work of art: all nature’s artistic power reveals itself here, amidst shivers of intoxication, to the highest, most blissful satisfaction of the primordial unity. Here man, the noblest clay, the most precious marble, is kneaded and carved and, to the accompaniment of the chisel-blows ofthe Dionysiac world-artist, the call of the Eleusinian Mysteries rings out: ‘Fall ye to the ground, ye millions? Feelst thou thy Creator, world?’

So far we have considered the Apolline and its opposite, the Dionysiac, as artistic powers which erupt from nature itself, without the mediation of any human artist, and in which nature’s artistic drives attain their first, immediate satisfaction: on the one hand as the image-world ofdream, the perfection of which is not linked to an individual’s intellectual level or artistic formation (Bildung); and on the other hand as intoxicated reality, which has just as little regard for the individual, even seeking to annihilate, redeem, and release him by imparting a mystical sense of oneness. In relation to these unmediated artistic states in nature every artist is an ‘imitator’, and indeed either an Apolline dream-artist or a Dionysiac artist of intoxication or finally – as, for example, in Greek tragedy – an artist of both dream and intoxication at once. This is how we must think of him as he sinks to the ground in Dionysiac drunkenness and mystical self-abandon, alone and apart from the enthusiastic choruses, at which point, under the Apolline influence of dream, his own condition, which is to say, his oneness with the innermost ground of the world, reveals itself to him in a symbolic (gleichnishaft) dream-image.

Having set out these general assumptions and contrasts, let us now consider the Greeks in order to understand the degree and level to which those artistic drives of nature were developed in them. This will enable us to gain a deeper understanding and appreciation of the relationship between the Greek artist and his models (Urbilder), or, to use Aristotle’s expression, ‘the imitation of nature’. Despite all the dream literature of the Greeks and numerous dream anecdotes, we can speak only speculatively, but with a fair degree of certainty, about the Greeks’ dreams. Given the incredibly definite and assured ability of their eye to see things in a plastic way, together with their pure and honest delight in colour, one is bound to assume, to the shame of all those born after them, that their dreams, too, had that logical causality of line and outline, colour and grouping, and a sequence of scenes resembling their best bas-reliefs, so that the perfection of their dreams would certainly justify us, if comparison were possible, in describing the dreaming Greeks as Homers and Homer as a dreaming Greek – and in a more profound sense than if a modern dared were to compare his dreaming with that of Shakespeare.

By contrast, there is no need for speculation when it comes to revealing the vast gulf which separated the Dionysiac Greeks from the Dionysiac Barbarians. From all corners of the ancient world (leaving aside the modern one in this instance), from Rome to Babylon, we can demonstrate the existence of Dionysiac festivals of a type which, at best, stands in the same relation to the Greek festivals as the bearded satyr, whose name and attributes were borrowed from the goat, stands to Dionysos himself. Almost everywhere an excess of sexual indiscipline, which flooded in waves over all family life and its venerable statutes, lay at the heart of such festivals. Here the very wildest of nature’s beasts were unleashed, up to and including that repulsive mixture of sensuality and cruelty which has always struck me as the true ‘witches’ brew’. Although news of these festivals reached them by every sea- and land-route, the Greeks appear, for a time, to have been completely protected and insulated from their feverish stirrings by the figure of Apollo, who reared up in all his pride, there being no more dangerous power for him to confront with the Medusa’s head than this crude, grotesque manifestation of the Dionysiac. Apollo’s attitude of majestic rejection is eternalized in Doric art. Such resistance became more problematic and even impossible when, eventually, similar shoots sprang from the deepest root of the Hellenic character; now the work of the Delphic God was limited to taking the weapons of destruction out of the hands of his mighty opponent in a timely act of reconciliation. This reconciliation is the most important moment in the history of Greek religion; wherever one looks, one can see the revolutionary consequences of this event. It was the reconciliation of two opponents, with a precise delineation of the borders which each now had to respect and with the periodic exchange of honorific gifts; fundamentally the chasm had not been bridged. Yet if we now look at how the power of the Dionysiac manifested itself under pressure from that peace-treaty, we can see that, in contrast to the Babylonian Sacaea, where human beings regressed to the condition of tigers and monkeys, the significance of the Greeks’ Dionysiac orgies was that of festivals of universal release and redemption and days of transfiguration.

Here for the first time the jubilation of nature achieves expression as art, here for the first time the tearing-apart of the principium individuationis becomes an artistic phenomenon. That repulsive witches’ brew of sensuality and cruelty was powerless here; the only reminder of it (in the way that medicines recall deadly poisons) is to be found in the strange mixture and duality in the affects of the Dionysiac enthusiasts, that phenomenon whereby pain awakens pleasure while rejoicing wrings cries of agony from the breast. From highest joy there comes a cry of horror or a yearning lament at some irredeemable loss. In those Greek festivals there erupts what one might call a sentimental tendency in nature, as if it had cause to sigh over its dismemberment into individuals. The singing and expressive gestures of such enthusiasts in their two-fold mood was something new and unheard-of in the Homeric-Greek world; Dionysiac music in particular elicited terror and horror from them. Although it seems that music was already familiar to the Greeks as an Apolline art, they only knew it, strictly speaking, in the form of a wave-like rhythm with an image-making power which they developed to represent Apolline states. The music of Apollo was Doric architectonics in sound, but only in the kind of hinted-at tones characteristic of the cithara. It keeps at a distance, as something un-Apolline, the very element which defines the character of Dionysiac music (and thus of music generally): the power of its sound to shake us to our very foundations, the unified stream of melody and the quite incomparable world of harmony. In the Dionysiac dithyramb man is stimulated to the highest intensification of his symbolic powers; something that he has never felt before urgently demands to be expressed: the destruction of the veil of maya, one-ness as the genius of humankind, indeed of nature itself The essence of nature is bent on expressing itself; a new world of symbols is required, firstly the symbolism of the entire body, not just of the mouth, the face, the word, but the full gesture of dance with its rhythmical movement of every limb. Then there is a sudden, tempestuous growth in music’s other symbolic powers, in rhythm, dynamics, and harmony. To comprehend this complete unchaining of all symbolic powers, a man must already have reached that height of self-abandonment which seeks symbolic expression in those powers: thus the dithyrambic servant of Dionysos can only be understood by his own kind! With what astonishment the Apolline Greeks must have regarded him! With an astonishment enlarged by the added horror of realizing that all this was not so foreign to them after all, indeed that their Apolline consciousness only hid this Dionysiac world from them like a veil.”

Share On Facebook
Share On Twitter
Share On Google Plus
Share On Linkedin
Share On Pinterest
Contact us