“Apollonian and Dionysian tendencies”

The Dionysian Impulse” from Harper’s Magazine Online, July 25, 2009:

Then came Friedrich Nietzsche. Today he’s known for Zarathustra and Beyond Good and Evil more than his other writings. But his very first book–composed by a 27-year-old university professor, which differs sharply in style from the later writings–actually presents some of Nietzsche’s most radical and novel thinking. And it gives a central role to music. He calls it The Birth of Tragedy from the Spirit of Music and that precisely describes his thesis. He puts forward the idea that the heyday of classic Athenian drama, the age of Aeschylus and Sophocles, was a logical development from Greek traditions of music, song and dance. He breaks this tradition into two tendencies, the Apollonian and the Dionysian. The Apollonian follows Schopenhauer’s principle of individuation, it stresses the gentle reign of reason and intellect, pushing life to a somewhat unnatural ordering. The Dionysian is its exact opposite–it is governed by emotions and particularly passions, sometimes whipped to a self-destructive frenzy of excess. The Dionysian suppresses his intellect to live as one with nature, and wine plays an essential role in his cult. In the quoted passage, Nietzsche looks at the exuberance of the Dionysian spirit and he traces it through history. It is, he says a sort of springtime’s awakening (incidentally, this is the line from which the German-American playwright Frank Wedekind takes the title of his important play–in which youthful sexuality faces the suppression of a rigidly Apollonian school system). The age of Aeschylus marks an important synthesis between these Apollonian and Dionysian tendencies–a synthesis that dissolved with the rise of Euripides and Socrates, with their elevation of the Apollonian over the Dionysian. But Nietzsche understands the totality of European intellectual and artistic tradition as the product of interaction between the Apollonian and Dionysian tendencies–the greater the friction between them, the greater the art which results…Read more

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Bacchus by Caravaggio (1596)

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