Revisiting the Dionysian
Thoughts on Nietzsche, Greek drama and Wagner

# Revisiting the Dionysian

sheps

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Posted Dec 31, 2011 - 8:57 AM:
Subject: Revisiting the Dionysian
Ever since Nietzsche used this term, it has been inseperable from two enormously important epochs of world culture: pre-Socratic Greece, and post-Enlightenment Germany. In The Birth of Tragedy Nietzsche famously asserts, with youthful confidence and a shade of awe, that Wagner lies at the end of a "mighty solar orbit" in terms of German music, and is the possible returning Messiah of the ancient aesthetic school: he is the great man, climbing upon the shoulders of Schiller, Beethoven, Goethe and Winckelmann to rediscover the forgotten land of Hellenistic genius.

Nietzsche demands, as the good classical scholar, that we know our Greek tragedy, and that we know what to expect from Greek drama. Modern critics might well wish to see Aeschylus' Oresteia as a grand political drama, with overtones of modern phenomena like feminism and Marxism, but this isn't (according to N.) the point of the work. The Agamemnon, especially, is a terrifying, pessimistic play; whilst Homer has Odysseus return as a triumphant hero to a loyal wife, the greatest ruler Greece had ever seen is infamously slaughtered defenceless in his bath. The crafty and devious anti-hero of Sophocles' Philoctetes gets the good ending and the girl, whilst the last act of the conqueror of Troy and hope of Greece is to utter a horrifying shriek of agony and despair off-stage.

Indeed, after this start to the trilogy, one could be excused for being rather disappointed with what is, undoubtedly, a political ending. In the Eumenides, Aeschylus becomes the first dramatist to commit what is, in my view, a great mistake, and bring the law-court onto the stage. Athena - that asexual goddess born from Zeus' head - banishes pessimism, banishes the vital energy and revenge of the Furies (the conflict between private revenge and public justice is thus alleged to be resolved): it is here that contemporary political and feminist readings come in to their own. The audience is left with a rather toothless ending to what remains the greatest artistic trilogy of Western civilisation. Nietzsche was, perhaps, incorrect to blame Euripides for the triumph of the Apollonian: it is in this play where the bland spirit of rationality first enters into drama.

We must not forget that both Aeschylus and Sophocles - the heroes of Nietzsche's book, in many ways - were both technical innovators in the history of art. Aristotle informs us that both altered the number of actors on stage; Sophocles introduced rudimentary scenery. This ought not distract us from trying to comprehend the significance of the vision of these authors, but it should be born in mind ... especially if we are to compare them with the likes of another great technical innovator in the theatre, Wagner.

Wagner's brilliant Der Ring des Nibelungen is intended, in essence, to be a modern (and German) re-working of Aeschylus' plays. The satyr play is added, of course, and Wagner undoubtedly was trying to realise a "new art", though one which drew heavily from art's origins. Kant had summarily dismissed instrumental music as inferior to other forms of art; though we may scoff at this today, there was undoubtedly some truth in it for certain German thinkers of the 19th Century. There has to have been, else Brahms would have won and Wagner lost: as it was, the man Nietzsche delighted in calling Tartuffian arguably ended up lighting the touch-paper of one of the greatest artistic movements in Western history. Wagner's work represents the final step in 19th Century grandeur and decadence - Britian, with shadows of myth-reconstructers like Walter Scott and France with, well, nothing, could only stand in awe. The music of Wagner's Ring does, at least, come close to uniting the Apollonian and Dionysian, even if the libretto is occasionally facile and pseudo-Homeric. Although we cannot say in absolute fashion that Wagner beats Brahms or Beethoven in terms of musical genius we can confirm that his vision was of a more complete nature; allowing the audience to participate, like an ancient chorus, when during a symphony they can only observe in a rationalistic and ultimately unsatisfying fashion.

The main problem facing the modern audience appears to be that these two epochs have disappeared. Euripides, Socrates and the rationalistic tendency have won: mankind no longer appears to want to marry the Apollonian and Dionysian tendencies in his art. The triumph of the novel, of course, has much to do with this, as does the ultimate failure of the verse drama. Personally, I would be in favour of a new genius taking up the torch from the likes of Wagner, and re-examining art's origins in order to arrive at a new form of art. In a cynical age, however, this is unlikely. Myths, which are so often what is required for this sort of work to arise, are universally mocked and misunderstood. What we can do is enjoy both the formative writers of Western culture, and by doing so preserve their memory, whilst also looking with fondness back at that time in Germany when genuine experimentation was being attempted and when the Dionysian tendency was, to some extent, re-born.

Just some thoughts. At least it's another thread for the unjustly ignored aesthetics section of the forums.
BitterCrank

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Posted Dec 31, 2011 - 10:43 AM:

The New York Metropolitan Opera broadcast Wagner's Götterdämmerung on the radio two or three weeks ago; it was pretty good. As I generally do, I was listening to the opera while doiing something else. Except for some excerpts, Wagner wouldn't rank as highly on my list as he ranks on some people's lists. One has to be at the opera to get the full effect. Today they are doing a new piece, "a baroque pastiche" with material by Handel, Vivaldi, and Rameau. We'll see...

We definitely don't do the Dionesian well in the Anglo-Saxon world -- I'm not sure, exactly, who does. Just going out and getting high, or getting laid, or getting drunk, or merely being torn apart in the forest by the Bacchantae just doesn't cut it. Krista Tippett (onbeing.org) woke me up this morning at 6:00 (#&$*#*@*$) with a discussion among the Dalai Lama, Muslim scholar Seyyed Hossein Nasr, Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori of the Episcopal Church, and Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks of the United Kingdom. Among other things they were talking about sanctifying pleasure. This is about as close as National Public Radio is going to get to Dionysus, I suspect.

One scholar put it thus: The Apollonian is about light (day-time, the sun), far-seeing, straight-arrow, border-respecting thinking, while the Dionysian is about feeling (not so cerebral), border crossing, deviance, and dark (as in night-time, the moon). Maybe masculine-masculine vs. masculine-feminine would be another way of opposing the Appollonian and the Dionysian. (for those not familiar, try Euripides' Bacchae -- it's a pretty good read.) We need not decide we are one or the other. All-Apollo all the time and All Dionysus all the time are both pretty tiresome. I view the Dionysian as something we need to access at times, rather than a state-of-being. I suppose I see the Apollonian as the default condition periodically interupted by things that go "YAHOO!!!" in the night. Some people, not too many, occupy the Dionysian role much more, most quite a bit less. I'm not trying to vere into personality theory here, though aesthetics, personality, and cognition can't be separated if we are going to talk about the Dionysian.

John Waters, the Bane of Baltimore, has done some films, like Pink Flamingoes, which are nothing if not Dionysian low-art (How low can he go? Pretty low!). In his earlier oeuvre, it's all deviance and no normal to serve as a backdrop. I llike his stuff. There was a strain of life/performance in gay life, particularly in the later 1960s and 1970s when drag queens and leather boys were becomming visible and sex was experiencing a general disinhibition, while at the same time there was just the right amount of social resistence, that one could find Dionysian invasions of propriety that were "about right." There was definitely a "wall" to play against, and the performance was "off the wall" enough. (My dates represent the Upper Midwestern cultural lag.) A Canadian film, Outrageous, captured this period well -- can't remember the dates. It combined leather, drag, schizophrenia (one character), nuns on roller-skates and so forth.

On a quite-a-bit higher note, there is Carl Orff's 1930s Carmina Burana and Catulli Carmina (I haven't heard the third part of the tryptich). I think it is Dionysian, though some people disagree. Alex Ross [some critic] wrote that "the music itself commits no sins simply by being and remaining popular. That Carmina Burana has appeared in hundreds of films and television commercials is proof that it contains no diabolical message, indeed that it contains no message whatsoever." Well, that's unfair. If you don't read the libretto of course it is going to be content-free. And the music itself encapsulates ecstatic moments. Maybe the piece is too familiar and is not performed often enough by naked symphony orchestras to capture its Dionysianosity.

Could one make a case that there is something a little bit Dionysian in the Mass? A commemoration is made of a god who is killed violently and then eaten... by his followers, like Dionysus? I wouldn't push it too far, but it seems to me there is something to that idea.

BitterCrank

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Posted Dec 31, 2011 - 11:08 AM:

sheps wrote:
The main problem facing the modern audience appears to be that these two epochs have disappeared. Euripides, Socrates and the rationalistic tendency have won: mankind no longer appears to want to marry the Apollonian and Dionysian tendencies in his art. The triumph of the novel, of course, has much to do with this, as does the ultimate failure of the verse drama. Personally, I would be in favour of a new genius taking up the torch from the likes of Wagner, and re-examining art's origins in order to arrive at a new form of art. In a cynical age, however, this is unlikely. Myths, which are so often what is required for this sort of work to arise, are universally mocked and misunderstood. What we can do is enjoy both the formative writers of Western culture, and by doing so preserve their memory, whilst also looking with fondness back at that time in Germany when genuine experimentation was being attempted and when the Dionysian tendency was, to some extent, re-born.

Apollo and Dionysus together yield balance. Separate them and let them go their own way and you get an arid rationalism on the one hand and an over-fertilized, over-watered, over-stimulated swamp on the other hand. Even though we seem to cater to pleasure endlessly the Apollonian is decidedly dominant. Pleasure, per se, isn't Dionysian. A sculpture of Apollo may give great pleasure, stimulating one's aesthetic urges, but that isn't Dionysian. Beethoven or (dare I say it) Wagner, per se, aren't either.

To the extent that the dionysian is border-crossing and god-sacrificing, it is anathema in the buttoned-down arid rationality, if not apollonian, work-a-day world. Disruptive ecstatic movement does not go well with efficient production or sober scholarship. And cultivating the Dionysian inside the confines of the art gallery betrays Apollonianism. Real Dionysian movements break through boundaries, including those of aesthetes and aesthetic managers. It's like having a "permanent, institutionalized revolution." Its just a radical self-contradiction.

ciceronianus
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Posted Dec 31, 2011 - 11:29 AM:

I think that Nietzsche never understood just what Dionysus meant to the ancients, and doubt that he could. The Dionysian or Bacchic mystery religions were ecstatic cults fueled by intoxicants of various kinds, and the rites were certainly wacky enough, even grisly, but were eventually toned down when Orphism came along, and Dionysian religion like other religions of the time eventually transformed into Christianity. I think the link between Dionysus and Christianity is much closer that Nietzsche liked to think. He takes, of course, a typically romantic view of the ancients, and I think that view was in many respects a kind of fantasy.
sms18
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Posted Dec 31, 2011 - 5:14 PM:

sheps wrote:

Personally, I would be in favour of a new genius taking up the torch from the likes of Wagner, and re-examining art's origins in order to arrive at a new form of art. In a cynical age, however, this is unlikely. Myths, which are so often what is required for this sort of work to arise, are universally mocked and misunderstood. What we can do is enjoy both the formative writers of Western culture, and by doing so preserve their memory, whilst also looking with fondness back at that time in Germany when genuine experimentation was being attempted and when the Dionysian tendency was, to some extent, re-born.

To me it seems that the form of Gesamtkunstwerk that Wagner invented was completely exhausted by Wagner himself, to the point that it was impossible to further develop this form of art, within the scheme of the opera at least. But the flame didn't die out there - 20th cent. Modernism was an era of experimentation, and what springs to my mind especially is Joyce's Ulysses. While the written language is fundamentally Apollonian, Joyce deconstructs and manipulates language to the point where it becomes "musical," and even Dionysian (the Sirens episode epitomizes this). As Joyce was a devout Wagnerian and knew his Nietzsche to an extent, he may have been consciously striving to create his own Apollonian-Dionysian unity.

It's hard to say whether this spirit of genuine experimentation is still carried out today, but Wagner definitely isn't forgotten - I hear him all the time in film scores. Can there be a Dionysian rebirth through films? I thought LOTR was pretty good.
sheps

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Posted Jan 1, 2012 - 9:21 AM:

BitterCrank wrote:
The New York Metropolitan Opera broadcast Wagner's Götterdämmerung on the radio two or three weeks ago; it was pretty good. As I generally do, I was listening to the opera while doiing something else. Except for some excerpts, Wagner wouldn't rank as highly on my list as he ranks on some people's lists. One has to be at the opera to get the full effect. Today they are doing a new piece, "a baroque pastiche" with material by Handel, Vivaldi, and Rameau. We'll see...

Sounds good. I love Handel's operatic works - Serse's the best - but he just misses out on being my favourite (though he's probably my favourite composer overall) in the department 'cause of the way he seperates the orchestra and the voice so much. It'd be nice to hear a little less counterpoint, but that is asking rather too much from a Baroque composer.

One scholar put it thus: The Apollonian is about light (day-time, the sun), far-seeing, straight-arrow, border-respecting thinking, while the Dionysian is about feeling (not so cerebral), border crossing, deviance, and dark (as in night-time, the moon).

The Furies represent the Dionysian best, for me. Revenge, despair, melancholy, the abyss ... all these things make me think of it, and some of the best music provokes thoughts on these matters. The Greeks in the 6th and 5th century BC were especially good at realising this, I reckon, due to all the wars and domestic troubles they found themselves in. Aeschylus is much more pessimistic about his (traditionally) heroic figures, too: compare Agamemnon with, say, Theseus of the Theban Plays.

Apollo and Dionysus together yield balance. Separate them and let them go their own way and you get an arid rationalism on the one hand and an over-fertilized, over-watered, over-stimulated swamp on the other hand. Even though we seem to cater to pleasure endlessly the Apollonian is decidedly dominant. Pleasure, per se, isn't Dionysian. A sculpture of Apollo may give great pleasure, stimulating one's aesthetic urges, but that isn't Dionysian. Beethoven or (dare I say it) Wagner, per se, aren't either.

That balance is hard to achieve, though, especially in a social setting. That's what makes the Greek playwrights so special: although even Aeschylus had the Apollonian side "win" in the end, with the absolution of Orestes in the law court. Women (the Furies) lose here; their right over children is utterly denied according to the natural philosophy of the day; and the asexual Athena oversees an arguably male-dominated justice. Astonishingly, of course, these plays won or lost based on a sort of clap-o-meter, just going to show what a remarkable society Ancient Greece must have been.

Could one make a case that there is something a little bit Dionysian in the Mass? A commemoration is made of a god who is killed violently and then eaten... by his followers, like Dionysus? I wouldn't push it too far, but it seems to me there is something to that idea.

Oh yeah, for sure! Christianity has its darker sides. As a matter of fact, about the only contemporary classical music which has really grabbed me recently was something I caught at the last Proms on TV: it was a choir singing a Catholic liturgy set to disturbing, minor-key music. Very powerful: Polish, I think, though not by Gorecki. Thanks for the recommendations, btw.

ciceronianus wrote:
I think that Nietzsche never understood just what Dionysus meant to the ancients, and doubt that he could. The Dionysian or Bacchic mystery religions were ecstatic cults fueled by intoxicants of various kinds, and the rites were certainly wacky enough, even grisly, but were eventually toned down when Orphism came along, and Dionysian religion like other religions of the time eventually transformed into Christianity.

But by the time Dionysian tendencies are truly represented to us in the form of art, they're already purified and refined in a sense. We shouldn't forget that Nietzsche really meant Dionysian in an artistic or philosophical sense; not, in all seriousness, the actual revelries of the Dionysian worshippers.

I think the link between Dionysus and Christianity is much closer that Nietzsche liked to think. He takes, of course, a typically romantic view of the ancients, and I think that view was in many respects a kind of fantasy.

I don't know, I think Christianity owes a lot more to Plato than anything pre-Socratic. Do you mean "romantic" with a capital R, by the way? If so, you'll have to clarify and justify that for me.

sms18 wrote:
To me it seems that the form of Gesamtkunstwerk that Wagner invented was completely exhausted by Wagner himself, to the point that it was impossible to further develop this form of art, within the scheme of the opera at least. But the flame didn't die out there - 20th cent. Modernism was an era of experimentation, and what springs to my mind especially is Joyce's Ulysses. While the written language is fundamentally Apollonian, Joyce deconstructs and manipulates language to the point where it becomes "musical," and even Dionysian (the Sirens episode epitomizes this). As Joyce was a devout Wagnerian and knew his Nietzsche to an extent, he may have been consciously striving to create his own Apollonian-Dionysian unity.

I don't really know enough to comment on this, but I didn't know Joyce was a Wagnerian. I'm sure he was influenced by Nietzsche, though: other creative authors who I think of as owing a debt to him are Shaw and Lawrence.

It's hard to say whether this spirit of genuine experimentation is still carried out today, but Wagner definitely isn't forgotten - I hear him all the time in film scores. Can there be a Dionysian rebirth through films? I thought LOTR was pretty good.

It would have to be a bold project, certainly. Lord of the Rings will obviously suggest itself, if only because of the theme debts it owes to Wagner; and film music is undoubtedly Wagnerian (yet we shouldn't ignore the likes of Elgar and Vaughan Williams in terms of its development). I think film could be the place where Dionysius re-emerges, but the standard of contemporary film making (esp. w/r/t screenplays and acting quality) is far too low at the moment. 2001: A Space Odyssey struck me as quite Dionysian, as a matter of fact, though we're obviously going back a bit there.

I should add that Wagner's music - and classical music - is still all quite new to me. I used to really dislike him, arguably because my "introduction", so to speak, was listening to his overtures which fail by a long way to accurately represent him.
ciceronianus
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Posted Jan 1, 2012 - 9:43 AM:

sheps wrote:
But by the time Dionysian tendencies are truly represented to us in the form of art, they're already purified and refined in a sense. We shouldn't forget that Nietzsche really meant Dionysian in an artistic or philosophical sense; not, in all seriousness, the actual revelries of the Dionysian worshippers.

Perhaps, but I think that necessarily and purposefully mischaraterizes, or at least redefines, the Dionysian. Of course, purposeful mischaracterization is one of the things we do, and Nietzsche's in this case is far better than that of Alexander the Great, who it is said invoked Dionysus to justify his burning of Persepolis and his murder of his old friend Kleitos while very, very drunk. He was possessed by the god, you see.
sheps

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Posted Jan 1, 2012 - 1:59 PM:

ciceronianus wrote:
Perhaps, but I think that necessarily and purposefully mischaraterizes, or at least redefines, the Dionysian. Of course, purposeful mischaracterization is one of the things we do, and Nietzsche's in this case is far better than that of Alexander the Great, who it is said invoked Dionysus to justify his burning of Persepolis and his murder of his old friend Kleitos while very, very drunk. He was possessed by the god, you see.

It's not a completely muddled-headed way of thinking about art though, is it? This is going to sound terribly Romantic and you're probably going to dismiss it, but isn't the artist "intoxicated" with his work in a sense? (Not to mention the fact that he may, like Coleridge, literally enjoy working off his face.) This sounds very Victorian - not much better than those silly half-myths that Mozart wrote a pile of music with no corrections; as if that made it any better! - but isn't there something to it? In a novel, say, the author is truly the hero, as Iris Murdoch says: is he not, in a sense, drunk with the fantasy world he is creating? Isn't there some mysterious spark of intoxicated genius behind every truly great symphony, poem or song?
ciceronianus
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Posted Jan 1, 2012 - 5:14 PM:

sheps wrote:

It's not a completely muddled-headed way of thinking about art though, is it? This is going to sound terribly Romantic and you're probably going to dismiss it, but isn't the artist "intoxicated" with his work in a sense? (Not to mention the fact that he may, like Coleridge, literally enjoy working off his face.) This sounds very Victorian - not much better than those silly half-myths that Mozart wrote a pile of music with no corrections; as if that made it any better! - but isn't there something to it? In a novel, say, the author is truly the hero, as Iris Murdoch says: is he not, in a sense, drunk with the fantasy world he is creating? Isn't there some mysterious spark of intoxicated genius behind every truly great symphony, poem or song?

I don't know, I must admit. But I think great works of art are more the result of a great deal of intelligence, even artifice, than intoxication. I suppose that means I take the side of Apollo in Nietzche's vocabulary--or perhaps Hermes would be more appropriate.
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Posted Jan 5, 2012 - 9:34 PM:

Reading Euripides 'versions of the works of Sophocles is lively. The Bacchae roll right along with a fair field description of the salient point of the advance of the women under the influence of Dionysus. What can't one like about it? Would you regard Timon of Athens as Dionysian because of the strength of Timon's hatred of mankind, or is that in a Euripidean style?

Is Wagner’s Logen a reference to Attila the Hun? Attila made it to France and fought to a stalemate with a Roman Legion.

One comment on the ring cycle offers the opinion that Bakunin was the role model. Adolph Hitler and other political charismatics place the emotion of vengeance right there with Dionysian passion. Monomaniacal political passion can bring a high opportunity cost with it. Artists though seem to require devotion to their project-I find it difficult to associate Dionysian drunkenes with artistic passion. Was Jackson Pollock a Dionysian and Pablo Picasso an intellectual of cubist construction and meta-layered perspective placing subjective psychologic perception into the empirical world?

The work of a the passion of Christ when the word means perserverence through suffering may be the best example of artistic devotion to an aethetic cause if we allow real values to intrude into the aesthete. Passion with sobriety is the best kind.

I stipulate that being in some way compelled to attend an Opera instead of reading philosophy or cosmology would be a terrible fate. So is a succession of Presidents of the United States that would be guided by emotion or red flags stimulating deficit spending instead of rational, analytical informed opinion about ecological economics and the way to move socially in a Thomas Moore direction or at least with a George Luis Borges sort of amusement aesthetically with intellectual genius.

Some prefer irrational motivation for living, yet it requires a good healthy ecosphere to run amuck in decadence instead of one with a prospect for mass extinction. I believe one might sublimate the aesthetic of romanticism within an intellectual appreciation of beauty and avoid the excesses of Nietzsche-

Edited by garycgibson on Jan 5, 2012 - 9:44 PM. Reason: improvement
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