In his first published book, The Birth of Tragedy, Out of the Spirit of Music, German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900) set forth a novel thesis, that Greek culture was not so measured, orderly, and lucid as had formerly been proposed. The god Apollo represents the sort of Greek sobriety that is best exhibited, thinks Nietzsche in the plastic arts – sculpture especially.
While Athens in particular exemplified this brand of optimism toward the world due to the world’s being orderly and understandable, there were undercurrents of something else remaining in Greek culture – the dark, the murky, the chaotic. The god Dionysus represents this side in drunkenness, wanton lust, licentiousness, excess, suffering and in the art form of music, of song and dance.
While the Apollonian pertains to drawing distinctions, particularly between individual things and individual persons, the Dionysian speaks to the obliviation of the individual, its/his/her being immersed in the whole, the group – “losing oneself” or standing outside oneself or beside oneself in drunken ecstasy (ekstasis).
Ultimately, concludes Nietzsche, the early Greek/pre-Socratic tragedians such as Aeschylus and Sophocles had paid the Dionysian side its due along with the Apollonian. Their dramas recognized chaos, the dark, suffering – in a word, the tragic side of life. The dramatist Euripides and philosopher Socrates attempted, however, to hold the Dionysian at bay via intellectualizing, clarifying, rationalizing, “explaining away”.
Without delving further into the details of Nietzsche’s work, suffice it to say that this basic discovery of the work of the Apollonian contrasted to that of the Dionysian has remained influential in areas as diverse as aesthetics, philosophy, political theory, and psychology to this day.
In this article we will explore how the Apollonian and the Dionysian manifest, especially in art.
If you’ve ever studied Greco-Roman mythology, you’ll recall that each god/goddess of the pantheon was usually the “god of such and such”. Demeter/Ceres is the goddess of agriculture, Ares/Mars the god of war, Aphrodite/Venus the goddess of love, and so on. Usually these gods also had other things over which they lorded as well, such as with Athena/Minerva being goddess both of wisdom and of war. There was overlap between godly duties, such that there were no solid lines of demarcation about which gods and goddesses stood as the head bureaucrats over exactly which fields, but some generalities held sway. In the case of Apollo, this type of multi-purpose god was exaggerated to the hilt, as he was no less than the “god of light and the sun; truth and prophecy; archery; medicine and healing; music, poetry, and the arts; and more”. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Apollo.
For our purposes here (loosely from Nietzsche) it’s the sun/light/truth/clarity, healing and especially the plastic arts that are emphasized.
In terms of the Apollonian/Dionysian distinction today, the Apollonian is more what we might call “left brained” – it is more about the words than about the music, more about the organized and the rigid than about the wild and the fluid.
So in the arts (and to an extent in society and person-hood), the processes concerned with refinement, reason/rationality, division, ordering, clarity, form/the formal, structure, law, light/enlightenment, and logic broadly understood are what we mean by the Apollonian elements. In terms of Freud, we might postulate the Apollonian as partaking of superego and ego.
The Dionysian is about the irrational or at least the non-rational. Dionysus is the god of what today we might summarize in the phrase “wine, women, and song”, and indeed the modern day Dionysus, Jim Morrison, was a fan of Nietzsche’s “Birth of Tragedy”. Raw, dynamic, undifferentiated, amorphous, en masse, wild, orgiastic, drunken, horny, unfettered, uninhibited, “earthy”, animal, pre-reflective – such are just a few adjectives we might apply to the Dionysian in art and life. In terms of Freud, we might postulate the Dionysian as partaking of id and libido.
The Dionysian and Apollonian Together At Work In Art
Kay Redfield Jamison is a psychologist and fine writer. Her specialty is bipolar disorder (indeed a sufferer herself), but she combines this clinical study with keen insight into art and literature. In her book “Touched With Fire: Manic-depressive Illness and the Artistic Temperament”, Jamison looks at bipolar disorder and its effects on artists, particularly poets. The main reason why I cite it here is due to the remarkable affinity between mania/hypomania and the Dionysian, on one hand, and depression with the Apollonian, on the other hand.
In mania and hypomania (watered down mania) artists are possessed of enormous energies, mercurial junkets, fits, flashes of brilliance, and all the bells and whistles of emotion from temper to euphoria. The urge to create is great, but the ability to step back, to control the process is reduced, as with drunkenness. A keen feeling of oneness with the world, of warmth, of lasciviousness, impulsivity, brilliance, brimming self-confidence bordering upon megalomania, and rapture may be experienced. This is what one might consider to be the “prewrite” of art, even if it’s not writing. All of it is thrown out there, raw, untamed. This stage of reckless abandon fairly well represents the Dionysian.
In the depressive phase, however, energy is depleted, self-doubting and self-loathing replace self-confidence and arrogance, critique and reflection take precedence over impulsivity, inhibition holds sway over exhibition(ism). But this phase, indicates Jamison, is essential for the work to become art instead of raw energy. It’s the patience that’s needed to be applied to the wild side so stereotyped of artists, that separates the artist from the merely artistic or artsy. This stage of critical judgment fairly well reflects the Apollonian.
The work of art thus has combined the electric energies and dark drives of the Dionysian with the distance and discernment of the Apollonian.
Nietzsche, Friedrich; The Birth of Tragedy Out of the Spirit of Music
Jamison, Kay Redfield (1993): Touched with Fire: Manic-Depressive Illness and the Artistic Temperament, New York, The Free Press.