Friedrich Nietzsche not only loved Greek art and culture per se but he was also, as we discussed the other day, always searching for timeless lessons from the Greeks to help us understand modernity and ourselves.
He found one such lesson in an apparent duality that ran through all of Greek art: the tension between two gods who were also two archetypes and half-brothers: Apollo and Dionysus.
Think of them as a Greek Yin and Yang.
Apollo, the god of the sun and wisdom, as well as poetry and music, would be the equivalent of the Chinese yang (ie, the bright, masculine sun).
Dionysus, the god of wine, intoxication, ecstasy, passion and instinct, would be the equivalent of the Chinese yin (ie, the dark, feminine moon).
Obviously, I am stretching that analogy, so don’t get too wound up about it. If you prefer, you can think of them in our contemporary pop-psychology terms of left brain (Apollo) and right brain (Dionysus).
So why should this duality be so interesting, for the Greeks or for us?
From Homer to John Wayne: The Apollonian
Nietzsche saw in these two archetypes two approaches to art, and indeed life.
Homer, for example, followed his Apollonian instinct in writing the Iliad and Odyssey in the 8th century BCE. How so? Because he glorified the war against Troy and the subsequent nostos (homecoming) of Odysseus. He made these stories beautiful, as Apollo was. He gave the Greeks and us role models.
He made the Greeks proud to be Greeks, proud to descend from whichever hero in the long catalogue of ships they traced their lineage to. He made them aware of their individuality, of the structures of society, of its fundamental order to which, after intervening episodes of wrath (see: Achilles), everything must return.
Julian Young in his biography of Nietzsche compares this to, for example, our Westerns (the ones with John Wayne more than those with Clint Eastwood). There, too, you see people dying, but they die in a stylized, Homeric way: The bullet hits and they tumble from their horses, looking good as they do so. They are our heroes, beyond the sordidness of reality.
Young gives another modern example: women’s magazines. Those are full of celebrities (our goddesses?) with their tales of disease, divorce, death and drugs. The subtext is ugly, and yet it is presented to us as glamour.
Nietzsche calls this being “superficial out of profundity.” Apollonian art does not censor facts (such as death) but perspectives. It involves a certain amount of self-deception, but it is uplifting. It deifies everything human, whether good or bad. And so it is, yes, religion.
From Sophocles to the rock concert: The Dionysian
By contrast, Aeschylus and Sophocles (but not Euripides, see below) followed their Dionysian instincts in the tragedies they created the fifth century BCE. This might have been expected: Those tragedies were, after all, performed once a year at the festival of Dionysus.
Dionysian art is about the abandonment of order, or ecstasy (ex-stasis = standing out of everyday consciousness). It transcends words or concepts. This is why it tends to involve visuals and music.
Music was in fact an important part of Sophocles’ and Aeschylus’ tragedies (we just don’t know how it sounded, what a pity!). Apparently, the audience sang along with the chorus and became one with it.
The individuals there would have become hypnotized by the sound (rather as yogis feel a certain ‘vibe’ when chanting Om with others). In fact, they would have, as one says, lost themselves in the crowd. They would have stopped feeling separate and individual, Athenian or Greek. They would have had (Freud’s) oceanic feeling.
Credit: Nambassa Trust and Peter Terry
Young compares this to our rock concerts or raves, to our football and soccer stadiums. Dionysian art is a trance and a trip, usually good, sometimes bad.
It is, in contrast to some Apollonian art, apolitical and devoid of any message. The Athenians participating in Sophocles’ tragedies stopped caring about worldly affairs. They became almost apathetic.
This was the only way they could bear to see their heroes — those same Apollonian heroes — torn down and devastated, knowing that they themselves might meet the same fate, understanding that reality was sordid, that it was primal and dark, and that it demanded to be accepted in that way. And they found a beauty in that feeling, too. So it, too, was a form of religion.
From Socrates to Princess Diana: What Nietzsche decried
Nietzsche loved both the Apollonian and the Dionysian, understanding that, like yin and yang, neither can ever be denied.
What he did not like, however, might surprise you: Socrates.
Why? Because Socrates represented, to Nietzsche, the religion of reason — not Apollonian wisdom but cold, methodical logic. In that sense, Nietzsche believed that Socrates “killed” Attic tragedy and Homeric poetry, and the playwright who represented that trend (to Nietzsche) was Euripides, the youngest of the three great tragedians.
Our own age, Nietzsche might say, is “Socratic” in the sense of scientific and myth-less, neither Apollonian nor Dionysian. Because we can’t act out these two instincts, we instead cobble together what Young calls “myth fragments”. We don’t release urges, as the Greeks did, but instead look for thrills, for sex and drugs and trips. We sky- and scuba-dive, we get a new app.
We worship neither Dionysus or Apollo but idols like Princess Diana. How appropriate, since Diana was the Roman Artemis, sister of Apollo.
Equus: Shaffer, Nietzsche, and the Neuroses of Health DOYLE W. WALLS Are there perhaps - a question for psychiatrists - neuroses of health? ofthe youth and youthfulness of a people? Friedrich Nietzsche, "Attempt at a Self-Criticism," his preface to the 1886 edition of The Birth ofTragedi Nietzsche wrote The Birth ofTragedy not only to discuss the origin of tragic drama in Greece, but also to elucidate a fonn of madness, the madness of limited vision in the Gennan culture of his day: Our whole modem world is entangled in the net ofAlexandrian culture. It proposes as its ideal the theoretical man equipped with the greatest forces ofknowledge, and laboring in the service of science, whose archetype and progenitor is Socrates. All our educational methods originally have this ideal in view: every other form of existence must struggle on laboriously beside it, as something tolerated, but not intended. (p. 110) Peter Shaffer, like Nietzsche, is a student of psychology as well as culture, and he is very much interested in the idea of madness, certainly not in praising it as one critic has suggested2 ..,.. but rather in illustrating dramatically a particular strain of madness: the madness personified in Equus by the psychiatrist Martin Dysart. Everyone familiar with Equus understands that Alan Strang is mad. The challenge ofthe play - to those among us who are "nonnal" and "sane" - is to see what may be our own madness, a modem malady which has become so commonplace that we may fail to recognize it. Speaking of Equus, Shaffer made the following comments: There is in me a continuous tension between what I suppose I could loosely call the Apollonian and the Dionysiac sides of interpretinglife, between, say, Dysart and Alan Strang. Equus: Shaffer, Nietzsche, Neuroses of Health It immediately begins to sound high falutin' , when one talks about it oneself - I don't really see it in those dry intellectual terms. I just feel in myself that there is a constant debate going on between the violence of instinct on the one hand and the desire in my mind for order and restraint. Between the secular side of me the fact that I have never actually been able to buy anything of official religion - and the inescapable fact that to me a life without a sense of the divine is perfectly meaningless.3 The reading offered in this essay will run the risk of sounding "high falutin'" when it proceeds from a strict, rather than loose, definition of "those dry intellectual terms" Apollinian and Dionysian as they are used by Nietzsche in The Birth o/Tragedy.4 And because the terms will be used in the Nietzschean sense, this reading will take the liberty of departing from the idea that Dysart schematically represents the Apollinian and Alan the Dionysian. Although Shaffer uses the terms "Apollonian" and "Dionysiac," he admits to using them "loosely." Consequently, Shaffer's remarks are too tenuous to prove a direct influence of Nietzsche's The Birth 0/ Tragedy on Equus. However, the affinities between these two works do exist, and The Birth o/Tragedy can be used to provide a framework for an approach to Equus which will illustrate a concern common to both men: health. The structural tension within Equus is not the tension between Apollinian and Dionysian forces as some critics have proposed, at least not as those terms are used by Nietzsche. In fact, such an understanding ofthe nature oftragedy as Nietzsche defined it, according to Michael Hinden, is faulty: "It is a common misunderstanding that Nietzsche's concept of tragic tension depends upon a conflict between Dionysus and Apollo, but his basic tenet is that in tragedy a Dionysian conflict (that is to say, a conflict peculiar to the Dionysian state) is rendered visible by Apollinian form."5 In The Birth of Tragedy, Nietzsche provides a critique of what he believed to be the unhealthy German culture of his day; he writes of a "new opposition": the Dionysian vs. the Socratic, theoretical man. By comparing the case of Alan Strang (the Dionysian man) with the extreme case o/MartinDysart (the Socratic, theoretical man), one can illuminate the two characters around whom Shaffer's play is structured. Alan...