Apollo / Dionysus


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Apollo                                 -                      Dionysus
Culture                                 -                      Nature
Centre                                  -                      Periphery
Conscious                            -                      Unconscious
Light                                     -                      Dark 
Heaven                                 -                      Earth


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In The Birth of Tragedy Apollo and Dionysus, whatever character each of them possesses in other contexts and different bodies of lore, are defined as opposing forces.

Dionysus is a god of nature, associated with forces biological and violent, orgiastic mysteries, with everything that refuses to be civilised. Apollo is the god of civilisation: if he were linguistic, he would be the perfectly formed sentence, self-possessed in its transparency.

Dionysus wants not to possess himself but to lose himself in an ecstasy in which he and nature are one and the same: the methods of ecstasy are intoxication, sexuality, the Dionysiac music and dance, the dithyramb in which the barrier between man and nature are overwhelmed.

As he appears in the Bacchae, Dionysus is wild, god of maddened group, people who drive themselves out of civilisation by wine, drugs, dismemberment. Modern versions of the Dionysiac include the forces active in bullfights, cockfights, rock concerts, wrestling, charismatic revival meetings.

In Nietzsche, tragedy is the form in which Dionysus and Apollo are reconciled.

The Dionysiac music, by itself, would be unbearable, because it would defeat culture and shatter the necessary limits implied in character and individuality. The Apolline hero is a hero because he takes upon himself the Dionysiac experience and, not at all transcending it, incorporates it in himself, reconstituting his experience now as form and beauty.

[…] the Greeks allowed for an Apolline incorporation of Dionysus, and did not try to suppress him:

“The delight in drunkenness, delight in cunning, in revenge, in envy, in slander, in obscenity - in everything which was recognised by the Greeks as human and therefore built into the structure of society and custom: the wisdom of their institutions lies in the absence of any gulf between good and evil, black and white.

Nature, as it reveals itself, is not denied but only ordered, limited to specified days and religious cults. That is not the root of all spiritual freedom in the ancient world; the ancients sought a moderate release of natural forces, not their destruction and denial.”

We are not supposed to hanker after an aboriginal state of union with nature, as if culture had never happened. Drink and drugs are deemed to be harmful for many reasons but mainly because they remove the cultural distinction between a man and the nature from which he has been rescued. Apollo must win.

Each society recognises that there are Dionysiac forces at large, and it makes some provision for them. The carnival of Fasting in Germany is a few days of tumult and licence followed by Lenten rectitude. Public entertainments, sports, including blood sports, motor racing, and sporadic limited wars are provided, as far as possible under controlled conditions.

If we continue extending the definition of culture so that it covers virtually the whole of experience, leaving nothing to nature, we will make it impossible for ourselves to understand violence and obscenity except as failures of ‘the system’.

It would be wise to regard culture as a partial and improbable transformation of natural impulse rather than a comfortable norm. That way, manifestations of violence could be considered without the normal accompaniment of shock, horror, and insult.

[Denis Donoghue]
The Arts Without Mystery, p. 83-5


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The Dionysian Mysteries were a ritual of ancient Greece and Rome which used intoxicants and other trance-inducing techniques (like dance and music) to remove inhibitions and social constraints, liberating the individual to return to a natural state.

It also provided some liberation for those marginalized by Greek society: women, slaves, homosexuals and foreigners.

'Dionysian Mysteries'


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