Apollo / Dionysus

Apollo                                 -                      Dionysus
Culture                                 -                      Nature
Tighten                                 -                      Loosen
Together                               -                      Apart
Modern                                 -                     Postmodern
Construct                             -                      Deconstruct
Vertical                                 -                      Horizontal
Narrow                                 -                      Wide
Centre                                  -                      Periphery
Reason                                 -                      Intuition
Known                                 -                      Unknown
High                                     -                      Low
Inflate                                   -                      Deflate
Spirit                                     -                      Soul
Conscious                            -                      Unconscious
Light                                     -                      Dark 
Heaven                                 -                      Earth

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

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'

Dionysus was called Lysios, the loosener.

[...] Lysis means loosening, setting free, deliverance, dissolution, collapse, breaking bonds and laws, and the final unraveling as of a plot in tragedy.

[James Hillman]
Mythical Figures, p. 29

Different from Immanuel Kant's idea of the Sublime, the Dionysian is all-inclusive rather than alienating to the viewer as a sublimating experience. The sublime needs critical distance, while the Dionysian demands a closeness of experience.

According to Nietzsche, the critical distance, which separates man from his closest emotions, originates in Apollonian ideals, which in turn separate him from his essential connection with self.

The Dionysian embraces the chaotic nature of such experience as all-important; not just on its own, but as it is intimately connected with the Apollonian. The Dionysian magnifies man, but only so far as he realizes that he is one and the same with all ordered human experience. The godlike unity of the Dionysian experience is of utmost importance in viewing the Dionysian as it is related to the Apollonian, because it emphasizes the harmony that can be found within one's chaotic experience.

'Apollonian and Dionysian'

The fragilista [...] defaults to thinking that what he doesn't see is not there, or what he doesn't understand does not exist. At the core, he tends to mistake the unknown for the nonexistent.

So thanks to the fragilista, modern culture has been increasingly building blindness to the mysterious, the impenetrable, what Nietzsche called the Dionysian, in life.

[Nassim Nicholas Taleb]
Antifragile, p. 9-10

[Nietzsche] sees two forces, the Apollonian and the Dionysian. One is measured, balanced, rational, imbued with reason and self-restraint; the other is dark, visceral, wild, untamed, hard to understand, emerging from the inner layers of our selves.

Ancient Greek culture represented a balance of the two, until the influence of Socrates on Euripides gave a larger share to the Apollonian and disrupted the Dionysian, causing this excessive rise of rationalism. It is equivalent to disrupting the natural chemistry of your body by the injection of hormones. The Apollonian without the Dionysian is, as the Chinese would say, yang without yin.

[Nietzsche] called [Dionysus] “creatively destructive” and “destructively creative.” […] Nietzsche understood something that I did not find explicitly stated in his work: that growth in knowledge - or in anything - cannot proceed without the Dionysian. 

It reveals matters that we can select at some point, given that we have optionality.

In other words, it can be the source of stochastic tinkering, and the Apollonian can be part of the rationality in the selection process.

[Nassim Nicholas Taleb]
Antifragile, p. 255-6

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