Nietzsche: Apollo & Dionysus
The Birth of Tragedy Nietzsche argues that the ancient Greek deities Apollo and Dionysus are complements of each other in the conception of tragic art as well as the human experience. To the classical Greeks Apollo had numerous connotations – he was the sun god, or the god of light, as well as the god of all image-making energies and of prophecy. He was also associated with mental and moral illumination, or the functions that distinguish and clarify. Apollo sponsors similar artistic fields such as epic poetry and statuaries. Dionysus was the god of wine and vegetation and he taught humans how to cultivate grapevines and produce wine. As a result he is also connected with vitality and cycles and sponsors music and lyric poetry. In Friedrich Nietzsche’s The Birth of Tragedy the terms Apollinian and Dionysian are used to designate the two central principles in Greek culture whose figurative marriage resulted in the metaphorical birth of tragedy. The presence of these deities were called into being as a result of the early Greek’s becoming cognizant of the suffering that characterizes human life.
In early Greece they “knew and felt the terrors and horrors of existence; in order to live at all they had to place in front of these things the resplendent, dream-born figures of the Olympians”(Nietzsche 23). Because their function is, of course,
Apollinian, they did not fully satisfy the individual. The Greeks still knew their destiny was controlled by preternatural forces and mere appearances will not diminish the soul’s suffering. The Dionysian complement offers real solace in the loss of the self via the creating of a group identity and will “cause subjectivity to vanish to the point of complete self-forgetting” (Nietzsche 17). This Dionysian complement was the spirit of music.
Music is the universal form of art for Nietzsche, “above all else we regard folk music as a musical mirror of the world” (Nietzsche 33). Music, originally known to the Greeks through an Apollinian sense, eventually developed another, a Dionysian, counterpart. “The very element which defines the character of Dionysiac music (and thus of music generally): the power of its sound to shake us to our very foundations, the unified stream of melody… the destruction of maya” (Nietzsche 21). In the following passage, Nietzsche relates the origin of tragedy: “It is admittedly an ‘ideal’ ground on which, as Schiller rightly saw… something which surprises us just as much as the fact that tragedy originated in the chorus” (Nietzsche 39). The original theater introduced the chorus in order to set itself off from a naturalistic idea of art; and the first choruses were sung by satyrs. Through the blend of poetry and dramatic scenes with the chorus, the audience, and music, the tragedy composes the image-making and mastering of form of Apollo, who tries to make meaning out of experience, with the instinctual, savage, and sensual nature of Dionysus, who tends to collapse systems through intoxication. Dionysus
also serves to remind us, through his nature, that there is a very real aspect to ourselves and to reality which transcends the ordered conception of the Apolline.
Nietzsche’s account of the tragedy is rooted in his conception of the artistic tension between the Dionysian and the Apollinian components of human experience. “We shall have gained much for the science of aesthetics when we have come to realize… the continuous evolution of art is bound up with the duality of the Apolline and the Dionysiac” (Nietzsche 14). The Apollinian principles of order, individuation, and control counter, and are countered by, the Dionysian features of intoxication, agency, and chaos. Both of these deities are integral and within this dialectic there oscillates moments between love and hate until the union was completed in the birth of tragedy.
The effect that tragedy has on an audience is a “metaphysical solace which, I wish to suggest, we derive from every true tragedy”, the reaffirmation that “life is indestructibly mighty and pleasurable, this solace appears with palpable clarity in the chorus of satyrs” (Nietzsche 39). Nietzsche’s position for the explanation of this metaphysical solace is based on a natural tendency that humans have for mimesis. Through the safety of the theater our mimetic natures are allowed to be engaged with the story and action in such a way that “For brief moments we are truly the primordial being itself and we feel its unbound greed and lust for being” (Nietzsche 81). The true tragedy allows the viewer to peek into this primordial being and feel a kind of joy in engaging ourselves with the suffering of the
characters. The anguish of the characters mirrors the agony in ourselves and the world. It is indicative of the destruction that eventually all things except the primordial unity will become. The Dionysian dimension allows the spectator to decenter the suffering that is his being. He is able to identify it with the people who are suffering with him, his race, and it urges him to grow beyond this suffering.
Thus, one can see why it is inappropriate to associate, especially within a reading of The Birth of Tragedy, Apollo with reason and Dionysus with simple excess. The popular identification of the two is misleading reduction. To Nietzsche, the Apollinian factor is more like a dream illusion that corresponds to Schopenhauer’s principium individuationis (divorcing one’s self from the group and focusing on self-identity) as well as the dynamics of culture. Dionysus could be fairly categorized with intoxication but more generally a link to primal, uncontrolled base emotions. He is the essence of nature and serves as a conduit for thiasos, or the communion of an individual within a group.
The presence of Apollo and Dionysus can be seen in both music and poetry in a number of ways. Not to confuse their figurative marriage with another familial metaphor, but they are brothers as well since they both share in the constitution of poetry and music. The epic poem is an Apollinian device; it owes its structure and form imposing distinctions to its roots in Apollinian clarity. Using a controlled system of meaning to convey a story, the medium uses the beauty of an illusion to
relate a story that appeals to the rational side of our mind. The lyrical poem is Dionysian in its revels that grew out of the excitement of music. Music was initially Apollonian with “Doric architectonics in sound” (Nietzsche 21) and was quite simple and relaxed. Out of this orderly, composed fashion the Dionysian music grew, with its more complex harmonies and melodies capable of inspiring the creative production of lyrics. The ultimate match of the two is seen in the highest competency of art: tragedy. In tragedy the Dionysian and Apollonian factors serve to define and to perpetuate the other. The Dionysiac chorus and audience are informed by Apollinian representations of actors in dramatic scenes (of controlled expressions). The connection of the tragedy is made through the Dionysiac with the frame of Apollinian control. The primordial unity that is sought with the group occurs only because it is artistically expressed by the dramatic dream illusion.
Nietzsche – The Birth of Tragedy out of the Spirit of Music