No Comment, Quotation — July 25, 2009, 6:50 am

Nietzsche – The Dionysian Impulse

caravaggio-bacchus-1596

Entweder durch den Einfluß des narkotischen Getränkes, von dem alle ursprünglichen Menschen und Völker in Hymnen sprechen, oder bei dem gewaltigen, die ganze Natur lustvoll durchdringenden Nahen des Frühlings erwachen jene dionysischen Regungen, in deren Steigerung das Subjective zu völliger Selbstvergessenheit hinschwindet. Auch im deutschen Mittelalter wälzten sich unter der gleichen dionysischen Gewalt immer wachsende Schaaren, singend und tanzend, von Ort zu Ort…. Es giebt Menschen, die, aus Mangel an Erfahrung oder aus Stumpfsinn, sich von solchen Erscheinungen wie von „Volkskrankheiten“, spöttisch oder bedauernd im Gefühl der eigenen Gesundheit abwenden: die Armen ahnen freilich nicht, wie leichenfarbig und gespenstisch eben diese ihre „Gesundheit“ sich ausnimmt, wenn an ihnen das glühende Leben dionysischer Schwärmer vorüberbraust.

Either through the influence of the narcotic drink, of which the hymns of all aboriginal humans and peoples speak, or with the envigorating springtime’s awakening that fills all nature with passion, these Dionysian impulses find their source, and as they grow in intensity everything subjective vanishes into complete loss of self-recognition. Even in the German Middle Ages singing and dancing crowds, ever increasing in number, moved from place to place under this same Dionysian impulse…. There are people who, from the lack of experience or thick-headedness, turn away from such manifestations as from “folk-diseases,” mocking or with pity derived from their own sense of a superior health. But of course these poor people have no idea how corpse-like and ghostly their so-called “health” looks when the glowing life of the Dionysian swarm buzzes past them.

Friedrich Nietzsche, Die Geburt der Tragödie aus dem Geiste der Musik (1872) in Werke in drei Bänden, vol. 1, p. 24 (K. Schlechta ed. 1973)(S.H. transl.)


In classical antiquity, thinkers were quick to associate specific kinds of music with certain categories of human behavior. There was the music of a certain type of clay flute, which was associated with schizophrenia or insanity. There was the music of the lyre and other forms of string instruments, associated with mathematics and the intellectual process. There was the music of wind instruments and drums, associated with overpowering emotion and lust. Humankind, the earth and the other celestial bodies were propelled by music, they felt. So understanding the cosmos without and within the human being depended on an appreciation of music. Unfortunately, though these ideas are often and emphatically expressed, we have only a very vague idea of the actual music that the ancients had in mind–that because there was no reliable notation system for music at the time. Later scholars tended to dismiss all these writings about the power of music as some quaint eccentricity.

Then came Friedrich Nietzsche. Today he’s known for Zarathustra and Beyond Good and Evil more than his other writings. But his very first book–composed by a 27-year-old university professor, which differs sharply in style from the later writings–actually presents some of Nietzsche’s most radical and novel thinking. And it gives a central role to music. He calls it The Birth of Tragedy from the Spirit of Music and that precisely describes his thesis. He puts forward the idea that the heyday of classic Athenian drama, the age of Aeschylus and Sophocles, was a logical development from Greek traditions of music, song and dance. He breaks this tradition into two tendencies, the Apollonian and the Dionysian. The Apollonian follows Schopenhauer’s principle of individuation, it stresses the gentle reign of reason and intellect, pushing life to a somewhat unnatural ordering. The Dionysian is its exact opposite–it is governed by emotions and particularly passions, sometimes whipped to a self-destructive frenzy of excess. The Dionysian suppresses his intellect to live as one with nature, and wine plays an essential role in his cult. In the quoted passage, Nietzsche looks at the exuberance of the Dionysian spirit and he traces it through history. It is, he says a sort of springtime’s awakening (incidentally, this is the line from which the German-American playwright Frank Wedekind takes the title of his important play–in which youthful sexuality faces the suppression of a rigidly Apollonian school system). The age of Aeschylus marks an important synthesis between these Apollonian and Dionysian tendencies–a synthesis that dissolved with the rise of Euripides and Socrates, with their elevation of the Apollonian over the Dionysian. But Nietzsche understands the totality of European intellectual and artistic tradition as the product of interaction between the Apollonian and Dionysian tendencies–the greater the friction between them, the greater the art which results.

Nietzsche’s writing was completely out of tune with the classical philology of his era, and to his contemporaries the work was viewed as heretical, and even a bit daft. Today, of course, Nietzsche’s distillation of the Apollonian and Dionysian tendencies is viewed as a brilliant insight into the classical text, and it has exercised enormous influence on subsequent European intellectual history. The musical aspect of Nietzsche’s work–the notion that specific forms of music can be associated with the Apollonian and the Dionysian tendencies in human nature, and that a musical reconciliation of these tendencies is needed–is somewhat overlooked. Nietzsche looks to the music of his own age for examples, and he presents a case for Richard Wagner generally and his opera Tristan und Isolde in particular. The opera is based on Gottfried von Strassburg’s medieval romance of a forbidden and ill-fated romance, but Nietzsche sees in it–and especially in the ecstatic Liebestod scene–a full expression of the Dionysian spirit of unbridled passion. He wrote, “I simply cannot bring myself to remain critically aloof from this music; every nerve in me is atwitch, and it has been a long time since I had such a lasting sense of ecstasy as with this overture.” (Nietzsche and Wagner would later part ways, over the Christianity that triumphs in Wagner’s Parzifal, but his view of Tristan never changed.)

Listen to Wagner’s orchestral version of the Prelude and Liebestod from his opera Tristan und Isolde as performed by the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra under the direction of Mariss Jansons in the Grand Philharmonic Hall of St Petersburg on April 26, 2009:


Caravaggio’s painting of Bacchus was derided by some critics as not a Greek god, but a young male prostitute who was entertained by Caravaggio in the home of his patron Cardinal del Monte in Rome. He is identified as Bacchus (which is Dionysus in Latin) by the band of grapes in his hair, and by the outstretched glass of wine, which he has obviously already tasted. But in Nietzsche’s view there is no real distinction between the young prostitute and Dionysus–they speak for the same force.

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