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.

Share
Single Page

More from Scott Horton:

Context, No Comment August 28, 2015, 12:16 pm

Beltway Secrecy

In five easy lessons

From the April 2015 issue

Company Men

Torture, treachery, and the CIA

Six Questions October 18, 2014, 8:00 pm

The APA Grapples with Its Torture Demons: Six Questions for Nathaniel Raymond

Nathaniel Raymond on CIA interrogation techniques.

Get access to 165 years of
Harper’s for only $45.99

United States Canada

CATEGORIES

THE CURRENT ISSUE

September 2015

Weed Whackers

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Tremendous Machine

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

A Goose in a Dress

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Genealogy of Orals

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content

FEATURED ON HARPERS.ORG

Article
Romancing Kano·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

I recently spent a semester teaching writing at an elite liberal-arts college. At strategic points around the campus, in shades of yellow and green, banners displayed the following pair of texts. The first was attributed to the college’s founder, which dates it to the 1920s. The second was extracted from the latest version of the institution’s mission statement:

The paramount obligation of a college is to develop in its students the ability to think clearly and independently, and the ability to live confidently, courageously, and hopefully.

leadership
service
integrity
creativity

Let us take a moment to compare these texts. The first thing to observe about the older one is that it is a sentence. It expresses an idea by placing concepts in relation to one another within the kind of structure that we call a syntax. It is, moreover, highly wrought: a parallel structure underscored by repetition, five adverbs balanced two against three.

Article
The Prisoner of Sex·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“It is disappointing that parts of Purity read as though Franzen urgently wanted to telegraph a message to anyone who would defend his fiction from charges of chauvinism: ‘No, you’ve got me wrong. I really am sexist.’”
Illustration by Shonagh Rae
Article
Gangs of Karachi·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“In Karachi, sometimes only the thinnest of polite fictions separates the politicians from the men who kill and extort on their behalf.”
Photograph © Asim Rafiqui/NOOR Images
Article
Weed Whackers·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“Defining 'native' and 'invasive' in an ever-shifting natural world poses some problems. The camel, after all, is native to North America, though it went extinct here 8,000 years ago, while the sacrosanct redwood tree is invasive, having snuck in at some point in the past 65 million years.”
Photograph by Chad Ress
Article
The Neoliberal Arts·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“College is seldom about thinking or learning anymore. Everyone is running around trying to figure out what it is about. So far, they have come up with buzzwords, mainly those three.”
Artwork by Julie Cockburn

Percentage of Britons who cannot name the city that provides the setting for the musical Chicago:

65

An Australian entrepreneur was selling oysters raised in tanks laced with Viagra.

A naked man believed to be under the influence of LSD rammed his pickup truck into two police cars.

Subscribe to the Weekly Review newsletter. Don’t worry, we won’t sell your email address!

HARPER’S FINEST

Subways Are for Sleeping

By

“Shelby is waiting for something. He himself does not know what it is. When it comes he will either go back into the world from which he came, or sink out of sight in the morass of alcoholism or despair that has engulfed other vagrants.”

Subscribe Today