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Apollonian and Dionysian Theories of Art

The Greek civilization gave us concepts that we still don’t fully understand, like democracy. One such concept came to describe the diametric philosophy underlying in every art form, and by extention life, for vitabrevis arslonga. This is known as the Apollonian and Dionysian dichotomy. This set of contradicting values, like Yin-Yang, Prakriti-Purusha, Marvel-DC, has been debated for ages, where people much more qualified have argued about the merits of each, the demerits of each, and the harmony possible between the two. The short of it is summed up in the Ernest Hemingway quote, “Write drunk; edit sober”.

To start off, the Dionysian side of the equation concerns itself with unbridled emotions and disorderly desires, making a strong impression, even at the cost of fact. Case in point, as strong as the opening paragraph was, the concept did not, in fact, come from the Greek civilization. Rather, it comes from the musings of German poets, conclusively defined by Nietzsche’s aesthetic theories in 1872.

These terms do have a Greek origin, as they are named after the deities Apollo and Dionysus, both offsprings of Zeus. While the ‘adarsh balak’ Apollo came to represent the virtues of knowledge, reason, and rationality, the spoiled brat Dionysus instead represented the virtues of the visceral, the disorderly, the inebriated.

Nietzsche, in his book The Birth Of Tragedy, lays down the premise of these two “Kunsttriebe”, or “artistic impulses”, and already at the inception of the idea asserts that a fine balance between the Apollonian and the Dionysian impulses, rather than one over the other, is essential to compose a tragedy (it should be noted that ‘tragedy’ is being mentioned in the sense of Greek tragic plays).

A tentative imagery to grasp the whole philosophy lecture would be an immaculate house with a well-tended garden. The residents are a septugenarian couple, living a life of comfortable routine, with their rooms accessorized with antique Greek pottery, resting on antique Greek furniture, while they sit on their antique Greek sofas, and admire the well-tended garden through their French windows. The house has a traditionally established, classist order.

Then all of a sudden, their view of the well-tended garden is disrupted by a rowdy bunch of kids, who have invaded their property like the Persians invaded Greece. From the view through the frames, all this couple sees is the kids stomping on their sunflowers, their orchids, narcissus flowers. The male of the couple walks out, taking the support of his support stick, and yelling at these kids, “Get offa my lawn!” But alas, this garden is now the property of debauchery.

Thus the house and the well-tended garden, are not unlike the dysfunctional duo of Apollonian and Dionysian Kunsttriebe-ses.

Whatever art form you consider, from the traditional to the modern to the post-modern, will have some element of virtue from either the Apollonian or the Dionysian camp. Beginning with paintings, the quintessential art form of the classists, the lifelike renderings of Rembrandt, Raphael, Da Vinci would likely be adorning the walls of the Apollonian house, while the Cubism of Picasso, which wants to rearrange the rose from all perspectives; the Impressionism of Van Gogh, where each petal is afforded only a single brush stroke; or, well, Mondrian (Garden? What garden? All I see is red-yellow-blue), are the Dionysian dudes dominating the garden.

In music, an enamel-like wood covered record player will play the tunes of classical composers like Mozart or Chopin or Beethoven, while the kids outside hang around with baggy pants, carrying a rusty boombox which plays the devil’s music such as rock’n’roll and rap. Interestingly, this case can demonstrate how the two sides are never separate from each other, always connected. Regardless of its unfortunate present-day condition, rap music originated as the voice of the oppressed, the music of the impoverished black Americans facing harsh ostracism from their dermatologically-fairer countrymen. Conversely, Mozart was known to compose fart poems and injecting his compositions with toilet humour. So the line of separation between the Apollonian and the Dionysian is less enforced, and more sort-of-kind-of suggested.

But we need not diverge much from literature itself to study this dichotomy. In fact, we’re a literature site, so we aren’t supposed to diverge at all. As mythology and folklore was the prototype to literature, we can trace these two concepts to the first stories of mankind.

A single premise: man loves woman, woman loves man. A sickly calamity disrupts their romance as the woman, always the woman, faces an untimely demise, always by poisoning. The man, not letting small inconveniences like death and taxes get in the way of love, follows his lover into the afterlife, to varying outcomes. This singular premise has its variations in no less than three mythologies – Greek, Shinto, and Hindu.

The Apollonian-Dionysian balance is maintained in all three tales, but all to different degrees. The Dionysian factor is the grandiose quest for love, common in all three, which is meant to draw the audience close enough to the tales to empathize and internalize their messages. The Apollonian factor, on the other hand, is the varying factor between the three tales, as it is the set of ideals presented to the audience, the destination of the journey whose vehicle is the Dionysian counterpart. These ideals are dependent on the kind of societies these tales sprung up from, for vitabrevis arslonga.

In the Greek version, Orpheus fails in his quest to rescue his beloved Eurydice, for he tried to go against the established order of the gods. This reflects the highly orderly and classist way of the Greek life. In the Shinto version, Izanagi is cursed by his former sister-spouse Izanami, when he sees her monstrous form in the underworld. This turn of events is to justify having one half of the couple ruling everything above ground (the heavens and the earth), while the other dominates the underworld, having a non-cordial but essential connection for stability. In the Hindu version, Ruru reaches the end of the afterlife, and strikes up a deal with Yama to lend half his lifespan to his beloved Priyumvada, in exchange of Yama allowing the two to live together in the earthly realm. This is influenced by the long-held Hindu belief that sacred ties such as marriages transcend even death.

As stated by Nietzsche, a Greek tragedy was successful only if it managed to maintain the delicate balance between the Apollonian and the Dionysian ideals. Apart from the discourses of philosopers like Aristotle and Socrates, the dramas were the closest thing to the modern definition of literature. Such was the influence of Greek culture, that the plays written centuries later also strived to maintain this balance.

Beginning with the easiest example, William Shakespeare – what made his work so universal, their appeal so boundless by time, wasn’t his ability to formulate highly original plots. With only one or two exceptions, all his plots were rehashed from existing plays. No, what made these plays Shakespearean plays were his balancing act of the Dionysian spectacles such as supernatural events, murder, intrigue, trickery, and its usage as carriers for his Apollonian discourses on the human condition. For Prince Hamlet, it took a murdered father, an evil uncle who had the hots for his mother, a hesitation in his purpose, and his girlfriend’s knack of never being on time, for him to come up with the fantastic existential manifesto that is ‘To Be Or Not To Be’.

The Shakespeare plays, the comedies, the tragedies, the action romps (Titus Andronicus will make Tarantino squeal) have been adapted countless times by countless people in countless media, some keeping their work faithful to the originals, some giving them a period-relevant makeover. Each time the same Dionysian story elements are being repeated, and each time it is relevant to the time it’s made in. It is almost as if Shakespeare had a grasp on some concept which made his characters mouldable to any situation. It is almost as if such character moulds should have a formalized name.

Yes! They’re called archetypes.

Shakespeare understood the various character archetypes, and knew how to twist and turn these archetypes to convey the Apollonian moral or dilemma which formed the core of the story. The reason these plays are so highly adaptable are because the Apollonian concerns of the prevalent society, such as the pressing concerns of the nation or the author, have the easily manipulated mouthpieces of his Dionysian archetypes. What makes these archetypes stick with us is the fact that they are present in each one of us. All of us must have been the good kid or the bad kid for our parents, depending on the marks of that semester. All of us must have been the fairy godmother to our favourite nephew, or the evil usurping uncle who feels they haven’t got their due from the family. Some archetypes will be dominant for a significant portion of our lives, some will be dormant, but all of them are present in us. That is what primarily appeals to us about stories.

While these plays had a clear threshold between the house and the garden, the advent of press made sure that a much wider audience got access to the written word. This cemented the, so to say, symbiotic relationship between literature and society. People lived their lives and wrote books about it. The next generation read their books and got influenced to live their lives in that manner. Then they wrote books about their lives, which further influenced the coming generation, and the process will probably be repeated till the universe ceases to exist. The soundproof-window between the pensioner man and the rowdy teens has vanished, and now they can hear, if not agree to, what each one has to say.

What this essentially meant was that, as literature became more and more an influencer and a by-product of society, the balance between the Apollonian and the Dionysian impulses was not to be maintained by the book, but between the book and the society.

The fluctuation in the literature between separate eras is a good indicator of the fluctuation in the society of the eras. If the kids in the lawn make too much noise, the old man will ask them to shut up and maintain composure. If the kids remain seated solemnly on the well-tended grass, the old man will urge them to get off their asses and make something of their lives. There is always bound to be a conflict among the two, as long as the equilibrium isn’t maintained. The analogy also points out the Apollonian’s connect with the private, with introspection, self-knowledge, and personal wisdom; as well as the Dionysian’s connect with the public, Carl Jung’s collective unconscious, Joseph Campbell’s archetypes, the common threads of humanity.

Now, some history time. Despite the liberal advances during the Renaissance era, the western world was largely under the stronghold of the church. Perhaps, this was because the Renaisssance frontmen still worked under the blessings of the clergymen. So, during the 18th or 19th century, a new movement came up, evolving from the Renaissance ideals. This movement, termed Age of Enlightenment, primarily stated that reason should be the governing factor of one’s life, and propagated ideals such as liberty, tolerance, and fraternity. A major focus was placed on the separation of the church and the state, as the Enlightenment proponents believed that the government of the people should be a representatice of the common masses.

Huge developments took place in fields such as philosophy, politics, science, and sociology. This was made possible by the efforts of Sir Francis Bacon, John Locke, Isaac Newton, Immanuel Kant, and others who took the ideals of Enlightenment and applied them to their respective fields.

This can, of course, be alternatively termed as Age of Apollonian. It typifies the glorification of knowledge, reason, and all things practical that the Apollonian components of art represent. This age, then, caused an unbalance which required a reactionary movement to counter. Namely, the Romanticism movement.

With the increasing focus on the hard sciences and all things involving intellect, some other intellects felt, ‘Hey! Our people are turning more and more mechanical. Is there any humanity left anymore?’ They felt that qualities like intuition and creativity, and pure emotions which set humans apart from other animals, are being diminished by this cold age of science.

Understandably, while the key figures of Enlightenment were scientists and philosophers, the Romanticists tended to be artists, painters, writers, who were sick of the ruthlessly “progressive” march forward without any regard to the history or culture.

The writers of this era had a Dionysian affinity to nature, culture, and feelings. Key figures include John Keats, Lord Byron, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, William Blake, as well as the husband-wife duo Percy Bysshe and Mary Shelley.

And now, to trace the flow of the Dionysian wine across the transatlantic, as the Romantic movement lost fervour in Europe, majorly in Britain, it caught up with the Americans like STDs. Keep in mind that this was still the pre-WWII America, which looked up to Europe for its culture, and did not yet promote its self-aggrandizing American Dream. The Romantic ideals of intuition and inherent creativity got adopted into the Transcendentalist movement, led by Ralph Waldo Emerson and, the staff favourite, Walt Whitman.

The STD simile was not an insulting jib at any involved parties. Rather, it was meant to invoke the fiery passion which is the precursor for transmitting these Dionysian ideals. Case in point, Walt Whitman’s free verse and imagery perverse infected the curious minds of Allen Ginsberg, William S. Burroughs, the whole of Beat Generaton, inspiring them to mess up the system even worse. Placing two dissonant sentences or fragments side by side, with the reader only afforded a comma or a hyphen to deduce their connection – cutting up texts from existing works and letting fate pick their order – writing without periods – rebels without pause – they did not want to try new patterns on the carpet of literature, but they sought to redesign the fabric itself. This fascination with sticking it up the given order, among leading writers, has just kept growing and developing – through absurdism, dadaism, magical realism, and most recently, post-modernism.

Even though the heart of these Dionysian-inspired writers is in the right place, there is a problem. This quote by David Foster Wallace is plenty sufficient to point out that problem:
‘For me, the last few years of the postmodern era have seemed a bit like the way you feel when you’re in high school and your parents go on a trip, and you throw a party. You get all your friends over and throw this wild disgusting fabulous party. For a while it’s great, free and freeing, parental authority gone and overthrown, a cat’s-away-let’s-play Dionysian revel. But then time passes and the party gets louder and louder, and you run out of drugs, and nobody’s got any money for more drugs, and things get broken and spilled, and there’s cigarette burn on the couch, and you’re the host and it’s your house too, and you gradually start wishing your parents would come back and restore some fucking order in your house. It’s not a perfect analogy, but the sense I get of my generation of writers and intellectuals or whatever is that it’s 3:00 A.M. and the couch has several burn-holes and somebody’s thrown up in the umbrella stand and we’re wishing the revel would end. The postmodern founders’ patricidal work was great, but patricide produces orphans, and no amount of revelry can make up for the fact that writers my age have been literary orphans throughout our formative years. We’re kind of wishing some parents would come back. And of course we’re uneasy about the fact that we wish they’d come back – I mean, what’s wrong with us? Are we total pussies? Is there something about authority and limits we actually need? And then the uneasiest feeling of all, as we start gradually to realize that parents in fact aren’t ever coming back – which means we’re going to have to be the parents.’

My man DFW also uses the metaphor of the generation gap for the increasing chasm between the classicist ideals and the Dionysian revel. The kids in the garden are pissed with life. They fucking hate the fact that they are expected to wear suits and get jobs and afford pretty houses like the one in front of them. The kids see the breathtaking structures as suffocating. They want something else, something that gives them an agency of control. So they grab the established order by the neck, and rearrange all he flowers, the topiary, the trimmed grass, the lawnmower, the mosaic pavement, until it becomes an unrecognized reflection of its older self. They want to play around with it, see how far the structure will bend. They are breaking and breaking the old rules, which is great, awesome, swagalicious, as human societies couldn’t be, and shouldn’t be, stagnant.

The problem is that this blind rage against the system has gotten them so focussed on destroying, that there is no clear idea of what is to come after this? Are you going to replace the green grass with grey grass? Are you going to have a new species altogether? What? How? Why? These questions, the more unanswered they go, the more strongly they form a feedback loop to the initial frustration. The frustration patient zero.

The problem is also that the ideal divide between the Apollonian old couple and the Dionysian kids is very superficial. The sterile couple that seems so complacent in the house were once young too. The propagators of Enlightenment were not garlanded and greeted with open arms when they proposed their intellectual and reasonable society. The majority of church based society felt their ideals an encroachment of their faith, their godlessness, their unholy temptation. This excess of idealization in this age is what urged the people of the Enlightenment to appeal to reason, to bring some Apollonian balance. The sciences, physics, mathematics, geology, politics, were not devoid of human intuition and creativity themselves. It brings an artistic joy unto itself to discover, find a solid proof, or refute an existing theory in the sciences.

Likewise, not all the kids in the garden are looking to turn this world into a meaningless, nihilistic brothel. Some of these do want to lead reasonable lives. Perhaps they just have an intuition, or even a studied observation, that the universal ideas of sensibility left behind by their grandparents are maybe not so universal after all. Perhaps they feel that their Enlightened ancestors were not really enlightened enough!

The house and the garden do not want to be separate. If there was no garden, the husband couldn’t stroll out and sit on a recliner chair when he had an argument with his wife. If there was no house, the husband couldn’t come back in while it rains and reconcile with his wife. Without a garden, a kid couldn’t have a safe outlet to vent out his frustrations at being disappointed in life (and how many of us have never had life disappoint us?), and would internally suffocate forever. But without a house, the kid also wouldn’t know how to make things better.

I lied about Hemingway ever saying, “Write drunk; edit sober”. It is such an apt aphorism for his life, that people tend to assume that he must have said so. However, his approach to writing could be better described by this quote:
‘There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.’

He had such immense respect for his art, that he made it a routine to wake up early in the morning, and devote certain portions of time only to writing. This devotion included sobriety, so he never, ever, ever got inebriated to write, as it would break his concentration. Instead, he got inebriated when he had to beat his wife of family members. There was an Apollonian integrity to his dedication to writing, but that doesn’t diminish any of the other Dionysian qualities, such as the internal turmoil his usually-war-torn characters go through, in his work.

Several deranged works of art evoke the response, “Dude, what stuff did the makers smoke?” However, to perfectly attain this deranged effect, the writers require great diligence and concentration, or alternatively exceptional editors, which are the qualities of a sober, Apollonian mind.

These aesthetic theories are very much a product of the Western world, deduced by Western philosophers, applied to Western literature, and all the examples being provided here being from Western history. But what about closer home? What are the governing theories of art in the eastern world, in India, Pakistan, Bhutan, Japan, China, the multiple Pacific island-countries? To that, I, a denizen of the garden, say, “Idk bro”.

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2 thoughts on “Apollonian and Dionysian Theories of Art

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