On Apollo And Dionysus
An excerpt from a forthcoming essay entitled, “On Friedrich Nietzsche”
…Enough about its reception—what of the work itself? The central tenant of The Birth of Tragedy is, despite its daunting reputation, quite simple. There are, pervading the soul of the stage, and intermingling with the fibers of the culture at-large, two distinctive forces: the original, and thus more fundamental, Dionysian, and the Apollonian. The two forces, while antipodal, are not irreconcilable. Indeed, it’s by way of their marriage that tragedy is born.
Dionysus, or Bacchus, as he was sometimes known, was one of antiquity’s foremost gods. Indeed, if one was to look around today, and gaze upon all the divers methods of blunting our senses, or clouding our minds, would she not come to the conclusion that his influence persists? Given our glut of beverages, pills, and psychedelic herbs, how could she not? Is ours not an age from which, in all but the most abstinent of enclaves and driest of homes, sobriety has been all but banished? In short, is ours not a culture atop which Bacchus yet enjoys a prominent seat?
A visitant from the Oriental East, an orphan of a Hindu father, Dionysus crossed the fertile Ganges, endured Persia’s arid wastes, tarried in the streets of Turkey, and landed at the center of Hellas’ heart. There, in time, he established himself not as some ugly imposter of Indian birth (at whom xenophobic barbs—the very type with which Grecian quivers overflowed—might be cast) but as one of the most important gods to whom the Greeks—equally pious as they were bibulous—prayed.
Dionysus was the deity responsible for the vine’s gladdening grape, that plump, purple fruit by which happiness is conferred, and inhibitions lowered. Anyone who’s tasted the nectar of his fermented gift, his tannin-tinged juice impregnated with the bitter joys of life, knows well its effervescent wonders. He knows of its burning fire, to which his thirsty throat is perhaps too proudly inured. An organ accommodated to countless other things, it’s well-accustomed to the Bacchic flame. With a cringe, he giggles at its taste, and delights in the feathers with his soul is tickled. He knows, feels, and loves the buzzing giddiness of which this impish potion, this naughty spirit, is always the playful cause.
Effeminate, bestial, rubicund, and round, Dionysus was the god of wine, revelry, ecstasy, and instinct. He was the god of life in the ascendant, passion at the reign, and emotions unencumbered by the heaviness of thought. Rather an active than a contemplative god, he relished daring, risk, adventure, and the heart-racing, hair-raising incertitude of life. He preferred danger to security, vice to virtue, strife to harmony, and lust to love. He was rather near than far-sighted—myopic than prophetic—and could easily blind himself to the pains of tomorrow, if only more fully to indulge in the pleasures of today.
As it pertained to art, he was the god of music, dancing, singing, and—as was vital to the birth of tragedy, and thus, the greatness of Greece—the ever-swelling, ever-lively chorus. That, the chorus, was the essential part around which drama, in its wholeness, was formed.
Enamored of Bacchus though we may well be, we must turn our attention to Apollo. Apollo, more than Dionysus, was the chief god in the pantheon of Grecian myth. He was both the center and the circumference of that nation’s boundless spirit, the golden nucleus around which all other specks of dust deferentially revolved. As Greece reached ever closer toward the heights of its maturity, and as it began to dazzle the ancient world with its edifices, lectures, and art, its Attic culture came to value Apollo above all others, and all else.
It was, of course, to his holy temple at the city of Delphi (the purported center of the world) that every anxious Greek in need of practical wisdom, or in hope of divine favor, travelled. He did so in the desperate search of prophecy and guidance, when no such help was elsewhere to be found. Often, much to their frustration, ambiguity was all that these curious pilgrims were able to receive. Still, despite the impregnable cloudiness of the answers with which they were often sent away, thousands continued to seek the inspired wisdom of the Pythian priestess, that mystic maiden into whom—through furtive cracks of a concrete slab—the divine, Apollonian vapors were so generously breathed.
Masculine, urbane, chiseled, and chaste, Apollo was the god of peace, repose, intelligence, and order. He was the god of archery, health, medicine, disease, and the structured musicality of the seven-stringed lyre. If, in terms of music, Dionysus were Richard Wagner, Apollo was a greater German still—the incomparable J.S. Bach. The former was most beloved of Romanticism’s ardent sons, while the latter was the classicist’s dignified grand-father. In drama, if Dionysus was the messy, frenzied chorus, Apollo was the clean, crisp dialogue—the lapidary eloquence of refined and careful thought.
Apollo, unblemished by vice, knew nothing of the sin of intemperance. This, one must admit, is a quality rarely found among such an impetuous cast of gods, but his passions—unlike those of Zeus, Hades, Poseidon, and Hera—never prevailed over the tight restraints to which he kept himself bound. He was a Stoic before Seneca, and a Peripatetic before Aristotle. He was enlightenment before the word became a movement. He preferred the tranquility of thought to the ardor of action. He might, on occasion, throw the discus with Hyacinthus, or chase through the glen that laurel coquette, Daphne, but, on the whole, he much preferred aesthetes to athletes, and agape to eros…