Nietzsche: The Darkness of Life

Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900) was a consummate and prolific philosopher, but not a typical academic. He did not write primarily for professional philosophers, and he neither aimed at nor actually produced a unified and consistent philosophical system. Like Socrates, he was not so much interested in constructing grand theories and offering final answers, as in asking new and provocative questions, questions that inevitably touched on how one should live one’s life.

Nietzsche wrote poetry as well as scholarly works. Occasionally he also composed music for the piano. His favorite formof expression were aphorisms and other short pieces of carefully crafted prose--texts in which he probed the hidden assumptions of culture and thought. His critical analyses dealt with problems of Western civilization long before these problems surfaced in the discourse of the general public—which is one reason why Nietzsche was not widely known until the massive breakdown of European culture at the time of World War I. From then on, however, his work inspired a great number of intellectuals and artists--including some writers who misconstrued his analyses as defenses of fascist ideals. Today Nietzsche is mostly appreciated as a brilliant forerunner of such 20th century movements as Psychoanalysis and Existentialism, and as one of the most intriguing critics of the Enlightenment and the culture of reason.

A suitable way to approach Nietzsche's thinking is to ask how he defined the self. It was the predominant view in Western philosophy and religion that human beings have a twofold nature: that they are physical bodies on the one hand, and non-physical minds on the other. (See the introduction to Fichte in an earlier part of this book.) It is this dualistic view of human nature that Nietzsche rejects, a view that he dismisses as childish. The mature view, according to him, is to recognize that essentially mind and body are one, and that what is called the mind or the soul is but an aspect of the basically physical nature of humans. In the chapter called "On the Despisers of the Body" in Thus Spoke Zarathustra Nietzsche writes :“Body am I, and soul”—thus speaks the child. …But the awakened and  knowing say: body am I entirely, and nothing else; and soul is only a word for something about the body.(1)
Nietzsche had been brought up within a Christian tradition according to which the body was something base, filthy, despicable, or even evil, and in many theological writings the very center of depravity and sin. And a natural extension of this contempt of the body was a widespread hostility toward nature and physical reality, a hostility that Nietzsche denounces as a “betrayal of the earth.” Throughout his adult years Nietzsche was in revolt against this tradition, and the revaluation of the body as something awesome and as a source of great pleasure and achievements can be said to be one of the main themes in Nietzsche's thinking.

To consider the body--rather than some non-physical mind--as the true self of a person is part of a change in perspective that had significant implications. One implication for Nietzsche was a deep appreciation of and respect for the non-rational faculties of human beings, faculties such as instincts, intuitions, and deep-seated drives. While most philosophers warned people of the danger of physical passions, Nietzsche recommended cultivating them as powerful assets. Nietzsche was keenly aware of the unconscious. Spontaneous feelings and emanations from the darker regions of the soul  were as  important to him as the work of the intellect, and fully experiencing something like music was nothing less in his eyes than the discoveries of science or the rational mind. It was in this spirit that in his first major work, The Birth of Tragedy of 1872, Nietzsche developed a theory of art that emphasizes the importance of intoxication and dreams in the production of art, while downgrading the role of sober reason and rational calculation.

Apollo and Dionysus

At first glance The Birth of Tragedy is a scholarly investigation of the origin of classical Greek drama. On closer inspection, however, it becomes clear that the author aims at much more than an historical study of a particular kind of drama. What Nietzsche actually advances is a full-fledged theory of art, a theory that encompasses all types of art from all historical epochs, including modern art and the music of Richard Wagner. Nietzsche’s goal is to define what all great works of art have in common—what makes them works of art. His book thus opens with the generalizing contention: “We shall have gained much for the science of aesthetics once we perceive …that the continuous development of art is bound up with the Apollonian and Dionysian duality.”(2)

The presence and effectiveness of "the Apollinian" and "the Dionysian," in other words, is the necessary condition for the flourishing of all art, and the grasping of these two "drives" is a precondition for understanding the nature of artistic creation. What, then, is the Apollinian and the Dionysian?

The two “drives” are named after the Greek gods Apollo and Dionysus, the sun god and the god of wine respectively. What Nietzsche calls “the Apollinian” is the power of dreams—visionary dreams of light, beauty, and serene peace. Foremost examples of the art inspired by such dreams are the classical sculptures of Olympian gods, the harmonious statues of  Zeus, Apollo, Athena, Poseidon, and so forth. Piet Mondrian’s balanced abstract compositions, however, could be described as Apollinian as well, or Sergei Prokofiev’s little “Classical Symphony.”

What Nietzsche calls “the Dionysian,” by contrast, is the power of intoxicated frenzy—typically encountered in ecstatic performances of music, or in wild and exuberant dancing. The jazz of Dizzy Gillespie is an example,  but also Expressionism in painting, or poems by Walt Whitman and Arthur Rimbaud.

What Nietzsche maintains is that there is no significant art unless artists are inspired by Apollinian dreams or Dionysian frenzies—or both. Without experiencing the overwhelming power of these “drives” an artist will have nothing of importance to convey. By identifying dream and intoxication as the essential sources of artistic inspiration, Nietzsche rejects reason and the conscious mind as primary contributors to artistic creation. Powerful art is never the product of logical reasoning, conscious manipulation, or thought-driven endeavors. The great works of art of all cultures have always been the result of non-rational impulses and unplanned intuitions, not of reason or calculated construction. In artistic productions reason can at most play a secondary role, a role that amounts to the modification and re-arrangement of the primary and primeval material. The greater the non-rational powers of an artist—the artist’s feelings, intuition, or imagination-- the deeper and more substantial the work that results. The more an artist relies on conscious reasoning or clever calculation, the shallower the resulting art work will be.

It may be worth noting that people often characterize the Apollinian as rational or expressive of reason. That is a misunderstanding. The Apollinian as well as the Dionysian are decidedly non-rational powers; they are, as it were, much older than reason. In Sections 13 and 14 of The Birth of Tragedy Nietzsche argues that it was the emerging rationalism of the 5th century BCE (represented foremost by the analytic reasoning of Socrates and his friends) that resulted in the decay and eventual demise of classical Greek drama. While the tragedies of earlier playwrights like Aeschylus and Sophocles were still based on the non-rational powers of intoxication and dream, Euripides, the later writer, began to rely on the clever dialectics of protagonists and antagonists who make their points like forensic debaters--by way of logical arguments. Nietzsche derides such reason-based theatre as intellectually weak and emotionally shallow. The unconscious mind, he was certain, will always yield much deeper truths than the conclusions of rational thought. Human beings, after all, do not really live in their clear-thinking heads: they dwell in the depths of their bodies and their unconscious ideas and passions. To think that human beings are rational beings is a patent illusion, according to Nietzsche.
The Apollinian and the Dionysian do not only inspire different styles or forms of art, they also convey quite different kinds of wisdom and ways of living life. The Apollinian favors hierarchy, order, restraint, and the balance of forces. It aims at an order that keeps everything dark and disturbing at bay--or at least out of sight. It is, as mentioned, presented by the idealized world of the immortal Olympian gods--with their radiant beauty, measured proportions, graceful movements, noble restraint, and a calm that puts them far above the bodily imperfections, grinding worries, and violent entanglements of most ordinary mortals. Although the Olympian gods are by no means perfect, particularly not with respect to their morals, they embody a serenity that the Greeks before Socrates generally considered and praised as divine.

Dionysian wisdom, by contrast, acknowledges and even embraces the wild, the chaotic, and all those aspects of reality that may be unsavory, disturbing, or painful. It opposes the harmony of the Apollinian as unduly restrictive and false. According to the Dionysian world view, life is irremediably antagonistic, chaotic, dangerous, and unsparingly creative-destructive. Pain cannot be separated from pleasure, and life not from death. Existence is essentially struggle, and on balance more reflecting of agony than bliss. In spite of its life-embracing exuberance, the Dionysian view of life and the world is ultimately tragic and dark.

The ambivalence of Dionysian wisdom found expression in the bacchanals, the annual festivities in honor of the god of wine--festivals during which the devotees of the god roamed the countryside or stirred up the cities as bands of wildly drinking and dancing revelers. (The celebration of Mardi Gras is a faint memory and modern continuation of these ancient festivals.) For the duration of these bacchanals established social distinctions were ignored, conventions and customary rules of behavior suspended, and all personal restraints forgotten in an orgiastic expression of untamed desires and raw vitality. Women, ordinarily kept down by strict rules and male supervision, were allowed to take extraordinary liberties. It was, in fact, the maenads, the female devotees of Dionysus, who perpetrated the most notorious excesses that made these tumultuous festivals so noteworthy to their historians. As Nietzsche remarks:
In nearly every case these festivals centered in extravagant sexual licentiousness, whose waves overwhelmed all family life and its venerable traditions; the most savage natural instincts were unleashed, including even that horrible mixture of sensuality and cruelty which has always seemed to me to be the real “witches brew.”(3)
In very ancient times maenads seem to have caught fawns during their sojourns in the woods. They ripped them to pieces and devoured their raw flesh--a practice inspired by the mythical dismemberment of Dionysus by the Titans. Clearly, the intoxicated frenzy that is at the heart of the Dionysian reveals aspects of reality and the human psyche that are alien and deeply opposed to the Apollinian vision of serene Olympian gods. Nietzsche locates the dark Dionysian worldview in the folk wisdom of ancient Greece:
There is an ancient story that King Midas hunted in the forest a long time for the wise Silenus, the companion of Dionysus, without capturing him. When Silenus at last fell into his hands, the king asked what was the best and most desirable of all things for man. Fixed and immovable, the demigod said not a word, till at last, urged by the king, he gave a shrill laugh and broke out into these words:  ‘Oh, wretched ephemeral race, children of chance and misery, why do you compel me to tell you what it would be most expedient for you not to hear? What is best of all is utterly beyond your reach: not to be born, not to be, to be nothing. But the second best thing for you is—to die soon.’(4)
By drawing full attention to this dark side of Hellenic culture, Nietzsche laid the groundwork for his reinterpretation of classical Greek art. Until Nietzsche's Birth of Tragedy it was customary to emphasize the bright side of classical culture. The magnificence of Greek architecture and sculpture was solely associated with harmony, serenity, and pleasing beauty. The art historian Winckelmann had set the tone for this understanding by coining the phrase of "noble simplicity and quiet grandeur" as the summarizing characterization of Greek art and life.
The provocative reinterpretation of Hellenic culture offered by Nietzsche consisted in his contention that the proverbial beauty and serenity of Greek art cannot be properly understood unless one sees it as a reaction to the profound horror of existence of which Silenus speaks, and of which most ancient Greeks seem to have been keenly aware. The serenity and beauty of the Olympian world was not the product of some sort of naïve optimism or natural cheerfulness among Greeks, but, on the contrary, the result of an insight into the irremediably dark and tragic nature of life, an insight that is reflected in all the famous horror tales that the classical tragedies of the 5th century present. Explaining the function of the bright vision of the Olympian gods, Nietzsche observes: “That he [the Greek] might endure this terror at all, he had to interpose between himself and life the radiant dream-birth of the Olympians.”(5)
The serene world of the Olympian gods, in other words, is a sort of lie, a lie that the Greeks produced in order to be able to live. The bright Olympian world is mere appearance, a willingly accepted illusion in the form of art. Reality is an existence dominated by struggle, agony, and death. To not see this dark underside of classical Greek art is to misunderstand its beauty, is to forget why it exists. The seemingly naive serenity of the Olympian world depicted by the classical statues cannot be grasped but as a hard-won victory over an oppressively dark world. “How much must this people [the Greeks] have suffered to have created such beauty!” Nietzsche remarks.(6)

As an awareness of the horrific and dark nature of reality is a necessary condition for the vitality of the bright Olympian vision, it is also the basis for other significant works of art. There is, indeed, no artistic creation of substance without the artist's experience of the pain and dark horror that is at the heart of life. An artist who intended to produce just "beautiful things" or edifying tales would be hopelessly shallow, and writers who try to be successful by avoiding too disquieting subjects are notoriously forgettable. A comedy like  "Twelfth Night" is as good as it is because it deals with deep pain, and a seemingly plain cornfield painted by van Gogh has its haunting power because it depicts an ultimate darkness that we try to forget. An encounter with the irrational underside of existence is at the heart of any significant artistic creation--that is the point of Nietzsche's Birth of Tragedy. And it is also the point that "Barton Fink" as the story of a writer's block drives home. Barton, at the beginning of the movie, is a writer who has run out of things to say; he finds himself cut off from any source of inspiration. The ensuing story tells us how he is drawn into a very dark depth, a depth that transforms him profoundly. It is this depth that in the end makes Barton an artist--the terrifying experience of Dionysus’ world.

(1) The Portable Nietzsche, Selected and translated by Walter Kaufmann, (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1976), pp. 146-7. Walt Whitman, by the way, conveys the same idea when he writes in “I Sing the Body Electric”: “And if the body were not the soul, what is the soul?”
(2) Basic Writings of Nietzsche, Translated and Edited, with Commentaries, by Walter Kaufmann (New York: Modern Library, 1968), Section 1, p. 33.
(3) Section 2, p.39.
(4) Section 3, p. 42.
(5) Same.
(6) Beyond Good and Evil, Part Four, Epigram #156. Translation by Walter Kaufmann. In: Basic Writings of Nietzsche, p. 280.


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