1 – Apollo and Dionysius

To study Nietzsche’s philosophy we must begin with The Birth of Tragedy, his first real challenge to traditional aesthetics. Every study of Nietzsche’s full philosophy needs to begin and return here (as Nietzsche did in his 1886 preface) but seldom has the significance that his first work of philosophy concerned poetry been fully explored. The Birth concerns poetry, and here Nietzsche first discovered as a young philologist at Basel the Dionysiac influence on Greek tragedy. His study of Greek drama revealed that poeisis, the making of the world disclosed two opposing art impulses — the Apollinian/Dionysiac duality — and that their conflict was reconciled for the Greeks through the art of tragedy.
But consider how Nietzsche opens The Birth of Tragedy:

We shall have gained much for the science of aesthetics, once we perceive not merely by logical inference, but with the immediate certainty of vision that the continuous development of art is bound up with the Apollinian and Dionysian duality …. The terms Dionysian and Apollinian we borrow from the Greeks, who disclose to the discerning mind the profound mysteries of their view of art, not to be sure in concepts but in the intensely clear figure of their gods. 1

Nietzsche’s Heraclitean insistence on the strife or Eris of the will, and on his recognition of the Greek’s extreme sensitivity to suffering, was in sharp contrast to Winckelmann’s and Goethe’s Weimar image of the Greeks living in harmony, balance and measure. 2 What draws us critically, here, however, is the basis or proof upon which Nietzsche plants this Greek need for tragedy. He will advance not by logic but by a “certainty of vision” (“Sicherheit der Anschaunng”) not by a merely inspired or close reading, nor by a conceptual or philologic analysis, “but in the intensely clear figure of their gods.” 3
The science of aesthetics will be founded by a Sicherheit der Anschauung: an immediate poetic vision. Nietzsche fully understands poetic vision is willed illusion. We must first see then the figures of Apollo and Dionysius in our imagination to understand the conceptual truth behind his argument and his aesthetic theory. The talent to envision two opposing myths representing two impulses, requires a metaphor to stand in place of a concept and this is essential not only to interpreting the conflict in which the victory, the dramatic-ritual reconciliation, creates a new kind of civilization but in understanding aesthetics. The poetic vision constitutes a proof of the experience of a metaphor, and of its invention. And so one must first “see” or envision Apollo, the patron-inspirer of dreams, and the epic, to understand:

The beautiful illusion of the dream worlds, in the creation of which every man is truly an artist, is the prerequisite of all plastic art, and, as we shall see, of an important part of poetry also. In our dreams we delight in the immediate understanding of figures: all forms speak to us; there is nothing unimportant or superfluous. But even when this dream reality is most intense, we still have, glimmering through it the sensation that it is mere appearance: at least this is my experience, and for its frequency — indeed, normality — I could adduce many proofs (my italics), including the sayings of the poets. 4

Through this imaginary world, a narrative of dreams which offers a relief from the irrational will we entertain an experience of intense pleasure in image-contemplation. These appearances are beauty, satisfying an acute need for order, perfection, for pleasure, but they carry with their gleaming delight the hint of their illusion, as we obliquely know they are not real even when enjoying them. The “sayings” of the poets are not a proof by authority, but the texts already constitute a “proof” of embodied imagery, of poetry. The dream appearances almost justify and make intelligible the absurdities of our ordinary lives, striving to further an existence which must end in death, while our imaginations spread a “film” to assuage our relentless, perhaps cruel pursuit of ever more life even as we die. All this is evident only in poetry — in drawing from a symbolic text an embodied visual and acoustic image. Nietzsche further explains that for the dreamer:

It is not only the agreeable and friendly images that he experiences as something universally intelligible: the serious, the troubled, the sad, the gloomy, the sudden restraints, the tricks of accident, anxious expectations, in short, the whole divine comedy of life, including the inferno, also pass before him, not like mere shadows on a wall — for he lives and suffers with these scenes — and yet not without that fleeting sensation of illusion. And perhaps many will, like myself, recall how amid the dangers and terrors of dreams they have occasionally said to themselves in self-encouragement, and not without success: “It is a dream! I will dream on!” 5

We are all Apollinian artists since we share this need to create appearances, but the poet is able to express dreams through music-infused language. The Apollinian poet works these dream-appearances into rhythmic signs, into a vision. Dreams thus become spoken or sung through audible sounds which charm us by mnemonic devices of rhythm and rhyme into a “world”, into a self-connected series of images, “a film of appearances”, which assuage our minds with a more organized, a more narrative pattern than the world they re-present.
Invariably, the illusion evaporates. The intelligibility of the principium individuationis which corrects and organizes the need for order suffers an exception, and our perfect dream idyll is shattered.
Nietzsche now refers to:

… Schopenhauer [who] has depicted for us the tremendous terror which seizes man when he is suddenly dumbfounded by the cognitive form of phenomenon because the principle of sufficient reason, in some one of its manifestations, seems to suffer an exception. If we add to this terror the blissful ecstasy that wells from the innermost depths of man, indeed of nature, at this collapse of the principium individuationis, we steal a glimpse into the nature of the Dionysian which is brought home to us most intimately by the analogy of intoxication. 6

Through the mediation of wine and eroticism inspired by spring-time, nature reasserts itself without reference to our individuality and without (Kant’s) “sufficient reason”. Dionysius, god of wine and frenzy, celebrates spring’s freedom with feasts of wild sensuality, which Nietzsche confesses is a “horrible ‘witch’s brew’ of sensuality and cruelty.” 7 Insofar as these rites reveal the secret at the heart of all unconscious existence (our death and personal will) they disclose the mortality reflected in the myth of the wise Silenus — that it is far better for man never to be born 8. The rites of Dionysius affirm the fertility, the power of nature and so of life, with all of its absurdity, and loss. The poetic core of this concept can be found in these two passages:

Under the charm of the Dionysian not only is the union between man and man reaffirmed, but nature which has become alienated, hostile, or subjugated, celebrates once more her reconciliation with her lost son, man. The chariot of Dionysius is covered with flowers and garlands; panthers and tigers walk under its yoke. Transform Beethoven’s “Hymn to Joy” into a painting; let your imaginations conceive the multitudes bowing to the dust, awestruck — then you will approach the Dionysian. 9

In song and dance man expresses himself as a member of a higher community; he has forgotten how to walk and speak and is on the way toward flying into the air, dancing. His very gestures express enchantment. Just as the animals now talk, and the earth yields milk and honey, supernatural sounds emanate from him too; he feels himself a god, he himself now walks about enchanted, in ecstasy, like the gods he saw walking in his dreams. He is no longer an artist, he has become a work of art. 10

For both the creative dreamer and the intoxicated Dionysian, the symbolism of appearance is overcome by a direct participation in the will. Dionysiac song lures us into a total engagement of the body as a global expression. In this way, self-conscious circumspection, the deliberative weighing and sifting of the principium individuationis is wrested from its watch and the self is appropriated into the greater body of nature. The fertility which expresses itself seasonally in the cyclic mating of animals, in the pollination of plants, reveals itself as the cycle of life. The primordial spring of life disclosed after this Apollinian “veil of Maya” is torn apart reveals a single unflagging becoming, which intoxicates us with both terror and joy.
The music and dance of this celebrative rite is essential to the expression of Dionysiac nature and is not art admixed with romance and does not concern itself with the careful weaving of “appearances of appearances” but expresses directly an irrational-primordial identification with nature. We constantly spin Apollinian illusions, or dream, in order to refresh our minds from the relentless striving of the will and from the nauseating impact of its discovery. The narrative-thematic unfolding of images allows us to contemplate the perfections of our imagination but our illusions also distance us from a more fundamental happiness. Fulfillment comes only with acceptance and the affirmation of existence, the disclosure of an amoral will which endures even as we, individuals, do not. So, even in an accidental, brutal universe, we can recognize with awe, the making of the world:

… in these paroxysms of intoxication the artistic power of all nature reveals itself to the highest gratification of the primordial unity. The noblest clay, the most costly marble, man, is here kneaded and cut, and to the sound of the chisel strokes of the Dionysian world-artist rings out the cry of Eleusinian mysteries: “Do you prostrate yourselves, millions? Do you sense your Maker, world? 11

The elemental creativity of the Dionysiac lyric is a direct response to the inchoate fertility of nature. The tones are neither detached nor transparent, nor composed to heal, nor are they as much reproductions or representations of appearances as a direct expression of bodily participation, immersion, in nature, in the experience of creation and mortality.
Unlike the orgies of other early civilizations, the Dionysiac festivities became an artistic phenomena which lured the chthonic awe and terror spurned by Apollinian culture. But this world, the Homeric-Hellenic Olympus, whose musical forays had been (as Nietzsche speculates) suggestive “architechtonics in tones” 12 accompanied by cithara and a “wave-beat” or hypnotic rhythm, could not embody these powerful impulses. The darkly sexual or drunken ecstasies were only covertly hinted at, or enigmatically symbolized, in the architectural shadow of the austere Doric “light” overtly rejecting them.
Dionysiac poetry musically expresses punctuated dance steps which dynamically coalesce the sensuality of a people into a higher community. It chants fertility, seasons, the harvesting of crops and succession of generations. And yet, between the two worlds of Apollinian and Dionysian making, between the individuation through appearance and the loss of self through the grounding in the reality of the will, between the epic of dreams and the lyric of intoxication, we experience a mutual seduction. The very immersion in the one suggests a craving for the other. Nietzsche writes of the Dionysiac poet:

… we may perhaps picture himself sinking down in his Dionysian intoxication and mystical self-abnegation alone and apart from the singing revelers, and we may imagine how through Apollinian dream-inspiration his own state i.e. his oneness with the inmost ground of the world, is revealed to him in a symbolic dream image. 13

The duality, as it turns out, is not irreconcilable. The Greeks proved that by their vision of tragedy, presented on the stage, and on the precious few pages left us, we are drawn to a world in which Apollo and Dionysius complement one another as the two sexes do as we are creative through our mutual desiring, our difference and our submersion in opposition. Symbolically, all of existence is drawn into play. Our suffering revealed by Dionysian brutality and the irrationality of the will with its ecstasy and intoxicating sense of fertility are attracted to the impulse to “redeem” existence by creating beautiful illusion. The health of Greek culture was not a product of harmony (as Winckelmann and Goethe suggested) 14 but of Heraclitean strife — a unifying coupling. From the suffering engendered by Dionysiac insight two art impulses emerge as a living presence in the Greek imagination reconciled through a poetic act of reconciliation, through the birth of tragedy. Just as it is impossible for us to know that reconciliation without also seeing tragedy, a “proof” is constituted for Nietzsche only through metaphor in tragic poetry, that is through its immediate, visionary experience.