The Birth of Tragedy begins with the famous distinction between the Apollonian and the Dionysian, an idea that has intrigued me since I first heard about it in high school. But what does it really mean, and what are its practical implications for artists? I will assume here that readers of this post have at least read the first two or three chapters of Nietzsche's book at least once in their lifetimes. So this will not be a standard commentary. I want to just focus on the image Nietzsche gives of the transition to great art, which he sees as synthesizing these two tendencies. So, as you will remember, the Apollonian is associated with dreams, calmness, light, the sun, healing, and the invention of the Olympian gods by the Greeks in order to deal with the wisdom of Silenus, i.e. that life is suffering, and then you die. Remember also, that Nietzsche does not intend to privilege either the Apollonian or the Dionysian, although one could also argue that the former is derived from an earlier view of Greek art represented by Hegel in his idea of the Classical. The difference however is that for Hegel the Classical art of Greece fully combines form and content, especially in the figure of the human body, where both the form and content (i.e. the Greek gods) are concrete (as opposed to the Symbolic mode of art), and Nietzsche is portraying the Apollonian as a specific response to human suffering, as a form of Schopenhauerian escape art. For Nietzsche, also, the Apollonian is associated with the Platonic Forms as well as with (although he hides it in the first edition of the book) Christianity (or at least the kind of Christianity that was the norm in Germany of his time...a kind of bourgeois, sentimental Christianity....not the kind that is given to mystical experience.) I use the word "associate" loosely here, however, since Nietzsche does not identify the Apollonian with the Christian (even though he finds a painting of Christ transfigured by Raphael to be a symbol of the Apollonian vision of life, where the world of suffering is redeemed by an upper world of illusion, the transfiguration of Christ, or in Nietzsche's version, the Olympian world) for the simple reason that the Apollonian Greek says "yes" to life in a rather vigorous way (and contrary to the "no" of Christianity, with its rejection of the body and "sin").
Now the Dionysian, which is also associated with a nice package of seemingly disparate elements, in this case, Dionysus being the god of wine and theater, but also a god whose followers practice orgiastic rites and who seek redemption from suffering through a symbolic rebirth. This god is like the Christian God in another way than is Apollo, i.e. in its emphasis both on rebirth and on the possibility of ecstasy. Yet, unlike the Christian God, again, it recognizes an aspect of itself that not only says "yes" to life, but also says yes to the sublimated "witches brew" of sexuality, i.e. of pain begetting pleasure, and pleasure experienced as so intense as to be pain-like. True, this tendency, found in the non-Greek (read Hegelian "Symbolic" level of art and religion) Dionysian is tamed by Apollo, using his "Gorgon's head." The Dionysian is transformed....but the "witch's brew" is still sort of there. This would be suitable for burning at the stake from the standpoint of the Spanish Inquisition.
Now that the preliminaries have been set up, let's think about what it means to combine these two art deities, or rather physiological (perhaps we should say, psychological) tendencies. Nietzsche tells a story of a man who is part of a (Greek) Dionysian orgy in which he has lost his own sense of self, has become one with the multitude of others present, and also one with nature too, although in such a way as to live in another world of illusion, one in which leopards and lions are tame friends, and springs become flowing streams of milk and honey.
The Dionysian calls on us to recognize our "Maker," which Nietzsche refers to as the "primordial one," and by other terms as well. The "primordial one" is like Schopenhauer's "Will" in that it underlies human experience and is nothing like Kant's God (i.e. not as moralistic) except that it resides in a noumenal realm. For Nietzsche, it is a God-like entity (more like the one God, but depressed), who is pained by his own creation, by his separation of self from self, by his creation of a world of illusion, which can only be redeemed through the activity of man, by the creation, first, of human dream-worlds (particularly the dream-worlds of the Greeks, which Nietzsche imagines to be particularly vivid) and secondly by the dream-world of Apollonian art, an art that makes our lives worth living, as Nietzsche puts it (although what really makes our life worth living is tragic art, the combination of the Apollonian and the Dionysian, to be explained latter). Interestingly, this is a kind of reversal of Plato, who saw redemption only in entering a world of reality which is the world of Forms. Nietzsche would reply that redemption is to be found elsewhere: in the first place, in the world of illusion, the dream world, the Apollonian art world. (He does however treat the world of the Forms as though it just were a variation of the world of Olympian gods). Now, this is not a bad thing, which may seem surprising to us. Illusions can be good for us, Nietzsche thinks. But it does have one problem in that it can give rise to something very much like kitsch. Kitsch gives us a world in which nothing bad can happen...a Thomas Kinkade world. Although Apollonian art is much better than Kinkade's art, the sentimentality of it is rather similar, hence the prevalence of religious themes in both. Thus, a synthesis of the Apollonian and the Dionysian will be particularly difficult.
Here comes the advice for artists! (coming soon, anyway) The Apollonian gives us escape (much like the visual arts for Schopenhauer) but the Dionysian gives us something else, gives us the dissolution of the veil of maya, and hence of illusion. Why? Because the Dionysian is not just beautiful, it is sublime. It captures the idea that Burke first developed of the sublime as combining terror and astonishment on the one hand and a special form of pleasure he called "delight." The terror we feel in truly confronting the truth of Silenus, viz. that life is suffering and that it is best that one die soon, is now overcome in the Dionysian, not by an illusion of Olympian calm looking down over us (or of a loving Jesus) but by disintegration of the self in which a tremendous joy arises in response to the violation of the principle of sufficient reason (i.e. the principle that everything has an explanation...that the world makes sense, e.g. from a scientific perspective). So, we picture the Dionysian reveler who now imagines his god before him in a dream image, as though on stage in a Greek drama (and didn't each protagonist of tragic plays, like Oedipus, really represent the death and redemption of Dionysus, thus achieving catharsis for us, the audience, to use Aristotle's idea?). The combination of the two tendencies is not just a combination: it is that a specific kind of dream-world is produced, one in which the ecstatic experience of oneness with the primordial one is made possible. Great art is not simply beautiful art, art that satisfies the Apollonian urge, nor is it sublime art alone, but rather it is art that creates a dream-world that also satisfies a need for redemption from suffering...it is art as religion, or perhaps even religion as art. It is art that is both beautiful and sublime. That's Nietzsche's idea anyway. So, the artist must ask herself not simply whether she is expressing herself or even being creative or even whether she has created a world, but whether she has created a world of illusion, in which the illusion itself is a symbol of the dissolving of the world of illusion we live in, i.e. the world as seen through the eyes of the Apollonian, or worse, the Christian or the "last man" as conceived by Nietzsche.
It is not just that the Apollonian is insufficient for true artistic greatness. So too is the Dionysian. We can see this by way of talking about the difference between the Buddhist and Socratic approaches to wisdom The Buddhist approach to wisdom, as discussed in my previous post, involves rejection of words and discourse and thus of dialectic. It is basically Dionysian. Yet, as Dionysian, with its emphasis on fusion of self and other, with its stress on interconnectedness, and with the result being an experience of inchoate ecstasy, it also misses out on the rich possibilities of theater, drama, dialectic, all of which are opened up by the synthesis of the Apollonian and the Dionysian.
So greatness for the artist involves finding a wormhole through a created world, a way to make a work of art, or its central part, into an illusion that destroys the primal illusion, an ecstatic oneness, a way to create a symbol that expresses the sublime by way of the creative imagination in its productive power, its power of creating what Kant called in his great paragraph 49 of the Critique of Judgment an alternative reality, a way of being both Socratic and Buddhistic (although Nietzsche, of course, maligned both). Of course, that's all just a thought...not even a hypothesis.