By Richard Mather…

In Greek mythology, Apollo and Dionysus are both sons of Zeus. Apollo is the god of reason, light and order, while Dionysus is the god of wine, intoxication and ritual madness. Many philosophers and writers have invoked the Apollonian and Dionysian. Nietzsche, of course, employed the concept in The Birth of Tragedy.

In the literary and philosophical sense, the Apollonian represents individuality, and celebrates creativity through reason and logic. The Dionysian appeals to the emotions and instincts, and is an ecstatic glorification of oneness in which individuality is submerged. The concept is still current. American humanities scholar Camille Paglia writes about the Apollonian and Dionysian in her 1990 bookSexual Personae. She argues that there is a biological basis to the Apollonian-Dionysian binary: “The quarrel between Apollo and Dionysus is the quarrel between the higher cortex and the older limbic and reptilian brains.”

According to Nietzsche, the Apollonian, which is expressed through the arts of painting and sculpture, represents the world as representation (in the Schopenhauerian sense). In contrast, the Dionysian is more attuned to the cruel realities of existence and is expressed through exhilarating music and dancing. The Dionysian is akin to Schopenhauer’s notion of the Will or thing-in-itself, the underlying (and malignant) principle and energy that drives all observable phenomena.

Nietzsche believed that both the Apollonian and the Dionysian were at work in Greek tragedy. According to Nietzsche, the best Greek tragedy had the tragic hero struggling to make order (the Apollonian) out of chaotic existence (Dionysian). The modern human is encouraged to recapture the spirit of the Greeks by finding a balance between the Apollonian and the Dionysian forces in their own life.

Still, it must be said that Nietzsche leans favorably towards the Dionysian principle. Dionysian existence, says Nietzsche, seeks to affirm life, whether in pain or pleasure. In other words, he calls for an enthusiastic Dionysian “yes” to life.

In object-oriented ontology (OOO), there is no underlying principle called the Will or thing-in-itself. There is no underlying or transcendent being. There are just objects. As such, the notion of an underlying Dionysian principle which swallows up individuality is redundant. The Apollonian, however, celebrates individuality, order, form and sculpture, and is therefore much closer to the object-oriented philosopher’s focus on the individual thing.

It is interesting that early 20th century Modernist writers also celebrated the importance of the thing in poetry. Ezra Pound called for a hard, masculine poetry instead of the amorphous romanticism of the 19th century. According to Pound and his fellow Imagists, poetry ought to be about the “direct treatment of the ‘thing’ whether subjective or objective.”

Perhaps the most famous poetic dictum is “no ideas but in things. ” This is a quote from Pound’s contemporary William Carlos Williams:

Say it, no ideas but in things–
nothing but the blank faces of the houses
and cylindrical trees
bent, forked by preconception and accident–
split, furrowed, creased, mottled, stained–
secret–into the body of the light!

(Paterson: Book I)

There are only objects, only forms. Each object is a “sculpture” in its own right, worthy of philosophical and aesthetic appreciation. There is no melting of individual objects into some kind of universal and amorphous Dionysian principle. Dismantling the Dionysian-Apollonian dichotomy releases the Apollonian from the limited role of individual object as mere appearance or phenomena. The Apollonian – without the metaphysical baggage of the Dionysian – is free to be concrete and real.

As an avid reader of Schopenhauer and Nietzsche, I find it stimulating to think of the “world” in Apollonian terms. But, in truth, I could do away with the notion of the Apollonian. Why? Because it is impossible to extend my finger toward something and say, “ah, that is the Apollonian.” No, I can only point at objects – a rose, a rock, a raven. I could dismantle the rose and see more objects – a petal, a stem, a thorn.

In other words, it’s objects everywhere I look.


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