ON THE DIONYSIAN:
MONISM AND ITS CONSEQUENCES
By Walter H. Sokel
This paper explores fundamental elements of Nietzsche’s thinking strangely neglected in the literature on him. It addresses these questions: What happens to the notion of the Dionysian, so fundamental in The Birth of Tragedy, after it disappears from explicit discussion in the rest of his opus? It traces a vitally important shift from thematic prominence to the implicit perspective from which Nietzsche views and evaluates the world. The role of the Eternal Recurrence as the foundation of Nietzsche’s entire thinking is closely examined. The striking self-contradictions in his work are traced to the crucial importance of contradictoriness as inherent in being as seen by Nietzsche. The close relationship between self-contradiction and Nietzsche’s idea of “justice” receives close attention. Examining these topics the essay seeks to locate Nietzsche in regard to his conflicted reception as a prophet of Social Darwinist Fascism, a spokesman for liberal enlightenment humanism, and a path-breaker of all-questioning postmodern relativism.
The Nietzsche Circle wishes to thank Walter Sokel for the kind permission to reprint this essay. Mr. Sokel originally presented this essay at the University of Virginia for an essay named in his honor. It was also presented at the University of Graz and, after expanding it, for the Nietzsche Circle in October of 2005 on Nietzsche’s birthday (read Daniel Blue’s response to Mr. Sokel’s NC presentation in our Past Events section). The Nietzsche Circle also wishes to thank New Literary History for the kind permission to reprint this essay, which recently appeared in NLH Vol. 36, # 4, Autumn 2005, pp. 501-520.
ON THE DIONYSIAN:
AND ITS CONSEQUENCES
BY WALTER H. SOKEL
One of the major arguments in the reception of Friedrich Nietzsche has centered around this question: was Nietzsche a forerunner of a sophisticated aestheticist Fascism or was he a link between enlightenment humanism and post-modernity? This paper intends to show why both sides of this argument are to a large extent right. However, its primary aim is to demonstrate that both of those opposing sides of Nietzsche derive from a common root which I should like to call the Dionysian.
To understand Nietzsche it is necessary to begin with Schopenhauer. For, as is well known, Nietzsche was deeply indebted to Schopenhauer and not only in his early period, but, despite the highly polemical turn that Nietzsche’s later work took toward his one-time mentor throughout his thinking life. Nietzsche owed to Schopenhauer the foundation of his thought.
Schopenhauer saw what he called the Will as the motor and perennial substratum of all being. Everything and everyone is a manifestation of the Will. When considering Schopenhauer’s notion of the Will it is clear that it has two faces – one looking backward toward theology and metaphysics, ultimately to anthropomorphic thinking – the very word “Will” as a human faculty or characteristic indicates it. Its other face looks forward toward a materialist positivism as the Will can be equated with a blind, unconscious directionless energy, incessantly dynamic, informing and causing all processes and all phenomena in the universe.
As is also well known, Schopenhauer views the Will and thus the universe negatively and the Will’s inescapability therefore made him a pessimist who saw no ultimate hope for life and for being. For existence was inseparable from the Will and could be escaped only temporarily and in an illusionary way as in the dreams of Platonic ideas or in the visions of art that mistakenly seem to lend permanence and perfection to what are, after all, only representations by the all-embracing, all-producing and all-devouring Will. Schopenhauer saw the Will and with it all being pessimistically because it could never give lasting happiness or even contentment to individual beings. For the Will itself is incapable of contentment and the happiness of fulfillment. Forever seeking, forever wanting, desiring, yearning, the Will, because of the infinite lack at its core, incessantly creates ever new ever-changing representations in the vain hope of finding fulfillment. The Will can never be satisfied lastingly by any one of them but must continue to starve and to hunger after fulfillment without ever attaining it. In sentient individuations or embodiments of the Will this spells ever-renewed want, discontent and wretchedness. Even if the Will should by any chance find contentment, it can last only for a brief moment, for immediately disappointment, sickening satiety, and boredom set in and force the Will once more on its restless, never-ending search.
There is, however, in Schopenhauer’s The World as Will and Representation, a moment, a passage where the Will itself, rather than its fleeting dreams and illusions which are its Platonic Ideas, appears in a positive, inspiring, almost consoling light. There, in glowing terms, Schopenhauer celebrates the oneness of the Will and thus the ultimate oneness and unity of all being. It was this one pantheistic passage that gave consolation to Thomas Buddenbrooks in Thomas Mann’s novel, even though, living in a Schopenhauerian universe, he soon forgot it.
However, it provided more lasting consolation, and seminal inspiration to the young Nietzsche for whom it reappeared in a festive and religious form as cosmic unity in the dynamic life force embodied in the god Dionysus and celebrated in the drunken orgies, dances, and exuberance of his worshippers. Dionysus is both Will and Representation in one, conforming precisely to Schopenhauer’s notion of the Will, forever active in its representations and the individuated phenomena of what appears to us as the world which through and in the Will is an interconnected whole. The fact that in Dionysos the Will appears to the drunken revelers in the form of an individuated image, an Apollonian dream image, signifies the ultimate unity of the Apollonian and the Dionysian. This unity of two apparently opposite principles carries the glad tidings of the eventual unity of all oppositions, the overcoming of all mutually hostile individuations in the single energy that constitutes the world. It is the union of universal energy and individuated form or shape which the Dionysian orgiastic dance triumphantly enacts by projecting as an individual image the force that binds all together. The Dionysian orgy, seed and fountainhead of Greek tragedy, thus acts as a supreme metaphysical consolation for the mindless randomness of the Will’s sway.
For at the core of Greek tragedy, as Nietzsche sees it, is the chorus, representing the collective, the ultimate unity of all life. This gives rise to the dramatic characters as visionary embodiments, individuated representations of the unitary Will that resides in the undifferentiated choral group. Individuals rise, shine, and ultimately fall as the truthful representations of individuated life, subject to the eternal cycle of creation and destruction, of birth and death, in the eternal round, the eternal dance of being, the eternal return of the Will in the representations and individuations that are inseparable from it. These individuations are the subjects and sufferers of tragedy.
But tragedy as a form, a performance, transcends the tragic spectacle it shows. It transcends it in the chorus. For the chorus, representation of the collective life, the universal, the cosmic unity of being, survives the fall of individual heroes. The chorus has the last word and with it proclaims the consoling message of Dionysianism: “Life goes on. Individuals come and go, rise and fall, but being as a whole is everlasting. The individual dies, and that is tragic. But being goes on for ever and ever,” and therein lies the profound metaphysical consolation of tragedy. For Nietzsche it is the factor that transforms and reverses Schopenhauer’s pessimism into joyous and passionate affirmation of the Will. The underlying cause of that momentous turn from bleakness to joy is Nietzsche’s transforming what is an incidental thought in Schopenhauer, one bright passage in so much gloom, into the center of his own thought.
The Schopenhauerian structure remains, but its meaning, its message, is reversed. Instead of deploring the Will, we should celebrate and proclaim it in the message: Existence is justified and paradoxically by the very art form that confronts us with its sadness.
What enables Nietzsche to bring about that change is a reversal of Schopenhauer’s perspective. While Schopenhauer views existence from the perspective of the individual who must die without ever having been truly satisfied and fulfilled, Nietzsche, as in his interpretation of Greek tragedy, views the same existence from the perspective not of the individual, but of the whole that lasts and creates forever. That one-hundred-eighty degree shift in perspective transforms despair into triumphant celebration.
After The Birth of Tragedy, Nietzsche hardly ever refers to the cosmic unity of being that the worshippers of Dionysus celebrated. On the surface it looks as though the idea had disappeared from his thinking. Yet throughout his work he declares himself a Dionysian, a follower of the god Dionysus. Together with Zarathustra, Dionysus remains the figure to whom Nietzsche pledges his allegiance, the figure to whom he dedicates his thinking and around whom this thinking revolves. Through his recurring invocation of Dionysus Nietzsche proclaims that he has remained a loyal Dionysian even though he no longer discusses Dionysianism explicitly in his writing. Implicitly, however, Dionysianism remains the bedrock of his mature thinking as it has been in the work of his youth. It is the subtly implied foundation of his thought.
Dionysianism has two major constituents. One is the faith in the ultimate unity of existence. The other is the belief that this unity is not a static whole, a substance as in Spinoza’s pantheism, but a dynamic energy, the mover of an eternal flux and change, the Heraclitean panta rei. Next to Schopenhauer Heraclitus is the philosopher with whom Nietzsche has the greatest affinity. The paradox that the eternal flux of things is at the same time the mark of their unity is seen in the metaphor of the sea which for Nietzsche, in contrast to Heraclitus’ river, is always the same despite the incessant sequence of ever-different waves.
The duality of Nietzsche’s favorite metaphors, namely the succession of waves in the sea, on the one hand, and flame, light, and fire, on the other, demonstrates this duality of his Dionysian thought in which the eternal movement of energy is wedded to the ultimate stasis of unity. Thus Spoke Zarathustra proclaims this duality in its two primary ideas. The doctrine of the eternal recurrence of all things voices the unity of being in its temporal dimension or “ecstasy,” to use Heidegger’s term, and the message of the Overman voices the ever-self-transcending dynamic of a yearning and incessantly striving Will.
The doctrine of the eternal recurrence of all things, the eternal return and re-enactment of being’s whole history, is first proclaimed in Die fröliche Wissenschaft and repeated in Zarathustra. Subsequent passages in Nietzsche’s work attest to his viewing this idea as a cornerstone of his entire work. Cosmic unity is expressed in space in the orgiastic dance of the Dionysian festival. Its equivalent in terms of time is the Eternal Recurrence. Like the oneness of existence, the eternally repeated cycle of cosmic history stipulates that there is nothing beyond it. Being forms a circle closing in upon itself and including within it everything that has happened, is happening, and will happen in (for) all eternity. Nothing external to itself, nothing new and unprecedented is ever allowed to intrude upon it or emerge within it.
On first sight this is the most depressing view imaginable. For it totally excludes from the flux of being all notion of novelty, of surprise and discovery, of transcendence and thus of hope. It is indeed nothing but being and rules out infinite becoming, infinite growth from its purview of possibilities. It shuts the gate to the infinite and thus transforms the universe into a prison from which there can be no escape. I recall how on my first encounter of this thought my reaction to this idea was utter pessimism, infinite frustration, and suffocating disgust that the feeling of no exit produces.
That Nietzsche intended its effect in exactly that way is shown by his treating and evaluating the thought of the eternal return as man’s supreme challenge. Only if man is able to face this ultimate negation of all hope and aspiration, only if he displays the heroism of affirming the ultimate limit to all existence can he prove his ethical mettle. For the hypothesis of the eternal return is first and foremost an ethical idea. It offers each individual the challenge to live his or her life in such a way that she would want to live it eternally. It is an exhortation to live a life that is worth being eternally repeated. It is Nietzsche’s version of Kant’s categorical imperative – live in such a way that you would wish everyone of your actions to become a universal law. The imperative implied in the eternal return is to live in such a way that you would wish your actual present life to last forever.
Actually, however, the message conveyed by the thought of the Eternal Return is much more than an ethical guide to finding justification for one’s life. It is glad tidings of the eternity of one’s being, the confirmation of life everlasting. What seemed like the greatest horror is actually the highest good, the vouchsafing of eternal existence not only for the whole, but for every individual in it. The doctrine of the Eternal Return is closer to the message of the Christian gospels – the promise of eternal life to each individual and thus much more than a challenge to ethics. It is ontological rather than merely moral. It too proclaims the jubilant message of the Dionysian festival. It is part of the same ecstatic affirmation not only of the oneness, but also the eternity of all being. Not only space but time too becomes a round dance in which all being participates.
However, there is a vast difference between the Christian message of immortality and the immortality of the Eternal Return. It is the difference between a dualistic and a monistic image of the world.
The other element of Nietzsche’s Zarathustrian thought, structurally speaking its first theme – the Overman – is also a version of Dionysian holism. Already in The Birth of Tragedy Dionysianism is intimately bound up with a spectator’s perspective. The tragic drama itself, in a primary sense, enacts the victory of the whole over the individual for the view of spectators in a theater. On the stage the continuation of life beyond the fall or death of the hero, who represents the individual, appears in the chorus surviving the individual and the extended chorus is the audience in the theater. Indeed the theatrical perspective presides over the origin of drama itself, in the epiphany experienced by the chorus of satyrs to whom the god Dionysus appears as, in a sense, the first individual. Nature, reaching consciousness in mankind, is the spectator of the emerging of the god, the Apollonian individual, from the ecstatic oneness of the Will. Dionysus, representing the oneness of existence, is experienced as an individuated image appearing to dazed spectators – a relationship that is the germ of Greek tragic theater as a mimesis of human life.
That same spectator’s perspective on the potentiality of life, conceived now also in terms of evolutionary theory, dominates Thus Spoke Zarathustra. Zarathustra, spectator of life in general and human life in particular, views it from the perspective of the whole spectacle, not from that of the individual. The individual’s perspective, bitterly aware of its finiteness, imposes pessimism upon the mind. But the opposite holds for the spectator, Nietzsche-Zarathustra. By adopting the perspective upon the whole, the species, and seeing life from such an elevated, universal point of view, he discerns the potential of infinite hope, a hope couched in quasi-Darwinian language and idea. Benefiting from the already achieved advance, ascending evolution become conscious can now hope to safeguard, enhance, and accelerate itself, far beyond the height already reached to the towering summits where the Overman dwells. We shall then be in relation to man as man is in relation to ape.
But such an enormous, mind-boggling, and exhilarating ascent of the whole can come about only through overcoming, leaving behind, and indeed sacrificing the individual beings that together form the present age. The exhortation for the individual’s self-sacrificing to hasten the coming of the Overman rings through the speeches of Zarathustra. One can easily see in it the major theme of the work.
What prompts this call for the upward movement of human life? Why not be satisfied with the perpetuation of life as it is? After all, the Dionysian chorus confirms only survival, not ascent. Zarathustra introduces this discontent with human life as it is, life in the present tense. So there enters here an additional factor – the self-transcendence of life. This is a second crucial element in Nietzsche’s revision and reversal of Schopenhauer which, in addition to the holism implied in the Will, informs and underlies Nietzsche’s entire thought. This second element is Nietzsche’s reinterpretation of the concept of the Will. Schopenhauer sees the Will as wanting, desiring, grasping, as longing to possess. Nietzsche, by contrast, discerns the active, creative nature of the Will. Nietzsche proceeds from the insight that the energy that Schopenhauer calls the Will has brought fourth and is bringing forth continually everything there is. To be sure, never satisfied, the Will also destroys whatever it creates. From the perspective of the individual, a perspective adopted by Schopenhauer, this inevitable destruction that every individuation and embodiment of the Will faces spells terror and despair. However, adopting the perspective of the whole, of the Will itself, as it were, Nietzsche sees the perennial, never ceasing recreation following all destruction. That never-resting energy that Nietzsche re-interprets as Schopenhauer’s Will is creation first and last. It constantly forms, transforms, and re-forms all there has been, is, and forever will be in existence. Such a view entails infinite hope, hope beyond the ubiquitous destruction that likewise characterizes the world. For this vision of the world even destruction is a positive element. Destruction is only a gateway, a necessary precondition for not merely renewed, but enhanced creation, not destruction, but re-creation, surpassing previous creation, has the final word. In this constant cycle of creation, destruction, and re-creation the principle of self-transcendence, seen by Walter Kaufman as the most fundamental tenet of Nietzsche’s thought, is implied. For destroying whatever it has created and then creating anew, the Will transcends whatever stage it had reached. It is death that makes the self-transcending quality of life possible. The perennial dissatisfaction, disappointment, and frustration which makes the Will abandon its creations ever and ever again, a cause of despair for Schopenhauer, spells out for Nietzsche the hope, indeed the command, of doing better next time, of ascending beyond any state previously attained. Nietzsche’s affirmative view of the Will as a force forever recreative, reinventing, heralds the principle of evolution.
The Will, this all-creative energy that literally forms the universe, is embodied and individuated in man. And for Nietzsche-Zarathustra it is the task of man to Will and to create beyond himself. The capacity for this task, the degree to which it is active in individuals, determines the rank each occupies in the dynamic scheme of the whole. It is the holistic perspective on life wedded to the gospel of ever-self-surpassing creativeness that emerges in Zarathustra’s ideal of the Overman as the potential destiny of man. It is not merely the continuation of life celebrated in The Birth of Tragedy, but the possibility of life’s rising to ever greater heights that distinguishes Zarathustra’s thought from that of the early Nietzsche.
The universal Will exists and manifests itself only in individuals. The aim of the celebrant of the Will, therefore, must be attainment of the utmost degree of creative power in individuals, not for their own sake, but as embodiments of the Will. Here the union between Apollonian and Dionysian becomes transparent. Even in The Birth of Tragedy, as I have already noted, what makes the protagonist’s fall tragic is the height from which he falls. The greatness of the loss suffered by his passing stands in direct proportion to the joy of realizing that life is able to survive even a loss that tremendous. The highest possible development of the individual is thus by the same token the greatest possible self-assertion of life as a whole.