Apollo and Dionysus

By Leon Botstein

Written for the concert Apollo and Dionysus, performed on May 9, 2010 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.

It is difficult to imagine a history of Western art that does not begin with the legacy of the classical world. Indeed the entire notion of “Western,” the idea of a coherent cultural tradition which in fact is anything but coherent, is largely the result of a conceit first developed in earnest during the nineteenth century. The core of that idea was the notion that modern European culture is a direct descendent of ancient Greece and Rome. The Swiss historian Jakob Burckhardt (1818–1897), whose epoch-making book The Culture of the Renaissance in Italy (1860) pioneered the idea of defining history as a succession of related periods, identified the “rediscovery” of classical antiquity as the impetus for the civic humanism that was the hallmark of the Renaissance. The Renaissance became the defining era of modern Western culture. (Of course, the irony is that Europe before the Reformation spent several centuries selectively refuting the learning of the ancient world and effectively obliterating the artifacts of a classical heritage. The “rediscovery” came about largely because of European forays into Egypt and Arabia, where much of the learning of ancient Greece had been preserved by the great Arab scholars.) The Renaissance desire for continuity with the classical world is most strikingly evident in Dante’s choice of Virgil as the guide of the Christian soul in the Inferno. Virgil, a symbol of humanity’s highest possible achievement before Christian revelation, holds for Dante the beginning of the thread of history. Dante presumed his readers would have an intimate acquaintance with the Aeneid, which itself dramatizes the continuity between ancient Troy and Virgil’s Rome.

Burckhardt was a bit like Virgil with his thesis that the Italian Renaissance was the result of a rediscovery of classical heritage. The idea was as constructive as a guide to self definition for the nineteenth century as Virgil’s epic was for Augustan Rome. Burckhardt’s Renaissance was considered to be the beginning of early modern culture. The notion rested on the presumption that before the Renaissance, a period existed which could conveniently be called the “Dark Ages” or the “Middle Ages,” that is, an amorphous period between the classical and the modern. This idea gave a fine pedigree to the current age, a sense that fit in very well with nineteenth-century European aspirations with respect to secular culture. Burckhardt was an enormous influence on his contemporaries. The most important contemporary was Friedrich Nietzsche (1844–1900), a classicist as well as a philosopher. Nietzsche, also an amateur composer and pianist, famously cultivated the friendship of Richard Wagner. He eventually turned on Wagner’s art and personality in an equally memorable fashion with trenchant and perceptive sarcasm. Nietzsche and Burckhardt had considerable regard for one another and overlapped as resident academics in Basel.

For both of these thinkers, the transition from the Dark Ages to the Renaissance represented a decline in the dominance of ignorance, superstition, and the irrational, and the revival of reason. The identification of the Renaissance as the beginning of modernity was itself a revisionist idea that challenged the previous preeminence of the eighteenth-century Enlightenment as the first modern age. The eighteenth-century Enlightenment was an age of great progress that began with the English Restoration in 1660, and saw the accomplishments of Newton, Locke, Lessing, and Goethe. The period (not the century) ended in 1789 with the French Revolution. The Enlightenment was an age of rapid industrialization and scientific progress, the development of democratic social contract theory, and the flowering of letters. It represented the erosion of the power of the Church in political affairs, and the strengthening of the secular nation space. The founding fathers in the United States and the Jacobins in France cherished a vision of themselves as heirs to the great leaders and orators of classical Greece and Rome. Indeed one group of great poets and writers of Britain were often referred as the “Augustans” and the era in Britain and on the Continent has been called the Neoclassical Age. In German-speaking Europe there was no more articulate defender of the priority of the ancients than Johann Joachim Winckelmann (1717–1768), who had a tremendous influence on writers and artists, and who developed the false impression of ancient Greek monuments and buildings as smooth, white, and pristine. This idealized image is still evident in the buildings of our own nation’s capital and our Greek temple-inspired banks and libraries.

As an age which put itself at the apex of historical progress, the nineteenth century—once it had established the Renaissance as the beginning of modernity and the Enlightenment as its adolescence, as it were—developed its own version of the meaning of its classical inheritance, of this look backwards on behalf of the present. The writing of history is inevitably as revealing about the era of the writer as it is of the writer’s subject matter. In the nineteenth century, Romantic writers developed their own fascination with the ancient world. But it was a fascination tinged with urgency, because the modern inhabitants of the ancient lands, the Greeks, Turks, and Arabs, were seen as an object of compassion and condescension. Byron died defending his beloved Greece from the Ottomans. Elgin transported the legendary Parthenon Marbles to the British Museum for safekeeping from the Greeks who did not value what they had. Schliemann did the same for the artifacts of Troy, which ended up in Berlin (albeit allegedly with some selective alterations to make them look more idealistically “Trojan”).

But by the mid nineteenth century the intent had become to challenge the smug assumption about reason and progress inherited from the Enlightenment. In contrast to the earlier century, the nineteenth century shifted the focus away from the Roman era of Cicero, Livy, Virgil, and Horace to the earlier classical iterations of the Greek worlds of Homer, Aeschylus, and Sophocles. If Gibbon’s The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (1776–88) was the most eloquent expression of the appropriation of the classical past for the eighteenth century, then Nietzsche’s The Birth of Tragedy (1872) might be counted as the single most significant mirror of the later nineteenth century’s view of the classical past.

Consequently, this shift also brought about a shift in interest from politics to mythology, from a benign consideration of Roman religion as an aspect of civic life (comparable perhaps to the restrained Christianity of Thomas Jefferson’s deism), to a fascination with mythic archetypes in pre-Christian classical thought that might offer a glimpse into the innate nature of humanity. This notion was of course loaded with the disillusionment with and suspicion of modern progress and industrialization, which by the end of the nineteenth century, was fairly apparent in the face of unprecedented poverty and discontent caused by commerce and industry. Could the Greeks, the birthplace of civilization, tell us through their mythic archetypes something about the nature of the human before it became disfigured by modern progress?

Nietzsche thought so. He initially identified the power of Greek tragedy as an act connected to religious ritual. Within that ritual lay a vision of the world not defined by Christianity. Using Greek myth and dramatic ritual as his basis, Nietzsche concluded that there are two fundamental but contradictory characteristics in the human spirit, and therefore in the way art both comes into being and is received. The Greeks were well aware of this duality. They personified it into two gods in the Olympian pantheon. The first of these gods is Apollo, god of light, learning, and music. As a characterological impulse that informs art, the Apollonian is that which imposes discipline of form, finds beauty in symmetry and proportion, expresses refined sentiment, grace, and reason. It is the Apollonian that raised humanity above the beast and controls action through thought in order to create order and promote civilization. The second god is Dionysus, god of wine and ecstasy. Dionysus represents the irrational, the erotic, the physical, the uninhibited, and the boundless. Dionysus is undirected energy, frenzied joy, and absolute freedom with all the consequent destructiveness. The Dionysian impulse is pure instinct, that which connects humanity to the natural and animal world. Nietzsche used these two warring archetypes, neither of which can exist without the other, to depict the human factors that inform art with both its beauty and its psychic power. It is not at all surprising that Nietzsche’s reflections on aesthetics and history of ancient culture emerged in a transformed manner in the writings of Freud, who found in the eternal struggle of the Dionysian, which in Freud’s language became the id, the seat of the mind’s violent and sexual impulses (and also its truth),and the Apollonian, or the rational, controlling ego, the basis for human civilization.

Among artists of Nietzsche’s generation and after, this powerful explanation of human nature proved irresistible. How fascinating to suggest that we all have a primal force lurking in our psyche, from which we are protected by conscious discipline and the learned art of civilization, whose true value cannot deny that force’s inevitable legitimacy. Robert Louis Stevenson claimed that his masterful portrayal of what can happen when the balance of the Apollonian and Dionysian is upset, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, was inspired by a dream, a message from his own subconscious. Music was an even more fertile arena for an exploration of the Apollonian and Dionysian. Apollo was the god of music, after all, and his lyre formed sound into disciplined patterns of beauty and symmetry. But Dionysus also had his sacred aulus or pipe which drove his followers, the Maenads, to frenzied orgies. For Nietzsche, both impulses constituted the essential elements of music: the beauty of its form, and its ability to touch primal emotion. When he admired Wagner, Nietzsche saw in Tristan und Isolde a reconciliation of the Apollonian and Dionysian, and in Wagner’s music in general a rebirth of the Greek spirit, which was in turn a rejection of moralistic Christianity. He later changed his mind about Wagner, but not Christianity. It should not surprise us that the generation of composers that was caught in this intellectual framework popularized by Nietzsche, and struggled with the overpowering legacy of Wagner, returned again and again to these archetypes as a source of inspiration and innovation.

In the end, however, it was Nietzsche’s use of the idea of the Apollonian and Dionysian, and its absorption into modern psychoanalytic theory that helped solidify the significance of this version of the classical heritage for the twentieth century. In the closing section of his classic essay on the relationship between Protestanism and capitalism, the great social scientist Max Weber (an avid music lover) described the predicament of the individual in modernity as an “iron cage.” There was no escape in life from the tyranny of rational action. The horrors of the First and Second World Wars vindicated this skeptical criticism of modern life. Music remained an art form potentially immune from such controlling rationality. It had the Apollonian virtues of form and beauty and at the same time could give expression to the joyous irrationalism symbolized by Dionysus. Tonight’s program provides a cross section of how twentieth century European composers integrated a Nietzschean-inspired sense of the crisis of modernity into their artistic vision, seeking in classical symbols a route around the bland and oppressive utilitarianism of a tradition of reason Nietzsche himself located not in Apollo or Dionysus but in a later legacy of classical antiquity, the influence of Socrates.