Apollo vs Dionysus: The Only Theme Your Students Will Ever Need in Writing about Literature

by Michael Thro

from VCCA Journal, Volume 10, Number 2, Summer 1996, 11-18

Copyright 1996 VCCA Journal


A relatively simple "continuum of behavior" along an Apollonian- Dionysian axis provides an accessible departure point for literature students character analyses. To the extent the students can recognize patterns of thought, motivation, and action similar to their own in the characters in fiction, drama, and poetry typically included in freshman and sophomore literature texts, they should be able to work toward critical thinking of increasing complexity using this continuum approach. It is a good idea to first have students think about their own Apollonian and Dionysian characteristics and circumstances. They can be encouraged to record details of their daily routines and to reflect upon the balance or imbalance of work and play, duty and freedom in their lives. For instance, the mere act of early rising to engage a day in class or on the job is Apollonian. So is the fifty minutes in class or the work period of whatever length. The break between classes or the coffee or lunch break is, of course, Dionysian "down time," brief respites from the rigors of diurnal responsibility. The end of the class day or of the work shift presents an opportunity for more extensive recreation, for "kicking back" with friends or enjoying a movie or television. The obvious point is that everyone, usually without thinking about it, naturally achieves a rhythm of behavior that alternates between that which one must do and that which one wants to do (of course the ideal is to maximize the time spent doing things that are both). Students recording of their routine activities can serve to objectify the extent to which they realize a harmonizing rhythm of activity; and this, in turn, can prepare them for critical analyses of causes for success or unsuccess in the lives of literary characters.

The same alternation between obligation and recreation, responsibility and freedom, can be appreciated within larger time frames. The student will readily acknowledge that a "good week" consists of the weekend s reward of Dionysian indulgence (not to say excess) following the Apollonian restrictiveness of Monday thru Friday. Similarly, one endures fifty weeks of obligation to enjoy two weeks of vacation, and a near lifetime of attention to business for a few years of golden retirement.

After a day or so of recording what they do all day or all week, students might write a paper on what they have learned about the need for Apollonian and Dionysian balance, the degree to which their own lives achieve such balance, and what measures might facilitate a more satisfactory balance. It might be hoped that students would acknowledge and appreciate the fact that successful living does not reside in arriving at a state of eternal rest or revelry. Perhaps a little background on the Greek ideal of moderation and "nothing in excess" can be provided at this point. It might even be noted that the Epicureans were not the complete hedonists that might be suggested by inclusion (as the implied opposite of "stoic") of the term in the accompanying chart . The Epicureans, in fact, insisted that "friendship" was far more pleasurable than the fleshy indulgences, and that these latter in excess can eventuate in discomfort or even pain, the condition that should always be most avoided.

Apollo Dionysus
sun earth
ego id
psyche eros
stoic Epicurean
mind heart
reason emotion
thinking feeling
order chaos
restraint excess
male female
hierarchy equality
science art
system spontaneity
compulsiveness impulsiveness
city country
classicism romanticism
civilization nature

The chart lists antitheses that may apply to real as well as literary personalities. Some careful qualifications are in order. The words in the two columns are not "good" or "bad." Rather, they represent poles at the ends of a continuum of behavior toward which most people most of the time display a tendency. Absolute judgments, for instance that it is better to be "compulsive" rather than "impulsive," should be moderated to "Excessive impulsiveness (or compulsiveness) can get one in a lot of trouble, especially if there is no compensating leavening in the opposite direction." Much the same thing could be said for "reason--emotion," "psyche--eros," and all the rest.

Helene Deutsch provides a rationale for this eschewal of value judgments when considering these polarities. Seconding Nietzsche, she says of Dionysus: "His ability to perform miracles and to personify whatever the situation calls for, on the one hand, and his ferocity and amorality, on the other, place him outside the mortals conception of good and bad " (26). Nevertheless, students may see stereotyping of the most pejorative kind in the "male--female" continuum of the chart, but Deutsch is helpful here as well; Dionysus "appears as a great social revolutionary-- the first feminist in the history of mankind--in order to help enslaved women" (27). If anything, she continues, opprobrium attaches to Apollo for his matricide, his "hatred of Mother Earth" (66). On the other hand, myth does attribute to Apollo the rescue of the "ancient Greek world from the darkness of matriarchy to the light of the rule of the Sun" (Ibid.).

In his study of Dionysus, Walter F. Otto also urges a balanced view of what the two gods represent and an appreciation of their symbiosis:

This feminine world (of Dionysus) is confronted by the radically different masculine world of Apollo. In this world not the life mystery of blood and the powers of earth but the clarity and the breath of the mind hold sway. However, the Apollonic world cannot exist without the other. This is why it has never denied it recognition. (142)

Dionysus is, in addition, a "great god, a true god; that is, the unity and totality of an infinitely varied world which encompasses everything that lives" (Otto 143).

That our perception of Apollo and Dionysus should be a relative and dynamic matter finds precedence in Nietzsche s protean views of their natures:

It has been overlooked that the Dionysus whom Nietzsche celebrated as his own god in his later writings is no longer the deity of formless frenzy whom we meet in Nietsche s first book. Only the name remains, but later the Dionysian represents passion controlled as opposed to the extirpation of the passions which Nietzsche associated more and more with Christianity.... The later Dionysus is the synthesis of the two forces which are represented by Dionysus and Apollo in The Birth of Tragedy -- and thus a certainly not anti- Apollonian Goethe can appear in one of Nietsche s last books as the perfect representation of what is called Dionysian. (Kaufmann 106)

Perhaps a concrete example closer to students experience will illustrate these relative and dynamic qualities of the paradigm. An engineer sits at his or her drafting board. Certainly, the engineer mostly engages in Apollonian things, reading and drawing plans and blueprints, calculating loads and stresses, specifying materials and processes. But the best engineers probably bring a degree of Dionysian imagination to their tasks, though it might be more to the point to conceive of an Apollonian engineer in service to the more imaginative architect. In any case, the engineer who relieves tedium by writing, say, a poem has definitely moved right along the "reason--feeling" and "science-- art" scales. If after work the engineer escapes the dull confines of the office for the green world of the country, he or she has left, presumably if only temporarily, Apollonian abstraction and approached Dionysian feeling. On the other hand, a poet merely communing with nature, not writing about it, begins at the place the engineer has ended up. When the poet takes quill in hand and commences composition, an ordering of impressions and sensations, he or she has moved left toward Apollonian "mind" and "system." The poet s writing a poem is Apollonian, while the engineer s doing the same thing is decidedly Dionysian. When the poet eventually negotiates for publication of the poem, he or she has probably moved even farther into the Apollonian.

No particular value attaches to any single condition, but the context and dynamics of each and all are significant in profoundly thematic ways. For one thing, one would like to think the engineer is improved both personally and professionally by trying a hand at poetry and by visiting the country, just as the poet who finally gets down to business and writes and publishes verses is better off for having done so.

In the earliest literature students are likely to encounter in the standard anthologies, Sophocles Oedipus the King and Antigone, [1] the general rule that the successful character moves freely between the poles of Apollonian and Dionysian behavior is not particularly evident. Oedipus original hubris is Apollonian--he would challenge the law and the will of the gods with his human wit in an attempt to evade his fate. Though his strategy to leave Corinth and avoid the occasion of patricide seems eminently logical, such thwarting of their will the gods cannot tolerate. His counter-instincts of a Dionysian nature, as it turns out, are the wrong ones as well. His intemperateness asserts itself during the encounter on the road to Thebes with the royal party. Among those Oedipus slays is his father, King Laius, thus fulfilling the first part of the prophesy. His exercise of Apollonian logic in solving the riddle of the Sphinx later secures him the crown, but it also establishes the conditions for realization of the second part of the prophesy, that he will marry his mother, Jocasta. There might be a presumed emotional carelessness in his marrying the widowed queen, but there certainly is in the apparent impulsiveness of his rule. His quickness in accusing Creon of treason and the severity of the sentence he pronounces for the killer of Laius suggest incompatibility between his Apollonian and Dionysian natures.

Students might more easily relate to Antigone. To most modern sensibilities, she, like her father, Oedipus, appears to be the victim of arbitrary and unfair rule. Creon seems to be indulging in cruel revenge as much as attempting to consolidate his power as Oedipus successor. The gods too strict burial protocol is vulnerable to Creon s manipulation, forcing Antigone to disobey his law to serve what she sees is the higher divine law. Whether this appeal to a higher order is purely Apollonian or is tempered by Dionysian vaingloriousness is an issue that enhances Antigone s interest as a character. She has displayed all the proper Dionysian qualities in supporting her father during his exile at Colonus and seeking liberation of the soul of her brother, Polynices. Creon, too, has such family feeling, but his pride and obsession for power, obscured behind his protestations that he is merely providing for civic order, are destructively Apollonian. Antigone is the tragic heroine who opposes Creon s apparent attempt to break up her family and expel it from society (Frye 218). The " absurd, cruel, or irrational law" that drives Shakespearean comedy (Frye 16) seems to be operating in Sophocles tragedies, but in these cases the law is divine rather than human, and characters fail in their attempts to avoid or balk its force whether by Dionysian or Apollonian means.

Christopher Marlowe s Doctor Faustus, unlike Oedipus and similar to Antigone, chooses his fate.[2] Dissatisfied with the academic routine of Wittenberg and frustrated that so much experience and knowledge is beyond human capacity, Faustus pledges his immortal soul in return for Apollonian attainment and Dionysian delights never before vouchsafed man. Like Adam, he would disregard God s rule and taste of the forbidden fruit of the knowledge of good and evil. Unlike Adam and Oedipus, Faustus is never deluded regarding the seriousness of his offense and the severity of the inevitable punishment. His Apollonian pride is even more deserving of reprobation since to his "inordinate ambition" is added "his fatalism and his refusal to accept the Protestant doctrine of justification by faith" (Boorstin 604).

Prospero, in Shakespeare s The Tempest, is also richly suggestive of the destructive consequences of excessive and misdirected Apollonianism, but in this case we can appreciate the ultimate utility of the intellect in checking man s perhaps even more destructive Dionysian tendencies. As he recounts to his daughter, Miranda, the "liberal arts" had become "all [his] study," so that the governance of Milan fell solely to his brother, so " transported" was he in his Faustian ambition to know everything in the books. Prospero s single-mindedness has thus endangered his kingdom by exposing it to the ambitions of Alonzo and Sebastian, rulers of rival Naples. This misdirection of intellect, however, serves in the comedy as prologue to Prospero s recovery and the reestablishment of harmony in his world. Once removed from the intrigue and presumed corruption of the city to the primitive innocence of the island, Prospero s "secret studies" afford him the opportunity to redeem his perfidious adversaries, civilize the island, and return to Milan a wiser sovereign. Whereas Prospero s study had been arid and impotent whilst pursued for its own sake, when necessity forces him to employ its harmonizing power of mind over passion he redeems himself, his kin, and the community. He thus achieves more than would have been possible had he contented himself with the dull round of civic administration that was his original Apollonian warrant. His manipulation of both extremes of the behavioral continuum, Ariel and Caliban, toward worthy ends signals Prospero s intellectual maturity in recognizing the respective roles of head and heart in human amelioration. The principle might be stressed: Apollonian or Dionysian behavior is positive to the extent it is cognizant of the imperatives of the other and directs its energy to generous rather than self- indulgent ends.

The legacy of Marlowe s Faustus to later writers is probably greater than that of Shakespeare s Prospero. Goethe s Faust and Hawthorne s Aylmer and Rappaccini provide rich opportunities for students character analyses through comparison and contrast with Marlowe s prototype. As a character in a poetic drama of the German romantic period, Faust is more intent on sensational experience than on the intellectual kind. Thus he is more Dionysian than is Marlowe s Renaissance protagonist. In addition, Gretchen provides redemption for Faust through the harmonizing power of human rather than divine love; the refusal of the latter by Faustus had been a far greater sin than his original pride and blasphemy.

Hawthorne s "The Birthmark" and "Rappaccini s Daughter" are strongly allegorical demonstrations of the Apollonian-Dionysian paradigm. Their characters are clearly delineated from the start, and no apparent development, or even self-awareness, occurs. Nevertheless, like all great allegories, these succeed through dramatic representation of significant conflicting ideas. Alymer and Rappaccini are pure examples of the type of scientific high priest of which nineteenth century writers were so fond, and of the movies mad scientists of our own century. Their Faustian ambition to comprehend the mysteries of the cosmos and thereby seize power and fame recalls Marlowe more than Goethe, and while Prospero realizes the error to which his Apollonianism has led him and turns his powers to good, Alymer s and Rappaccini s intellectual arrogance eventuates in the destruction of that which they love. Both would improve on exceptional examples of nature s handiwork, Alymer s too loving and submissive wife, Georgiana, and Rappaccini s fervent and generous daughter, Beatrice. These latter embody the most positive Dionysian qualities, which their respective patriarchal figures lack. In religious terms, Alymer and Rappaccini, like Doctor Faustus, are guilty of pride, and they blaspheme in assuming they can improve on divine providence. Aylmer is one of the eighteenth century "votaries" of science who believe "their ... pursuits would ascend from one step of powerful intelligence to another, until the philosopher should lay his hand on the secret of creative force and perhaps make new worlds for himself" (Bedford 4th 286). Although his ambition is high, Alymer s early demonstrations of experimental prowess approach farce: plants and flowers produced by accelerated cultivation turn coal-black and an early photographic process is similarly "abortive" (Ibid., 291). This latter word comprehends the barrenness of Aylmer s alchemy and its corrosiveness of the life-affirming principle represented by Georgiana. Alymer has his Caliban-like Aminadab to insulate him further from the mundane details of his experimentation, nudging him further along the scale of excessive Apollonianism, and there is no mediating and moderating, Ariel- like influence of a superego. While Aylmer would transform Georgiana to aesthetic perfection, Rappaccini would endow Beatrice "with marvelous gifts, against which no power nor strength could avail an enemy," an ability "to quell the mightiest with a breath ...[ to be] as terrible as [she is] beautiful" (Ibid.). Rappaccini s grand design involves mating his daughter with Giovanni, who is well on his own way to biological alteration, and thus producing a race of supermen. The implications and relevance to contemporary issues of genetic engineering are obvious.

In Sarah One Jewett s "The White Heron," Sylvia is more beneficently allegorical, this time in the Dionysian direction. The "ornithologist" is Apollonian in his intention to capture the rare heron so that he might add it to his collection of specimens; in Wordsworth s phrase, he would "murder to dissect." To entice Sylvia to help him, he tempts her, Satan-like, with his good looks, courtly manner, and money. She resists his blandishments after climbing a pine tree of mythic proportions and glimpsing the equally mythic ocean and white heron. The strong sexual overtones of her ordeal suggest she has experienced initiation into a far more profound Dionysian union with nature than was possible before.

Kate Chopin provides more Dionysian heroines. In "The Storm," Calixta abandons herself to Dionysian ecstasy with Alcee, but they both return safely to Apollonian routine and responsibility, all the more healthy for having relished the transitory storm of illicit passion.

Edna Pontelliere, in The Awakening, is another case altogether. Her Dionysian transgressions follow her growing awareness of her sensual nature while she vacations at Grand Isle. Upon her return to New Orleans Creole society, with its ambiguous expectations of Apollonian propriety, Edna becomes sexually and creatively liberated. Her suicide through drowning acquires a tragic grandeur as her affirmation of life plays out to its inevitable conclusion in death.

The rebirth and rejuvenation of spring implies the death of winter; just so, Dionysus is a god of death as well as of life (Deutsch 27). In Thomas Mann s Death in Venice, Gustav Aschenbach, distinguished scholar and writer, leaves the cold northern influence of Germany for the sunny but deadly ambience of Italy.[3] There, he is irresistibly attracted to the young Tadziu, with "the head of Eros, with the creamy luster of Parian marble, the brows fine-drawn and serious, the temples and ears darkly and softly covered by the neat right-angled growth of the curling hair" (Norton II 1615). The aesthetic attraction shortly becomes physical: "Had he not heard that the sun turns our attention from spiritual things to the things of the senses" (Ibid., 1626) . This is obviously the sun of passion s heat rather than that of Apollo s enlightenment. Aschenbach is about to escape the cholera epidemic which has spread to Venice when misdirected luggage furnishes a pretext for his return to his Lido hotel, and death. "Emotional intoxication" has subverted his Apollonian nature and Platonic appreciation of beauty (Ibid., 1627). As Herbert O. Smith has pointed out, the story "pits the artist-hero against the relentless pressures from within--the direction of human life toward discipline and order on the one hand (Apollo) and the movement towards dissolution and the release of pent-up energy and tensions on the other (Dionysus)" (36).

In James Joyce s "The Dead," Gabriel is a figure of Apollonian enlightenment in what he considers benighted Dublin. A book reviewer and college professor, a "West Briton" who chooses European rather than Aran Isles vacations, he professes to honor his aunts, the "Three Graces" of beauty, charm, and grace, but in fact he considers them"two ignorant old women" (Bedford 3rd 334). His learning of Michael Furey, a boy who once so loved Gretta, his wife, that he died after standing in a cold rain for her, provides a "shameful consciousness of his own person" (Ibid., 350). Gabriel realizes the paltriness of his Apollonian pretensions next to the Dionysian power of feeling manifested by his long-dead rival for Gretta s affection.

D. H. Lawrence s "The Horse Dealer s Daughter" involves a near death: the Dionysian Mabel, in despair over her loss of family and home, attempts suicide, but the Apollonian Dr. Jack Fergusson pulls her from the primordial ooze of a pond to a symbolic and mutual rebirth. The two resolve to marry, drawing from each other the qualities of head or heart heretofore lacking in each to form a single balanced and harmonious personality.

Among the most anthologized poetry, Keats provides the most complex and paradoxical instances of the thinking--feeling and art--nature spectra. His "Ode to Psyche" is a paean quite unexpected in an early nineteenth century English romantic, and the elevation of art over nature in "Ode to a Nightingale," "Ode on a Grecian Urn," "On First Looking into Chapman s Homer," and "On Seeing the Elgin Marbles" provide exceptional opportunities for students close reading and analysis. Arnold s "Dover Beach" and Browning s "My Last Duchess," on the other hand, represent Dionysian feeling as antidote to Victorian intellectual disputation and uncertainty, and, in the Browning, as morally superior to cultural and genealogical arrogance. Another Victorian, Tennyson, has Ulysses choose Dionysus in abandoning Apollonian responsibilities of rule, but we can be sure his new adventures are of the intellectual and scientific kind, calculated to enhance imperial pretensions. He is possibly, and successfully, Apollonian and Dionysian at the same time.

It is just such complexity of possibility, that Edna Pontelliere and Gustav Aschenbach can die by their embrace of Dionysian life, but that Jack Fergusson and Calixta can more intensely live by doing the same thing, that should challenge and motivate students to closer reading of the texts. They should first of all recognize the relevance of Apollo and Dionysus to their own experience and then appreciate that the literary characters can be better understood by locating them along the behavioral continuum.


Notes

[1] Because all the texts discussed are virtually ubiquitous in the various anthologies for composition, American literature, British literature, and world literature courses, references will be provided only for quotations. The actual anthologies used in this study appear in the Works Cited.

[2] The introductory comments in Norton volume 1 (2670- 2672) effectively reveal Faustus complexity of motivation.

[3] The Norton volume 2 (1592-1595) introduction provides a concise overview of Apollonian and Dionysian qualities in this story that can usefully apply to literature in general.


Works Cited

Boorstin, Daniel J. The Creators: A History of Heros of the Imagination. New York: Random House, 1992.

Frye, Northrop. Anatomy of Criticism: Four Essays. New York: Atheneum, 1966.

Deutsch, Helene, M.D. A Psychoanalytic Study of the Myth of Dionysus and Apollo: Two Variants of the Son-Mother Relationship. New York: International Universities, 1969.

Kaufmann, Walter A. Nietzsche: Philosopher, Psychologist, Antichrist. Princeton: Princeton U. P., 1950.

Mack, Maynard, ed. The Norton Anthology of World Masterpieces. Expanded Edition, two volumes. New York: Norton, 1995.

Meyer, Michael, ed. The Bedford Introduction to Literature: Reading, Thinking, and Writing. 4th ed. Boston: Bedford, 1996.

---. 3rd ed of above, 1993.

Otto, Walter F. Dionysus: Myth and Cult. Trans. Robert B. Palmer. Dallas: Spring Publications, 1886.

Smith, Herbert O. "Prologue to the Great War: Encounters with Apollo and Dionysus in Death in Venice." Focus on Robert Graves and His Contemporaries 1.13 (Winter 1992): 36- 42.


Michael Thro teaches English at the Virginia Beach campus of Tidewater Community College.