Dionysian is a philosophical and literary concept, or dichotomy, based on certain features of ancient Greek mythology. Several Western philosophical and literary figures have invoked this dichotomy in critical and creative works, including Plutarch, Friedrich Nietzsche, Carl Jung, Franz Kafka, Robert A. Heinlein, Ruth Benedict, Thomas Mann, Hermann Hesse, singers Jim Morrison and Iggy Pop, literary critic G. Wilson Knight, Ayn Rand, Stephen King, Michael Pollan, Diane Wakoski, Umberto Eco and cultural critic Camille Paglia.
In Greek mythology, Apollo and Dionysus are both sons of Zeus. Apollo is the god of the Sun, dreams, reason, and plastic visual arts while Dionysus is the god of wine, music, ecstasy, and intoxication. In the modern literary usage of the concept, the contrast between Apollo and Dionysus symbolizes principles of collectivism versus individualism, light versus darkness, or civilization versus primitivism. The ancient Greeks did not consider the two gods to be opposites or rivals. However, Parnassus, the mythical home of poetry and all art, was strongly associated with each of the two gods in separate legends.
Although the use of the concepts of Apollonian and Dionysian is famously related to Nietzsche‘s The Birth of Tragedy, the terms were used before him in Prussia. The poet Hölderlin used it, while Winckelmann talked of Bacchus, the god of wine.
Nietzsche’s aesthetic usage of the concepts, which was later developed philosophically, was first developed in his book The Birth of Tragedy, which he published in 1872. His major premise here was that the fusion of Dionysian and Apollonian “Kunsttrieben” (“artistic impulses”) forms dramatic arts, or tragedies. He goes on to argue that that has not been achieved since the ancient Greek tragedians. Nietzsche is adamant that the works of above all Aeschylus, and also Sophocles, represent the apex of artistic creation, the true realization of tragedy; it is with Euripides, he states, that tragedy begins its “Untergang” (literally “going under”, meaning decline, deterioration, downfall, death, etc.). Nietzsche objects to Euripides’ use of Socratic rationalism in his tragedies, claiming that the infusion of ethics and reason robs tragedy of its foundation, namely the fragile balance of the Dionysian and Apollonian.
The relationship between the Apollonian and Dionysian juxtapositions is apparent, Nietzsche claimed in The Birth of Tragedy, in the interplay of Greek Tragedy: the tragic hero of the drama, the main protagonist, struggles to make order (in the Apollonian sense) of his unjust and chaotic (Dionysian) Fate, though he dies unfulfilled in the end. For the audience of such a drama, Nietzsche claimed, this tragedy allows us to sense an underlying essence, what he called the “Primordial Unity”, which revives our Dionysian nature – which is almost indescribably pleasurable. Though he later dropped this concept saying it was “…burdened with all the errors of youth” (Attempt at Self Criticism, §2), the overarching theme was a sort of metaphysical solace or connection to the heart of creation, so to speak.
Different from Kant’s idea of the sublime, the Dionysian is all-inclusive rather than alienating to the viewer as a sublimating experience. The sublime needs critical distance, whereas the Dionysian demands a closeness of experience. According to Nietzsche, the critical distance, which separates man from his closest emotions, originates in Apollonian ideals, which in turn separate him from his essential connection with self. The Dionysian embraces the chaotic nature of such experience as all-important; not just on its own, but as it is intimately connected with the Apollonian. The Dionysian magnifies man, but only so far as he realizes that he is one and the same with all ordered human experience. The godlike unity of the Dionysian experience is of utmost importance in viewing the Dionysian as it is related to the Apollonian because it emphasizes the harmony that can be found within one’s chaotic experiences.