The Dionysian Revealed Itself As Truth: Have We Understood it? By Yunus Tuncel

Nietzsche’s declaration in The Birth of Tragedy, “excess revealed itself as truth,” (sec.4) ushered in a new age, and we are yet to “understand” the cultural significance of this declaration. With ‘excess’ Nietzsche here means the Dionysian, which is one of the two art impulses he uses to approach the spirit of ancient Greek tragedy and theater. The Dionysian stands for many different things: first, it is the absence of the individuated state, as it stands in opposition to the Apollonian; second, it is, through this absence, the union of all beings; third, it is one’s losing one’s self and being connected to other beings, nature, and the universe. Nietzsche uses a variety of terms to explain this existential state of being: art impulse, intoxication, and ecstasy. We can at least identify three related areas to which the Dionysian directly applies, namely, arts, eroticism, and mortality. These three areas will be my primary focus in this paper, as I bring Bataille’s and Heidegger’s ideas into discussion in relation to the last two, eroticism and death, tie all of them together, and show the significance of the Dionysian for the life of individuals and culture as a whole.

I. The Dionysian in Aesthetics

Nietzsche’s primary application of the term ‘Dionysian’ seems to be in the aesthetic realm in The Birth of Tragedy. After all, the book is an attempt to understand Greek drama and theater, its origin, constituent elements, rise, and death under the hegemony of Socratic rationality. The term ‘aesthetic’, however, should not be understood only in terms of its application to works of art, but rather in a broader sense as creative activity in a multitude of forms. As Nietzsche asserts by way of his discussion of lyric poetry, “…it is only as an aesthetic phenomenon that existence and the world are eternally justified…”[1] We are artistic projections of the true author, he says–no god is invoked here; we are small creatures of this existence and we can justify our existence by living up to the fact that we are created and, therefore, must be creative in our small ways. In this way, creation, at the cosmic and cultural levels, carries itself on. Through the Dionysian and ecstatic states, the lyric artist taps into this chain of creation. Therefore, the subject/object dualism no longer holds when it comes to aesthetics; in fact, this division does not hold for anything, thus Nietzsche sees the problem of modern subjectivity in arts for the first time.

What are the Dionysian elements in the aesthetic field? Nietzsche associates the Dionysian with the intangible, the invisible, and therefore with sound and symbol. Therefore, he considers music to be the true Dionysian art form, as opposed to visual arts that are Apollonian. After music comes singing and dancing, all of which were artistic functions in ancient Greek dramatic performances. Nietzsche, however, later detected a problem in this type of dualism. In his 1886 Preface, he acknowledges the shortcomings of the book, without giving up on the idea of the Dionysian or what it stands for in general. One problem regarding the dualism to which the young Nietzsche was not sensitive is such a separation between musical and visual arts. It would have been more consistent for Nietzsche to say that all arts have the Apollonian and the Dionysian, but in different degrees. He could then say that musical arts are more Dionysian than visual arts. In either case, Nietzsche in BT does not dismiss the role of visual arts, but rather confines them to the realm of the Apollonian, as he associates it with image, illusion, and dream. They have the function of bringing joy into the Dionysian suffering, another problematic association which Nietzsche would not subscribe to later.

If the Dionysian is losing one’s self, then every act can be said to be Dionysian. Nietzsche’s term, however, is not as broad as it seems. He contrasts the Dionysian to everyday forms of living: “The contrast between this real truth of nature [i.e. the Dionysian] and the lie of culture that poses as though it were the only reality…”[2] Based on this contrast, the Dionysian has to be of a different order than what one does or finds in one’s everyday reality. It is a magical transformation on stage: it is making present those that are absent through artifacts such as masks, and it is re-creating movement as in dance and so on. These ecstatic states are often described as those of hallucination or madness. In fact, Nietzsche uses ‘madness’ in his Preface to BT: “And what, then, is the significance, physiologically speaking, of that madness out of which tragic and comic art developed—the Dionysian madness?”[3] It is through madness that the artist loses him or herself in the ocean of images and sounds and recreates them in another, hitherto unseen, unheard of, unity.

II. Eroticism and the Dionysian

There are a few indications of sexual over- and under-tones of the Dionysian in The Birth of Tragedy. We know that Dionysus was a god of orgies, but Dionysus and Nietzsche’s Dionysian are not necessarily the same, although Nietzsche likes to convolute them. Regarding the cult of Dionysus, the sexual references are to be found in the figure of the satyr, the satyr-chorus and the satyr-play. Although we do not know much about the satyr-play—there is only one that survived by Euripides—we know something about the satyr figure, the half-goat, half-human companion of Dionysus. Through his animal nature and his overt sexuality, the Greek audience found yet another medium to be connected to nature, as Nietzsche presents it: “The satyr…is the offspring of a longing for the primitive and for the natural; but how firmly and fearlessly the Greek embraced the man of the woods…”[4] In this part of the book, Nietzsche contrasts the Dionysian sensibility of the tragic Greek to the absence of that sensibility in the modern age. The everyday man of culture can refer to the absence of the Dionysian in any form of everydayness, including that of ancient Greece, but can also refer to even the severe lack of the Dionysian in modern Europe.

Nietzsche does highlight the sexual aspect of satyr in Greek tragedy: “..the satyr was the archetype of man…a symbol of the sexual omnipotence of nature which the Greeks used to contemplate with reverent wonder.”[5] Apart from the discussion of the satyr and all that is related to him and the Dionysian festivals that were sexually licentious (sec.2), there is no direct reference to any sexual symbols in The Birth of Tragedy. On the other hand, ancient Greek culture had sexual symbols associated with other gods and cults such as Eros, Aphrodite, and Hermes, to count only a few. Nietzsche, however, brings up the Dionysian again in one of his last books, Twilight of the Idols, and this time sexual symbolism is at the core of his understanding of the Dionysian. In this work he associates the Dionysian with the orgiastic, the eternal life, the mystery of sexuality, the union of joy and suffering, overflowing feeling of life and strength or powerfulness, and finally the joyful affirmation of life in the face of its hardest problems.[6] Going beyond Aristotle and modern pessimists, Nietzsche states: “the psychology of the orgiastic as an overflowing feeling of life and strength, where even pain still has the effect of a stimulus, gave me the key to the concept of tragic feeling…”[7] Although Nietzsche brings all forms of sexuality together in these passages, the focus is on the orgiastic, which was the function of Dionysus and is the compendium of many sexual practices.

If eroticism is the singularly creative experience of sexuality and one’s losing one’s self in the other, then the Dionysian must be in the air—must be the gluing bond so to speak—for the eroticism to be possible. We can then say that eroticism, like the Dionysian, does not belong to the registers of everydayness, that which is “useful” and “preservative,” but rather to another register, to that which is heterogeneous, to use Bataille’s phrase (the everyday order belongs to the homogeneous). Bataille describes eroticism as “assenting to life up to the point of death,” and “is a psychological quest independent of the natural goal.”[8] I will come back to the subject of death later and would like to explore other points on eroticism in Bataille, which is easily relatable to the Dionysian in Nietzsche. The erotic is non-purposeful, that is, non-procreative sexuality; only human beings can be erotic for Bataille. It is a cultural form. Furthermore, it establishes continuum among beings, whereas individuals are discontinuous beings. Through erotic acts and through other members of the erotic community, one becomes conjoined to Being. Bataille’s re-covery of eroticism is a response not only to Nietzsche’s call for a Dionysian culture but also to his critique of ascetic idealism. Through eroticism one embraces one’s body in a Dionysian communion and in an aesthetic way, because one creates one’s own sexuality in many different ways in and through eroticism. Now how does death come into the picture in Nietzsche and Bataille, and in relation to the Dionysian, in Bataille especially in his book, Erotism?

III. Death and the Dionysian

The Dionysian is the loss of individuated state and, when applied to the human realm, stands for the death of the individual or for destruction in general. As for the latter, Nietzsche expounds his theory of destruction in his notion of “critical history” where a part of the past must be destroyed for the sake of life.[9] Moreover, the cycle of destruction is already integrated into the eternal return, along with the cycle of creation. In fact, in one of his later notes, Nietzsche writes: “My first solution: Dionysian wisdom. Joy in the destruction of the most noble and at the sight of its progressive ruin: in reality joy in what is coming and lies in the future…” (WP 417)  However antithetical they may seem, Nietzsche sees both life and death in one thought, and it is through the Dionysian wisdom that we are reminded of our mortality. Whether it is the wisdom of Silenus who announces that the next best thing to do is to die or Hamlet’s wisdom of destructibility of all things (BT, sections 4 and 7, respectively), the Dionysian wisdom gives us our sense of mortality, or to use Heidegger’s phrase, our being-toward-death.

For Heidegger, being-toward-death is not some brooding over death or thinking about death, but rather is a disposition that opens Dasein to new possibilities. “Being-toward-death is the anticipation of a potentiality-of-being of that being whose kind of being is anticipation itself. In the anticipatory revealing of this potentiality-of-being, Da-sein discloses itself to itself with regard to its most extreme possibility.” (Heidegger 242). It is by projecting itself to new possibilities that Dasein can find its own potential and re-create itself authentically; and every projection is a form of being-toward-death. In every transformation something dies and something is re-born. Heidegger sees “freedom toward death” in one’s quest for finding one’s authentic self; death or facing nothingness opens up the quest. Precisely it is the anxiety of one’s own death, one’s nothingness that does this initiation: “In Angst, Da-sein finds itself faced with the nothingness of the possible impossibility of its existence.” (Heidegger 245). This is why he says that being-toward-death is essentially Angst. If we do not feel this anxiety, then we will not have the disposition of being-toward-death. In that case, the inauthentic forms of being weigh heavily upon Da-sein who feels comfortable in its thrownness in the ‘they,’ das Man.

Nietzsche does not specify the feelings that are associated with Dionysian states, but one can surmise that they are extra-ordinary feelings, intense, excessive feelings not unlike those that are associated with blood and violence or with euphoria. Bataille, on the other hand, focuses on two areas in human society, regarding ecstatic states: sexuality and death. He associates ecstasy with transgression and identifies the two as the two major areas of transgression. He claims that taboos regarding sex and death are the oldest and most universal taboos in human societies. What ties eroticism to death in the way Bataille treats them is the loss of the self: in eroticism one loses one’s self in the lover(s) and death is the ultimate loss of one’s self. Every society regulates both sex and death so as to create an order, while inviting the transgression of taboos placed on them. While Nietzsche takes more of an aesthetic approach to the Dionysian with implicit and explicit references to sexuality and death, Bataille works through a necro-erotic perspective and Heidegger through ontology.


Just to wrap things up, it should be noted that the Dionysian is all the following at the same time: the creative force since it is an art impulse, the binding force through its orgiastic function, and also the force that puts us in our place vis-à-vis other beings that surround us, as it reminds us of our mortality. Despite all, despite its vitality and necessity for the life of every culture, everyday functions of preservation weigh heavily on the Dionysian forces and often diminish their vitality. This paradox lies at the core of human society; we are bound to preserve ourselves and yet we need the Dionysian to be aesthetic, to be erotic and to understand our mortality. Often the quantity of preservative forces brings down the quality of Dionysian forces. We will always be faced with these human dilemmas, but let it suffice here to say that the Dionysian in Nietzsche brings together three fundamental forces that are needed for the life and health of a culture: the aesthetic-creative impulse, the erotic force, and the sense of mortality. All in all and to invoke the spirit of ancient Greece, the Muses, Dionysus, Eros, Aphrodite, and Hades hold hands and dance together.

In a few years, it will be 150 years since Nietzsche called for a return to a Dionysian culture in his The Birth of Tragedy, at least in the Western context. Can we today say that the spirit of our contemporary culture is Dionysian? I would say not, although there are pockets of Dionysian practices in general culture and many Dionysian movements in the domain of the spirit. Modern dance was inspired by Nietzsche’s ideas on the Dionysian; Kandinsky appropriated the Dionysian into visual arts and thereby initiated abstract painting; in philosophy Bataille and Heidegger developed ideas on ecstasy and ecstatic disposition; installation and performance art forces human capabilities and operates along limit experiences; the whole drug culture, though fraught with nihilism (and in the US with racism) has Dionysian elements, and finally, psychoanalysis promotes the Dionysian indirectly insofar as it opens up new vistas and experiences for the non-rational in the human. However, these Dionysian movements of the last 100 years or so are divergent and lack coherence to a large extent. To make the Dionysian the spirit of our times will take much effort and also chance. As for the former, we can do our share; as for the latter, we can hope for Dionysus to appear.

Works Cited

Bataille, G. Erotism. Trans. New York: Walker and Company, 1962. Print.
Heidegger, M. Being and Time, Trans. J. Stambaugh. Albany, NY: SUNY Press, 1996. Print.
Nietzsche, F. The Birth of Tragedy. Trans. W. Kaufmann, New York: Vintage, 1967. Print.
—. The Gay Science. Trans. Walter Kaufmann, New York: Vintage Books, 1974, Print.
—. The Portable Nietzsche. Trans. Walter Kaufmann, New York: Penguin Books, 1976. Print.
—.Thus Spoke Zarathustra, tr. by W.Kaufmann, New York: The Viking Press, 1954. Print.
—. Twilight of Idols (in the TSZ edition listed above).
—.Untimely Meditations. Trans. R. J. Hollingdale, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983. Print.
—.The Will to Power. Trans. W. Kaufmann, Vintage Books, Random House, New York, 1968. Print.
[1] BT, 52.
[2] BT, 61.
[3] BT, 21.
[4] BT, sec.8.
[5] Ibid.
[6] TI, 561-563.
[7] TI, 562.
[8] Erotism, p.11.
[9] UM II, sec.3