Bert Olivier
Bert Olivier

The superficiality of our culture

This morning, re-reading Nietzsche’s early essay of genius about the strife between the ancient Greek gods, Dionysus and Apollo – The Birth of Tragedy out of the Spirit of Music – I was struck anew by the utter superficiality of the (global) culture we live in. This superficiality was captured succinctly by Theodor Adorno in the 1940s when he lamented that what he called “the weakness of the theoretical faculty” in society at large was astonishing. But here I don’t want to talk only about the “theoretical faculty”; what I have in mind goes beyond even what many theorists of the postmodern (see for instance David Harvey’s The Condition of Postmodernity) have perceptively described as postmodernity’s (and postmodernism’s, where postmodernism is the critical reflection on the culture of postmodernity) preoccupation with “surfaces”.

I would like to take my cue from Nietzsche, by using the opposing pair of principles denoted by Apollo and Dionysus, to say what I mean by “superficiality” – perhaps “denialism” would have been better, because it really concerns our culture’s “denialism” when it comes to acknowledging the inescapable suffering and pain in life, which is what – according to Nietzsche – the Greeks were able to acknowledge, and simultaneously elaborate on creatively, through the “marriage” between Dionysus and Apollo.

Dionysus, among the Greeks, was the god of music, drunken revelry and celebration of the fundamental oneness of all life, and during Dionysian celebrations, the individual surrendered to a state of intoxication which, according to Nietzshe, shattered his or her individuality, enabling them to experience a union with all others. It was the assertion of the unity of all being, from which one comes at birth, and where you return to at death.

In contrast Apollo, the god of the plastic, visual arts, stands for individuation, illusion, beauty, equilibrium and self-control. The way in which Nietzsche reconstructs and interprets ancient Greek history in The Birth of Tragedy construes it in terms of a kind of “truce” between these ancient enemies. In other words, while, in “barbarian” nations surrounding ancient Greek, or Doric, culture, Dionysus reigned supreme, with its “pessimistic” affirmation of suffering, death and the loss of individuality, among the Greeks this was mitigated by the operation of both principles in ancient Greek tragedy.

Apollo was present in tragic drama in the guise of the characters engaging in dramatic action, which reflected a kind of veil of illusion, cast over the terrible Dionysian truth of suffering and chthonic oneness with the primal forces of the earth (represented by the satyr chorus and the music). This, for Nietzsche, was a creative solution, on the part of the Greeks, for dealing creatively with the co-existence of the impulses represented by these two gods – impulses which are found in all cultures, but which are addressed very differently from one to the other. In the process – admitting the reality of pain and suffering in tragic drama (think of Oedipus Rex, Iphigenia at Aulis, Antigone), but casting this in Apollonian “dream-images” combined with Dionysian forces – the Greeks were able to create a “healthy” culture: healthy because, unlike later, transformed cultures, even among the ancient Greeks, they did not shrink away from staring suffering in the face, but “drew an Apollonian veil” over it.

With the advent of the philosophy of Plato and Aristotle, however, this “healthy” state of affairs gave way to an increasing denial of Dionysian reality in favour of the one-sided triumph of Apollo, but this time in the shape of the victory of reason, which Nietzsche construes as “Socratism”. It is expressed in images such as Plato’s in the Phaedrus, where the soul or psyche is depicted as a chariot being pulled by two horses, with the charioteer representing reason, the white horse spirit, and the black horse appetite or passion. With the help of the white horse the charioteer is able to subdue and control the black horse, but unlike the case of tragedy, there is no equal status of reason and irrational appetite here – where “appetite” or passion is the closest that Plato comes to the Dionysian principle.

According to Nietzsche, writing around the middle of the 19th century, the culture of his own time was even more in the grip of an unmitigated “Socratism”, that is, a rationalism that denied and erased any sign of Dionysus. Instead, it was increasingly predicated on the sole importance of reason – Apollo without Dionysus. In the Elizabethan era western culture could still produce tragedies – like those of Shakespeare – which instantiated a kind of equilibrium between Apollo and Dionysus, but by the 19th century, let alone the 20th and 21st, this “healthy” appearance of the tragic union between these two principles was all but gone.

It is worth mentioning that, in choosing to represent ancient Greek culture in this way – which, at the same time, represented the hallmarks of what he saw as a “healthy” culture – Nietzsche took a stand against the pessimistic philosophy of his older contemporary, Arthur Schopenhauer, who famously depicted life as a perpetual swinging of time’s pendulum between pain and boredom (“six days of suffering and one of boredom” – his dig at Christianity).

For Nietzsche, who was no stranger to pain (he suffered endlessly from unbearable migraines), Schopenhauer correctly saw the inescapable suffering of life, but instead of nevertheless “affirming” life, the way the Greeks did in tragedy, he negated it. By contrast Nietzsche, despite his awareness and experience of suffering, chose to “affirm” life. What he later called “the great health” was not – as seen in contemporary magazine-culture epitomised by Longevity magazine – the denial of suffering, but the joyful affirmation of life in Apollonian terms (albeit mitigated by acknowledging Dionysus), as among the ancient Greeks, the “shining ones”.

It requires no genius to tell that our “Prosac”-obsessed culture is even more in the suffocating grip of “Socratism” (I would prefer to call it “Platonism”, because it is Plato’s Socrates that Nietzsche has in mind, anyway) – everywhere people shy away from acknowledging the pain and death that visit the homes of every individual sooner or later. Even our cemeteries are located – in contrast to earlier ages – outside of cities and towns; the “family graveyard”, which is still sometimes seen on farms, is virtually unknown, as is the “deathbed”, where friends and family used to gather around a dying family member. Today the ethos is one of “deny (or anaesthetise) all pain, suffering and death” – something which, I believe, partly explains why people can’t deal with anything traumatic, except through the generous ingestion of tranquillisers and psychiatric or psychological treatment for “post-traumatic disorder”.

Today it would make no sense to orient education around the acceptance of human finitude, vulnerability and fallibility – everywhere we see the symptoms of a valorisation of reason which excludes or represses all acknowledgement of this. The rapid development of robotics is another symptom of the (in-)human dream of becoming immortal. Ray Kurzweil is paradigmatic in this regard. Is it still possible to write a tragedy today? Maybe Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman (tellingly named Loman) – a parody of tragedy – was born of a realisation that, in our time of the superficial, anaesthetising belief that suffering and death can be overcome, people cannot really grasp the forces at play – the Dionysian and the Apollonian – in this most “human” of the dramatic arts.

There is hope, however, in that there are examples of tragicomedy around – the films of David Lynch, for example Wild at Heart, can be interpreted in these terms, although theatre of the absurd also lends itself readily to these films as an interpretive framework. Perhaps tragicomedy is the most appropriate genre for our era, except that it presupposes too much comprehension on the part of people. Yep, on reflection it is the soapie – with ridiculous tiltes like The Bold and the Beautiful – which really captures the kitsch, superficial tenor of the present better than anything else.

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