Apollo and Dionysus--some views on Tragedy

Tragedy is the mirror of human existence. From our position amid the varied events of daily life, just as from our eyes looking out on the world, we can see much, but not our own selves. To see the events of the world, we look at the world; but to see ourselves, we need a mirror.

We look into the tragic mirror, however, not only to view our full reality, but also to set at a remove its rending paradox. Part of the truth of our existence is that nothingness bounds us on all sides; we came crying hither, and we all go into the dark. Yet madness looms if we look too long at our own deaths. . . . We look into the mirror of existence, accordingly, to try to separate our real from our impermanent--to try to extricate our being from nothingness. "The only self-knowledge," says Leibniz, "is to distinguish well between our self-being and non-being." We seek ourselves in the mirror of existence.

And nothing other than ourselves is there to be found. Tragic drama does not communicate. It teaches us no new truths. It has no message. The artifice of the mirror is to reflect; what it reveals is only what we present to it. Men like Goethe or Coleridge revel in Hamlet; small men can find no meaning in its action. (Tragic Meanings in Shakespeare 3-7)


Tragic heroes do not accept injustice as justice; they defy and demand suffering as validation of self. Tragedy is an attempt to establish a self in the face of a finite world.

Tragedy is to be regarded, and is recognized as the summit of poetical art, both on account of the greatness of its effect and the difficulty of its achievement. It is very significant for our whole system, and well worthy of observation, that the end of this highest poetical achievement is the representation of the terrible side of life. The unspeakable pain, the wail of humanity, the triumph of evil, the scornful mastery of chance, a and the irretrievable fall of the just and innocent, is here presented to us; and in this lies a significant hint of the nature of the world and of existence. It is the strife of will with itself, which here, completely unfolded at the highest grade of its objectivity, comes into fearful prominence. It becomes visible in the suffering of men . . . It is one and the same will that lives and appears in them all, but whose phenomena fight against each other and destroy each other. . . . If the whole world as idea is only the visibility of will, the work of art is to render this visibility more distinct. It is the camera obscura which shows the objects more purely, and enables us to survey them and comprehend them better. It is the play within the play, the stage upon which the stage in Hamlet.

The pleasure we receive from all beauty, the consolation which art affords, the enthusiasm of the artist, which enables him to forget the cares of life--the latter an advantage of the man of genius over other men, which alone repays him for the suffering that increases in proportion to the clearness of consciousness, and for the desert loneliness among men of a different race--all this rests on the fact that the in-itself of life, the will, existence itself, is . . . a constant sorrow, partly miserable, partly terrible; while, on the contrary, as idea alone, purely contemplated, or copied by art, free from pain, it presents to us a drama full of significance. (Schopenhauer "The World as Will and Idea"; Adams Critical 488).


Dionysian--organic, music, sexuality, intoxication, untamed instincts, ocean.

Apollonian--shift-shaper, illusion, lie, form, shell, sculpture, veil of Maya, attempt to pass off illusion as reality, fear of sexuality, fear of natural violence, decadent, hollow, lack of energy, weak, value systems and institutions, logic Principium individuationis.

It is by those two art-sponsoring deities, Apollo and Dionysus, that we are made to recognize the tremendous split, as regards both origins and objectives, between the plastic, Apollonian arts and the non-visual art of music inspired by Dionysus. The two creative tendencies developed alongside one another, usually in fierce opposition, each by its taunts forcing the other to more energetic production, both perpetuating in a discordant concord the agony which the term art but feebly denominates: until at last, by the thaumaturgy (magic or miracle) of a Hellenic act of will, the pair accepted the yoke of marriage and, in this condition, begot Attic tragedy, which exhibits the salient feature of both parents. . . . Apollo is at once the god of all plastic powers and the soothsaying god. He who is etymologically the lucent one, the god of light, reigns also over the fair illusion of our inner world of fantasy. . . . But the image of Apollo must incorporate that thin line which the dream image may not cross, under penalty of becoming pathological, of imposing itself on us as crass realty: a discreet limitation, a freedom from all extravagant urges, the sapient tranquility of the plastic god. His eye must be sun-like. Even at those moments, when he is angry and ill-tempered there lies upon him the consecration of fair illusion. In an eccentric way one might say of Apollo what Schopenhauer says, in the first part of The World as Will and Idea, of man caught in the veil of Maya (Hindu goddess representing illusion): "Even as on an immense, raging sea, assailed by huge wave crest, a man sits in a little rowboat trusting his frail craft, so amidst the furious torments of this world, the individual sits tranquilly, supported by the Principium individuationis (undivided or ultimate principle) and relying on it."

Dionysian stirrings arise either through the influence of those narcotic potions of which all primitive races speak in their hymns, or through the powerful approach of spring, which penetrates with joy the whole frame of nature. So stirred, the individual forgets himself completely. . . . the chariot of Dionysus is bedecked with flowers and garlands; panthers and tigers stride beneath his yoke. . . . his Apollonian consciousness was but a thin veil hiding from him the whole Dionysian realm. . . . (Nietzsche The Birth of Tragedy

Our modern tragic vision is the Dionysian vision still, except that the visionary is now utterly lost, since there is no cosmic order to allow a return to the world for him who has dared stray beyond. (Murray Krieger "Tragedy and Tragic Vision," Corrigan 35-6)