By Charles Matthews

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

25. The Modern Tradition, edited by Richard Ellmann and Charles Feidelson Jr., pp. 539-558

The Unconscious: Introduction; Unreason and Reason (Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, William Blake, Arthur Schopenhauer, Friedrich Nietzsche)

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe: The Demoniac

As the editors' introduction says, in the movement of thought leading up to Freud's creation of psychoanalysis, "The traditional primacy of ideas over feeling, purpose over instinct, reason over energy, is ... questioned and often repudiated." In this selection from Truth and Fiction Relating to My Life (a very clunky translation of the title Aus meinem Leben: Dichtung und Wahrheit, 1811-1822), Goethe examines the sense of something in nature that "was not godlike, for it seemed unreasonable; not human, for it had no understanding; nor devilish, for it was beneficent; nor angelic, for it often betrayed a malicious pleasure." He calls it the "Demoniac, after the example of the ancients," and notes that he has observed it in certain individuals who seem to possess "a tremendous energy"and to "exercise a wonderful power over all creatures."
Seldom if ever do the great men of an age find their equals among their contemporaries, and they are to be overcome by nothing but by the universe itself; and it is from observaton of this fact, that the strange but most striking proverb must have risen, Nemo contra Deum nisi Deus ipse.
No one can oppose a god if he isn't a god himself.

William Blake: Energy and Reason

Blake's "The Marriage of Heaven and Hell" (1793) accepts what Goethe calls the Demoniac as an essential creative principle, and anticipates Nietzsche's dualism of Apollonian and Dionysian. Hell is energy, and Heaven is reason, to oversimplify. And as Blake asserts, "Religion is an endeavour to reconcile the two." 

Arthur Schopenhauer: Will and Knowledge

In The World as Will and Idea (1818), Schopenhauer represents the traditional view as an assertion that human beings possess a soul that is primarily a vehicle for knowledge, and that from this knowledge humans learn that certain things are good. They then apply the secondary power of will to seek that which is good. This is, he says, "a reversal of the true relation." The will is the primary force: "Will is first and original; knowledge is merely added to it as an instrument belonging to the phenomenon of will."
What the man really and in general wills, the striving of his inmost nature, and the end he pursues in accordance with it, this we can never change by influence upon him from without by instruction, otherwise we could transform him.
The best we can do through moral instruction is to "teach the will that it erred in the means it employed and can therefore bring it about that the end after which it strives ... shall be pursued on an entirely different path and in an entirely different object from what has hitherto been the case. But it can never bring about that the will shall will something actually different from what it has hitherto willed."

The individual human is a finite being "in infinite space and time, and consequently ... a vanishing quantity compared with them." We exist "only in the present, whose unchecked flight into the past is a constant transition into death, a constant dying." In physical terms, just as "walking is ... merely a constantly prevented falling," bodily existence "is only a constantly prevented dying." And mental activity "is a constantly deferred ennui."
We pursue our life, however, with great interest and much solicitude as long as possible, as we blow out a soap-bubble as long and as large as possible, although we know that it will burst.
Because frustration of the will produces pain, and "too easy satisfaction" of what it desires produces only "a terrible void and ennui," life is a continual oscillation "between pain and ennui." The religious portrayal of hell as a place of constant pain, therefore, leaves "nothing over for heaven but ennui."

The body itself "is nothing but the objectified will to live." And the human being "stands upon the earth ... uncertain about everything except his own need and misery." For the mass of humanity, life is a constant struggle for existence, "with the certainty of losing it at last. But what enables them to endure this wearisome battle is not so much the love of life as the fear of death, which yet stands in the background as inevitable, and may come upon them at any moment."

Friedrich Nietzsche: Dionysos and Apollo

In The Birth of Tragedy (1872), Nietzsche posits a duality of the Apollonian and the Dionysiac -- roughly a dichotomy of reason and order vs. passion and chaos -- that, like Blake's Heaven and Hell, marry and beget "Attic tragedy, which exhibits the salient features of both parents." He compares the states of "dream and intoxication, two physiological phenomena standing toward one another in much the same relationship as the Apollonian and Dionysiac."
The person who is responsive to the stimuli of art behaves toward the reality of dream much the way the philosopher behaves toward the reality of existence: he observes exactly and enjoys his observations, for it is by these images that he interprets life, by these processes that he rehearses it. Nor is it by pleasant images alone that such plausible connections are made: the who divine comedy of life, including its somber aspects, its sudden balkings, impish accidents, anxious expectations, moves past him, not quite like a shadow play -- yet never without giving a fleeting sense of illusion.
Apollo was both the god of light and the soothsayer, and as the bearer of truths represents both the dream state and art, which are closely related. Apollo's "looks and gestures radiate the full delight, wisdom, and beauty of 'illusion.'"

The Dionysiac "rapture, whose closest analogy is furnished by physical intoxication," brings about the bond between individual human beings and between humanity and nature.
If one were to convert Beethoven's "Paean to Joy" into a painting, and refuse to curb the imagination when that multitude prostrates itself reverently in the dust, one might form some apprehension of the Dionysiac ritual. Now the slave emerges as a freeman; all the rigid, hostile walls which either necessity or despotism has erected between men are shattered.... He feels himself to be godlike and strides with the same elation and ecstasy as the gods he has seen in his dreams.
Nietzsche goes on to interpret the choral finale of Beethoven's Ninth as an expression of Dionysiac rapture, quoting the line from the Schiller poem set by Beethoven: "Do you fall on your knees, multitudes, do you divine your creator?" (Ihr stürzt nieder, Millionen? Ahnest du den Schöpfer, Welt?)

Nietzsche asserts that the cult of Dionysus was prevalent elsewhere in the ancient world but was held in check in Greece by "the proud, imposing image of Apollo, who in holding up the head of the Gorgon to those brutal and grotesque Dionysiac forces subdued them. Doric art has immortalized Apollo's majestic rejection of all license."
Apollo's music was a Doric architecture of sound -- of barely hinted sounds such as are proper to the cithara. Those very elements which characterize Dionysiac music and, after it, music quite generally: the heart-shaking power of tone, the uniform stream of melody, the incomparable resources of harmony -- all these elements had been carefully kept at a distance as being inconsistent with the Apollonian norm.
Do I need to interject here that classical scholars dismiss Nietzsche's account of Greek art and religion as pure fantasy? But Nietzsche was not really interested in presenting a factual account of ancient history, any more than Blake was describing a literal marriage of Heaven and Hell. Apollo represents for him the Olympian attitude, with Dionysos as an expression of Goethe's Demoniac force. "The same drive that found its most complete representation in Apollo generated the whole Olympian world, and in this sense we may consider Apollo the father of that world.... Nothing in these deities reminds us of asceticism, high intellect, or duty: we are confronted by luxuriant, triumphant existence, which deifies the good and the bad indifferently."

He tells the story of King Midas, who asked Silenus, the companion and (in one version of the myth) the tutor of Dionysos, "what he considered man's greatest good." Silenus responded:
"Ephemeral wretch, begotten by accident and toil, why do you force me to tell you what it would be your greatest boon not to hear? What would be best for you is quite beyond your reach: not to have been born, not to be, to be nothing. But the second best is to die soon."
That makes Schopenhauer sound cheerful. Nietzsche sees the Olympian gods as a projection of human beings, "keenly aware of the terrors and horrors of existence; in order to be able to live at all they had to place before them the shining fantasy of the Olympians." The same religion-as-fantasy impulse also gave rise to art "as a completion and consummation of existence." As for the gods, they "justified human life by living it themselves -- the only satisfactory theodicy ever invented." (The same impetus to project human existence into divinity also gives rise to the Christian idea of the Incarnation, of God become Man.) 

With the example of the immortal gods before them, "Now it became possible to stand the wisdom of Silenus on its head and proclaim that it was the worst evil for man to die soon, and second worst for him to die at all." Thus human heroes, a little bit lower than the gods, appeared in the poetry of Homer.
It should have become apparent by now that the harmony with nature which we late-comers regard with such nostalgia, and for which Schiller has coined the cant term naïve, is by no means a simple and inevitable condition to be found at the gateway to every culture, a kind of paradise.... The naïveté of Homer must be viewed as a complete victory of Apollonian illusion.... In the case of the Greeks it was the will wishing to behold itself in the transcendence of genius; but in order so to behold itself its creatures had to view themselves as glorious, to transpose themselves to a higher sphere, without having that sphere of pure contemplation either challenge them or upbraid them with insufficiency. It was in that sphere of beauty that the Greeks saw the Olympians as their mirror images; it was by means of that esthetic mirror that the Greek will opposed suffering and the somber wisdom of suffering which always accompanies artistic talent.
Humans have "an intense longing for illusion" and our dreams "appear to us as illusions of illusions, hence as a still higher form of satisfaction of the original desire for illusion." Nietzsche turns here to a later artist, Raphael, and his painting of the Transfiguration.
He finds in it "that reduction of illusion to further illusion which is the original act of the naïve artist and at the same time of all Apollonian culture." In the lower half of the painting we have confusion ("the helpless, terrified disciples")  and pain ("the possessed boy") -- "íllusion' here is a reflection of eternal contradiction, begetter of all things. From this illusion there arises, like the fragrance of ambrosia, a new illusory world, invisible to those enmeshed in the first; a radiant vision of pure delight, a rapt seeing through wide-open eyes. Here we have, in a great symbol of art, both the fair world of Apollo and its substratum, the terrible wisdom of Silenus, and we can comprehend intuitively how they mutually require one another."

The Apollonian attitude "demands self-control" and produces maxims like "Know thyself" and "Nothing too much." Consequently, "the Dionysiac spirit struck the Apollonian Greeks as titanic and barbaric." But antithetical forces must coexist. And out of their coexistence comes the tragic vision, producing "the sublime and much lauded achievement of the dramatic dithyramb and Attic tragedy, as the common goal of both urges; whose mysterious marriage, after long discord, ennobled itself with such a child, at once Antigone and Cassandra."

In Beyond Good and Evil (1886), Nietzsche returned to the Apollonian and Dionysian, but in a more prophetic, less explanatory vein, reporting the conversation of a devotee with Dionysus:
Once, for example, he said "I love mankind under certain conditions" (alluding to Ariadne who was there at the time), "man seems to me to be a pleasant, courageous, inventive animal who has not his likes on earth; he can find his way around any labyrinth. I wish him well; I often contemplate how I might advance him, how I might make him stronger, more evil, and deeper than he is." "Stronger, more evil, and deeper?" I asked, shocked. "Yes," he said once more, "stronger, more evil, deeper, and also -- more beautiful!" -- and saying this he smiled his halcyon smile, this Tempter-God, as though he had delivered himself of an endearing courtesy. One sees at once that it is not only modesty which this divinity lacks.... There are good reasons, in fact, for supposing that all the gods could learn from us men in several respects. We man are more -- humane....

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