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Nietzsche, Freud, Jung and the return of Dionysos


Below is an abstract from the talk given to the Association of Psycho-social studies after the kind invitation of Dr Jacob Johanssen. I hope the full article will be published in their journal in due course. In the meantime here is the link to them:



The (Re-) Birth of Dionysos

Nietzsche begins the Birth of Tragedy, and indeed his public writing career, with his famous distinction between the Apollonian and Dionysian. Famous, and influential, but often misrepresented, to the Anglo-American mind at least. For many in our culture their interpretation is drawn from artworks such as Thomas Mann’s novella, Death in Venice, later remade and represented by Luigi Visconti in the 1971 film where the fictionalized Aschenbach is changed from a writer to a musician (loosely based on Gustav Mahler) followed by the 1973 Benjamin Britten opera, again of the same name, but this time following more closely Mann’s narrative.[1] In all three Kunstwerke, Aschenbach’s struggle between sensuality and intellectual control is represented by the ‘battle’ between Dionysos and Apollo that he experiences towards the end of the novella in a dream.

Although the links between the cholera epidemic in the city, Aschenbach’s lusts and the ‘stranger god’ are played down in the Visconti film it is notable that the last glimpse of Tadzio given by the director before Aschenbach’s demise, is his adoption of the ‘Dionysian’ pose described by Mann at the end of his novella and making explicit reference to Nietzsche’s typology.

Yet, I say ‘misrepresented’ as the legendary ‘battle’ between the two forces is not what Nietzsche describes in the Birth. Rather, as we would expect, Nietzsche gives a more subtle typology, which, as we shall see, will have a significant impact on the emerging ‘science of the soul’ in the 20th Century psychological sciences.

Nietzsche begins his description in the Birth by associating the two deities with the difference between the realms of dream (Traum – Apollo) and intoxication (Rausche – Dionysos):


To reach a better understanding of these two drives (Triebe), let us first conceive them as the separate art worlds (Kunstwelten) of dream (Traum) and intoxication (Rausche), two physiological manifestations (physiologischen Erscheinungen) which contrast similarly to the Apollonian and the Dionysian (BT 14, GW19)


Nietzsche’s opening – much criticized and much misunderstood – is significant from the perspective he buries in the first line:


We shall have gained much for the science of aesthetics when we not only through logical comprehension (logischen Einsicht) but through the immediate certainty of view (unmittelbaren Sicherheit der Anschauung) have come to see that continuous development of art as it arises from the duality of the Apollonian and the Dionysian. (BT 14/ GW 19)


Taking his cues from Kant’s intuition and Schopenhauer’s Wille, Nietzsche will no longer rely upon logical comprehension but rather enlarges his perspective to embrace the ‘immediate certainty’ of the Anschauung that will inform his discourse. Having chosen his path he is clear that the best way is thus not simply to rely on the means of logical discourse, but like the Greeks before him, to embody the Anschauung through the mythic figure:


These terms are borrowed from the Greeks, who revealed the profound mysteries of their art-view (tiefsinnigen Geheimlehren ihre Kunstanschauung) not just in ideas/concept (Begriffen) but in the vividly meaningful forms of their divine pantheon (in den eindringlich deutlichen Gestalten ihrer Goetterwelt) to make it comprehensible to those who wish to understand. (BT 14/ GW19)


With these passages Nietzsche closes the period of the Enlightenment and ushers in our own world – the ‘modern’ (or perhaps better ‘psychological’) world that seeks to comprehend the world not by reason but the mythic figures, dreams, drives, shapes and forms of the ‘underworld’: more familiar to us moderns as Freud’s ‘unconscious’. The Gestalten he will play with in the Birth are those of Apollo and Dionysos (amongst others) but what is notable, and what had such a profound effect on the clinicians who would follow him, is the use to which he puts these Gestalten and Geheimlehren. They will from now on sketch out the Drives of the soul (Freud’s Trieben) as we go beyond reason to find the source of being itself. This reason, this enlightenment, will later be characterized by Nietzsche in his text as the Socratic, the MAN of reason who will seek out the answers to the mysterion through the use of reason, logic and dialectic alone. Yet, pace Mann, Britten and Visconti, the true conflict does not therefore exist between Apollo and Dionysos, but rather between the mythic world view, the world seen through the eyes of the deities (this he will term the tragic view) and the later Socratic dialectic that seeks to end the triumph of the tragic in the Greek world view.

Immature the Birth may be, but Nietzsche certainly achieved what he set out to accomplish in this work. He had shifted the ground, upon which the West assessed itself and its claims to truth. From the Socratic enthronement of reason Nietzsche had introduced the possibility of a new world view (Anschauung) that would recalibrate our view of ourselves. In Freud’s words, we would no longer be masters in our own houses, but rather we would have to pay new attention to the Drives that arose from the cellars of our personalities.


The Symbolic Dream-Picture

The Apollonian and Dionysian thus become for Nietzsche representatives of ‘Kunst Triebe’ (Artistic Drives) that ‘spring from nature itself’ (BT 18/GW 22) without the mediation of the artist. According to the Birth they become manifest through two means – the immediacy of dream and the ecstasy of intoxication. Neither is concerned with intellectual accomplishments or artistic culture (in the case of the dream) or indeed individuality (in the case of ecstasy) which would rather perhaps destroy the individual in the collective destiny of the whole.

The Dionysian, second cousin to Freud’s later Id and Unconscious, arises from the ‘innermost Ground of nature’, like the spring, full of Wollust and green (p.17). It will ‘tear down the veil of Maya’ as it leads to the Primal One-ness – der Ur-eine. Being touched by it:


Man is no longer an artist, he has become a work of art… the artistic power of the whole of nature reveals itself to the supreme gratification of the primal One-ness amidst the paroxysms of intoxication. (BT 18)


Yet, rather than threatening the individual Nietzsche sees what Freud will later term ‘the return of the repressed’ in the birth of Greek tragedy (and in his own time, soon enough repudiated, in the birth of Wagnerian music drama). For Tragedy (and by implication the Wagnerian Gesamtkunstwerk) reveals the ‘symbolic dream-image’ to ourselves.

This is the ‘symbolic dream picture’, the archetypes or ‘Ur-bildern’ of the self. It is important to stress the significance of these symbolic dream pictures of the archetypes conveyed, according to Nietzsche, through the tragic medium. Dionysos as portrayed in the Kunstwerke of Mann, Britten, Visconti et al mentioned above is a rampant destroyer of the cool Apollonian intellect. Yet Nietzsche is at pains throughout the Birth to distinguish the raw destructive energy of Dionysos, what he calls the Hexentrank – the Witch’s Brew (BT 20) full of ‘Wollust und Grausamkeit’, (the same witch’s brew that leads King Pentheus to be torn apart limb from limb by his mother and his attendants in Euripides’ Bacchae), and its symbolic mediation of the drive through the medium of tragedy. In this distinction lies the birth of the twentieth century psychological therapies. As Freud and Jung both recognized (how far they may have been influenced by Nietzsche is a moot point), the destructive drives are best dealt with by means of the mediation of the formulations of the therapeutic counseling room – thus obviating the expression of these gruesome drives in the witch’s brew of unmediated expression. In Nietzsche’s word, such a mediation ‘recalls (the deadly acts) as medicines recall deadly poisons’ (BT 20). Thus, the psychological therapies, following Nietzsche’s formulation, act as homeopathic drugs in recalling the source of poison itself.

Nietzsche’s ‘new world of symbols’ (neue Welt der Symbole) BT 21 can thus helpfully be identified with the formulas and arts of the emerging discipline of psychoanalysis. Including, following Nietzsche’s prescription ‘die ganze leibliche Symbolik’ – the whole symbol of the body made manifest in rhythm, movement and dance:


Nicht nur die Symbolik des Mundes, des Gesichts, des Wortes, sondern die volle, alle Glieder rhythmisch bewegende Tanzgebaerde’ BT 21 GW 24/25). Not only the symbolic of the mouth, the face and the word but the fullness of all limbs in the rhythmic movement of the language of dance.


In the Birth Nietzsche is ostensibly talking about the Attic discovery of tragedy as a means of channeling the destructive Dionysian in society. Yet it is not too far-fetched to see his account as mirroring parallel developments in nineteenth century European society as I have done here. The full title of Nietzsche’s book, The Birth of Tragedy from the Spirit of Music reveals his specific intent of relating the birth of the Attic arts to the contemporary artistic labours of Richard Wagner as he sought to establish a home for his Gesamtkunstwerk in Second Empire German society as Nietzsche makes clear towards the end of the Birth with his explicit references to Tristan and Die Meistersinger. Similarly, as suggested at the beginning of this paper, we can see the Birth as mirroring the concomitant movement in late nineteenth century European anthropology from the Kantian rule of reason to something more ‘rich and strange’. My argument being here that this ‘strangeness’ will ultimately find its home in the psychological therapies that today hold such a central place in our contemporary anthropology. The unquestioning acceptance of the ‘Nietzschean paradigm’ comes, as I suggest, at a price. First we need to question if this is the only way of understanding human anthropology, secondly we need to question whether there is not space for alternative views of human nature that lead away from the over-dominant Nietzschean model, especially as practiced in the psychological therapies (this is a project I working on at the moment using the writings of the Jewish Catholic phenomenologist, Edith Stein).


[1] The Dionysian/Apollonian trope is a common feature of early twentieth century culture. As well as the examples cited we can reference E.M. Forster’s 1902 short-story, The Story of a Panic and Karol Szymanowski’s 1918 opera King Roger (a photograph from the recent Covent Garden production of which is at the head of this blog)..





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