Nietzsche & Dionysos

This is an essay that will be in a collection that I will publish next spring/summer.

 

I feel Friedrich Nietzsche has been sadly neglected as a pagan/polytheist precursor, he who did so much to lay open avenues for pagan developments, among others. Many misunderstand his death of God statement and see this as a proclamation of an ideological atheist, rather than a clearing and the insight that the Abrahamic god was dead, at least in as occupying the center stage that he had held for so long in western culture. His trenchant analyses of the negative influences that Christianity had on European cultures, especially in terms of its cultivation of what he called resentiment, the resentment of those who identify spiritually as victims, and the nihilistic pessimism of the passive approach to a life so cultivated and the goal of living as life’s negation, which he explored in books such as Beyond Good and Evil and the Anti-Christ, retain much of value in today’s world (I find this especially obvious in the assertions so often made today that one should not critique Christianity, even in its most regressive forms and institutions, often under the banner of “inter-faith”). But for our purposes his Dionysianism is central. In his passionate weave of Dionysos and the Heraklitean philosophy of becoming, life-affirming (but not shying from the tragic) resources for pagan/polytheistic theology can be found.

 

The son of a pastor, Nietzsche had an interest in paganism from his earliest years. As a child, living in the small town of Naumberg after his father’s death (1850) Friedrich and his sister constructed an altar for Wotan. As quoted from Zarathustra’s Secret by a German academic, Joachim Kohler, Elizabeth Nietzsche said, “We happened to hear that the nearby hill called the Kirchberg had originally been a place of sacrifice, so we collected stones and fragments of bone and built an altar round which we erected a pile of bones and wood, then set fire to it. When our goodly pastor, attracted by the strange smell, came to see what we were doing, he found us striding solemnly around the altar with burning torches held aloft, chanting a kind of hymn to the words, “Wotan, hear us!” (22). Elizabeth went on to horrible things* but we can only wonder how much Friedrich’s imaginings and contemplations of Wotan was a formative element. He remembered an eagle answering their call who had screeched out the name of the god. In this period he wrote his dreams down faithfully, and an important figure was a cloaked gamekeeper with “wild, glowering” features who seems to echo the Wild Huntsman. A few years later, his diary reports, ”’Finally, we reached a valley,…surrounded by wild undergrowth. Suddenly our companion took a whistle from his pocket and blew a shrill tone. At once the forest came to life, torches were to be seen here and there and we surrounded by men in masks” (24). This sounds like the spirit of the Wild Hunt. But it would be Dionysos to whom the adult Nietzsche would be dedicated; it is relevant that Dionysus also has an aspect as a leader of the dead and other spirits in a procession similar to the Wild Hunt.

 

Nietzsche often described himself in the role of a healer, a physician diagnosing the illness of Western civilization, and in his early book The Birth of Tragedy, the diagnosis was that the Dionysian aspect of life had been suppressed and neglected in Europe under the reign of Christianity and what he saw as its world-denying regimen. The Apollonian was just as important but had been given much greater due. There was no art form so vital in his view as Greek tragedy, that pure form of dramatic poetry that had been developed as part of the Urban Dionysia, the great Athenian festival dedicated to the ecstatic god. The tragedy grew out of the dithyramb, the enthusiastic choric form of poetry chanted and danced to Dionysus. He wrote that “Dionysus never ceased to be the tragic hero… all the famous figures of the Greek stage…are only masks of that original hero Dionysus. Nietzsche was himself a poet, though many only know him as the philosopher who wrote in a poetic style. He wrote a book of dithyrambs, which any lover of Dionysus should have, entitled, Dithyrambs of Dionysos. A German/English bilingual edition translated by RJ Hollindale and published by Anvil Press is an easily accessible one. He wrote the nine poems from 1883 to 1888, before his mental breakdown. A short poem that inscribes the beginning of the book is written as Dionysus:

In as much as I want to do mankind a boundless favour, I give them my dithyrambs.

 

I place them in the hands of the poet of Isoline {meaning Nietzsche}

The first and greatest satyr alive today—and not only today…

Dionysus

 

Nietzsche’s most famous and complex work, Thus Spake Zarathustra, presents a pagan vision of life. The philosopher T. K. Seung has written a hermeneutic work on Thus Spake Zarathustra entitled Nietzsche’s Epic of the Soul wherein he argues for the epic nature of the book, specifically that is as an epic journey of the soul. He situates Nietzsche as a pantheist, and in the lineage of Spinoza, a walker on the sacred earth, a climber on an epic quest, which parallels some of the writing of the book, which took place in the mountains of Switzerland as well as on the Mediterranean coast of Italy. Spinoza dealt with the problem of the deterministic material universe, the endless chains of causality, and how to create human joy from this seeming impasse of free will, and this would be one of Nietzsche’s concerns as well. One of the thorniest problems in interpretations of Zarathustra over generations is what Nietzsche meant by his doctrine of eternal recurrence; Zarathustra proclaims that seemingly impossible doctrine that everything will be repeated over and over, our lives in all our minutiae. Seung interprets it to be Spinoza’s chain of causality, the endless connections of our material lives and of the universe we are part of. The scientific universe whether of Newton or Einstein is this determined reality and the notion of the sovereign individual unleashed in this cosmography presents a basic contradiction. The laws of nature can’t be overcome. Seung states, “As long as these two ideas are kept apart from each other, there is no problem. But they generate an intractable problem when they are placed together. How can the individual be a creative master in the deterministic world?” (xiv). For post-medieval western philosophers the medieval theological debate over Adam’s free will versus predestination became one of free will vs. nature. For Seung this is Nietzsche’s ring of the eternal recurrence, a metaphor for the situation of the would-be sovereign individual within the laws of nature.

800px-Stort_bål_sankthans

Photo by Maylene Thyssen, Denmark.

 

But why not take the Dionysian Nietzsche at face value, and examine the theology of eternal recurrence? Carl Kerenyi in Dionysus: Archetypal Image of Indestructible Life wrote, “in the union of the two archetypal images, the divine pair of Dionysos and Ariadne represent the eternal passage of zoe into and through the genesis of living creatures, this occurs over and over again and is always, uninterruptedly, present.” Nietzsche had named himself the “last disciple of Dionysos” (Twilight of the Idols 563) and had found a precursor for his thought in Heraclitus: “The affirmation of passing away and destroying, which is the decisive feature of a Dionysian philosophy; saying Yes to opposition and war; becoming along with a radical repudiation of the very concept of being—all this is clearly closely related to me than anything else thought to date. The doctrine of the ‘eternal recurrence’, that is of the unconditional and infinitely repeated cyclical course of all things, this doctrine of Zarathustra might in the end have been already taught by Heraclitus. At least the Stoa has traces of it, and the Stoics inherited almost all of their principle notions from Heraclitus” (Ecce Homo quoted in Lukacher 7).

 

Nietzsche traced the eternal recurrence back through the stoics to Heraclitus, and his sense of the world eventually ending in a great conflagration, the ekpyrosis. In Heraclitus 45: “This kosmos, the same for all, none of gods nor humans made, but it was always and is and shall be: an ever-living fire, kindled in measures and extinguished in measures” (Curd 45). Life, fire, destruction, continual becoming are interlinked, indissolubly (as in ever-lasting: àeízöon, composed of zoe and aei, eternity). Stoic allegorists saw that the ever-living survives by dying, and Chrysippus said, “that all gods die in the last conflagration of the world, except for Jupiter” (Lukacher 10), we may hear an echo in the Norse Ragnarok. But for Nietzsche the god who survives the end of the cycle of the great year is named Dionysos. Regeneration in fire would always be world renewing. And Nietzsche theorized in 1883 that the Mysteries taught such eternal recurrence. Many die too late and a few die too early. The doctrine still sounds strange: “Die at the right time!”…I want to die myself that you, my friends, may love the earth more for my sake; and to earth I want to return that I may find rest in her who gave birth to me.

 

Like Heraclitus, Nietzsche did not see Being and Appearance as an opposition. There was no static Being but an ever-continuing coming to be and passing away without any closure of resolution. Like for Heraclitus, the strife of the world was not negative but something creative, in fact an overfullness, like a pregnancy near term (Ullers 9). Life is a process of renewal though its own destruction, something essentially Dionysian. The phenomena rise and pass endlessly, the forms broken like the tragic hero, the pathos of the will of the Heraklitean joinedness of opposites, of suffering and ecstasy at the heart of nature, an insight captured in the Dionysian theater, in the intoxicated god. (see Ulfers)

A Dionysian theology/philosophy can be discerned in this pain and ecstasy of becoming, one that has much potential as an alternative to the Neo-Platonist ones that have so much popularity these days, one rooted in pre-Socratic insight and the immanence of unlimited life and with potential for various polytheisms.

 

 

 

 

 

References

Curd, Patricia. Ed. A Presocratics Reader: Selected Fragments and Testimonia. 2nd Ed. Indianapolis: Hackett, 2011.

Kerenyi, Karl. Dionysos: Archteypal Image of Eternal Life. Princeton, 1976.

Köhler, Joachim. Zarathustra’s Secret: The Interior Life of Friedrich Nietzsche. trans. Ronald Taylor. New Haven: Yale, 2002.

Lukacher, Ned. Time-Fetishes: The Secret History of Eternal Recurrences. Durham: Duke University, 1998.

Ulfers, Frierich. “Introduction.” The Dionysian Vision of the World. Minneapolis: Univocal, 2013.

 

*Elizabeth Förster-Nietzsche became a notorious racist, fascist, and anti-Semite.

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25 thoughts on “Nietzsche & Dionysos

  1. I’m overjoyed to see you write this. And I had no idea that he actually performed a sacrifice to Wotan as a child! That places a lot of things in a new light…not least my own service to Odin.

  2. Very interesting! (And I also enjoyed your essay in A Beautiful Resistance, which I just got in the post today…)

    What you say of the ekpyrosis above and Jupiter being the only survivor is interesting in terms of my own delving into Greek eschatology, in my essay in the journal and elsewhere. Hmm…

  3. Thanks so much for writing this. I’ve been thinking about Nietzsche a lot recently. It was through writing my MA dissertation on ‘The Birth of Tragedy’ that I discovered my own experiences, which resembled ‘Dionysian’ ecstasy combined with ‘Apollonian’ vision leading to seeing the satyr chorus could be of real gods and spirits and began finding out about paganism and finally discovered my Brythonic god of ecstasy and vision and the fay folk – Gwyn ap Nudd. ‘The Vision and the Riddle’ in ‘Thus Spake Zarathrusta’ sends shivers through my soul every time I read it. So *really* interesting to hear about Nietzsche’s Wild Hunt type experiences. This is valuable research.

    1. “You…who have embarked with cunning sails upon undiscovered seas…” Yes, that chapter makes me quivery.

      Very interesting to hear about your thesis and how that was part of a process leading to Gwyn ap Nudd, indeed. So many threads interconnect, at often subliminal depths, in the labyrinthine journey.

      Thank you.

  4. Edward P. Butler

    A very nice essay, though I think that when you say that “Nietzsche has been sadly neglected as a pagan/polytheist precursor,” and that a Nietzchean philosophy/theology “has much potential as an alternative to the Neo-Platonist ones that have so much popularity these days,” I think that this matter of popularity or neglect has much to do with one’s perspective. I recall one of my professors, back when I was an undergrad, learning that I was pagan, saying that “You must really be into Nietzsche, then,” and by the same token, I still very frequently hear from academics, when I say that I am a Platonist and a polytheist (and who don’t, obviously, know anything of my work), “But how can that be? Because as a Platonist, you must believe in the One…”. So I’m not certain where the neglect of Nietzsche is supposed to be—unless it is in the ignorance of Nietzsche himself in the community, whereas Nietzsche’s ideas and general approach are, I find, very much more the default position there than any other—or where the popularity of Neoplatonism is supposed to be, as I always seem to be the only pagan talking about it! But again, this is a fine piece and an excellent introduction to the subject.

    1. Maybe it’s something of a West Coast/East Coast thing? Because here, I tend to hear the NeoPlatonist orientation talked of most. As far as the One goes, I just hope your work gets more read, as, yes, it seems that groove has been so deeply set. But I think in the pagan/polytheist communities there’s still very much a stereotype of Nietzsche as some sort of dangerous proto-fascist who needs to be avoided like the plague. The old pre-Kaufman bogeyman.

      Thanks for commenting. 🙂

      1. Edward P. Butler

        It may be the greater exposure of the East Coast to European thought. Many of the people I went to school with, people who weren’t pagans but congenial to varying degrees, creative and countercultural types, were very much into Nietzsche. I never heard anybody treating him as proto-fascist until much later, in grad school, and even then people did it with the understanding that the problem wasn’t with Nietzsche, but with a certain potential for appropriation of his ideas; and the critique was always carried out with a certain reverence for the Nietzsche who is a saint of the bohemians and the fiercest critic of all reactive tendencies.

  5. A great post. I’ve always loved Nietzsche, and especially what he had to say about Dionysus and the Eternal Recurrence. It burns my britches that so many people seem to think he was just an atheist at best or some kind of heartless proto-fascist at worst.

    1. Yes, that’s what I was going to say…

      The meme of “Wicca comes from theurgy, which IS neoplatonism” (as in “synonymous with,” rather than a particular development/deployment of it), and then all of the “I’m a monist polytheist” stuff that assumes “monism” is basically a Hindu/Buddhist formulation of such that tallies nicely with some “mystical” statements of hegemonic monotheisisms, is why I think the organizers of PantheaCon also put on Theurgicon, and tend to invite speakers whose views match all of the baggage delineated here (e.g. Webster, Don Frew, etc.).

      1. Edward P. Butler

        “Websterian Neoplatonism”—so sad. And here I thought that scholars would be the biggest obstacle in restoring a polytheistic understanding of Platonism; instead it turns out to be pagans clinging neurotically to monotheism. At any rate, I certainly respect the Nietzschean/Heraclitean/Stoic alternative to Platonic metaphysics. Plato himself, of course, was a Heraclitean first, and Stoicism was the dominant philosophical perspective for centuries while Platonism prepared its revival. All of these philosophical schools were full of pious polytheists, and all their doctrines were polytheistic to the core. Once people realize that none of these philosophical approaches were manifestations of a “monotheistic tendency”, they can get on to evaluating them as they are supposed to be evaluated, namely for the utility of their concepts and for the worldview they express.

      2. Indeed…

        But meanwhile, since one of the only undisputed “beliefs” of modern neoPaganism seems to be “you can’t force me to accept the meanings of words that I didn’t agree to myself” (whereupon I’d ask: why use any words at all, then?), with the caveat of “especially if it suggests I should have any religious obligations,” it’s not going to happen.

        Hence, why I’m done with mainstream Pagans.

  6. Edward, “All of these philosophical schools were full of pious polytheists, and all their doctrines were polytheistic to the core.” And yet so many refuse this historical fact. So frustrating….

  7. “Aedicula, which also reminds me of the attitude of Jonathan Wooley in his article in ABR. The gods are so inconvenient, I guess.”

    His article was just posted on Gods & Radicals in fundamentally the same form as in the publication, and I made a rather pointed comment on it. We’ll see if he actually addresses it or not…I don’t have high hopes, though.

    1. Trust and loyalty, yes. But these definitions that he uses are not ours and to my mind reveal how much damage the Johnny Humanists have done. It’s all so…colonializing.

      I find his conceptions and metaphors of the city problematic too. At a time when so many cities are being stripped of their landmarks, their vibrancy by a relentless drive of hypercapital from London to San Francisco, the idea of a city without any grounding features sounds unappealing and remarkably like the scenario of displacement. Traveling in Europe, I loved coming on those old cities contained within their walls, but even in America the newest of cities have municipal boundaries.

    1. Hello Lorna, I’ve been working intermittently on an essay on Bataille and the Dead with the intention of submitting it to the journal. There has been so much disruption of my life lately, though it’s been slow going; so, if I can’t get it done (and just a week now!) then I will send this one! Thanks, for the suggestion.

      1. Bataille and the Dead sounds excellent. I’ll look forward to that. If you’re *really* stuck for time I don’t mind extending the deadline by a week if you could send a synopsis and approximate wordcount by March 1st. Thank you 🙂

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