Reading Nietzsche: Dionysos

Nietzsche made no secret about his admiration for the early Greeks (“Oh, those Greeks! They knew how to live,” he wrote in Nietzsche Contra Wagner), and perhaps no other mythical Greek character so embodied his professed ethos as Dionysos, the god of wine, merriment, madness, and theatre. Nietzsche even signed some of his later letters “Dionysos,” which is how I now sign my letters to one friend in particular, who now lives in Wyoming and signs his replies as “Sisyphus.” Makes sense, right?

Anyway, Nietzsche explained his thoughts on the symbolism of the Greek god in his notes in 1888:

…Dionysus versus “the Crucified One”: there you have the contrast. It is not martyrdom that constitutes the difference—only here is has two different senses. Life itself, its eternal fruitfulness and recurrence, involves agony, destruction, the will to annihilation. In the other case, suffering—“the Crucified One as the Innocent One”—is considered an objection to this life, as the formula of its condemnation.

Clearly, the problem is that of the meaning of suffering: whether a Christian meaning or a tragic meaning. In the first case, it is supposed to be the path to a sacred existence; in the second case, existence is considered sacred enough to justify even a tremendous amount of suffering: he is sufficiently strong, rich, and deifying for this; the Christian negates even the happiest life on earth: he is sufficiently weak, poor, and disinherited to suffer from life in any form.

The God on the cross is a curse on life, a pointer to seek redemption from it; Dionysus cut to pieces is a promise of life: it is eternally reborn and comes back from destruction.

Now it should be clear why I stretched for the Sisyphus reference. The tragic hero, pushing the same boulder up the same hill for all of eternity, has no hope of deliverance; the struggle itself gives his life meaning, and as Camus wrote, “one must imagine Sisyphus happy.” The ethos Nietzsche prescribes is similar: this life—this human, earthly life—is already sacred, and in fact any mention of other worlds necessarily detracts from the sacredness of this one. “I beseech you, my brothers, remain faithful to the earth, and do not believe those who speak to you of otherworldly hopes!” Nietzsche wrote in Zarathustra, adding, “Poison-mixers are they, whether they know it or not. Despisers of life are they, decaying and poisoned themselves, of whom the earth is weary: so let them go.”

Further reading: if novels are your thing, check out A Secret History by Donna Tartt. It’s a kind of Dionysian murder mystery, set at a small liberal arts college in the Northeast.


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