III. In Nietzsche’s Birth of Tragedy we are told that great art is a product of a dialectic between two metaphysical and artistic principles: the Dionysian and the Apollonian (BT 1). The terms are derived from figures of Greek mythology, Apollo being the god of the plastic arts and Dionysus being the god of the musical arts. The Dionysian and the Apollonian, Nietzsche argues, are metaphysical principles because they are forces that underlie the world but also represent real dynamics of human subjectivity, whose synthesis represent the tragic experience in art.#
The modes of functioning of the two principles are then different in a way that proves important for artistic production. As metaphysical forces they point to the existence of a unified and transcendent reality of an artistic will (Ibid); the role of the Dionysian is to commune with that "primal unity", and the role of Apollonian is to make that communion meaningful to us as individuals. The basic modality of the Apollonian is the dream experience, which expresses itself through the categories of imagination, illusions and representation, which in turn are crucial for the self to understand itself as a unified subjectivity, for they supply the forms and schemes that the subject inherits from society and imposes on the world to make it meaningful. Nietzsche asks us to "keep in mind that measured restraint, that freedom from wilder emotions, that calm of the sculptor god" (Ibid). Owing to their power of transfiguration,# the illusory but beautiful Apollonian codes that impose order on Dionysian frenzy repose the subject on a comforting state of self-knowledge and self-mastery, for the world is no longer absorbed as becoming, change and suffering but comprehended through clear rational models. The basic element in the Dionysian principle is the intoxicating experience that expresses itself through artistic rapture, an experience that dissolves subjectivity into the fluxes of becoming, for when the subject is under its intoxicating influence, "everything subjective vanishes into complete self-forgetfulness" (Ibid). The Dionysian owes its power to its ability to upset the balance of social norms, values, and categories (nurtured by the Apollonian) that make our life normal and meaningful as "sovereign" individuals.
By tragic art Nietzsche means the effect of the dialectic between these two principles. He insists that "these two different tendencies run parallel to each other, for the most part openly at variance; and they continually incite each other to new and more powerful births, which perpetuate an antagonism, only superficially reconciled by the common term ‘art;’ till eventually, by a metaphysical miracle of the Hellenic ‘will,’ they appear coupled with each other, and through this coupling ultimately generate an equally Dionysian and Apollonian form of art-Attic tragedy" (Ibid).
The two principles contest each other but also strengthen the effects of each other on the psyches of the tragic hero and his or her audience to create a tragic artistic experience, for whereas Dionysian rapture tends to build up in us a longing for a return to normality through Apollonian codes, Apollonian categories tend to gradually cause in us a feeling of cultural suffocation that compels us to demand a Dionysian release. A synthesis between the two principles, Nietzsche believes, is particularly significant to artistic creativity, for whereas the Dionysian inaugurates the release of chaotic primeval, de-individualizing metaphysical forces, the Apollonian imposes codes on that frenzied release to make it a coherent and tolerable artistic expression.
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