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Nietzsche, Artistic Intoxication, and the Overcoming of Nihilism: The body As an Ontology of Practice
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By: Mo Mbaye Email Article
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We learn from Zarathustra, the self-proclaimed disciple of Dionysus, that we can symbolically recognize the non-nihilistic, transfigured body in the contorted forms it takes when the subject engages in a dynamic activity like dancing. He declares, "I should believe only in a God who understood how to dance" (Z, I, "Of Reading and Writing"). As much as the tragic hero, the teacher of the superhuman finds Dionysus, the god of music and dance, particularly useful in our effort to overcome nihilism, for through intoxicating dance the normal categories of bodily expectations and behavioral conventions are displaced.# Not surprisingly, Zarathustra reminds the "higher men," who suffer from cultural impotence and who desire to recover their power of willing, "although there are swamps and thick afflictions on earth, he who has light feet runs across mud and dances as upon swept ice" (Z, IV, "Of the Higher Man," 17). Zarathustra confronts the ponderous weight of cultural decline and nihilism through affirmation, but a precondition for the success of that confrontation is the elimination of decadence and resignation as weighty afflictions that plague the body. Zarathustra wants a subject prepared and predisposed to change, and, as we noted above, intoxication achieves this through an emotive experience that has the power to orient the self beyond the absurd, though here we see the same process articulated in a body that upsets its normal categories. Zarathustra advises the "higher men", "lift up your hearts, my brothers, high! higher! And do not forget your legs! Lift up your legs, too, you fine dancers: and better still, stand on your heads! " (Ibid). Through the activity of dancing the body symbolically affirms its liberation from nihilistic normality; that is, Zarathustra sees a possibility to uplift the subject above the conditions that have so far acted as a hinder to her life, for through dance the whole person is involved with the rhythmic pulses of music in a way that turns his or her life into a work of art, an achievement Dionysus envisions for anyone aspiring for a meaningful life. Zarathustra’s celebration of dance symbolizes the ability of some of us to transfigure the reality around them by transfiguring their own selfhoods. Nietzsche writes, "What does the tragic artist communicate of himself? Does he not display precisely the condition of fearlessness in the face of the fearsome and questionable? -This condition itself is a high desideratum: he who knows it bestows on it the highest honours…In the face of tragedy the warlike in our soul celebrates its Saturnalias…" (TI, "Expeditions of an Untimely man", 24). A Dionysian-like affirmation includes the ability to create a clearing effect in the midst of a nihilistic, hostile world that reacts to our own authentic needs, and such a clearing effect must also be a physiological experience, and that is why it takes a Saturnalian quality. The tragic artist seeks to produce a symbolic, positive situation within overwhelming conditions of nihilism. Zarathustra’s use of dance to render weightless the "swamps and thick afflictions" of nihilism represents his call that we rely on the body to introduce a positive symbolic force into becoming. Nietzsche insists that the Dionysian experience "is explicable only as an excess of energy" (Ibid, 4). Through dance, as a means to disrupt a nauseating and pitiful normality, we recognize a fracturing of existence, owing to an oversupplied artistic will, as a precondition toward creating the body as a symbol of affirmation. That Nietzsche asks us "to welcome every moment of universal existence with a sense of triumph" should lead us to assume that life will continue to be a challenge that invokes our powers to judge and act, so that existence reduces to an eternal need to impose meaning schemes on the world. This leads Zarathustra to ponder, "if ever I have played dice with the gods at their table, the earth, so that the earth trembled and broke open and streams of fire snorted forth: for earth is a table of the gods, and trembling with creative new words and the dice throws of the gods: Oh how should I not lust for eternity and for the wedding ring of rings-the Ring of Recurrence!" (Z, III, "The Seven Seals," 3). Nietzsche again reminds us that the transfiguration effected on becoming through existential action is not meant to permanently change the character of becoming, for the latter will have to remain a locus of possibilities and thus a field of chance, instability, suffering and dice throwing.# The body as beautiful figuration, through dance, consists in the insight that intoxication temporarily presents the self as a figurative aberration within nihilistic becoming. Nietzsche writes, "affirmation of life even in its strangest and sternest problems, the will to life rejoicing in its own inexhaustibility through the sacrifice of its highest types- that is what I called Dionysian…" (TI, "What I owe to the Ancients," 5). Because beauty in becoming consists in a transfigured perspective that exalts our being and because beauty in becoming symbolizes our will to affirmation we can say that "the crooked" body that enraptures itself in Dionysian dance affirms a will that embraces the transfigured, beautiful realities of becoming as its content. One could wonder whether the Dionysian self should be kept in a constant state of intoxication to maintain its affirmative and aesthetical qualities? Clearly it would not be healthy for any human person to subsist in a constant state of rapture. The state of the Dionysian self is temporary, and after the rapturous "metaphysical comfort" has passed, it may express its satisfaction with the important changes operated on the categories of our culture. To understand this process, we must return to Nietzsche’s vision of tragic art as a synthesis between the beautiful codes and appearances of the Apollonian principle and the ecstatic and rapturous affirmations of the Dionysian principle. Nietzsche writes, "tragedy closes with a sound which could never come from the realm of Apollonian art. And thus the Apollonian illusion reveals itself as what it really is- the veiling during the performance of the tragedy of the real Dionysian effect; but the latter is so powerful that it ends by forcing the Apollonian drama itself into a sphere where it begins to speak with Dionysian wisdom and even denies itself and its Apollonian Visibility" (BT 21). Through its codes and dream-like categories the Apollonian principle seeks to return the subject to the normality of social existence as an individual satisfied with the prevalent cultural order, but as Nietzsche notes Dionysian intoxication is powerful enough to upset the reigning codes. The body transformed into a symbol of affirmation, beauty, and joy remains a transfigured body, and if it is to be re-coded by the Apollonian perspective, for the sake of a return to social normality,# such re-coding must incorporate the Dionysian body as a unique, often non-conforming self, for the Apollonian force must speak "finally the language of Dionysus." Like the masters of slave morality, the Apollonian order would show respect to the Dionysian force only if the latter expresses itself through a powerful force of affirmation. Having been impressed by the Dionysian-like self’s ability to convey its different practical needs, our Apollonian-like cultural conventions are likely to be influenced by the former (the "other") as society debates value.

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Name: Mohamed Mbaye; Education: MA Philosophy; Occupation: College instructor; Interests: Philosophy, History, Arts

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