Synthetic Essay

Here is my attempt at a synthetic essay. I know it is too long, but I hope I did it right.

Joanna Robinson

Apollonian and Dionysian Duality and the Concept of Self

                Sometime during the eighties, or the sixties, or perhaps some other time, it became fashionable to have what is commonly referred to as an “identity crisis.” Perhaps even more pervasive in popular culture is the mid-life crisis. The idea of finding one’s self, the essence of one’s own true nature, a theme seen in both canonical and popular literature over and over again, rests however on the cultural assumption that each person has innate characteristics that define an unchanging, cohesive self.  It is frequently this assumption, rather than any intrinsic quality of a character, that cause internal conflict in a story.  Nietzsche’s late nineteenth century work, The Birth of Tragedy revolves around the idea that artistic expression requires what he calls a duality of Apollonian and Dionysian characteristics.  Apollo, the god of the sun, dreams, and reason, represents the ‘civilized’ side of man, while Dionysius, the god of wine and ecstasy, is the untamed chaos of the universe.  Nietzsche believed that these ideas arose from “deepest necessity” (Nietzsche, 17), therefore revealing themselves to be characteristics of human nature that are reflected in art. In this interpretation of Greek tragedies, the hero’s attempt to make Apollonian sense of a Dionysian world ultimately brings about his own destruction.

Thomas Mann’s 1912 novella, Death in Venice, is the very embodiment of Nietzsche’s ideas about art and the nature of the artist. The protagonist of the story, Gustav Aschenbach, “or von Aschenbach as he had been known since his fiftieth birthday” (Mann, 139), is a highly esteemed writer from Munich, who is essentially everything a writer in his society should be.  He hails from the bourgeois, the son of a ranking district court official, who comes from a long line of court officials, military officers, and bureaucratic workers (145).  We are told that Aschenbach has always been a man of moderation, “never even [having] been tempted to leave Europe” (142). An encounter with a strange, exotic-looking man, embodying the Dionysian, plants in his head the idea of travel, and it is this idea that leads him to Venice, a city which itself embodies the Apollonian/Dionysian duality described by Nietzsche with its beautiful architecture surrounded by the untamed chaos of the ocean. It is here that the latent, passionate, Dionysian impulses in Aschenbach are awakened by a beautiful young Polish boy named Tadzio. Aschenbach is in awe of his beauty and falls into an unhealthy obsession with him.  While he never even speaks to the boy, his obsession leads him to remain in Venice even when a cholera epidemic breaks out, which is presumably what claims his life at the end of the story.  It is not that Aschenbach has completely lost his sense of reason. In matters not concerning the boy Tadzio, he continues to act in a rational manner.  There is evidence in the story however, that Aschenbach believes himself to have a dual nature.  It certainly is present in the heroes of his fiction: “the sort of elegant self-control that kept its inner decrepitude and biological decay hidden from the eyes of the world until the last possible moment” (148). If this is the case, then it was Aschenbach’s beliefs about his self, rather than any inherent quality he possessed, that led to his own demise.

In as far as human psychology is concerned, Nietzsche’s work represents human beings’ innate tendency towards binary classification: good/evil, black/white, Apollonian/Dionysian, etc. This is a human universal. The flaw in Nietzsche’s work however, arises when it takes what is culturally true and assumes it as a human universal.  Anthropology recognizes that much of modern psychology is based on the experience of primarily white, middle class subjects from Europe and especially the United States.  The emergence of the self occurs in a social context. This means that western ideas about individuality and the self do not necessarily reflect anything inherent in the human psyche, but are rather a result of the culture from which an individual stems. Furthermore, the self is not a unified and bounded whole, as our individualistic culture often assumes, but rather it is compiled from external sources. This simply means that the way you present yourself to a professor is not the same way you present yourself to your friends. Although this much seems obvious, in many western cultures, there remains the pervasive belief that you have one true “self,” and any deviation from this self is seen as artificial. Therefore, the concept of the “individual” as it applies in western cultures does not reflect a reality, but rather a cultural perception of reality, which ties into both our religion and economy. So while Aschenbach may perceive himself as a veneer of civilization covering the underlying Dionysian chaos, this is only an idea he has been enculturated to believe.  In many Eastern traditions that have a belief in reincarnation, the soul is believed to inhabit many thousands of beings. In Samoan culture, babies are not spoken to from an ego-centric perspective as American parents often do, because Samoans do not speculate about the internal states of others. This leads to a very different, more collective concept of the self.

Herman Hesse’s novel Steppenwolf thoroughly explores this complex concept of self through the lens of our protagonist Harry Haller. The story is told as a manuscript, written by Haller, that is discovered by the nephew of the woman whose house Harry used to board at. Many of the events in the story are highly unlikely, or even impossible, but Hesse seems to purposely make the story unbelievable so as to reveal truths about the the nature of the human soul and its capacity for healing. Haller has created for himself an identity he calls the Steppenwolf: one-half human, one-half a wolf of the Steppes. These two halves of himself he believes to be in constant conflict, causing him a great deal of internal anguish and he considers death to be the ultimate release from suffering. These two identities as described by Haller correspond closely to the Apollonian and Dionysian as described by Nietzsche. Early in the novel, as Harry is on one of his usual nighttime walks, he notices a sign he has never seen before, advertising a “MAGIC THEATER” that is “NOT FOR EVERYONE. ” When he inquires about the theater to a man at the door he is told once again that it is not for everyone, but he hands Harry a book entitled Treatise on the Steppenwolf. He reads it and is amazed to discover that it is about him and describes his situation exactly. The book reiterates Harry’s own ideas about himself, possessing both the nature of a human being and the “unsublimated raw nature” of the Steppenwolf (Hesse, 57).  It then however refutes this idea, saying that to “to explain as complex a man as Harry by the artless division into wolf and man is a hopelessly childish attempt,” and that “Harry consists of a hundred or a thousand selves, not two.” Hesse himself was a student of Chinese and Indian religion and philosophy,  and this idea seems to be more in line with Eastern philosophies. Although Harry does not immediately accept either of these versions of himself as the absolute truth, over the course of the story, especially once he meets Hermine, he begins to lean increasingly towards the latter view of himself.  In the magic theater, Harry faces both of these views of himself, struggling against one another. At the end of the story, when Harry stabs Hermine, he learns that he is guilty of taking himself too seriously. As in the case of Aschenbach, it was ultimately Harry’s ideas about himself, rather than any primal driving force, that led to the possible destruction of Hermine.

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