The Dionysiac State

In his first book, The Birth of Tragedy, Nietzsche describes two opposing strains in the cultural production of the West: the Apollonian and the Dionysian. The Apollonian is named after the Greek sun-god Apollo, who represents clarity, logic, clearly defined boundaries, structure and harmony; the Dionysian, on the other hand, refers to the hermaphroditic god of fertility and wine, Dionysus, who represents the carnivalesque; insanity, disorder, dance, intoxication and ecstasy.

The Dionysiac state is what we would refer to today as a ‘manic episode’; that ephemeral fit of energy and excitation which fascinates — and frightens — the non-manic masses. The Apollonian is associated with clarity, but there is also clarity in the Dionysiac state, albeit of a different kind.

I relate each to one of the two great metaphors of knowledge acquisition; that of overseeing (like the Gods on Olympus); and that of uncovering or chthonic unearthing (like an archaeological dig or Dante’s descent into hell). The essential difference between the two is that, with the latter, the insights that have been unearthed are far more resistant to the light; with a sober mind, they are regarded with a mixture of confusion and disgust. According to Nietzsche:

While the transport of the Dionysiac state, with its suspension of all the ordinary barriers of existence, lasts, it carries with it a Lethean element in which everything that has been experienced by the individual is drowned. This chasm of oblivion separates the quotidian reality from the Dionysiac. But as soon as that quotidian reality enters consciousness once more it is viewed with loathing, and the consequence is an ascetic, abulic state of mind

In the opening lines of Horatio Clare’s recent book, Heavy Light: A Journey Through Madness, Mania & Healing, Clare recoils at the mere thought of his manic insights: ‘Sometimes my memory flashes up a scene, an exchange, something I said or did, and I flinch in horror and shame. But how on earth could you possibly have believed any of it?’.

Does this ‘horror’ make the insights any less true? Of course not. The sober ‘quotidian’ mind spends all its energy suppressing these insights — not out of fidelity to truth, but out of shame.

Clare compares his mania to a ‘sunrise of the self, a flood of light banishing the shadows of the relative, of perspective’. This is the advantage of the Dionysiac state; it casts light on what we would rather stay hidden. It is the responsibility of the Dionysiacally-inclined to share their insights — even if, as is the case with Horatio Claire, you no longer believe in them.



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Eddie Ejjbair

Eddie Ejjbair


‘Gradually it’s become clear to me what every great philosophy has been: a personal confession of its author and a kind of involuntary and unconscious memoir’