From a Facebook posting I learned with horror last week that it was the fortieth anniversary of the death of Jim Morrison. In a misguided attempt to remember what it was I loved about The Doors, the band, last night I watched a DVD of the Oliver Stone film The Doors, and endured a particularly unpleasant evening, heaving with embarrassment on the film’s behalf, when I wasn’t squirming at the formulaic ‘debauchery’ of the characters.
This atrocious travesty of a film portrays the band’s singer Jim Morrison as a kind of incarnation of the god Dionysus, an identification with which the singer is alcoholically and erotically attuned. At one point in the film, one of the band’s members salutes Morrison’s departure for Paris – where he will die – with the words: “at least I will be able to tell my children that I made music with Dionysus.”
Classical mythology presents a dichotomy between Apollo and Dionysus, between the cerebral, intellectual and mechanistic against the instinctual, emotional and spontaneous. This conflict between Apollo and Dionysus is still with us today. The psychologist James Hillman has suggested that modern Western culture is prejudiced towards “the masculine over the feminine, the principles of light, order and distance over emotional involvement, or what has, in short, been called the Apollonic over the Dionysian”. He goes on to argue that “the fields of psychiatry and mythology . . . have been for the most part in collusion against the Dionysian, resulting in a repression, and thus a distortion, of all Dionysian phenomena so that they have come to be regarded as inferior, hysterical, effeminate, unbridled and dangerous.”
What strikes me as important about this passage is that Hillman emphasizes that the Dionysian is distorted because it has been repressed. Nowhere is this truer than in the episodes of religious fundamentalism, such as the total ban placed on music and dancing by the Taliban in Afghanistan, and their confiscation and destruction of musical instruments. The protestant countries of northern Europe have been through similar eras of prohibition, for example in Cromwell’s England, where Dionysus was identified with Satan. We can connect the demonization of Dionysus with the severe cultural schizophrenia still displayed towards drinking in the UK (the debate over licensing hours, the longstanding association of alcohol with extreme anti-social behaviour, domestic abuse and criminal violence and the epidemic of public drunkenness on our city high streets any night of the week). However, it might be argued, paradoxically, that there is a deeply anti-Dionysian streak in the make up the average Brit, who finds it difficult to loosen up, to improvise, to go with the flow, to be at their ease with strangers (all Dionysian characteristics), without large dollops of alcohol.
Everywhere – and this is crucial – that there is an anti-Dionysian stance there is deeply engrained repression of emotion. In fact, repression of Dionysus spells big trouble, which is why the classical myths attribute such terrible ends to those who deny the god: typically this meant being ripped into shreds, either by wild beasts or by the maenads, Dionysus’ frenzied followers. Perhaps we can identify this ‘ripping apart’, or tearing into pieces as a metaphor for the emotional shredding that an individual suffers if he or she denies the presence of Dionysus in their lives. Or if they take worship of Dionysus too far, which is a form of hubris. Either way – for extreme denial or extreme identification – they will suffer the same punishment:. To return to The Doors film, the problem with Morrison was – as the Ray Manzarek character in the movie points out – rather than being an acolyte of the god, he thought he was Dionysos. This is a very dangerous way to go.
The cult of Dionysus is a metaphor for an incredibly potent fantasy about the role of the artist, and more especially the poet. Why do we expect ‘Dionysian’ behaviour from our artists? And what does the cult of Dionysus really represent? What precisely does it signify for one to be touched by that god’s madness?
Walter Otto, the German classical scholar and a leading voice on Dionysus believed that madness was the basic characteristic of the god’s nature. But, he writes, it was a madness of a revelatory kind: “The word has infinitely more meaning here than the temporary or lasting disturbance which can affect a mortal and is depicted in Greek thought as a demonic force called Lyssa or Erinys. The madness which is called Dionysus is no sickness, no debility in life, but a companion of life at its healthiest. It is the tumult which erupts from its innermost recesses when they mature and force their way to the surface. It is the madness inherent in the womb of the mother. This attends all moments of creation, constantly changes ordered existence into chaos, and ushers in primal salvation and primal pain – and in both, the primal wildness of being.”
Dionysian madness then is a compulsive creativity, a frenzy of movement (hence music and dance), an appearance of the god that engenders shifting, swaying, spurting (traditionally of blood in sacrifice and of wine in festivity, but also of sperm in ejaculation), an orgasmic force that causes those touched by the god to shudder and be deranged.
The cult of Dionysus emphasises all that is in shadow, dark and secret. He is the god of vegetation, of creeping plants, the vine, ivy, of things that intoxicate and bring to frenzy, of wildness and of chaos. In the many stories about the god that we find in classical writing he is seen to transform himself magically into beasts of fierce power (lion, bull, panther, snake) but at the same time in his intimacy he is known to display feminine characteristics, to be ‘effeminate’ and of a girlish beauty; and this mutable force, this androgyny, is all the more subversive and powerful on account of the troupe of women who accompany him everywhere, the maenads, self-destructively orgasmic and obsessive, who will tear to shreds the unbelieving perpetrators of any common sense reality, for theirs is a wisdom borne of madness and of dislocation. Such was the fate of King Pentheus, who, in Euripides’ play The Bacchae, unwisely warns the shadowy and disreputable vagrant-god away from Thebes boasting that he would separate his head from his body, a fate ironically self-fulfilling, since this is precisely what the maenads in their frenzy do to Pentheus later in the drama.
We need to read the stories about Dionysus as profound metaphors on the nature of creativity. The pain of birth, of Dionysus’ own birth, gives an indication of the metaphoric force with which the myth was given life. According to one version of the story, Dionysus’ mother Semele, was consumed by fire while he was still in the womb. Rescued by Hermes, Zeus sewed him into his own thigh until the nine months was up, at which time he was ‘born again’, and given over to the nurses who were also his maenads. In another version the infant Dionysus was boiled in a cauldron on Hera’s orders after being torn into pieces (from the drops of blood that issued from his body the pomegranate tree was born), saved and reconstituted by his grandmother Rhea, and raised as a girl by foster parents. A further version has him transformed into a young goat or ram at an early age and raised by nymphs in a cave on a diet of honey. If the god’s early life might be read as a metaphor for the struggle of creation, we might not be far from the truth.
Dionysus is a metaphor for all that truly lives: the pain and wonder of birth, the pain and the ecstasy of living, the pain and sorrow of departure. Dionysus presides over change and renewal: he is, too, a prince of shadow, and possesses a demonic power. So he provides a figurehead for the satyrs, those satirical creatures who sustain permanent and painful erections. He is the god of a music that soars and dips, music that binds the mind to the repetitive rhythm of copulating felines, a music of ecstatic mirth and of boundless grief. His dance, the maenads’ dance, is the undanceable dance of perpetual frenzy, a twisting, turning, twirling, hovering, floating, dying dance of life that flows eternally, from the electric veins of Nijinsky’s calf muscles to the suicide leaping of the Cretan bull-dancers.
Transferred into literary and depictive art forms, he is the essence of a piece of work that takes the reader or viewer out of their heads, out of themselves, out of their minds, or more correctly speaking, to dig deeper and deeper into their own minds, because that is the paradox of the Dionysian phenomenon – as the god of duality he leads you into yourself by first taking you out of your self, out of your senses. Rimbaud understood this when he wrote of the desire for a ‘total dislocation of the senses’. And Rimbaud, having broken through all the literary frontiers that could be broken given his nature and environment, went to Africa, and into an extended Dionysian nightmare. Like Morrison, he took the metaphor as far as he was able and then began living it. Living it outwardly, might such figures be forgetting that the metaphor is only a metaphor: might they be mistaking the journey, as it were, for the journey?
It is a strange religion that promises enlightenment only at the expense of a terminal derangement of the senses. Is this all that the cult of Dionysus can afford its followers? To get stoned stupid, have a few visions, end up mad or dead? All in the name of Art? But it is a religion mightily appealing to the young, and to those who feel they can take on board endless intoxication, endless wonderment, unqualified oblivion, in the hope that they will attain a state of knowledge. It is a return to shamanistic beliefs without the initiation processes that made shamanism a force in the cultures to which it belonged: it is all the froth on the lake of experience without access to the deep resources of learning and intelligence that make sense of experience. It is ritual without substance, mindless consumption (of drugs, of alcohol) that fuses perfectly with the ideology of a consumer culture hooked on the concept of more, of more for its own sake, whether that be money, sex, tourism (i.e. more pleasureless ‘travel’ in identical and characterless ‘resorts’) or the alternative realities posing as entertainment, more obfuscation of the essential simplicity and beauty of living.
I feel that the god Dionysus, surrounded by his animals in the dark, fecund forest, despises and deplores such abuse. But isn’t this the mistaken notion of ‘Dionysian behaviour’ that predominates and is exalted? And isn’t it a falsification of the creative face of Dionysus, to make a rotten and corrupt god of overconsumption and bloated decay out of something which is and must remain a kernel of pure energy, a blast of poetic instinct, the force that through the green fuse drives the flower?
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Hi Ricardo. I don’t know if you’re still paying attention to comments on this post, but as someone who was drawn to The Doors as a teen, evolved through punk and dark poetry, grew up to be a partying monster, then survived to become a sober, but rebel, wise-woman, I deeply appreciate what you’ve written. I can now, in looking back on the path I staggered down, thankfully, see how the Dionysian Darkness educated me, taught me, morphed me–but I don’t recommend it for most, because in a way it must first destroy. I understand your meaning on the superficial ‘worship’ and it’s potentially fatal outcome. For me, I’m grateful the god spared me and I can today walk in the rational madness of this exquisite life. Without care, to experience Lyssa, or Erinys, can be fatally futile–for as you said, it must be done for a deeper purpose. Thanks for this wonderful essay.
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