Inspiration: Bacchus and the Cultural History of a Creation Myth

By John F. Moffitt | Go to book overview

CHAPTER EIGHT
A DIONYSUS REBORN FOR THE SYMBOLIST ERA

The Dionysus of Friedrich Nietzsche

For some time, perhaps two-and-a-half centuries following the Renaissance, Bacchus largely appears to have lost his preeminent status as a symbolic representative of the concept of "Poetic Inspiration." Nonetheless, it has been argued by Lilian Feder that a more broadly defined "Dionysiac element," that is, "as a symbol of psychic renewal through the dissolution of the self," can be credibly traced through- out much of post-Renaissance letters.1 In any event, even though usually without any useful acknowledgment of its original sources in Renaissance thought, clearly the poetically intoxicated Bacchus fabri- cated by Quattrocento Neoplatonism, and as physically embodied in Michelangelo's eloquently drunken exemplar (fig. 1), undergoes a dramatic metaphorical resurrection late in the nineteenth century. Nearly all of the most significant ground-work necessary for the cre- ation of a strictly "modernist Dionysus," particularly the one later to be exalted by the French Surrealists, had been laid down by Friedrich Nietzsche. Born in 1844, he—with a certain poetic, even "Dionysiac," grandeur—went drastically insane in 1889, and was to remain confined in an asylum until his death, in 1900.

The literary cornerstone of a newly erected, post-Renaissance, Bacchic edifice is Nietzsche's epic recreation of Die Geburt der Tragödie, oder Griechenthum und Pessimismus ("The Birth of Tragedy, or Hellen- ism and Pessimism"), first published in 1876 (the citations following come from the text of a revised edition of 1886).2 In one particularly

1 For this argument, see Feder, Madness in Literature, particularly Chapters 4 and
5, making useful mention of "Dionysus as a pervasive symbol of German Romanticism,"
especially in the writings of Winckelmann, Hamann, Herder, and Schelling; see also
Bäumer, "Nietzsche and the Tradition of the Dionysian"; Foster, Heirs to Dionysus.

2 I am here following the English version of The Birth of Tragedy given by Walter
Kaufmann; for J. C. F. Hölderlin and Heinrich Heine, Nietzsche's immediate pre-
decessors in Dionysiac reveries, see Butler, Tyranny of Greece over Germany, 229–34,
286–300. For the context of the quotations following, see Baeumer, "Nietzsche and

-220-

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