Years back in a graduate school course of mine the instructor was offering up to our class a personal story of his that would provide, in his mind (and hopefully ours after hearing the story) a concrete example of the Dionysus concept as it relates to our human experience. Part of the graduate course involved examining the philosophy of the Friedrich Nietzsche. More specifically Nietzsche’s work The Birth of Tragedy. In essence, Nietzsche contended that the creation of Greek tragedy was due to tension that existed between Apollo and Dionysus. Between that which was defined and ordered (Apollo) and that which was undefined and disordered (Dionysus). Rational vs. irrational. This friction between these two components according to Nietzsche is at the crux of our human experience.
Now back to the story. I assumed his story to be true and have no reason to believe otherwise. I have tried to recall all the details to the best of my ability. That said, even if it was not true or my details are a bit off it stills serves its intended purpose for this post. . .
My instructor, who was a fascinating teacher explained that when he was in his teenage years (late 1950s-60s) his family lived next door to a couple. This couple had no children and there existed a decent age gap between the older husband and younger wife. The wife was very attractive and due to her husband’s professional success as a big shot executive for some local firm she stayed at home. Indeed, money for them was never an issue. The wife was very active locally, she took on a number of philanthropic endeavors, and she also sat on a number of organizational boards of local charities. They were very nice, moved in influential social circles but because they did not have kids my instructor and his family really did not know them that well and therefore did not interact with them a whole lot.
One day, my instructor’s mother asked him to run some small gift over to their house, he forgot exactly what the gift was at the time he was telling us the story. After being invited in, dropping off the gift, making small talk, the wife confided in him that at some point almost every day she would make her way to her bedroom and once there proceed to laugh until she cried. She buried her face in her bed pillow. The episode each day did not last particularly long and she had no rational reason for why it occurred. She said she was perfectly happy. After each episode she would go about her day like she always did. Before leaving she asked that he not to share this detail on her life with anyone. He agreed, then a few years later the couple moved away.
And that was that. Full on. Head scratching indeed.
Now, putting aside perhaps a legit neurological reason or explanation for these episodes the point that my instructor was trying to make was that these daily episodes could not be rationally explained by the wife if taken at her word. They were in fact emotionally chaotic. Having matured and gotten older of course could this be, my instructor asked, Dionysus winning out, if only temporarily each and every day? An interesting supposition.
The story has stuck with me and I often think about what have been or are my own Dionysian moments in my own life. When has the undefined and uninhibited won out?
I can think of two examples. . .
First of all, I would be lying if I did not see elements of Dionysus when it comes to my kids and my father. More specifically on the fact that they will never have a relationship in this lifetime or get to know one another- granddaughter to granddad and vice versa. In short, it’s totally lame. But it is the hand that has been dealt. And 99% of the time I can keep this realization in check but there’s always a couple of times a year where Dionysus does seem to win out; where I do become emotional in private seemingly for no apparent reason- during a drive home for example. Kind of bizarro. It is tough to tell when that emotion percolates up and out for me. Sometimes I just think people need a good cry- who knows. I know I do. The unpredictability of its manifestation makes it seem irrational. After all it is certainly rational to feel loss and to feel a bit of sadness for relationships that can never be.
Second is live music for me. Not all live music I should be clear. That said every so often a live music experience for me is like catching lightning in a bottle. It is transcendent and there is nothing like it. Someone once said that music is the highest form of art because it is never satisfying. And I agree with that statement wholeheartedly. The never satisfying part means to me that music can take you places like nothing else can. . .it can conjure up emotions, memories and a state of being that is unrivaled in the human experience. I think we have all been to a show where the music is so good and you are in such a state of being that you literally don’t want the show to end- it’s euphoric. Indescribable on the one hand but something all people can relate to on the other. Music within the human experience is the epitome of Dionysus.
Reflecting on the undefined and the irrational in my life brings me to humility. Dionysus forces me to realize that many things in life are out of my control; like my children not knowing their granddad. It also forces me to appreciate time with others and cherish all the important relationships that I do have in my life as well as its transcendent moments. To me Dionysus helps show me that there is something far bigger, better and more grand than me beyond this world and the human experience with only Apollonian order and structure seems well. . . rather depressing.