Tuesday, July 21, 2009

The Metaphysical Bases of Apollonian and Dionisian

“Whether the Supreme Ecstasy is more affectional than intellectual is no very deadly matter of quarrel among men who believe it is both.”

--G.K. Chesterton, Saint Thomas Aquinas

There’s a great and stunning, but also commonsensical, revelation in the quote above: the idea that both contemplation and desire/fulfillment are routes to, and experiences of God. This is not the time, place, or writer to detail how this is done, or which way is more effective for human beings (do both!) but as for their place in art…that’s another matter. Placing the word art in a topic automatically makes it fit for this blog. Hee Hee!
I am one of those troublesome sorts of people who doesn’t really think I understand a thing until I can give it some sort of metaphysical classification. As far as I can tell, all sorts of things seem to fall into three broad categories. Two are fairly simple. First comes those things that really are, things like cows, iron, et cetera. Then comes those things that are only when they come in contact with other things, things like the emotional content in a piece of music, colors, proportions, et cetera.
Finally, and most difficultly, come those things that are a little bit of both, or “fuzzy things.” A good example is the Idea of Large. “Larger” means something, and “Smaller” means something, but “Large” and “Small” are completely relative. To call a thing “Large” is meaningless, except in comparison to something else.
Unfortunately, it is easy to mistake the things in the second or third categories for real things. When I listen to a sad piece of music, for example, I would be foolish to say that the music is actually sad: no misfortune has happened in the music, and music does not actually feel sad. What I mean when I say the music is sad really means that I am sad because of the music. When I can’t solve the Sorites paradox, I mistake a thing in the third category for something real (read, and attempt to solve, the Sorites paradox here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sorites_paradox If you can‘t solve it, ask for my solution.).
Which category do the affective (art as a means for awakening/fulfilling desire) and contemplative (art as an intellectual exercise) artistic qualities fall into? It must exist in one of them. Here’s why:

Everything that exists is either in the mind of the thinker, or not in the mind of the thinker (category 1).
Everything that exists in the mind of the thinker either is a successful subject of the Sorites paradox (more on this later, but this is category 3) or it is not (category 2).

Because of human nature, it is tempting to classify art on a Category 3-esque contemplative vs. affective scale (I will, from now on, use the philosophical terminology: “Apollonian” for Intellectually-disposed things, and Dionysian for affective/desire disposed things See Robert Wood‘s chapter on Plato for evidence that this usage is correct) , and make statements like “This work is more Dionysian than Apollonian” or “This work is more Dionysian than that work.” This is because, for humans (and Vulcans) desire can cloud our thinking and thought weaken our desires. How many of us have had the experience of liking something less because we had to study it?
It is also tempting to place the two in Category 2. This is perhaps the simplest explanation. If something stimulates my mind, it is Apollonian. If something stimulates my desire, it is Dionisian. And if it stimulates both, it is both.
And I, of course, am always tempted to put as much as possible into category 1, because it’s the most objective of the three. I don’t want to know what a thing is through a lens of subjectivity (category 2) or as a mere illusion (category 3). But which one is it really? And what’s the big deal?
We can effectively eliminate Category 3 from our discussion by means of the Sorites paradox. Oh wait…I probably had better tell you what that is.

The Sorites Paradox:

Consider a heap of sand. If you remove one grain, is it still a heap? How about two? How about three? How about…..?

Although the subject of the paradox is the heap of sand, it does not need to be a heap of sand. Any number of things will do. The keys to a successful subject of the Sorites paradox is that the subject’s existence must be a matter of degree, not type, and that the two qualities that are the matter of degree must be a positive and a negative, not two positives. For example, “Functional Pancreas” is not a successful subject because if you remove a certain number of molecules (the number might vary from pancreas to pancreas, but will still be a definite number), the pancreas will no longer be able to function. “Red material object” is also not a successful subject because insofar as something is not red, it is another color, and the object remains a red object percentage-wise (gaining another quality percentage-wise as well, such as green) insofar as it is even partially red.
Apollonian or Dionysian in a work of art does not fulfill the Sorites paradox. Although it may be the case that often by removing Apollonianness, Dionysianness increases (and vice versa), this is not always the case. If I compose a desire-awakening melody (the object of the desire is not important for the example, so long as it is not desire for the Apollonian), for example, it does not necessarily become less desire-awakening by being made into a fugue.
Therefore, the qualities of Apollonian and Dionysian belong in Category 1, Category 2, or both. This places them within the realm of “verifiables,” things which can be precisely defined. What is their precise definition? How can we render them to be more than general atmospheres?
The ultimate definition is a definition in metaphysical terms. The metaphysical definition of fish, for example, is that which has the essence of fish. Of course, then a definition of essence of fish is required. Contrast this example with another metaphysical definition: “Sad music is that which causes emotions with the essence of sadness to be provoked in the listener.” The metaphysical definitions tell us which category the thing falls in. Fish, where fish is defined by essence of fish, is a Category 1 thing, whilce Sad music, where
Chesterton’s quote gives a clue for a Category 1 definition of Apollonian and Dionysian by stating that the Vision of God is both Apollonian and Dionysian. God, of course, is Existence Itself. What is perhaps less known about God is that He also contains within Himself the “originals” of the essences (an essence is the whatness of a thing) of all things as well. (The proof of this is beyond the scope of this post, but it’s in the Summa, trust me. It‘s also in the “Writing Rules For Atheists” post, rendered into heroic couplets.) Because all existent things must have essence and existence, it would make sense if it were possible to define Apollonian and Dionysian in terms of essence and existence.
As was stated above, the Apollonian concerns itself with intellect, culminating in the Beatific Vision, while the Dionysian concerns itself with desire, culminating in the Beatific Union. It is in the nature for desire to desire existent beings: things like food, water, pleasure, and the like. Even objects of desire like Dragons fall under this category: one who desires a dragon desires a dragon to exist, desires to bring into existence the perfect subjective/literary dragon, etc. Intellect, however, observes and thinks. The most fundamental observation of the intellect is “Things exist.” This statement requires the observation of things and existence and an intuitive knowledge that things are different from existence. Additionally, the intellect can think of essence without existence and existence without essence, as when one thinks of a unicorn or Prime Matter. Therefore, in terms of essence and existence, intellect “takes apart,” while desire “puts together.”
Dionysian art, therefore, emphasizes the union of essence and existence in things, while Apollonian art emphasizes the essence and existence separately. The increase of one does not necessarily mean the decrease of the other. St. Peter’s Basillica, for example, obviously emphasizes the union of essence and existence in things by its overabundance of things more than a simple building that used the same amount of material. However, this does not downplay either the symmetry (akin to essence) or immensity (akin to existence) of St. Peter’s compared to the hypothetical building. I do not know if this emphasis on the togetherness/separateness of essence and existence can be achieved objectively (and thus be Category 1), but the point is that it can be achieved and defined as either Category 1or category 2. (It does seem to me that an increase in complexity is objectively Dionysian, while an increase in size + symmetry is objectively Apollonian.) The Baroque is not necessarily irrational; the Renaissance is not necessarily cold, unfeeling and unsatisfactory. As both are beautiful, the artist will do well to use both simultaneously.

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