Apollo and Dionysius

Last night I heard a performance of Francis Poulenc’s Gloria at the annual Christmas concert of a very fine local choir called Northsong. I’ve heard the music before and loved it, and listening to it again only deepened my feelings about it, so today I looked up Poulenc on the Internet. I knew he must be a religious man because so many of his works are choral and sacred, but I didn’t know that he grew up the son of a sturdy Catholic bourgeoise and a lively artistic mother who played the piano. I’d never read enough about his life to know that he was homosexual and like many gay artists, especially after he experienced a conversion after the death of a friend, struggled with the conflict between his faithful life and his erotic one. The duality may have energized his art, say some commentators.

Only the other day I read a review of the latest biography of E. M. Forster who, more conventionally perhaps, simply hid his sexual orientation from the public and wrote only one gay novel, which he left unpublished in his own lifetime. (After the extraordinarily ugly persecution of Oscar Wilde for his homoeroticism in the late 19th century, most gay English artists were careful to keep their sexuality to themselves.) Forster believed his writing would have been better had he been able to be open, but Colm Toibin, the New York Times reviewer, believes his one openly gay work (Maurice), to be inferior to his earlier masterful novels:

It may be more true to say that Forster wrote the five books on which his reputation rests because he desperately needed to create characters and situations that would expose his own plight in ways that were subtle and dramatic without being obvious or explicit. His true nature was not only homosexual, it was also wounded, mysterious and filled with sympathy for others, including foreigners and women. Despite his best intentions, he allowed all of himself into the five novels published in his lifetime, and only part of himself into “Maurice.”

Whether or not Poulenc and Forster were aided in their creativity by the tension that dominated their lives, these two artists and many other Europeans were influenced by the theme of Apollo (intellect and reason) versus Dionysius (passion and unreason) that Nietzsche first formulated and that most of us know from the novella, Death in Venice, where the character, a writer who has smothered his own Dionysian nature, is destroyed by it.


The Temple of Delphic Apollo, as it survives, dates only to the fourth century BC, but the foundation is original to an earlier version from the sixth century, which replaces an even older seventh century version. Photo by Wally Goebetz.


I’ve always been fascinated by the Apollo-Dionysius thing, but I found myself wondering whether it’s still relevant today, at least in Western culture, or whether it hasn’t been so changed by who we are now that it’s unrecognizable.

Dionysius has run amok. Not only because the sight and sound of sexuality has become so public, but because private life in nearly every aspect has. Desire, or lust, is also oddly fashionable. Apollo still has his disciples among scientists and some academics, a few writers, and even a very occasional politician. And I’m sure there must be something Apollonian in many of us that objects to some of the Dionysian aspects of our time.

The fact is that duality itself —between the rich and the poor, the secular and the sacred, the good and the evil, whatever—no longer describes anyone’s thinking except in politics where it’s become more and more superficial.

Even vampires today tend to be “mixed bags.”

I don’t think that that’s a good thing or a bad, probably a little of both. I do know that we still respond to the old debates between Apollo and his wayward nemesis. I suspect that the same divide still runs deep in our culture, and that dualism and others will reappear and take hold again in some terribly important way when we least expect it.

Author: latefruit

I am forever writing the great American novel, practicing the piano (in hopes of joining an amateur string quartet someday), gardening, and now, since I've gotten old when I wasn't looking, trying to figure out what that means.

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