Sunday, March 14, 2010

Looking at the impact of symbols (part 2, Dionysus)

My initial contact with Dionysus was probably not especially atypical. I was part of an "enrichment" program at my HS that included an English class that mixed in a great deal of mythology. In a way I feel pretty thankful for that; though we were mostly working with Bulfinch's, our teacher was especially passionate about the subject and repeatedly tried to get it into our heads that these were psychological metaphors. At the time I was mainlining Mountain Dew and fixated on most of the things adolescents fixate on, but it must've gotten in. Dionysus was portrayed as something of a sideline divinity in most of those texts; his real role in the pantheon or in my life wasn't at all clear.

Not long after, I became obsessed with Nietzsche- there's something about his writing that seems particularly attractive to young, intellectually-oriented outsiders. Especially, though not exclusively, males. (The same could be said of Crowley.) His framing of the Apollonian / Dionysian dichotomy in art was really compelling to me, but still, the symbol remained fairly intellectual. It did lead me to a class in college on Dionysus, which framed the Dionysian in the context of creativity, rather than the more mundane Roman rendering of the image as Bacchus. (Not the same image at all, but the distinction is often lost.) We read artists like Artaud. I remember a number of classes with particular amusement, like when the professor came in, clearly with a stiff back, and offhandedly commented that he'd injured himself during Tantric sex with his wife.

It started to gel at this point that there was something about the image of Dionysus that kept pulling me back. There are many approaches to creativity and the arts; Dionysian creativity in many ways is about getting out of the way of yourself. This is is one of the reason that drug use is so tied in with this current, for better and worse. Certain substances lessen the pull of the conscious self, letting what lies underneath to rise to the surface. The creative is a medium, the body is the point at which the upward and downward triangle of aspiration and the force of gravity meet, out of which alchemical transfiguration can occur. That sounds pretty high-minded and abstract, but it directly influenced my earliest approaches to writing, visual art, and music- diving in, often in chemically charged, manic binges. The result was characteristically intense and unfocused. There's no evaluation in that place. This is the creativity of the fugue, or channeling. Art has to be wed to this process through restraint, that comes with practice. The danger of the Dionysian approach is the complete lack of valuation; you will produce gems, but they'll be mixed in with the shit. You simply can't distinguish between the two, and later, in editorial, you may discover that they are very hard to separate from one another, as if the insights are connected to the dross through some invisible organ system. Kill the body and the head will die.

There was a more personal side to this connection, too. From my earliest memories on, women have always served a central role in my life. This is unsurprising, given that my parents were always women- my Mother, and her girlfriends. I didn't have a real male friend until I was thirteen, most of my early socialization was with girls- more out of preference than anything else, as well as the fact that the boys always seemed to sense something "other" in me and have a strong desire to attempt to squash it, like a bug. The most common insult from their quarter was always to call me "a girl." Even at the time I remember finding this curious. The insults stopped when I began meeting every slight related to this supposed insult with violence, but it always confused me: why was being a "girl" such an insult, when it seemed to clear to me that, before society had its awful way with them, women were closer to nature? Perhaps I didn't consciously think this last part just yet, but the feeling was there. I still remember it clearly. And even when the insults stopped, I still remained somewhat other, at least until the social dynamics of HS took me in for a while.

For those that are familiar with the Dionysus myth, this should be very familiar. For those that aren't, by the time he has attained the status of a deity, the first sign of his appearance is in the form of the bacchante, the wild women of Dionysus; in his earlier life, he was alternately hidden by his mother Semele from the wrath of Hera- he was raised by nymphs in seclusion- or he was hidden by Zeus "in his thigh." This is not to say that I was raised by nymphs, but the psychological significance of this element of the symbol is there. These symbols always must be read psychologically. In some ways I have grown further from him as my life has gone an, even as I've learned more about him and become mentally closer; I can only imagine that this is because of the effects of living in the society that I do. But the current is there, even when not clearly apparent. Still waters run deep.

Dionysus himself is considered effeminate, though I'm not aware of any direct reference to homosexuality that isn't juxtaposed there. We simply assume he is effeminate, bivalent, surrounded by wild female energy- there must be an element of homosexuality in the image. Perhaps there is, but it always struck me as something else. Certainly the consciousness represented by his symbol is beyond pairs of opposites in the social sphere, so there is a strong current of pansexuality throughout the symbol, but not strictly homosexual. And, as I said, this rarely enters into the traditional portrayals of the symbol.

I have an explanation for this. Dionysus is the mythological necessity of a feminine current that seeks to return a society divorced from nature back into accord with her, even if it is the nature that Lord Tennyson refers to, "bloody in tooth and claw." In Western mythological terms the male, solar energy is necessary to give the lunar, female energy light; you can read this as the sexist statement of an aeon of male dominated mythology, but there is a sense to it if we consider the meaning of the symbols themselves outside the context of human society. To whit, it is the lurking sense that the "passive" is "weaker" than the "active" that is the coloration of a male dominated mythology, rather than the meaning of the symbol. Is the negative pole or a magnet "weaker" than the positive? Perhaps the Chinese Yang and Yin are preferable; they mean "sunny" and "shady" side of the hill, which is to say two states of the same thing, the active and receptive. When you consider that Dionysus is a bull God, this inversion of roles gets even more complicated, but I'll save that for a later post as it wanders back into the historical rather than personal interpretation of symbol.

To get back to the point, Dionysus is a necessary symbol, in mythological terms, to focus the counter-patriarchal, counter-order forces of nature, nature being closer in many ways to the female energy than the male. In the screenplay and novel for Fallen Nation I deal with this a lot, the character Dionysus says "I am an agent of chaos." This is what he means. Not the chaos of the anarchist but the chaos of natural order, of Tiamat, existing before the discriminatory force of reason slayed that dragon and made a sensible world from her corpse. This idea shows itself nicely in the Garden of Eden as well, when Adam and Eve ate of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, what happened is they became self aware. They knew shame because they had become divorced from nature, from themselves, by reason. This is the cost. The benefits we know all too well-- as I sit here in a cafe, typing this out on a laptop, music paying from a digital disc in the background-- none of these things could come to be without having stepped outside of the Garden. But at what cost? The Dionysian current attempts to lead us back to that primal source. Maybe we can wed the last 2000 years of our development with what we lost in the process: that would certainly be a step towards Nietzsche's deleteriously conceived ubermensch. But there should be no mistake, this path is a dangerous one.

All of these ideas are central to understanding the significance of the Dionysus symbol, though hopefully I explore that more successfully in my fiction than I could here. Should the screenplay make it to screen, and or comic book, I certainly hope you come along for the ride.


  1. the Dionysian energy has been calling me lately and I was stunned to find a symbolic connection to cognition - the association with dendrite strikes at the heart of our neuronal adaptive cognitive nature

    the very heart of paganism as I've come to understand is exactly what is found at the core of cognitive engineering - cycles of adaptive modeling

    I wonder at times if my prof has knowledge of the pagan nature of our lessons

  2. @Kate In a sense that's true, but Dionysus is definitely a symbol of liberation and one that's very easy to associate with polyamory (even though obviously polyamory is a MUCH later phenomenon, historically.) For starters, polyamory is in many ways a feminine tradition- I'm not sure how familiar you are with bonobos but it resembles their social structure far more closely than chimpanzees... our other biological "cousins."

    Anyway, my point is that Dionysus is not a philanderer in the sense that Zeus is, but I wouldn't read into that any sort of sexual abstinence. Far from it...

  3. I am so pleased to have found your blog. You have an amazing modern perspective on ancient ideas. I too have felt the Dionysian energy calling, an awakening into something more. My initiation began last night, and my resulting search for more information led me here. What began as an academic journey nearly 15 years ago has become incrediblyexperiential.

  4. @Diana

    I love it when I get messages like that on here-- definitely makes me feel like I'm onto something. I suggest signing up to the RSS or email notifications, and certainly feel free to poke around- a lot of content on here & my other sites... and much more to come, if I have anything to do with it. ;)



Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...