The Assault on Hedonism, Part 2: Nietzsche, Pater, Marcus

(x-posted to The Valve)

At the end of my last post on hedonism, I wrote: “At least, since we have to start somewhere, to start by tackling the relationship between consumption and pleasure, and the silent withdrawal of the festival from daily life.” Consumerism is not a process of enjoyment, to be resisted through sacrifice and Grecian discipline. It is a betrayal of enjoyment, a form of usurpation. The imposition of new political guilt, justified through the fantasy of a non-existent Leninist vanguard, piling sacrifice upon sacrifice, drives me to the same sorts of questions expressed so eloquently at Larval Subjects:

When I hear calls to give up enjoyment such as they are issuing from Jodi Dean or Zizek, I hear the thesis that somehow social change should consist in rendering our living conditions even more intolerable than they currently are. Why is this a form of social transformation that anyone should desire? To put it in crude and less than trendy-jargonistic terms, if social transformation does not lead to better work and living conditions, better, more equitable, more just, more satisfying, and more meaningful ways of relating to one another, more freedom to pursue our desires and cultivate ourselves, why should these forms of social transformation be desired at all?

So, for me, the return to the Greeks will be a search for pleasure. Rather than asking why people aren’t more disciplined, I am interested in why they should be so miserable. It is not enough just to accuse consumers of being insatiable; one has to trace the losses of solidarity and vision that accompany the crippling of pleasure.


Friedrich Nietzsche still holds title to the most influential study of pleasure in Greece ever written, The Birth of Tragedy. In that book he famously divided Greek culture into two halves, named after Apollo and Dionysus. He then described the decline of both cultures after the advent of philosophy, and blamed Socrates and Plato for an optimistic account of truth that banished the fundamental pessimism of both Apollonian and Dionysian art.

Here are Nietzsche’s rather inescapable descriptions of the Dionysian mood (from the Modern Library’s Basic Writings):

Either under the influence of the narcotic draught, of which the songs of all primitive men and peoples speak, or with the potent coming of spring that penetrates all nature with joy, these Dionysian emotions awake, and as they grow in intensity everything subjective vanishes into complete self-forgetfulness….Under the charm of the Dionysian not only is the union between man and man reaffirmed, but nature which has become alienated, hostile, or subjugated, celebrates once more her reconciliation with her lost son, man. (36-37)

In the Dionysian dithyramb man is incited to the greatest exaltation of all his symbolic faculties; something never before experienced struggles for utterance—the annihilation of the veil of maya, oneness as the soul of the race and of nature itself. The essence of nature is now to be expressed symbolically; we need a new world of symbols; and the entire symbolism of the body is called into play, not the mere symbolism of the lips, face, and speech but the whole pantomime of dancing, forcing every member into rhythmic movement. Then the other symbolic powers suddenly press forward, particularly those of music, in rhythmics, dynamics, and harmony. (40)

For Nietzsche, all of these experiences are built upon a “hidden substratum of suffering and of knowledge” (46). This is why Nietzsche ultimately identifies Dionysian culture with tragedy, and with philosophical pessimism.

American popular culture has always had an immense fund of pessimism in the form of its musical traditions, most archetypally via country music and the blues. This compensated for the exclusion of pessimism elsewhere, by the optimism of enterprise and the Protestant work ethic. (The only American holiday faintly resembling a “bacchanal” is New Year’s Eve, and even that carries with it the tradition of making resolutions.) For example, Greil Marcus, discussing Robert Johnson in Mystery Train, duplicates almost every one of Nietzsche’s terms:

In “Stones in My Passway” terror is too ubiquitous to have a face: it is formless, elusive, overpowering….The idea simply takes shape as the song draws in all the echoes of hellhounds, devils, the weirdness of blues walking like a man, draws in those images and goes past them. If those images were a means to expression, they are no longer necessary—they are no longer good enough. Because not even his body is how own, Johnson cannot satisfy his woman. Because that matters more than anything else in his life, that fact, as a symbol, expands to create more facts, more symbols. Finally, with stones in every passway and no way clear, there is a way in which the singer’s life is resolved: he has seen all around his life, for as long as he can hold onto the image….It communicates so directly any distance between the singer and the listener is smashed. (36)

Here is the recurrence of “terror” as a primary impulsion towards ecstasy. Here is the moment when the image fails, to be replaced by mythic symbols, which themselves prove to be fleeting manifestations of a primal formlessness that affirms and resolves life. The bounds of subjectivity are broken. Johnson is no longer himself, and the “union between man and man” is reaffirmed when the distance between him and us goes smash.

So, what happens to these musical traditions in a stubbornly optimistic country? The “primal unity” of its ritual gets torn apart into two separate and vulnerable practices: pessimism and dancing (“the whole pantomime of dancing”).

Dancing, on its own, reverts to optimism. Going out to clubs or bars, for example, has nothing to do with some German philosopher’s vision of “these dancers of St. John and St. Vitus, [in whom] we rediscover the Bacchic choruses of the Greeks” (36). It is an opportunity to socialize and flirt, thoroughly hedged in by work schedules for everyone except some college students. The wilder the party, the more likely somebody is about to get married. And yet, despite the fact that these outings are sources of terrible anxiety for many people, and manifestations of loneliness, boredom, and need, they still get the shakedown. Philosophy blogger Grundlegung writes,

In the spirit of Zizekian austerity….I am somewhat attracted to this inversion of Emma Goldman’s notorious demand: “If I can dance, it’s not my revolution.”

He’s not being entirely serious, but the irony only goes as far as a “somewhat.” Above all, dancing is something young people do. Chris Rock put it well: “Every man has to settle down, eventually. You know why you gotta settle down eventually? Because you don’t want to be the old man in the club. You know what I’m talking about. Every club you go into, there’s always some old guy. He ain’t really old, just a little too old to be in the club.” The perfection of the sketch is twofold: You know what I’m talking about, because of the universal prohibition, and He ain’t really old, because real age isn’t the point. The point is settling down: catharsis and courtship, not hedonism. The one kind of dance culture really devoted to self-forgetfulness, rave culture, regresses all the way back to costumes that signify infancy and childhood, and the fantasia of childhood as we dream it.

The other element of Dionysian culture, pessimism, becomes mired in puerility just as much. We call it angst, and put it squarely on the shoulders of adolescents, who have to go through both generalized existential angst and the angst of unrequited love. In the place of Robert Johnson’s actual pessimism, or the actual revelation of futility, we get a contemptible epiphenomenon. In fact, even Nietzsche himself falls in. There are two Nietzsches who now live side-by-side: the “serious” Nietzsche, author of the genealogical critiques of morals and metaphysics, and the adolescent Nietzsche, author of most of Friedrich Nietzsche’s books. As waxbanks put it, in an eloquent comment elsewhere: “Only asshole teenagers read Nietzsche, right?!” Or look at Feministe, where criticism of the eminently criticizable Avril Lavigne went like this:

You’re a married grown-up now; the middle school mall-punk “Ugh, this suuuucks” schtick is a little tired. We all have our teenage angst, but at some point, you move on.

Of course it’s tired. It has to dress up like high school every time.


So what becomes of Apollonian culture? What enters into its spirit when its opposite is transformed into a discourse for children? After all, Nietzsche makes the persuasive claim that Apollonian culture is a form of alchemy that overcomes the horror of being born into death:

The same impulse which calls art into being, as the complement and consummation of existence, seducing one to a continuation of life, was also the cause of the Olympian world which the Hellenic ” will made use of as a transfiguring mirror….Where we encounter the “naïve” in art, we should recognize the highest effect of Apollonian culture—which always must first overthrow an empire of Titans and slay monsters, and which must have triumphed over an abysmal and terrifying view of the world and the keenest susceptibility to suffering through recourse to the most forceful and pleasurable illusions. (43)

In the absence of a legitimate Dionysian culture, Apollonian culture becomes likewise regressive, veering towards adolescent romantic plots and nostalgic genre references. At other points, I’ve written about regressive art, of which the best example continues to be Harry Potter. But here I want to emphasize, not the aesthetic limitations of regression, but the paralyzing effect it has on creativity. The real risk one takes writing a poem, or a novel, or even a series of reflections, is that of becoming a child — a real risk, not something to be shrugged off heroically, because childlike perceptions and plots have been blended with the authentic impulse. The only remainder, subtracted from the childlike experience, is ethics, the discourse of iron. Ethics intrudes everywhere, with its relentless speechifying: every episode of The West Wing ends with a speech, and so does Benjamin Kunkel’s Indecision, just as Dumbledore’s speeches echo through Harry’s adventures. Zizek’s review of 300, with which this whole investigation began, hones in on the film’s “programmatic statement” about freedom and reason. Where the impulse towards puerility has been successfully avoided, one rarely escapes an equal loss of Hellenic lambency: the remainder is Cormac McCarthy.

So, for the consumer, the irony is that the conjunction of adolescent pessimism, nostalgic escapism, and inviolable ethics puts the work of art continually out of reach, while making it simultaneously necessary as a form of relief. In fact, the work of art escapes even when it is right there, in front of us, thanks to the “criticism of purpose” described so well by Caroline Levine, or else remains uncomprehended. The phenomenon of consumption is not, ironically enough, the result of too much engagement with things. It is actually the symptom of a lack of engagement with things: an inability to carry on a lasting study of a piece of culture, an inability to wrench material objects away from the advertisements or stigmas that constitute them. In the Apollonian dream, things have to be what they are, and be subject to the perceptual discipline that realizes beauty in things without the missing term of the purchase.

In his study of Giorgione, Walter Pater wrote:

In these then, the favourite incidents of Giorgione’s school, music or the musical intervals in our existence, life itself is conceived as a sort of listening—listening to music, to the reading of Bandello’s novels, to the sound of water, to time as it flies. Often such moments are really our moments of play, and we are suprised at the unexpected blessedness of what may seem our least important part of time; not merely because play is in many instances that to which people really apply their own best powers, but also because at such times, the stress of our servile, everyday attentiveness being relaxed, the happier powers in things without are permitted free passage, and have their way with us. (from The Renaissance)

So, having established the principle of play, in a way that recalls childhood without becoming bound to it, Pater himself begins to engage more deeply with Giorgione’s Fête Champêtre in the mode of play. As he does so, first water, and then air, become the symbols of desires awakened and satisfied, questions asked and answered:

But when people are happy in this thirsty land water will not be far off; and in the school of Giorgione, the presence of water—the well, or marble-rimmed pool, the drawing or pouring of water, as the woman pours it from a pitcher with her jewelled hand in the Fête Champêtre, listening, perhaps, to the cool sound as it falls, blent with the music of the pipes—is as characteristic, and almost as suggestive, as that of music itself. And the landscape feels, and is glad of it also—a landscape full of clearness, of the effects of water, of fresh rain newly passed through the air, and collected into the grassy channels.

The whole thing is instinct with joy. It ventures inside of the original work, but also surpasses it through the playful exposition of a reverie, one whose limpid depths are clear all the way to the bottom, where are thirsts and tears. In the hope that media like blogs will prove to be some means of access to the happier powers in things, I will end with a landscape full of clearness, of the effects of water, of fresh rain newly passed through the air. From the art blog Big Window: