America as Dionysiac and Apolline: Part 1

Whatever is said of Friedrich Nietzsche’s philosophical perspective of the world, it gives rise to a particular view of art that bodes valuable interpretative power. In The Birth of Tragedy, he speaks of the Dionysiac and the Appoline qualities of art which by their nature go beyond it to the inner life of man in relation to the world around him. I would like to explore each quality in relation to Donald Glover’s ‘This is America’ in order to yield insights in both Glover and Nietzsche’s works.

In Nietzche’s philosophy, the world is often chaotic and requires both order and an Order-er. That which is frenzied or chaotic in art is Dionysiac, so-named after the Greek god of wine, which was often used in frenzied celebrations. That which is more orderly in some manner is thus Appoline, so-named after the Greek god of music, prophecy, and medicine, which were considered more orderly things in the Greek culture. The Appoline presupposes the ability to recognize those things which are ordered. 

Whatever operation(s) of the mind it takes to order something, that is, for example, to make it clear to the listener the notes of a song, or to the audience the scene changes of a play, or to a reader the end of a paragraph and the beginning of another, or to the party-goer the beginning of the party and its end, is considered for Nietzsche the “principium individuationis” or the principle within inner man to perceive/recognize things and persons as individuals. As a principle, it is natural to man that he can recognize things, or even do the opposite. 

If man by nature orders things, then the suspension of this order gives away to the Dionysiac, that is, the frenzied experience of the world to commence. Individual things become un-individualized, for as they are perceived, they cannot be distinguished from one another. The party-goer, for example, might remember having arrived to the party, thoroughly enjoying it thereafter, but, perhaps, little more than either of these facts. A similar case may be found with the frenzied violence occurring in the background of ‘This is America,’ for before we can perceive what is happening, the scene has changed, and we must either replay the video or move on.

Compare the background of the video to its forefront. We have shocking murder scenes representing historical instances in recent times. In other words, the background literally becomes the forefront evermore intensely. The two murder scenes could be treated as moments when in the Dionysiac we are called to something more Appoline. What could satisfy our desire for order here? A call to be aware of violence in America? A call to be aware of the effect(s) it has upon Americans? A call to fight violence? Do we not desire peace in this otherwise chaotic and violent world?

Nietzsche argues for how both the Dionysiac and the Apolline are necessary for one another. That way, neither are privileged. Where there is too much of one, unwanted events may occur, such as the violent murder scenes here, and artists often invite the other to take its place. Keep this idea in mind for part 2 where I will explore Glover’s answers to these questions. 

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