Nietzsche, Artistic Intoxication, and the Overcoming of Nihilism: The body As an Ontology of Practice

Social IssuesPhilosophy

  • Author Mo Mbaye
  • Published December 20, 2008
  • Word count 4,907

In his essay "Richard Wagner at Bayreuth" Friedrich Nietzsche writes, "there is only one hope and one guarantee for the future of humanity: it consists in his retention of the sense for the tragic." # Nietzsche sees tragic art as a reliable means of effecting a transfiguration of nihilism, a nauseating absence of cultural vitality that originates from our strong cultural propensity to absolutize metaphysical values. Nietzsche’s belief that our "retention of the sense of tragic" constitutes one of our surest means to overcoming such a cultural "sickness" includes the project of reaffirming the instinctual, bodily, and practical over metaphysics, for through the aesthetics of the tragic, Nietzsche believes, we can construct a value system that considers and satisfies our individual practical needs.# This paper therefore argues that Nietzsche’s conception of the role of the body in the tragic, as an aesthetic experience, provides a useful model for combating some of the nihilistic aspects of contemporary modern culture. That is, the body itself constitutes an "ontology of practice" # that can actually ground our effort to successfully confront nihilism.


Nietzsche writes, "what does nihilism mean? That the highest values devaluate themselves" (WP 2). Nietzsche then sees ‘nihilism’ as the reality of the disappearance from our world of "highest values" that claim to be universal and objective. Nietzsche writes, "the real world, attainable to the wise, the pious, the virtuous man- he dwells in it, he is it" (TI, "How the ‘Real World’ at Last became a Myth"). For more than two thousand years now metaphysical rationalism has defined how we relate to the world in terms of epistemology, ethics, and politics. With Platonism a dualism was introduced into our horizon, whereby we have come accept the notion that truth and what justifies our conduct here on earth resides in a transcendent, idealistic, metaphysical "real world," while our material realities are merely transient, inadequate, and needing of transcendence if we are to commune with that "real world." Since Plato rationality, the dialectic, ascetic contemplation, and the will to give a spiritual interpretation to the unstable forces of becoming have become cultural hallmarks of modernity: what is valuable is one’s resolve to behave in such a way so as to tap into a transcendent logos of truth and absolute dignity.# The rise of Christianity, Nietzsche continues, only reinforced human beings’ conviction that a "life worth living" should be deeply marked by its metaphysical orientation: "The real world [the ideal world of the Forms], attainable for the moment, but promised to the wise, the pious, the virtuous man (‘to the sinner who repents’)" (Ibid). Christianity eventually inherited the dualistic tradition of Platonism, so that most of us continue to locate the source of value-making in an ideal realm that remains detached from everyday life but that has the power to pass judgments and impose norms on it.# What confers dignity to one’s life is one’s ability to behave, here on earth, in ways that prepare one for a promised millenarian communion with a deity in charge of history.

A defining feature of the highest values then is the project to impose on life rational or ethical perspectives that console us: through the intellectual and moral traditions of the Western consciousness we have been trained to believe that there exists an objective set of values to which we can appeal for meaning. Not surprisingly Nietzsche includes among the highest values most of our secular value systems, for they embrace the Platonist-Christian spiritual notion that truth really exists as a presence in a higher spiritual order although such presence must be recovered from behind the empirical realities of becoming, life, or nature. Our scientific pursuits constitute another way in which we manifest the "will to truth" that drove both Platonism and Christianity. All three movements "negate" life because they affect some level of violence not only on nature but also on ourselves, since the search for objective, ultimate truths may cause us to turn life into a means (or a necessary ordeal) to securing these truths, as, for example, when scientists only show interest in the animal-mechanical aspects of life rather than its creative possibilities. Nietzsche sees the emergence of the so-called modern ideologies (classical liberalism, socialism, positivism, historicism, Darwinism, scientism, etc.) of late nineteenth century Europe as manifestations of the "metaphysical faith" that informs modern value making activities. # He warns against "the nihilistic consequences of the ways of thinking in politics and economics, where all ‘principles’ are practically histrionic: the air of mediocrity, wretchedness, dishonesty, etc. Nationalism. Anarchism, etc. Punishment" (WP 1). Behind the emotional and spiritual appeal of modern ideological systems, there subsists a will to dissimulate the reality of the collapse of value systems that claim objectivity and that give the modern personality a sense of moral comfort and stability.

Nietzsche’s metaphor for the nihilistic individual who makes value a matter of his own will is the "ugliest man," # who operates the "death of God," that is, the collapse of so-called objective metaphysical and secular ideals. We learn that the ugliest man (a figure of the morally self conscious modern subject) has grown tired of God’s pity, that is, God’s ability to transparently see through the horrible character of an existence (that of the ugliest man) that pretends to simulate ideal models. As a result, the ugliest man can no longer "endure" a God that witnessed "unblinking and through and through" his (the ugliest man’s) hypocritical, violent, hateful, and irreverent attitude toward life. "Where I have gone," declares the ugliest man, "the way is bad. I tread all roads to death and destruction" (Z, IV, "The Ugliest Man."). So God has to be murdered because His pity is too great and revealing.

The ugliest man tells us that God "looked with eyes that saw everything- he saw the depths and abysses of man, all man’s hidden disgrace and ugliness" (Ibid). The ugliest man, being self-conscious of the ugly nature of his life and experiencing a great deal of guilt since the presence of the highest ideals proves to be a mirror that constantly reflects back his life as a great lie, resolves to abandon his own identification with traditional, idealistic systems of values. He proclaims his power to fashion his own ideals. Like the modern compassionate individual whose pity toward the other leads her to affirm her will to power, pity then has a similar effect on the ugliest man. Though he reacts against God’s great pity, the ugliest man perceives such pity as a mirror, for his appreciation of God’s pity causes him to experience a moral disgust against his own life since, like many of us, he was trained by the "religion of pity" to deeply trust in God’s judgment. So the pity of the modern individual and the pity of the ugliest man are similar because in both individuals pity causes a deep reaction against the traditional perspectives on practical life. The ugliest man develops a hatred of values based on the pity of God (or of the ascetic ideologue, for that matter) because pity constantly reminds him of his own impotence, that is, his need to judge himself on the basis of values that subsist outside the scope of his will and that reflect back on his illusory life.

What is ugly about God’s murderer, the ugliest man, is his will to embrace the collapse of old idols as a reason to introduce a reactive set of values that further depreciates life and that demands our own creative intervention: "the ugly is the form things assume when we view them with the will to implant a meaning, a new meaning, into what has become meaningless: the accumulated force which compels the creator to consider all that has been created hitherto as unacceptable, ill-constituted, worthy of being denied, ugly!-" (WP 416). God’s murderer is ugly because he deepens the meaninglessness of our world, so that if we are to defeat nihilism, we will have to transfigure his ugliness and introduce a more authentic set of values. The ugliest man experiences a visceral sentiment of spiritual nakedness that panics him into seeking a false compensation to the collapse of traditional values. He wants to escape nihilism without overturning old metaphysical habits. He now relies on the values offered through the practices of commercialized mass culture, social-utopian movements, political parties, and other secular value systems that pursue the will to truth.# Nietzsche writes, "the ways of self-narcotization.- deep down: not knowing whither. Emptiness" (WP 29). The will to action of the ugliest man is basically a form of negation, not positive construction, for he further pursues the metaphysical faith of the ascetic outlook; he acts on the basis of the notion that the traditional values have failed to produce the absolute truths that should guide our life. He expresses a will to impose on the lives of others meaning schemes that actually degrade their personal needs, impulses, and styles of life. This debilitating character in the perspective of the ugliest man is formative to nihilism: the death of God as the clash of competing, reactive, secular perspectives on human existence.


In ways unforeseen by the modern subject, the body proves to be a powerful force in our ability to transform and reinterpret the aspects of becoming that we find objectionable. Qualities in the disposition of the body directly affect the nature of the becoming around us because both the body and becoming constitute a continual matrix of forces, and whether we subsist in nihilism or achieve an emancipated world depends on the nature of the pertinent direction these forces take. Nietzsche notes, "I tell you: one must have chaos in one, to give birth to a dancing star. I tell you: you still have chaos in you" (Z, Ibid, 5). Nietzsche sees the will itself as an excessive force, and the forces whose excess the will configures are overwhelmingly those of the body, as opposed to purely cognitive and psychological elements, for only in the will as a bodily balance of forces can we understand Nietzsche’s claim that value depends on our ability to organize the chaos that structures the modern self. The disparate physiological and psychological structure of the will must be released, though in a regulated fashion if anything valuable is to take root in our culture. Nietzsche has in mind something akin to the great Romantic poets‘ notion of creativity as "controlled emotion." # By referring to the "chaos" in the self, Nietzsche means to draw attention to the need to sublimate the multiplicity in the structure of the will.

We learn that that the multiplicity of the bodily will cannot be "explained mechanistically" (Ibid). For Nietzsche the forces of the will do not rationally structure themselves in a way that allows the mind to intuitively intent and represent the world, independent of the influence of the body because the will configures itself as will only as a result of forces spontaneously clashing. Consciousness cannot function as an interpretive force detached from the bodily realities of the self. Nietzsche believes that the Cogito functions as a conscious, mediating expression of a body structured as an unconscious self with its own hermeneutic powers.# Rational concepts can help interpret the modalities of the self, as an agent immersed in the practical events of life, but only after subterranean, bodily dynamics of willing give coherence to these rational concepts. Thus Zarathustra notes, "You say ‘I’ and you are proud of this word. But greater than this-although you will not believe in it-is your body and its great intelligence, which does not say ‘I’ but performs ‘I’" (Z, I, "Of the Despisers of the Body"). The modern subject is conscious of its own categories, but it fails to realize how much more significant is their real origin. A disembodied mind cannot grasp the real nature of the world it wants to interpret because emotions, personal temperament, behavioral habits, and our brute interactions with the material processes of the everyday life contribute to the ability of mind to accurately grasp what it wants to interpret. Our representations of the world take place as a continual matrix of rational and personality processes. In practical everyday life, Nietzsche is telling us, part of the reason why our interpretations of the world satisfy us is that they emotionally and temperamentally satisfy us; that is, such interpretations have grasped the metaphorical (symbolical) reality of the body since they draw on the latter’s multiplicity and continuity with the practical forces of becoming to impose perspectives on the world.


In Nietzsche’s Birth of Tragedy we are told that great art is a product of a dialectic between two metaphysical and artistic principles: the Dionysian and the Apollonian (BT 1). The terms are derived from figures of Greek mythology, Apollo being the god of the plastic arts and Dionysus being the god of the musical arts. The Dionysian and the Apollonian, Nietzsche argues, are metaphysical principles because they are forces that underlie the world but also represent real dynamics of human subjectivity, whose synthesis represent the tragic experience in art.#

The modes of functioning of the two principles are then different in a way that proves important for artistic production. As metaphysical forces they point to the existence of a unified and transcendent reality of an artistic will (Ibid); the role of the Dionysian is to commune with that "primal unity", and the role of Apollonian is to make that communion meaningful to us as individuals. The basic modality of the Apollonian is the dream experience, which expresses itself through the categories of imagination, illusions and representation, which in turn are crucial for the self to understand itself as a unified subjectivity, for they supply the forms and schemes that the subject inherits from society and imposes on the world to make it meaningful. Nietzsche asks us to "keep in mind that measured restraint, that freedom from wilder emotions, that calm of the sculptor god" (Ibid). Owing to their power of transfiguration,# the illusory but beautiful Apollonian codes that impose order on Dionysian frenzy repose the subject on a comforting state of self-knowledge and self-mastery, for the world is no longer absorbed as becoming, change and suffering but comprehended through clear rational models. The basic element in the Dionysian principle is the intoxicating experience that expresses itself through artistic rapture, an experience that dissolves subjectivity into the fluxes of becoming, for when the subject is under its intoxicating influence, "everything subjective vanishes into complete self-forgetfulness" (Ibid). The Dionysian owes its power to its ability to upset the balance of social norms, values, and categories (nurtured by the Apollonian) that make our life normal and meaningful as "sovereign" individuals.

By tragic art Nietzsche means the effect of the dialectic between these two principles. He insists that "these two different tendencies run parallel to each other, for the most part openly at variance; and they continually incite each other to new and more powerful births, which perpetuate an antagonism, only superficially reconciled by the common term ‘art;’ till eventually, by a metaphysical miracle of the Hellenic ‘will,’ they appear coupled with each other, and through this coupling ultimately generate an equally Dionysian and Apollonian form of art-Attic tragedy" (Ibid).

The two principles contest each other but also strengthen the effects of each other on the psyches of the tragic hero and his or her audience to create a tragic artistic experience, for whereas Dionysian rapture tends to build up in us a longing for a return to normality through Apollonian codes, Apollonian categories tend to gradually cause in us a feeling of cultural suffocation that compels us to demand a Dionysian release. A synthesis between the two principles, Nietzsche believes, is particularly significant to artistic creativity, for whereas the Dionysian inaugurates the release of chaotic primeval, de-individualizing metaphysical forces, the Apollonian imposes codes on that frenzied release to make it a coherent and tolerable artistic expression.

What makes the dialectic tragic is not only the contest and its resolution but also the character of the whole process: its dominance by the Dionysian principle. The Dionysian principle expresses a "primordial unity" within which all categories dissolve in the fluxes of change, becoming, and suffering, for "in song and in dance man expresses himself as a member of a higher community; he has forgotten how to walk and speak and is on the way toward flying into the air, dancing" (Ibid). Allowed to run its course as a purely metaphysical and artistic principle, the Dionysian has a liberating, narcotic and joyful effect in the subject despite revealing the essence of life as change, instability, and pain because the subject loses its ability to judge when it finds itself in total communion, as if merging, with the primordial metaphysical unity that underlies existence. This may compel us to wonder about the true nature of the relationships between the tragic and the meaninglessness of existence: if the tragic merges the subject with the absurd realities of life, is it a worthy aim to embrace a tragic outlook on life if it condemns us to a meaningless form of existence? This question poses a serious challenge to Nietzsche if we can correctly assume that once it grasps life as absurdity and suffering, the Dionysian will subsists at this level of its terrible discovery as an end-in-itself. Nietzsche writes, "the highest art in saying Yes to life, tragedy, will be reborn when humanity has weathered the consciousness of the hardest but most necessary wars without suffering from it" (EH, "The Birth of Tragedy," 4). The aim of the Dionysian experience is not to stagnate in a meaningless existence but to go beyond and transforming the absurd suffering that plagues life; the tragic constitutes a truly affirmative perspective on life because suffering is the ground for asserting a joyful mode of existence.


Nietzsche believes that "the intoxication of the will" has the power to turn the will from its inward direction, where nihilism has imprisoned it, and thrust it outward into becoming; "intoxication must first have heightened the excitability of the entire machine: no art results before that happens" (TI, "Expeditions of an Untimely Man," 8). The mechanism of intoxication consists in its ability to cause a condition of arousal in the will. If one believes that it is one’s duty to better human existence by creating progressive conditions, whereby the inspired individual authentically fashions a world meaningful to her because it reflects her creative possibilities (in the fifth section of the Birth of Tragedy Nietzsche tells us that "it is only as an aesthetic phenomenon that existence and the world are eternally justified."), and if one believes that human beings should be able to so relate to life as the meaning of their humanity, then one would welcome "a certain physiological precondition" that revives our sense of power and purpose. Nietzsche continues, "the essence of intoxication is the feeling of plenitude and increased energy" (Ibid). Intoxication can reverse the state of nothingness associated with nihilism because it has the power to cause the self to believe that it can master both itself and the world. Nietzsche writes, "it is impossible for the Dionysian man not to understand any suggestion of whatever kind, he ignores no signal from the emotions, he possesses to the highest degree the instinct for understanding and divining, just as he possesses the art of communication to the highest degree. He enters into every skin, into every emotion; he is continually transforming himself" (Ibid, 10).

But it is not enough to arouse the self; the body must also affirm itself within becoming. Nietzsche writes, "let us get rid of a prejudice here: idealization does not consist, as is commonly believed, in subtracting or deducting of the petty and secondary. A tremendous expulsion of the principal features rather is the decisive thing, so that thereupon the others too disappear" (Ibid). The goal is not to change the structures of becoming, for as an underlying reality, it will always remain a "primal unity" of chaos. What the intoxicating self tries to achieve is a "tremendous expulsion" of the figures it finds most authentic about itself. Such a self takes its lead from the multiplicity in the body in a manner that allows us to argue that the latter actually functions as an ontology of practice. The body that transfigures becoming is the body that expresses not what it readily takes to be its own essential features, which often are artificial and oppressive cultural norms, but what Dionysus recognizes as the underlying nature of reality: life as frenzied becoming, a realm in which our socially assigned individuality, which ignores needs that are true to us, is dissolved. Here the multiplicity of the self truly becomes an immanent dimension of the practical possibilities of becoming, as Dionysus tries to secure his "symbolic jubilee" of nature. The Dionysian hero seeks to change our perspectives on the structures of becoming by giving them powerful symbolic expressions.# The main issue that still concerns us is, using the Dionysian model, how do we recognize a body or a self as a symbol of affirmation?

We learn from Zarathustra, the self-proclaimed disciple of Dionysus, that we can symbolically recognize the non-nihilistic, transfigured body in the contorted forms it takes when the subject engages in a dynamic activity like dancing. He declares, "I should believe only in a God who understood how to dance" (Z, I, "Of Reading and Writing"). As much as the tragic hero, the teacher of the superhuman finds Dionysus, the god of music and dance, particularly useful in our effort to overcome nihilism, for through intoxicating dance the normal categories of bodily expectations and behavioral conventions are displaced.# Not surprisingly, Zarathustra reminds the "higher men," who suffer from cultural impotence and who desire to recover their power of willing, "although there are swamps and thick afflictions on earth, he who has light feet runs across mud and dances as upon swept ice" (Z, IV, "Of the Higher Man," 17). Zarathustra confronts the ponderous weight of cultural decline and nihilism through affirmation, but a precondition for the success of that confrontation is the elimination of decadence and resignation as weighty afflictions that plague the body.

Zarathustra wants a subject prepared and predisposed to change, and, as we noted above, intoxication achieves this through an emotive experience that has the power to orient the self beyond the absurd, though here we see the same process articulated in a body that upsets its normal categories. Zarathustra advises the "higher men", "lift up your hearts, my brothers, high! higher! And do not forget your legs! Lift up your legs, too, you fine dancers: and better still, stand on your heads! " (Ibid). Through the activity of dancing the body symbolically affirms its liberation from nihilistic normality; that is, Zarathustra sees a possibility to uplift the subject above the conditions that have so far acted as a hinder to her life, for through dance the whole person is involved with the rhythmic pulses of music in a way that turns his or her life into a work of art, an achievement Dionysus envisions for anyone aspiring for a meaningful life. Zarathustra’s celebration of dance symbolizes the ability of some of us to transfigure the reality around them by transfiguring their own selfhoods.

Nietzsche writes, "What does the tragic artist communicate of himself? Does he not display precisely the condition of fearlessness in the face of the fearsome and questionable? -This condition itself is a high desideratum: he who knows it bestows on it the highest honours…In the face of tragedy the warlike in our soul celebrates its Saturnalias…" (TI, "Expeditions of an Untimely man", 24). A Dionysian-like affirmation includes the ability to create a clearing effect in the midst of a nihilistic, hostile world that reacts to our own authentic needs, and such a clearing effect must also be a physiological experience, and that is why it takes a Saturnalian quality. The tragic artist seeks to produce a symbolic, positive situation within overwhelming conditions of nihilism. Zarathustra’s use of dance to render weightless the "swamps and thick afflictions" of nihilism represents his call that we rely on the body to introduce a positive symbolic force into becoming. Nietzsche insists that the Dionysian experience "is explicable only as an excess of energy" (Ibid, 4). Through dance, as a means to disrupt a nauseating and pitiful normality, we recognize a fracturing of existence, owing to an oversupplied artistic will, as a precondition toward creating the body as a symbol of affirmation.

That Nietzsche asks us "to welcome every moment of universal existence with a sense of triumph" should lead us to assume that life will continue to be a challenge that invokes our powers to judge and act, so that existence reduces to an eternal need to impose meaning schemes on the world. This leads Zarathustra to ponder, "if ever I have played dice with the gods at their table, the earth, so that the earth trembled and broke open and streams of fire snorted forth: for earth is a table of the gods, and trembling with creative new words and the dice throws of the gods: Oh how should I not lust for eternity and for the wedding ring of rings-the Ring of Recurrence!" (Z, III, "The Seven Seals," 3). Nietzsche again reminds us that the transfiguration effected on becoming through existential action is not meant to permanently change the character of becoming, for the latter will have to remain a locus of possibilities and thus a field of chance, instability, suffering and dice throwing.# The body as beautiful figuration, through dance, consists in the insight that intoxication temporarily presents the self as a figurative aberration within nihilistic becoming. Nietzsche writes, "affirmation of life even in its strangest and sternest problems, the will to life rejoicing in its own inexhaustibility through the sacrifice of its highest types- that is what I called Dionysian…" (TI, "What I owe to the Ancients," 5). Because beauty in becoming consists in a transfigured perspective that exalts our being and because beauty in becoming symbolizes our will to affirmation we can say that "the crooked" body that enraptures itself in Dionysian dance affirms a will that embraces the transfigured, beautiful realities of becoming as its content.

One could wonder whether the Dionysian self should be kept in a constant state of intoxication to maintain its affirmative and aesthetical qualities? Clearly it would not be healthy for any human person to subsist in a constant state of rapture. The state of the Dionysian self is temporary, and after the rapturous "metaphysical comfort" has passed, it may express its satisfaction with the important changes operated on the categories of our culture. To understand this process, we must return to Nietzsche’s vision of tragic art as a synthesis between the beautiful codes and appearances of the Apollonian principle and the ecstatic and rapturous affirmations of the Dionysian principle. Nietzsche writes, "tragedy closes with a sound which could never come from the realm of Apollonian art. And thus the Apollonian illusion reveals itself as what it really is- the veiling during the performance of the tragedy of the real Dionysian effect; but the latter is so powerful that it ends by forcing the Apollonian drama itself into a sphere where it begins to speak with Dionysian wisdom and even denies itself and its Apollonian Visibility" (BT 21). Through its codes and dream-like categories the Apollonian principle seeks to return the subject to the normality of social existence as an individual satisfied with the prevalent cultural order, but as Nietzsche notes Dionysian intoxication is powerful enough to upset the reigning codes. The body transformed into a symbol of affirmation, beauty, and joy remains a transfigured body, and if it is to be re-coded by the Apollonian perspective, for the sake of a return to social normality,# such re-coding must incorporate the Dionysian body as a unique, often non-conforming self, for the Apollonian force must speak "finally the language of Dionysus." Like the masters of slave morality, the Apollonian order would show respect to the Dionysian force only if the latter expresses itself through a powerful force of affirmation. Having been impressed by the Dionysian-like self’s ability to convey its different practical needs, our Apollonian-like cultural conventions are likely to be influenced by the former (the "other") as society debates value.

We found that Nietzsche believes that nihilism, as the collapse of objective values that some of us perceive in aspects of contemporary life, originates from a feeling of repulsion against the ugly character of a mode of existence disfigured by its "metaphysical faith" and which compels some of us to abandon our reverence for objective value. We agree with Nietzsche that transforming our nihilistic table of values should include embracing the tragic hero’s bodily approach as a model. That is, since the Dionysian perspective, as aesthetic intoxication, gives the tragic hero a means to both overcome and elevate life, we should embrace it as our guide to face up to practical life and affirmatively draw from the latter values that reflect our own unique needs. Indeed in the example of Zarathustra we saw that such model can actually succeed in turning the human subject into a culturally creative being by transforming the body into a situation of personal, joyful and aesthetic affirmation.

Name: Mohamed Mbaye;

Education: MA Philosophy;

Occupation: College instructor;

Interests: Philosophy, History, Arts

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