Another Damn Book To Read

Just what I needed.

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I’d seen advertisements for The Drunken Silenus: On Gods, Goats, and the Cracks in Reality, a new book by Morgan Meis. Then I saw a review by Leanne Ogasawara for Dublin Review of Books. Here’s half of it:

A man finds himself in Antwerp with nothing to do. Then he remembers, among other things, that this is the town where the painter Peter Paul Rubens made his home. At first, this annoys him, because he has no interest whatsoever in the painter. But then he thinks, why not write a book about Rubens.

Why not, indeed?

Essayist and critic Morgan Meis sets out to develop a new style of writing about art, one that is informed by a passionate looking. . . .

So, what is the painting in question? Well, it should be said that Rubens’s Drunken Silenus is not even in Antwerp anymore, since the city is now much too small for its golden boy. The painting is now in Munich. Meis travels there and stands in front of it. . . .

Meis is a philosopher. And so, standing in front of the drunken, out-of-control figure of Silenus, he immediately thinks of Nietzsche. . . .

According to Meis, Rubens was bowled over by Titian’s Bacchus and Ariadne   and who wouldn’t be?   in which the character Silenus can be found, playing a minor role in the back of the picture. You can see him slumped over asleep, presumably in a drunken stupor, being carried along on a mule. Rubens gravitates to this plump figure and brings him centre stage in his own painting, where naked Silenus seems ready to spring right off the canvas.

In case you don’t remember   and why would you?   Silenus was the tutor of Dionysius, and member of his wild and crazy entourage. He was also the goat-god who got tangled up with King Midas. Famously, the king asked Silenus to tell him what was the best thing in the world for men? “The best thing in the world for men is to never have been born,” declares Silenus. “And the second best thing is to die early.”

You get the idea: this is what my son would call a buzz kill. But this profoundly pessimistic message deeply affected Nietzsche. Nietzsche, who was so fascinated by opposing ancient Greek impulses – one toward order (the Apollonian) and one toward frenzy and the irrational (the Dionysian), could not help but be impressed. As Meis tells it:

All this talk (Nietzsche realised) of the measured and balanced Greek mind was sloppy. No, there is turmoil. Nietzsche saw it because he was willing to look. He didn’t listen to anyone else, the experts, the other scholars. He just took a look.

When I studied Nietzsche in university, we read Dodds’s 1925 work The Greeks and the Irrational. The book was revelatory, illuminating all that was irrational about ancient Greek society. We tend to idealise the Greeks for their devotion to reason   in law, in mathematics, rhetoric and philosophy, for example. But the Greeks, said Dodds, were also deeply driven by irrational forces expressed in religious and other social practices. . . .

According to Nietzsche, Silenus was the greatest hero because he embraced the violent irrational forces that are at our core. And indeed, this is the way he has long been viewed, even in Rubens’s sympathetic depiction.

But what is a goat-god anyway? Nietzsche responds to this question, in Meis’s words that:

God is a goat because God is truth and the real truth of the matter is that life is a matter of running and jumping in the forest and rushing after something to screw and something to eat and, according to Nietzsche in what he thought he learned from the Greeks, even the life of the mind, the intellectual life of the sad-thinking-creature known as man, this creature who must think and make art and make culture, insofar as man does those things, ought to be done with the pure life-expressing power of the goat.

Have you heard of the old joke that, Life is so terrible, it would have been better not to have been born. Who is so lucky? Not one in a hundred thousand!

More than anything, The Drunken Silenus is about the “tears of things” (lacrimae rerum). Underneath the beauty of Antwerp   underneath the beauty of all cities, he says, is the irrationality of violence, chaos, and war. A world of tears.

This is the deeper truth that Nietzsche uncovered in the figure of Silenus. And in Meis’s telling, as the Franco-Prussian War came to a head during The Birth of Tragedy’s original composition, this same impulse toward war and violence is what connects civilisations through history. This Dionysian horde that Nietzsche surely imagined battering the walls of the besieged city of Wörth in 1870 was the same Dionysian horde that devastated Europe in the Thirty Years War in Rubens’s time. . . .

In this telling, history is not a love story. But I do think there is something healthy about Nietzsche’s pessimism. To dwell on transience, in the tears of things, in decay and ruins, is ultimately an empowering practice. In Japan, it is referred to as “scattering flowers and fallen leaves” 飛花落葉 or . . . “dewdrop loves and our dewdrop selves”. The Lotus Sutra teaches that all that appears before us is as a dream, an illusion, a bubble, a shadow. All is like the dew or lightning. It should thus be contemplated that nothing has reality. That everything is in flux and that all must eventually perish is a sad but inevitable fact . . .

Unquote.

And then a purchase was made.

Peter Paul Rubens painted Silenus another time. Drunken Silenus Supported by Satyrs shows Dionysus’s companion and tutor getting a little help from his friends. We all need assistance sometimes, especially in what Ms. Ogasawara calls “our current time of worry and sickness”. Am I right or am I right?

Two days.

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