This is a strange little book. It begins with the author explaining that he was living in Antwerp, in Belgium, because his wife was working on a project there. He had nothing in particular to do, but after realizing that the 17th century, Flemish painter Peter Paul Rubens had once lived in Antwerp, he decided to write a book about Rubens. It’s not a biography of Rubens though. It’s a series of brief meditations on the art of painting, ancient history, Greek mythology, Greek tragedy, hundreds of years of European history, especially Europe’s wars, and Rubens’s family, in particular the affair that Rubens’s father Jan had with Anne of Saxony, who was William of Orange’s wife, and how William of Orange and Rubens’s mother Maria reacted to the affair. There’s a lot about Friedrich Nietzsche, too. And other things.
The book’s central thread goes something like this. Silenus was a minor god in Greek mythology with a gift for prophecy. He was the very wise tutor and companion of Dionysus, the much more important god of the grape-harvest, wine, fertility, vegetation, insanity, ritual madness, religious ecstasy, festivity and theater. Silenus is best-known for something he once told King Midas (who was apparently a real person, but couldn’t turn anything into gold). Midas asked Silenus what is the most desirable thing for a human being. Silenus told him the best thing is not to have been born. But if you have been born, the best thing is to die quickly.
Peter Paul Rubens’s father Jan was the legal advisor to Anne of Saxony. They had an affair, the affair was discovered and Anne’s husband William threw Jan in jail. Jan eventually got out, was forgiven by his wife Marie, but died a broken man. Their son Peter Paul grew up to become the most influential artist of the “Flemish Baroque” tradition.
Around 1616, Rubens painted “The Drunken Silenus”. It shows Silenus stumbling along, surrounded by some of Dionysus’s retinue, which included nymphs and satyrs.
A couple years later, Rubens painted “Two Satyrs”, two more of Dionysus’s pals.
A lot of history went by. Millions died during the Thirty Years War. Hapsburgs and Bourbons went at it. The nations of Europe slowly assumed their current positions.
Then, in 1872, the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche published The Birth of Tragedy from the Spirit of Music. Wikipedia says:
Nietzsche found in classical Athenian tragedy an art form that transcended the pessimism and nihilism of a fundamentally meaningless world. The Greek spectators, by looking into the abyss of human suffering and affirming it, passionately and joyously affirmed the meaning of their own existence. . . .
. . . Nietzsche discusses the history of the tragic form and introduces an intellectual dichotomy between the Dionysian and the Apollonian (very loosely: reality as disordered . . . versus reality as ordered). Nietzsche claims life always involves a struggle between these two elements, each battling for control over the existence of humanity.
Which brings us back to Silenus and Dionysus, the nymphs and satyrs, especially the satyrs. And goats. The author of The Drunken Silenus thinks Nietzsche valued the wild and crazy Dionysian approach to life more than the calm and collected Apollonian. I think the key chapter of The Drunken Silenus is “Is God a goat? What possibly could that possibly mean?”
The way Nietzsche tells it, when Silenus finally reveals to Midas the greatest thing for man, that it is best for man never to have been born and second best for a man to die quickly, Silenus lets out a shrill laugh. Silenus laughs because in telling King Midas the best thing, he actually tells him the worst thing . . .
Nietzsche thinks the ancient Greeks — the Greeks of the satyr plays and the songs in the forest, the Greeks who came before the classical period of Plato and the brilliant days of Greek rationalism — those Greeks were bold enough to make a health of their pessimism. . . .
The olden Greeks, the ancient Greeks, thinks Nietzsche, understood life under the principle of the goat, the young goat kicking and bucking in the woods. . . Even to ask the question of what is good or bad for a man is to lose touch with the primary intuition that God is a goat. That’s to say, God is not transcendent, imperturbable, untouchable, unknowable. God is none of those things. God, if God is the God of the world, has to have the characteristics of the goat, the randiness and unpredictability, even the stupidity of the goat. . .
And so, the question of good and bad for man is canceled before it can be asked. It is preempted. The satyr would never think to ask that question. . . . Goats don’t ask questions like “what is the best thing for goats?” Goats just go out and express goatlieness [35-38].
Getting back to Rubens, I suppose Rubens’s father and Anne of Saxony (who was also imprisoned by her husband) were the Dionysians. Rubens’s forgiving mother Marie was the Apollonian. And Rubens himself, the great artist, was a proto-Nietzsche:
When Rubens took to painting Silenus he wasn’t grabbing randomly at the bits of ancient mythology floating around in the intellectual breeze. Rubens had a whole program of satyrs and Dionysus and Silenus. . . Rubens was being very Nietzschean here, if we can be anachronistic — literally anachronistic, since it was . . . Rubens who came first and Rubens who first painted Silenus as a central figure within this story of Dionysus.
So that’s The Drunken Silenus. You might find it interesting, but I should mention that, even though it’s a short book, it’s repetitious. The author likes to repeat himself, often in the same paragraph. It also gets tedious near the end, as he starts getting more abstract and paradoxical, suggesting that life is death, and reality is unreal, that kind of thing (I’m not quoting here). It’s the kind of book that’s hard to put down until it’s easy.