Control and Chaos, by Camille Liptak
Friedrich Nietzsche coined the terms, Apollo and Dionysus to describe chief ideologies in Greek culture which paralleled principles found in nature. Form and structure fall under Apollo’s jurisdiction, as do rational thought and wisdom. Dionysus controls the instinctual, emotional, and chaotic sides of life. When functioning symbiotically, the two energies can work to create a balanced, emotionally sound existence for individuals. However, as examples from video games and film, as well as fictional short stories and nonfiction novels prove, equilibrium and emotional stability are seldom satisfying for those exposed to long-term Apollonian ordinances and reason, due to an ever-increasing desire for experiencing a different, often darker, more wayward reality. There is a fundamental fight between reason and emotion, caused by Apollonian attempts to control and out-reason the sometimes savage Dionysian impulse, which leads to extremes in behavior and ultimately, self-destruction.
The book, “Clubland: the Fabulous Rise and Murderous Fall of Club Culture”, by Frank Owen, exposes the unexpected shared aims of the varied inhabitants of disco culture in mid 1990s New York, paying close attention to the nightclub, The Limelight, owned by Peter Gatien. Owen explains how the ‘90s New York nightclub scene grew out of a cost-effective necessity for stress-relief and temporary escape from the mundane, writing, “people who could no longer afford big-ticket items like holidays abroad … [took] mini vacations at dance halls.”1.
New York nightclubs became “pop culture playgrounds that brought significant economic benefits to the city,” and Peter Gatien’s clubs exploited all the things one would associate with Dionysian activities and interests in an alternative scene of shocking amoral conduct and costuming. The purpose of such events was to offer the people of New York City a secluded setting where they could be free to dance, drink, and dive into their chaotic, Dionysian self, miles away from their reasoning mind. Housed in an uninhabited church, The Limelight was New York City’s premier spot for abandoned self-indulgence and runaway passions that was a foreground to pulsating music, flashing lights, and even flashier followers – in short, a contemporary temple to Dionysus.
Gatien, an influential businessman, was described as having a sterile, sober demeanor, which ironically opposes the sentiments of his vibrant dance venues. In the book, it is mentioned that Gatien was “usually absent” from the Limelight’s hectic hedonism. In response to that fact, the businessman explained his nonappearances saying, “‘the reality of operating a successful nightclub is that you can’t be a party animal and function as a businessman at the same time,’” noting that the synchronicity of Dionysian revelry and Apollonian order in a sybaritic environment such as The Limelight, is unmanageable.
Gatien fell victim to the same temptations of impulsive chemical- and alcohol-fueled animalism which his clubbers paid to participate in, but he preferred to keep his drunken, drugged escapades hush-hush. Instead of drinking and dancing alongside throngs of club kids, Gatien hid in private hotel rooms where he could freely immerse himself in orgiastic excess alongside select narcotics and call girls, and forget who he was. The straitlaced disco magnate kept these Dionysian benders secret so as not to eclipse his lucid, level-headed Apollonian persona. Though extreme, Gatien’s clandestine voyages into the unconscious through uninhibited sex and drug use, as well as the hypnotic and wild nightspot, The Limelight, perfectly embody the battle between Apollonian rules and Dionysian desire.
The fictional city of Rapture from the video game series, Bioshock, is a failed underwater utopia based on the ideals that the brilliant should be free to create and live lives devoid of Apollonian regulation, censorship, and morality.
The subaquatic metropolis allowed artists and scientists room to grow and access their irrational, expressive creative brains without interference, thus paving the way for more inventive advancement. Rapture is neither wholly Dionysian nor Apollonian until the two energies are forced to confront one another due to a disproportion between rules and wantonness. Unchecked Dionysian behavior spreads like a disease through Rapture, infecting both the elite and lower class, provoking them to rebel in response to the municipality’s minimalist government methodology until the city itself adopted a philosophy like that of a rebellious teen, fleeing from control and regulation with a passionate zeal. Rapture’s emotionally charged atmosphere provokes the citizens of the once peaceful city to lose confidence in their safety, thus resulting in a civil war of ideologies.
Andrew Ryan, Rapture’s founder, sought to build a city that empowered great creative minds and propelled them towards achieving grander greatness. Although Ryan thinks of, “…emotions as being opposed to rationality,”2 due primarily to the fact that he tried to use anesthetized reason in place of emotions, he – like the rest of his city’s citizens – eventually succumbed to his Dionysian self. Underlying fears of defeat, provoked by severe paranoia incited Ryan’s feelings to cloud his rational judgement, thus inspiring him to govern Rapture with a totalitarian-type grip.
Due to their unintelligible quality, Ryan likened emotions to the hysterics and savagery of his city’s biggest criminals, Splicers, as they were wild, irrational, and in need of parameters, which caused him to project his feelings onto Rapture’s residents, rejecting and controlling them with stringent curfews, and frightening them into obedience with public hangings. Ryan did not construct Rapture with the intention of it mutating into a megalopolis filled with deranged predators and exhibitions of violence; rather, he created the city with the hope of building a reality that was an escape from oppressive governmental and religious administrations.
However, the creative-freedom-turned-psychosis that proliferated its streets was not what caused Rapture’s demise. When Ryan sought to control his Dionysian utopia by attacking its free will did he set it on its path to self-destruction; an Apollonian regime could not seek to take back control over a city it had no stock in to begin with, and thus caused a disturbing backlash from its people. The reality of Rapture is that it was founded on mixed Apollonian/Dionysian values, which were at their core, unachievable for its people, and led to the city’s catastrophic collapse. Rapture is an illustrative example of how and why a Dionysus-dominant society cannot sustain itself on the principles of perpetual non-governance and an aversion to ascendant authority.
‘Repent, Harlequin!’ Said the Ticktockman by Harlan Ellison exhibits an intriguing account of the Apollo Dionysus dichotomy in relation to their specific realities, and how such realities clash. The short story’s two leading characters, Harlequin and the Ticktockman, serve as fitting models for each aspects of the dichotomy; Harlequin represents the ecstatic and disordered Dionysus, and the Ticktockman is the stern, supervisory Apollo. Signifying the notoriety of Harlequin and his antics, and how both aspects of society, the upper, Apollonian strata, and the lower Dionysian are aware of his presence and possess noticeably different opinions about his behaviors, Ellison writes, “He was known down the line… but the important reactions were high above and far below”3. Harlequin’s unreasonable and rebellious conduct cannot escape the watchful eye of the Ticktockman, who condemns any sort of disobedience and frivolity taking place in his systematic city.
The Ticktockman, in reference to Harlequin’s time card and cardioplate (two Apollonian modes of identification), says, “This is what he is, but not who he is.”. By making this distinction, the Ticktockman is isolating the difference between the two echelons and their singular realities. In the Apollonian world, alongside the machines and their operators, Harlequin is his time card: a name with an assigned set of duties and nothing more; but it is in the world of Dionysus where Harlequin’s real identity, his disruption-fueled, enthusiastic madness is expressed, thus giving him substance.
Harlequin takes on a type of chaotic celebrity, he is a myth to most, as they have never seen him, but only heard of him and his havoc-wreaking endeavors, which have transfixed both the “emotionally disturbed segment of the populace,” and, “The Ones Who Kept The Machine Functioning Smoothly.” To the first group, Harlequin is a hero, a champion of their desire to let loose, be late, and be mad; to the latter – and more importantly, to the Ticktockman, Harlequin is a disruptive nuisance. In the end, however, when confronted about a hiccup in the schedule, the Ticktockman laughs behind his mask, thus implying that his dedication to conformity and order led him to pursue an opposing alternative: Dionysian mischief.
“It’s only after we’ve lost everything that we’re free to do anything.” These are the words of Tyler Durden, an unfettered, dark eccentric in the movie Fight Club4. Durden is a response to the main character, Jack’s embedded dissatisfaction with a controlled, organized life, who delivers to Jack a different type of reality than he is used to.
While Jack and Durden, represent the Apollo Dionysus dichotomy, their underground riot league, Fight Club is a purely Dionysian faction that offers physical release within a subterranean space where its members feed off of one another’s emotive unruliness. Complete with orgiastic cheers and jeers, and near-naked fist fighting, the slugfest embodies the characteristics of Dionysus, tapping into the participant’s emotional, instinctual, animalistic self. Fight Club neutralizes its partaker’s psyche, and encourages balance between the restrained Apollonian world – with its rules of conduct and consumerism – and the Dionysian realm of hysterics and passions.
The essence of Fight Club is to break down one’s character and how he views the world, thrusting him into his emotional self to force him to feel both pain and pleasure simultaneously, with the purpose of enlivening him. Referring to the fruitfulness of Fight Club, and its impact it has on one’s vitality, Jack says, “[you] weren’t alive anywhere like you were there.” Durden also comments on the supporters of Fight Club, saying, “…I see in fight club the strongest and smartest men who have ever lived. I see all this potential, and I see it squandering… an entire generation…slaves with white collars.”
Both Durden and Jack’s remarks suggest that Dionysian energies are ignored and stymied by conventional Apollonian society, and therefore must be given a proper outlet in order for individuals to feel alive. Because the participants of Fight Club are free and fully able to express themselves in physically impassioned ways, merging with their emotional natures, they are thus able to not only live, but thrive amongst the margins of their inhibited society. The beauty of Fight Club is found in its madness, chaos, and self-forgetfulness; again, Apollonian individuality is obliterated by the Dionysian impulse as the film’s main character, Jack sees beyond the confines of his commercial culture and becomes one with his emotional nature.
Ayn Rand referred to the battle between reason and irrational emotion represented by the Apollo/Dionysus dichotomy as, “the fundamental conflict of our age.”5 Humanity wants to be simultaneously in and out of control, as demonstrated by the disco dwellers of The Limelight, the mischievous Harlequin and his despotic adversary, the Ticktockman, and the white collar devotees of Fight Club. When reveling in the liberation of Dionysian-laced drunkenness –whether through fist fighting, drugged dancing, or pranks– Apollonian reason and inhibition no longer feel compelled to control, and both sides of the self are allotted expression, because one now has the freedom to discharge built up tension and/or repression through physical, often decadent, sometimes debauched, and utterly instinctual ways.
However, in its extreme, Dionysus can create a passing distraction that isn’t, in any way, shape, or form, capable of withstanding the clean rationality of real life. Circumventing Apollo for prolong periods can lead to self-destruction similar to that seen in the ocean town, Rapture. Without proportionate Apollonian reason and the ability to make distinctions, it is possible for the wild fantasies created by the chaotic and emotional Dionysus to take over and destroy one’s reality completely, forcing them to surrender power over to something dark and uncontrollable, which in turn, loses the “fundamental conflict” indefinitely.
1. Owen, Frank X. Clubland: the fabulous rise and murderous fall of club culture. New York: Broadway, 2004. Print.
2. Cuddy, Luke. BioShock and philosophy: irrational game, rational book. Chichester, West Sussex, UK: John Wiley and Sons, Inc., 2015. Print.
3. Ellison, Harlan. “Repent, Harlequin!” Said the Ticktockman. 1965. PDF. Web. 28 Feb. 2017.
4. Fight club. Dir. David Fincher. Twentieth-Century Fox, 1999. DVD.
5. Rand, Ayn. “Apollo and Dionysus.” Audio blog post. Page 1. ARI Campus. Web. Feb. 28, 2017.
6. Kreis, Steven. “Nietzsche, Dionysus and Apollo.” The History Guide. 2000. Web. Feb. & March 2017.
Main photo credit: Statue of Dionysus (the god of the grape harvest, winemaking and wine) inside the Vatican. Rome, Italy – April, 2013. Derek Key