Disco and Dionysus

Disco and Dionysus

Dionysian impulse is the bedrock of Saturnalia, and its release makes Apollonian order bearable. Having the freedom to discharge built up tension and/or repression through physical, often decadent, and sometimes debauched ways sounds reminiscent of Disco. Wasn’t the purpose of disco rooted in the experience of catharsis, communion, and culture? Sure, Disco’s message got muddled by the money it was making, as well as all the sins people were said to have been committing, but the essence of the social sensation known as disco is founded on the same non-principles of Saturnalia: let’s have fun for a bit and do whatever feels good.

The topsy-turvy 3-day jamboree involved dancing, dressing up, drinking, and doing whatever the hell one wanted. The powerful get to surrender their power over to the powerless, and the degraded get to feel human, and all get to revel in the liberation of Dionysian-laced Saturnalia, if only for a little while. The book, “Clubland”, by Frank Owen, exposes the unexpected shared aims of the varied inhabitants of club culture in mid ‘90s New York, paying close attention to the infamous nightclub, Limelight, owned by Peter Gatien. Gatien, an influential business man, was described as having a sterile, sober demeanor, which ironically opposes the sentiments of his vibrant dance venues. Even more ironically, and quite unsurprising when you look at the strength of the Dionysian shadow, Gatien was a crackhead who had 3-day banquets where he binged on blow and sadomasochistic activities with hookers. In order to preserve his professional reputation, a freebasing Gatien couldn’t go romping around with streetwalkers out in the open for all to see, because that behavior isn’t acceptable for an Apollonian; he had to do his dirty deeds on the sly, in five star hotel rooms with prostitutes he could trust. Though it’s extreme, Gatien’s voyages into the unconscious through demeaning sex and abandoned drug use perfectly embodies the therapeutic ritual of Saturnalia.

The problem with unregulated and uninhibited lotus eating is that you eventually lose your sense of reality and self-control. You basically become a Maenad and develop an endless black hole craving for any and everything primal. Maenads were said to worship Dionysus by venturing out into the night to practice strange rites such as dancing to loud, thumping music, drinking and screaming. Hmmm… that sounds familiar, doesn’t it?

Ravers are our modern Maenads, inspired by the atmosphere and allure of all night ecstasy that Dionysian Disco provides. They whirl about on the dancefloor to roaring synthesized sounds, worshipping their glittered god, in hopes of freeing a part of themselves that they ordinarily have to keep encumbered. Ravers drink and intoxicate themselves with mottled mixtures of questionable substances (Special K anyone?) to reach a state of pleasurable madness that mirrors the aims of the Maenads. Frenzied ecstasy–where the soul separates from the body–is what compels these people to revel so riotously and with such ritualistic dedication.

“And those who were seen dancing were thought to be insane by those who could not hear the music,” Nietzsche. The philosopher and cultural critic should have clarified in his quote just who were “those who could not hear the music.” The disco deaf and dumb are Apollonian. Ayn Rand further defined the principle of form likened the Apollonian to the principle of individuation, drawing the conclusion that because the personality is a construct of character, it is Apollonian. Therefore a loss of self achieved through disco and drunkenness is directly related to the principle of Dionysus.

Unchecked hedonism can be sticky, to say the least, it can evolve into forms of addiction or escapism, and that’s why Saturnalia was only allotted for a brief period of time. Apollonian order and Dionysian chaos are two halves to the whole of humanity; you can’t have one without the other, because the less attention you give one will cause resentment from the other (like Jan Brady in the Brady Bunch). Our Dionysian selves long to come out and play, and what Saturnalia and disco show us is that order and chaos want to coexist, but need balance. The reason people love to party is because they don’t get to do it every day; overindulging can become just as boring as 9-to-5 clerical work if you do it incessantly.


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