Archive for June 4th, 2020

Greek tragedy is a nasty, bawdy business

Thursday, June 4th, 2020
Share

The paunchy Silenus, “part hostage, part acolyte” of Dionysus, in Rubens’s painting

Peter Paul Rubens had a minor obsession with Silenus, and plucked him from a bit player in Titian’s painting and made him a sordid star in his own right. Now Morgan Meis (we’ve written about him here and here) has just published The Drunken Silenus: On Gods, Goats, and the Cracks in Reality with Slant Books. The book’s genesis: Morgan, a contributor to The New Yorker, found himself living in Antwerp, Rubens’s town. He had absolutely no interest in him at all. “I didn’t even care about him enough to dislike him. My next thought was, ‘I’ll write a book about Rubens.'” From there he spirals into a meditation on Silenus (“part hostage, part acolyte” of Dionysus), Nietzsche, God, life and death.

An excerpt from Chapter 5:

Nietzsche did something very simple when he wrote The Birth of Tragedy. He asked himself a clear question, “What is the Dionysian?” and then he attempted to answer that question. His answer was that the Dionysian is a feeling of ecstatic oneness with the surrounding universe. That is why it is drunken and orgiastic. It is a losing of oneself. With Dionysus, you merge with the one pure life force. This is ecstasy. It is also a source of profound depression when you come back. You realize, after an orgiastic ecstasy, that your particular individuality does not matter. You would rather be erased in the complete cosmic overabundance. That’s what happened with Silenus. He had a taste of this drunken dissolution in the One. It made him stop caring. It made him say to King Midas that the best thing for any man is not to have been born at all. The second best thing would be to die quickly. Never living at at all means never facing the profound disappointment of being. It means never experiencing the pain of being an individual when all that matters is the whole.

Titian gave Silenus a bit part (at left, with ass)

The Greeks gave an entire art form to that thought, to that feeling of root despair that comes along with the embrace of real life. That’s the way Nietzsche saw it. Tragedy – the particular form of Greek tragedy – starts with the bleating of the goats and the wild shit going on in the Dionysian forest.

It’s all there in the satyr plays. Jaunty numbers, the satyr plays were like festival entertainment. People would dress up like goats and tell dirty stories and run around the stage making lewd jokes. These festivals go back to the beginning, the harvest, the celebrations around another season of life. The Greek tragedies go back there. The satyr plays were part of the overall entertainment. The Greeks would set up scenarios where everybody was screwing everybody else and the whole lot of them would be very drunk.

There’s no point putting a fine veneer on any of this. It was rough and it was nasty. It all came from the secret rites and the cultic behavior around Dionysus. These were harvest celebrations and they smelled of the earth. If you want to get a sense of what the satyr plays were all about the first thing you should do is take off all your clothes and then go outside into the country somewhere and roll around in the dirt screaming and crying. Then you’ll be getting into the proper mood. Drink a liter of rot-gut whisky, foul stuff, the stuff that comes in plastic containers and has the word “OI” in its brand name. Drink a liter of that while you are rolling around in the dirt and then get a few of your friends to punch you in the face while everyone chants the same phrase, whatever phrase you like, over and over again for about an hour. Then drink some more whisky and piss on yourself. Now you are ready to to fuck the bare earth. Just hump away in the dirt. Try to fuck the actual earth, the core of her.

Now you’re in the mood to understand a satyr play. Now you’re in the mood to hang around with Silenus. Indeed, if you actually go through with this whole plan he may show up. If anything could actually bring Silenus, today, out of his hiding and into the fields of Pennsylvania, or wherever you are going to do this, it would be the above-described behavior. I do believe you’d have a chance at meeting the man/demigod in the flesh, the illustrious and wretched Silenus.

Read more here.

Author Morgan Meis was footloose in Antwerp … this book is what happened.