When Apollo and Dionysus Clash: A Nietzschean Perspective on the Work of Kanye West (excerpt) Lyrics
The problem with philosophy is the ease with which it devolves into abstraction. Looking into a philosophy book replete with arcane words such as “epistemology” and “dialethicism,” and with the author holding forth on esoteric matters that apparently live only in the mind, the uninformed or rather uninitiated reader can be forgiven for assuming that philosophers are the very definition of “ivory tower” academics, utterly dissociated from real life and elitists in the worst sense of that much-maligned word. How can one answer the question “What’s the point of philosophy?” when there are so few examples of how philosophy can be applied to today’s everyday life.
One possible answer is to demonstrate the ways in which philosophical concepts can be applied to the task of gaining a broader understanding of something. This is what this essay sets out to accomplish. There can be few things more familiar in popular culture than music videos, and this essay demonstrates how Nietzschean concepts can help illuminate the multifaceted meanings of Kanye West and Jay Z’s video “No Church in the Wild.”(1) In doing so, we will provide an example of how a philosophical framework can assist in unpacking all that is contained in the taut few minutes of this video.
A work of art, however “high-brow” or “low-brow,” always contains within it the seeds of two reactions: the instinctive/emotional, and the intellectual; in classical and Nietzschean terms, the Dionysian and the Apollonian.(2) It is the difference between the felt reaction and the thought reaction that defines our views of art and allows for a discussion of esthetic effects. It can also be played with by artists: as an example, a song, composed of the two elements of music and lyrics, can produce an ironic effect by placing together seemingly contradictory elements. Sarcastic lyrics set to a syrupy melody, for instance, will cause a form of cognitive dissonance in the listener, who is left to piece together the why behind this choice. This effect is heightened in the world of the music video. Adding the third element of the visual complicates the audience’s reactions even further. The dynamic illustration of music and lyrics can be used with as much inventiveness as the director wishes, film a simple shot of a singer performing to a meta-narrative whose link to the song is left to the audience to determine. The viewer-listener is laced with basic questions of esthetics: What is the artist trying to do? How do the images relate to the song? What is being said, or trying to be said? Does the artist succeed in saying it? Does it fit? Does the intent matter? Through this questioning the audience enters into a dialogue with the work, and through it with the artist.
These questions do not, however, necessarily offer a framework for looking more deeply at what a work of art suggests. By taking a philosophical concept as a starting point, it is possible to organize one’s thoughts, to choose a vantage point from which to look at the work and see what it is doing, and perhaps determine whether that is what the artist intended it to do. Let us look at an example.
The opening sequence of the video is one of silent menace. A black clad, black-skinned man grips a simple glass bottle, a rag inserted into its neck. There is no need for explanations or exegesis. In this time and in this place, most of us have a visual vocabulary that tells us that the combination of these two simple items, the rag and the bottle, come together as something far more deadly than the sum of their parts. It is a visual signifier that tells us that this is a Molotov cocktail, an infamous incendiary device that first saw use during the Spanish Civil War(3) and that was perfected during the Winter War between Finland and the Soviet Union, when the Finns gave it the derisive name of Molotov, an insult aimed at the Soviet foreign minister.(4) As the weapon of the David-like Finns against the Soviet Goliath, with soldiers on foot stopping tanks with the simple expedient of a bottle, this cheap and easily made device became noted as a weapon of choice for a minority struggling against overwhelming force and repression. In the years since the Second World War it has come to be intimately associated with ideas of upheaval. It is the symbol of the riot, the rebellion. In our modern world, it is the anarchist’s sigil, evoking in us a host of images and words from the moment it appears, whether in life or, as here, on screen.
While the looming specter of explicit violence confronts us in the image of the un-ignited Molotov cocktail, its threat yet to be actualized, a more implicit threat of violence is also present, in the form of that black-clad, black-skinned male body. In his work on the philosophy of race, particularly in the existentially grounded Black Bodies, White Gazes, philosopher George Yancy discusses the ways in which the black body, particularly the black male body, is read as a threat by white society.(5) As such the Heideggerian Dasein of blackness, its very beingness, posits within the white gaze, without immediate provocation, the possibility of imminent violence, the threat of social decay. This is a coding that never leaves it even in such innocent act as stepping into an elevator. Because the black body is automatically read as driven by passion rather than by thought, of being bestial rather than fully human, the Black man is a threat, because he has not been, and possibly cannot ever fully be tamed. For much of the first minute of the video that this black body is just that, only a body, featureless, decapitated by the frame that cuts off at the man’s neck.
Thus the opening image of the music video for “No Church in the Wild” confronts us with a doubled image of violence, one the explicit threat of the man holding a weapon, the other the implicit threat of this man’s blackness. This opening message warns the viewer that we are ready to move beyond the boundaries of the map, passing into those uncharted areas once marked with the ominous warning that hc svnt dracones, Latin for here be dragons. With their implications of descent from the empyrean realm of civilization into the bloody conflict of an urban jungle, this image provides us with a fitting point from which to begin an examination of the visual and lyrical message of “No Church in the Wild” within the context of the work of Friedrich Nictzsche, who more than once found himself wrongly accused of spreading a plague of nihilistic thought.
Nietzsche did not advocate of nihilism but was as a careful, patient examiner of the phenomenon, but to view Nietzsche as a nihilist would be incorrect and to trivialize his thought. In many ways he did not see nihilism as a valid response to the world, but considered it a decadent response to the world(6) and saw it as a problem to be overcome. It simply wasn’t a problem that could be overcome by moral preaching however, rather the proper response had to be grounded in the body and it had to be aesthetic.
Concluding that previous systems of belief had reached their end point, Nictzsche could only follow that logic to its relentless end, nihilism, but he sought also a way forward from it. Thus he created the concept ofamor fati, allowing him to affirm a love of life despite what might seem its emptiness:
I do not want to wage war against ugliness. I do not want to accuse; I do not even want to accuse the accusers. Let looking away be my only negation! And, all in ,all and on the whole: someday I want only to be a Yes-sayer! (The Gay Science, 276)
This is not the most enduring image of Nietzsche. Much more famous, or perhaps more correctly infamous, is the brooding man with the oversized mustache, the Nietzsche who pronounced Theothanatos, “Gott ist tot,” the declaration of the death of God.(7) Yet for all that this herald of funerary tidings was one man in the physical sense. In philosophical spirit, it might be said that there were two men named Friedrich Nietzsche, the intellectual nihilist and the relentless life-lover. Reading the early writings of Nietzsche, we find that at the very beginning of his career as a philosopher, Nietzsche was still in the grip of what he would later call a sickness. This sickness, this fever of the mind, was the result of the influence of such men as Wagner, Schopenhauer, and even Kant. It was a sickness of transcendence, in which the world was thought to be still divided into the high and low.
The central focus of Nietzsche’s first work, The Birth of Tragedy; is art, particularly the dramatic tragedies of ancient Greece. Nietzsche conceives of art neither as the simple pursuit of a group of dilettante craftsmen, nor as the lofty pursuit of an “enlightened” caste of philosopher-artistes. Rather, art is something much greater, something that cannot be confined to these elites classes. It is nothing less than the highest pursuit of man and the metaphysical goal toward which all men should strive. This is contrary, however, to generally accepted Judeo-Christian morality, for which the search for virtue held pride of place and art was a frivolous distraction, if not downright sinful. The young Nietzsche rejected this view. For him, morality was the symbol of a dead god, a debilitating poison that we are tricked into thinking the sweetest of wines, deluding us into believing we are slaking our thirst even as it weakens us. Only through art can we hope to achieve perfection or fulfillment as it is art that allows us to lay title to that contentious claim of authenticity. He did, however, deem art, aesthetic value as it were, as the antidote to nihilism and morality.
The Birth of Tragedy is the epitome of a young man’s book; in later years, even Nietzsche himself denounced it, at times savagely. Despite this, it earns a place in our study for its introduction of Nietzsche’s concept of art and life being separated into the Dionysian and the Apollonian. It is the conflict of these two states, named after the wild god of wine and the stately god of poetry and light, respectively, that makes life three-dimensional. And it is also, as we saw earlier, the conflict that informs our view of any given work of art.
In Judeo-Christian morality, influenced by Plato’s view of the world of the mind, or the spirit, being truer and more relevant than that of the mere five senses, the Dionysian elements of life were repressed. The enjoyment of the physical world was held to be a sin; fallen hunaanity should aspire only to abnegation and spiritual enlightenment, ignoring the desires of the body as wiles of the devil. But Nietzsche rejects the view that the physical is inherently inferior or sinful, or that enjoyment is. Mikhail Bakhtin pointed out that the medieval church had to allow Carnival, the eruption of all that was
repressed in evel-jday life. Nietzsche argues that such saturnalian revelry is not merely steam that has to be occasionally let out from a boiling pot. It is an integral part oflmmanity, the celebration of the joy of living. Christianity, fixated on the idea of what happens after death, has lost sight of this. What’s more, Dionysian revelry is not merely a wild, drunken party: It is a creative act, the source of art. Theatrc in Ancient Greece was not, after all, just a pleasant evening out. It was a sacred ritual dedicated to Dionysus.
Despite what Christianity preaches, then, the Dionysian spirit is ÷ not an assault on God or an outbreak of atheistic anarchy but rather it
is a manifestation of the divine spirit. As the foundation of art, it is at
the base of what we have noted is the highest aspiration of humanity.
But Dionysus alone cannot fully create art, because anarchy is formless and shapeless. It is the influence of Apollo that allows art to become something more and enduring. Apollo’s realm is that of abstraction, of pure thought, removed and divorced from base physical needs or desires, or for that matter from the threat of the physical. The latter are in the domain Dionysus’s, and as such are dangerous. In Aalcient Greece, the female followers of Dionysus who slipped the bounds of the deeply repressive patriarchy to run riot through the hills. Men never knew quite what they did, but there wcre rumors of strange orgies and bloody feasts of goats torn to pieces and eaten raw. It was these Maenads who were responsible for thc death of Apollo’s son Orpheus, who still mourning his loss of Eurydice, for a second time refused to sleep with them, and they ripped him limb from limb. The Apollonian is tlms left both afraid and disgusted by the Dionysian impulse, willing to acknowledge it only under the condition of repressing it.
For all that we are fleshy things and theretbre creatures rooted in the Dionysian although we are often educated in the Apollonian mode and taught that the physical is the lesser of the two realms.
Certainly Plato, at least in the fictional guise of Socrates leadhlg us through the pages of his Republic, thought so. As Plato’s famous allegory of the cave suggests, the realm of the Dionysian is the realm of appearance, of shadow, of opinion. So long as we remain bound in the sensual chains of Dionysus we shall be unable to know the light of truth.9 Even Augustine of Hippo, whose prayer for chastity was tempered by the request that it come not quite yet, held the Neoplatonic conviction that the goodness to be found in the material world was but a pale reflection of the light of God. Thus it would be sinful and foolish to become enamored of the goodness here while becoming blinded to the transcendent goodness of the divine. That is, no matter how wonderful something in this world might be, the divine offers so much more that there is no purpose in contemplating the material. Aristotle, as is well known, considered contemplation the highest fbrm of pleasure, because it brought man closer to the divine spirit, and helped to perfect the soul.
This then is the conclusion of the dominant Classical philoso-
phy that was subsumed in Christianity, that it is to the realm of the
Apollonian we should turn our eyes, whether we call it Heaven, the
realm of forms, or something else entirely. The ultimate goal is to ÷ transcended the limits of our flesh and become something more.
Morality, the set of guidelines by which we might engage in right-
living, is the primary tool that enables us to do so. Yet Nietzsche felt
that it was art, and specifically art contra morality, that should be the
guiding principle of humanity. As such, the Apollonian realm should
not be the focus of our striving.
Yet the solution is not, according to Nietzsche, to dive more fully into the Dionysian world, which would be as one-sided and misguided as the perpetual focus on the transcendent. It would be more accurate to say that the Apollonian realm should not stand in isolation as the focus of our striving.
Nietzsche believed that the clash between these two realms and their subsequent melding, the forming of a symbiotic whole that was greater than the sum of its parts, not only gave strength to Greek tragedy, but was also a powerful influence on the character of the ancient Greeks as they engaged in the daily performance that we call life. To reject the Dionysian is to deny an essential part of ourselves, yet to cast aside the Apollonian and its “higher” impulses is equally a denial of a part of our nature. Casting either one aside leads to a life-negating mode of being. To be life-affirming, one must embrace the totality of life. Only by joining our “highest” aspirations to our “lowest” impulses can one begin to hold a life-affirmilag stance.
This contrast between life-negating and life-affirming ways of being would continue to be a theme in Nietzsche’s work even after he cast aside all thoughts of transcendence. As Deleuze points out in Nietzsche and Philosophy, Nietzsche was not a nihilist, because the root of nihilism is “nihil,” which means zero, nothingness, the absence of any positivity. “Nihil”-ism is antithetical to any life affirming ethos, and therefore Nietzsche’s “will to power,” which is a way of affirming life, is the opposite of a death-drive. It is the will toward life and its intensification.
The above has all been rather abstract. In fact, for the last few paragraphs, we have been working firmly in the Apollonian realm, which can be that ivory tower we previously noted that turns most people off philosophy. Let us bring in Dionysus, then, by returning to the contemplation of a worldly artifact, the video of “No Church in the Wild.” This video is especially suited to a discussion of Nietzsche’s view because it can not only be discussed in terms of the differences between Apollonian and Dionysian, but also illustrates them.
It is instructive to watch this video with the sound off, to see what is being said in the visual realm alone. We noted earlier how the multi-dimensionality of the music video complicates the audience’s response to it. By separating the visual elements from the audio ones, we can perhaps achieve a closer reading. And so we return to that black body holding the Molotov cocktail and, in light of Nietzsche, another layer is added to our discussion. The fear the black body produces is a very specific type of fear, because in the common white imagining of the world, black lmmans are purely Dionysian creatures. Colonialism was founded on the assumption that whites were not merely more “civilized,” but inherently more capable of civilization. The theoretical benevolence of the “white man’s burden,” the paternalistic impulse to improve the black man’s moral standing, was tempered by the fact that it was understood that the black man could never actually reach the same level as the white man. Blacks were by nature incapable of truly inhabiting Apollo’s realm, though they might be instructed in it enough to keep them from being a danger. This view has not entirely disappeared. The black body is still visualized as rampantly physical, as can be seen in the cliches of the black instinctively having “rhythm in their souls,” always dancing like the demonic Africans on the shores of the Congo in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, and being a perpetual sexual threat to the white man, assumed to be oversexed, ithyphallic lovers. So, for example, in the case of a riot, despite the multiple ethnicities of the participants, the event itself is personified by a black man seen against the background of white policemen. In many instances the police in America appear to be protecting neoclassical monuments and buildings of power–capital buildings and courthouses–symbols of Apollonian state rationalism, from the Dionysian rioters.
We have already confronted these threats from the first image of the video, the contained menace of the unlit cocktail. Now, the subdued scritch of a disposable lighter and the whomph of an accelerant-soaked rag bursting to life presage the birth of a sonorous beat, as our ears follow our eyes and we are pulled into the dual-exegesis of video and song. The scenario is one that we’ve increasingly seen delivered in the media, from Egypt to Brazil to Europe and America with rioters, of multiple ethnicities, filling the street, and preparing to rush police as the first Molotov cocktail is let fly. Dionysus is unleashed, his lack of restraint as visible in the uncontrolled spread of the flames as in the black man’s two upraised middle fingers. There will be no manners here.
Remaining for a moment only with what we see, not what we hear, what follows is fascinatingly ambiguous: There is no way to know what side we should be on. The general ethos of rap makes us suspect that the rioters are automatically the “good guys,” rising up against an oppressive society represented by the riot police with their clubs and shields, but the violence demonstrated by both sides suggests something closer to equality. History provides no guide, while insurrections such as these have been as explicable as, say, the Rodney King riots or as justified as the recent spate of revolutions again dictatorships in the Middle East, others have been as morally bankrupt as the explosion of anger in Vancouver in 2011 over a lost hockey game. In the video both sides brought their weapons to the fight, and after all, the rioters, so far as we can see, fire the first shot. The ethical equality of the two sides is particularly demonstrated toward the middle of the video, with the juxtaposition of the rioter standing on top of a car having his feet knocked from under him by a policeman’s nightstick, and a mounted officer being pushed off his horse by a rioter’s pole. The stomach clenches with the same horror at what happens to one as to the other. Lovers of ancient art will be nervous to see the statuary taken over by the mob, and everyday shoppers will worry as the rioters attack the mall, throwing rocks at the mannequins–yet more white statues under threat by an out-of-control destructive force.
The violence of the unleashed Dionysus would appear to justify its repression. It is the classic argument against anarchism, that without the strictures and taboos of society, people will be too irrational to look out for anything but what they perceive as their immediate self-interest, and society will devolve into permanent chaos. Yet transgressions occur even with the existence of moral codes and laws that cannot be absolute. At what point does it become acceptable to riot against current authority? Most people will agree that destructive riots because of the outcome of a sports event lack any sort of morality; what of riots following a clearly unjust verdict in a court case? What of riots against an authority that refuses to listen, as in June 2013 in Turkey? What of riots that bring down dictatorships, as in the Arab Spring? At what point does one change sides? How do we respond to authority using brutality to put down a riot when we agree that the riot needed to be put down? What can we do when protests we agree with begin attacking innocent targets? There can be no clear answer, because life is not cut-and-dried or, dare we say it, black and white. There is a constant ambiguity in how we respond to events, because morality itself is ambiguous, often dependent on circumstances and so connected to the rest of the world that it is impossible to truly measure what effect a decision will have. This ambiguity of morality was the theme of Nietzsche’s later Beyond Good and Evil (1886), and it is an ambiguity that pervades much of Kanye West’s body of work.
What we see in the video, then, is ambiguous, because we have no guidelines to tell us on which side morality lies. Viewers are likely to decide based on their preexisting concepts of society and the law. In terms of the actions we see, there seems to be nothing to decide between. Both sides seem only to offer violence: Our choice is between agreeing to oppression and beating up rioters, while risking being set on fire, or rebelling, destroying everything we come across, and facing the tear gas, the dogs, and the billyclub. There seems to be no middle ground. The only thing both sides can agree on is causing the other as much pain as possible.
The ambiguity of the visual element is clear. Apollonian order is presented as brutal and repressive, Dionysian riot as violent and destructive. Neither is morally superior option. What happens, then, when we turn the sound back on and consider the artistic ambiguity we touched upon earlier, the relationship of song to image? Apollo and Dionysus clash on screen; Will our intellectual and emotional response to the combination of song and video clash as well?
Ushered in on the pulsing throb of the song’s beat after that initial flare of flame, and the mirrored image of bared teeth in the mouth of a riot-control dog and an angry rioter, we are thrust fully into the song. The opening chorus, provided by Frank Ocean, seems to issue a challenge, ending with the fine, “What’s a god to a non-believer/Who don’t believe in anything?” Jay Z’s verse also adopts a similar stance, challenging both secular and religious authority, while at the same time maintaining the stance of someone not necessarily seeking to overthrow, but to find an authentic authority; one that exists beyond the venal corruption of those who currently hold power in the world.
While there is a sensation of disparity between word and image, the relationship between the two in the early parts of the song is clear. Just as Frank Ocean and Jay-Z have issued their challenge, have announced their desire to find a truer way of being in the world, the rioters can be read as fighting against an authority they view as corrupt. They rebel against the system not because they seek to destroy it, but because they wish to forge it into something better.(10) Ocean’s line “What’s a mob to a king” puts the rioters in their place. A rioting mob is nothing to a king, represented here by the police. This is chiefly due to the ease to which the nation-state can repress such uprisings. We have seen this constant refrain used by authority against rebellions and riots both in America and abroad. The heavy handed, highly weaponized force by dictators such as Bull Connor (Alabama), Daryl Gates (California), Muammar Gaddafi (Libya), Hosni Mubarak (Egypt), Bashar al-Assad (Syria), and democratically elected authoritarian leaders such as Recep Tayyip Erdogan (Turkey) and Vladimir Putin (Russia), all insisting that protests against their rule was the work of animalistic thugs, anarchists, and foreign agents. Once the rioters are thus dehumanized, it becomes acceptable to use force against them, even though they are as much a part of the society as those who support the rulers. Instead of allowing a dialogue between contradictory ways of seeing the world, searching for common ground, violence is used as an answer–much as in our Nietzschean reading of how the Dionysian is violently denied and repressed by the Apollonian.
Viewing the video less literally, associating the mob on screen to the one in the lyrics, the police, the representatives of authority signify the repressive Apollonian intellect keeping the base impulses of a Dionysian rabble in check. Yet clearly they are failing, for this rioting mob clearly denies the authority of the police, just as Ocean’s nonbeliever denies the existence and hence the authority of a god. As the battle rages, Jay-Z, our unseen narrator of this riot of the mind, urges us not to overthrow thought for emotion, but to unify the two.
Taken in isolation, the first half of “No Church in the Wild” certainly resonates with early Nietzsche. Yet as the song moves into its bridge, moving toward Kanye’s verse, there is a marked shift both visually and lyrically. During the first half of the video, the police, the Apollonian forces, are clearly in control of the situation. Yet as The-Dream sings to us of desire, the fide begins to shift, with the rioters becoming the dominant force in the confrontation, reflected not only through the action in the video, but also through shifts in lighting, and even in the image of the statue. Whereas before the selection of statuary suggested a man hiding his Face in pain, shame, or impotent rage, or a Herculean figure whose raised club reflects the baton of a police officer bludgeoning a rioter, the statues shown in the second half of the video symbolize power and victory.
Taken in isolation, the first half of “No Church in the Wild” certainly resonates with early Nietzsche. Yet as the song moves into its bridge, moving toward Kanye’s verse, there is a marked shift both visually and lyrically. During the first half of the video, the police, the Apollonian forces, are clearly in control of the situation. Yet as The-Dream sings to us of desire, the tide begins to shift, with the rioters becoming the dominant force in the confrontation, reflected not only through the action in the video, but also through shifts in lighting, and even in the image of the statue. Whereas before the selection of statuary suggested a man hiding his face in pain, shame, or impotent rage, or a Herculean figure whose raised club reflects the baton of a police officer bludgeoning a rioter, the statues shown in the second half of the video symbolize power and victory.
This is where the question of whether the video’s powerful imagery is at odds with the song’s content. Many critics have suggested that Kanye’s paean to polyamory, his ode to the joys of sniffing cocaine from her “black skin” (once again we note the black/white dichotomy) conflicts with the visualization of a society in the grips of chaotic discordance. But a closer analysis suggests that this is not so. The rioters stand, as mentioned, as a Dionysian presence. They are the primal force of intoxication, of uncontrolled passion unbound. Kanye’s verse stands at odds with traditional strictures; it preaches against those things we are taught are “right” and “normal.” Monogamy, Kanye tells us, is not normal. It is imposed on us, and we must reject it if we are to find a better way of being. It is a Dionysian sermon, harkening back to those drunken orgies that the Maenads instigated millennia ago in praise of their god.
Thus there is no dichotomy between word and image. Kanye may sing of threesomes while police officers are set on fire, but the same language is being spoken. It is the language of Dionysus unbound, and the old order swept aside in favor of an unbridled way of being. Yet it is this very unity of word and image that causes Kanye West to fail as a Nietzschean artist. The tentative seeking with which the song opens is cast aside as West announces that we have found our new, more authentic way of being, the Dionysian way. There is no room for the Apollonian in this creed of abandon and upheaval. The Apollonian has been rejected, leaving us no better than half-alive, thus never able to find completion. The Dionysian and its excesses have eclipsed the passionless balance of the Apollonian spirit and any attempt to find a middle ground between the two. For all its passionate embrace of the physical experience, then, in the eyes of early Nietzsche West’s verse is merely life-denying.
If “No Church in the Wild” leaves us only damned, half-alive things, how might we fare in the gaze of the man who pronounced theothanatos? The Nietzsche who wrote The Gay Science would, at first glance, seem sympathetic to the thoughts expressed in “No Church in the Wild,” particularly Ocean’s question about the nonbeliever.
In expressing the death of God, Nictzsche announces the downfall of all order; ethics, metaphysics, faith, science, these things have all failed us. Our foundational assumptions are all deeply flawed, and our Nietzschean project is thus to forge a new way, a way that is life-affirming rather than life-denying. In this later Nietzsche we still find the recurring image of the Dionysian, though now he represents the figure of the completed man, the man who walks the life-affirming path free of the life-denying course forced on us by the death of God on the cross.(11) The death of God is the end of transcendence. God died, and was not resurrected. There are no miracles, no enchantment of the world, no divine mystery. God died and stayed dead, the result of violence was permanent.
Unfortunately, too often this Nietzsche is read as espousing mere
inversion, a replacement of all current values with their polar opposites.
Yet what Nietzsche proposes is not in fact a wholesale rejection of our
current way of being so much as a wholesale rejection of the reasons
behind our way of being. For instance, Western morality preaches
that life is sacred, and that to take life is therefore a sin. It would be
easy, sloppily simple even, to thus presume that a Nietzschean way
of being would then tell us that if life is sacred in the old order, and ÷ the old order is wrong, then life is no longer sacred and there is no
meaningful prohibition in place that prevents the taking of life. This simplistic view assumes Nietzsche to be in favor of wholesale murder. In fact, such simplistic and censored views of his philosophy did find its way into the tenets of Nazism.
Living in such a way is failing to make the move Nietzsche desired, which as he so often put it, was a move beyond good and evil, a shift to something other than morality. Merely replacing morality with antimorality does not accomplish this, because the two are still defined by the same dichotomy, rather than leaving it behind. Deciding that since, in the old view, life was held as sacred; in the new, we must hold ourselves above any stricture (legal, transcendent, or otherwise) on taking life, is to still define ourselves solely in relation to a view of the world that regards life as sacred. Rather than seeking a new way of being, rather than confronting the horrors of freedom, we have simply fooled ourselves into believing that we cannot see our chains.
A more accurate interpretation of Nietzsche, then, that what we must seek is a rejection that results in a revaluation, not an inversion, of values. In choosing to walk a Nietzschean path there is nothing that tells us we must reject life as valuable. Rather, we are told that if we are to value life then we must value life for the right reasonsÿ reasons that call to the transcendent, relying on the orders of a being whose existence Nietzsche did not acknowledge, are clearly insufficient. After all, “What’s a god to a non-believer?” Any reason emerging from a teleological narrative is likewise worthless. To explain this Apollonian, ivory-tower word, the teleological, or “goal-seeking,”
narrative is one that essentially guides us to live our lives for some-
thing other than living our lives. The Eden story, though it is by
no means the only example, is among the archetypal forms of the
teleological narrative. To wit: humans once lived hi paradise, they
were expelled fi’om Eden; so, we must now spend our lives rejecting
sin in the hopes of regaining entrance into paradise or heaven. If we
live according to the Edenic narrative, then we are living our lives not
for the purpose of living our lives, but solely to secure for ourselves
a place in paradise after our deaths. The danger in this is that it can
cause us to turn away from the lived reality of existence, not living
our lives for ourselves, and subjecthlg ourselves to someone, or some-
thing, else’s plan. Insisting on the existence of an idea that cannot
be proven, based on revelation we are admonished to live purely for
an Apollonian idea, that is something better and transcendent. Thus
we must reject the Dionysian, that is, all the pleasures of life–food,
comfort, sex–because, as we mentioned earlier, they are irrelevant in ® the quest for the glorious realities of the next world, and indulging
in them may prevent us from reaching it. The teleological view of life does not make us behave well for the right reasons. We will behave in a moral way for the reward of entering heaven, or out of fear of going to hell, rather than because it is right to do so. Our moral actions will not necessarily mean that we are moral beings.
Even if one is to reject Nietzsche’s atheism and presume that the divine exists in some form or another, to live in this way is still unhealthy. We can find this sentiment in the work of Kierkegaard, who despite his many criticisms of the church as institution still maintained his faith. Though his reasons for doing so were somewhat different from Nietzsche’s, Kierkegaard too hasistcd that living our lives for the promise of heavenly reward was not only unhealthy, but actually the demonstration of a lack of faith.
Whether one sides with Kierkegaard or Nietzsche on the position of faith in the divine, at the heart of the matter is the idea that life is to be lived for the sake of life itself, and not for the sake of future reward, and not in a fashion that objectifies us. If we hold to the principle that life is of value, and thus must not be taken from another, then the source of that value can only come from within us. It is thus subjective if we wish for tiffs value to be a healthy one. We cannot decide not to kill only out of fear of the divine’s riot policemen.
In light of the later work of Nietzsche, then, there is no need of an immediate rejection either of Jay-Z’s questioning position, or of Kanye’s embrace of hedonism. Yet we are left with a tension that must be resolved. The hedonism espoused by the song, particularly during Kanye’s verse, stands in direct opposition to what we are typically taught as good and right. As such, it is not difficult to see it less as a rejection of morality than as an inversion. As discussed, this does not move us beyond good and evil, but leaves us chained to conventional morality. West answers Ocean’s question “What’s a god to a nonbeliever?” by arguing that the proper response is to indulge in everything the nonexistent god prohibited, rather than bypass these taboos and find one’s own morality.
There is a latent linguistic ambiguity in Ocean’s question that
sheds further light on this point. Ocean says “nonbeliever,” but it
is unclear exactly what this means. It might have the sense either of
“unbeliever” or of “atheist.” That is, if a person speaks the phrase “I
believe ha God,” it implies that the speaker believes in the existence
of a god. But it also powerfully implies that the speaker worships
this God. The two are not identical. It is possible to believe in the
existence of a God and yet reject him as unjust, or choose to ignore ÷ his strictures, or deliberately invert them as a way or, essentially, giv-
ing him the finger. The latter type of nonbeliever, however, has not
moved beyond God; those rules are still the defining guidelines, and
like the pure hedonist we have been looking at, is therefore not free
from God. The nonbeliever who simply denies the existence of any
divinity, on the other hand, has the ability to find a new basis for
morality. This does not necessarily mean that an atheist will do so,
merely that it is possible to. So, Ocean’s question has a double answer,
depending on how we define his term. ÿlb a nonbeliever, God is either
something to be fbught against, or something to be left entirely out
of mind. Only the latter can truly be said to have moved beyond good
and evil. West, however, appears to be the fbrmer. His hedonism is
based on negation rather than creation; his embrace of the Dionysian
is not life-affirming, because it is not a search for something new but
a mirror image of the old. He rejects common morality but can offer
nothing in its place except denying it.
Though morality can be repressive, it cannot be confidently asserted that it is invariably so. As we noted, Nietzsche concluded that morality is ambiguous. Thus we may conclude that monogamy may well be as life-affirming as any other option, depending on circumstance and on those involved. Why should we value polyamory? Because it lets us fuck whomever we want? Why should we value that?
What is the value of promiscuity over monogamy? Should we value it solely because it is the opposite of what those who keep us in chains insist that we do, and thus is a path to freeing ourselves from oppression? We already know that this particular answer is a trap that not only keeps us firmly under the yoke of another, but also, as Foucault says, makes us a tool of oppression in and of ourselves. In our overt act of what we think is rejection and rebellion, we provide the systems of oppression with a tool to show the people what happens when they step out of line.
The ways in which we as a society, particularly in the modern West, consume stories of the flaws and failures of the famous, the ways in which we continue to consume their lives even while holding ourselves as :::orally, intellectually, or otherwise superior to the celebrity scapegoat of the minute, suggest that this sort of thing is a far more effective tool of control than we might like to admit.
Reactive hedonism does nothing to enrich us. It does not lib-
erate or enlighten us. In order to be considered life-affirming in a
Nietzschean perspective, some hedonistic behavior would have to
arise from the right place. While the later Nietzsche might seem to
suggest that the manner of being articulated in “No Church in the ÷ Wild” is a good one, in the context of the rest of the song these
hopes seem doomed to be dashed on reality’s rock. Without a firmer grounding in why we should value the trappings of hedonism, the song ultimately seems nothing more than an inversion of received values. There is no freedom, Nietzschean or otherwise, to be found in the message it brings to us. After all, the video seems to portray an orgy of violence in which the distinctions between right/wrong and police/rioters and order/rebellion are swept away by the anger and rage of both sides. In their violence, they are equal and no longer distinct. There seems to be a need, then, for a new creative response that will result in life-affirming, life-sustaining forms–an Apollonian response. Inasmuch as artists serve as harbingers and visionaries, Jay-Z and West are lacking.
Yet despite his popular reputation, there is more to Kanye West than this. In his song “Through the Wire,” he takes an extraordinary risk for an artist immersed in the hyper-masculinized, braggadocio-ridden world of hip-hop. After surviving a car accident that shattered, West recorded a song about his recovery. This willingness to embrace risk and celebrate his smwival by rapping with a shattered jaw can be seen as a truly life-affirming act. In tragedy, in music, the walls that delineate h:dividual existence shatter and we experience a loss of ego, of individuality, of self. It is a kind of death. In tragedy, we share in the death of the tragic hero. In the procreative act, we experience the little death of rapture. But the Dionysian brings us to the brink of the abyss and shows us that our individual existence is but a fleeting illusion in the eternity of the universe. And so perhaps West is more of a Nietzschean than “Church in the Wild” makes him seem. On the positive side, through loss we experience, according to Nietzsche, unity with all being and with our fellow human beings in the orgiastic experience of loss of self. But we also run the danger of insight into the illusion of being and thus could collapse into madness. At this nmment, according to Nietzsche, the Apollonian resurfaces and restores the beautiful illusion of life and meaning, which we need to survive. Beauty is, according to Nietzsche, the survival instinct’s response to the enormity of the Dionysian insight. “Through the Wire” does not reject the stereotyped strictures of the rapping life-style, it merely ignores them. It moves, that is, beyond good and evil; and praises life, not for morality or lack of morality, but simply for being life, and for being able to live.
- Video directed by Romain Gaw’as was released on May 29, 2012.
Dionysian and Apollian views of art were popularized in The Birth of Tragedy (1872) as a juxtaposition or dichotomy of a rational and perfect self (Apollo) and the more irrational or emotive self (Dionysian). This is not unlike a Freudian Id and SuperEgo. But Nietzsche does not see them as hierarchical but rather as natural tension that causes the tragic to develop through is unity
Hugh Thomas (2001). The Spanish Civil War. Modern Library Paperback Edition, 454
Arto Bendicken, (2010). “A Thousand Lakes of Red Blood on White Snow.” http://ar.to/2OIO/OS/red-blood-white-snow (accessed June 27,2013)
George Yancy (2008) Black Bodies White Gazes. L,’mham, MD: Roman and Littlefield Publishers Inc
We must remember that he opposed Christianity because of its life-negating, that is, nihilistic morality
The Gay Science (1882), trans. Waker Kaufman Vintage Books (1974),279
For Nietzsche, the Dionysian represents the underlying “will” of which Schopenhaner speaks–it is a formless wanting, desire, motion. Out of this will, through the principium individuations, the illusory image of myriad individual existences is formed. This is the veil of Maya to which Schopenhauer refers. It is also the Apollonian
With regard to this cave analogy, Nietzsche would read the realm of the Apollonian as the realm of appearances but necessary appearances. This, in part, is because he would reject the platonic ideal forms as true forms, other than their rising from the will’s need to populate the universe with images/illusions. This also has a Schopenhauer quality to it
I0. When discussing this matter in a interview with a colleague, Dr. Timothy Bennett, Wittenberg University, he pushed me further with this claim by asserting “I think the desire ‘to forge’ something better is a good Apollonian impulse and wonder if this suggests the necessary partnership of both Apollonian and Dionysian (a necessary partnership according to Nietzsche as well). If so, then it might be necessary not to see the Apollonian as repressing the Dionysian. In fact, by challenging moribund forms, the Dionysian might be liberating energies which begin destructively but could empower a newer, more vital set of forms, i.e. they would revitalize the Apollonian.”
- Nietzsche’s Madman also asks what new sacred games and rituals need to be invented now that God has been murdered by our scientific culture and challenges us to become God-like, to become creative, to give birth to a new humanity in response to this crime of deceit. According to my colleague Timothy Bennett, “Nothing seems to have disturbed Nietzsche more than modern culture’s inability to give rise to a new religion adequate to its challenges. One could read much of his work as an attempt to develop a new sense of the sacred.”