Once my therapist asked me an insightful question as we were discussing my fears and loves: “why do you feel the need to elevate your passion to the status of ‘art’?”.
The question certainly gives me pause. Am I being grandiose? Probably. Am I being authentic? Absolutely. So I delved into the dusty, cluttered part of my education in philosophy. Pro-tip here: it helps having a ethics and philosophy professor in my circle of close friends (so surround yourself with people with meaningful knowledge you do not yourself possess). He suggested I reread Nietzsche.
The great thinker unfortunately gets stereotyped as a nihilist. What is accurate instead is that he deeply explored nihilism in his challenge to prevailing thought. In actuality his early work specifically examines Greek philosophy (we’ll have to get back to nihilism another day).
Greek tragedy by tradition is a dichotomy of two dialectics, each embodied by two sons of Zeus, Apollo and Dionysius. The Apollonian is order, aesthetic, rationalism. The Dionysian is passion, art, chaos. The two entwined create the Greek tragedy. ‘Tragedy’ here of course means art, theater, myth, and meaning, not the colloquial usage in conversation of a deeply sad occurrence. Nietzsche argued that both dialectics are crucial to informing the human condition.
However, the long tradition of Western culture is marked by the rise of only the Apollonian. All modern moral constructs in Western culture bear these hallmarks of order and restraint. These are the ingredients of safety, law, family, duty–all healthy necessities for a successful society. Existentialism, moralism, Judeo/Christian belief are all part and parcel of the Apollonian dialectic.
But Nietzsche argues that we have left the Dionysian behind, mistaking it for indulgent hedonism, and not a necessary part of being human. It is the same argument one makes for the inclusion of arts in education. The Apollonian argument against them is why we distrust our emotions and tend to discount them, even though we recognize the validity of how our feelings make us, well, *feel*. Modern therapy is all about listening for emotion. We know these things to be true even if we don’t understand the philosophical underpinnings.
So to return to my therapist’s question: do I feel the need to elevate my passions to art? Not exactly. I instead feel the need to see what exists around me already. There is art and artistic potential in everything you do. It is listening to a song you love, watching your children play, dancing unabashedly, a steamy bout of oral sex. It’s not elevation, it’s recognition. It’s removing the blinders to our repression and healthily embracing who we are as humans who have passions and emotions we cannot always control. Am I rationalizing my own bad behavior? Probably. But that’s not a complete explanation and doesn’t honor the ‘why’ of an otherwise honorable person’s compulsion towards a chaotic activity (though to be fair, infidelity is hardly the only way to scratch that itch–there are healthy ways too). Order alone does not sustain the soul.
At least that’s how I see it.