The Apollonian-Dionysian Paradox in the Modern Novel

25 Feb

The Apollonian-Dionysian Paradox in the Modern Novel

Denis M. Garrison


There exists a paradoxical duality in the human psyche of intent, desire, and drive. The full spectrum of human experience, total in its polarity, makes this duality inherent. Especially in the logical context of the scientific age in which we live, individuals and entire cultures find it difficult to accept the paradoxical nature of their own humanity. It is no wonder, then, that the problem of resolving the human paradox is a major theme of modern serious fiction.

In this study, I will examine several systems for the resolution of the human paradox as they are constructed within works of fiction. I will compare and contrast the systems suggested by the authors and draw from them a general conclusion concerning the type of resolution that is possible. As a starting point for this investigation I will discuss Leo Tolstoy’s novel, Resurrection, which is a powerful and definitive summation of the pre-scientific system for the resolution of the human paradox. Finally, I will propound my own system of resolution based upon my investigation of other systems and upon personal philosophic grounds which I will explain. This system is meant to be suitable for thematic inclusion in a new work of fiction.

The study is organized in four sections as follows: first, an introduction; second, definitions applicable to the study; third, examinations of systems for the resolution of the human paradox in six novels; fourth, my conclusions and the resultant system of resolution.


In this study of the Apollonian – Dionysian paradox there are several terms which must be explicit in their meaning if the reader is to comprehend the nuances of difference in complex situations. The two primary terms, Apollonian and Dionysian, are defined severally by various writers. For my purposes they will correspond closely to the meanings assigned them by Nietzche. The term, humanity, also will require exact definition.

It is Nietzche’s proposition that there are, in the sphere of human experience, two opposing forces. The one which he calls the Apollonian represents the forces of balance and rationality. The other force, the Dionysian, represents unchecked, ecstatic and creative power. In the Socratic system, the Apollonian is the embodiment of good since he equates rationality and knowledge with virtue. Nietzche sees the Dionysian in the same role because of his free and sensuous enjoyment of life. The tension between the two extremes constitutes the paradoxical duality which so many seek to resolve.

The Apollonian character, for the purposes of this study, corresponds to Nietzche’s model. His motivating drive is the need for rational order. His desires are aimed at consistency with that order. His intentions are directed at bringing either himself or all men into obedience to order. The Apollonian is a realist and his only passion can be for his vision of a systematized reality. There can be for him no dedication to emotional and sensual gratification. The ascetic ideal is attained by the pure Apollonian.

Dionysius is another name for the Greek god, Bacchus, the god of wine and revelry. The use of his name to characterize the opposing ideal to Apollonian rationality is appropriate. The Dionysian character is the sensualist and emotionalist. His motivating drive is pleasure whether it derives from his sensory perceptions or his intellectual faculties. All of his desires are for pleasurable experience. It is, of course, possible that a Dionysian, in his perversity, may derive pleasure for himself from painful or other seemingly negative experiences. His actions are directed by an intent to supply himself with pleasure. He is opposed to the supremacy of reason because of its inherent restrictions upon his pleasure-seeking. Instead he prefers self-indulgence and the satisfaction of his whims. One variety of pleasure for the Dionysian is his submission to emotion, to passion, to love and hate and exult without reason. This ecstatic facet of the Dionysian character is his positive balance for his self-indulgence in animal sensuality. The bawdy rogue with a lust for life epitomizes the Dionysian ideal.

The concept of humanitarian motivation can be ascribed to either of the opposing ideals. The humanity of a character as I conceive it in this study is a Dionysian trait. The Apollonian can have humanitarian impulses if they are positive within his rational concept of order. For instance, there is the dictum in favor of charity in the orthodox Christian system of doctrine. It is my interpretation of the question that the Apollonian is humanitarian to the extent that he fulfills his rational ideals. This ulterior motive translates the humanitarian action into an action of duty. The Dionysian, on the other hand, does not act in accordance with an idea of duty. He submits of his own accord to an emotional impulse. In the case of the humanitarian gesture he indulges in the emotions of sympathy and compassion and acts accordingly. The action is the result of genuine human empathy and is so truly humanitarian. I will use the terms, humanity and humanitarian, in this study in the Dionysian sense described above.

The term, mask, for the purposes of this study will indicate a false facade of Apollonian or Dionysian characteristics. It may be a facade constructed by an individual or by a group. The mask may be entirely public in nature or it may be used in interpersonal relationships. It may even exist on the level of conscious belief opposed to subconscious reality. Characters will be categorized by their reality rather than by their mask.

With these terms; Apollonian, Dionysian, humanitarian, and mask; defined, the nuances of differences among the characters of the novels examined here should be clearly discernible. I will turn now to the novels.


Leo Tolstoy’s Resurrection is the definitive summation of the orthodox Christian resolution of the human paradox which prevailed in pre-scientific literature. Quite simply, the resolution of the paradox is to totally deny the Dionysian facet of humanity and become entirely Apollonian. The order to which such an Apollonian must adhere is that of religious orthodoxy.

The main character of the novel is Prince Dmitri Nekhlyudov. The action of the story follows his evolution from a pure Dionysian to a pure Apollonian. As a self-indulgent young officer, he seduced Katusha Maslova, his aunts’ maid and got her with child. His desertion of her resulted in her ejection from the household upon the birth of the child. She became a prostitute and is before the court for murder of a client when Nekhlyudov sees her. He is a member of the jury which finds her guilty. Nekhlyudov’s own guilt for her plight plagues him and he reassesses his values. So begins his long crusade to free Katusha and, peripherally, to help all prisoners. The initial impulse he felt was guilt but the early weeks of his crusade are marked by his enjoyment of his role as a martyr to righteousness foresaking the good life. At this point he is again a Dionysian but with an Apollonian mask.

Nekhlyudov’s exposure to oppression and misery changes him inexorably. By the end of the novel he has followed Katusha to Siberia and then relinquished her to Simonson who loves her without motive. The revelation he sees is that self-interest is the ultimate evil. Tolstoy resorts here to scriptural quotations. The answer is ascetic orthodoxy, an Apollonian ideal.

The other characters do not change types as does Nekhlyudov. Katusha is essentially Dionysian but is too downtrodden to indulge herself. Even her choice of virtue with Simonson is based on her desire for happiness. The Princess Marya ‘Missy’ Korchagin represents the pure Dionysian with means of self-indulgence. She is Nekhlyudov’s chief temptation to abandon his crusade. The ascetic revolutionary, Kondratyev, is the pure Apollonian but his focus is not Christian orthodoxy so he is a little ridiculous though respectable and admirable. All these characters and the many minor characters do not reach Nekhlyudov’s level of integrity because of their deviations from Tolstoy’s Apollonian ideal.

Hermann Hesse, in his Narcissus and Goldmund, also cannot reconcile the human paradox. He opts for pure Dionysian behavior, completely the opposite of Tolstoy’s resolution. The two main characters, named in the title, represent pure examples of the opposing ideals. Narcissus is analytical, intensely intellectual and entirely ascetic. His avowed love for Goldmund is platonic in its ideality. Goldmund is sensual, emotional and ecstatic. The difference in their love for each other corresponds exactly to my earlier differentiation of types of humanity. The book is fabulous in its simplicity. The emphasis upon Goldmund and the validity of his dying speech to Narcissus indicate Hesse’s preference for the Dionysian. The method of the novel also indicates this. Instead of a logical argument about the question, the image of the beauty of Goldmund’s life is given us to react emotionally to. The nature, the method, and the message of the book work together to propound Dionysian behavior as the ideal. Hesse’s characterization of the Apollonian is the monastic in retreat from life. The Dionysian adventurer seeks out, and thereby affirms, life. The Dionysian as life-affirming strengthens Hesse’s viewpoint. Here, then, is the diametric opposite of Tolstoy’s resolution of the human paradox.

The mixture of Apollonian and Dionysian attributes appears in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. The narrator, Marlow, is an Apollonian in his selfless application of himself to his duty. His trip to Africa is the result of a Dionysian desire to see it but his subsequent behavior is dutiful. As reality becomes more intense near the end of the story, Marlow becomes Apollonian to a dangerous, life-denying degree. His lie to Kurtz’s “Intended” is forced out of him by his innate humanitarianism. It is a departure from the duty of report, a Dionysian departure that makes Marlow admirable. This tempering of the one ideal with a little of the other is Conrad’s resolution of the human paradox. Kurtz is an example of the unalloyed Dionysian. He has lost all vestiges of restraint and submitted to the gratification of all desires. All of the Apollonian conditioning of his European socialization has been shed and Kurtz has become voraciously self-indulgent. Kurtz plumbs the depths of human desire and has seen the “heart of darkness,” the horror that he speaks of on his death bed. His companion, the Russian, is also quite a Dionysian but retains his grasp on civilization via Towson’s book on seamanship. The other company men likewise retain vestiges of their Apollonian backgrounds which mitigate their Dionysian indulgence. The natives, on the other hand, are Apollonian, at least in their roles as religious and magical practitioners. The native queen’s act of relinquishing Kurtz in apparent violation of her law is tempered by her humanity and thereby rendered admirable, as was Marlow. Conrad’s resolution of the human paradox is the tempering of one ideal with a little of the other. Generally, he prefers a predominance of the Apollonian.

Graham Greene, in his novel, A Burnt-Out Case, likewise chooses a predominantly Apollonian mode of behavior tempered with Dionysian humanitarianism as the resolution of the paradoxical duality of human experience. The main character, Querry, is the example of the ideal. The ideal is fulfilled in his outward appearance of selflessness for he is actually Dionysian in his self-indulgence as the role-playing martyr like Nekhlyudov earlier. He actually forgets his duty as a talented public man and so violates the Apollonian ideal. His apparent asceticism is really perverse enjoyment of self-inflicted deprivation. His failure culminates in his death for a Dionysian crime of which he is falsely accused. The true Apollonian is Dr. Colin who gives all of himself to his patients. He is tempered with the true humanitarian impulse. Rycker is the false Apollonian, the fake orthodox Catholic. His mask hides his desire for recognition, mastery, and superiority. His mask works on the subconscious level and he can’t even recognize lust in his relationship to his wife. Father Thomas is the passive correlative of Rycker who can only perceive masks. Rycker’s wife, Marie, is the pure Dionysian, pure id, completely innocent in her total moral ignorance. Greene sees the paradox from the orthodox Catholic viewpoint with one variation. He sees the need to include in the Apollonian character the Dionysian trait of humanitarianism, He sees the greatest evil in Dionysians masquerading as Apollonians as do Querry and Rycker. Essentially his resolution of the human paradox corresponds with Conrad’s.

Robert Musil treats the paradox differently in his novel, Young Törless. His resolution is the complete interpenetration of the two forces. He differs here from all the preceding authors who thought that one force or the other had to dominate. There is no such preference in this work. The protagonist, Törless, at first sees the two forces as extremes which cannot be reconciled. His intellectual breakthrough comes when he smells his mother’s perfume and realizes the same femaleness in her and in the whore, Bozena. The connection between these two symbols of the opposing forces evidences their interpenetration. Another sort of reconciliation by this means is shown when Törless derives sensual pleasure from the abstract intellectual realm of mathematics, The other schoolboys and the school itself are Dionysians hiding behind Apollonian masks. Musil is against the extreme of either force and can see resolution only is possible when they are equal and reconciled. The mechanics of reconciliation is largely a mystery, not explained fully in the novel. The reconciliation of Apollonian and Dionysian forces is left as a potential existential reality.

The last of the novels examined herein is A Severed Head by Iris Murdoch. It differs strongly from the other novels in its denial of the Apollonian-Dionysian paradox as a problem inherent in human experience. Murdoch sees the problem as one created by a mistaken apprehension of the problem which would otherwise not exist. The characters in the book are mixtures of the two types who can be seen as existential possibilities but not as conforming to the guidelines I have been examining in this study. Honor Klein comes closest to being categorizable but even she is impossible in the context here established. She is at once a remorseless Apollonian avenging goddess type and an unrestrained Dionysian lover in an incestuous situation. This is no balance between extremes, it is the extremes. Murdoch feels that the question should be dropped and the lack of the question will be its resolution. This questionable resolution I present in the interest of presenting the most comprehensive study of possibilities for the resolution of the Apollonian-Dionysian paradox in the realm of human experience.


Before I describe my own resolution of the human paradox I must state the grounds upon which I base my right to propound any theory, In his philosophical treatise, The Will to Believe, James says that faith does not happen but must be willed. He explains that, with two choices presented, either choice may be wrong but the failure to choose is certainly a failure. No system of ultimate truth has yet been discovered nor is likely to be. One then must construct his own system as best he can then decide to believe it. So it is with my system for the resolution of the human paradox.

I will narrow the scope of my plan by eliminating certain known possibilities. Firstly I reject Murdoch’s resolution by non-consideration as being antithetical to a reasonable method of decision. I reject Hesse’s and Tolstoy’s resolutions because I feel that to opt for one or the other force to the exception of the other is to avoid the problem of reconciliation of the extremes. While I can sympathize with them, I cannot accept the resolutions of Greene and Conrad because of their emphasis upon the superiority of the Apollonian mode. Their idea of tempering one force with the other, however, is a step in the right direction. I most nearly agree with Musil’s idea of the interpenetration of the two forces. He, however, doesn’t formulate a theory or even an opinion of the ratio of the forces. The complete interpenetration he suggests is not possible since certain elements of both forces are necessarily antithetical. A further development of his idea is the basis for my system for the resolution of the human paradox.

Several points that bear upon the question must be explained. First, the concept of the ultimate good of the Apollonian mode is an idea of Christian orthodoxy. The whole Western Judaeo-Christian system of morality is based upon Apollonian ideals. I won’t accept this, however, as universally valid because that morality is not universally subscribed to. Other moral systems see no evil in pleasure. The tremendous effect of that morality does call for its consideration, though. While orthodoxy is unacceptable, certain tenets are universally accepted (for instance, the taboo on murder.) Another realm of thought to be considered is modern psychological theory. While I don’t necessarily believe that all of us hate our parents as a corollary of our maturation, I do accept much of the theory regarding the ill effects of emotional suppression and pleasure deprivation. This set of ideas is consistent with much of Dionysian thought.

What I propose, then, is a variation of Abraxian morality. Thereby, actions which are patently harmful, i.e., murder, suicide, torture, the infliction of psychological pain, and so forth, are without the system of morality. Pleasure is to be considered a positive end in line with Dionysian thought. Self-interest is not to be considered wrong since there is no inherent harm to anyone in it. Rational considerations are of equal importance; the point is to be able to reason without letting hypothetical rational constructions paralyze individual initiative and self-interest. The basis, then, of my system is Dionysian self-indulgence excluding only major taboos and patently harmful actions controlled, but not stifled, by Apollonian rationality and self-interested restraint.

This system is a reasonable extension of the systems of Greene, Conrad, and Musil which avoids the doctrinaire positions of Tolstoy and Hesse and the existential acquiescence of Murdoch. It may not ultimately answer the paradox of the Apollonian-Dionysian duality that is inherent in human experience, but it is, I think, a step forward.

—Denis M. Garrison
Towson, Maryland 1974


Copyright © 1974 Denis M. Garrison.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 3.0 United States License. To view a copy of this license, visit
“The Apollonian-Dionysian Paradox in the Modern Novel” was first published in Talisman (1974), Towson, Maryland, Towson State College.

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Posted by on February 25, 2016 in Articles & Essays



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