Sunday, September 09, 2007

Lord of the dance

There was an excellent feature in yesterday's Guardian (read it here) on Euripides' The Bacchae by David Greig, who was responsible for the version of the play performed at this year's Edinburgh Festival. Greig argued that the Greek plays still have strong resonance today and we have much to learn, as a culture, from the old texts. He concludes:

Whenever a Greek tragedy is revived today, the question is asked: "Why now?" For me, Euripides's concerns remain as relevant as they were 2,000 years ago. There are still men who would control women in order to bolster their shaky sense of self. There are still men who are lost because they refuse to lose themselves in dance. And so we still live with the psychotic and uncontrolled violence that will appear whenever a repressed Dionysian force reasserts itself - as it always will.

I've become fascinated by the Dionysian/Apollonian split recently. The Greek tragedies suggest that when there is a balance between the two there is harmony and society operates at its most creative; however, each is always struggling for superiority and at times one will become pre-eminent, leading to disaster.

Greig seems to make more of the masculine/feminine split than I would. Although I think he's right to identify emotion and instinct as predominantly feminine traits and rationality and control as masculine, I think these differences can be overplayed and will lead to the argument being taken down a sterile side road. It's important to stress that these "masculine" and "feminine" traits are in us all. This is the point of The Bacchae, with Pentheus - a strong, Apollonian rationalist - struggling to accommodate his more feminine feelings.

Does it all matter any more? Is it just dead Greek guys? No, I think it does matter. At a fundamental level, we can see western culture as largely Dionysian - devoted to the dance, to self-expression - and the stunted world view of al Qaida and religious fundamentalists as strictly Apollonian - straight, stern, serious. Although an Apollonian approach is important, it must never be allowed to dominate, otherwise society stagnates, creativity is stifled, there is no progress. That is why, of course, Muslim thinking is precisely where it was in the fifteenth century: no-one is permitted to question it.

So let's celebrate Dionysus. Raise a glass to decadence. But spare a thought for the battered body of reason in the corner. Western society ignores him at its peril.

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