It was Hemingway who wrote: “Happiness in intelligent people is the rarest thing I know.” This, before he swallowed a round from a shotgun. Virginia Woolf stuffed rocks into her pockets and walked into the Ouse River. Sylvia Plath stuck her head in a gas oven with her children sleeping in the next room. Kurt Vonnegut populated his novels with a recurring character named Kilgore Trout, who frequently stated that “life is a crock of shit!” Even the Bible declares the following: “Vanity of vanities; all is vanity . . . one generation passeth away, and another generation cometh: but the earth abideth forever.” When the author of Ecclesiastes needs a prescription for Prozac and maybe a hug, something must be terribly wrong.
Nietzsche wrote in The Birth of Tragedy about King Midas, who captured the demigod Silenus and demanded the most desirable thing for man. Silenus remained silent before belting out a sardonic laugh, answering: “Oh wretched ephemeral race, children of chance and misery, why do you compel me to tell you what it would be most expedient for you not to hear? What is best of all is utterly beyond your reach: not to be born, not to be, to be nothing. But the second best for you is—to die soon.” Perhaps Kind Midas should have stayed in his kingdom turning things (and his daughter) into gold.
Nietzsche replies to Silenus’ charge by explicating the duality of our existence. One side of this dichotomy is emotion, personified as Dionysus; the other side is reason, personified as Apollo. (Think Kirk and Spock.) Dionysus is nature; euphoria by getting drunk with wine and having frenzied sex orgies in the open fields of Greece (yes, this happened). But Dionysus also represents the brutal truth of nature: suffering, pain, agony, and progress through death and life—the lion consuming its prey to live. Apollo, on the other hand, represents the individual who acquires knowledge and the wisdom to rise above nature and subvert its vicious tendencies. However, according to Nietzsche, the Apollinian perspective is ultimately an illusion to conceal the Dionysian truth. How does one overcome this problem of existence? (Excluding Hemingway’s solution, of course.)
Apollo and Dionysus collide, raze, and rebuild each other. Nietzsche uses the term nausea to associate the hopelessness when the illusion of Apollo succumbs completely to Dionysus. Man realizes he is merely an unimportant part of nature—soon swallowed up by the Earth. Pushing up daisies. Worm food. “Knowledge kills action; action requires the veils of illusion,” Nietzsche writes. All effort to project a future self seems vain, revealing the “horror or absurdity of existence.” Indeed, Silenus’ solution seems more sensible—to die soon! But this is not the overly dramatic solution Nietzsche would encourage. He argues the Apollinian civilization is, yes, illusory—but necessary. Necessary to live, to experience this dance between of Apollo and Dionysus. And what do they dance to? “Here, when the danger to his will is greatest, art approaches as a saving sorceress . . . she alone knows how to turn these nauseous thoughts about the horror or absurdity of existence into notions with which one can live.” Embrace creativity like Hemingway, Wolfe, and Plath (just keep away from guns, rivers and gas ovens). Write, paint, play music not for the masses (for Nietzsche considered art for the masses to be worthless) but for yourself. Use art to show that life may at times be a crock of shit, but it’s worth enduring—to die later!