The Drunken Silenus: On Gods, Goats, and the Cracks in Reality, by Morgan Meis, Slant, 190 pp, $19, ISBN: 978-1725254121
A man finds himself in Antwerp with nothing to do. Then he remembers, among other things, that this is the town where the painter Peter Paul Rubens made his home. At first, this annoys him, because he has no interest whatsoever in the painter. But then he thinks, why not write a book about Rubens.
Why not, indeed?
Essayist and critic Morgan Meis sets out to develop a new style of writing about art, one that is informed by a passionate looking. One could argue that this is not new, that Meis is returning to a time when intellectuals had charmingly erudite conversations about paintings, history, and music. Not only could they bedazzle at a cocktail party, but they could write about it too ‑ art inspired by art. Meis’s long essay about one particular Rubens painting reminded me of William Golden’s classic discourse on Thermopylae or John Pope Hennessy’s study of the “Best Picture in the World”. For in the examination of the particular we are able to ponder deep truths. And like the greatest essayists before him, Meis is scholarly but not encyclopedic, meandering instead of direct.
So, what is the painting in question? Well, it should be said that Rubens’s Drunken Silenus is not even in Antwerp anymore, since the city is now much too small for its golden boy. The painting is now in Munich. Meis travels there and stands in front of it. He guesses that it must have been originally inspired by Titian’s Bacchus and Ariadne, in London. How could it not be? Titian was the great genius of his day ‑ just as Rubens and Rembrandt would be the great geniuses of their day. Rubens painted countless copies of Titian’s works, as well as paintings that were homages to him. So enthralled was he by Titian’s Venice that he had a palazzo-style home built for himself in Antwerp.
Meis is a philosopher. And so, standing in front of the drunken, out-of-control figure of Silenus, he immediately thinks of Nietzsche. Reading his book, I became so nostalgic for my university days, when – as a philosophy major at UC Berkeley ‑ the first work I studied was the very book that Meis goes on to discuss, The Birth of Tragedy (Meis recommends getting the Walter Kaufmann translation, which includes The Case for Wagner). And by the way, there are only five books suggested in his “Further Reading” at the end. These include Martha Nussbaum’s The Fragility of Goodness and Calasso’s The Ruin of Kasch. Meis does not like any of the biographies he has read on Rubens. Did he not read Simon Schama’s double biography Rembrandt’s Eyes, which is better on Rubens than on Rembrandt? The missing book from his five is The Greeks and the Irrational by ER Dodds. But I am getting ahead of myself.
According to Meis, Rubens was bowled over by Titian’s Bacchus and Ariadne ‑ and who wouldn’t be? ‑ in which the character Silenus can be found, playing a minor role in the back of the picture. You can see him slumped over asleep, presumably in a drunken stupor, being carried along on a mule. Rubens gravitates to this plump figure and brings him centre stage in his own painting, where naked Silenus seems ready to spring right off the canvas.
In case you don’t remember ‑ and why would you? ‑ Silenus was the tutor of Dionysius, and member of his wild and crazy entourage. He was also the goat-god who got tangled up with King Midas. Famously, the king asked Silenus to tell him what was the best thing in the world for men? “The best thing in the world for men is to never have been born,” declares Silenus. “And the second best thing is to die early.”
You get the idea: this is what my son would call a buzz kill. But this profoundly pessimistic message deeply affected Nietzsche. Nietzsche, who was so fascinated by opposing ancient Greek impulses – one toward order (the Apollonian) and one toward frenzy and the irrational (the Dionysian), could not help but be impressed. As Meis tells it:
All this talk (Nietzsche realised) of the measured and balanced Greek mind was sloppy. No, there is turmoil. Nietzsche saw it because he was willing to look. He didn’t listen to anyone else, the experts, the other scholars. He just took a look.
This not only described Nietzsche’s project, but Meis’s as well. To stop and really look at things—that is the genesis of genius.
A few years ago at the Salzburg music festival, I saw Hans Werner Henze’s opera The Bassarids. Debuted in 1966, the opera had its start at this very festival. The libretto was written by WH Auden and his partner Chester Kallman. It was based on Euripides’s The Bacchae, one of his last tragedies, which premiered in 405 BC, a year after the poet’s death. It is a classic clash between the Apollonian impulse toward order and rationality and the Dionysian impulse toward irrationality, expressing the tension between civilisation and nature. In the play, we have the king of Thebes, who is appalled to learn that many of his subjects have come under the spell of a new god. Not even a Greek god either. And what is worse, this twice-born foreign god named Dionysus has come to preach free love and wine.
The king is mortified by this descent into intoxicated madness; especially by the women of Thebes, who are leaving their homes in droves to engage in ecstatic religious rites on the mountain top. Vowing to root out and destroy the cult, his plan does not end well. Discovered dressed as a woman and spying on the secret rituals, he is set upon. He is tracked and hunted like a wild animal. The women proceed to tear his body to pieces, his own mother cutting off his head.
Pre-dating Freud by two thousand years, the shocking play shows the king undone by his own repressed urges. He is openingly hostile and yet secretly fascinated by the new “female” religion and its sexual freedom. He is so uncomfortable with his own drives that he vows to stamp out the new cult.
When I studied Nietzsche in university, we read Dodds’s 1925 work The Greeks and the Irrational. The book was revelatory, illuminating all that was irrational about ancient Greek society. We tend to idealise the Greeks for their devotion to reason ‑ in law, in mathematics, rhetoric and philosophy, for example. But the Greeks, said Dodds, were also deeply driven by irrational forces expressed in religious and other social practices. Euripides’s play was an expression of countervailing fear and admiration of the ecstatic and irrational. Interestingly, Dodds was a childhood friend of Auden.
According to Nietzsche, Silenus was the greatest hero because he embraced the violent irrational forces that are at our core. And indeed, this is the way he has long been viewed, even in Rubens’s sympathetic depiction.
But what is a goat-god anyway? Nietzsche responds to this question, in Meis’s words that:
God is a goat because God is truth and the real truth of the matter is that life is a matter of running and jumping in the forest and rushing after something to screw and something to eat and, according to Nietzsche in what he thought he learned from the Greeks, even the life of the mind, the intellectual life of the sad-thinking-creature known as man, this creature who must think and make art and make culture, insofar as man does those things, ought to be done with the pure life-expressing power of the goat.
Have you heard of the old joke that, Life is so terrible, it would have been better not to have been born. Who is so lucky? Not one in a hundred thousand!
More than anything, The Drunken Silenus is about the “tears of things” (lacrimae rerum). Underneath the beauty of Antwerp ‑ underneath the beauty of all cities ‑ he says, is the irrationality of violence, chaos, and war. A world of tears.
This is the deeper truth that Nietzsche uncovered in the figure of Silenus. And in Meis’s telling, as the Franco-Prussian War came to a head during The Birth of Tragedy’s original composition, this same impulse toward war and violence is what connects civilisations through history. This Dionysian horde that Nietzsche surely imagined battering the walls of the besieged city of Wörth in 1870 was the same Dionysian horde that devastated Europe in the Thirty Years War in Rubens’s time. And in this way, one war begets another, and this takes Europeans all the way back to the great Walls of Troy.
In Scipio’s telling, this was Homeric destiny. It was Scipio, of course, who brought the city of Carthage down. After a long siege, “the Roman Hannibal” swept in to inflict defeat on the Carthaginians and raze the city to the ground. Anyone not killed was sold into slavery and the city buildings were all destroyed.
The final moments of the battle have been told and retold. The Carthaginian general, hoping to at least spare any further suffering after he realised that all was lost, had left the citadel to surrender, to the disgust of his wife, who, yelling insults at his cowardice, leapt with her children into the fires. The entire city was by that time on fire. And then as the Greek historian Polybius stood at his side, Scipio, with tears streaming down his cheeks, was said to have cried out a sentence from Homer:
A day will come when sacred Troy shall perish,
And Priam and his people shall be slain.
The Greek historian was deeply moved by this. For, as all historians know, just as Troy fell, and now Carthage falls, so too shall Rome be destroyed one day.
In this telling, history is not a love story. But I do think there is something healthy about Nietzsche’s pessimism. To dwell on transience, in the tears of things, in decay and ruins, is ultimately an empowering practice. In Japan, it is referred to as “scattering flowers and fallen leaves 飛花落葉 or our “dewdrop loves and our dewdrop selves”. The Lotus Sutra teaches that all that appears before us is as a dream, an illusion, a bubble, a shadow. All is like the dew or lightning. It should thus be contemplated that nothing has reality. That everything is in flux and that all must eventually perish is a sad but inevitable fact that somehow seems all the more apparent in our current time of worry and sickness.
Leanne Ogasawara has worked as a translator from the Japanese for over twenty years. Her translation work has included academic translation, poetry, philosophy, and documentary film.