A Duet for Christ and Dionysus:
Tragedy in the Ideas of Friedrich Nietzsche and Oscar Wilde
Philosopher and classicist Allan Bloom (1987) notes that the study of ancient Greece and Rome has followed “the ebb and flow of philosophic innovation in the west. Moments of great transformation have started with refreshment at the Greek source, its inspiration slaking a burning thirst. . . . Greece provides assurance that there was something better than what is” (p. 304).
Suffering draws individuals together, as an audience seated before the tragic stage of life, thus remedying the most terrible kind of suffering that afflicted the lives of Nietzsche and Wilde: loneliness.
Nietzsche’s (2000a) The Birth of Tragedy and Wilde’s (1996) De Profundis are both the products of transformation. The Birth of Tragedy marks Nietzsche’s personal transformation from philologist to philosopher. At the conclusion of the work, he calls for a great Dionysian revival of German art achieved through the invention of German myth, as exemplified in the operas of Richard Wagner, to whom the book is dedicated. “My friends, you who believe in Dionysian music, you also know what tragedy means to us. . . . You understand my words—as you will also, in conclusion, understand my hopes” (p. 143).
In De Profundis, Wilde announces a personal spiritual rebirth as an artist in Christ, whom he projects as a Greek tragic model for Wilde to cope with his suffering. In “The Soul of Man Under Socialism,” Wilde (2003d) even foreshadows this new mode of individuality as “the new Hellenism” (p. 1197). Both Nietzsche and Wilde turn to the Greeks, specifically classical Greek tragedy, to find a context for their refashionings of the self.
This deeper tragic connection between Nietzsche (2000a) and Wilde (1996) explains their more superficial thematic similarities. James Allen (2006) and Kate Hext (2011) have elaborated on many of these similarities, their comparisons remaining mostly within the theme of individualism. Individualism, however, is merely the appearance of the essence that draws Nietzsche and Wilde together as “rebels in the name of beauty” (Mann, 1959, p. 158).
In order to exist in authentic relationship to other individuals and to nature, one must become a whole person through the reconciliation of the Apollonian to the Dionysian, of the body to the soul. For both Nietzsche and Wilde, the individual must suffer—not only because suffering renders him or her beautiful, but also because he or she makes suffering beautiful. And suffering draws individuals together, as an audience seated before the tragic stage of life, thus remedying the most terrible kind of suffering that afflicted the lives of Nietzsche and Wilde: loneliness.
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