Apollo and Dionysus
If you aren’t up-to-date on your Greek mythology, Apollo and Dionysus were two of their gods, the sons of Zeus. And unsurprisingly, they had different mothers. Apollo is the god of rational thinking, order, logic. You can say he’s the god of the mind. Dionysus, on the other hand, is the god of wine, chaos, irrationality, emotion. In other words, he can be seen as the god of the heart.
Individually, each of these Greek gods is powerful and forthright. From Apollo we get rationality, common sense, structure…all good things. It’s keeps the trains running on time, keeps the shelves organized, keeps us from sticking a metal fork in the power outlet. Apollo is the one who keeps us safe and keeps us sane.
But a case can be made for wine and chaos, the power of emotion. Dionysus is the one who gives us passion, exposes us to love (and lust), who drives us to try new things, to be a little crazy every now and then. To quote Roald Dahl, “A little nonsense now and then is relished by the wisest men.” There’s nothing wrong with that. It’s good for us to let loose every so often.
The problem, however, is when we are influenced by one of them more than the other. Too much logic, or too much chaos, is dangerous. For artists, it can ruin our work and our creativity. We need balance, harmony, between Apollo and Dionysus.
I’m a firm believer in balance. If you’re familiar with Eastern philosophy, you’ve probably heard of Yin and Yang, or seen the symbol that represents it (the circle split between black and white, like two tadpoles). It’s a similar concept…the balance between the light and the dark, the positive and negative. We need both in our lives. In other words, we need to have bad things happen in our lives to help balance out the good. Without the bad, you can’t fully appreciate the good.
In any form of art, balance is necessary. We have to combine order and chaos to create tension. It really doesn’t matter if it’s science fiction, horror, erotica, humor, or romance. Tension is always a key component to any form of fiction. It’s much like life…even when things are going well for you, there’s always going to be some tension, some drama, that can’t be avoided. That’s one of the things I learned while studying creative writing in college…you have to have some tension in a story to give it weight. When I first heard this I dismissed it. How can EVERY story have tension? But I later discovered it was true. I read through dozen of short stories and found there was some form of tension in each and every one. Even comedies have tension. Mind blown.
And it doesn’t just apply to the content of stories, it also applies to the writer. A good writer should have the rational and chaotic balanced in their heads. Or at least as balanced as possible. That’s the thing, Apollo and Dionysus are diametrically opposed. They’re in constant conflict, but at the same time they’re drawn to each other. The trick is to try and give them equal time, equal attention. It’s not easy, but with practice it can be done. When we write we have to use the rational side of our minds to consider plot and characterization, how the story is going to flow, how it’s going to come to a satisfying conclusion. With the irrational side of of mind we get creative, we think of the strange possibilities. How can I tell this story of boy meets girl in a new and interesting way?
That’s how it works. We have to accept that we have these two Greek gods at odds in our heads (or at least the spirit of them) and we have to mediate. We are the bringers of balance. We take the best from both sides and create something beautiful. That’s what art is all about.
The truth is, we won’t ever achieve perfect balance. That would be boring, right? Besides, perfect balance would mean no conflict, not tension. We have to let these two brothers push back and forth, let one take the lead for a while, then reverse it. Remember, there is beauty in perfection and beauty in chaos.
Together, well, it’s spectacular.