Grokking the Dionysian and the Apollonian in Stranger in a Strange Land

I’ve been listening to Heinlien’s Stranger in a Strange Land, bit by bit, on audio for the last few weeks.  Orientation on less conventional formats such as audio and the Kindle is never easy–I really have no idea how far into the story I am, and I’m too lazy to check by looking at the track listings.  But there was just a delightful passage about the difference between the Dionysian culture (human) and the Apollonian culture (Martian) which inspired me to type a few quick words.

I did a large project on the Apollonian and the Dionysian about this time last year, and it was one of the most intriguing, insightful (and COMPLETELY unintuitive) ideas I’ve ever had the pleasure to explore.  For those who haven’t read Nietzsche’s The Birth of Tragedy, let me say that briefly summarizing these ideas is quite a challenge, so please know what follows is an anemic explanation.  The Apollonian is everything that makes sense.  It like lucid dreaming.  The Apollonian is harmonious, geometric, individualistic, dispassionate, and logical.  As for the Dionysian, my philosophy teacher described it like this:  Imagine you’re at a party, and everyone has been drinking.  There’s loud music, and the whole room is dancing in unison to the music.  Everything seems surreal, and you feel united with all the people at the party. Also, you have to throw up.  Also, if you drive home, you might die.

In Stranger, Jubal calls Smith’s Martian culture Apollonian and Earth’s culture Dionysian.  He’s right.  Earth seems to be a place of emotion and revelry.  There is fury and ecstasy, war and dance, conniving and rescuing.  Smith, all the while, retains a stillness that seems…well, alien.  The degree to which humans experience emotion is incomprehensible to a Martian, and there is no word for war in their language.  When the two cultures blend in a balanced way, just like in Nietzsche’s The Birth of Tragedy, it is the best of all worlds.

One of my favorite parts of the book is when Smith kisses the girls of Jubal’s house as an experiment.  In true Apollonian fashion, Smith focuses with all the powers of his mind on the action, with no hint of anything sensual at all–indeed, no idea what that word would even mean.   The girls, of course, swoon in a typical Dionysian-culture reaction to such attention.  They completely let go of all mental control, giving themselves utterly to the sensation of the moment. As a result, both entities are delighted.  I thought it was a fun illustration of the perfect marriage Nietzsche described between the Apollonian and the Dionysian.

The clashes come, of course, from the imperfect balance.  When Earthlings attempt to dominate the conversation, injustice results.  This is why Jubal insists on a council of equals when the Secretary General and Smith meet–to try to foster that Nietzschean balance.

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