Your complimentary articles
You’ve read one of your four complimentary articles for this month.
You can read four articles free per month. To have complete access to the thousands of philosophy articles on this site, please
Dharmender Dhillon watches Dionysus dance with Apollo. WARNING: Contains a plot spoiler.
“One must have chaos in oneself in order to give birth to a dancing star”
Friedrich Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra, I, v.
I particularly enjoyed the Nietzschean interpretations of There Will Be Blood (Issue 74) and The Departed (Issue 65) in previous Philosophy Now film columns. So upon seeing Darren Aronofsky’s film Black Swan recently, I felt compelled to produce a Nietzsche-inspired piece myself.
Aronofsky’s haunting creation captivated me not only because of its spectacle as an aesthetically-powerful movie, but also for the resonance that it had with my own area of study. Thus my reading of the film is predominantly informed by the content of my Master’s dissertation, which focused on the philosophy of Nietzsche, with particular reference to Nietzsche’s belief that language fails to render the cosmic symbolism of music. That said, I’m not so much interested here in Tchaikovsky’s powerful composition for the ballet Swan Lake (around which the story of Black Swan revolves) as in what I consider to be the clashing of two world-views. These are what Nietzsche coined the Dionysian and the Apollonian. ‘Dionysian’ is from Dionysus, the Ancient Greek god representative of intoxication and frenzy (known as ‘Bacchus’ to the Romans), while ‘Apollonian’ is from Apollo, the Greek god of a variety of things, including light, the sun, and medicine; but for the purpose of Nietzsche’s argument, he is mainly representative of reason. To Nietzsche, these two divine aspects form the distinct sides of artistic expression: the ‘Dionysian’ being the passionate, emotional element, and the ‘Apollonian’ being the visionary, intellectual element (see for example, his The Birth of Tragedy, 1872).
Nina: The Consummate ‘Apollonian’
Black Swan depicts the protagonist, Nina – played by Natalie Portman – on a frenzied journey in pursuit of the perfect performance in the lead double role in the ballet Swan Lake as both Odette, the White Swan, and Odile, the Black Swan. Overseen by her neurotic mother, Nina has become the consummate performer, and as the hottest prospect in her ballet company, is awarded the mantle of the lead role for the coming season’s shows. Through fastidious practice, complimented with intense discipline, she embodies the precise nature of the Apollonian White Swan. However, in the eyes of her domineering director Thomas – played by the excellent Vincent Cassel – she fails to capture the primordial essence of the Dionysian Black Swan for which he yearns. The visceral portrayal of Nina’s tumultuous journey in pursuit of embodying the Black Swan in order to deliver the perfect performance is provided not through a particularly complex script or dialogue, but predominantly through Aronofsky’s uniquely dark direction, which in turn is wonderfully accompanied by the cinematography of Matthew Libatique and the enthralling score by Clint Mansell (inspired in no small part of course by the work of Tchaikovsky). Through its highly stylised approach, the film builds relentlessly to an overture of epic proportions in its rendering of what embodying the Dionysian spirit of art entails.
The film culminates with Nina delivering a mesmerizing performance as the Black Swan. In the preceding hour and a half, viewers have witnessed her practice indefatigably in pursuit of perfection. However, we have also seen her go down a path of self-destruction due to her obsession: she has habitually scratched herself feverishly, to the point of bleeding; suffered torrid hallucinations; and, as a bulimic, also frequently induced herself to vomit. A final hallucination depicts her stabbing and killing a fellow dancer whom she perceives as a competitive threat. What is revealed, after she has delivered the performance of her life as the Black Swan, is that in the course of this hallucination she has actually stabbed herself. As the film nears its end, we see Nina bleeding, in all probability, to her death. Lying with tears in her eyes and an ever-so-slight smile, she appears a shattered figure, but at the same time enormously satisfied. She proceeds to utter a bittersweet reflection on all that she has suffered: “I felt it. Perfect. It was perfect.” The film then fades to white as the roar of the crowd chanting her name echoes on.
The fellow dancer whom she perceives as a threat is her hedonistic, sensual understudy Lily, played by the aptly cast Mila Kunis. On the face of it, Lily is the Black Swan incarnate. She even has a large tattoo of the wings of a black swan adorning her back – alluring, but also menacing. However, while Lily can deliver a more than capable performance as the Black Swan, Nina is an outstanding White Swan, and would attain perfection if only she could display an unbridled frenzy and passion in the role of the Black Swan to the same degree that her steely dedication masters her portrayal of the White. This perfection is something Lily cannot attain, for she is not as exceptional as the Black as Nina is as the White. As we’ll see, for Nietzsche, it would not be possible for anybody to excel as the Black Swan without crushing the White Swan part of themselves.
Welcome to The Well of Dionysus
For Nietzsche, the Dionysian spirit is more than just a way of thinking. Rather, it is a state of ecstasy and a ‘frenzy of becoming’, through which the Apollonian ‘veil of reason’ is torn asunder. In Daybreak (1881), Nietzsche exclaims that “what are wanted are blindness and intoxication, and an eternal song over the waves in which reason has drowned.” This dramatic proclamation summarises the purpose of his life’s work – and in particular, his endeavour to propagate the Dionysian way of thinking over that of the Apollonian. The outcome of this Dionysian outlook is displayed in all its intensity in Black Swan – that is to say, in the primal transformation of Nina into the Black Swan as she reaches her breaking point, having just, to her mind, stabbed and killed her understudy. She then enters the stage for the viewer to see her literally sprouting magnificent black wings, as we see her give herself over to the Dionysian frenzy which results in the primal, perfect performance of a lifetime: she has embodied Nietzsche’s cry for Dionysian passion.
The perfection for which Nina strives is analogous to what Nietzsche ascertains to be the supreme goal of art. This for Nietzsche can only be reached through immersing oneself in the unadulterated primordial passion of Dionysus. Accordingly, this passion is then able to unshackle one from the confines of the Apollonian realm of reason. But this paradigmatic shift in being, much like its messenger Nietzsche, is not for everyone. Nietzsche believes that the Dionysian is only for those strong enough, who have reached the limits of reason enmeshed in the Apollonian spirit. Hence, the Dionysian is only accessible by way of the Apollonian – the two are inextricably linked. Nina’s journey of suffering, and the manner in which she pushes Apollonian art to its limits, is a necessary pre-requisite for her to be able to enter Dionysus’s awe-inspiring well of the primordial. Furthermore, the Dionysian mentality is not something superficial, or something which can be dipped into on a whim. Rather, it requires unmediated passion – something of which Nina is actually capable, but Lily is not.
Not unlike the notion of Plato’s ‘Allegory of The Cave’, in which (crudely put) one falsely believes a shadow of an object, to be the actual thing itself, Nietzsche argues that those who believe that the Apollonian is the truth of human perfection invariably perpetuate the relegation of the truly liberating Dionysian spirit, exclusively favouring the works of reason as the ultimate expression of artistic freedom. As a result, unlike many reviewers, I do not consider Nina’s suffering in the film to be about mental illness per se, nor about the supernatural. Rather, I read Nina’s experience as the pain associated with transcending the confines of Apollonian reason, i.e., the pain of reaching for the Dionysian light outside the Apollonian cave.
Perfection Beyond Reason
Black Swan vividly depicts the struggle to transcend the limits that one has established and reach perfection. This is a painful process, and it may crush one to death. But as the pioneering martial artist Bruce Lee once said: “There are no limits. There are plateaux; but you must not stay there, you must go beyond them. If it kills you, it kills you.” Aronofsky increases the intensity continuously from the very first scene. This enables the viewers to immerse themselves in Nina’s surging to overcome her limits, and to feel the process of her embodiment of Dionysian frenzy. In a similar vein, Nietzsche’s provocative discourse in his books is emblematic of his Dionysian artistic purpose as a gadfly to provoke what he saw as a stagnated fin-de-siècle European society into striving onwards and upwards to greatness.
Nina’s striving towards, and ultimate attainment of, a form of perfection, illustrates the terrifying power of the Dionysian spirit in liberating its practitioners from the constraints of Apollonian ‘reasonableness’. In Black Swan, Aronofsky remarkably captures the clashing of two Nietzschean worldviews, and what results is an intense, dark and memorable audio-visual experience.
© Dharmender S. Dhillon 2011
Dharmender Dhillon is a PhD student at Cardiff University.