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Portraits of the Artist

Dionysian Creativity in Selected Works by Gabriele D’Annunzio and Thomas Mann

Jessica Wood

The Dionysian – an impetus towards abandon, intoxication and creativity, but also chaos, death and dissolution – captured the imagination of both Gabriele D’Annunzio and Thomas Mann, two authors whose work otherwise seems antithetical. Both admired Friedrich Nietzsche and engaged with his iconic yet enigmatic idea of the «Dionysian» in their depictions of writers and artists. Like many of their own fictional characters, D’Annunzio and Mann appear to have been drawn towards this idea and its significance in an artistic context. In their novels and short stories, both portray writers and artists who rely on the precarious form of creativity that results from interactions with the Dionysian. This book argues that the portraits of the artist offered by D’Annunzio and Mann, and the depictions of creativity found within these portraits, demonstrate that these two giants of European literature were more alike than has hitherto been acknowledged – and more alike than they would perhaps have liked to think.

This book was the winner of the 2016 Early Career Researcher Prize in German Studies, a collaboration between the Institute for German Studies at the University of Birmingham and Peter Lang.

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Chapter 2: The Dionysian Artist and Liminality


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The Dionysian Artist and Liminality

According to the aesthetic tradition of the Dionysian, which was given crucial impetus by (German) Romanticism and with which Nietzsche’s appropriation in 1872 engages, the Dionysian can offer the artist unparalleled creative stimulation. Elements of the ancient worship of Dionysus (especially the prescribed intoxication and sensation of unity with nature) were regarded as creatively inspiring, and Dionysus was portrayed as the artist’s ally. Around the same time, the significance of Dionysus altered, and rather than being treated as an external figure the deity became associated with certain psychological experiences – often linked to art but also death (as noted by Henrichs [1984, p. 218]). This was in keeping with Romanticism’s increased interest in the mind and the unconscious. This same interest was also to lead to the establishment of the stereotype of the outsider artist, which arguably still persists today.

Since around the time of Romanticism the stereotypical figure of the artist has been an isolated and tortured individual, whose talents and unique insight into existence set him (and it is usually ‘him’) apart from the crowd. In this figure, the principle of individuation reaches an extreme degree, and the artist is often excluded from any significant experience of closeness, intimacy or community. The artistic characters we find in the works of d’Annunzio and Mann are certainly not immune from this cliché – possibly an indication of the fact that both d’Annunzio and Mann appear...

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