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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 3: Dionysian Creativity and Primitive Regression


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Dionysian Creativity and Primitive Regression

In the ancient Dionysian festival we find a (temporary) abandonment of the structures of society and an embrace of a wilder and more basic mode of existence, expressed in a physical withdrawal from the polis. The prescribed intoxication attained by revellers relaxed inhibitions and encouraged a more ‘primitive’ form of behaviour. In this respect the Dionysian ritual was highly regressive in nature, and scholars have noted the cathartic function of this hiatus from civilization.

The effort required to meet the demands of existence within civilization was to be exposed by psychoanalysis during the first half of the twentieth century, most notably by Sigmund Freud in his Das Unbehagen in der Kultur [Civilization and its Discontents (1930)]. The ancient Dionysian ritual chimes with Freud’s ideas regarding the appeal of the ‘primitive’ to those bound by the norms and restrictions of civilization. For Nietzsche, too, the Dionysian experience offers a (potentially) beneficial and invigorating glimpse of the primordial undercurrents that are obscured by our existence as bordered and individuated beings within civilized society. In 1872 Nietzsche lauds the Dionysian precisely for its promotion of a more ‘natural’ and intuitive (or ‘primitive’) existence. For Nietzsche, such ‘regressive’ behaviour was not only cathartic but also potentially beneficial for art, presenting a new source of inspiration.

We also find this idea in the depictions of the Dionysian offered by d’Annunzio and Mann: as this chapter will...

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