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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 4: Dionysian Creativity and Sublimation


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Dionysian Creativity and Sublimation

The dangers associated with the drive of the Dionysian, and the aesthetic tradition associated with it, are made clear by both d’Annunzio and Mann, and before them, Nietzsche. We have seen how Nietzsche warned that the unbridled Dionysian may cause one to suffocate beneath a convulsive unfolding of the wings of the soul (GT-21), and both d’Annunzio and Mann portray characters whose entanglement with this drive results in mental and physical breakdown, chaos and dissolution. Yet all three understand the Dionysian to offer unparalleled creative stimulation and to be a valuable tool for the artist – under the right conditions. It is these conditions (which have been glimpsed already in previous chapters) that will be illuminated in this chapter.

The portraits of the artist offered by d’Annunzio and Mann are highly psychological in nature, devoting substantial space to explorations of the artist’s mind and focusing on the hopes, desires, anxieties and dreams that issue from these minds. In all of the texts under study, it is the psychology of the protagonists that dictates their fates: these narratives are not characterized by elaborate plots, clamorous events or extraordinary situations, and the difficulties encountered by the protagonists are mental and emotional in nature. We have seen that a successful encounter of the Dionysian includes creative stimulation, renewed vitality and artistic productivity, and an unsuccessful encounter includes loss of self, over-identification with the ‘primitive’, unbridled wildness, abolishment of...

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