The Apollonian & Dionysian Dialectic: Inner Conflicts and Revolutionary Acts

by | February 12, 2013 | General | 8 comments

A long, long time ago, in a land far, far away, there was a guy named Nietzsche who had a hell of a time getting people to spell his name correctly. He also had an unfortunate way voicing his opinions that makes him, to this day, rather annoying to read. However, all that aside, some of his ideas were so phenomenally clever (some of them were crap, too, but we’ll leave that for now) that they radically influenced almost all the European thinkers that came after him. And they do, to this day, as anyone who has read Camille Paglia (another thinker with an awkward mode of address) can attest to.

Nietzsche wanted to get past the whole, very Judeo-Christian good/bad divide. He wanted to explore what forces were working on man to account for the way they behaved. Living during a time when people had begun to fear their cultural spirit was flabby and weak, he could see that a great many people were just too civilized for their own boots. And being trained in the classics, he reflected back on his early education and came up with the concept of the Apollonian and Dionysian dialectic. He felt (probably because he didn’t know much about how appallingly Greeks treated women and slaves) that the Ancient Greeks had found a much better balance between their instinctual selves and their civilized yearnings.

What the hell has this got to do with erotica? Bear with me.

Apollonian forces are all the civilizing factors that allow us to get along with each other. They favour control over nature, discipline over instinct, rational thought over emotional drive. Dionysian forces are… you know, the opposite: chaos over order, instinct over culture, creative, libidinous, wild, violent, etc.

At the center of every good erotic story is a battle between the Dionysian and Apollonian forces within the characters. This is how great erotica manages to have conflict without writing a sub-plot about battling Nazi zombies.

Now, you might think that something like modern porn is wholly Dionysian – it’s all about giving in to base instincts and indulging in wild pleasures, right? But step back. Porn does have a hidden Apollonian side to it. Porn tells you HOW to fuck. It shows you what you should look like, act like, sound like. It offers a ‘fuck ideal’. Although you may not notice that with your hand around your dick, while the large-breasted blonde gets it up the ass and sucks dick at the same time, believe me, subconsciously, you’re being schooled in how to do it right.  This is why crazy-like-a-fox Slavoj Zizek can say that porn is ultimately a conservative art-form and get away with it.

Similarly, a lot of erotic romance might look like two crazy fools engaging in ton-o-kink, and falling into the chaos of unending love (Dionysian). But actually, if they’re pairing up and planning on negotiating a mortgage together by the end of the story, they’re ending up in a very Apollonian place. Most romances offer the reader a ‘love ideal’.  Society likes those neat family units.

What, I argue, makes good erotica far superior an art form to either porn or romance, is that it refuses to offer ‘ideals’. It recognizes that tension between the Apollonian and Dionysian forces, celebrates it, focuses on the storm of it, and leaves the reader with that battle unresolved. 

Why do I think that’s good?

I think it mirrors our real, lived experiences far better than either porn or romance.  In truth, we live with those competing forces all our lives.  Even poor, uptight T.S. Eliot was left pondering whether he had the rakish temerity to eat a peach and let the juice dribble down his chin. 

Writing characters who are so wholly committed to either the Apollonian or Dionysian sides of their personality diminishes your ability to take them through a good, meaty story. If your character is too ready to take the plunge, too accepting of all the chaos that indulging in the Dionysian entails, it’s going to be hard to effectively write any tension in the story. On the other hand, if your character is too hell bent on finding the right man with whom to settle down and start a family (or too hell bent on populating the perfect BDSM dungeon), you’ve got the same problem.

Revealing the inner tension of each character’s Apollonian and Dionysian side (and fighting your own Apollonian or Dionysian preferences to get them to a place of static commitment to either camp) will allow you to leave your reader with characters who will haunt them beyond the end of your story, because although the story may have ending, you allowed the universal battle live on.

Now, if you’re a savvy writer who wants to sell books, then right about now you are thinking… I don’t care what you say, Ms Philosopher Name-Dropper, people want ‘ideals’. ‘Ideals’ sell.

Yes, they do. They absolutely do. The public has been fed so many visions of an ‘ideal’ in the media, they’re completely addicted to it. When they don’t get it, they get pissed off, just like any junky who finds out his fix is actually almost all baby laxative.

And this is why I bring up Nietzsche and Zizek, and why I feel erotica is a fundamentally revolutionary, political act. Because I believe that feeding people ‘ideals’ is like handing them smack.  And you can accuse me of being a patronizing, arrogant elitist – that’s fine. But all those unrealistic, ideal-driven narratives accumulate, and ultimately leave people constantly yearning for a reality that cannot exist, or comparing their lives to fairy-tale fictional worlds and feeling like, if only they were cleverer, smarter, richer, better-looking, thinner… everything would be perfect. And ironically, this tends to make them go out and buy stuff that promises to make them all those things. Corporate profits go up and people’s sense of self-worth, purpose and ability to cope with the ups and downs of a real life go to the wall.

When D.H. Lawrence published Lady Chatterly’s Lover in 1928, he did something utterly revolutionary. He wrote explicit sex scenes in a literary world that had never tolerated them. He wrote about sexual love between people from radically different classes in a world where that was a serious social transgression. He wrote the ending it deserved. Not a happy one, but one where the characters were left transformed by their experiences.

There is no use pretending that, in a world saturated in porn, writing explicit sex is transgressive: it’s not. And not only has fucking the help become acceptable, it’s a goddamned porn meme. But writing stories that offer no ideals, and don’t force the battle between the Apollonian and the Dionysian to a neat conclusion… that IS transgressive.

So do it.

Remittance Girl

Remittance Girl lives in exile in Ho Chi Minh City where she writes and grows orchids. Her erotic stories have been published in Cream: The Best of the Erotica Readers and Writers Association, Garden of the Perverse: Fairy Tales for Twisted Adults, and Lessons in Love: Erotic Interludes 3. Her stories have also appeared on the ERWA website.


  1. Lisabet Sarai

    I get it. This is one of the clearest and most convincing posts you've written so far – and I think you're right.

    However, if an erotica author refuses to write an ending that reconciles the Appolonian and Dionysian forces, but nobody reads its… you're not going to have much of a revolution.

    I'm not implying that *nobody* reads your stories, or my stories that don't end neatly, for that matter. However, the people who suffer most from addiction to the ideal probably will not.

    (And this feeds neatly into the post I'm planning for later this month.)

  2. Penelope Lake

    This really is the most compelling voice I've read from you on this topic.
    I feel inspired. And maybe if more authors write erotica truthfully,more readers will find value in it.

  3. Patricia J. Esposito

    I agree we live with this kind of tension every day, though mostly we remain in control mode. And that's why sex is so good! I was actually worried that I used too much of this battle in my stories, but I'm looking at them in a different light now. The Apollonian side isn't so bad, even in porn. 🙂

  4. Jeremy Edwards

    Like all your essays, this is a very insightful, erudite, and well-argued perspective.

    With all respect, though, I have to question from personal experience the absolute terms in which the paradigm is stated: "At the center of every good erotic story is a battle between the Dionysian and Apollonian forces within the characters." I've written many, many erotic stories—and hopefully some of them at least are good ones—and yet I don't think any of them concern themselves with this dichotomy, at least not as a central tension. (Though perhaps you're speaking more about full-length stories—i.e., novels or novellas—and I admit I have much less of a body of work to testify about there.)

    That's not to say that someone using the Nietzschian model couldn't find a way to accomplish the critical exercise of interpreting my work through that lens. But I can, as the undeconstructed author, attest that the Apollonian/Dionysian conflict, important though it is to much literature, does not drive my personal approach to storytelling. Frankly, I don't find the whole self-control vs. desire thing sexy or appealing, in and of itself—though of course it's at the heart of plenty of works that I do find most compelling because of other elements. It might even be accurate to say that I deliberately avoid A vs. D plot elements in my work.

  5. Harper Eliot

    This is fantastic. I feel like I've been given a whole new vocabulary with which to discuss writing erotic fiction.

    Extraordinarily thought-provoking. Thank you.

  6. Jean Roberta

    Clear and persuasive. I suspect many of us would define the conflicts in our work differently, but conflicts within characters mostly boil down to: "Do it" vs. "Don't do it because… (it's too dangerous, you'll be laughed at, you'll regret it when you're sober, etc.). A resolution in one story doesn't have to suggest that the conflict has been permanently resolved for that character.

  7. Garceus

    " . . .Revealing the inner tension of each character's Apollonian and Dionysian side (and fighting your own Apollonian or Dionysian preferences to get them to a place of static commitment to either camp) will allow you to leave your reader with characters who will haunt them beyond the end of your story, because although the story may have ending, you allowed the universal battle live on. . . ."

    Can you explain this a little more? I'm really curious about this. When I read it I hear a big bell ring, but I'm still a little clueless. It reminds me a lot of some things Chuck Palahniuk writes.


  8. Donna

    What a tonic this post is for me! Recently I've been feeling rather dispirited about my future in erotica, because I started out with a romantic fantasy that since I craved more complexity and "reality" in erotica, other people wanted more of that, too. But as the genre explodes into respectability, the opposite seems to be the case.

    Garce, I hear you about not necessarily being able to write my own paper on the arguments, but I just finished a story where the two lovers are lying to each other and themselves to get together. They do achieve a temporary happy ending, but at least for me, I can see trouble coming down the line. I didn't write that part of the story, but it's lingering on in my mind as a kind of mystery (not that I claim this would happen for another reader, lol). So maybe that's part of it, a story and relationship that doesn't invite the comfort of cliche makes you think further so that the story becomes your own?

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