February 17, 2015 I am fascinated by the Apollo-Dionysus dichotomy–it’s one of the most pervasive themes in German literature, brought to philosophical expression by Nietzsche in his Birth of Tragedy from 1872. Apollo, he says, is the Greek god of sun and lyre, reason, clarity, self-control, thought, sanity, the Word. Dionysus is his opposite: darkness, sensuality, insanity, debauchery, intoxication, unbounded ecstasy. German literature asks, How to bring the two together? How to find a balance, a Gleichgewicht, a middle road between two extremes? Too much of the one leads to sterility and lifelessness, too much of the other to insanity and dissolution. Look at the works of Hermann Hesse and Thomas Mann, for instance: so many of their characters fail or succeed, live or die by their ability to bring Apollo and Dionysus together without destroying themselves and others.
Karnival–Fastnacht–is the working-out of that dichotomy in German society, on the streets instead of in art. Five days of pure Dionysus–it’s the balance found, the other half of the equation. Most of the time, as the stereotype goes, German society is driven by Apollo: reasonable, orderly, efficient, rigorous. But then there’s Fastnacht, when all that goes out the window. For five days, the whole city goes mad–no holds barred, Dionysus is Joker und Bacchus, and all the rules are broken. It’s what the Greeks experienced during the great national performances of their tragedies: ekstasis, catharsis. The Self as a rational, autonomous element dissolves into the Whole.
And it is not just the students, the young people who would be out partying anyway–it’s everyone. The four-year-old with his hair dyed green screaming “Helau!” at the parade, the 70-year-old couples in the Weinstube in the Old City, singing and beating on the tables. And everyone else: there’s thousands of revelers on the streets at night, dancing and drinking and throwing the wine bottles on the ground instead of in the recycling bin. You see it in the city, too, normally so neat and orderly: the bus schedule is hopelessly screwed up, everything is color, and the streets are covered in streamers and glitter and green glass Jägermeister bottles.
I found it all incredible. This, the presence of Fastnacht in society, is the balance, the Gleichgewicht, which Faust and Gustav Aschenbach and Harry Haller tried and failed, perhaps, to find.
It all reminds me of the famous scene from Hermann Hesse’s Steppenwolf, “Hermine ist in der Hölle”–Hermine is in hell. Harry Haller the Apollonian gives himself over to Dionysus for a night of excess, frenzy, and sweat-soaked dance in the pit of hell. It’s not an entirely untroubling scene, but it is a moment of transcendence, and the Steppenwolf emerges with a sort of redemption.
I was on the tram headed into the city on Saturday afternoon. It was full to bursting, and the sun had come out for the first time in what felt like weeks. Someone had brought a boom box, and the entire train turned into a party, giddy people jumping and dancing and trying to pour shots of Jägermeister and singing at the top of their lungs:
Eins kann uns keiner nehmen, und das ist die pure Lust am Leben. There is one thing nobody can take from us, and that is the pure love of life.
Of course Fastnacht has problematic aspects–the police presence in the city skyrockets by necessity, and my main concern on the bus on the way home Monday night was not getting barfed on. But moments like the one on the tram transcend.
Naturally, though, it is not all insanity and merrymaking. Like the theater in Germany, nothing here can ever be merely entertaining. A key element of Fastnacht in Mainz is politics–political commentary, critique, satire. The floats in the big Rosenmontag parade are all of a political nature, some quite scathing. Many of them I didn’t understand fully, since my knowledge of local politics is not exactly up to snuff. But international politics featured as well….
And there it was. Fastnacht in Mainz, in all its Dionysian glory. I was downtown this evening, and the city crews were already at work, sweeping thousands of pounds of glittery trash off the streets and taking down the stages. It was entirely melancholy, actually.
I don’t think I could take more than one carnival a year, but it was very good while it lasted.