By Yuge Ma
Dionysos, the god who induces one to forget one’s self, drives the central action in Euripides’s Bakkhai. Bakkhai is a play about a divinity’s revenge on mortal human beings. The play begins with Dionysos arriving at Thebes, his birthplace, in the disguise of a mortal foreigner, to take his revenge on the Theban house of Kadmos. He turns a crowd of women into maenads, his most devout worshippers, and brings them into a drunken state of ecstasy in which they sing and dance and merge into nature:
[Kadmos’s daughters] denied that I
Am Dionysos, the son of Zeus. They said
That Semele had been taken by a man
And that she only claimed it was Zeus who was
To blame for the wrongdoing in her bed—
They thought this claim the sophistry of Kadmos. (Euripides 36-41)
In front of the royal palace, Dionysos declares that he has come “so that all mortals would see that [he is] a god” (Euripides 29). The way in which he makes mortal human beings “see” him as a god is by sending them into Dionysian ecstasy. In The Birth of Tragedy, Friedrich Nietzsche calls this ecstatic state “a complete forgetting of the self” occurring when “Dionysian urges are awakened, and grow more intense” (Nietzsche 17). As the idea of the self collapses, one feels identified with all life, living with nature in a unity where all contradictions and oppositions co-exist. This feeling of oneness, as Nietzsche argues, enables one to overcome the sense of being a distinct person with individual goals and projects and the ordinary belief in all the relations to things around them, thus transcending the suffering inherent in individual experience and catching a glimpse of the true essence of the world around. Like this feeling of oneness in the ecstatic state, those on whom Dionysos takes revenge are steeped in a condition of visceral bodily excitement in which all anthropocentric boundaries break down. In forgetting themselves, they are gradually drawn closer to the truth of Dionysos as a god, which is a part of the metaphysical truth of the world as a unified entity.
This truth of Dionysos is visible at all times but remains constantly “unseen.” Thus, this self-forgetting forms a mystical interaction with the perceptual experience of seeing. Forgetting is fundamentally a perceptual experience that involves the change of mental representations in the form of images or ideas. As one forgets something, one’s perception of it changes. When it is the very idea of the self that one forgets, one necessarily obtains an altered phenomenology of consciousness. What does it mean to “see”? How is seeing different when one forgets the self from when one maintains the self? Bakkhai serves as a critique of ocularcentrism, the belief that privileges sight over other senses — it shows that sight does not deserve such a privileged status due to its problematic nature.
Sight has been crucial to the account of knowledge and thought since the days of antiquity. As David Michael Levin states in Modernity and the Hegemony of Vision, “beginning with the ancient Greeks, Western culture has been dominated by an ocularcentric paradigm, a vision-generated, vision-centered interpretation of knowledge, truth, and reality” (2). In Timaeus, Plato argues that sight is the premise of spoken thought. Only by seeing the passage of day and night and the cycle of seasons, can people invent numbers and acquire the notion of time. And from that knowledge, they study nature and the universe and derive philosophy (47a-b). Similarly, Aristotle claims in Metaphysics that the privileging of sight lies in human nature because sight “gives us knowledge of things and clarifies many differences between them.” (980a) Nevertheless, Plato is aware that sight is not without imperfection and distinguishes the physical eyes from the mind’s eyes, suggesting that only with the assistance of something internal can sight prevail over the trustworthiness and preeminence that people generally attribute to it. In Plato’s Republic Book X, Socrates indicates that one often undergoes optical illusions, such as things appearing to have different sizes when being seen from different distances and a straight rod appearing to be bent in water. However, the wise man, whose soul is ruled by reason, can see how things really are through “calculation, measuring, and weighting” (602d-e). Such an image of the wise man is realized in the blind prophet of Greek drama, who can “see” the truth and future with the mind’s eye. In Bakkhai, when the king of Thebes, Dioynsos’s mortal cousin Pentheus, first enters the stage, he does not see Teiresias, the old blind seer of Thebes, and his grandfather Kadmos, who are about to join the Bakkhic revelry. When he finally sees, he is infuriated by “the sight of [them] like this — Old age without a shred of sense” (293-4). Teiresias admonishes Pentheus for his sacrilege against Dionysos. “It’s not for Dionysos to compel women to modesty and self-control,” the wise seer warns Pentheus, “even in Bakkhic revelry a woman of true self-control will not be corrupted. Do you see this?” (369-75). Still, this is not a question asking Pentheus to see in the literal sense: even Teiresias himself is unable to do so. What Teiresias is really demanding here is for Pentheus to use reason to perceive the true nature of Dionysos and his Bakkhic rites. Sight is problematic, yet sight makes up most of the reality one experiences, since knowledge, thoughts, and emotions are often derived from it. Excepting what’s objectively presented to eyes, however, the subjective mind also plays a role in constituting visual experience. Seeing, therefore, does not necessarily encompass the whole experience of seeing the truth. Bakkhai is a play in which all basic actions concern seeing: the story relies on seeing as the foundational and primary means of acquiring important information. While the play acknowledges sight’s dominance, however, it eventually invalidates the long-dominated “ocularcentric paradigm” (Levin 2).
In The Birth of Tragedy, Nietzsche discusses the opposing force of the Dionysian, the Apolline, which represents the inner impulse to beautify the world to make individual lives more bearable. Crucially, the Apolline helps explain the fundamental dissociation between the seeing of physical eyes and that of the mind’s eye. Nietzsche compares the Apolline with the state of dreaming, in which one creates beautiful illusions about the world around them. Nevertheless, dreaming, for Nietzsche, includes self-awareness. The dreamer recognizes that the world is intrinsically full of suffering, therefore indulging in those beautiful dreams voluntarily, and tells themselves that “I want to dream on!” (15). The Apolline states one simple truth: one sees the parts of reality to which one is aware of being blinded. The conscious self is maintained while the physical eyes see the beautified world. The Dionysian can resolve this contradiction in seeing. Denying that the everyday reality that one experiences physically encompasses reality itself, Nietzsche locates the reality of the world in the Dionysian state of self-forgetting, in which the self feels identified with not only other living things, but with nature at large.
Although Nietzsche seems to claim that, in the Dionysian state, one opens the eyes to the fact that one’s individuality is only an appearance and thus to the deeper truth that the world is oneness, it is ultimately unclear whether he believes that the Dionysian can indeed give any truth or insight into the world itself. The loss of individuality is true of the world as individual identities are only fictitious appearances: the world is one (Nietzsche 16-17). However, the Dionysian is only ephemeral. It is not a habitable condition: no one can live without a sense of individuality. Perhaps the Dionysian state is feasible only when people are near the truth or immersed in it, yet do not actually recognize it as the nature of the world. This is, in fact, the premise of Bakkhai. While people submit to the Dionysian self-forgetting and act correspondingly to the truth of Dionysos, they do not yet see the truth by themselves since the perceptual information they access only manifests at the sub-personal level instead of the individual level. The sub-personal seeing, i.e., seeing in the self-forgetting, is accompanied by the loss of control over the world-engaging actions. Therefore, although self-forgetting is essentially where one starts to get closer to the truth and develop a new consciousness about the world around them, one eventually has to see by oneself to survive the full truth of reality.
Dionysos has been born twice, neither natural births. While his mortal mother Semele is struck to death by Zeus’s lightning while still carrying the fetal Dionysos, Zeus “took the infant into his own thigh, where he covered him and closed with golden pins this chamber of a womb hidden away from Hera’s sight” (Euripides 121-5). Ultimately, this pre-birth experience turns out to be Dionysos’s fanatical pursuit of sight — something he had to escape from even before he was born. As the historian Martin Jay observes, “the Greek gods were visibly manifest to humankind which was encouraged to depict them in plastic form” (23). However, with his identity not acknowledged by Kadmos’s house, Dionysos is never one of the gods who can “visibly manifest to humankind”: people have no way to see with their bare eyes a true god as a god if they do not even acknowledge or recognize his divinity. Dionysos’s ultimate goal disclosed in his opening speech — to make all mortals see that he is a god (Euripides 290) — is grounded in a complicated system of operation. It requires Dionysos to wield his intoxicating power to drag people into the breakdown of the principle of individuation, where they would attain the prerequisite condition to see the truth even if it is not yet where people can truly live in accordance with the truth. Dionysos clearly deems it insufficient to be merely seen by mortals as a true god. By the time he arrives at Thebes, he has already “set everyone in Asia dancing and founded [his] rites” (Euripides 27-8) and driven “every woman of that [Kadmos’s family]… from their homes in a state of madness” to Mount Kithairon (Euripides 49-50). But having this huge group of worshippers is still not enough for Dionysos. He aims particularly at Pentheus, who as the King of Thebes behaves disrespectfully towards Dionysos such as “excluding [Dionysos] from his libations, making no mention of [Dionysos] when publicly he calls upon the gods” (Euripides 62-4). He would eventually make himself known to all mortals: “Thebes must fully learn — despite itself, if need be, what neglect of my Bakkhic rituals means” (Euripides 53-5). “When I’ve set [Thebes] to rights, I’ll travel to yet another country, to reveal myself again,” Dionysos states (Euripides 66-8).
Yet, Dionysos refuses to be satisfied with taking his divinity as the object of seeing for mortals. He actually puts his divine status at the position of the subject, which must be seen “despite oneself,” (54) a phrase that implies an overwhelming power capable of nihilating one’s voluntary will. Since Dionysos makes his divinity the subject relative to human beings, his divinity will not wait passively to receive mortals’ recognition but will act upon mortals to acquire what it deserves. The journey will not end until Dionysos’s divinity reveals itself to all. The word “would,” which is employed instead of other possible modal auxiliaries, i.e. “should” and “could”, in Dionysos’s claim that “all mortals would see that I am a god” elevates his divinity to the status of the subject that mortals simply have no power to resist seeing it: seeing becomes more about power-wielding than about knowing. Yet, proper knowledge or recognition — seeing by oneself, escaping the state of self-forgetting — is what constitutes seeing and living the truth.
The ocularcentric paradigm governs the actions in this play. In answering Pentheus’s request for more details of the Bakkhic rites, Dionysos declares, “that’s not for you to hear — although it’s worth your knowing” (Euripides 559). Another sense, hearing, is brought into the discussion. Since Pentheus is a non-believer of Dionysos, he is kept from knowing what the god’s rites are like. His impiety also makes him blind to any sign that suggests Dionysos’s divinity. For example, the guard reports:
The Bakkhai you locked up, the ones you took away and bound and shackled in chains in the town prison —now they’re gone! Set free! They’re running away towards the mountain clearings, leaping and calling on their Dionysos as a god. Their ankle-chains just fell away by themselves, the doors no mortal hand had touched swung wide open, unbolted. Full of wonders, this man has come to Thebes!” (Euripides 527-35)
Pentheus disregards this hint. He arrogantly mocks the Stranger’s effeminate appearance, insisting that the Stranger “must be punished for evil sophistries” (Euripides 575). Pentheus doesn’t believe in what he hears and is suspicious of the trustworthiness of mere words. Later, when the first messenger returns from Mount Kithairon and, in fear of the king’s fury, tells Pentheus that “I wish to hear if I can speak freely of what I saw” and “if you had been there, too, and seen what I have seen, you’d pray to Dionysos rather than condemn him,” he simultaneously reminds Pentheus that words are bounded while sight is not (Euripides 773-5; 817-20).
The depreciation of hearing and verbal language compared with seeing appears to demonstrate the importance of sight and the visible in acquiring true knowledge. However, without the simultaneous use of inner senses, sight cannot serve as the paradigmatic method of recognition. As the play moves forward, Pentheus is eventually allowed the chance to know the Bakkhic rites, but only through being dressed up as a woman by Dionysos, which would then enable him to “go and spy on [the maenads]” by his own eyes (Euripides 955). Influenced by Dionysos’s intoxicating power, Pentheus loses his social status, his authority, his sexuality, and his identity. Yet, no ultimate knowledge of the truth can really be acquired by the simple act of seeing/spying. Only Pentheus’s final act of recognition — seeing with the inner eyes — will allow him to have a glimpse of the true nature of Dionysos and the Bakkhai. Sight is fallacious because what one’s mind perceives can be fundamentally different from what is objectively present before one’s eyes. But what does it mean to influence the perceptions of the mind?
First, it is not Dionysos to whom Pentheus submits himself when he agrees to be dressed as the Bakkhic. Instead, he only submits to his obsession with his imagined spectacle of the Bakkhic rites. One of his conversations with Dionysos immediately reveals his excessive curiosity and implies his imminent misery:
Dionysos: Do you want to see them sitting together on the mountain?
Pentheus: Yes, I do — for that, I’d give a countless weight of gold.
Dionysos: But why do you feel such desire for this?
Pentheus: It would pain me if I saw them drunk.
Dionysos: And yet you’d see with pleasure that which gives you pain? (Euripides 928-32)
The desire to see is associated with a pecuniary nature. Pentheus’s willingness to exchange “a countless weight of gold” with “seeing the maenads sitting together on the mountain” implies his desire to not only see more but to see as much as possible. On the one hand, “countless” indicates the inadequacy of measuring Pentheus’s morbid desire with quantifiable financial means. On the other hand, it reduces the epistemic status of seeing to a mere state of transaction and ascribes it with a commercial value to some extent. This rhetoric privileges a voyeuristic desire for self-satisfaction over the knowledge of truth. After that, Pentheus explicitly admits his desire for a painful seeing, i.e., a painful knowing, of the maenads. In fact, his seemingly morbid desire is but a desire for pleasure, which corresponds to Socrates’s argument that everyone desires good things, and that even when they desire bad things they must be “thinking the bad ones as good” (Plato, Meno 77b-78a). Pentheus sees the desire which would inevitably cause him pain as a pleasure, once again demonstrating that, at this point in the play, he has already begun submitting to the power of Dionysos. He is blind in the face of his upcoming demise even though Dionysos has alluded that he will come back in a somehow unusual state: “But someone else will bring you back…You will be remarkable to everyone…You will be carried home…in your mother’s arms” (Euripides 1101-7). Pentheus has begun letting go of his reason and allowing his passionate desire to rule over him, “rushing toward what [he] should not rush to see” (Euripides 1044). Such a desire for witnessing the pleasure of pain eventually and inevitably leads Pentheus to his tragic death. Pentheus has lost himself, going to see in the absence of the mind’s eyes. As a result, his “seeing” becomes problematic and fatal.
Pentheus’s impiety and the desire derived from it to see the Bakkhic rites hinder him from accessing the same visual information as others. Earlier in the play, when Pentheus threatens to chain the Stranger (Dionysos in disguise), Dionysos reveals to him where the god is:
Dionysos: The god himself will set me free, whenever I so wish.
Pentheus: Yes — if you call him while standing with the maenads.
Dionysos: He’s right here, now, and sees what I am suffering.
Pentheus: Where is he, then? My eyes don’t see him here.
Dionysos: He’s where I am. Because of your irreverence you cannot see him. (Euripides 584-8)
Due to his lack of proper knowledge and recognition, Pentheus simply cannot see beyond what is right before his eyes. He cannot perceptually represent the Stranger in front of him as precisely the god Dionysos in mind. He sees the Stranger but fails to perceive any sign indicating that the Stranger is Dionysos himself. His ignorance and disbelief of the divine status of Dionysos, which takes root in the prevailing story in Thebes that Dionysos’s mortal mother lies about her affair with Zeus, pre-determine his visual experience. “Men see… only what they are predisposed to see,” argues Greek scholar Justina Gregory (9). The audience then encounters a pivotal moment of the play: Pentheus’s double vision of two suns, two Thebes, and a “bullified” Dionysos (Euripides 1052-7). This seems to signal Pentheus’s surrender to the intoxicating power of Dionysos and his loss of the rational mind, and more importantly, the beginning of the self-forgetting. Some argue this is actually when Pentheus starts to become spiritualized and develops faith in Dionysos’s divinity, since his drunken state brings him closer to seeing the true form of the Stranger, thus destabilizing his former suspicion and reconciling the perceptions of his outer and inner eyes.
However, is Pentheus really “seeing what [he] should see” — that is, as Dionysos assures him, “the god who earlier was ill-disposed toward us, comes with us, at peace with us” (1058-9)? Although aware of his change of vision, Pentheus does not question much about it, nor does he start to reflect on his previous actions. He is still occupied by his tendency to see “what he should not see,” i.e., the Bakkhic rites. It turns out that his predisposition does not simply affect but fundamentally determine his vision, making his visual experience different from others. As the second messenger recounts, he was able to hide “in the grassy valley so that [they] could see [the maenads]” with Dionysos and Pentheus without themselves being seen (1187-9). The maenads, as the second messenger assures, “were sitting” and “hands engaged in pleasant tasks” such as weaving ivy curls and singing (1191-6). However, Pentheus’s visual experience is mystically different from this peaceful scene seen by the second messenger, thus bringing the ocularcentric paradigm into question. “O Stranger,” Pentheus complains to Dionysos, “from where we stand I cannot see to where those faking maenads are” (1198-20). The second messenger also tells the chorus that Pentheus “was unable to view the women” (1198). What is preventing Pentheus from seeing what the second messenger sees and making him “cannot” and “unable” to get access to a specific view is still his predisposition. One shall keep in mind that Pentheus does not merely want to see maenads “sitting together on the mountain.” Specifically, he desires to see them “drunk” to gain pleasure from the pain of seeing. Before he even sees the Stranger, he maintains that the god is made up by Semele’s lie and deems women honoring Dionysos as “new evils” (255). He firmly believes that the Stranger who “says Dionysos is a god” has “brought a new disease that sickens all our women” (281-2, 416-7). Vision being distorted by his predisposition, Pentheus cannot help conceiving “maenads” as necessarily entailing the scandalous, licentious, and transgressive. Pentheus indeed sees something: he arguably sees a group of women “sitting together on the mountain,” but since he doesn’t see anyone “drunk,” he believes he doesn’t see the maenads. As Socrates tells us, corporeal vision without deliberation, reflection, and contemplation in mind can only result in false beliefs as the consequence of having perceived false appearances. Pentheus’s claim of not seeing the maenads is where the critique of ocularcentrism materializes.
In the same way that Pentheus is incapable of seeing the Maenads, he is blinded to the true power and divinity of Dionysos. The ocularcentric pattern of perceiving the world is thus questioned, for one only sees what one thinks to be seeing but not what is really out there, and the visual information accessed immediately could be misleading. Believing that he does not see the maenads, Pentheus requests Dionysos: “if I climbed a tall-necked tree, on higher ground, I’d see clearly what those shameless maenads are doing” (1192-1202). However, in wanting to see something he is not supposed to see, Pentheus not only proves a morbid curiosity but also manifests a desire to transgress something forbidden for him. “Greek males will normally derive pleasure from any number of visual stimuli,” avers Gregory, “these pleasures have their limits, however, for under certain conditions seeing can become an act of transgression” (25). Pentheus’s desire is invalid in the first place since there anything like the drunk maenads — it’s not a “restricted sight” but an impossible one (Gregory 25). Moreover, this predisposed conception of maenads and the Bakkhic rites itself constitutes a serious kind of “religious transgression,” the possibility of which he never takes the chance to contemplate (Gregory 27). His seeing supported by “climb[ing] a tall-necked tree on higher ground” thus becomes an “act of transgression” in the sense that he wants to derive pleasure from something existing in his imagination which is already sacrilegious. In fact, Pentheus’s ocular transgression goes even further in that he exhibits an implicit desire for deification, which he tries to attain through gaining a deified ocular status. His desire to climb to a higher place and acquire a clearer vision suggests an insatiability, a gnawing perception that he does not enough “from where they stand”: on the ground. He wants to go higher — to be as close as where the gods reside — to acquire the status of an “avid spectator of human actions,” a role that is generally attributed to gods (Jay 23). At last, Pentheus’s desire to see and the longing for a clearer and more comprehensive vision are proven to be fatal, which once again exposes the problematic nature of the over-reliance on sight itself — one’s inner senses would be repressed and the sense of self diminished at a sub-personal level. What governs actions can also devastate them.
When Pentheus dies in the joyful hands of his own mother who “from some tall pole or rocky cliff will catch first sight of him” and finally tears him apart in a self-forgetting frenzy, the fatality of sight materializes (Euripides 1117-9). Sitting on the top of the tree straightened by Dionysos, Pentheus is seen by the maenads “instead of seeing [them]” (Euripides 1217-8). At the same time, urged by Dionysos’s command to revenge, the maenads start to violently attack the tree where Pentheus sits up high. At last, led by Agaue who declares that they will “capture this tree-climbing beast and stop him from revealing to anyone the secret dances of the god,” the maenads “put countless hands on the tree and pulled it out of the earth” (Euripides 1254-8), eventually making Pentheus fall down to the ground. Just as Dionysos prophesied, Agaue “was the first, as priestess, to begin the slaughter” (Euripides 1262-3). Pentheus cries out to her, acknowledges his wrongdoings, and “tears the headband from his hair so that wretched Agaue will recognize him, not kill him” (Euripides 1264-6). However, Agaue has been “possessed by Bakkhos” and lost the sense of her individuality, therefore is “not thinking as she should” (Euripides 1271-3). In self-forgetting, all kinds of relationships developed in the physical world, predicated on the principle of individuation, are no more than illusions people create to beautify the world. Such Dionysian power wielded over human minds even overrides the innate love and bond between mother and child. In an instinctual and chaotic state of being, Agaue sees Pentheus but cannot recognize him, failing to represent the “beast” that she is murdering as her son. Her sight malfunctions in the absence of self, yet only the self guarantees the operation of the inner sense. Eventually, just as gods who are “willing to provide the occasional spectacle themselves” (Jay 23), Pentheus also provides an extravagant spectacle — the dismemberment of his own body through the hands of his mother — which becomes one of the most tragic manifestations of Dionysian intoxication.
Pentheus’s graphic death also becomes a social spectacle as Agaue carries the head of her own son, as a trophy, to show the Theban people the “prey” the Kadmos’s daughters capture “with the points of [their] own white-fingered hands” (Euripides 1359-62). Holding the head of Pentheus in her arms, Agaue is eager to have someone call her son into her sight “to see his mother most happily blessed” (Euripides 1417-8). The interplay between what is present to one’s eyes and mental representations suggests the paradoxical nature of sight, which arises precisely out of one’s subjective mind, with which one represents objects and events in the world to feed spectacles into the visual experience. Even so, one shall recognize that the hegemony of sight is but an illusion, the indulgence of which will push one into the abyss of suffering.
The curse of sight is ended, though only momentarily, by yet another sight. “Look up just a moment at the sky,” Kadmos asks Agaue, “is it the same, or did it seem to change?” (Euripides 1425-7). Looking up at the sky, the place from where the gods look down, is accorded a therapeutic function. The very simplicity of both the mere act of seeing itself and the object of seeing (the sky), though shortly almost drives Agaue into despair, brings the deserved affirmation to everything previously unrecognized, unbelieved, and unseen. The act drags Agaue back to reality and helps her regain her sense of self. She finally takes back control of the execution of her action. Sight constructs one’s reality only when one’s subjectivity is assured, which in turn requires seeing with the mind, so as to escape the hegemonic control of sight. Seeing with her mind, Agaue only sees “the greatest grief” of herself holding Pentheus’s head in her hands (Euripides 1443). However, just as Nietzsche affirms, suffering is the “sole foundation of the world” (25). The only way to live meaningfully is to live in accordance with suffering that necessarily adheres to individual experience. In the face of imminent death, Pentheus is finally able to see the divine power of Dionysos for what it truly is — he cries out to Aguae: “Have pity on me, Mother! Don’t kill me for my wrongdoing!” But it has already been too late for him to learn the searing truth — that “it’s not much toil to look” (Euripides 1440). It’s not much toil to look if one is willing to look with the inner eyes.
The visual experience described in Bakkhai shows the fundamental difference between what is present to the external senses and what is represented in mind. The play provides evidence for the danger of having faith in the visual information one accesses immediately and emphasizes the significance of maintaining “self” in seeing and the subsequent action-guiding. The appreciation and judgment of things based purely on the perceived spectacle without internal deliberation are equal to the loss of self and could be problematic and even fatal. In this way, Bakkhai serves as a critique of ocularcentrism: the “vision-generated, vision-centered interpretation of knowledge, truth, and reality” is not as plausible as one thinks.
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