Disclaimer: plot spoilers below and I don’t know anything about the original swan lake. I am talking about Aronofsky’s interpretation of swan lake when I discuss the characters.

I watched Black Swan, and while it’s not the best of Aronofsky’s movies, it is certainly thought provoking. A technically accompished but meek ballet dancer, Nina, is cast as the Swan Queen. This requires the ability to dance two roles: the white swan and the black swan. While she can perform the white swan brilliantly, she has difficulty “losing control” to portray the sultry black swan. The film is primarily about her preparation and opening night to dance as the Swan Queen. The style of the movie is psychological/thriller/horror as she battles with her over protective mother, her paranoia about potential rivals for the role and anxiety about her body.

The roles of the white and black swans are mirrored by the concept of Apollonian and Dionysian aesthetics. The Apollonian artistic impulse is for plastic (visual) beauty, perfection, rationality, goodness. The Dionysian impulse is for instinct, earthly experiences, chaos, intoxication, the orgiastic. Usually, artistic works contain elements of both, since these are two aesthetic extremes and are not mutually exclusive. Nietzsche explored these two standards in The Birth of Tragedy, 1872 and argued that Greek tragedy formerly contained a synthesis for these traits, but this gave way to Apollonian impulse dominating. This change reflected a shift in Greek culture, which also gave rise to Socratic and Platonic philosophy, and move away from the earlier Greek philosophers such as Heraclitus.

My problem with Black Swan is, while Nina attempts to connect with the Dionysian, it is both pretty tame and also filled with either regret or fear. The tameness is partly her actions are almost always socially acceptable and common place – drinking, arguing with her mother, taking drugs once, staying up late, arguing with rivals, masturbating and incinerating her soft toys. Her more extreme actions of sex and murder are revealed to be dreams or hallucination and are basically nightmarish. Critically, she never is seen really throwing herself into these activities without regard for consequences. She is always worrying about how it will compromise herself or make herself imperfect. But this is central to the Dionysian – it is done with a good conscience. If you can imagine combining sexuality with innocence and joy: that is a step towards the Dionysian. The point of the Black Swan character is she seduces the prince in order to destroy the white swan – and enjoys doing it! At no point does the Black Swan regret her actions and neither should Nina, if she actually had an experience that informed her about that character.

Another problem with her coming to understand the Black Swan character is her increasing mental health problems. At no point is insanity linked with the traits of the Black Swan. In the movie, all instincts are self-destructive (although artistically useful). When the previous star walks into traffic, it is a “dark” impulse. The Dionysian is not madness and self annihilation, but rather raw instinct of both darkness and light. However, her mental problems are linked with her metamorphosis into the character (by her sensation of sprouting wings) but are actually contrary to what the Black Swan character needs… unless we subscribe to the view that evil is only a form of insanity.

A final objection: the movie is very predictable. I didn’t have any serious doubt that she would perform the role at the finale of the movie. However, the film was well executed and watchable. As a “walk on the wild side”, it fell flat. Some other movie examples in which a character explores the Dionysian:

Apocalypse Now – of course! The characters are struggling with “good” and “evil”, rationality and instinct, but the battle occurs within a person. Captain Willard is shown to have serious issues in the first scene but he can keep these thoughts to himself and can still function as a soldier. He is sent on a mission to “terminate the command” of Kurtz, who is said to be operating with “unsound methods”. Kurtz, or the jungle itself, represents the Dionysian in letting its instincts totally overcome social norms and rationality. And when Willard and Kurtz finally meet, Willard finds himself on the same path as Kurtz.

Willard: [voice-over] “Never get out of the boat.” Absolutely goddamn right! Unless you were goin’ all the way… Kurtz got off the boat. He split from the whole fuckin’ program.

Fight Club A perfectionist, consumerist office drone rebels against the system with the help of a new friend, Tyler Durden. Although Tyler is in many ways Dionysian, he is also committed to self destruction. This is more of an act of rebellion and in that way he is not Dionysian but more anti-Apollonian.

Tyler Durden: Fuck off with your sofa units and strine green stripe patterns, I say never be complete, I say stop being perfect, I say let… lets evolve, let the chips fall where they may.

Collateral, A perfectionist taxi driver, Max, is forced to drive a hit man, Vincent, around Los Angeles. Vincent explains his views on personal development by adaptation. Max has to become more like Vincent in order to survive…

Vincent: Now we gotta make the best of it, improvise, adapt to the environment, Darwin, shit happens, I Ching, whatever man, we gotta roll with it.
Max: I Ching? What are you talking about, man? You threw a man out of a window.

American Beauty – the Burnham family has the public appearance of perfection but they are privately miserable. Each family member begins to rebel against conformity and perfection and act more on emotional and instinctive drives.

Carolyn Burnham: Uh, whose car is that out front?
Lester Burnham: Mine. 1970 Pontiac Firebird. The car I’ve always wanted and now I have it. I rule!

And other films and TV touch on related themes: A Clockwork Orange (Alex is brain washed to stop being Dionysian), Requiem for a Dream (Aronofsky), Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, The Brave One, Withnail and I, Lord Flashheart in Blackadder (“And always remember – if you want something, take it!”).

Anti Citizen One

Saying Yes to life even in its strangest and most painful episodes, the will to life rejoicing in its own inexhaustible vitality even as it witnesses the destruction of its greatest heros — that is what I called Dionysian […] Twilight of the Idols.