The Drunken Silenus | Morgan Meis

The Drunken Silenus

The following is an excerpt from The Drunken Silenus by Morgan Meis. It’s a featured Speakeasy selection, and there are still limited review copies available for qualified reviewers.

I have come to believe that Rubens loved Silenus. He loved the old man, the drunken stumbler with his giant, though structurally dubious knees. That is the secret. Rubens painted his picture with sympathy, with understanding, and with love. That is the primary difference between Nietzsche and Rubens. Nietzsche saw the truth of Silenus but he saw it as a hard truth, a truth that should make one hard. Nietzsche saw Silenus in terms of his solitary and self-enclosed hardness. ….

Silenus, Nietzsche thought, shows us life as a sheer expression of itself and nothing more, nothing less. Life screams out, and then is extinguished. This screaming out can be grand or pathetic, but to embrace it as such is to exist beyond good and evil. …. We fear the pure expression of life in its drive and in its pulsing need simply to be. We throw words over it, categories, judgments. We make up concepts like good and evil and then pretend that they mean something. All the while, life is seething up from its source and bursting forth and then dying away. A scream in the wilderness. A scream, a tussle, a death. Again and again. … And Nietzsche looked to Silenus as the carrier of that truth, the truth of life beyond good and evil. The cry that goes up from the deepest glade in the forest, one beast falling upon another. The silence that echoes in the depths of the forest. Nothingness. And then strength out of that nothingness. ….

But Rubens didn’t see it that way. Rubens felt pity for Silenus and out of that pity came understanding. He felt pity and he felt it as a fellow sufferer. He saw a fellow sufferer and he began to love him. He began to love Silenus because there is nothing heroic in Silenus, actually. Rubens could not entertain Nietzsche’s idea that Silenus makes us strong, that he was strong, that Silenus gives us access to the strength of Being in the acceptance of life as the discharge of power. Rubens never saw in Silenus a figure of strength in that way. Instead, he saw a figure that he could begin to love. Nietzsche was not capable of seeing Silenus that way because he was not capable of love.

Can we admit that, in reading Nietzsche, in spending a lifetime of reading Nietzsche, the thought suddenly springs to mind, “This man is incapable of love”? Or, at the very least, that he wanted to extinguish love, that he worked as hard as he possibly could to protect himself from the danger that is love. The idea that he could have uncovered the truth of Silenus and that this would have made him pity the figure of Silenus and then to love him would have seemed, to Nietzsche, the very antithesis of the truth the Greeks had discovered. Tragedy, Nietzsche would have objected, most assuredly has nothing to do with love.

Perhaps not. Perhaps Nietzsche was right about that, that there was no room for love in the initial impetus to tragedy.

The Greeks uncovered something vital, some vital force that connects us to real life and then we want to blunt that vital force with absurd discussions of love? … Silenus is a truth with which you can smash through the lies and return to something vital, he would have thought. You don’t take a powerful force like Silenus and use him as a vehicle for pity. You most assuredly do not transform admiration for the great and harsh laughter of Silenus into a love of him. What right have you to love Silenus, Nietzsche might have asked us, fuming and incredulous. What right have you to dare to love Silenus? Silenus has revealed to you that the best thing for you, and for every human being is never to have been born, and having been born, to die as quickly as possible. That is the most honest answer to a question about life that has ever been given in the history of the world, Nietzsche would have said. And you respond with pity and then love? Nietzsche would not have been pleased by that idea. Nietzsche, terrified by love, would have been incredulous and quite possibly very angry. He was given to fits of anger.

Rubens, however, a man who came to the same truth of Silenus upon which Nietzsche later stumbled, did not hesitate in feeling pity for Silenus and then feeling love for Silenus. …. Silenus is not only stumbling around in the painting but stumbling around as if he will come careening out of the painting. He isn’t stable inside the scene. He isn’t even stable within the painting. He’s coming out of there, maybe. In fact, the pinch Silenus is getting from the one black satyr may be a send-off. The satyr is holding Silenus by the upper bicep with one hand and pinching him with the other. Presumably, when the satyr lets go (is he going to let go right after the pinch?) that will be it for any semblance of stability, and Silenus will really tumble forward. Perhaps that will give him the extra momentum he needs to penetrate the boundary of the painting. The pinch gooses him up for one powerful final lurch, the downward slope of the painting spills everything to the bottom right corner. With the pinch and the release, the satyr is giving Silenus the final impetus that he needs to erase the impermeability of the line between the painting and the reality of the world in which the painting resides as a painting.

Silenus is coming. Silenus comes. There will be a great incarnation.

Praise for The Drunken Silenus

“Morgan Meis brings an improvisational daring to his spiraling reflections on some imperishable philosophic questions. He moves—easily, dazzlingly—between the art of Rubens, the writings of Nietzsche, and the enigmas of Greek mythology. Everywhere he turns, he finds himself wrestling with what he calls ‘the troubles of finitude.’ The Drunken Silenus is a wild, wrenching rollercoaster ride of a book.”
Jed Perl, Professor of Liberal Studies, The New School

“Morgan Meis is a treasure: always smart, shrewd, surprising, and seductive. The Drunken Silenus is about Silenus, of course, and about drinking, about Rubens, about the sixteenth century, about art, about life—and mostly about why we should care about any of these things.”
David Scott Kastan, George M. Bodman Professor of English, Yale University

“What would ‘alive’ look like if we weren’t so hell bent on ‘survival,’ and damn the torpedoes, the global warming, and the plagues? From a single Dutch painting, brilliantly and disturbingly, Morgan Meis unfurls the tragedy and the yearning that coats every surface of ‘civilization,’ because if something is deep and foundational, like gravity, it must be everywhere. This earthy, drunken, painful beauty of a book will make you bleat for a better logic of coexistence.”
Timothy Morton, author of Being Ecological

About the Author

Morgan MeisEssayist and critic Morgan Meis writes about art and culture for newspapers and magazines including The New YorkerHarper’sn+1SlateVirginia Quarterly Review, and The Believer, and was the critic-at-large for The Smart Set, an arts magazine at Drexel University. A co-founder of the arts collective Flux Factory, he is also an editor at 3 Quarks Daily. He holds an MA and a PhD from the New School and a BA from Eugene Lang College, where he has also taught philosophy. He is the recipient of a Creative Capital/Warhol Foundation Arts Writers grant and a Whiting Award in Nonfiction. He currently teaches contemporary art and philosophy at the College for Creative Studies in Detroit.

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