Why did Dionysus so capture the imagination of Nietzsche and Deleuze after him? Dionysus, the god of wine, has blood that intoxicates, a reverse Eucharist suitable for the Anti-Christ (“Dionysian intoxication opposed to Christian intoxication”). Too much art, Deleuze complained, has looked to the Mass as a model “for the dreamed-of theater—the Mass, not the mystery of Dionysus” (N&P 33), who is the god of the theater. Indeed, his name marked the Athenian theater on the slopes of the Acropolis where tragedies (such as Euripides’s Bacchae) were performed during the City Dionysia theater festival.
Further, Dionysus was unique in the Greek pantheon, in that he was the only god whose cult was perpetually rejected by humans. In the opening of Bacchae, Dionysus relates the action that has lead up to that moment: he undertook his journey east through “all of Asia” (15) for the purpose of spreading his cult—what other god had to do that?—and gathering a band of mostly female followers (the Bacchae or maenads). He has returned to Thebes, the site of his conception, which resulted from the affair between Zeus and the human woman Semelê. Yet Dionysus finds in Thebes that his deceased mother is slandered as a liar concerning her relations with Zeus, her sisters disdain her, and her nephew Pentheus, the king of Thebes, refuses to have anything to do with the “contrived” Bacchic cult (215).
Thus, Dionysus is “the persecuted god, the suffering and dying god, and all whom he loved, all who attended him, had to share his tragic fate.” The similarity of this suffering and dying god to Christ was not lost on Christian readers. In fact, in medieval Byzantium, an anonymous author composed Christus Patiens, a meditation that incorporated into its description of Christ many verses from Bacchae concerning Dionysus.
What is unlike Christ is the propensity of Dionysius to work bloody revenge on all those who oppose them, and even on those who follow him. Pentheus is drawn into Dionysian mania, dresses himself as a woman, and goes off to spy on the Bacchae. Yet, he is betrayed by Dionysus and torn to pieces by his mother, Agave, and her sisters, who think he is a lion while they are under the Dionysian spell.
The misrecognition of Pentheus is of a piece with the Dionysian dramatic talent for masking and metamorphosis. “Behind the masks, therefore, are further masks, and even the most hidden is still a hiding place, and so on to infinity” (D&R 106). Is Pentheus the king? Or is he really his role, a woman participating in the mania of the Bacchic women? Or, is he the lion? There is no ultimate answer to this question for Deleuze. “The modern world is one of simulacra . . . All identities are only simulated, produced as an optical ‘effect’ by the more profound game” of being (D&R xix). There are only masks under masks, roles without actors.
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