The Drunken Silenus is a book that is as hard to categorize as it is to put down—an enlightening and mesmerizing blend of philosophy, history, and art criticism. Morgan Meis begins simply enough, with a painting by the Baroque master Peter Paul Rubens of the figure from Greek mythology who is mentor to Dionysus, god of wine and excess of every kind.
We learn who this obscure, minor god is—why he must attend on the god who dies and must be re-born and educated all over again—and why Rubens depicted him not as a character out of a farce, but as one whose plight evokes pity and compassion.
The narrative spirals out from there, taking in the history of Antwerp, bloody seventeenth century religious wars, tales of Rubens’s father’s near-execution for sleeping with William of Orange’s wife, Nietzsche’s Birth of Tragedy and the impossibility of there being any meaning to human life, and the destruction of all civilization by nefarious forces within ourselves.
All of this is conveyed in language that crackles with intelligence, wit, and dark humor—a voice that at times sounds a bit tipsy and garrulous, but which ultimately asks us to confront the deepest questions of meaning, purpose, and hope in the face of death and tragedy.
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