Nietzsche Would Have Loved Summer Camp.

One of Zarathustra's many songs would have made Nietzsche very happy around the campfire.

Singing one of Zarathustra’s many songs would have made Nietzsche very happy around the campfire.

Song of the day: “Bohemian Rhapsody” by Queen

Today marks the middle of the summer at North Star Camp in Hayward, Wisconsin.  This morning, over a hundred boys between the ages of eight and fifteen finished up their four-week session in the North Woods and returned home to their families.  About sixty others are spending the day with their parents, four weeks of camp under their belts elastic waistbands and another four to go.  And tomorrow afternoon, the reinforcements will arrive: over a hundred new campers to replace today’s departed for the next month.

For the first time since 2003, I am not taking part in the North Star revelries.  After five summers as a camper and six on staff it was time to move on to the next chapter of my life (that of being a struggling writer).  I miss camp, and I probably always will.  But the lessons I learned there over the past eleven years will continue to form an integral part of my personality.

I could extol the benefits of being a camp counselor for the next year, without pausing to eat or drink or sleep or go to the bathroom, and still have more to say.  Others, from Fortune 500 CEOs to education professionals, have covered that ground thoroughly.  Camp teaches grit, fosters multidimensional growth in children and teenagers, and aids in the development of leadership skills.  What they haven’t done, though, is an analysis of camp from a Nietzschean perspective.  That’s why I’m here: to tell you that he would have looked at camp and seen a paradise for the will to power.

Two summers ago, instead of telling my 13-year-old campers a made-up bedtime story or playing guitar as I usually did, I pulled out a well-worn copy of Thus Spoke Zarathustra and explained to them my rudimentary understanding of Nietzsche’s thought.  They found it fascinating, but I hadn’t yet read The Birth of Tragedy or Beyond Good and Evil or The Genealogy of Morals, so the job was far from complete.  Most crucially, I lacked a real understanding of the Apollonian and Dionysian, the two opposing forces that drive art and creation.  To fully comprehend them, I suggest you read The Birth of Tragedy, Nietzsche’s earliest significant work, but here I’ll summarize.

The Apollonian, named after Apollo–the god of order, among other things–is the impulse to create forms out of the world, while the Dionysian–named after Dionysus, who represents self-less ecstasy–is a sort of nihilistic energy that stems from the absurdity of human existence and inspires spontaneous action without care for harmony or forms.  In an ideal world or work of art (Nietzsche cites Greek Tragedy pre-Euripedes as the epitome), the two work together, with the Dionysian energy constantly being shaped by the Apollonian into a form that we can understand and then subsequently destroying that form to create a new one.  It’s helpful to think of the Apollonian as a mask and the Dionysian as sheer inspiration behind it.  Without the Apollonian, the Dionysian can’t be expressed in human language or sense, but without the Dionysian, the Apollonian remains a lifeless facade with no energy to shape into forms.

When they’re described like that, the Dionysian seems pretty horrible to behold–existentialist philosophers would spend the next century grappling with the meaninglessness and terror of life that it brings to mind.  But the Apollonian alone is just as bad.  In Nietzsche’s mind, you can’t live in denial of this world’s fundamental lack of objective meaning, morality, and values and simultaneously experience life the way it naturally happens.  So life’s goal becomes one of overcoming your tendency to let the Apollonian dominate and instead allowing the Dionysian to express itself–an impulse Nietzsche calls the will to power and an aspiration he terms the übermensch.  And at camp, the comparative absence of “real world” formations makes it much easier for this balance to be achieved.

When kids go to camp, they often leave behind home lives where their days are rigorously scheduled, where there isn’t much time or mental space for them to think and create for themselves.  When they aren’t being shepherded from school to extracurricular activities, they have access to TVs and phones that might set limits on their creative and intellectual development.  Of course, for some creative types technology has opened vast new realms of innovation–the existence of pre-teen YouTube celebrities is proof that not every kid uses a screen for zombification only–but for many others it’s just another obstacle in the way of their self-overcoming, another Apollonian form that suppresses the Dionysian impulse for absurdity and spontaneity.

At camp, though, kids enter a universe outside of their parents’ colossal shadow and the distracting, overwhelming fray of modern society, where it is nearly impossible for a child to exert independence.  All camps have rules to ensure the physical, emotional, and social safety of all campers, and most of them have some sort of schedule of activities each day.  But compared to life outside the camp bubble–and this is particularly true of overnight camps, where the bubble is more complete–social formations are less structured and free time abounds.  With the guidance of a steady, open-minded counselor, the Dionysian energy that elsewhere finds itself in chains can break loose and contribute spectacularly to the development of campers’ values and creativity.

One of my favorite examples of a camp-fueled Dionysian outburst occurred two summers ago at the lunch table.  A couple of my campers, seemingly out of nowhere, began singing a number from Les Miserables between bites of their grilled cheese sandwiches.  I don’t know how “I Dreamed a Dream” gets stuck in a thirteen-year-old boy’s head, but it apparently had happened and now we were all listening to them impersonate Susan Boyle.  Would this have occurred at their houses back in the Chicago suburbs with their parents?  As a camp counselor your interactions with parents are minimal, so for all I know they may come from families that regularly bring Broadway to their meals…but I would venture a guess that no, this was an anomaly.  I found it highly entertaining, though, and wanted to see it continue in a way that would a) not become stale and annoying after two minutes and b) involve more of the group.  So on the spot I announced, “This is now an OPERA LUNCH.  You all must SING instead of speaking.”

What followed was the most memorable lunch I will ever eat.  My campers devised melodies on the spot to ask for the milk and tell each other about their morning activities, occasionally belting out a soprano proclamation at the taste of their food or dropping down to (a pubertal approximation of) a baritone to discuss what their rest period plans would be.  Fortunately none of them were tone-deaf enough to make me regret my decision.  By the time we were clearing the table, things had progressed into full-blown a capella versions of “Defying Gravity,” “Don’t Stop Believin’,” and the obligatory grand finale: “Bohemian Rhapsody.”  There it was: the Dionysian energy of music transfigured into the Apollonian formation of a normal lunch, and the ordinary transfigured into the extraordinary.

The most important aspect of camp is this freedom to create at all times.  The moral framework and creative interests the campers have developed at home come with them, but in the context of a new community without the cloying influence of the outside world they find their potential as value-creators, if not completely unfettered then at least possessing a far-lengthened leash.  And so long as their creation remains on the side of affirming life and others’ freedom to create for themselves, there needn’t be any problems or moral issues with this type of expression.  They can come home with an appreciation for their ability to exert Dionysian power through the lens of the Apollonian (even if they don’t have those terms for it) and, hopefully, attempt to carry the lessons they’ve learned at camp into the rest of their lives.

I doubt Nietzsche considered the possibility that his thought would be applied to summer camps.  But if he could have spent four weeks at North Star, I think he would have shared my appreciation for the place.  It’s not quite Zarathustra’s mountain, and it probably preaches a little too much reliance on friendship for his liking, but overall it’s hard to find a place where the will to power can shine through more powerfully.

To all the campers who returned home today, I say, “Keep it up,” and to all the campers who remain, I say, “Make it life-affirming.”  As for me, I’ll continue to strive to make the world more like camp–a place where the Dionysian doesn’t have to be chased.



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