Thomas Jefferson’s Second Birth, and the Intersections of Apollo and Dionysus


thomas jefferson

Nicodemus saith unto him, How can a man be born when he is old? can he enter the second time into his mother’s womb, and be born? (John 3:4 KJV)

I love this portrait of Thomas Jefferson. In good Neoclassical and Apollonian fashion, Jefferson at once resists our objectification of him by returning our gaze and asserting his mastery over life by a stylized second birth. This second birth is on his terms, his head lifted over the maternal fur, this time without all the Dionysian wailing and blood. Here is a man of the Enlightenment asserting his serene control of nature—and of his viewers.

Still, his not-entirely controlled hair hints that wildness, even in an Enlightenment philosophe, cannot be completely banished; that even Thomas Jefferson cannot, in any ultimate sense, prevent the return of the repressed. (So all you Apollo worshipers out there, love your Dionysian mother too.)

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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