Would Nietzsche Have Liked the New Perot Museum of Nature and Science in Dallas?

Look at this quote from Friedrich Nietzsche’s essay, “On Truth and Lying in a Non-Moral Sense” (1873). It is Nietzsche’s description of the Dionysian forces that lurk beneath our artistic and “illusory consciousness” (our Apollonian dreams of coherence and control; the nature taming and simplifying stories we tell ourselves):

What do human beings really know about themselves? Are they even capable of perceiving themselves in their entirety just once, stretched out as in an illuminated glass case? Does nature not remain silent about almost everything, even about our bodies, banishing and enclosing us within a proud, illusory consciousness, far away from the twists and turns of the bowels, the rapid flow of the blood stream and the complicated tremblings of the nerve-fibers? Nature has thrown away the key, and woe betide fateful curiosity should it ever succeed in peering through a crack in the chamber of consciousness, out and down into the depths, and thus gain an intimation of the fact that humanity, in the indifference of its ignorance, rests on the pitiless, the greedy, the insatiable, the murderous—clinging in dreams, as it were, to the back of a tiger.

Now have a look at Edward Rothstein’s recent description, in the New York Times, of the new $185 million Perot Museum of Nature and Science in Dallas. I’m struck by how similar the following paragraphs of Rothstein’s feel in tone to the Nietzsche passage. See if you agree:

[I]t is clear that you are not being led into a serene temple, where a harmonious cosmic order is going to be revealed. The building is alluring but unsettling. […] [It] is solemn with its robust abstractions and playful with its curves and striations. The architect Thom Mayne and his firm Morphosis Architects have created a structure that seems to be a manifestation of unseen forces, perhaps even reflecting processes not yet fully understood.

The effect isn’t false advertising, for within the museum’s 180,000 square feet of space and 11 exhibition halls (including a children’s museum), the visitor is led through a cosmos that can itself be dizzying: miniature worlds of systems and interactions; invocations of things known and half known; sensations, simulations and reflections; accounts of dissolution and evolution. […]

You get a sense of the world as something immense, provocatively puzzling and worth exploring more closely. Even the benches here are meant to spur thought. “It is impossible to hum with your nose plugged,” reads the cutout lettering on one. “Each year,” reads another, “the Moon moves about three centimeters away from the Earth.”

To the psyche, a nature museum done right is a dangerous and disruptive thing. I especially like that last paragraph. Even as you’re settling onto a bench with that most Dionysian part of yourself–your ass with its anus mouth daily vomiting shit and burping foul smells from the snake of your colon–you’re being harassed yet still more from below by bits of information staring up at you that are difficult to make sense of and integrate into a meaningful whole. Like Alice entering Wonderland, the Perot museum seems designed to evoke Apollonian-Dionysian tensions and pleasures in the psyche; to challenge coherence and imagination; and even to tempt weak visitors to shut down altogether with cognitive dissonance, bewilderment, and repression.

It sounds like an exhausting experience, working your every nerve. Nietzsche, I think, would have loved the Perot Museum for exactly this reason.

Curious to visit? The Perot Museum of Nature and Science is in Victory Park. Here’s the number–214-428-5555–and here’s the website: perotmuseum.org.

About Santi Tafarella

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