Nietzsche and Zapffe: Beauty, Suffering, and the Nature of Genius

Many thinkers have proposed that human beings require emotional stimulants and psychological aids to mitigate the hardships and burdens associated with existence, and to provide an energizing conviction that life has worth. Without such mechanisms, one is prone to slip into the sort of world-weariness expounded in the “wisdom of Silenus”.

“Oh, miserable ephemeral race, children of chance and suffering, why do you compel me to say to you what would be most beneficial for you not to hear? What is best of all is utterly unreachable: not to be born, not to be, to be nothing. But the second best for you is – to die soon.”

In this video we will examine the question as to why psychological mechanisms are needed to cope with existence, and discuss what some of these mechanisms are. In the latter part of the video we examine some of the consequences that arise in cases when these mechanisms fail, paying particular attention to how this relates to the creative genius.

It is often suggested, that it is not so much existence in and of itself that is difficult to bear, not merely that we are “children of chance and suffering”, but the fact that we are conscious of our troubled lot:

“Apart from the fact there is no normal standard of health, nobody has proved that man is necessarily cheerful by nature. And further, man, by the very fact of being man, of possessing consciousness, is, in comparison with the [donkey] or the crab, a diseased animal. Consciousness is a disease.” (Tragic Sense of Life, Miguel de Unamuno)

The suggestion that consciousness creates the existential crisis that the majority of people spend their life fleeing from is a common theme among a number of thinkers. In his essay “The Last Messiah”, the philosopher Peter Wessel Zapffe put forth a harrowing condemnation of consciousness as the culprit which has imposed an excessive burden on the human race.

“Whatever happened? A breach in the very unity of life, a biological paradox, an abomination, an absurdity, an exaggeration of disastrous nature. Life had overshot its target, blowing itself apart. A species had been armed too heavily – by spirit made almighty without, but equally a menace to its own well-being…

So there he stands with his visions, betrayed by the universe, in wonder and fear. The beast knew fear as well, in thunderstorms and on the lion’s claw. But man became fearful of life itself – indeed, of his very being” (Zapffe)

Some may question whether the “terrible truths” of human existence are really that terrible, or whether those who preach the tragic sense of life are merely sensitive souls prone to exaggerated claims. For if these terrible truths were really that tragic, wouldn’t more people believe in the validity of Silenus’ “wisdom”, or at the very least act upon the guidance of Emile Cioran and “retreat to a faraway corner of the world” in the realization that there is nothing to be gained in this life?

If we really are but the “children of chance and suffering” of Silenus, why, in the words of Zapffe:

“…has mankind not long ago gone extinct during great epidemics of madness? Why do only a fairly minor number of individuals perish because they fail to endure the strain of living?” (Zapffe)

Zapffe thought he had found the answer:

“Cultural history, as well as observation of ourselves and others, allow the following answer: Most people learn to save themselves by artificially limiting the content of consciousness.” (Zapffe)

Zapffe identified three psychological, or more specifically repressional mechanisms by which individuals artificially limit the content of consciousness, and protect themselves from the despair that can ensue from becoming too conscious of the tragic sense of life: isolation, anchoring, and distraction.

Zapffe defined isolation as a “fully arbitrary dismissal from consciousness of all disturbing and destructive thought and feeling”. Semi-consciously or unconsciously, individuals avoid thinking about the terrible truths of human existence, utilizing various strategies to ensure tragic insights into human existence are kept as far away from awareness as possible.

Zapffe called anchoring, which is a “fixation of points within, or construction of walls around, the liquid fray of consciousness”, “the happiest…protection against the cosmos that we ever get to know in life…” The earliest and primary anchoring point is the home and neighborhood one grows up in. As this primary anchoring point loses its efficacy over time, individuals grasp onto other anchors available to them in their personal and social life – such as one’s vocation, a political party or a religious creed. Such anchorings provide a sense of safety, familiarity, and meaning, protecting one from moods of existential disorientation and feelings of cosmic insignificance.

In distraction, a “very popular mode of protection”, “One limits attention to the critical bounds by constantly enthralling it with impression.” A quick glance at our culture of instant gratification, whereby individuals have constant access to, and constantly seek out, mindless stimuli and entertainment, confirms Zapffe’s observation that distraction is a popular means used by human beings to minimize their awareness of the tragic nature of life.

Most of the time, these mechanisms successfully fulfill their purpose of limiting the content of consciousness. The majority of people largely go through life without succumbing to extreme states of world-weariness, and with the conviction that although life is difficult, it has its victories and is ultimately worth the effort.

But what happens when these mechanisms fail? What happens when an individual becomes increasingly aware of the tragic sense of life? Is such an individual fated to live in a constant state of despair? If one looks deeply into life, is one also fated to suffer deeply?

Along with the three repressional mechanisms outlined by Zapffe, he also posited the existence of a fourth remedy against the pain of existence – that being sublimation. Sublimation differs in kind from the other three remedies in that it “is a matter of transformation rather than repression.”  Via sublimation, the individual harnesses the large amounts of energy associated with being overcome by the “pain of living”, and utilizes such energy to fashion creative works of beauty.

“Through stylistic or artistic gifts can the very pain of living at times be converted into valuable experiences. Positive impulses engage the evil and put it to their own ends, fastening onto its pictorial, dramatic, heroic, lyric or even comic aspects.” (Zapffe).

Zapffe’s mechanism of sublimation, which he called the “rarest of protective means”, is similar to Nietzsche’s advice for those “higher humans” whose disposition renders them unable to utilize the repressional mechanisms which protect the masses from world-weariness. For such higher humans, who “distinguish themselves from the lower by seeing and hearing, and thoughtfully seeing and hearing, immeasurably more” (GS), Nietzsche recommends using art as a means of revitalization from the suffering that results from looking deeply into life:

“The truly serious task of art…[is] to save the eye from gazing into the horrors of night and to deliver the subject by the healing balm of illusion from the spasms of the agitations of the will” (The Birth of Tragedy, Nietzsche).

Nietzsche considered art as such a highly effective antidote to tragic insight and the “spasms and agitations of the will” because it induces what he called “Rausch”, a German word translated as rush or intoxication. For one to create any work of beauty, or truly appreciate beauty in art or nature, one must first enter into a state of Rausch:

“For there to be art, for there to be any aesthetic doing and seeing, one physiological precondition is indispensable: Rausch. Rausch must first have enhanced the excitability of the whole machine: else there is no art.” (Twilight of the Idols, Nietzsche)

Rausch is a rare and unique state, categorized by Nietzsche as one of the more powerful of experiences possible for human beings. When an aesthetic phenomena stimulates such a state, the individual is vaulted into a higher mode of being, one characterized by power, strength, and an intoxication which mirrors the excitement of sensuality:

“Art reminds us of states of animal vigor; it is on the one hand an excess and overflow of blooming physicality into the world of images and desires; on the other, an excitation of the animal function through the images and desires of intensified life; — an enhancement of the feeling of life, a stimulant to it.” (The Will to Power, Nietzsche)

It is because beauty stimulates states of Rausch, “the feeling of increased strength and fullness”, that Nietzsche heralded art as “the great stimulus to life” for those higher humans whose tragic insight is keen and sensitive.

But what is interesting is the degree to which tragic insight into the nature of life is needed in order to stimulate states of Rausch. Could it be that the more aware one is of the terrible truths, the more one will experience the rapturous and ecstatic state of Rausch?

A look into the nature of genius will offer insight into this question. It has long been known that many geniuses throughout history, whose creative powers seem to dwell high above mere mortals, have struggled with pathological states. Seneca stated that “no genius has existed without a touch of madness’, and Aristotle claimed “Those who have become eminent in philosophy, politics, poetry, and the arts have all had tendencies toward melancholia.”. More recently Dean Keith Simonton, in his book Origins of Genius, summarized numerous studies which have established empirically a connection between psychopathological states and creativity.

Perhaps at least some of the pathological states common among geniuses is stimulated by their inability to use the repressional mechanisms outlined by Zapffe, resulting in a hyper-awareness of the “horrors of the night”. This would explain why the lives of many geniuses were constituted by periods of severe melancholy, suffering, and inactivity followed by rapturous and productive states of creativity and ectasy, i.e, Rausch.

Without access to the repressional mechanisms that keep most individuals on a relative even psychic keel day in and day out, the only way such individuals could persevere in life after spending so much time staring into the abyss, is to break free from their despair in an almost super-human state of joy and power.

Nietzsche, one such genius, spent much of his life in extreme states of suffering, writing “I am more a battlefield than a man.” He suffered physically due to his weak disposition and extreme migraines, as well as emotionally due to his self-imposed solitude, and psychologically due to his complete lack of recognition among his peers. And above all else he suffered from spending so much time “gazing into the horrors of night”; yet he also reached peaks unknown to all but a select few.

“The intensities of my feeling make me shudder and laugh; several times I could not leave the room for the ridiculous reason that my eyes were inflamed – from what? Each time, I had wept too much on my previous day’s walk, not sentimental tears but tears of joy; I sang and talked nonsense, filled with a glimpse of things which put me in advance of all other men.” (Selected Letters of Friedrich Nietzsche)

If confronting the tragedy of life opens one up to experiencing states of Rausch, maybe the majority of individuals, by utilizing repressional mechanisms to protect themselves from tragic insights, also confine themselves to a narrow range of experience, whereby the rapturous state of Rausch, the great stimulus to life, is rarely, if ever, experienced. By protecting one’s self from the terrible truths of human existence, one may also be protecting one’s self from experiencing life more fully, deeply, and joyfully. In the words of de Unamuno:

“And the supreme beauty is that of tragedy. The consciousness that everything passes away, that we ourselves pass away, and that everything that is ours and everything that environs us passes away, fills us with anguish, and this anguish itself reveals to us the consolation of that which does not pass away, of the eternal, of the beautiful.” (Tragic Sense of Life, Miguel de Unamuno)