Stefan Zweig: The Daemon, Creativity, and Destruction

Everyone, at certain periods in their life, experiences times of unrest and discontent; occasions when normal everyday human existence appears inadequate, even insignificant. In these periods one may become aware of an underlying energetic force urging one to renounce the trivial and mundane, and to seek a higher, more dangerous form of existence.

In his brilliant work, The Struggle with the Daemon: Hölderlin, Kleist and Nietzsche, the 20th century thinker Stefan Zweig termed this energetic force “the daemonic”:

“I term “daemonic” the unrest that is in us all, driving each of us out of himself into the elemental…The daemon is the incorporation of that tormenting leaven which impels our being (otherwise quiet and almost inert) towards danger, immoderation, ecstasy, renunciation and even self-destruction…Whatever strives to transcend the narrower boundaries of self, o’erleaping immediate personal interests to seek adventures in the dangerous realm of enquiry, is the outcome of the daemonic constituent of our being.” (Zweig, The Struggle with the Daemon)

Zweig proposed the daemon to be a powerful and creative force present in every person. In any activity or creation which seems to transcend the normal everyday existence of humans, the daemon is the underlying force, driving the individual to push the limits of what is possible and to seek new terrains of experience. Yet in most people, the daemon is not celebrated nor active, but instead repressed and blanketed. This is because the daemon is not a friendly adversary who brings glad tidings and comfort, but a menace – an expression of chaos that can lead to wild heights of being and creation as well as self-destruction. The average individual renounces the daemon within, for it is a force which will overpower and overwhelm one in whom it is allowed free reign:

“But in those of common clay, this factor of our composition which is both precious and perilous [i.e., the daemonic] proves comparatively ineffective, is speedily absorbed and consumed. In such persons only at rare moments, during the crises of puberty or when, through love or the generative impulse, the inward cosmos is heated to boiling point, does the longing to escape from the familiar groove, to renounce the trite and the commonplace, exert its mysterious sway. At other times the average man keeps a tight hand on any stirrings of the Faustian impulse, chloroforming it with the dicta of conventional morality, numbing it with work, restraining its wild waters behind the dams of the established order. By temperament and training the humdrum citizen is an inveterate enemy of the chaotic, not only in the outer world, but in himself as well.” (Zweig, The Struggle with the Daemon)

While the majority repress and deny the daemonic within, for a select few individuals, allowing the daemon to express itself is a necessary requirement of life. Three such individuals, who Zweig discusses in his book are the poets Friedrich Holderlin and Heinrich von Kleist, and the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche. All three individuals, by virtue of the daemonic, produced sublime creative works, and reached peaks of experience whereby they felt as if they had achieved a god-like state. Yet these moments were interspersed with periods of destruction and doom, for the daemon at its core is chaos itself:

1920px-John_Martin_-_The_Great_Day_of_His_Wrath_-_Google_Art_Project“But the daemon is not a friendly and helpful power unless we can hold him in leash, can use him to promote a wholesome tension and to assist us on our upward path. He becomes a menace when the tension he fosters is excessive, and when the mind is a prey to the rebellious and volcanically eruptive urge of the daemonic. For the daemon cannot make his way back to the infinite which is his home except by ruthlessly destroying the finite and the earthly which restrains him, by destroying the body wherein, for a season, he is housed. He works, as with a lever, to promote expansion, but threatens in so doing to shatter the tenement. That is why those of an exceptionally “daemonic temperament”, those who cannot early and thoroughly subdue the daemon within them, are racked by disquietude. Ever and again the daemon snatches the helm from their control and steers them (helpless as straws in the blast) into the heart of the storm, perchance to shatter them on the rocks of destiny. Restlessness of the blood, the nerves, the mind, is always the herald of the daemonic tempest…The daemonic bodes danger, carries with it an atmosphere of tragedy, breathes doom.” (Zweig, The Struggle with the Daemon)

The Struggle with the Daemon: Hölderlin, Kleist and Nietzsche is a brilliant work, and Zweig an unheralded genius himself. Through psychological analysis, Zweig lights up the mind of the creative genius who sacrifices himself in the service of ideas, even to his own self-destruction.

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