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Nietzsche and Madness – A Descent into the Depths

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The following is a transcript of this video.

In January of 1889, the great German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche went mad. One year later, Nietzsche’s friend Peter Gast visited him in a mental asylum in Jena. He wrote the following: 

“He did not look very ill…I believe Nietzsche would be just about as grateful to his rescuers as somebody who has jumped into the water to drown himself and has been pulled out by some fool of a coastguard. I have seen Nietzsche in states in which he seemed – horrible to say – as though he were only pretending to be mad, as though he were glad to have ended this way!” 

Peter Gast, The Madness of Nietzsche by Erich Podach

In this video, drawing from Nietzsche’s writings, letters, and reports from family and friends, we are going to explore the fascinating, but ultimately unanswerable, question: Why did Nietzsche go mad? 

“I undertook something that not everyone may undertake: I descended into the depths, I bored into the foundations.”

Nietzsche, The Dawn of Day

The human being has traveled to the ends of the earth, dived into the depths of the sea, shot himself into outer space, and yet the human mind remains a frontier few dare to explore. For the danger of descending into these depths is madness, as the mind contains wondrous surprises, but also dark and deceptive abysses. Furthermore, in the remote reaches of the mind there are no maps, no markers, no technological helpers, and no guides one can follow. One must go it alone. For all but the most courageous adventurers, it is much more prudent to remain at the mind’s surface. 

“Whoever looks into himself as into an enormous world space and carries galaxies within him, he knows how irregular all galaxies are: they lead right into the chaos and labyrinth of existence.”  

Nietzsche, The Gay Science

Nietzsche was one adventurer willing to endure the risks that accompany a descent into the depths of the mind and his explorations yielded remarkable discoveries. Sigmund Freud went so far as to remark that “Nietzsche developed more penetrating knowledge of himself than any other man who ever lived, or is likely to live.” (Sigmund Freud, Ernst Jones: The Life and Work of Sigmund Freud) Yet suddenly, at the age of 45, his introspective explorations ended in madness, an occurrence Nietzsche seemed to have predicted. In 1881, 8 years before his final break, Nietzsche wrote in a letter to a friend: 

“…at times a premonition runs through my head that I am actually living a very dangerous life, since I am one of those machines that may explode.”  

Nietzsche, The Selected Letters of Friedrich Nietzsche

As the sun was setting on 1888, Nietzsche was staying in Turin as a guest in the home of a prominent family, and it was at this time his behaviour took a fateful turn. In late November, while sauntering through the streets, Nietzsche reported increasing difficulty hiding his laughter and controlling his intense fits of glee.

“…my face was making continual grimaces in order to try to control my extreme pleasure, including, for 10 minutes, the grimace of tears.”

Nietzsche, The Selected Letters of Friedrich Nietzsche

Throughout the month of December, his letters were no longer signed off with the name “Friedrich Nietzsche”, but with the name “Dionysus”, “Nietzsche-Caesar”, or else “the Crucified”. In the period between Christmas and New Year, the guests in the house where Nietzsche was staying reported that for three days and nights Nietzsche remained locked in his room and, while naked, improvised on the piano, and sang and danced like a wild man possessed, in what appeared to be a one-man re-creation of a Dionysian festival. On January 3, 1889 while in the streets of Turin, upon witnessing a horse being whipped by its coachman, Nietzsche wrapped his arms around the horse, collapsed and passed out, and it is this event that many point to as signifying his break into madness. Over the next few days Nietzsche re-gained enough lucidity to write a few strange but beautiful letters to friends and family. And on January 7 of 1889 Nietzsche’s closest acquaintance Franz Overbeck arrived in Turin to bring Nietzsche home and days later Overbeck reported that Nietzsche was: 

“…entirely in his deranged world from which, in my presence, he never emerged again. Quite clear about who I and other people were, he was in darkness about himself…In ever more intense attacks of singing and crashing about on the piano, he came forth with fragments of the world of thought he had recently inhabited. Sometimes, in a whisper, he produced sentences of wonderful luminosity. But also uttered terrible things about himself as the successor of the now-dead God, the whole performance continually punctuated on the piano…” 

What happened to Nietzsche? The most common explanation is he suffered from “general paresis of the insane”, that is, dementia caused by neurosyphilis. In the early 20th century, the German ethnologist Erich Podach sent Nietzsche’s medical records to a handful of eminent doctors, and after receiving their diagnosis he concluded: 

“There is no evidence of such a [syphilitic] infection…In all probability there can be no definite verdict on the matter because of the inadequacy of the data.”

Erich Podach, The Madness of Nietzsche

More recently, the philosopher Julian Young noted that the symptoms of neurosyphilis are not consistent with Nietzsche’s condition. In 2003, Dr. Lenoard Sax, noting the weakness of the syphilis explanation, proposed that Nietzsche’s madness was the result of a slow developing tumor on the right optic nerve of his brain. While plausible, Julian Young again notes some weaknesses in the tumour explanation, specifically the lack of evidence in the many photos of Nietzsche to show any swelling or alterations in the size or shape of his eye and pupil, and so he concludes: 

“It seems, then, that Sax’s brain tumour diagnosis is no more likely to be true than the syphilis story. Because the theoretical possibility of exhuming Nietzsche’s body and performing an autopsy using the latest medical technology will never be realised, we will never know for certain whether his mental condition was caused by an underlying physical pathology. Nonetheless, the most plausible conclusion appears to be that Nietzsche’s madness was, in fact, a purely psychological condition.” 

Julian Young, Nietzsche: A Biography

If Nietzsche’s madness was psychogenic in origin, the most obvious line of investigation to follow is the possibility that he lost himself in his explorations of the unconscious. But before we follow this thread of thought, we must answer the question: if Nietzsche was aware that his explorations in the depths could end in madness, why did he take the descent? For an answer, we can turn to a passage from his book, The Gay Science: 

“It is great pain only, the long slow pain which takes time, in which we are, as it were, burned with smoldering green firewood – that compels us to descend into our ultimate depths…” 

Nietzsche, The Gay Science

Nietzsche suffered great pain, and this suffering impelled him to dive into the depths of his mind. The descent he took, in other words, was out of necessity, it was not a choice.  

“At every age of my life, suffering, monstrous suffering, was my lot.” (Nietzsche, Quoted in Struggle with the Daemon) 

At the age of 14 he began to experience: 

“Harrowing episodes of headaches with vomiting and extreme eye ache [that lasted] as long as a whole week during which he had to lie in a darkened room with the curtains drawn. The slightest light hurt his eyes. Reading, writing, and even sustained coherent thought were out of the question.” 

Sue Prideaux, I Am Dynamite!

At the age of 26, he contracted dysentery and diphtheria. The medicine he was given ruined his intestines, and so Nietzsche started to experiment with drugs that temporarily alleviated his pain, yet provoked further underlying physical damage. His various ailments made it impossible at times to eat or sleep, so he turned to chloral hydrate, a powerful sedative, in the hopes of securing some sort of relief. Yet as Sue Prideaux notes in her biography on Nietzsche: 

“Incorrect doses of this drug produce nausea, vomiting, hallucinations, confusion, convulsions, breathing and heart irregularities: all the symptoms, in fact, that Nietzsche was taking it to relieve.” (I am Dynamite) 

Sue Prideaux, I Am Dynamite!

In December of 1875, Nietzsche wrote a letter to Erwin Rohde reporting that his physical ailments were worsening and taking an increasing toll on his sanity. 

“Every two or three weeks I spend about thirty-six hours in bed, in real torment…this winter is the worst there has been…It is such a strain getting through the day that, by evening, there is no pleasure left in life and I really am surprised how difficult living is. It does not seem to be worth it, all this torment…” 

Nietzsche, The Selected Letters of Friedrich Nietzsche

Six years later, his tormenting physical agony remained: 

“Pain is vanquishing my life and my will.” He wrote in a letter. “What months, what a summer I have had! My physical agonies were as many and various as the changes I have seen in the sky. In every cloud there is some form of electric charge which grips me suddenly and reduces me to complete misery. Five times I have called for Doctor Death, and yesterday I hoped it was the end — in vain.”

Nietzsche, The Selected Letters of Friedrich Nietzsche

Nietzsche did not, however, allow his physical agony to get in the way of his writing. He used it as motivation to become more prolific. For as his condition worsened, he grew ever more concerned that an early death would prevent him from achieving his philosophical goals. 

“My father died at the age of 36 from an inflammation of the brain, and it is possible that with me it will go even faster.”

Nietzsche, The Selected Letters of Friedrich Nietzsche

One can imagine Nietzsche, sitting at his desk, alone with his Muse, heroically enduring grave bouts of nausea and vomiting, ferocious migraines, blindness and visual hallucinations, all the while spending “ten hours at a stretch over his writing table” (Stefan Zweig, The Struggle with the Daemon), penning arguably the most profound works of philosophy in history. But his heroism did not win him widespread admiration and acclaim. Instead, his books – his self-proclaimed “gifts to mankind” – were met by his contemporaries with deathly silence, or else derision. 

“Though I am in my forty-fifth year and have published about fifteen books…there has not yet been a single even moderately reputable review of any one of my books. People help themselves out now with the phrases “eccentric,” “pathological,” “psychiatric”.” 

Nietzsche, The Selected Letters of Friedrich Nietzsche

A year before his collapse he wrote in a letter: 

“It hurts me frightfully that in these fifteen years not one single person has ‘discovered’ me, has needed me, has loved me.” 

Nietzsche, The Selected Letters of Friedrich Nietzsche

To add insult to injury, his attempts at close friendship, love, and intimacy failed miserably. 

“How rarely a friendly voice reaches me! I’m now alone, absurdly alone…And for years not a word of comfort, not a drop of feeling, not a breath of love.”

Nietzsche, The Selected Letters of Friedrich Nietzsche

He had a brief fling with Lou Salome, a philosopher in her own right, to whom he wrote: “I don’t want to be lonely anymore and wish to rediscover how to be human.” She coldly rejected his marriage proposal, however, and left him feeling even more lonely than before. Lamenting over his growing isolation, Nietzsche penned the following words to Franz Overbeck in 1886: 

“It has been ten years already: not a sound reaches me any longer – a land without rain…If only I could give you some idea of my feeling of isolation. Neither among the living nor the dead is there anyone with whom I feel any kinship. This is inexpressibly horrible.” 

Nietzsche, The Selected Letters of Friedrich Nietzsche

His critical physical condition, his lack of recognition and the horrible loneliness which plagued him, formed the great pain that compelled Nietzsche to descend into his ultimate depths, in search of what he referred to in a letter as “the philosopher’s stone”. The philosopher’s stone is a mythical alchemical substance that has the power to turn base metals into gold, yet it is also an age-old symbol which points to a power hidden in the depths of the unconscious which Carl Jung called the “treasure hard to attain”. 

“In psychological terms…the “treasure hard to attain” lies hidden in the ocean of the unconscious, and only the brave can reach it. This symbol points to one of life’s secrets which is expressed in countless symbolical ways in mythology.”

Carl Jung, Symbols of Transformation

The “treasure hard to attain” is the power of psychological rebirth and renewal, the holy grail of life which humans have sought and yearned for since the beginning of time. Nietzsche descended into his unconscious in search of this rare psychological treasure; he needed the power to transform his great pain into gold – into a newfound great health and affirmation of life. But Nietzsche knew that to attain this power he would have to contend with the perilous forces of the unconscious which threaten to engulf the conscious mind in its labyrinthine depths. This danger has been expressed symbolically in countless myths throughout the ages, one of which is the ancient Greek myth of Theseus: 

“…who descended into Hades and grew fast to the rocks of the underworld, which is to say that the conscious mind, advancing into the unknown regions of the psyche, is overpowered by the archaic forces of the unconscious.”

Carl Jung, Psychology and Alchemy

But Nietzsche also knew that if he failed to find the treasure of rebirth and renewal in the depths of his unconscious, his great pain would drive him mad. Danger enveloped him on all sides. Years before his break into madness he wrote a letter to Franz Overbeck: 

“The curious danger of the summer is – not to mince words – insanity…It could come to something that I have never thought possible in my case: that I should become mentally deranged…my drives and aims have become totally confused and labyrinthine, so that I no longer know how to find my way out.” 

Nietzsche, The Selected Letters of Friedrich Nietzsche

In another letter to Overbeck from 1882 he explained: 

“Unless I discover the alchemists’ trick of turning this filth into gold, I am lost.”

Nietzsche, The Selected Letters of Friedrich Nietzsche

In the next video we are going to explore whether Nietzsche lost himself in his descent into the depths, or whether he in fact found the treasure hard to attain, and faked madness.  


Some of the Art used in this video is by Remedios Varo –

Portrait of Nietzsche by Hadi Karimi

Further Readings

Art Used in this Video

Maître des Cassoni Campana - La légende crétoise en quatre compositions (détail Labyrinthe) - 1500-1525
Logarhitmic radial photo of the universe by pablo budassi 9MFK
Friedrich Nietzsche drawn by Hans Olde
The Triumph of Bacchus and Ariadne - Annibale Carracci - 1597 - Farnese Gallery, Rome
Friederich Nietzsche
Edvard Munch - Friedrich Nietzsche - MM.M.00254 - Munch Museum
Caspar David Friedrich - Felsenriff am Meeresstrand (1824)
Joseph Wright of Derby The Alchemist
Frederick J. Waugh - The Knight of the Holy Grail - 1912.5.1 - Smithsonian American Art Museum
Gustave Doré - Dante et Virgile dans le neuvième cercle de l'Enfer
Edward Burne-Jones - Tile Design - Theseus and the Minotaur in the Labyrinth - Google Art Project
Postkort av Theodor Kittelsen (13625854864)