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What Happened to Nietzsche? – Madness and the Divine Mania

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The following is a transcript of this video.

Referring to the individual who descends into the depths of the mind, Nietzsche wrote: 

“He enters a labyrinth, and multiplies a thousandfold the dangers that life in itself brings with it – of which not the least is that nobody can see how and where he loses his way, becomes solitary, and is torn to pieces by some cave-minotaur of conscience.” 

Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil

In the first video of this 2 part series, we explored the possibility that Nietzsche’s madness was psychological in origin and not caused by any disease or damage to the brain. We then investigated the idea that it was Nietzsche’s great suffering which compelled him to descend into his unconscious in search of what Carl Jung called “the treasure hard to attain”; that is, the powers of psychological rebirth and renewal. And we noted that in such a descent there is the possibility of the conscious mind losing itself, and madness ensuing. 

“In the darkness of the unconscious a treasure lies hidden, the… “treasure hard to attain”…the fight against the paralyzing grip of the unconscious calls forth man’s creative powers…it needs heroic courage to do battle with these forces and to wrest from them the treasure hard to attain. Whoever succeeds in this has triumphed indeed.”

Carl Jung, Symbols of Transformation

In this video, we are going to explore whether Nietzsche’s alleged madness was the result of losing himself in his explorations of the unconscious, or whether he found the treasure of rebirth and renewal, and attained a state of great health. 

To gather some preliminary insights into the nature of Nietzsche’s psychological state we can turn to the ideas of Carl Jung. For Jung was familiar with the dangers of descending into the depths. At the age of 38, through a technique he termed “active imagination”, Jung underwent what he called a “voluntary confrontation with the contents of the unconscious”, and as he wrote: 

“I was sitting at my desk…thinking over my fears. Then I let myself drop. Suddenly it was as though the ground literally gave way at my feet, and I plunged down into dark depths.” 

Carl Jung, Memories, Dreams, Reflections

Jung recorded his confrontations with the unconscious in what are known as the Red Book and Black Books, and as he noted, the fear that he was “menaced with a psychosis” was a recurrent companion.  

“I stood helpless before an alien world; everything in it seemed difficult and incomprehensible. I was living in a constant state of tension; often I felt as if gigantic blocks of stone were tumbling down upon me.”  

Carl Jung, Memories, Dreams, Reflections

Jung relied on the stability of his life in the external world to ensure he escaped his psychological explorations unscathed.  

“It was most essential for me to have a normal life in the real world as a counterpoise to that strange inner world…The unconscious contents could have driven me out of my wits. But my family, and the knowledge: I have a medical diploma…I must help my patients, I have a wife and five children…these were actualities which made demands upon me and proved to me again and again that I really existed.”

Carl Jung, Memories, Dreams, Reflections

Nietzsche did not have a fraction of the stability or success of Jung. He did not have a career, a place in society, a reputation, close friends, a family of his own, nor a wife. And so, there is the possibility that, unlike Jung, Nietzsche lost himself in his confrontation with the unconscious, and that his solitary existence was the fertile soil from which his madness sprung. Jung hypothesized: 

“Nietzsche had lost the ground under his feet because he possessed nothing more than the inner world of his thoughts which incidentally possessed him more than he it. He was uprooted and hovered above the earth, and therefore he succumbed to exaggeration and irreality.” 

Carl Jung, Memories, Dreams, Reflections

Jung noted that one of the possible symptoms of a madness that results from losing one’s way in the depths is an exaggerated sense of self, or what he called psychic inflation. A psychic inflation occurs when one loses touch with one’s individual limitations and human ego, identifies with the powerful and impersonal contents of the unconscious, and thereupon feels as if one has become a superman, a prophet, a god, or touched by divine knowledge and inspiration. Jung explains: 

“…the approach or invasion of the unconscious can cause…a dangerous inflation, for one of the most obvious dangers is that of identifying with the figures in the unconscious. For anyone with an unstable disposition this may amount to a psychosis.” (Jung)  

Carl Jung, Mysterium Coniunctionis

On January 6, 1889, Nietzsche wrote to Jacob Burckhardt: 

“When it comes right down to it I’d much rather have been a Basel professor than God; but I didn’t dare be selfish enough to forgo the creation of the world.” 

Nietzsche, Nietzsche’s Letters

Two days earlier, Nietzsche penned the following letter to Cosima Wagner: 

“It is a mere prejudice that I am a human being. Yet I have often enough dwelled among human beings and I know the things human beings experience, from the lowest to the highest. Among the Hindus I was Buddha, in Greece Dionysus – Alexander and Caesar were incarnations of me, as well as the poet of Shakespeare, Lord Bacon. Most recently I was Voltaire and Napoleon, perhaps also Richard Wagner…I also hung on the cross.” 

Nietzsche, Nietzsche’s Letters

Within the span of these days he wrote the ominous line: 

“What is unpleasant and jeopardizes my modesty is that, fundamentally, I am every name in history.”  

Nietzsche, Nietzsche’s Letters

These letters support Jung’s claim that Nietzsche underwent the psychic inflation that occurs when the conscious mind is engulfed by the figures and forces of the unconscious.  

But this is not all there is to the mysterious tale of Nietzsche’s supposed madness. For as we explored in the first video of this series, Nietzsche suffered his entire adult life from a myriad of debilitating physical symptoms including migraines, fits of vomiting, nausea, convulsions, blindness and visual hallucinations, that would leave him bed ridden for days, unable to eat or sleep, and at times questioning whether life was worth living. Yet in the autumn of 1888, just prior to his psychological break Nietzsche reported that his physical ailments had vanished, and that his mood and mental health had never been better.  

On September 27th he penned the following letter: 

“Marvelous clarity, autumnal colors, an exquisite feeling of well-being on all things.” (Letter to Gast, Sept 27, 1888)  

Nietzsche, Selected Letters of Friedrich Nietzsche

During these autumn months, in a flood of inspiration he wrote his autobiography Ecce Homo: How One Becomes What One Is, and in it he explained: 

“Whoever saw me during the seventy days this fall…will not have noticed any trace of tension in me; but rather an overflowing freshness and cheerfulness. I never ate with more pleasant feelings; I never slept better.” 

Nietzsche, Ecce Homo

In another passage from Ecce Homo, Nietzsche seems to indicate that he had overcome the great pain that was plaguing his life. 

“I took myself in hand, I made myself healthy again…I discovered life anew, including myself; I tasted all good and even little things, as others cannot easily taste them—I turned my will to health, to life, into a philosophy.”

Nietzsche, Ecce Homo

These passages do not sound like a man struggling on the brink of madness, but like a man who found the treasure of rebirth and renewal, and attained “the great health”. 

What is more, Nietzsche’s mother reported that during his stay in a mental asylum the year following his break, Nietzsche appeared to save his displays of madness for certain people, at certain times; and that other than these selective presentations, his behaviour was normal.  

“Yesterday the inspector of the sanatorium told me [about Nietzsche], ‘he doesn’t speak two words which make sense,’ and with the doctor and me he does not speak a single confused word. Isn’t that strange?”  

Franziska Oehler, The Madness of Nietzsche by Erich Podach

After visiting Nietzsche in February of 1890, Nietzsche’s closest companion Franz Overbeck wrote the following. 

“I have always held that his madness, the inception of which no one witnessed at closer hand than myself, was a catastrophe as sudden as a flash of lightning. It came on between Christmas 1888 and the day of Epiphany [January 3] 1889. Before this…Nietzsche cannot have been mad. Still…I cannot escape the horrible suspicion that arises in me at certain definite periods of observation, or at least at certain moments, namely, that his madness is simulated. This impression can only be explained by the general experiences which I have had of Nietzsche’s self-concealment, of his spiritual masks.”

Franz Overbeck, The Madness of Nietzsche by Erich Podach

“Every profound spirit needs a mask: moreover, around every profound spirit a mask is continually growing…” 

Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil

The idea that Nietzsche’s madness was a mask, is a possibility. As at times it appeared to his closest companions, Franz Overbeck and Peter Gast, and even to his own mother, that he was simulating madness. But one has to wonder what would have been the point and how plausible it would have been to keep this act of madness up for over a decade, until his death. But even if Nietzsche did not fake madness, there is another alternative to the possibility that he was mentally deranged: Nietzsche’s so-called madness could have been what the Ancient Greeks called a divine mania. 

“There are two kinds of madness, one arising from human diseases, and the other from a divine release from the customary habits. . . ” 

Plato, Phaedrus

To better understand the divine mania, we can turn to a report from the 19th century British poet Alfred Tennyson, who likened a divine mania to a “waking trance”, or as Tennyson explains the experience:  

“…[my] individuality itself seemed to dissolve and fade away into boundless being, and this not a confused state, but the clearest of the clearest, the weirdest of the weirdest, utterly beyond words, where death was an almost laughable impossibility, the loss of personality… seeming no extinction but the only true life.”  

Alfred Tennyson, The Divine Mania by Yulia Ustinova

After transitioning from a state of great suffering into a state of great health, as occurred with in the autumn months of 1888, could it be that thereafter Nietzsche lived in a state of divine mania which was mistakenly interpreted by doctors as indicative of a degenerating madness? As the historian Yulia Ustinova explains in her book on Divine Mania, most people are too quick to brand all abnormal states of consciousness as pathological: 

“…the reluctance to acknowledge that being in a non-ordinary state of consciousness is not synonymous to being mad is characteristic of our culture, which tends to medicalise the nonconformities, especially behavioural deviance. In historical and cultural situations different from the modern Western norm, people take for granted that a person may be out of his or her mind, but not crazy; for instance, in the traditional Inuit society a shaman while healing is not deemed mad. In our society, the idea that deviation from the normal state of consciousness may be beneficial is still considered by many extravagant, if not preposterous.” 

Yulia Ustinova, Divine Mania: Alteration of Consciousness in Ancient Greece

After his stay in a mental asylum, Nietzsche returned home and lived out the rest of his life under the care of his mother and sister. During these years they reported that most of the time it was next to impossible to connect with him – he was mostly mute, it almost appeared as if he was reposing above himself, on the peaks of his mind. He would go for walks with his sister and would not respond when talked to; and then out of the blue he would offer concise and intelligible comments. As Jung reported: 

“For instance, he once said to his sister: “Are we not quite happy?” – perfectly reasonably, and then he was gone…People have concluded…that his madness was a divine mania – what the Greeks called mania, a divine state, the state of being filled with the god; one is entheos, the god is within. The remark was quoted as evidence that he had reached a sort of nirvana condition.” (Nietzsche’s Zarathustra) 

Carl Jung, Nietzsche’s Zarathustra

In an aphorism titled “In the great silence” from the Dawn of Day, Nietzsche seems to convey the idea that it is possible to live in a non-ordinary state of consciousness – a divine mania – which would appear to most other people as indicative of mental disease. As Nietzsche wrote: 

“Now all is still! The sea lies there pale and glittering, it cannot speak. The sky plays its everlasting silent evening game…it cannot speak. . . O sea, O evening! You are evil instructors! You teach man to cease being a man! Shall he surrender to you? Shall he become as you now are, pale, glittering, mute, tremendous, reposing above himself? Exalted above himself?” 

Nietzsche, The Dawn of Day

Throughout his life Nietzsche was heavily influenced by the ancient Greek god Dionysus; he called himself the “last disciple and initiate of the god Dionysus”. Dionysus was the god of festivals and wine, but he was also the god of divine mania – of a madness which heals, liberates, and breaks the sterile chains of life.  

“His coming brings madness.”, Walter Otto wrote, regarding Dionysus. 

Walter Otto, Dionysus: Myth and Cult

On the day of his break on January 3, 1889, Nietzsche penned the following in a letter: 

“I come as the victorious Dionysus, who will make the earth a festival.”    

Nietzsche, Nietzsche’s Letters

It may be but a coincidence, but in the ancient world the winter festival of Dionysus was celebrated each year in early January, the same time as Nietzsche’s break, or crossing over, into his new state of mind: 

“…it is precisely in winter, when the sun gets ready to start on its new course, that Dionysus makes his most tumultuous entry.”

Walter Otto, Dionysus: Myth and Cult

Was the onset of Nietzsche’s alleged madness a celebration; his own Dionysian festival – the supreme symbol of his victory over the great pain that was plaguing his life?  

“The madness which is called Dionysus is no sickness, no disability in life, but a companion of life at its healthiest…[it is a madness] which ushers in primal salvation amid primal pain.”

Walter Otto, Dionysus: Myth and Cult

Ultimately, we will never know whether Nietzsche found the treasure of rebirth and renewal and lived out the rest of his life in a state of divine mania, whether he lost himself in the depths of the unconscious and went mad, or whether his madness was of an organic origin. Nietzsche’s madness will forever remain shrouded in mystery. 

We will conclude this 2-part series with an aphorism from The Dawn of Day titled “How one ought to turn to stone”. For if Nietzsche’s “madness” was a divine mania, this aphorism foreshadows the psychological state that would later unfold in him: 

“Slowly, slowly to become hard like a precious stone – and at last to lie there, silent and a joy to eternity.”

Nietzsche, The Dawn of Day

Further Readings

Art Used in this Video

Edvard Munch - Frederich Nietzsche - 689
Autumn--On the Hudson River-1860-Jasper Francis Cropsey
Sonnenblick im Riesengebirge (Sunburst in the Giant Mountains) by Caspar David Friedrich
Carl Gustav Carus - The Goethe Monument - WGA4518
Carl Gustav Carus - Allegorie der Musik (Harfe im Mondschein)
Corridor of Saint-Paul Asylum in Saint-Rémy - My Dream
Baldassarre Peruzzi - Apollo and the Muses - WGA17365
Alfred Tennyson, 1st Baron Tennyson by George Frederic Watts
Autumn (1875) Frederic Edwin Church
Gustave Dore XIV
Caspar David Friedrich - Meadows near Greifswald - WGA8267
Puigaudeau, Ferdinand du - The Customs Cabin
Baco, por Caravaggio
Johann Friedrich Dieterich - The Triumph of Bacchus, 1826-1829
Makart hans der triumph der ariadne
A Dedication to Bacchus
Annibale Carracci - Triumph of Bacchus and Ariadne (detail) - WGA04459
Cotopaxi church
Puigaudeau, Ferdinand du - Sunset of the Breton Coast