Nietzsche’s Madness (with commentary)
Kyle Arnold, Long Island University, Brooklyn Center and
George E. Atwood, Ph.D., Rutgers University, New Brunswick Center
This is a revised version of a paper originally published under the same title in The Psychoanalytic Review, 87, 5 (2000): 651-698.
Correspondence should be sent to:
233 Cumberland St. Apt. #3
Brooklyn, NY 11205
I am thy labyrinth.
-Nietzsche, in letter to Cosima Wagner
Abbreviations of Nietzsche's works:
AC- The Antichrist
BGE- Beyond Good and Evil
BT- The Birth of Tragedy
EC- Ecce Homo
GS- The Gay Science
OML- Out of My Life
TSZ- Thus Spoke Zarathustra
WP- The Will to Power
At first glance, a psychobiographical study of Nietzsche might appear inherently naïve. After all, weren’t Nietzsche's writings partly responsible for what literary theorists call the "death of the author," the current tendency of many scholars to dismiss any connection between an author’s subjectivity and his or her work? Doesn’t this imply that Nietzsche’s work also announced the “death” of psychobiography? (Sarup, 1993)
Perhaps. Yet as we so often find when examining Nietzsche's texts, these strands of thought are interwoven with their polar opposites. Nietzsche's apparent flight from the notion of all-determining authorship is coupled with a desire to reconnect text with author, to use the lived experience of authors in rescuing their texts from what he saw as the thin, unbreathable air of impersonal and bloodless intellectuality. Philosophical ideas, for instance, are envisaged as "hav[ing] always lived on the 'blood' of the philosopher, they always consumed his senses and even, if you will believe us, his 'heart.'" They are, Nietzsche says, "a kind of long concealed vampire in the background who begins with the senses and in the end is left with, and leaves, mere bones, mere clatter…" (GS p333)
It was this sentiment, we think, that led Nietzsche to intellectually reverse the devitalizing process he saw in philosophy by famously suggesting that "It has gradually become clear to me what every great philosophy has hitherto been: a confession on the part of its author and a kind of involuntary and unconscious memoir.” (BGE p37) Philosophy robs philosophers of their vital sensuality and emotion; Nietzsche reads that sensuality and emotion back into philosophy.
There is a sense, then, in which a psychobiographical study of Nietzsche's thought rests upon Nietzschean foundations. Like Nietzsche, we want to see the philosopher in the philosophy, the life in the logic. However, the fulfillment of this desire is not our only purpose. For we also, like Nietzsche, think that a psychobiographical study of a conceptual system can have an added benefit: that of providing a psychological critique of something ordinarily seen only in logical terms. To be sure, a philosophy can never be fully appreciated from a psychobiographical perspective. It is more than just an expression of a philosopher's personal psychology. Yet whatever else one may believe a philosophy to be, it is surely the manifestation of a specific, temporally situated human subjectivity. This suggests that an interpretation of a philosopher's personality will always have something to say about his philosophy as well.
It must still be conceded, though, that an exclusively psychobiographical study of philosophy is inherently reductionistic. Insofar as it perceives and grasps Nietzscheanism from a narrow perspective, a psychobiographical reading of Nietzsche's work will locate all of its significance in a fairly restricted interpretive space. Such a reductionistic reading, we feel, is not intrinsically wrong, as long as it is careful not to claim that what it sees in its subject matter is all that can or should be seen. Its value is in drawing a caricature of what it interprets, which, by accentuating certain little-noticed features of its subject while ignoring others, illuminates patterns that would otherwise be shrouded in darkness.
The patterns at issue here comprise the psychological conditions under which it was possible for Nietzsche's thought to occur. A psychobiographical study positions us to ask what sort of personality allowed –and constrained-- Nietzsche to think the way he did. Although psychobiography has little to say about the putative rightness or wrongness of a philosophical system, it invites us to critically reflect on the relationship between our own subjectivities and the theories to which we adhere. More specifically, psychobiography invites those of us who feel drawn to Nietzsche’s work to think through the possible affinities between Nietzsche’s ideas and our own personalities, affinities that may often parallel those that existed between Nietzsche’s work and Nietzsche himself. By uncovering the connections between Nietzsche’s mind and his thought, we may well start to uncover the links between our own minds and Nietzsche’s ideas. In doing so, we are given the chance to examine and thereby gain some mastery over the emotional prejudices that may compel us to dogmatically adhere to one theory rather than another (Atwood & Stolorow, 1993).
For us, these issues are especially salient. Because our study, like Nietzsche’s work, reads the life of the philosopher into philosophy, it is essentially a Nietzschean project. As such, it too will be critiqued here. Any conclusion reached about Nietzsche's manner of thinking will implicate our own. Thus, by calling Nietzsche's philosophy into question, this study will also be indirectly questioning its own foundations.
* * *
In writing a psychobiographical study, perhaps one of the most pressing questions is where to begin. A psychobiographical study deals with a life, and a life exists in time. There is a temptation to "tell a good story," to turn the life into a drama, with birth as the opening scene and death as the curtain call. However, the linear narrative conducive to good historytelling is not necessarily an ally of lucid psychological thinking. For the form of psychobiographical inquiry -a search for recurrent themes found through exploring analogies between different time periods- tends to break down the temporal structure of traditional, linear narrative. Through the assertion of identity between different periods of time, time itself almost seems to be called into question.
However, there do appear to be some biographical periods that are more revealing than others, eras of a life when the forms of its inner logic are exposed especially clearly. When more opaque periods of a life are viewed in the light of these eras, they often become strikingly transparent. If early childhood is one such period, then one might assume that, contrary to the ideas articulated above, this project must submit to the traditional conventions of linear narrative.
In a psychobiographical study, though, the relationship between early childhood and later periods of time is not linear but circular, as patterns of childhood experience give sense to a life's later organizations, and the unveiling of these structures in turn clarifies the formative events of childhood (Atwood and Stolorow, 1993). Accordingly, a circular order of writing recommends itself, a writing that spirals from childhood to adulthood and adulthood back to childhood. This hermeneutic circle of writing itself intuitively suggests a starting point intimately connected to the strangely circular forms of Nietzsche's own subjectivity.
These circular patterns show themselves in Nietzsche's own dizzyingly circular style of writing, a style present in all his works, from his youthful writings depicting his childhood to the intricate texts he produced near the end of his philosophical career. Often these circles involve time. Derrida (1982), reading Nietzsche's late autobiography Ecce Homo, notes that Nietzsche writes "on credit," that, when still virtually unknown, Nietzsche writes as the great philosopher that he hopes to be recognized as by a future audience. Yet Nietzsche realizes that this audience will only exist after his lifetime. As an empirical person, then, he will never be able to fully realize the identity he assumes. The referent of Nietzsche's signature, Derrida argues, is riven at its core, never quite one with itself.
A nearly identical structure is perceptible in another autobiography Nietzsche wrote much earlier, at the age of thirteen. Here, Nietzsche recounts the experiences of his early family life and schooling. The style of the whole of this work is perhaps best expressed in its first sentence: "If one is an adult, one usually only remembers the most distinguishing events of his childhood." (OML, p1)
Hidden within this assertion lies a complicated pattern of thought. Nietzsche, writing this autobiography while still a boy, frames the narrative within the perspective of a wise adult, a voice experienced and worldly enough -and pedantic enough- to utter sweeping generalizations about adulthood.
The intent of that adult speaker seems almost self-exculpatory. The didactic surface of the sentence covers over a deficiency of the narrative: an inability of the narrator to recall any but the "most distinguishing events." Although Nietzsche might easily have attributed this to a child’s inevitably imperfect memory, he instead portrays it as a consequence of being an "adult"- apparently, the narrator. One wonders just who is speaking here.
Leaving aside such questions for the moment, we can see that the temporal structure this sentence articulates is an odd, circular one. Nietzsche the child clothes himself in the personality of an adult, and from this imagined position, reflects back on his own childhood. Temporally, the present is looking through the future back to the past.
The autobiography's title -Out of My Life (Aus meinem Leben)- further elaborates this pattern. Borrowed from the title of Goethe's autobiography, the phrase amplifies the presence of a wise adult subjectivity within the text. The meaning of the title also conveys one result of Nietzsche's adoption of an adult persona. By viewing his life from the distant future rather than from the present, he removes himself from it. It is as though the future is a window placed between Nietzsche and the present.
The dual consciousness of child and adult is present throughout the text, as Nietzsche continually oscillates between the two viewpoints. The next sentence is:
Although I am still not an adult and have hardly left the years of childhood and boyhood behind me, there is much that has disappeared from my memory, and the few things which I can remember are probably only due to tradition (OML, p1).
Here Nietzsche retreats from the adult identity. He denies that he is an adult, and buttresses this denial with a suggestion of immaturity and perhaps inadequacy: "have hardly left the years of childhood… behind me." Rather than being explained away as a typical result of adulthood, Nietzsche's memory loss is now portrayed as in tension with his young age. It is as though he realizes here that the explanation he has given for his memory loss -old age- is wrong, but he is confused by this wrongness.
Similar moments of tension appear throughout the autobiography, as the perspectives of the young Nietzsche and the elderly, wise adult conflict with and subvert each other. Other passages spoken with the wise adult's voice include, for example:
Indeed it is always useful to contemplate the gradual development (also in sense of education) of the intellect and heart, and with
this also: the overall guidance of God (OML, p8).
The spirit of imitation is especially marked in children; they think of all the things being easier, but only those things that
they particularly like (OML, p13).
Yes, having true friends is always something very noble and elevated, and God has significantly brightened our lives by giving
us companions striving with us for the same aim (OML, p14).
It is peculiar that, if we are somewhat advanced and have climbed to a higher step, we try to perceive our character as being
somewhat more matured (OML, p14).
The adult voice is mainly audible in its utterance of sweeping generalizations inferred from the young Nietzsche's experiences. Although these generalizations are derived from Nietzsche's life, they distance him from that life. Rather than experiencing his past from the standpoint of his own particular boyhood, Nietzsche finds ways to turn his concrete experiences into instances of abstract, universal law. The wise adult subjectivity mediates the relationship between Nietzsche and his life.
Many of Nietzsche’s generalizations have a preachy quality to them. They seem pretentious and inflated. Some would attribute Nietzsche's grandiloquence to the religious atmosphere in which he was raised. His father, Ludwig, was a zealous Protestant clergyman in a long line of Protestant clergymen. His mother and his other female relatives were also rigidly religious (Hayman, 1980). In Alice Miller's interesting but cursory psychological study of Nietzsche (Miller, 1990), Nietzsche's language is, for the most part, explained away in precisely this fashion. Yet, such an explanation only scratches the surface. Nietzsche's religious upbringing was, no doubt, the general formative context out of which his religious language emerged, but the more specific features of this language -the tangled, circular movements of thought and feeling which play within it- call for more elucidation.
The language of Nietzsche's later writings makes this need especially pressing. When viewed in light of the writing style of Nietzsche's later work Thus Spoke Zarathustra (1892/1966), for instance, the wise, sermonic adult voice of Nietzsche's childhood autobiography assumes a new, ominous significance.
In Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Nietzsche tells the parabolic story of a wandering holy man, a prophet of sorts who preaches a new, anti-establishment doctrine. This doctrine celebrates the body and the will, exhorting man to transcend himself and thereby become the "overman," a superior being. Zarathustra is well known for its bombastic style:
Verily, a strong wind is Zarathustra for all those who are low; and this counsel he gives to all his enemies and all who spit and
spew: "Beware of spitting against the wind!" (TSZ, p99)
But let me reveal my heart to you entirely, my friends: if there were no gods, how could I endure not to be a god! Hence there are
no gods. (TSZ, p86)
Whereas in Out of My Life the adult voice is somewhat hidden and restrained, in Zarathustra it bursts forth with disturbing power and lack of control. Out of My Life's frequent moments of identification with an inflated, wise personality, strange though they appear, might still be viewed as the ordinary role-playing of a 13-year-old boy. However, while reading Zarathustra, we begin to feel that we are in the presence of madness.
And so, the imagery of Zarathustra gives our inquiry clearer direction. The protagonist's identity -that of a holy man- recalls Nietzsche's father, who was his first experience of a preacher, and who therefore provided him with the prototypical example of that role. Perhaps a clearer understanding of Nietzsche's relationship with his father will allow a more penetrating interpretation of both Zarathustra and the early sermonic voice.
Out of My Life contains several striking passages about Nietzsche's father. The first of these is the following:
My father was the preacher of this town, and also responsible for the neighboring towns of Michliz and Bothfield. He represented the perfect image of a rural clergyman. Talented in regards of mind and temper, decorated with all the virtues of a Christian, he had a calm, simple but happy life and he was respected by all the people who knew him. His good manners and his cheerful mind brightened many of the parties he was invited to and made him popular anywhere he went, at the first moment. His leisure time he filled with the fine arts and sciences and especially with music. He was particularly skilled in playing piano, especially concerning the free improvisations… (OML, pp8-9)
The way in which Nietzsche begins this description -with an account of his father's geographical responsibilities- gives the impression that Ludwig is seen as a kind of benevolent lord. The feeling of power we sense here flows into an image of Ludwig as cultured, virtuous, and popular.
It is apparent that Nietzsche is picturing his father as a kind of ideal figure, "the perfect image of a clergyman." Yet Nietzsche's memories of this figure were not only brightened by the warm and comfortable feelings this passage evokes, but also overshadowed by what Nietzsche depicts as the "dark clouds" of overwhelming pain and loss. These clouds began to gather in the autumn of 1848, when Ludwig Nietzsche fell ill with a disease diagnosed as "softening of the brain." (Hayman, 1980) Nietzsche himself, who was four years old at the time, describes this period as follows:
It was in September 1848 when my beloved father became very ill due to a tumble. However, we and he consoled ourselves with the hope of a quick recovery…My beloved father had to bear terrible pain, but the illness did not want to lessen, indeed, it was growing day by day. Finally even his eyesight went out, and it was in eternal darkness that he had to endure the rest of his sufferings. His state of illness lasted until July 1849, then the day of deliverance approached. On the 26th of July he fell into a deep sleep, waking up only occasionally. His last words were: "Franzschen [his wife]-Franzschen-come-mother-listen-listen-oh-God."" Then he died gently and blessedly on July 27th, 1849. When I woke up this morning, I heard loud crying and sobbing around me. My dear mother entered the room with tears in her eyes and cried plaintively: "Oh God, my good Ludwig is dead." Although I was still very young and inexperienced, I nevertheless had some concept of death; the thought about being separated forever from the beloved father moved me deeply and I cried bitterly.
The following days passed in tears and in preparation for the burial. Oh God! I became a fatherless orphan and my dearest mother became a widow! (OML, pp11-12)
The psychic devastation of Nietzsche and his family is self-evident. Even when this passage is taken by itself, its length, detail, and emotional tone show that the event it recounts had a shattering impact on Nietzsche's childhood world. Moreover, Nietzsche's anguish at "being separated forever from the beloved father," especially when juxtaposed with a later statement that "It is a strange peculiarity of the human heart, that after the loss of a loved one, instead of making efforts to forget the person, we visualize that person as often as possible in our soul (OML p22)," shows a deep emotional connection to the father, a tie that apparently made it necessary for Nietzsche to constantly hold an image of his father before his mind's eye. By means of this visualization, Nietzsche was able to retain a semblance of his former relationship and thereby avert the dreaded experience of total and final separation from his beloved father.
His depiction of his father's funeral elaborates this web of painful emotions
On August 2nd the mortal cover of my beloved father was entrusted to the womb of the earth. At one o'clock the ceremony began, accompanied by the ringing of bells. Oh, this dull sound will never disappear from my ears, I will never forget the dark
thunderous melody of the song: "Jesu, my confidence." The sound of the organ was roaring throughout the atrium of the church. Then the coffin lowered down into the ground, and the dull words resounded, and he, our beloved father, has gone away from all of us mourners. The earth has lost a believing soul, the heaven received a watching soul. (OML pp11-12)
This scene is pervaded by an uncanny, almost mystical feel. The tolling of the bells, the "resounding" of the words, the reference to "our" (rather than "my") beloved father, convey the atmosphere of an arcane rite. A dream Nietzsche had at this time possesses a similar emotional texture:
I dreamt that I would hear the same organ-sound as the one at the burial. While I was looking for the reason for this, suddenly a
grave opens and my father, dressed in his shroud, climbs out of it. He rushes into the church and after a short while he returns
with a little child in his arms. The grave opens, he enters, and the cover sinks down again on the opening. Immediately the
thunderous sound of the organ stops, and I wake up. (OML, p12)
When understood in the context of the last sentence of Nietzsche’s account of his father’s funeral, -"the heavens received a watching soul"- the dream reveals a sense that the father, though dead, is still lurking somewhere about. In the funeral passage, he is portrayed as an optical presence, a presumably benevolent figure looking down upon the world -and, more importantly, Nietzsche- from the afterworld. However, in the dream, he is experienced as a frightening, almost demonic entity. This is not the benevolent and containing figure we encountered before, but an inhuman, grasping creature that rips a child from its rightful place. One even senses a feeling of rupture, of a tear in the fabric of reality, and the horror of witnessing a dreadful force wrenching a defenseless child out of the world.
There is also a striking temporal circularity evident in the dream. In a sense, the past, the dead father, comes to claim the future, the child. Thus, when the dead father newly put into the grave clutches the young child recently emergent from the womb and pulls the child downward into his lair, he creates a ring or loop in the structure of time which precludes linear progression. The living of the newly dead causes the death of the newly living.
This circle is not only implied by the dream, but embodied in its visual and emotional sequence. The father leaves the grave and returns, just as the tension rises and then falls.
The world of Nietzsche's dream, with its circularity and downward pull, feels less like a human world than a dark and inhuman one, a curved space surrounding a black hole in being. Many of Nietzsche's later writings seem to struggle against the pull of the grave, the pull of gravity. Often he appears to be writing against death, as in The Antichrist (1895/1968):
The Christian conception of God…is one of the most corrupt conceptions of God arrived at on earth… God degenerated to the
contradiction of life, instead of being its transfiguration and eternal Yes! In God a declaration of hostility towards life,
nature, the will to life!.. In God nothingness deified, the will to nothingness sanctified…(AC, p140)
If one shifts the centre of gravity of life out of life into the "Beyond" -into nothingness- one has deprived life as such of its
center of gravity. (AC, p167)
Ludwig Nietzsche's death not only sheds light on his son's later anxious opposition to what he saw as death-deifying ideas, but it also seems to hint at possible interpretations of Nietzsche's antipathy towards specifically Christian ideas. From a Nietzschian perspective, Christianity is a religion of death, which, by placing life's goal in the afterlife, causes an impoverishment of life itself. An analogy might be seen here to Ludwig's death- Nietzsche's personal life, as his autobiography makes clear, became dramatically impoverished after his father's journey into the Beyond.
However, this analogy does not, by itself, do full justice to the labyrinthine complexity of the relationship between Ludwig Nietzsche's death and Friedrich's attacks on Christianity. The psychological intricacy of the network of symbolic connections linking the two is particularly evident in Beyond Good and Evil (1886/1973), a work targeting, among other things, the Christian dichotomy of good and evil. Nietzsche argues that this doublet should be questioned, transcended, and replaced with a healthier and more instrumentally sound value system. He lays out the project as follows:
…whither must we direct our hopes? Towards new philosophers, …towards spirits strong and original enough to make a start on antithetical evaluations and to revalue and reverse 'eternal values,' towards heralds and forerunners, towards men of the
future… It is the image of such leaders which hovers before our eyes- may I say that aloud, you free spirits? …a revaluation of
values under whose novel pressure and hammer a conscience would be steeled, a heart transformed to brass, so that it might endure the weight of such a responsibility… these are our proper cares and concerns, do you know that, you free spirits? (BGE pp126-7)
Despite Nietzsche's invective against Christian morality, his "revaluation of all values" is portrayed here as a moral ideal that "free spirits" must struggle to achieve. These free spirits seem like members of an elite moral order, poised to seize control of the world from a decadent religious leadership. Nietzsche's vision, then, does not eliminate the morality of good and evil, but reinstates it on a new level. Stylistically, the good-and-evil dichotomy itself becomes evil, in contrast to the revaluation of all values, the good. Nietzsche's attempt to transcend the good/evil opposition undermines itself, returning him to the type of morality from which he is trying to escape.
The self-undermining dynamic we see above is a direct result of the ambivalence present in the quoted passage. Although Nietzsche speaks against Christianity, he speaks like a Christian.
Perhaps ambivalence is one source of his anxiety. In The Anti-Christ (1895/1968), Nietzsche's final polemic against Christianity, this ambivalence becomes particularly evident during his discussions of Christ.
…in reality there has only been one Christian, and he died on the Cross. The 'Evangel' died on the Cross. What was called 'Evangel' from this moment onwards was already the opposite of what he had lived: 'bad tidings,' a dysangel. (AC p163)
In this passage, Nietzsche unexpectedly sympathizes with Christ. He presents Christ as a tragic figure whose lived truth was distorted and put to evil ends. Subsequent 'Christians' are heretics who pervert the true life of Christ.
In Paul was embodied the antithetical type to the 'bringer of glad tidings,' the genius of hatred, of the vision of hatred, of the
inexorable logic of hatred. What did this dysangelist not sacrifice to his hatred! The redeemer above all: he nailed him to
his Cross. That life, the example, the teaching, the death, the meaning and the right of the entire Gospel- nothing was left once
this hate-obsessed false-coiner had grasped what loan he could make use of. Not the reality, not the historical truth! (AC p166)
Paul misrepresented Christ’s truth to further his own morally bankrupt agenda. In an ironic reversal, though, Nietzsche perverts the meaning of Paul's life by changing his title from "evangelist" to "dysangelist." After Christ's death, Paul perverts his life, and
Paul's life is in turn perverted by Nietzsche long after his death.
Although here Nietzsche appears to be more the master of his circularity than he is in the passages we have already examined, he cannot ever truly encompass it. By defending Christ against the false "Christians,” Nietzsche undermines his own critique of Christianity. When he portrays Christ as the antithesis of the Christian's false Christ-image, Nietzsche tacitly falls into a form of Christianity, albeit a bizarre one.
For in arguing that Paul falsified the lived truth of Christ, Nietzsche presents himself as one who knows the lived truth of Christ. He thereby places himself in a special, privileged role- that of the bearer of the true knowledge of what "to be a Christian" really should mean. Is Nietzsche, then, the true Evangelist, speaker of the true Gospel? Is he the "true" Christian?
Whether or not Nietzsche's philosophical stance here is truly contradictory, his psychological position is riddled with ambivalence and circularity. Is his role to be the defender of Christianity, or its critic? Nietzsche critiques Christianity because it is not Christianity- because, like his own argument, it differs with itself.
But what does all this have to do with the death of Nietzsche's father? For starters, as biographers (Hayman, Plestch, Forster-Nietzsche) make clear, the Nietzsche family was intensely religious and had been for many generations. Nietzsche's sister Elizabeth Forster-Nietzsche (1912) and Hayman (1980) describe how the Nietzsche family envisaged the young Fritz as a future clergyman who would follow in the footsteps of his ancestors. One may conjecture that, for the Nietzsche family, the presence of a future clergyman helped mitigate the pain brought about by the absence of the deceased one.
When pictured as a part of this family system, the wise sermonic voice narrating so much of Nietzsche's childhood autobiography takes on new significance. The preachy, moralizing tone of that voice indicates that it is the voice of Nietzsche's "own" intersubjectively imagined future identity- a pastor. By looking through the future back to the past, Nietzsche was viewing his life from the distant perspective of that fantasied future identity. The autobiography's frequent invocation of God lends support to this interpretation, and also reveals something of what Christianity meant to the young Nietzsche.
During this…misfortune God in heaven was our sole consolation and protection. (OML p6)
The celestial father knows how much I cried in that time. (OML p22)
Up to now I have already experienced such various things, joyful and sad things, cheerful and mournful things, but through all of
them God guided me securely like a father is guiding his weak little child. (OML p32)
Throughout Nietzsche's account of his past, God is watching over him. Not only was God felt to be responsible for the more pleasant aspects of Nietzsche’s life, such as his friends, but also for his ability to survive pain and suffering. Indeed, God held the position of an emotional “center of gravity” in Nietzsche's life, a force giving him the stability to hold fast against the power of painful events.
The imagery in these passages is suggestive. There is a recurrent metaphor of God-as-father. The sense of being watched over by a "celestial father" also recalls Nietzsche’s account of his father’s funeral, where, after calling Ludwig Nietzsche "our" father, rather than "my" father, Nietzsche says that "the earth has lost a believing soul, the heaven received a watching soul." (OML p6)
Although Nietzsche does not explicitly say "God is my dead father," such an identity is strongly implied, as Hayman (1980) also notes. Nietzsche felt that God was a celestial father for him, giving him love, protection, and comfort in the aftermath of his earthly father's death. Nietzsche's later claim that Christianity moves life's "center of gravity" into the Beyond can be seen as a mirror image of this early experience, reflecting the shift of his own emotional center of gravity from his living father to an otherworldly Father-God.
For a five-year-old boy, one with what Nietzsche himself called the "idealizing glance" of youth (Forster-Nietzsche, 1912), one who saw his father as a powerful religious figure, one whose father had passed away, it was easy, and psychically valuable, to transform a mortal, temporal father into an immortal, eternal presence able to watch over and protect the "little child" forever.
The above notion brings an important psychological contradiction into focus. Is Nietzsche the "little child" who requires constant protection by an omnipotent otherworldly presence, or is he the worldly, wise clergyman who confidently looks back on his past experiences?
No doubt one might want to resolve this conflict by arguing that it is not the future Nietzsche who is the little child, but only the past Nietzsche, who is led through life to his future identity. Yet such an argument would do violence to the elegant circularity of time patterning Nietzsche's subjective universe. Nietzsche is the little child and the future clergyman, both the past and the future. It is only the present's meaning which is deferred, strewn away from the now, backward and forward in time.
It should be noted, however, that though such psychic entanglements are suggestive, they does not by themselves seem definitively prophetic of the later insanity to which Nietzsche would fall prey. If we examine Nietzsche's related childhood conduct, however, what we find is downright odd.
He had a very pious, tender temperament and even as a child reflected upon matters with which other boys his age do not
concern themselves…He never acted without reflection, and when he did something, he always had a particular, well-grounded reason. (Pinder, quoted in Gilman, 1987, pp4-5)
[In school] The other boys teased him and called him 'the little minister'…One day the boys coming out of school were caught in a heavy rainstorm. Looking down the Priestergasse, Franziska [N's mother] saw the others running as fast as they could, while Fritz was walking unhurriedly and bareheaded, using his cap and his handkerchief to protect his slate from the rain. She shouted at him, signaling him to hurry. His answer was inaudible, and when he arrived, soaked to the skin, he explained that according to the rules, boys going home from school must not run or jump but proceed in a quiet, orderly fashion. (Hayman, 1980, p20)
A boy who was in the third or fourth forms with him later testified that his classmates had almost deified him. 'For there
was something extraordinary in his voice and his tone, as there was in his choice of expressions, that made him quite different
from other boys his age…According to one boy, 'He looked at you in a way that made the words stick in your throat.' (Hayman, 1980, p25)
Despite its strangeness, the young Nietzsche's stilted conduct becomes intelligible when placed in the context of his pastorial ambitions. The ornate manner of speaking, the meticulous, abject adherence to rules, the commitment to act only after considered reflection, have the appearance of caricatures of the behavior of a clergyman. It is clear, accordingly, that Nietzsche did not merely temporarily assume the identity of a clergyman while writing his childhood autobiography. Rather, this identity permeated his life, so much so that it was instrumental not only in shaping his own experience and conduct, but also in determining his classmates' perceptions of him.
Nevertheless, whatever Nietzsche liked to imagine that he was, whatever his family wanted him to be and become, he was a child, not a clergyman. We stress this fact firstly because the biographical reconstruction of Nietzsche's childhood by friends and idolizers tends to obscure it. Moreover, it can be used to deduce a critical intersubjective aspect of Nietzsche’s childhood. For if a boy is to imitate a clergyman, he must have a clergyman to imitate. There was only one clergyman with whom Nietzsche had any sort of close experience so early in his childhood. That clergyman was his father.
We do not mean to imply that the father Nietzsche imitated was exclusively the product of Nietzsche's historical father. After all, in Out of My Life, Nietzsche claims that his recollections of his father may owe more to family "tradition" than to his own encounters with his father. This possibility underscores the intersubjective character of the artificial identity Nietzsche assumed. Previously, we conjectured that the grief of Nietzsche's family was assuaged by the presence of a future clergyman who would replace the one who was lost. We would further suggest that underlying this dynamic was a family desire to remake Nietzsche into his deceased father, thus filling the emotional void left after Ludwig Nietzsche's death. Nietzsche’s inner father may have corresponded to a piece of his mother’s psychology, crystallizing her idealized memories of her husband and compensating for her inability to accept his death. If so, it may be said that Nietzsche’s way of handling the loss of his father occurred in the shadow of tragic maternal abandonment.
Banal as these conclusions might seem to some - Nietzsche admirers might prefer an interpretation like Jung's (1934-9/1998), that Nietzsche's inflated voice represented an otherworldly archetype which spoke through him- they still comprise the best possible explanation for the gestalt of meaningful connections we have uncovered. And in his later (1908/1967) autobiography Ecce Homo, Nietzsche includes many passages indicating a powerful identification with his dead father.
My father died at the age of thirty-six: he was delicate, kind, and morbid, as a being that is destined merely to pass by- more a
gracious memory of life than life itself. In the same year in which his life went downward, mine, too, went downward: at
thirty-six, I reached the lowest point of my vitality- I still lived, but without being able to see three steps ahead. Then- it
was 1879- I retired from my professorship at Basel, spent the summer in St. Moritz like a shadow, and the next winter, than
which not one in my life has been poorer in sunshine, in Naumburg as a shadow. (EC p222)
Thirty years after his father's death, Nietzsche still experienced this loss as a menacing force. His identification with the dead father was so profound that he believed his decline in vitality at age thirty-six to be a recapitulation of his father's death.
Other passages expressing Nietzsche's identification with the phantom father appear elsewhere in the same work:
The good fortune of my existence, its uniqueness perhaps, lies in its fatality: I am, to express it in the form of a riddle, already
dead as my father, while as my mother I am still living and becoming old. (EC p222)
At another point as well, I am merely my father once more, and, as it were, his continued life after an all-too-early death. (EC p228)
The last quotation provides an apt synopsis of what must have happened to Nietzsche when his father died. After Ludwig Nietzsche's death, his son, rather than living his own selfhood, adopted his father's personality. Not only did he try to prolong his father's life by keeping Ludwig's image in his mind's eye, but he also attempted to become that image. One might say that Nietzsche sacrificed himself so that his father would live on.
The critical reader might point out that although this conclusion is consistent with a substantial body of evidence, it constitutes a partial reconstruction of emotional experiences to which we have no direct access. Such a construct can only be justified by its power to reveal networks of meaningful connections between phenomena that would otherwise appear incoherent.
Keeping the whole of the interpretation in mind, then, let us return to the scene of Nietzsche's childhood dream.
I dreamt that I would hear the same organ-sound as the one at the burial. While I was looking for the reason for this, suddenly a
grave opened and my father, dressed in his shroud, climbs out of it. He rushes into the church and after a short while he returns
with a little child in his arms. The grave opens, he enters, and the cover sinks down again on the opening. Immediately the
thunderous sound of the organ stops, and I wake up. (OML p12)
Before, the analysis of this dream was limited to general characteristics such as mood and temporal structure. Now we are equipped to tease out its many subjective meanings, and through doing so begin to unravel the central knot in which Nietzsche was entangled. The first of these meanings shows itself immediately: the little child is Nietzsche himself.
Taken as a whole, the dream reveals itself to be a vivid metaphor for the childhood experiences we have reconstructed. The image of the father takes possession of the young Nietzsche, pulling him backwards, downwards, to live in a perpetual state of psychic death, clutched in the arms of a corpse, imprisoned in a coffin-like false identity. His psyche is possessed by an alien being, a once-nourishing relationship withers and is darkened into a macabre perversion of what had been before.
No doubt this metaphor does not capture all that Nietzsche experienced of his father posthumously; he still had the fond memories and warm feelings depicted in Out of My Life. However, for the moment, it is the dark underbelly of the father imago on which we shall focus. Now that we are aware of this strange “spirit of gravity” (to use a phrase of Nietzsche’s) which was forever pulling Nietzsche downward and away from life, the emotional meanings encoded in his arguments against Christianity are easier to decipher. For example:
The Christian conception of God…is one of the most corrupt conceptions of God arrived at on earth…God degenerated to the
contradiction of life, instead of being its transfiguration and eternal Yes! In God a declaration of hostility towards life,
nature, the will to life!…In God nothingness deified, the will to nothingness sanctified!…(AC p140)
The form of the philosophical event described here is identical to the psychological process that the metaphor of the dream expresses. This process is an emotional perversion, a transvaluation whereby what was once life-sustaining and life-affirming degenerates into a deathlike, nihilating force. This transvaluation is precisely what occurred after Nietzsche's father died. As this passage demonstrates, for Nietzsche, Christian doctrines held a subjective meaning analogous to that of his father's death- the terrible loss of an admired, affirmative presence is followed by psychic death, brought on by a morbid transformation of this presence. A similar pattern shows up in another passage previously quoted:
…in reality there has been only one Christian, and he died on the Cross. The 'Evangel' died on the Cross. What was called 'Evangel' from this moment onwards was already the opposite of what he had
lived: 'bad tidings,' a dysangel. (AC p163)
The ambivalence pervading Nietzsche's attitude towards Christ becomes clearer now. Just as Christ was misrepresented after his death, Nietzsche's beloved father died and became transvaluated into his antithesis. Not only that, but Nietzsche himself, like Christ, was warped into a shape not his own. These two emotional meanings collide and converge: the symbol of Christ captures both the father-identity and the son who was possessed by that identity. Christ is therefore both good and evil, both truth and lie.
This paradoxical, circular structure of father and son represents the effect Nietzsche's attempt to assume his father’s identity had on his self-experience. He is not quite one, yet not quite two. The father identity and the son exist in a tension or paradox that incessantly spins out the vicious circles we have seen.
Christianity as a whole also holds these emotional meanings, as it is, to Nietzsche, an extension of Paul's misrepresentations- psychologically, an extension of the dysangel, the false identity. Nietzsche's late rejection of Christian doctrines seems to be a concrete act of rebellion against that personal dysangel. The rebellion is paradoxical, however, because of the presence of the father-identity. The son rebels against the father, but the son is the father. Therefore, in trying to destroy the father, he is also attempting to destroy himself. If he wins, he loses.
This version of the father-son paradox is also elaborated in Nietzsche's assault on Christian morality, in which, as we previously noted, an anti-Christian content is undermined by a sermonic discursive style:
…whither must we direct our hopes? Towards new philosophers,…towards spirits strong and original enough to make a
start on antithetical evaluations and to revalue and reverse 'eternal values,' towards heralds and forerunners, towards men of
the future… It is the image of such leaders which hovers before our eyes- may I say that aloud, you free spirits? ….a revaluation
of values under whose novel pressure and hammer a conscience would be steeled, a heart transformed to brass, so that it might endure the weight of such a responsibility… these are our proper cares and concerns, do you know that, you free spirits? (BGE p126-7)
If we continue to read "Christianity" as a symbolic bearer of the cluster of emotional themes organized around the false father-identity, these "free spirits" able to "reverse eternal values" appear as constructions of an ideal self, free from entanglement in the father/son knot. However, as we pointed out above, this construction reinstates Christian values on a new level. Even if Nietzsche were able to eliminate the morality of the Father, he would ironically carry the essence of this morality with him into the world dispossessed of it.
One can envision an endless spiral here: The good free spirits destroy the morality of good and evil. To do so they must destroy their own destruction of the morality of good and evil, based as it is on the evil morality of good and evil. But to do so would be another act of good against the good-and-evil morality, therefore they must destroy their destruction of their destruction…
Son (father) destroys Father (son). To do so he/they must destroy his/their own destruction of the Father (son), based as it is on the Son (father), who is the same (and also different) as the Father (son). But to do so would be another act of the Son (father) against the Father (son), who is the same (and also different), therefore he/they must destroy their destruction of their destruction…
A superficial solution to this sort of paradox can be found in Nietzsche's interest in the psychology of knowledge (Atwood and Stolorow, 1992), the psychobiographical study of conceptual systems. When Nietzsche suggests that philosophy is "a kind of long concealed vampire in the background who begins with the senses and in the end is left with, and leaves, mere bones, mere clatter…" (GS p333), he appears to portray it as very much like the dysangel, the false identity. Like Nietzsche's artificial father-self, which in the childhood autobiography distanced him from his lived experiences by turning those experiences into mere instances of abstract, universal laws, philosophy allegedly distances the philosopher from his own experience through a process of abstraction that leaves "mere bones, mere clatter." By reversing this process of abstraction through reconnecting the life of a philosopher to her philosophical ideas, Nietzsche repairs the breach between father-self and child-self. The psychology of knowledge allows the child-self to reappropriate the thinking stolen from him in service of the dysangelic father-self, while at the same time revitalizing that inauthentic father-self by infusing him with the lifeblood of the authentic emotions locked within the child-self.
A similar set of motives is present, we think, in the famous Nietzschian "geneological" study, which, among other things, critiques entrenched modes of understanding the world by showing that they are, in part, historical consequences and political tools of societal power relations. Reconnecting an abstract truth to its social origins, like tracing it to its personal origins, unites detached thought and lived history. Neither the geneological nor the psychological study of knowledge, though, truly unites father-self and son-self, as both types of research operate only on an abstract, intellectual plane. They offered Nietzsche an illusory sense of unity, while forcing him further into the realm of the disconnected father-self.
It was this kind of tangled, self-defeating way of being, we want to suggest, that eventually led to Nietzsche's mental breakdown.
This breakdown -from which Nietzsche never recovered- occurred in 1889, when Nietzsche fell to pieces after seeing a cab driver whip a horse violently. Nietzsche ran to the animal, and, wrapping his arms around its neck, fell to the ground sobbing (Hayman, 1980). Elements of the flood of delusional material that appeared during the period of the breakdown -already visible in Ecce Homo- can be found in several short letters written to friends in December 1888 (Ludovici, 1985):
[To August Strindberg]
You will hear from me shortly about your short story- it goes off like a gunshot. I have appointed a meeting day of monarchs in
Rome. I shall order…to be shot. Au revoir! For we shall surely see each other again. On one condition only: let us divorce.
[To August Strindberg]
Alas!… no more! Let us divorce!
[To Meta von Salis]
The world is transfigured, for God is on the earth. Do you not see how all the heavens are rejoicing? I have just seized possession
of my kingdom, am throwing the pope into prison, and having Wilhelm, Bismarck, and Stocker shot.
[To Georg Brandes]
To the Friend Georg
Having been discovered by you no trick was necessary for the others to find me. The difficulty is now to get rid of me.
The Christ identification implicit in several of the passages we examined is now fully evident. Nietzsche's use of the term "The Crucified" rather than simply "Christ," highlights an image of death and pain. Emotionally, the passages embody powerful and heterogeneous feelings. The first seems an expression of playful euphoria, the second aggressive inflation, the third a pained separation, and the fourth, euphoria combined with aggressive inflation. The fifth looks almost like a message to a fellow conspirator.
This sort of emotional turbulence was a dominant characteristic of Nietzsche's madness. To those who took care of him after the breakdown -mainly his mother and sanitarium attendants- Nietzsche was a handful. While out walking, he often would grin merrily at various strangers, eliciting a scolding from his mother. He would at random moments remove his clothes and lie down in public places (once he tried to bathe in a puddle). He would fly into rages. He would smash windows. He would try to strike dogs and people. He would read aloud, making "loud barking or rumbling noises." He would repeat various phrases incessantly, such as "I am dead because I am stupid," "I am stupid because I am dead," "I have a fine feeling for things," and "I do not like horses." (Hayman, 1980)
These antics and others gave some observers, such as Nietzsche’s friend Peter Gast, the impression that they were just that- antics (Hayman, 1980). Nietzsche's propensity for play-acting and clowning- well known to his circle of friends- makes this idea hard to shake off. As Hayman points out, though, the line between inspired clowning and insanity becomes difficult to draw at this time (cf. Sass 1992). It may be that Nietzsche ceased to play the buffoon and the buffoon began to play Nietzsche.
The figure of the clown, the buffoon, appears as a sinister and dangerous in Nietzsche's Thus Spoke Zarathustra, emerging at carnivalesque moments which sometimes prefigure his later mental breakdown. During an early, particularly disturbing scene, for instance, Zarathustra begins to give a sermon in a public square. A crowd is gathering round; not to listen to Zarathustra, but to watch a tightrope-walker scheduled to perform. Zarathustra gives his speech, feeling misunderstood by the crowd. Suddenly a jester runs across the tightrope and leaps over the tightrope-walker, who drops his pole and plummets to the ground. The crowd disperses, and the tightrope-walker lies dying. In a bizarre interaction, Zarathustra comforts the tightrope walker by informing him that as there is no eternal soul and no afterlife, he need not fear Hell.
The scene is rich with meaning, and clearly expresses the self-defeating circularity of Nietzsche's subjectivity. It begins with an account of Zarathustra's arrival:
When Zarathustra came into the next town, which lies on the edge of the forest, he found many people gathered together in the
market place; for it had been promised that there would be a tightrope-walker. (TSZ, 12)
Nietzsche's use of the character "Zarathustra" as a mouthpiece for his own doctrine is revealing. As Jung (1934-9/1998) points out, there is a clear distinction between Nietzsche and Zarathustra- Zarathustra is not Nietzsche himself, but another figure. Yet, both Zarathustra's voice and his ideas are unquestionably those of Nietzsche. Again, we have a personality who is both one, and two.
Zarathustra's manner of relating to other human beings is tragic. Isolated for years, Zarathustra finally decides to return to human society, but can only do so as a prophet- a provider of wisdom and dogma, not a participant in a reciprocal human relationship. Moreover, his audience is not there to listen to his speeches -Zarathustra is merely a temporary substitute for the real entertainment, the tightrope walker. He is a sideshow.
His speech is chiefly an exposition of the doctrine of the "Overman," an ideal of man's self-transcendence:
I teach you the overman. Man is something that shall be overcome.
What have you done to overcome him?
All beings so far have created something beyond themselves; and do you want to be the ebb of this great flood and even go back to the beasts rather than overcome man? What is the ape to man? A laughing-stock or painful embarrassment…(TSZ pp12-14)
The doctrine of the Overman echoes Nietzsche's portrayal of the "free spirits" in Beyond Good and Evil. One would expect the interpretation of the "free spirits"- as paradoxical constructions of an ideal self beyond the father/son knot- to also apply here. And much of the rest of Zarathustra's speech suggests as much. When Zarathustra had spoken thus, one of the people cried: 'Now we have heard enough of the tightrope-walker, let us see him, too!' And all the people laughed at Zarathustra. But the tightrope-walker, believing that the word concerned him, began his performance.
Zarathustra, however, beheld the people and was amazed. Then he spoke thus:
'Man is a rope, tied between beast and overman- a rope over an abyss. A dangerous across, a dangerous on-the-way, a dangerous looking-back, a dangerous shuddering and stopping.
What is great in man is that he is a bridge and not an end: what can be loved in man is that he is an overture and a going-under.
Zarathustra's identity with the tightrope walker, created through use of that image as a metaphor, presents an ambiguous doublet. Zarathustra is both the sideshow to the tightrope walker and the main event, the tightrope-walker himself. Likewise, by mistaking words directed at Zarathustra for orders aimed towards him, the tightrope walker identifies himself with Zarathustra. Each is competing with himself for the attention of the audience.
Moreover, Zarathustra's statement that "man is a rope between animal and Overman" produces another paradox. For a rope between two points is only useful if there is somebody to walk over it. As man is a "going across," he is not only the rope, but also the tightrope walker attempting to traverse it. This mission is circular and impossible- just as a knife can't cut itself, man cannot walk over himself.
Not only that. The rope itself is strung between "two towers," which Zarathustra reads as "man and Overman." Its function is to permit passage from the first tower (animal) to the second tower (Overman). This amplifies and gives a new inflection to the above paradox- just who will make this journey? Someone from the first tower- animal? But if that someone is truly animal, how can he ever become Overman? How can anything, for that matter, ever move beyond itself? Such a movement would require that a being decouple from itself and somehow transform into an entity other than itself.
When the above paradoxes are linked, the tightrope-walker scene shows itself as the enactment of an impossible self-leapfrogging operation, psychic paradoxes multiplying in successively tighter circles. The lens of the narrative gradually zooms in on the center of the structure, the tightrope-walker.
Echoes of the father-son knot reverberate throughout the architecture of this structure. Although it would be excessively reductionistic to view Ludwig Nietzsche's relation to Zarathustra as one of complete identity, the two figures are analogous. To clarify the specifics of the analogy, it is necessary to turn back to Nietzsche's childhood autobiography.
A relevant motif of the autobiography upon which we have not yet dwelt is self-overcoming. The double voice we scrutinized has this theme embedded in its core, as it shows an attempt to move from one self to another- from the child (son) self to the wise adult (father) self. Although, on the one hand, Nietzsche experienced the father-self as a false dysangel to be destroyed, he also desperately wanted to become the father- as idealized figure. To succeed in becoming his father, Nietzsche would have to kill his child-self, so that it could be fully replaced by the father-self. Yet, just as the tightrope-walker cannot walk over himself to reach the second tower, Nietzsche cannot walk over his child-self to reach a pure father-self.
This interpretation may seem, at first, to contradict another offered above. Previously, it was suggested that the paradoxical structure expresses Nietzsche's attempt to create an ideal self beyond the knot of father/son; however, for Nietzsche, such an ideal self would be experienced as another recurrence of the idealized Father. This is how the knot appears when viewed from the standpoint of the forward-looking child-self. From the perspective of the backward-looking Father-self supposedly beyond the father-son duality, Nietzsche is already beyond the child self, which is dragging behind him, holding him back from the realization of his essential being. This element of Nietzsche's personality wishes to cast off the immature child-self so that it may move forward, unfettered, to its own actualization (cf. Horney 1950).
The child-self and Father-self are in this way and many others locked in an endless battle for survival. Each must eliminate the other to truly be himself. Nietzsche's famous Appollonian-Dionysiac dichotomy echoes this conflict. In Nietzsche's original depiction of the pair in The Birth of Tragedy (1872/1967), Dionysos is portrayed as the spontaneous, preverbal force of nature, and Apollo is characterized as the god of form and image. Through the interaction of the two- the imposition of form and image on preverbal, spontaneous chaos- the drama is born.
We shall have gained much for the science of aesthetics, once we perceive not merely by logical inference, but with the immediate certainty of vision, that the continuous development of art is bound up with the Apollonian and Dionysiac duality- just as procreation depends on the duality of the sexes, involving perpetual strife with only periodically intervening reconciliations.
…we come to recognize that in the Greek world there existed a tremendous opposition, in origin and aims, between the Apollonian art of sculpture, and the nonimagistic, Dionysian art of music. These two different tendencies run parallel to each other, for the most part openly at variance; and they continually incite each other to new and more powerful births, which perpetuate an antagonism, only superficially reconciled by the common term "art;" till eventually, by a metaphysical miracle of the Hellenic "will," they appear coupled with each other, and through this coupling ultimately generate an equally Dionysian and Apollonian form of art- Attic tragedy. (BOT p33)
Now that we have gained a basic understanding of the duality lying at the heart of Nietzsche's selfhood, we can fairly easily discern the psychological meanings of such passages. This excerpt presents a symbolic history of the phenomenology of Nietzsche's dual self, as the unformed, natural child self (Dionysos), and the finely sculptured, authoritative father self (Apollo) fight for dominance.
Not only is Nietzsche's duality apparent in this quotation, but the essential, paradoxical oneness of the dyad is also evident. The grandiloquent metaphors of the passage mark it as the speech of the sermonic voice of Nietzsche’s father, and the cosmic image of a battle between gods colors Nietzsche's writing with a religious tinge. Both of these stylistic features give us the feeling that the thought of the whole passage dwells within the personality of the father, even as it attempts to symbolically externalize that figure and thereby escape it.
An especially relevant element of the above quotation is the recurring motif of artistic birth, which is portrayed as a direct consequence of the Apollo/Dionysos coupling. Here, tragedy's "birth" is not so much an event happening at a specific time, but rather, an eternally recurring rebirthing. Although Nietzsche tells us that this process "ends" with a synthesis of Apollo and Dionysos, it is clear from the other texts we have examined that whether or not his argument holds true historically, psychologically that synthesis never occurred. Like Nietzsche's love for the psychology of knowledge, it was a dialectical fantasy.
When one re-examines the father-son dualism from the viewpoint of this analogy, a previously concealed facet of its paradoxical structure shows itself. While the metaphor of birth may initially seem to merely be a convenient vehicle of expression, a closer look reveals that it is inextricably woven into the fabric of the father-son relationship. As Nietzsche's dual self is comprised of a parent and its child, part of his personality is quite literally responsible for the birth of the other.
Nevertheless, unlike a physical birth, this psychological birth does not begin and end in time. Rather, it eternally recurs as father-self and child-self continuously subvert each other, or in other words, as Nietzsche endlessly overcomes himself. The quality of the eternal we experienced in Nietzsche's childhood dream and in his account of his father's death can now be more fully understood. For by taking on the personality of his own progenitor, Nietzsche entered a circle in which he became his own psychological parent. If one is one's own parent, the logic goes, one grows old only to give birth to oneself once more and become a child again. Within this ring, to reach maturity is to become an infant.
It is critical to maintain the distinction between physical and psychological time in this regard. Nietzsche did not grow old in physical time to become a child once more, but rather did so in psychological time, eternally. He was always both old and young, and thus always becoming both old and young. The duality of selfhood that is the locus of our interpretation forces us to think the unthinkable- that time both does and does not exist in Nietzsche's subjective world.
This, perhaps, presents the structure of Nietzsche's subjectivity in its most basic, formal aspect. And here we can already begin to see the meaning of what is perhaps the most bizarre element of Nietzsche's philosophy- The Eternal Return.
Although this doctrine existed in linear time and therefore developed and changed, it took one particular form that we want to explore. This is the doctrine of Eternal Return as put forth in Thus Spoke Zarathustra (1892/1966). Nietzsche writes:
"Stop, dwarf!" I said. "It is I or you! But I am the stronger of us two: you do not know my abysmal thought. That you could not bear!"
Then something happened that made me lighter, for the dwarf jumped from my shoulder being curious; and he crouched on a stone before me. But there was a gateway just where we had stopped.
"Behold this gateway, dwarf!" I continued. "It has two faces. Two paths meet here: no one has yet followed either to its end. This
long lane stretches back for an eternity. And the long lane out there, that is another eternity. They contradict each other these
paths, they offend each other face to face; and it is here at this gateway that they come together. The name of the gateway is
inscribed above: 'Moment.' But whoever would follow one of them, on and on farther and farther- do you believe, dwarf, that these paths contradict each other eternally?"
"All that is straight lies," the dwarf muttered contemptuously. "All truth is crooked; time itself is a circle."
"You spirit of gravity," I said angrily, " do not make things too easy for yourself! Or I shall let you crouch where you are
crouching, lamefoot; and it was that carried you to this height. "Behold," I continued, "this moment! From this gateway, Moment, a
long, eternal lane leads backward: behind us lies an eternity. Must not whatever can walk have walked on this lane before? Must
not whatever can happen have been done, have passed by here before? And if everything has been there before- what do you
think, dwarf, of this moment? Must not this gateway too have been there before? And are not all things knotted together so firmly
that this moment draws after it all that is to come? Therefore-itself too? For whatever can walk- in this long lane out there
too, it must walk once more.
"And this slow spider, which crawls in the moonlight, and this moonlight itself, and I and you in the gateway, whispering
together, whispering of eternal things- must not all of us have been there before? And return and walk in that other land, out
there, before us, in this long dreadful lane- must we not eternally return?" (TSZ pp157-8)
The speakers of this conversation -Zarathustra and the dwarf- provide a new, more unsettling inflection of the dualism theme that runs through Nietzsche's texts. In the childhood autobiography, we heard the voices of a child and a wise Christian moralizer. The Birth of Tragedy (1872/1967) presented the duality as that of Dionysos and Apollo. Now, though, the two have metamorphosed into the histrionic Zarathustra and a grotesque dwarf.
Again, a subversive identity exists between the two figures. The excerpt begins with an aggressive assertion of a difference of identity -"It is I or you!" Zarathustra goes on to say: "But I am the stronger of us two: you do not know my abysmal thought. That you could not bear!", implying that he will reveal his thought in order to destroy the dwarf, thus demonstrating the two figures' difference.
Yet by the end of the passage Zarathustra is an adherent of the dwarf's doctrine that "All truth is crooked; time itself is a circle." It seems at first as though the dwarf's thinking has subtly insinuated itself into Zarathustra's psyche. But one also is given the impression that Zarathustra already had the notion of Eternal Return on his mind. What Zarathustra says before the dwarf interrupts him seems a precursor to the thought of the Eternal Return, and in itself does not appear to have the quality of the "abysmal" that Zarathustra wants to express.
Again, an attempt at escaping a doublet circles back upon itself. Zarathustra begins expounding his doctrine of time so that the dwarf may be eliminated. His exposition, however, only reveals the essential identity of the dwarf and himself, and, by confirming the dwarf's doctrine, validates rather than annihilates its being. Because Zarathustra and the dwarf are one, each can never be one.
This circularity mirrors the doctrine put forth by the two speakers. In speaking of an endless circle, Zarathustra is captured by that circle.
However, although the doctrine of the Eternal Return describes time as paradoxical and circular, this excerpt portrays the pattern of the doctrine’s development as somewhat linear. Such is not what we’d expect to come across in Nietzsche, especially in a passage dealing with the Eternal Return. It therefore deserves careful inspection.
The linear development to which we refer can be seen in the last two paragraphs, mainly in Zarathustra's translation of "can" into "must," when he begins to ask, "Must not whatever can happen have happened, have been done, have passed by here before?" Zarathustra translates manifold possibility into manifold actuality. Hence Eternal Return: if everything possible is actual, and if it is possible that what it happening now has already happened and will happen again, then it actually has happened and actually will happen again. It is the shift from manifold possibility to manifold actuality that creates the circle.
Let’s unpack this a bit more. A more transparent instance of this sequence occurs in another account of Eternal Return from The Will to Power (1930/1967):
If the world may be thought of as a certain definite quantity of force and as a certain definite number of centers of force- and
every other representation remains indefinite and therefore useless- it follows that, in the great dice game of existence, it
must pass through a calculable number of combinations. In infinite time, every possible combination would at some time or another be realized; more: it would be realized an infinite number of times. And since between every combination and its next recurrence all other possible combinations would have to take place, and each of these combinations conditions the entire sequence of combinations in the same series, a circular movement of absolutely identical series is thus demonstrated: the world as a circular movement that has already repeated itself indefinitely often and plays its game in infinitum. (WP p549)
Put a monkey at a typewriter, and given enough random plunking he will produce the Gettysburg Address. Put a monkey at a typewriter for an infinite amount of time, and he will produce infinite Gettysburg Addresses- that's what Nietzsche says.
For Nietzsche, it is precisely the random, chaotic "dice game" of possibility that creates order in the universe. Because the forces constituting existence continuously interact and recombine in haphazard fashion, a finite universe requires that these forces must eventually permutate through all possible configurations. Not only that, but in infinite time they must reenact this limited group of possibilities over and over again. From out of chaos arises circular order.
In their antiphilosophical work A Thousand Plateaus (1988), Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari note the same movement in Nietzsche's aphorisms, which, as they put it, "shatter the linear unity of thought only to invoke the circular unity of eternal return present as the nonknown in thought."
Indeed, if we reflect on the experience of reading Nietzsche, we notice that the feeling of circularity is often preceded by an experience of disorientation, brought about, perhaps, by Nietzsche's deconstruction of our presuppositions about the world. Nietzsche's aphorisms, especially those in Beyond Good and Evil (1886/1973), provide many examples of this pattern:
He who despises himself nonetheless respects himself as one who despises. (BGE p92)
To talk about oneself a great deal can also be a means of concealing oneself. (BGE p105)
He who fights with monsters should look to it that he himself does not become a monster. And when you gaze long into an abyss the abyss gazes into you. (BGE p102)
The thought of suicide is a powerful solace: by means of it one gets through many a bad night. (BGE p103)
All these aphorisms work to break down the reader's habitual mode of understanding, and replace it with a new, circular form of knowing. In the last aphorism quoted, the thought of suicide, commonly understood as arising out of a desire to end life, is depicted as life-preserving. One's habitual way of viewing that desire is dislocated, and a circular structure- the thought of suicide as a defense against suicide- is substituted for it. An experience of shattering is replaced by an experience of circling.
Although the disintegration of habitual patterns of thought is an ever- present motif in Nietzsche's texts, one particular instance of such a breakdown stands above the rest. That moment is Nietzsche's proclamation of the "death of God," perhaps the most widely known element of his philosophy. The death of God is put forth as a representative example of what happens when dearly-held modes of thinking about the world unravel.
The madman jumped into their midst and pierced them with his eyes. "Whither is God?" he cried; "I will tell you. WE have killed him-you and I. All of us are his murderers. But how did we do this? How could we drink up the sea? Who gave us the sponge to wipe away the entire horizon? What were we doing when we unchained the earth from its sun? Whither is it moving now? Whither are we moving? Away from all suns? Are we not plunging continually? Backward, sideward, forward, in all directions? Is there any up or down? Are we not straying as through an infinite nothing? Do we not feel the breath of empty space? Has it not become colder? Is not night continually closing in on us? (GS p181)
Here we can see more clearly the experience of shattering and disorientation that is the prologue to the eternal return. The passage conveys a feeling of free-floating chaos, of "plunging… in all directions" haphazardly, of frightening, unknown possibilities.
When this passage is situated within the psychobiographical context of Nietzsche's opposition to Christianity, the emotional meaning it expresses becomes evident. If Nietzsche identified God with his father, then the death of God would accordingly have been equated with the father's demise. And if that is true, what Nietzsche says about the effects of God's death provides a metaphoric phenomenology of his own experience of catastrophic loss.
For Nietzsche the chief danger incipient in God's death was nihilism, the loss of values. Thus Spoke Zarathustra (1892/1966) was Nietzsche's answer to that threat; it was his attempt to forge a new set of values to replace those lost. However, as we have seen in the case of the "free spirits," Nietzsche's plan to construct a new system of values could only bring about a paradoxical return of the very values he was trying to replace. It is this paradox that we see in Zarathustra's tightrope walker scene, as an attempt to create a set of new values- to walk from man to Overman- spirals inward to Eternal Return.
When it is noted that the spiral of the transvaluation of all values is a response to nihilism, one can begin to perceive the meaning of the Eternal Return. For just as the loop of Eternal Return emerges from the turbulent chaos of matter, the vicious circle of the
transvaluation of all values spins out of a response to the turbulent chaos of valuelessness- nihilism.
The structural similarity between the Eternal Return and the transvaluation of all values suggests that these doctrines point to the same experience- the disorganized chaos of bereavement, followed by a circularity of experience undoing both the loss and the defense against that loss.
We were already aware that Nietzsche's psychic knots were tied in with the aftermath of his father's death. Nonetheless, although certain elements of that connection were visible, much was still hidden, and, as a result, what we did see was not fully
intelligible. Indeed, the idea that Ludwig Nietzsche's personality rose from the grave to possess the mind of his young son might seem a vague and almost occult theory.
The aspect of Nietzsche's loss that we left in concealment is the experience of personal chaos described above. Even though Nietzsche's assumption of the voice of his father was explained as an attempt to keep his father alive, the experience of loss motivating this attempt was not yet fully exposed.
One reason for that lack is Nietzsche's refusal to tell us explicitly about his emotional experience of loss. Although he writes in Out of My Life (1858) that "It seems like we would find quite a lot of consolation for our pain by frequently speaking about it
(29)," he does not speak about it. He hints, dramatizes, and covers over chaos (Klossowski, 1969). While reading the childhood autobiography, one cannot escape the impression that it is far too organized. That impression is magnified by the young Nietzsche's use of elegantly stylized metaphors to bring order to his subject matter.
As we’ve seen, such metaphors tend to emanate from the father-self. When we look closely at the contexts in which they occur, we find that in many cases Nietzsche seems to use them to retreat from moments of pain and disorganization.
[before speaking of his father's death]
Until this time, happiness and peace always brightened our lives. Our lives were flowing untroubled like a bright summer day, but now dark clouds piled up, lightning was flashing and the bolts from the heavens were falling down in a disastrous way. (OML p10)
[after speaking of his father's funeral]
If you steal away the crown of a tree, it will become withered and bare, and the little birds will leave the branches. The head of our family was stolen away, all joy disappeared from our hearts and we were in deep sorrow. But just when the wounds had healed a bit, they were painfully reopened. (OML p12)
After spending a long time in the country, it was terrible for us to live in the city. Therefore we avoided the dark streets and sought out more rural areas, like a bird escaping from its cage. (OML p13)
These metaphors give the illusion of affective commentary while hiding intense emotions behind a screen of graceful figurative images. Nietzsche's life becomes an aesthetic object, not the subjective experience of a human being. Furthermore, as the autobiographical shift from the view of oneself as an experiencing subject to that of the self as distantly perceived object has shown itself to be a shift from child-self to father-self, the protective function of clinging to the Father-self can be clearly discerned here. An Apollonian imposition of form and image onto Dionysiac chaos mitigates the threat of inundation by that chaos.
It seems, then, that the father-self not only shielded Nietzsche from overwhelming feelings of loss, but also bars us from direct access to these feelings. Nietzsche tells us they exist:
…the thought of being separated forever from the beloved father moved me deeply and I cried bitterly. (OML p11)
The head of our family was stolen away, all joy disappeared from our hearts and we were in deep sorrow. (OML p12)
But, he does not really show them to us. The only windows through which Nietzsche’s sense of loss can be clearly seen are the moments of spiritual and psychological breakdown that Nietzsche suggests will follow in the wake of God's death.
We already had a glimpse through one of these windows; another appears on page 279 of The Gay Science:
…how much must collapse now that this faith has been undermined because it was built on this faith, propped up by it, grown into it; for example, the whole of our European morality. The long plenitude and sequence of breakdown, destruction, ruin, and
cataclysm that is now impending- who could guess enough of it today to be compelled to play the teacher and advance proclaimer of this monstrous logic of terror, the prophet of a gloom and an eclipse of the sun whose like has probably never yet occurred on earth? (GS p279)
This passage identifies several elements of the psychic disaster it portrays. There is a collapse because of a dependency on that which was lost. That collapse leads to a long period of breakdown, destruction, ruin, and cataclysm. These terms imply that the period following the collapse is not merely empty, but filled with upheaval. Here we can see an echo of the psychic cataclysms that threatened to engulf the young Nietzsche when he lost his father.
If God dies, disaster is inevitable. Therefore, the logic goes, God must not die. Nietzsche had to keep him alive by becoming his own Father. Although by doing so Nietzsche partly protected himself from the experience of devastating loss, he also trapped himself within an identity which was not his own.
The notion that Nietzsche desired to keep God alive may initially seem counterintuitive. After all, didn’t Nietzsche look disgustedly upon Christian morality as a form of "slave morality," a collective illness? He did indeed. However, as our analysis of Nietzsche's anti-Christian position has revealed, his attitude towards that religion was riddled with ambivalence. Not only did Nietzsche wish to slough off the personality of his father and achieve self-sameness, but he also needed to keep the father alive to fend off the storm of unbearable emotion that would have ensued if he fully realized his father was dead.
The Eternal Return, therefore, represents both an escape from a moment of chaotic loss and a continual flight from the danger of reliving that moment. Its structure, though, incessantly returns Nietzsche to the very object that threatens him. For, the problem the Eternal Return creates- the subject's duality- could only be resolved through the removal of one pole of this duality. If that pole were the father-self, this would amount to killing the father again, although with Nietzsche playing the role of murderer.
One of the central reasons for Nietzsche's feeling that "we have killed God, we are his murderers (GS, above)" shows itself. If Nietzsche tries to create a unified, authentic self- as child-self, he assumes the role of his father's killer.
But was such an act of murder possible? Was there a way out of the labyrinth of Eternal Return? In a passage from Zarathustra appearing immediately after the discussion of Eternal Return, a solution seems indicated:
…A young shepherd I saw, writhing, gagging, in spasms, his face distorted, and a heavy black snake hung out of his mouth. Had I ever seen so much nausea and pale dread on one face? He seemed to be asleep when the snake crawled into his throat, and there bit itself fast. My hand tore at the snake and tore in vain; it did not tear the snake out of his throat. Then it cried out to me:
"Bite! Bite its head off! Bite!" Thus it cried out to me- my dread, my hatred, my nausea, my pity, all that is good and wicked
in me cried out of me with a single cry…
The shepherd, however, bit as my cry counseled him; he bit with a good bite. Far away he spewed the head of the snake- and he jumped up. No longer shepherd, no longer human- one changed, radiant, laughing! Never yet on earth has a human being laughed as he laughed! O my brothers, I heard a laughter that was no human's laughter, and now a thirst gnaws at me, a longing that grows still. My longing for this laughter gnaws at me; oh, how do I bear to go on living! And how could I bear to die now! (TSZ pp158-60)
Like the shepherd, Nietzsche was infiltrated by another entity. His overidentification with his father can be pictured as an attempt to incorporate an indigestible being. Just as the snake clung to the shepherd's innards, the father-dysangel clung to Nietzsche's soul and could not be shaken off. On the other hand, Nietzsche's inner child was also like the snake, insofar as it crawled inside the protective enclosure of the father-self to ward off feelings of loss and loneliness.
With this paradox firmly in place, we would expect that a resolution -biting off the snake- would be impossible; that any attempt at solution would spiral into Eternal Return. Still, the snake is destroyed, apparently bringing the conflict to a conclusion. What could this mean?
Another image of a foreign entity clinging to a man shows up immediately after the tightrope-walker scene. In this case, the creature clinging to Zarathustra bears a stronger resemblance to Nietzsche's inner father.
Meanwhile the evening came, and the market place hid in darkness. Then the people scattered, for even curiosity and terror grow weary. But Zarathustra sat on the ground near the dead man, and was lost in thought, forgetting the time. At last night came, and a cold wind blew over the lonely one. Then Zarathustra said to his herd: "Verily, it is a beautiful catch of fish that Zarathustra has brought in today! Not a man has he caught but a corpse. Human existence is uncanny and still without meaning: a jester can become a man's fatality. I will teach men the meaning of their existence- the overman, the lightning out of the dark cloud of man. But I am still far from them, and my sense does not speak to their senses. To men I am still the mean between a fool and a corpse. "Dark is the night, dark are Zarathustra's ways. Come, cold, stiff companion! I shall carry you where I may bury you with my own hands." When Zarathustra said this to his heart he hoisted the corpse on his back and started on his way. (TSZ pp21-2)
Zarathustra goes on to carry the corpse across the countryside, through forests and swamps. After begging food from an old man, he tires and decides to sleep. Setting the corpse inside the hollow trunk of a tree so that it will be protected from wolves,
Zarathustra lies down and closes his eyes.
This sequence of images can be read as a pictographic script narrating Nietzsche’s childhood. In a certain sense, Nietzsche did take a corpse onto his shoulders- that of his deceased father. Following Nietzsche’s metaphors, we might say that this burden was a heavy weight for a young boy to bear. Any growth following the death of Nietzsche’s father was undermined by the other self firmly implanted in his soul, like the corpse hidden inside the hollow tree. And, just as the corpse fills the gap in the tree, the dead father-self was an attempt to fill the emotional void left by the death of the real father.
When we turn to the question of the corpse's identity, we are brought quickly back to the tightrope walker scene, for the corpse is the body of the dead tightrope walker, fallen to his death. The complex web of intertwined doublets and vicious circles constituting the tightrope-walker scene was discussed previously. We saw that the tightrope walker's place is at the apex of this spiral, competing with himself to reach the end of the rope. It is this apex, this point of tension in an exquisitely difficult balancing act, which gives us a clue as to the origins and structure of Nietzsche's breakdown.
Then something happened that made every mouth dumb and every eye rigid. For meanwhile the tightrope walker had begun his performance: he had stepped out of a small door and was walking over the rope, stretched between two towers and suspended over the marketplace and the people. When he had reached the exact middle of his course the small door opened once more and a fellow in motley clothes, looking like a jester, jumped out and followed the first one with quick steps. "Forward, lamefoot!" he shouted in an awe-inspiring voice. "Forward, lazybones, smuggler, pale face, or I shall tickle you with my heel! What are you doing here between the towers? The tower is where you belong. You ought to be locked up; you block the way for one better than yourself." And with every word he came closer and closer; but when he was but one step behind, the dreadful thing happened which made every mouth dumb and every eye rigid; he uttered a devilish cry and jumped over the man who stood in his way. This man, however, seeing his rival win, lost his head and the rope, tossed away his pole, and plunged into
the depth even faster, a whirlpool of arms and legs. The market place became as the sea when a tempest pierces it: the people
rushed apart and over one another, especially at the place where the body must hit the ground. (TSZ pp19-20)
A later statement by Zarathustra, "I am still the mean between a fool and a corpse," taken together with the image of Zarathustra bearing of the corpse on his back, indicates that the tightrope walker embodies the father-aspect of Nietzsche's psyche. Therefore, by extension, it might be suspected that the jester symbolizes the child-self in Nietzsche.
With the exception of the jester’s Dionysian spontaneity, however, his tone and behavior are hardly suggestive of a child's. The jester's threatening remarks, his booming voice, his insane acrobatics, surrounded him with an aura of threatening alienness. Nevertheless, we can see how he fits into the sequential structure of the tightrope-walker scene. The tightrope walker tries to walk over himself, and the jester jumps over him.
Moreover, there is an eerie correspondence between the murder of the tightrope-walker and the event that triggered Nietzsche's breakdown. Nietzsche collapsed on seeing a cab-driver cruelly whipping his horse- and doesn’t the jester's treatment of the tightrope-walker seem strangely akin to that of a cruel horseman towards his beast? "'Forward, lamefoot!' he shouted in an awe-inspiring voice. 'Forward, lazybones, smuggler, pale face, or I shall tickle you with my heel!'" "Forward lamefoot"? Or "I shall tickle you with my heel!"? These phrases sound more fitting coming from the mouth of a
horseback-rider about to spur (tickle with his heel) a slow nag.
To Nietzsche, the image of the horse-and-rider was a familiar one. Plato and Schopenhauer, who were both closely read by Nietzsche, use metaphors of the horse and rider to express their views of human nature; the horse symbolizes the animal instincts, and the rider refers to the conscious mind responsible for taming and controlling them.
It is tempting, then, to assume that Nietzsche's horse signified the instinctual, Dionysian child-self, and the rider embodied the controlling Apollonian father-self. Nietzsche had spent his life trying to be a horseback-rider, trying to be his father. The act of grasping the mistreated horse by the neck and breaking out in tears suggests a shift in identification from father-self to child-self. We might conclude, then, that at the moment of his breakdown, Nietzsche ceased to feel himself as his father, and instead was engulfed by the experience of loss and invalidation contained within his child-self.
Yet if the rider is the father-self, then what of the jester who seems his symbolic equivalent? As was noted, the jester seems more like a Dionysiac than an Apollonian. How could the jester be a jester, a motley creature of spontaneity and humor, and still embody the Apollonian identity of the father-self? He could not, but did so nevertheless. For in the very act of appropriating the horse-and-rider metaphor, Nietzsche deconstructed it. Not only was Nietzsche like a horse being ridden by a false identity, but he was also riding on the back of that idealized self-image, using its energy to propel him through life rather than expending effort on realizing his true self (Horney, 1950).
Alice Miller (1991) falls into the trap that we try to avoid here. She claims that Nietzsche's breakdown can be seen as a regression to the inner child, whose true feelings and needs could only be expressed through uninhibited madness. Such an explanation, by collapsing Nietzsche's always-indeterminate madness into one half of a doublet, belies the paradoxical style of his thought and emotion. Moreover, it is contradicted by the many grandiose, paranoid, and violent acts Nietzsche committed during his period of insanity. These were not the acts of a child.
The image of a loss of balance we find in the tightrope-walker scene might suggest, rather, that Nietzsche fell into a more uneven self-experience. Another passage from Zarathustra gives the impression that such a fall was an ever-present danger for Nietzsche:
Not the height but the precipice is terrible. That precipice where the glance plunges down and the hand reaches up. There the heart becomes giddy confronted with its double will. Alas, my friends, can you guess what is my heart's double will?
This, this is my precipice and my danger, that my glance plunges into the height and that my hand would grasp and hold on to the depth. My will clings to man; with fetters I bind myself to man because I am swept up toward the overman; for that way my other will wants to go…. (TSZ p142)
Nietzsche says he has "two wills," one directed towards man, one towards Overman. Although he tells us that it is the precipice, and "not the height," which "is terrible," he goes on to stress the danger of being swept upwards. His wording -"my glance plunges into the height”- suggests that flying upwards is akin to falling into a deep void.
The image of plunging into the sky suggests a rapidly intensifying self-inflation, an inundation of power and greatness. This rise is also a fall because, for Nietzsche, to rise to the heights of self-inflation was also to fall downwards, into the omnipotent father's grave.
There is little that is unfamiliar here- since the rise into the heights is aimed toward the "Overman," the simultaneous upwards and downwards movement of this "rising" is as paradoxical as the tightrope walker's journey over himself to reach the Overman.
However, the image of the precipice and an imminent plunge into the heights does not mirror the tightrope walker's precarious equilibrium, but rather, parallels his fall into the abyss.
Juxtaposed with the horse-and-rider incident, these passages in Zarathustra imply that the change in Nietzsche's state of mind during his breakdown was not as radical as some (Jaspers, 1935/1997) have concluded. If Nietzsche's mad rantings are closely examined, this notion is borne out.
He wrote notes to the King of Italy ("My beloved Umberto', the royal house of Baden ('my children'), and the Vatical Secretary of State. He would go to Rome on Tuesday, he said, to meet the pope and the prince of Europe, except for the Hohenzollerns. (Hayman, 1980, p335)
The elegant and cultured father-self is central here, the child-self marginal. In his idealized splendor, the father-self decides to consort with the royalty of Europe, his reverse side only visible in the dreamy, childlike tone of the plan.
(note to Meta von Salis)
The world is transfigured, for God is on the earth. Do you not see how all the heavens are rejoicing? I have just seized possession
of my kingdom, am throwing the pope into prison, and am having Wilhelm, Bismarck, and Stocker shot. (Hayman, 1980, p335)
Again, the father-self is dominant. The note identifies Nietzsche with God, showing us that, just as his free spirits recreate the morality they have destroyed, Nietzsche becomes God's successor after announcing his death. A deeper sense is revealed when this passage is read in the light of Nietzsche's childhood, for, by taking on the identity of his dead father, he became that Godlike figure's replacement.
After the Finos had given him a bromide he was able to talk more clearly, but, between playing fragments very softly, at the piano, he spoke of himself a successor to the dead god, and, as the effects of the calmative wore off, he clowned excitedly, leaping about, dancing, shouting, gesturing obscenely. (Hayman, 1980, p336)
The shift in emotional state depicted in this excerpt signifies a movement from father-self to son-self. First, the calm grandeur of an Apollonian dominates Nietzsche, and then the childlike antics of a Dionysiac erupt. Another eruption occurred while he was taken for a walk:
In the afternoon, taken for another walk in the garden, he sang, whimpered and shouted, again lying on the ground several times
after talking off his jacket and waistcoat. (Hayman, 1980, p337)
Nietzsche's late insanity can be understood, therefore, as a series of radical shifts between dominance of the father and submergence of the child and dominance of the child and submergence of the father. Just as, in his childhood autobiography, Nietzsche continuously vacillates between speaking with the voice of the father and uttering the discourse of the child, after his breakdown he oscillated between the poles of father-self-experience and child-self-experience.
Other accounts of Nietzsche's delirium tend to support this idea:
According to the records of the clinic, Nietzsche apologized for
the bad weather. 'For you, good people, I shall prepare the
loveliest weather tomorrow.' (Hayman, 1980, p337)
During the afternoon he sometimes broke down into singing and
screaming. (Hayman, 1980, p337)
He stayed in bed all morning, and, taken for a walk in the
afternoon, he threw his hat down and sometimes lay on the ground.
(Hayman, 1980, p337)
When he was led into the psychiatric department, he kept bowing
politely, and he strode majestically into his room, thanking the
attendants for the 'magnificent reception.' (Hayman, 1980, p339)
It should be stressed that none of these moments represented a total victory of one self and a complete annihilation of the other. Both identities were always present; what changed was their relative prominence. During the incidents in which the father-self ruled, the child-self was still present in the fantastical, fairy-tale quality of the ideas being enacted. We do not see a God here, but a childish caricature of a God. Likewise, the yelling and wild romping of the child-self often seem more like witty imitations of childlike behavior than authentic play. One gets the feeling that there is a larger intelligence guiding these acts.
Both types of moments, then, were not quite whole-hearted. In each expression of one self we can see a kernel of the marginalized other self. This is what gave some observers the impression that Nietzsche was feigning madness- for, just as an actor is feigning because behind his role is a person playing it, Nietzsche seemed like he was pretending because behind his manifest self was always a latent self. In a way, he was always play-acting, insofar as what was authentic expression for one self was play-acting for the other self.
The image of a mistreated horse and its cruel rider can be taken to suggest the unbalanced domination of each self by the other. During Nietzsche's outbursts and wild antics, one self was whipping the other into submission, smothering that other self with its own subjectivity. Kicking and screaming, the child tried to overwhelm the father, who would in turn attempt to annihilate the child through hyperbolic expressions of his own maturity and power.
In his madness, Nietzsche continued to reenact the conflict between father and son, yet shifting between these extremes rather than balancing them. Instead of participating in grand wars of words, he had delusions of assassinating government officials. Rather than discoursing elegantly on the virtues of the Dionysian attitude, he sang and tore off his clothes.
We are still left, however, with the question of the jester’s identity unanswered. The jester, he who walks over the tightrope-walker, the royal fool, lover of paradox and irony, spontaneity and wit, seems a crucial figure in Nietzsche’s madness. However, the jester’s meaning remains ever elusive, despite the efforts we make to locate and define him. Here, perhaps, is that element of Nietzsche's thought which, like his wily Dionysos, is ultimately ungraspable, as it shifts and changes, seeming to resolve into a definite form only to slip from our hands once again. In one of his last letters, Nietzsche writes to Cosima Wagner:
To Princess Ariadne, My Beloved. 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 Dionysos—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... However, I now come as Dionysos victorious, who will prepare a great festival on Earth... Not as though I had much time...
Here are some comments on the paper, “Nietzsche’s Madness, written by Kyle Arnold and George Atwood. We hope our remarks will be of interest to those who looked at our essay.
In September of 1998, early on a Tuesday morning as I remember it now, a 20 year-old Kyle Arnold came to speak to me at my office hours in Lucy Stone Hall at Livingston College of Rutgers University. He was beginning his senior year at Rutgers with a double major in psychology and English, and he proposed doing an honors thesis under my sponsorship on the life and thought of the great philosopher, Friedrich Nietzsche. I was very interested in this proposal and agreed to it right away, as I had recently led a very intense semester-long seminar at Rutgers exploring the link between Nietzsche’s creative genius and his madness.
I originally discovered Nietzsche’s writings when I was a freshman in college and ran across his masterwork, Thus Spoke Zarathustra. I was fascinated by this tale of a wandering holy man preaching radical doctrines that propose a transformation of western civilization. Not understanding the ideas particularly well, there was something nevertheless in his thinking that spoke to me, and I found myself returning to Zarathustra and then to many of Nietzsche’s other writings in the ensuing years. Looking back now, it seems possible that I was absorbing his thoughts and his insights very gradually as I slowly worked my way through all his major books, and it also seems possible that my own life work as a psychologist and writer has been influenced more by this philosopher than any other.
Kyle had taken two of my undergraduate courses before embarking on his honors thesis, one in abnormal psychology and the other in personality theory. But these were big classes with hundreds of students, and I did not know him well. The first thing I discovered as our work began was that he had a sophisticated understanding of Nietzsche’s works that was simply astonishing in such a young person. He had been reading Nietzsche for almost 10 years already, and I mean reading him closely and carefully, assimilating the complex concepts and searching for ways to make them his own. I, on the other hand, had at the time of beginning to work with Kyle been reading Nietzsche’s writings for 40 years; and so, adding it all together, it can be said that this project which eventuated in our co-authored essay, “Nietzsche’s Madness,” had a full half-century of serious Nietzsche study behind it.
Another factor importantly affecting my own enthusiasm for the project at this early stage was that I had recently acquired a copy of Nietzsche’s autobiography, written when he was 13 years old: Aus Meinem Leben (Out of My Life). I could not find an English translation, so I had set about, with great difficulty, translating it from the German myself. This little work, which includes an account of the end of his father’s life and of the dream depicting Nietzsche’s subsequent engulfing identification with his dead father, is of supreme significance in making sense of his life and thought.
My interest in Nietzsche developed in high school, when, much like Nietzsche himself, I was an alienated guy longing to belong somewhere and be respected. Nietzsche was the ultimate role model- a 19th century reclusive nerd who somehow had become cool, so cool, in fact, that he was quoted by badass musicians like Trent Reznor and his writing could be found in bookstores everywhere. George Atwood spoke openly in his lectures about not fitting into academic psychology, his inability to relate to colleagues at our college, and a lasting sense of isolation that had haunted his life. And yet he too, like Nietzsche, had become a super cool, edgy intellectual. I hoped that somehow I could absorb these two figures' combined coolness and through doing so, find a path in life that was workable.
What came to be most important to me, however, was the process of collaboration. Teaming up together with anyone had been largely elusive to me before the Nietzsche study. I was so alienated I could not access any sense of how to go about collaborating. It seemed like it would be fun, but how to do it? Mostly, it was easier just to do my own thing. However, George’s enthusiasm and his openness towards my own ideas were infectious and before long, we were having long wide ranging conversations about Nietzsche in George’s office and over the phone. The experience of collaborating with George was so powerful that it became permanently embedded in my Rorschach inkblot test responses. In Card II, I see an image of the two of us high-fiving each other on a job well done.
One of the most inspiring aspects of the project was the absolute freedom George allowed me while also valuing whatever I had to contribute. That combination of attitudes had a powerful catalytic effect on my own creativity that has rarely had an equivalent since then. The baroque and sometimes grandiloquent style in which the paper is written expresses both an identification with Nietzsche’s style and a dramatization of the intellectual passion that was kindled during the project. Although writing about Nietzsche did not succeed in making me cool, it did provide an initiatory experience into the realm of shared passion, a meeting of minds that powerfully informed the direction my career would take.
A long series of dialogues focused on Nietzsche’s philosophy and life history occurred following the approval of Kyle’s project. We met very early in the morning before one of my large lecture courses and we spoke to each other in many long telephone conversations on the weekends. Soon Kyle began to write, each week submitting a few pages for my perusal, which he would then revise based on our ongoing discussions of the material. An intellectual symbiosis developed in this process, one in which each of us would propose various ideas and the other would expand upon them. Out of this back and forth process, insights into Nietzsche’s life and works crystallized that neither of us would have been able to formulate while working alone. There was no critical evaluation in our dialogues, which unfolded at every stage in a spirit of absolute mutual respect. It was all positive, every step of the way. The only experience of such a wonderful collaboration I have had otherwise was with my friend and colleague, Robert Stolorow, with whom I have written many articles and books.
As Kyle’s writing of the essay continued over the weeks and months after our discussions began, a question began to form in my mind. What Kyle was bringing to me in our many meetings was so good, so carefully worked out, so beautifully composed, so brilliant, I asked: How is it possible that this 20 year-old kid is doing this? Kyle Arnold was writing the entirety of “Nietzsche’s Madness,” but how was he doing it? I had read extensively in the secondary literature of Nietzsche’s thought – biographies, commentaries, critiques – but I had never encountered anything even remotely as good as what this undergraduate child was giving me week after week. All I can say is that he was amazingly precocious, strangely replicating Friedrich Nietzsche’s own precocious maturity as his identification with his lost father took hold of his life and consumed it. Looking back now, I see that Kyle’s native intelligence somehow combined with my own passionate interest in the great one – Friedrich Nietzsche – and was then able to produce a masterpiece. That is how I see it.
Once the initial version of the essay was completed, it was submitted to the Rutgers University honors committee in psychology for their endorsement. The committee, again as I remember this episode in the early journey of this paper, reluctantly granted its approval. It was reluctant because the appointed readers of the paper had no basis for evaluating it – they knew next to nothing of the philosophy of Nietzsche, they had no understanding of psychobiography, and their only questions concerned the possible biological basis of Nietzsche’s madness. What made my many years teaching in the program at my college worthwhile to me was the endless opportunity to work with so many brilliant, sensitive students.
Shortly after his graduation with a Bachelor’s degree, Kyle and I submitted the Nietzsche essay to Psychoanalaytic Review. It was accepted and published, without revision. Subsequently, a further rewrite of the paper was picked up by William Todd Schultz, for inclusion in the Handbook of Psychobiography. I like to think that this essay has a continuingly bright future.
There was always something different about George and the other professors. While other professors used either didactic or constructivist approaches to teaching, George's method was something else altogether: a catalytic approach. Although it was obvious George was a man of knowledge and he was not shy about sharing what he knew, he also conveyed a genuine interest in kindling what he called the "genius" of each student. That “genius” was not, as he approached it, an established fact or capability, but a latent unknowable spark of possible brilliance. What he worked with in students was akin to the “unvalidated unconscious” that he and his colleagues discuss in their clinical texts. The unvalidated unconscious, they have it, is a dimension of unconscious experience including aspects of the self that have been left undeveloped not due to defenses but because they were not validated by primary caregivers. George's pedagogical approach, as I see it, was to massively and precisely validate the unvalidated unconscious aspect of each student's intellect while remaining completely open to whatever emerged from it. This approach led to powerful and sometimes transformative openings for students when their latent genius suddenly came on line.
At the same time, George transparently communicated how his own needs were operative in relationships with students and, in so doing, opened the door to metacommunication about the interactions. Using Kohutian terminology, he explained that students served a certain "selfobject” function for him, supporting and sustaining his own sense of self. With Nietzsche in particular, George explained that he identified with Nietzsche, having suffered a similar loss of a parent at a young age. Further, he elaborated, by studying Nietzsche’s early loss we were in effect providing the validation and empathy that the young George had needed after his own loss. George’s disclosures were not awkward confessions, but rather, bold and honest elaborations of the intersubjective aspects of his teaching process that he used with deliberation to enhance that process. The transparency of George’s style helped keep us both grounded so that the creative force unleashed by the catalytic dimension of his method could be held safely within the relationship.
I love everything Kyle has said here. Creative genius, as I have gradually realized, is a potential lying inside every person. The difference between those who produce works of genius and those who do not is that the former try very hard, whereas the latter find other things to do with their time. I have tried to integrate this understanding into my teaching over the decades, often telling my many students that as far as I am concerned they are geniuses, all of them, without exception. It pleases me to imagine that this positive attitude may sometimes have brought forth potentials in young people that otherwise would have been unseen and unrealized. On the other hand, dazzling creativity does not lie in the destiny of most people, nor should it – extreme trauma in the early years is almost always involved, and a fragmentation of the soul and then a driving need to achieve wholeness appears. This is clearly the case in the life of Friedrich Nietzsche, who was catapulted by trauma into precocious maturity and brilliance, at the expense of an opportunity to live out his own boyhood.
Nietzsche’s personal story is one of unrelieved sadness and heartbreak, in which the early loss of his beloved father eventuated in the burial of his capacity to be fully himself. Does the illumination of his trauma and associated struggle with duality help us in understanding his message? Are we then in a better position to learn from his tragic journey and be guided by his wisdom, as civilization itself dispenses with beliefs in the gods and faces into an uncertain future? I like to think that the answer to these questions is an absolute Yes.
When Kyle Arnold and I published the study of Nietzsche, now many years ago, I had naively expected our paper to have a big impact, both in philosophy and psychoanalysis. I excitedly made copies of the essay and sent them to colleagues in philosophy and English at Rutgers who were participating in a Nietzsche study group, and I also sent copies to a number of well-known psychoanalysts. The result: deafening, icy silence. The philosophers and literature scholars dismissed the paper as embarrassing reductionism, and the psychoanalysts knew so little of Nietzsche’s work that they did not know how to respond. Oh well, anything really good will always have a hard time being understood and appreciated.