Nietzsche's Breakdown: Insanity, or brilliance?

topic posted Wed, March 9, 2005 - 10:42 AM by  Unsubscribed
I've been reading more and more about Nietzsche's aleged breakdown, and the more I read the more it confirmed my suspicions that his "breakdown" was just a natural result of his philosophy.

Plenty of people, including doctors it seems, rejected the idea that he had syphilis, and said that his symptoms were not consistant with the disease. GeorgesBataille was one of these people.

Nietzsche himself characterized his "breakdown" as a breakthrough that he rejoices over, and he doesn't seem to think something wrong is happening.

Reading Nietzsche's philosophy, it seems obvious that his strange behavior was his idea of a joke, as well as an application of his philosophy in his life. Signing his name on letters as other people I think are attempts at humor, that most people would view as insane.

I think Nietzsche's maddness really came from his brilliance, and the people around him only saw it as insanity because they didn't understand what he was doing.
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  • Unsu...
    This is an interesting argument.

    Ken Wilber makes what I find to be a useful distinction, that he refers to as a pre/trans fallacy. A pre/trans fallacy is confusing a state of pre-concepual development with a state of post-conceptual development.

    I am not saying your argument is an example of this fallacy; I bring it up to raise the idea that there is a meaningful and important distinction to be made there. To put it another way, did Nietzsche move forward in his transformation or backward?

    Based on the little I know of Nietzsche's biorgraphy, it doesn't seem like he had a positive breakthrough, regardless of how he characterized it early on. I get the strong impression that it is not that he moved beyond philosophy - he simply couldn't get it together any more.

    Likewise, I find it hard to look at him not being able to take care of his own basic needs and think "Here is a man who has grown past the vision of his contemporaries." I believe that that can certainly happen, but the people who I believe have done so have quite a different character. See, for example, the writings of Sri Nisargadatta Majaraj. In my eyes, every single word he said clearly reflects the statement of someone who has seen past the deceptive lattice of conceptuality, and never deviates form the truth. But he was able to live and work.

    The Wikipedia entry on Nietzsche seems to do a balanced job of summarizing this issue:

    "The initial symptoms of Nietzsche's 'breakdown', as evidenced in the letters he sent to his friends in the few days of lucidity remaining to him, bear many similarities to the ecstatic writings of religious mystics. These letters remain the best evidence we have of Nietzsche's own opinion on the nature of his 'breakdown'. Nietzsche's letters describe his experience as a religious breakthrough and he rejoices, rather than laments. Most Nietzsche commentators find the issue of Nietzsche's breakdown and 'insanity' irrelevant to his work as a philosopher, though some, including Georges Bataille, have disagreed.

    "Nietzsche spent the last ten years of his life insane, in the care of his sister Elisabeth, and unaware of the growing success of his works. The cause of Nietzsche's condition has to be regarded as undetermined. Doctors later in his life said they were not so sure about the initial diagnosis of syphilis because he lacked the typical symptoms. While the story of syphilis indeed became generally accepted in the twentieth century, recent research in the Journal of Medical Biography shows that syphilis is not consistent with Nietzsche's symptoms, and that the contention that he had the disease originated in anti-Nietzschean tracts. One of the best arguments against the syphilis theory is summarized by Claudia Crawford in the book To Nietzsche: Dionysus, I Love You! Ariadne. Another speculation is that he had a similar brain condition to his father's. His handwriting in all the letters that he had written around the period of the final breakdown showed no sign of deterioration, a typical symptom of syphilis."
    • Unsu...
      You're right, if it was his insight that drove him mad, it seems to have destroyed his ability to take care of himself.

      But he did say that the last transformation was a child...
      • Unsu...
        I would really encourage you to read David Farell Krell's book, 'Nietzsche'. It's labeled as fiction but is based on some of the most thorough investigation of Nietzsche's writings and madness. The book is written in some unclassifiable type of prose that floats from different perspectives, at many times narrated by the insane Nietzsche himself. Intercut throughout the book are excerpts from the medical records from the first year of Nietzsche's madness that he passed in an asylum before he was released to his mother's care. Some of the most striking parts of the doctor's first hand accounts are the descriptions of how his condition fluctuated. On certain days he would be jovial with the doctors, conscious of what day it was and would even request to read some of his own books, but then a week later he would have lost ten pounds and would be caught naked in the garden rolling in the ground and eating his own feces. (Krell makes numerous referneces to Euripedes' Bacchae, and with good reason it seems.)
        Lou Andreas-Salome makes the claim that Nietzsche's madness was the necesary result of his philosophy (after all Nietzsche himself declares that his philosophy was an experiment on himself to see how much truth one's 'soul' could bear), written in 1896. The book was partly responsible for, but also emblematic of the growing interest in Nietzsche based on the spreading word of his madness (the idea of the philosopher who drove himself mad is the sort of thing that sells books, who cares about the philosophy...)
        My personal opinion of the subject varies. I think the case could be convincingly made that Nietzsche had premonitions of his oncoming madness... and this could explain why 1889 was his most productive year, why he went back to his earlier books and rewrote prefaces to them, why he wrote Ecce Homo, as a last testament before he bears his cross (Krell deals with this in a very provacative way in his book)... but this sort of judgement is based more on a romantic tendency in me than on an anything else. It does seem qualified to me to doubt that Nietzsche necesarilly had syphillis, and though it is listed as an illness of his on his medical charts at the asylums, he was in general a terribly sicly man. It does seem somewhat verified that he visited a brothel in his student days, the only information I know about such a visit is the anecdote that he was so uncomfortable in the setting that he went over to the corner of the room and sat down at a player piano and began to play to the entertainment of patrons and prostitutes alike. That sounds like Nietzsche! THis incident is recounted in a letter by one Nietzsche's early friends and was later used by Thomas Mann in one his novels. But do read Krell's book, it's well worth your time.
        • Unsu...
          > It does seem somewhat verified that he visited a brothel in his student days, the only information I know about such a visit is the anecdote that he was so uncomfortable in the setting that he went over to the corner of the room and sat down at a player piano and began to play to the entertainment of patrons and prostitutes alike.

          The version I heard was that Nietzsche wandered into a brothel, and once he realized where he was, he walked over to the piano, played a single chord, and then left. I believe Thomas Mann used this story as the model for a similar scene in his Dr. Faustus.
  • I think that there is a danger amongst the literati to romanticize mental illness-- to see it as something wonderful or exciting.

    While I think that Nietzsche or anyone who thinks along similar lines will be tempted to explore the boundries of thought and acceptable behavior (Michel Foucault, for example) and people with mental illness might be drawn to boundry crossing thoughts-- it does not follow that Nietzschean philosophy would lead to insanity-- that is an absurdity unsuccessfully used by attorney Clarence Darrow in his defense of Leopold and Loeb. It's entirely possible for Nietzsche to have been a brilliant mind and have an underlying physiological illness that eventually led to a breakdown.

    Europe, though less so than today, had a counter culture of bohemian free spirits, whom Nietzsche could have dropped into. He could have become the equivilent of an Indian Sadhu. He could have ended his literary career and become a professional musician, etc.

    Whatever the cause-- syphilis, genetic predisposition, seizure, etc.-- the accounts describe not some sort of "dropping out" of his society (which he basically did once he resigned his teaching position in Basel) but psychosis.

    Certainly, Nietzsche's philosophy may have contributed to his breakdown in that it caused him to reject most of the social institutions (family, community,religion, morality) that give some stability to someone in crisis-- or allow somebody of exceptional intelligence to avoid getting help.
  • Great article about a book on Nietzsche in the August edition of Harpers magazine. I highly recommend the short read...

    Link to the article:
    • Unsu...
      That link seems to lead to the first few paragraphs of an essay. I assume there's more?
      • Yes, you'll have to get the read of the essay at your local library. I doubt you will find any of these issues on a newsstand.

        The author makes the case that the nature of the breakdown is irrelevant, and that contemporary infatuation with Nietzsche is undeserved.
        • Unsu...
          By my reckoning, the current 'infatuation' with Nietzsche is now well into its second century, and it is eminently well-deserved. A single work of Nietzsche's is worth 200 dissertations produced by the average scholar, and a single epigraph contains more insight than many entire books I have read.

          His influence is vast and far-reaching. He revolutionized the German understanding of Greek culture, transformed aesthetics, historicized ethics, openned the door to psychoanalysis, and began to work with the complex problem of articulating philosophical problems in the absence of a timeless, transcendental superstructure. His influence on continental philosophy and critical theory is, of course, overwhelming.

          This is in addition to being one of the greatest prose stylists of 19th Century Germany. His impact is seen in many of the greatest literary figures to follow him, including Rilke, Hesse, Mann, and Brecht.

          These are vast contributions which, unlike the pale offerings of so many philosophers, actually contribute meaningfully to the life of our culture outside a narrow circle of 'experts'.
  • I think Nietzsche's breakdown was very similar to Holderlin's and Artaud's and perhaps Van Gogh's. As thoughtful explorers into domains that had not found linguistic and cultural matrixes to contain the numinous, they were unable to bid the psychic energies that were released. These unbounded energies overwhelmed their ego functioning. I think Holderlin's poem Empedocles says it all and unfortunately I don't have it ready-at-hand to quote to you.
  • Lots of great posts on this thread. On Nietzsche's breakdown we should probably also consider Heidegger's commentary in "What is Called Thinking?" (lectures 5 and 6 I believe). Heidegger sees Nietzsche's breakdown as a kind of coming to presence of his own thinking, a coming to fruition (we probably shoudn't say a "logical consequence"). Madness is the "correct psychological diagnosis", but doesn't come close to the truth of things ( a kind of Kuhnian truth?).
    • The best thing I've seen about Nietzsche's delirium is by Jean-Luc Nancy in "The Birth to Presence", and is called "Paralysis Progressiva."

      Nancy shows how Nietzsche's psychotheatrics forces him to become identified with the God who has died, incarnating the very paralysis of a god who is reconciled to world "abandoned" by the very thing it was supposed to provide: being. A god abandoned to abandonment.

      There is also a sense in which, after the AntiChrist, Nietzsche's first Revaluation of All Values, his critical project has come to a close. Add that to strenuous overwork during the final years.

      Nietzsche's health was always fragile and tenuous (he could very well have not recovered during the Basel years). Krell's book is excellent too.

      There is another book of testimony and letters written by Nietzche's friends, the title I've forgotten. The last chapter has, I believe, the most extensive account of his mad years translated into English. It describes his diagnosis in the clinic, his relationship to his mother and sister, the variations of health and attutidude over the final years, and has some geniunely touching accounts his behavior. (I'll try to remember the title.)

      • Unsu...
        Personally, I think that's all complete bullshit. This is not a philosophical question, it's a psychological one. People do not experience mental breakdowns because they are compelled to enact psychotheatrics - that view of mental illness is medieval. It makes about as much sense as saying Nietzsche broke his arm because of his reading of Heraclitus.
        • It is perfectly possible to break your arm because of a brush in with Presocratic thugs.
          • From what I have read, Nietzsche seemed to have demonstrated after his mental breakdown all the symptoms of mental dementia. Millions of people throughout the world succumbed to that disease, and very few of them had the brilliance that Nietzsche had. So to conclude as her sister did and many others that Nietzsche's mental breakdown is a direct result of his work is most likely totally incorrect.

            My two cents...
            • Unsu...
              I would agree with the above statement.
              I think it more than likely he was bipolar as well.
              There is little question that he suffered from dementia toward the end of his life.
              Probably hereditary. His father died young of "premature softening of the brain."
              I would hasten to add though that even in his dementia he was a remarkable thinker.
              Disease can be quite fruitful for some, I dare say.
              Besides, insanity is the kind normative concept he'd spent his career attacking.
  • Indeed many of the threads i have read hold valid consideration on Nietzsches last decade. The aspect that bares the most weight on my scrutiny of his mental deterioration lies geneticaly with Ludwig Nietzsches "softening of the brain." I also agreee that he was have suffered from manic depression (bi-polar). Somemone whos advice i hold dear mentioned to me that "when one hides a "secret" that profoundly affects them for a great amout of time, this may lead to other forms of confusion." I do not know what it was that led Fritz to his collapse in Piazza Carlo Alberto. His philosophy holds extreme weight on any conscience that contrives it, he was (i think) too obsesive compulsive to maintain a relationship with any woman. His insights to psychology paved the way for extreme psychoanalysis and i personally regard him in high esteem.
  • Does it matter in the scope of ten thousand years?
    • Unsu...
      That question would put a quick end to a lot of threads on Tribe. : )
      • There are several other works which offer different hypotheses as to what may have caused N's breakdown. The conjectures range from meningioma (a kind of eye cancer - this I find the most convincing), schizophrenia, dementia, etc. You can read these (they are listed below) and make your own assessment.

        What seems vital is that these, as well as any other hypotheses, offer different viewpoints which disrupt what has been purported as fact and perpetuated throughout biographical history as fact. It seems wisest to leave the question open since, in the end, it doesn't seem possible to make a definitive diagnosis. Too many scholars and readers have simply repeated existing stories without returning to the original sources to separate the wheat from the chaff. . .

        The final document listed is the most recent though some of the assessments they make seem dubious (Nietzsche's messy room is a sign of his impending dementia).

        Dr. Leonard Sax: "What was the cause of Nietzsche's Dementia?" Journal of Medical Biography 2003; 11: 47–54
        A link to a pdf of the essay:

        Richard Schain's *The Legend of Nietzsche's Syphilis*

        Verrechia, A. “Nietzsche’s breakdown in Turin” in Harrison, T, ed. *Nietzsche in Italy,* (Saratoga: Stanford University Press, 1988), pp. 105-112).

        This is the most authoritative and thoroughly researched study of Nietzsche's 'end': Volz, Pia Daniela, Nietzsche im Labyrinth seiner Krankheit: Eine medizinisch-biographische Untersuchung, (Wuerzburg: Koenighausen & Neumann, 1990).

        Orth M, and Trimble MR, "Friedrich Nietzsche’s mental illness – general paralysis of the insane vs. frontotemporal dementia," Acta Psychiatr Scand 2006: 439–445

        As for Nietzsche and the horse, that is a myth that will never seem to die. It was concocted nearly fifty years after the event and published in an Italian newspaper akin to the NY Post. How could a myopic man see a horse being whipped across a large, crowded Italian piazza?
        • Unsu...
          > (Nietzsche's messy room is a sign of his impending dementia).

          Uh oh ... I'm in bad trouble then.

          > As for Nietzsche and the horse, that is a myth that will never seem to die.

          Really? Do you have a citation for debunking that story?

          This surprises me because I first heard this story from Walter Kaufmann, and he's not exactly prone to being taken in by unsubstantiated stories about Nietzsche,.
          • The details of Nietzsche’s encounter with the horse hail from numerous Italian newspapers; a few of the articles are anonymous, raising doubts as to their validity. The first account of the episode and the main one from which most scholars and journalists have gathered information, is in Nuova Antologia, which was published on September 16, 1900, eleven years after the event and nearly one month after Nietzsche’s death.

            In this account, which is also by an anonymous journalist, Nietzsche is discovered by his landlord, David Fino. While “walking along the Via Po . . . [Mr. Fino] saw a group of people drawing near and in their midst were two municipal guards accompanying “the professor.” As soon as Nietzsche saw Fino, he threw himself into his arms, and Fino easily obtained his release from the guards, who said they found that foreigner outside the university gates, clinging tightly to the neck of a horse and refusing to let it go” (106).

            While these guards did find Nietzsche embracing a horse, there is no mention of it being beaten, let alone of Nietzsche collapsing on the street. What the account does relate is that some time prior to discovering Nietzsche in the street (exact dates are not given, it could be weeks, it could be months), his landlord was concerned that Nietzsche’s mental health was in danger.

            Since this article was written after an interview with the landlord, though many years later, it is probably reliable; yet Overbeck and Elisabeth never mention the horse and speak only of Nietzsche collapsing in the street as if they witnessed the event themselves. Their account does not corroborate with the one given by Nietzsche’s landlord.

            In another article, which relies in part on the first but includes recollections from Ernest Fino, the son of Nietzsche’s landlord, there are accounts of Nietzsche’s naked dancing, his affection for Ernest’s sister Irene, who he played piano with, and of his rows with spectators and actors at café concerts. But, most importantly, in this article the journalist Pavia states that Nietzsche did not embrace the horse on January 3rd, but on December 28th. In further accounts, the date of this event changes as well as the location, which alternately becomes Piazza Carlo Alberto, Piazza San Carlo, Piazza Carlina, and Via Accademia delle Scienze.

            Other articles, all written anywhere from several years to thirty or more years after Nietzsche’s death, base much of their research on commentaries from abroad, not from interviews with any of the possible eyewitnesses, many of whom were still alive. The article which contains the most graphic account, and the one which is most well known, was written more than fifty years after Nietzsche died. It includes the violent thrashing of the horse, Nietzsche’s wild embrace of it, and then, quite dramatically and as if Nietzsche possessed some uncanny degree of strength, it states that after losing consciousness, Nietzsche sank to the ground still clutching the horse. This account “in almost identical words,” was repeated, Verecchia notes, by a serious philosophy professor in his book on Nietzsche. Gottfried Benn stated that it was not one but two horses which Nietzsche embraced. The story seems difficult to believe, less an actual scene from Nietzsche’s life and more something out of Crime & Punishment. While two municipal guards may have seen Nietzsche embrace a horse and refuse to release it, the account is hardly that of the myth it has become.

            I don't know if Kaufmann checked the original sources. He may have just gleaned the details from Janz' book. The sources are listed in my previous post: the Verrechia chapter of Nietzsche in Italy and Pia Daniela Volz' book.

            The fact that the first story about the horse was published eleven years after it happend raises serious doubts as to its veracity. As the former landlord to a newly infamous 'insane' but dead philosopher, is it possible to trust the landlord's account? And a story written so many years after the event? Italians being the great raconteurs they are, and memory being the dubious faculty it is, we're standing in a vortex of unreliability. . .
            • Unsu...
              This is extremely interesting - thank you Rainer. My memory of Kaufmann as the source for that story may be muddled, too - I just searched through "Nietzsche; Philosopher, Psychologist, Antichrist" and could find no reference to it.

              Quite right that the story is so literary it's hard to accept at face value.
              • My pleasure, Barnaby. Your memory is not muddled though. The story is in Kaufmann's book. It's not in the index, but he mentions it on
                p. 67, or if you have a different edition, in part IV of "Nietzsche's Life as Background of His Thought," which is the first chapter of the book.

                It is too reminiscent of the horse scene in Crime and Punishment for me to believe it, so much to be an almost exact rendition. It's a compelling myth, especially considering Nietzsche's views on pity, but that's what gives it, at least in part, such dramatic force and makes it memorable. It's an evocative image.

                Hayman repeats the story, too, as does Cate in his new mammoth biography, which is full of errors and baseless claims.
                • Unsu...
                  Ah, there it is. I did an online search for the word "horse" on the Amazon website, but in Kaufmann's telling of the story he uses the word "mare". I return to my aforementioned astonishment that Kaufmann would be taken in by a story like this, particularly given that he was versed in Dostoevsky. I guess we all make mistakes.
  • I see lots of accounts here of the psychological explanation from the behaviorist and pathological perspectives. Here's my take on the philosophical explanation.

    N's entire life's philosophy was concerned, paradoxically in my opinion, with the illusory nature of truth. Truth to N could only ever be perspectival and artistic. When you see a tree, light waves (or photons) hit your retina and are converted into electric signals; somewhere along the way those signals are converted into..... an image. This, I take, is an example of N's idea of the "artistic" nature of truth.

    Here's a quote that has always stuck in my head, from Truth and Lies in a Nonmoral sense written in 1873:

    "And woe to that fatal curiosity which might one day have the power to peer out and down through a crack in the chamber of consciousness and then suspect that man is sustained in the indifference of his ignorance by that which is pitiless, greedy, insatiable, and murderous-as if hanging in dreams on the back of a tiger."

    A few things pop out at me here:
    * the image of a chamber of consciousness, whose walls when escaped presumably can never be rebuilt. Outside of the walls is, I think, the abyss
    * the curiosity that tries to peer out is "fatal"
    * "the indifference of his ignorance" seems to imply that peering out of the chamber is in effect seeing something new, learning and accepting some new fact or perspective. Probably the reason you can't get back in the chamber after you've peered out is that you can't unlearn what you learned
    * everything about N's life and philosophy implies that even if he thought the investigation was fatal, he would carry it out, paradoxically, it seems to me, in the name of truth.

    Nietzsche's (conscious) conception of truth was that it was something of no intrinsic value. It should be used or not used as it suited the ends of the wielder. His overman philosophy, as I read it, expresses the notion that we should create truth and belief as we wish, as they suit us.

    So, combine this desire to create truth at will, with the knowledge that real truth is an illusion sustaining ignorance of the abyss, and with N's constant prying at the "crack in the chamber", and what do you get?

    Maybe someone who completely, finally, ultimately *lets go* of truth. He might then write letters to the Pope signed as the Antichrist and roll naked in the garden.

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