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A Philosophical Illumination or A Delusion?

Psychiatrist Eva Cybulska provides a psychological interpretation of Nietzsche’s Eternal Return.

“Even as ‘a philosopher’ I still did not express my essential thoughts (or ‘delusions’).”
Friedrich Nietzsche, in a letter to Overbeck, April 1883

“Like great works, deep feelings always mean more than they are conscious of saying.”
Albert Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus

The influence of Friedrich Nietzsche on thought, literature and the art of the twentieth century has been beyond measure. His writings, lucid and highly provocative, are also exceptionally poetic and full of compelling imagery. And yet, there is something deeply disturbing, even morbid, in the form and the content of his ideas. He wrote with blood and with his entire existence, so that his writings became a moving involuntary biography of his soul. Well acquainted with the prose of Dostoyevsky, Nietzsche often referred to himself as the “underground man”. Indeed, his works can be seen as a subterranean diary from his odyssey into the world of the unconscious, into the world of the psychotic.

At the age of 44, Nietzsche was admitted to a mental asylum and diagnosed as suffering from paralysis progressiva (tertiary syphilis of the brain). Despite there being no evidence for syphilis, other than Nietzsche’s own ‘confession’ and his very disturbed mental state, the diagnosis endured for more than a century. Throughout his creative life, Nietzsche had been subject to considerable mood swings. I suggest that from 1881, when he conceived the theory he called die Ewige Wiederkehr des Gleichen (‘the eternal return of the same’), he had recurrent, if brief, episodes of hypomanic psychosis interlaced with longer periods of depression, studded with somatic complaints. In the current issue of Hospital Medicine, in a paper called ‘The Madness of Nietzsche: the Misdiagnosis of the Millennium?’, I argue it was not syphilis but a manicdepressive psychosis, followed by multi-infarct dementia.

The Eternal Return of the Same

In early August of 1881, near the village of Sils-Maria in the Swiss Alps, “6000 feet beyond man and time”, the idea of eternal return invaded Nietzsche’s mind and became central to his thought. As he walked down from the woods toward the shores of Lake Silvaplana and saw a large pyramidal stone, the thought hit him like a lightning bolt. In a passage in The Gay Science, written soon afterwards, he describes it thus:

What if, some day or night, a demon were to steal after you into your loneliest loneliness and say to you: This life, as you now live it and have lived it, you will have to live once more and innumerable times more; and there will be nothing new in it, but every pain and every joy and every thought and sigh and everything unutterably small or great in your life will have to return to you, all in the same succession and sequence – even this spider and this moonlight between the trees, and even this moment and myself. The eternal hourglass of existence is turned over and over again – and you with it, speck of dust! (Nietzsche, The Gay Science, Aphorism 341)

The scenery around Lake Silvaplana brings to mind the ancient myth of Sisyphus, who, as punishment for his insubordination, was condemned by the Gods to spend eternity repeatedly rolling a rock to the top of a mountain, whence it would fall back of its own weight. Not surprisingly, Nietzsche, originally a Classics scholar, often called his doctrine das größtes Schwergewicht (the greatest weight).

Although Nietzsche made the idea of eternal recurrence very much his own, the concept was certainly not new to the history of human thought, as Mircea Eliade exhaustively illuminates in his book The Myth of Eternal Return (1989). Nietzsche, steeped in classical culture, and particularly in pre- Socratic philosophy, would have been well acquainted with it. And yet, there must have been something extraordinarily unusual, compelling and even frightening in this ‘noon-time’ experience. Indeed, just as Kaufmann (1974) intuitively pointed out: “the answer must be sought in the fact that the eternal recurrence was to Nietzsche less an idea than an experience – the supreme experience of a life unusually rich in suffering, pain, and agony. He made much of the moment when he first had this experience because to him it was the moment that redeemed his life.”

Eternal Return as a Cosmological Idea

“The phases of the moon – appearance, increase, wane, disappearance, followed by reappearance after three nights of darkness – have played an immense part in elaboration of cyclical concepts,” says Eliade. He reminds us that analogous concepts can be found in the archaic apocalypses and anthropogonies. A flood or deluge puts an end to an exhausted and sinful humanity, only to have it reborn, usually from a mythical ‘ancestor’ who escaped the catastrophe. According to Berossus (third century B.C.), the universe is eternal but it is periodically destroyed and reconstituted every ‘Great Year’ (the corresponding number of millennia varies from school to school). When the seven planets assemble in Cancer, there will be a deluge; when they meet in Capricorn, the entire universe will be consumed by fire. This doctrine of periodic universal conflagration (ekpyrosis) was probably also held by Heraclitus, one of Nietzsche’s most revered philosophers. The Middle Ages were dominated by eschatological concepts (particularly that of Creation and that of the end of the world) and only in the seventeenth century (the Age of Reason) did a concept of the linear progress of history begin to assert itself. With Romanticism, the idea of ‘cyclicity’ returned with a double force and Hegel affirmed that in nature things repeat themselves forever and that there is ‘nothing new under the sun’.

In his unpublished notes of 1881-1882, Nietzsche vehemently denied his eternal return’s association with the cyclic hypothesis. Some philosophers have interpreted eternal return as a reworking of Immanuel Kant’s categorical imperative: “Whatever you will, will it in such a manner that you also will its eternal return” (Deleuze, Difference and Repetition 1994). In view of his life-long agonistics with Kant, it is unlikely that Nietzsche would have approved of any such affiliation.

It remains an enigma why Nietzsche mentions his most profound idea merely in two passages of Thus Spoke Zarathustra (‘Of the Vision and the Riddle’ and ‘The Convalescent’) and does not offer any exposition of it in his published works. Only in his posthumously published The Will to Power do we find this reflection:

If the world may be thought of as a certain definite quality of force, … 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 be realized; more: it would be realized an infinite number of times…

Madness and Delusion

Since time immemorial, delusion has been taken as the basic characteristic of madness. To be mad was to be deluded (Jaspers, 1962). What are the salient features of delusions?

Delusion is a belief. H.W. Gruhle in 1915 defined it as the “establishment of an unfounded reference.” There are two main components to consider: the form and the content (based on E. Kraepelin, 1921 and Karl Jaspers, 1962).

The Form:

• The most important feature that distinguishes a delusion from a scientific or philosophical enlightenment is that delusion is a belief without a healthy doubt; it is not subject to reality testing.

• It has a great degree of conviction and it often dominates the person’s life. To paraphrase A.J.P. Taylor: ‘delusions are weak ideas strongly held.’

• It usually appears fully formed, arises out of Wahnstimmung (‘a delusional mood’) and does not undergo an evolution. Manic delusions are characterized by their protean quality; they “change frequently, emerge as creations of the moment and again disappear”.

• Like a dream, or a reverie, delusion is timeless.

The Content:

• According to Jaspers, the content of delusions is “ununderstandable”. By introducing the concept of understandability (Verständlichkeit), he introduced a dangerous element of arbitrariness. Who is to judge what is understandable or not? A psychiatrist can easily become an agent of society – an agent of the mediocrity in society, an agent of the herd mentality.

• The content of manic delusions is often religious or sexual, with grandiose overtones.

• Delusions return with a photographic sameness in subsequent attacks of illness (the eternal return of the same?).

Nietzsche referred to ‘eternal return’ as the most scientific of all ideas and yet he never offered any proof of the concept. Ultimately, it is verification, or an attempt thereof, that distinguishes scientific discovery from delusion. He himself must have perceived the dubiousness of his doctrine, and intended to study the sciences at the Sorbonne to prove it. This plan never materialized, having been wiped out by the returning waves of melancholic and elated moods.

Pierre Klossowski (1997), a leading French scholar and philosopher, called the experience “the vertigo of Sils-Maria”, but Michel Foucault called it a “delirium”, which seems even more appropriate.

Delusion – That Life-Saving Lie?

Can delusions be life enhancing or life saving? Freud proposed in 1915 that delusions are projections of personal inner states (such as unresolved conflicts or unfulfilled wishes) onto the external world. Freeman (1981) claims that delusions reflect the memories and fantasies of the person from the prepsychotic period. Neale (1988) suggests that grandiose delusions in mania serve to stabilize a fragile self-esteem and occur in response to stress, either an external event or a distressing cognition, conflict, or memory, as a means of keeping these out of consciousness.

Nietzsche was a dreamer who never quite developed a sharp boundary between the world of fantasy and the world of reality. Vivid dream imagery became an intrinsic ingredient of his psychological-cognitive makeup. He lived in books and books lived in him. This may well have been a legacy of his childhood, and particularly of the early loss of his father. According to the psychologist Jean Piaget (in The Construction of Social Reality in the Child, 1937), a child doesn’t begin to develop a distinction between reality and fantasy until the age of four or five, when the left hemisphere of the brain asserts its dominance. Testosterone and trauma may delay this process so that mental events and images usually repressed in the right hemisphere continue to percolate into left-hemisphere dominated consciousness (Pally, 1998). In other words: the filter between dream and reality, between the conscious and the unconscious, remains permeable. Gaston Bachelard (1971) and Arthur Koestler (1973) argued that all creativity, scientific as well as artistic, springs from reverie, from the unconscious. An early death of a father, especially in the case of a gifted boy, seems to spur man’s creativity, as was the case with Dostoyevsky, Emerson, Hölderlin, Saint-Exupéry, Strinberg, Wagner and Camus, among others. A fatherless son, like Perseus, fights the Medusa of the unconscious, thus releasing the Pegasus of creativity.

Nietzsche’s writings are permeated with pain. But as he blows his fanfares of despair, he also transcends and transforms his anguish into words, into thoughts, and into philosophy. Thoughts and ideas are true not because they depict external reality, but because they mirror the inner world. Better still, they create the inner world; they create that life-saving illusion. These ideas must be true, because they heal, because they assuage a petrifying feeling of dread that lies at the heart of psychosis. Could it be that ‘eternal return’ was for Nietzsche a kind of mandala, which descended upon him in that “tremendous moment” of inner terror? Jung (1995) observed that the symbol frequently appeared in the dreams and fantasies of his patients at times of serious crisis, loss of orientation, or a major conflict, and expressed unity and wholeness. It often had a rectangular or round form, and its appearance was accompanied by a sense of inner balance and order. This symbol brings peace and it heals. After creating the doctrine of ‘eternal return’, Nietzsche wrote his most insightful and profound philosophical works. Was then this doctrine (this ‘delusion’) his life-saving lie? Perhaps, sometimes, to exist is to be deluded.

Eternal Return of the Repressed?

The idea of ‘eternal return’ occurred to Nietzsche when he was 36 years old, exactly the age his father died, and the age at which he often feared he would die, too. Nietzsche called himself a philosopher of masks and confessed that “one must learn to speak in order to remain silent.” But what was the unutterable truth that he dared not say?

The autopsy revealed that a quarter of the father’s brain was affected by ‘softening’ (Janz, 1991; Hayman, 1995). The same phrase was used by Ibsen, Nietzsche’s contemporary, in his play Ghosts which deals with the son’s fear of having inherited syphilis from a deceased father. Nietzsche, too, often feared that he had inherited his father’s illness. Did he think his father had died of syphilis, a secret never to be spoken? “What was silent in the father speaks in the son; and I often found in the son the unveiled secret of the father,” Nietzsche confessed in Thus Spoke Zarathustra. By taking upon himself his father’s ‘sin’, he thus settled the guilt over winning the ‘Oedipal duel’ (Cybulska, 1997). In his philosophy, Nietzsche often stressed that “truth is created, not discovered”. Could it be that by creating the doctrine of the ‘eternal return of the same’, the highest formula of ascent to life, he attempted to recreate a paradise lost? Or perhaps, by willing time backwards, he sublimated the rage and resentment toward the Father who abandoned him, and the Creator who did forsake him? The thought of eternal return has two faces: a face of terror and a face of exhilaration. The test that eternal recurrence poses is whether one can say yes to it, and transcend terror as well as resentment. The redemption comes with overcoming.

In Attachment and Loss, John Bowlby (1985) talks of an overwhelming yearning a bereaved child has for the return of a deceased parent. It is coupled with rage against the impotence of such a wish. Nietzsche’s writings are permeated with just these feelings. Love, intertwined with resentment toward the paternal shadow, makes the Hamletian ghost return again and again. Nietzsche’s attack on God and Christianity (the two concepts most dear to him) can be viewed as an assault on the ‘externalised ideal’. Perhaps it was his father he attacked as he was taking sides against himself. Freud reworked Nietzsche’s idea of ‘eternal return’ into a repetition compulsion and in Beyond the Pleasure Principle he defines it thus: “…an essential character trait which always remains the same and which is compelled to find expression in a repetition of the same experiences…” Repetition compulsion serves the person’s ambivalent wish to both cling onto the hidden impulse and to keep it away from consciousness. It also functions as a mirror of a mysterious drama; a drama that forms the essence of the unconscious being. It is not difficult to recognise here the mask of Zarathustra, that Nietzschean demon of eternal return:

“I come again, with this sun, with this earth, with this eagle, with this serpent – not to a new life or a better life or a similar life; I come back eternally to this same, selfsame life, in what is the greatest as in what is the smallest, to teach again the eternal recurrence of all things.”
(Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra)

What is the same in any such experience is its intensity. It is the sameness of the intensity that returns; the intensity of pain and the intensity of self-affirmation. “In the end one always returns to oneself” (Nietzsche, The Will to Power)

In the Greek legend Odysseus’ descent into the underworld was called the nekyia. In his own nekyia, Nietzsche travelled to the “bygone spiritual worlds”. Using poetry as a tool, he unearthed the long-forgotten metaphors that are nothing other than the signposts toward the archetypal:

In the outbreaks of passion, and in the fantasising of dreams and insanity, a man rediscovers his own and the mankind’s prehistory: animality with its savage grimaces; on these occasions memory goes sufficiently far back, while his civilised condition evolves out of forgetting of these primal experiences. (Nietzsche, Daybreak)

Myths tell us what has really happened, says Eliade (in his 1975 book Myth and Reality), and every ritual has a divine model, an archetype: “We must do what the gods did in the beginning. By repeating an archetypal essence everything becomes animated, endowed with a soul.”

The Sisyphean Hero and Eternal Return of a Tragic Protest

Albert Camus said in his book The Myth of Sisyphus : “This myth is tragic because its hero is conscious. Where would his torture be, indeed, if at every step the hope of succeeding upheld him?” Sisyphus is an absurd hero. The greatest moment comes to him as he walks down the mountain after the rock has fallen. What are his thoughts in this moment of reflection, a moment of glimpse into his own and humanity’s soul? It is also a short respite before the next attempt is redeemed from its hopelessness by the power of that thought stronger than the rock. It is this human capacity for reflection that enables us to recognise our destiny as tragic; yet in the midst of the tragedy, there is also joy and exhilaration. Sisyphus marches down the mountain, seizes the rock, pushes it to the top, the rock falls down of its own weight and it does not crush him, but changes him as he transcends himself, his fate, his existence. And then he starts his effort all over again, in a tragic protest that makes his existence meaningful, as it carries with it the consciousness of futility. One cannot escape the burden of Lake Silvaplana: the pyramidal stone, where the archetypal eclipsed the personal.

Ever since Ivan Karamazov declared that there is no truth and “everything is permitted”, humanity both lost and regained its innocence of becoming. Friedrich Nietzsche, who echoed this statement in Thus Spoke Zarathustra, never read The Brothers Karamazov. As he, too, raised his hand in a tragic protest against the absurdity of the human condition, the absurdity of a godless existence, Nietzsche knew that what matters is not eternal truth, but the eternal drama. It all happened before and it will all happen again.

© Dr E.M. Cybulska 2000

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