Some people quote lines from their favorite movie or television show. Some people like to quote pop songs. I quote Nietzsche.
I first started reading his work off and on in late high school, then on through college. While I did not always agree with his ideas, I found what I could glean of then man very compelling, and looked up to him. Held him on a pedestal, and tried myself to aspire towards the theories he wrote, even though I never knew quite why.
For those of you who do not know who Nietzsche is, you actually probably know more of his work than you think (here is a convenient link to his Wikipedia page). Quotes such as “There is always some madness in love, but there is also always some reason in madness”; “One must have chaos within one’s soul to give birth to a dancing star”; and “What does not kill you makes you stronger”, are some of the ones most oft quoted in our modern culture. Not to mention the infamous “God is dead” which you can often find on humorous T-shirts with God’s retort: “Nietzsche is dead”.
At the time I first started reading Nietzsche, his work struck me as very optimistic. I was coming from a place of pure nihilism. I believed nothing at all existed, and everything was meaningless, and always would be empty, hollow, and pointless. (Yay teenage angst taken to a prolonged extreme?). His concepts of the Ubermensch, and of overcoming nihilism and creating one’s own meaning in an inherently meaningless world was a huge step up from where I was standing, and at the time was a good thing to strive towards.
And then everything changed. Initially against my will, my deep-seated belief that the Universe was entirely empty, was ripped out from underneath me by a series of strange experiences. I went from a self-destructive downwards spiral, alone in life and just wanting to fizzle out of existence, to an extreme path of healingwork with a partner whom I love beyond words, and actually wanting to live. This is because of the dozens of ways I have been shown that life is far from meaningless.
But letting go of something I clung as tightly to as I did with nihilism, is not easy. Even moving on to believing I could create meaning, like Nietzsche advocated, was destructive. I often get caught up in struggling to create meaning, which I have not been able to do at all, even though meaning exists right there in front of my face for me, whenever I want to see it. I am given a constant, beautiful stream of purpose and reason, and instead I cover my eyes and go “Lalala, I cannot see or hear you!” and fall into deep despair. Nietzsche’s theories are what I tend to use to create that space of denial.
Around this time last year, I had a small revelation. This is quoted from my personal journal: “…fuck. That moment when you realize Nietzsche literally drove himself insane and to an early death because of his philosophy and how he viewed the world.”
Like most of my revelations, it did not last long. I quickly forgot that and went back to my Nietzsche-shaped life preserver for the black abyss of an ocean I kept forcing myself into. After all, I felt so drawn to not only this man’s writing, but what I could manage to get a feel for of his energy, and that only happens if it is relevant for me. So I must be supposed to cling to him.
And then a handful of months ago, while trying to do research on Dionysus, I ran across Nietzsche again. This was unsurprising, since the philosopher did a fair bit of writing on the Dionysian versus Apollonian. But what had come up in the search results was a bit jarring; here is a summary by the author Kohler who wrote a book on this topic:
“As Nietzsche became steadily less sane,” Kohler writes, “so he recklessly identified with different selves and, like Dionysus, his role model, exchanged one persona for another at will. At one moment he saw himself as Shakespeare or Caesar, at the next as King of Italy or as Wagner, a mortal enemy he pursued with all the savagery he had at his command. And these figures all revealed themselves to him as incarnations of the one god, the god Dionysus, with whom he knew himself to be identical.”
Instead of getting a discussion comparing two schools of thought like I expected, I got a whole slew of sites talking about how, towards the end of his days when Nietzsche was sinking further and further into madness, he not only seemed to believe that he was an incarnation of Dionysus, but he went so far as to sign several letters as such. The madness was not his believing he was Dionysus; it was the losing touch with the here-and-now, and the rest of life.
And that was when I realized that, for over a decade, I had been taking away the wrong lesson that I had to learn from Nietzsche. I was not supposed to learn from his words; I was supposed to learn from his life. If I kept trying to follow down that same path, I would wind up in the same place: being lost in the madness, instead of passing through it.