Monday, January 07, 2013

The Neurological and Philosophical Causes of Nietzsche's Madness

In December of 1888, Friedrich Nietzsche's friends began receiving letters from him with disturbing signs of madness.  He signed the letters as "Nietzsche Caesar," "the Crucified," or (most commonly) "Dionysus."  He identified himself as superior to Jesus as a world-historical figure who would divide the history of the world into two halves.  He was possessed by delusional megalomania and a Dionysian state of orgiastic ecstasy.  He was observed shouting and dancing around his room, naked with an erection.  On January 7, 1889, Franz Overbeck arrived at Nietzsche's room in Turin, Italy, and decided to have him moved to a mental institution in Basel, Switzerland.  He never recovered his sanity, and he eventually died in 1900 in Weimar, under the care of his mother and sister.

Nietzsche's madness has added to the popular fascination with him and his thought because of the romantic notion that the deepest thinkers and artists must risk insanity.  But this madness has also been used by Nietzsche's critics as evidence of the self-destructive and delusional character of his philosophizing.  Some of Nietzsche's defenders have responded to this by arguing that his collapse into madness was caused by a neurological disorder that had nothing to do with his philosophical thought.

My suspicion is that there was a combination of neurological and philosophical causes of his madness.  After all, Nietzsche himself in the writings of his middle period warned about the dangers of Dionysian intoxication and ecstasy and the need for the moderation that comes from a free-spirited science rooted in a Darwinian science of evolutionary naturalism.  In his later writings, however, he turned away from this scientific moderation and back to the Dionysian frenzy of The Birth of Tragedy expressed in the new religious doctrines of eternal return, the will to power, and the Overman.

Nietzsche was diagnosed by the doctors who examined him as suffering from neurosyphilis, a form of syphilis in which spirochaetes (a kind of bacteria) attack the brain.  That has remained the most common explanation for his madness.

But in recent years, doctors examining the evidence have rejected this diagnosis, because many of the symptoms of his illness (including the severe migraines that began when he was a child) don't seem to be explained as caused by neurosyphilis.  Dr. Leonard Sax has proposed that Nietzsche suffered from a brain tumor that would explain many of his symptoms.  Others have proposed that Nietzsche manifested manic depression with late-developing psychotic features.  This is supported by Julian Young in his Friedrich Nietzsche: A Philosophical Biography, which surveys the whole debate over Nietzsche's insanity.

Recently, a good argument has been made for diagnosing Nietzsche as suffering from cerebral autosomal dominant arteriopathy with subcortical infarcts and leukoencephalopathy (CADASIL).  This is a genetically inherited disorder that causes a slow degeneration of the smooth muscle cells in blood vessels that damages the brain in ways that would explain all of Nietzsche's symptoms: migraine headaches, mood swings from depression to euphoria, delusions, visual problems, strokes, and progressive dementia.

But even if one is persuaded by the evidence for a neurological disorder underlying Nietzsche's madness--as I am--one must still consider the clear connection between the Dionysian character of his madness and the Dionysian character of his philosophy. 

When Nietzsche rejected the Darwinian science of his middle period, and plunged back into a Dionysian religious frenzy (announced by Zarathustra) in 1883, was he thereby taking the path that would lead him to madness?  Does this cast doubt on all of the central doctrines of his later works as delusional?

Lou Salome thought so.  She'll be the subject of my next post.

Some of these points have been elaborated in previous posts--for example, here and here.


Xenophon said...

I'm not in qualified to judge but the paper by the Belgian neurologists with the hypothesis of CADASIL seemed convincing to me. Here's another explanation in terms of a genetic illness (MELAS syndrome):

I don't think any neurologist today who has examined the facts of his case still holds to the diagnosis of syphilis. I'm suspicious of the view that madness and a total breakdown of Nietzsche's type could have a "philosophical" cause. What does this mean exactly? Are you not confusing cause and effect here?

Larry Arnhart said...

Nietzsche's tendency to have delusions might have been neurological. But the content of those delusions--the Dionysian megalomania, the visions of eternal recurrence, the will to power, etc.--were products of Nietzsche's philosophic mythopoetic fantasy.

Troy Camplin said...

It was while reading the works of Nietzsche's later period that I myself had a psychological breakdown. But much like Virgil led Dante both into the underworld and out again, so too did Nietzsche with me. Perhaps not coincidentally, I came back up through his middle works (and emerged with the gift of poetry).

In my dissertation Evolutionary Aesthetics, however, I argue that in his later work, Nietzsche was coming to understand self-organization, fractal geometry, strange attractors, etc., but developed the language of eternal recurrence and will to power rather than the scientific language we have for these things.

There is also a distinct possibility that he was the first to emerge into Gravesean psychology's second tier -- as the first, it could drive one to madness. Surely the first to emerge into human-level complexity of thought went equally mad.