Nietzsche on the horror of existence
[NOTE: For another post about Nietzsche and horror, see “Nietzsche: Loving existence even though it’s horrifying and absurd.”]
Every lover of books can narrate a personal history of his or her encounters with books and authors whose influence proved to be life-changing. For me, the 19th century German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche is one of those authors. His influence interfaces with the whole nexus of passions and interests that defines my life as a reader, writer, scholar, and generalized devotee of philosophical-spiritual darkness and dark philosophies and spiritualities.
My acquaintance with Nietzsche began, appropriately enough, with his first book, The Birth of Tragedy. I was first introduced to it in the spring of 1989 during the second semester of my freshman year of college, and today I credit this fortuitous happenstance in part with inflaming those emotional and conceptual nodes within me that would later respond so powerfully to the work of modern-day literary horror maestro Thomas Ligotti. The Birth of Tragedy is one of those books that reveals a greater depth each time you revisit it, an effect that is due both to the author’s awesomely comprehensive knowledge of the philosophical and artistic currents that flowed into his contemporary 19th century European culture and to his profoundly deep combination of insight mingled with inflamed emotional passion.
You can always sense when an author has latched onto a golden thread of flaming inspiration and is following it in half-agonized, half-exhilarated fashion to its shining conclusion. The Birth of Tragedy veritably glows with this kind of heat, and its warmth is only gradually unlocked and received by philistines like myself whose intellectual and readerly capabilities are runtish compared to the standard elevated level obtained by most literate people in Nietzsche’s day. I’ve found that as the scope of my knowledge of literary and intellectual history grows by slow osmosis, there’s always more to be gleaned from, and more significance to be found in, The Birth of Tragedy (as is the case with any truly great book).
That heat in Nietzsche’s book happened to coincide with my own personal orientation when I was first introduced to it, and this effect only increased when I returned to the book in the first three and four years after I graduated from college and found my appreciation and understanding of it greatly enhanced by the fact of further living and reading. Every fan of Ligotti’s work is familiar with his cosmic disgust at the spectacle of a disgusting cosmos which deserves to have a Special Plan wreaked upon it. In The Birth of Tragedy Nietzsche touches more than once upon a theme and an emotional trope that twines around the Ligottian sense of cosmic and ontological horror like a snake around a staff. This horror and, importantly, its attendant world-weariness were already weighing heavily upon my tender post-university self, and Nietzsche’s book spoke to such things and articulated them with exquisite feeling and clarity.
The single passage that always leaps to mind when I think of the book is the following one, which appears in the first third of the text and stands as a kind of culmination of an idea Nietzsche has been pursuing up until then. When I read and reread it during the early 1990s, it spoke so powerfully to my inward turning at the time that I found myself falling into complete inertia at the galling weight of existence itself and my consciousness of it, and the painful, disillusioning recognition of redemptive art’s ultimate emptiness (the latter effect standing in rather ironic contrast to Nietzsche’s intention). In other words, Nietzsche’s very articulation of that state of soul and spirit was enough to evoke it within me, and to lead me to attempt my own fictional evocations of similar states in, for example, my short story “Teeth” (published in 2002 in the Del Rey horror anthology The Children of Cthulhu). Nowadays when I reread the same passage, I can’t help flashing on Tom ligotti’s statement of first principles in, for example, his exquisite short story “The Bungalow House,” which inspires similar transports of icy bleakness and a perceived inability to tolerate life itself. Nietzsche is one of the few authors I’ve found who truly feels like a personal possession to me, as if he’s speaking directly to my soul. As with Tom’s effect upon readers, I think that’s a chief reason why Nietzsche has been the object of such passionate devotion by his fans.
Here’s the passage, which I offer with all appropriate warnings about its potency for inducing hopeless and despairing states of mind and spirit:
The ecstasy of the Dionysian state, with its destruction of the customary manacles and boundaries of existence, contains, of course, for as long as it lasts a lethargic element, in which everything personally experienced in the past is immersed. Because of this gulf of oblivion, the world of everyday reality and the world of Dionysian reality separate from each other. But as soon as that daily reality comes back again into consciousness, one feels it as something disgusting. The fruit of that state is an ascetic condition, in which one denies the power of the will. In this sense the Dionysian man has similarities to Hamlet: both have had a real glimpse into the essence of things. They have understood, and it now disgusts them to act, for their action can change nothing in the eternal nature of things. They perceive as ridiculous or humiliating the fact that they are expected to set right a world which is out of joint. The knowledge kills action, for action requires a state of being in which we are covered with the veil of illusion — that is what Hamlet has to teach us, not that really venal wisdom about John-a- Dreams, who cannot move himself to act because of too much reflection, because of an excess of possibilities, so to speak. It’s not a case of reflection. No! — the true knowledge, the glimpse into the cruel truth overcomes every driving motive to act, both in Hamlet as well as in the Dionysian man. Now no consolation has any effect any more. His longing goes out over a world, even beyond the gods themselves, toward death. Existence is denied, together with its blazing reflection in the gods or in an immortal afterlife. In the consciousness of once having glimpsed the truth, the man now sees everywhere only the horror or absurdity of being; now he understands the symbolism in the fate of Ophelia; now he recognizes the wisdom of the forest god Silenus. It disgusts him.
Here, when the will is in the highest danger, art approaches, as a saving, healing magician. Art alone can turn those thoughts of disgust at the horror or absurdity of existence into imaginary constructs which permit living to continue.