During our annual Thanksgiving family reunion in Ohio I discovered my 19-year-old niece Carly reading Nietzsche. She said it was for a philosophy course at college. I looked at her expression carefully and cautiously, but couldn’t discern whether she was enjoying him or not. Or what effect he was having on her. She had just started reading him.
In the riotously funny family road movie Little Miss Sunshine, the teenage son idolizes Nietzsche. He has a giant poster of the brooding philosopher on the wall frowning down over his bed. When the boy discovered Nietzsche, he gave up talking, and hadn’t spoken a word in a couple years. He communicated his thoughts and needs by writing on a pad of paper. Somehow the rest of the family adjusted to this and family life went on.
I remember when I was teaching college in the 1970s, a bright student started missing classes for about a week, and when I checked around, other students and faculty also had lost track of him. Finally days later he emerged, and the rumor went around that he had found a secret closet in the basement of the library and spent the missing days ensconced down there reading Nietzsche. No one ever ascertained if it was true or not, but no one seemed to question that reading Nietzsche just might do that to you. The student didn’t appear to exhibit any unusual behavior because of the experiment. I never asked him where he was.
So what is it about Nietzsche that makes us expect the bizarre, or fear the worst, in someone.reading him? Is it that he writes about topics that lie too close to our shadow, like the will to power, the herd instinct, master-slave morality, the anti-Christ? Is it his idea that God is dead? The idea of the super-man? Or the fact that the Nazis found his ideas inspiring? Or is it that when we had to read him in our youthful days we were going through all kinds of identity-twisting torments that made Nietzsche seem cool when we were not? Or was life then so dull that Nietzsche was a breath of fresh air? I’m not sure. Maybe all of them.
It’s been said by many observers that western culture has suffered massive soul loss. I think we can all understand that, and we can each come up with good and hideous examples of it. We in the world of shamanism are fortunate to have been trained in ways to work with this condition. Many individuals living in a culture of soul loss do not understand it, or have never heard of it, and are thus at a real impasse in figuring out what is wrong — either with themselves or the culture or both. It’s similar to the baby fish asking its mother, “Where is this great ocean I’ve heard about?” A writer like Nietzsche often comes into one’s life at that critical moment with a flurry of new and disturbing ideas, that address that feeling of incompleteness. Some writers can offer help and hope of recovery; some do not. Sometimes just hearing our dissatisfaction with life articulated by someone else makes us feel less crazy or feel less like we are going crazy.
Thinking about Nietzsche and soul loss and going crazy at Thanksgiving (not going crazy at Thanksgiving, but thinking about it at Thanksgiving) opened a new window on my sense of gratitude, on the things I’m thankful for. I always include the teachers I’ve had in my list of blessings, and I deeply value what they taught me or helped me discover. Funny, though, I can’t remember when I read Nietzsche for the first time or what teacher assigned him. I don’t think I found him on my own. Have I repressed this? I vaguely remember that I enjoyed reading Nietzsche, although as I think back, I can’t remember exactly why I enjoyed him. Maybe for all the above reasons. It was the 1960s and we were questioning everything, and Nietzsche was a good companion in that heroic struggle to topple old and what seemed like now useless truths that we felt didn’t nurture our souls or our culture any longer. I had no concept of soul loss back then, but as I rethink those days I can imagine that it was some hunger or ache deep in my soul, or in the empty place where part of my soul should be, that I wanted to satisfy with something new, relevant, and exciting. I didn’t want to go crazy in a culture that I must have felt on some unconscious level was not truly nurturing my soul.
Nietzsche went crazy. Or to put it more politely, he suffered what one historian calls a “mental breakdown” which left him an “invalid,” never to return to “full sanity.” He spent the last 11 years of his life in this floundering condition. What caused his breakdown and loss of sanity is not clear. Various factors may have contributed to it. Possibly just living in a culture he felt was soulless.
I wondered about him during Thanksgiving. His influence on so many writers, artists, thinkers, politicians, movie-makers — and college students — has been enormous. How do we express our gratitude that he lived, that he wrote, that we found him? He may have suffered a soul loss from which he never recovered so that he could shine a light, however “dark” that light may be, on the same conditions that rob us of soul. He helped us recognize something, something dark, something missing, some hunger that was not — could not? — be satisfied. Except by soul.
I wondered about this driving back to New York after Thanksgiving — how he, and many others, suffered so that we might not — suffered so that we might yearn to put an end to suffering in whatever way we can.
I am thinking I need to be more grateful for him — even though I’m a little scared to ever read him again.