Vincent van Gogh (1853-1890), Self-Portraits, 1887. Pen and ink, graphite on wove paper. Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam. Van Gogh is perhaps the canonical example of the mad artist. He did indeed have a difficult life. Whatever one may say about his mental health, however, he produced some of the most critically acclaimed works of art of the 19th century
It is the unwell who are interesting.
Today I read about half of Waiting for God, a collection of letters and essays by Simone Weil, who is our new Favorite Christian here at psnt.net. And inside the back cover I came across this quote (out of the New York Review of Books, it turns out) from Susan Sontag:
Such writers as Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Dostoyevsky, Kafka, Baudelaire, Rimbaud, Genet — and Simone Weil — have their authority with us because of their air of unhealthiness. Their unhealthiness is their soundness, and is what carries conviction… anything from Simone Weil’s pen is worth reading.
I read this and was stunned. Why? Because within 24 hours of reading it I had been reading not only Weil but Kierkegaard and Nietzsche. So I began to think about this unhealthiness issue, and of course my thoughts went directly to David Letterman. Of course.
I have long held the opinion that Dave is by far the greatest of all the late-night hosts for the simple reason that there is something wrong with him. He is not a well man. He is very needy. He has problems. He’s like somebody you know, some eccentric person who always embarrasses you and whom you do not understand, but whom you love in spite — because? — of their slight off-balance-ness. Leno and O’Brien and even Carson were (are) so much smoother than Dave. They’re funny, sure, but they’re not interesting. So you watch Dave and wait for those moments when his troubled human self appears, small moments where he is confused or a joke doesn’t go well or Paul Shaffer is annoying him relentlessly. Well, at least I look for those moments. Well, at least I did before Elizabeth and I had kids and we became exhausted and cranky by 7 PM every single evening.
As it goes with Dave, so it goes with Kierkegaard, Neitzsche, Weil.
Mental illness and genius: It’s a stereotype — the writer who’s lost her marbles or the artist who’s more than a little touched — but I think it may have some basis in fact. And I have written about the troubling issue of antidepressants and creativity in another post, and the way science has made it possible for us to clip our highs and lows, to normalize ourselves, to stay “healthy.” So this post is not about that.*
Instead, it is about these three writers — Kierkegaard, Neitzsche, Weil — and what their “troubled minds” have given us. Since I can’t do this in any complete or systematic way, I will present these three through a small handful of quotes, quotes that have some relevance to the philosophy behind psnt.net, quotes that I happen to like, whether or not I agree with them.
1. Søren Kierkegaard (Dutch, 1813-1855). Kierkegaard suffered from depression and melancholy his whole life and lived a kind of double life; he was chatty and witty in society but was a true loner, terribly anxious and self-conscious. He wrote a good deal of his work pseudonymously. With Kierkegaard we ask the question: Can one be deeply spiritually healthy and depressed at the same time? Who knows. I found the following quote in a nice New York Times article by Gordon Marino — worth reading in its entirely — called Kierkegaard on the Couch.
There is abundant chatter today about “being spiritual” but scarcely anyone believes that a person can be of troubled mind and healthy spirit. Nor can we fathom the idea that the happy wanderer, who is all smiles and has accomplished everything on his or her self-fulfillment list, is, in fact, a case of despair. But while Kierkegaard would have agreed that happiness and melancholy are mutually exclusive, he warns, “Happiness is the greatest hiding place for despair.”
Onward, then, to some thoughts from the Fork. [Marino: Kierkegaard was called “the Fork” as a child because of his uncanny ability to find people’s weaknesses and stick it to them.]
1. How absurd men are! They never use the liberties they have, they demand those they do not have. They have freedom of thought, they demand freedom of speech. — from Either/Or
2. Once you label me you negate me. — source unknown. little help, someone?
3. How did I get into the world? Why was I not asked about it and why was I not informed of the rules and regulations but just thrust into the ranks as if I had been bought by a peddling shanghaier of human beings? How did I get involved in this big enterprise called actuality? Why should I be involved? Isn’t it a matter of choice? And if I am compelled to be involved, where is the manager—I have something to say about this. Is there no manager? To whom shall I make my complaint? — from Repetition
4. [With apologies to all my dear professor friends] Take away paradox from the thinker and you have a professor. — from SK’s journal, 1852
5. The matter is quite simple. The Bible is very easy to understand. But we Christians are a bunch of scheming swindlers. We pretend to be unable to understand it because we know very well that the minute we understand, we are obliged to act accordingly. Take any words in the New Testament and forget everything except pledging yourself to act accordingly. My God, you will say, if I do that my whole life will be ruined. How would I ever get on in the world? Herein lies the real place of Christian scholarship. Christian scholarship is the Church’s prodigious invention to defend itself against the Bible, to ensure that we can continue to be good Christians without the Bible coming too close. Oh, priceless scholarship, what would we do without you? Dreadful it is to fall into the hands of the living God. Yes it is even dreadful to be alone with the New Testament. — from Philosophical Fragments
6. It belongs to the imperfection of everything human that man can only attain his desire by passing through its opposite. — from SK’s journals, 1841
7. How extraordinarily stupid it is to defend Christianity, how little knowledge of humanity it betrays, how it connives if only unconsciously with offence by making Christianity out to be some miserable object that in the end must be rescued by a defence. It is therefore certain and true that the person who first thought of defending Christianity is de facto a Judas No. 2; he too betrays with a kiss, except his treason is that of stupidity. To defend something is always to discredit it. — from The Sickness Unto Death
8. I have just now come from a party where I was its life and soul; witticisms streamed from my lips, everyone laughed and admired me, but I went away — yes, the dash should be as long as the radius of the earth’s orbit ——————————— and wanted to shoot myself. — from SK’s journals, March 1836
2. Friedrich Nietzsche (German, 1844-1900). Neitzsche was trained as a philologist (one who studies ancient languages) and later turned to philosophy (although he would never have called it such). According to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Neitzsche “challenged the foundations of Christianity and traditional morality [and how!]. He believed in life, creativity, power, and the realities of the world we live in, rather than those situated in a world beyond [that is, 'heaven' or 'the kingdom of God']. Central to his philosophy is the idea of “life-affirmation,” which involves an honest questioning [obliterating?] of all doctrines that drain life’s expansive energies, however socially prevalent those views might be.”
Irony 101, Lesson 2: Neitzsche once wrote, “A casual stroll through the lunatic asylum shows that faith does not prove anything.” Yet he went insane in 1889 and was institutionalized for the last ten years of his life. But one should listen to what the man has to say; he has been tremendously influential throughout the 20th-century West. He is not easy to understand, and insofar as we understand it, we don’t agree with most of it. That’s because the man was a staunch atheist who believed Christianity was the path for the world’s weaklings and losers. (Actually, he may have had a point. Wasn’t Jesus kind of a loser?) We wonder how much he has influenced today’s emboldened atheism. In any case, here at psnt.net we respect him because he was honest. We love him for his directness and for his power to make us think. For example:
1. How does one compromise oneself today? If one is consistent. If one proceeds in a straight line. If one is not ambiguous enough to permit five conflicting interpretations. — from Twilight of the Idols
2. The saint in whom God delights is the ideal eunuch. Life has come to an end where the kingdom of God begins. — from Twilight of the Idols
3. We no longer esteem ourselves sufficiently when we communicate ourselves. Our true experiences are not at all garrulous. They could not communicate themselves even if they tried. That is because they lack the right word. Whatever we have words for, we have already got beyond. In all talk there is a grain of contempt. Language, it seems, was invented for what is average, medium, communicable. With language the speaker immediately vulgarizes himself. — from Twilight of the Idols
4. Whatever a theologian feels to be true must be false: this is almost a criterion of truth. — from The Antichrist
5. Our knowledge of man today goes just as far as we understand him mechanistically. — from The Antichrist
6. In Christianity neither morality nor religion has even a single point of contact with reality. — from The Antichrist
3. Simone Weil (French, 1909-1943). Weil was born a Jew and converted to Christianity in part due to her love of St. Francis. She became a teacher, activist, and Christian mystic. All her life was spent trying to learn what it mans to suffer and she was a master of making clear; she wrote in Waiting for God that “Whenever I think of Christ on the cross, I commit the sin of envy.” According to that fount of thoroughly correct information, Wikipedia, we learn that, “After a lifetime of battling illness and frailty, Weil died in August 1943 from cardiac failure at the age of 34. The coroner’s report said that ‘the deceased did kill and slay herself by refusing to eat whilst the balance of her mind was disturbed.’To this day, the causes of her death remains a subject of debate for many. Some claim that her refusal to eat came from her desire to express some form of solidarity toward the victims of the war. Others think that Weil’s self–starvation occurred after her study of Schopenhauer (in his chapters on Christian saintly asceticism and salvation, he had described self–starvation as a preferred method of self–denial). However, Simone Pétrement, one of Weil’s first and most significant biographers, considers that the coroner’s report was simply mistaken. Basing herself on letters written by the personnel of the sanatorium at which Simone Weil was treated, Pétrement affirms that Weil asked for food on different occasions while she was hospitalized and even ate a little bit a few days before her death; according to her, it is in fact Weil’s poor health condition that eventually made her unable to eat.”
Here are some mighty fine pearls from Saint Simone, as we prefer to call her here at psnt.net.
1. Religion, insofar as it is a source of consolation, is a hindrance to true faith; and in this sense atheism is a purification. I have to be an atheist with that part of myself which is not made for God. Among those in whom the supernatural part of themselves has not been awakened, the atheists are right and the believers wrong. — from Faiths of Meditation; Contemplation of the divine
2. We must leave on one side the beliefs which fill up voids and sweeten what is bitter. The belief in immortality. The belief in the utility of sin: etiam peccata. The belief in the providential ordering of events — in short the “consolations” which are ordinarily sought in religion. — from Detachment
3. Whenever one tries to suppress doubt, there is tyranny. — from Lectures in philosophy
4. The capacity to give one’s attention to a sufferer is a very rare and difficult thing; it is almost a miracle; it is a miracle. Nearly all those who think they have this capacity do not possess it. Warmth of heart, impulsiveness, pity are not enough. from Reflections on the Right Use of School Studies with a View to the Love of God
5. When a contradiction is impossible to resolve except by a lie, then we know that it is really a door. – in need of source
6. A mind enclosed in language is a prison. from The Power of Words
7. An atheist may be simply one whose faith and love are concentrated on the impersonal aspects of God. – in need of source
8. In the Church, considered as a social organism, the mysteries inevitably degenerate into beliefs. – in need of source
9. Attachment is the great fabricator of illusions; reality can be attained only by someone who is detached. — from Detachment
10. Men of the most brilliant intelligence can be born, live and die in error and falsehood. In them, intelligence is neither a good, nor even an asset. The difference between more or less intelligent men is like the difference between criminals condemned to life imprisonment in smaller or larger cells. The intelligent man who is proud of his intelligence is like a condemned man who is proud of his large cell. — from Human Personality
* If any readers think I’m out of touch with the realities of depression, or that I’m against the use of medication to help those who need it, please know that neither is the case. I have had — and continue to have — direct experience with both. I don’t intend to belittle anyone’s burden.