Ovi -
we cover every issue
newsletterNewsletter
subscribeSubscribe
contactContact
searchSearch
Philosophy Books  
Ovi Bookshop - Free Ebook
Join Ovi in Facebook
Ovi Language
Murray Hunter: Essential Oils: Art, Agriculture, Science, Industry and Entrepreneurship
Stop violence against women
Murray Hunter: Opportunity, Strategy and Entrepreneurship
International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement
 
BBC News :   - 
iBite :   - 
GermanGreekEnglishSpanishFinnishFrenchItalianPortugueseSwedish
Ovi Symposium; Thirty-fifth Meeting Ovi Symposium; Thirty-fifth Meeting
by Abigail George
2014-11-04 22:33:22
Print - Comment - Send to a Friend - More from this Author
DeliciousRedditFacebookDigg! StumbleUpon

Ovi Symposium:

“A Philosophical Conversation on the Nature of Art within Modernity
and the Envisioning of a New Humanism”

between Ms Abigail George, Drs. Paolozzi, Paparella and Mr. Rywalt
Thirty-fifth Meeting: 25 September 2014

symposium01

*********************************************************

Symposium's regular participants (in alphabetical order)

abigailAbigail George is an African activist for human rights, a feminist, writer and poet. She has received writing grants from the National Arts Council, Centre for the Book, and ECPACC (Eastern Cape Provincial Arts and Culture Council). She is not purely devoted to poetry but to pursuing writing fulltime. She has written two volumes of poetry, and her latest book is titled Winter in Johannesburg. Storytelling for her has always been a phenomenal way of communicating and making a connection with other people. All About My Mother (a collection of short stories) was published by Ovi magazine in July 2012.

enDr.Ernesto Paolozzi teaches history of contemporary philosophy at the University Suor Orsola Benincasa of Naples. A Croce scholar and an expert on historicism, he has written widely and published several books, especially on aesthetics and liberalism vis a vis science. His book Benedetto Croce: The Philosophy of History and the Duty of Freedom was printed as an e-book in Ovi magazine in June 2013.

papDr. Emanuel Paparella has a Ph.D. in Italian Humanism with a dissertation on Giambattista Vico from Yale University. He currently teaches philosophy at Barry University and Broward College in Florida, USA. One of his books is titled Hermeneutics in the Philosophy of G. Vico, Mellen Press. His latest e-book Aesthetic Theories of Great Western Philosophers was printed in Ovi magazine in June 2013.

rywaltEdwin Rywalt is a computer specialist living in Pennsylvania with his family. He is a talented and accomplished pianist with a college education from Columbia University and a life---long scholarly interest in the nexus between science, technology, and the liberal arts. Beginning in May 2014 he will be offering pro bono services to the Ovi Symposium with typo correction editing and other useful suggestions aiming at improving the overall format of the twice a month section of Ovi magazine. Perhaps in the future, if his commitments allow it, he may decide to join the Symposium’s ongoing dialogue.

*********************************************************

 

Subtheme of session 34: Part II: The Dark Side of Creativity, or the Link between Genius and Madness.

Indirect Participants within the Great Conversation across the ages: Socrates, Aristophanes, Wagner, Hegel, Feuerbach, Marx, Darwin, Dostoyevsky, Novalis, Holderin, Plato, Aristotle, Rousseau, Heidegger, Burckhardt, Collingwood, Dewey, Welleck, Hughes, Goethe, Schiller, Kant, Schopenhauer, Herder, Schlegel, Euripides, Gervinus, Socrates, Shakespeare.

 *********************************************************

Table of Contents for the 35th Session of the Ovi Symposium (25 September 2014)

Preamble by the Symposium’s coordinator Emanuel L. Paparella

Section 1: “The Link between Nihilism and Nietzsche’s descend into Madness.” A presentation by Emanuel L. Paparella, followed by a brief dialogue between Abigail George and Emanuel Paparella.

Section 2:  A 1907 essay by Benedetto Croce on Nietzsche’s The Origins of Tragedy,”  translated from the Italian as a point of reference for our dialogue and discussion, suggested by Ernesto Paolozzi.

Section 3:  “An Essay on Mental Illness and the Writer, followed by some of Sylvia Plath’s Journal Entries.”A presentation by Abigail George.

 *********************************************************

Preamble by the Symposium’s Coordinator Emanuel L. Paparella

In this meeting of the symposium we continue with part II of the exploration of the link between creativity and mental sickness and/or creativity and intense suffering. We examine three influential authors who not only wrote about the experience but actually lived it existentially: two are philosophers: Friedrich Nietzsche, and Benedetto Croce, and the other is a poet: Sylvia Plath.

In section one Emanuel Paparella explores the philosophy of Nietzsche vis a vis ethics to determine if the mental illness and the descend into madness of Nietzsche was a mere physical or more properly a mental psychological illness (bi-polarity, as it is commonly referred to in psychiatry), or was its onset rooted in the very nature of his philosophy, as some scholars continue to sustain? This conundrum is still being debated in an attempt to answer the ultimate question: Can we be good without God, or is anything allowed without a belief in God, as Dostoyevsky declared? Ultimately the readers will have to reflect on it and arrive at some kind of conclusion, be it only that the issue remains open and controversial. The presentations in this session attempt to supply some possible answers, but more importantly, to ask the right questions.

In section two Ernesto Paolozzi presents us with what he deems a little known essay by Benedetto Croce on Nietzsche’s The Birth of Tragedy. We need to keep in mind that the essay was written by Croce only seven years after the death of Nietzsche when the mad philosopher’s prophecies about the 20th century had not yet come to pass. Nevertheless, the essay remains relevant to our own post-modern existential philosophical concerns. Croce does not in any way address the issue of Nietzsche’s personal illness, nor his alleged atheism, which when looked closely turns out to be not atheism so much as but an anguished  concern with the idea of God, but Croce does make some powerful points of aesthetics present in Nietzsche’s book on Greek tragedy.

In section three, Abigail George continues her lyrical prose narrative of mental illness begun in the last session, supplying a poignant personal existential narration of what it means to create under the burden of a bi-polar disorder and to confront the prejudices against it and against women in general, in a South Africa burdened with a history of colonialism, to boot. In the second part of the essay she points to another relevant example, that of the life of Sylvia Plath, whose creativity as a poet was afflicted by mental illness and ultimately, in one of her depressive states, brought to the end by suicide in the prime of her life.

*********************************************************

1

The Link between Nihilism and Nietzsche’s Descend into Madness:
Was it a Physical, Psychological, or a Philosophical-Spiritual Condition?

A Presentation by Emanuel L. Paparella

 sym01

Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900)

All of Nietzsche's work begins from the assumption that the world is a meaningless and purposeless chaos. Such an assumption colors his whole philosophical stance. As he writes in his notebooks in 1888, less than a year before his mental breakdown, "For a philosopher to say, 'the good and the beautiful are one,' is infamy; if he goes on to add, 'also the true,' one ought to thrash him. Truth is ugly." Croce has also said that truth can be ugly, but then he adds that art can transform it into beauty. Not so for Nietzsche who in his The Birth of Tragedy Nietzsche proposed that human beings "can become healthy, strong, and fruitful" only when they live within an "enveloping atmosphere" that protects them from having to face this ugly truth without mediation. The enveloping atmosphere consists of protective illusions that come to be taken as truths by those who live within its "horizon," which enables them to "endure without being destroyed." But these second-order truths--or "myths"--must not entirely conceal the meaninglessness that they cover over. Rather, the myths must grant partial access to the authentic truth; something that the philosopher is equipped to do. In its translucence to truth, the mythical horizon allows human beings to both face and "forget" the ugliness in just the right proportions. Enter the Greek gods.

 sym02

Nietzsche’s The Birth of Tragedy (1927)

The Birth of Tragedy is an interpretation of how the ancient Greeks achieved this balance between truth and untruth more harmoniously than any other culture in history and why that balance was destined to eventually collapse. Nietzsche associates the impulses or drives that enabled the Greeks to live and thrive in the partial light of the "terror and horror of existence" with the Olympian gods of Apollo and Dionysus; he claims that in different but complementary ways they made possible the "continuous redemption" of the "eternally suffering and contradictory" character of the world. Here we have philosophical bi-polarity: the manic or the intoxicating Dionysian, and the depressive or lucid Apollonian

The full accomplishment of Greek tragedy cannot be grasped by conceiving it entirely in terms of Apollonian dreams. It must be complemented by the contrary Dionysian impulse, which pulls in a very different direction. In a frenzy of intoxication, which Nietzsche associates with the orgiastic violence of the ancient world's Bacchic festivals. The Dionysian at once exposed the "mysterious primordial unity" from which all things spring and produced "complete self-forgetfulness" on the part of individuals. This "mystic feeling of oneness" culminated in a transfiguring experience in which man "feels himself a god [and] . . . walks about enchanted, in ecstasy, like the gods he saw walking in his [Apollonian] dreams." At the end of his life Nietzsche would sign himself Dionysius.

The middle chapters of The Birth of Tragedy contain what might be the most forceful critique of Socrates since Aristophanes lampooned him in The Clouds during the ancient philosopher's own lifetime. Nietzsche contends that Socrates stood in profound opposition to the "drunken revelry" of tragedy, falsely teaching human beings that "using the thread of causality, [they could] penetrate the deepest abysses of being." Even worse, he taught that "to be beautiful" something must be "intelligible," and that "knowledge is a virtue." The Socratic "theoretical man" lives to uncover the truth at all costs, assuming that doing so will be an unambiguous benefit to mankind. The tragedians and the poets, on the other hand, had understood the importance of the surface of things. The Socratic philosopher, stubbornly and naively convinced of the goodness of truth, pursues it without restraint--and the results, so far as Nietzsche is concerned, are catastrophic.

When the philosopher uncovers the fact that logic is a human construction imposed on the chaos of reality--logic effectively "bites its own tail" and refutes itself. In Nietzsche's view, this is exactly what has happened in the hyper-logical overationalistic culture of the modern world: the theoretical optimism first defended by Socrates had reached a kind of termination in which human beings begin to sense the awful truth that its most fundamental premises are fictions. They have thus also begun to grasp (in Nietzsche's own work) the wisdom of the pre-Socratic poets and tragedians, who understood that mankind "needs art as a protection and a remedy" for truth. The gods, so to speak, return. This return of the poetical is a thesis which had been carried on by Vico a couple of hundred years before Nietzsche, to be sure, vis the cyclical as well as historical corsi and ricorsi as described in his New Science.

Probably Nietzsche did not know Vico’s work; in any case, in his early work Nietzsche believes that modern man requires a new "beautiful illusion" to replace the crumbling Socratic culture of the West. This new mythology would serve the same function that the plays of Aeschylus and Sophocles did for the Greeks. When it comes to specifying where we might find a new mythology to accomplish this much needed "rebirth of tragedy," Nietzsche announces with considerable bombast that it will arise from nowhere else than from the neo-pagan, mytho-poetic operas of Richard Wagner.

 sym03

Nietzsche and his nemesis Socrates

In effect, what Nietzsche was announcing was a cultural revolution within the Western tradition which in reality had already been announced, to deaf ears, by Vico two hundred years before. Although Nietzsche's work continued to show signs of Wagner's influence for several years after the publication of The Birth of Tragedy, the two men gradually drifted apart. If Nietzsche began his earliest philosophical reflections from the assumption that "truth is ugly"--and that all meaning arises out of a creative attempt to cope with this ugliness--the post-Wagner Nietzsche was, if anything, more radical in his refusal to accept any "metaphysical solace." As happened before, modern man had fallen into meaninglessness, but now there was no possible redemption from it--and this we are supposed to accept as good news. Keep in mind that not until his 1882's The Joyful Science, did Nietzsche begin to develop the profundity that characterizes his mature work. That was only six years away from his descent into madness. We begin to suspect therefore that his illness was not only purely physical, but existential.

The Joyful Science is a collection of numbered aphorisms. Aphorism 125 is titled "The Madman." It is a veritable masterpiece of modern disenchantment comparable to Dostoyevsky’s Underground Man. Nietzsche describes the madman who "lit a lantern in the bright morning hours, ran to the market place, and cried incessantly: 'I seek God! I seek God!'" Then, as those in the square gawk and laugh at the lunatic with embarrassed disapproval, he cries out: "Whither is God? . . . I will tell you. We have killed him -- you and I. All of us are his murderers. . . . God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him."

 sym04

The Joyful Science by Nietzsche

The atheism of the madman is hardly something new after the Enlightenment. Some of the most radical writers of that era had already announced that God was a mere fiction created by the human mind. G. W. F. Hegel had declared that modernity is "Good Friday without Easter Sunday." Throughout the nineteenth century, a series of authors, from Ludwig Feuerbach and Karl Marx to Charles Darwin, claimed that religion is a human projection onto a spiritually lifeless world and is in fact the “opium of the people.” Nietzsche agreed with this tradition in every respect but one. Whereas most modern atheists viewed their lack of piety as an unambiguous good--as a mark of their liberation from the dead weight of authority and tradition--Nietzsche responded to his insight into the amoral chaos at the heart of the world with considerable pathos. He had understood with greater depth that the passing of God has potentially devastating consequences for Western Civilization. The other author who had understood it well was Dostoyevsky when he quipped that if God does not exist, anything is permissible.

For, if God is dead, then man has completely lost his orientation; man is in that dark Dantean woods without a compass and without a clue on how even to begin the journey of life, or he is perhaps in Plato’s dark cave mesmerized by fire and supposing it to be the light, the only light he knows. There is no human dignity, no equality, no rights, no democracy, no liberalism, and no good and evil.” In the light of Dante and Dostoyevsky and Nietzsche's insight, thinkers such as Voltaire or Marx looks extraordinarily superficial, railing against religion on the one hand while remaining firmly and sentimentally attached to ideals of justice and equality on the other. They do not perceive the tragedy of that contradiction. Unlike Dante, Nietzsche and Dostoyevsky, they have failed to grasp the simple truth that if God is dead, then nothing at all can be taken for granted--and absolutely everything is permitted. But keep in mind, that it is not Nietzsche who makes the announcement but the madman.

But how could God be dead? The idea is permeated by paradox. If God is who He claims to be, then it is obviously impossible for Him to have "bled to death under our knives," as the madman declares. God may come to be ignored by a world too fixated on earthly goods or on one’s own ideas, to notice Him, but clearly He is not vulnerable to human malice or indifference. Unless, of course, He never existed in the first place. Perhaps then it would make a kind of poetic sense to speak of God "dying" once people have ceased to believe in Him. In this case, man would not simply be responsible for killing God, but also for having given birth to Him in the first place. That is to say, Western man is equally responsible for creating and destroying God. On the other hand, could it be that may need to be killed is a false idea of who God is? The “Death of God Movement” of the 60s surely made that point and people mistook it for atheism which it was not; it flourished among devout Christians on both sides of the Atlantic. Be that as it may, the most thorough statement of this view can be found in The Geneology of Morals (1887) written only two years before the onset of the mental break-down, which purports to tell the hidden history of morality from its origins to its collapse in the modern age.

 sym05

Nietzsche at the moment of origin of his descend into madness (1888)
as he embraces the horse being whipped to death in a street in Turin, Italy

In the beginning, there was chaos. As mentioned above, most of Nietzsche's books begin from this assumption. The Genealogy departs from those works in asserting that this primordial anarchy consisted of an unfocused, undifferentiated, and purposeless "will to power" that permeated all things. In the strong (or "noble") valuation, the good is nothing other than an expression of what the members of the victorious class do and what they affirm. And what they do is triumph ruthlessly over the weak by violence. Likewise, the opposite of the good--the bad--is defined by the strong as weakness, or the inability to conquer the strong. This is beginning to sound like Ayn Rand’s philosophy or Social Darwinism, alive and well in the 21st century. Some have gone to the extreme of defining this will to power as the very foundation of Nazism. In any case, Nietzsche illustrates the dynamics of the strong valuation with an infamous image of birds of prey devouring defenseless lambs. The birds of prey do not choose to eat the lambs; there is thus no free will involved and nothing blameworthy about their viciousness. It's simply what they do; what they do is the essence of who they are; and who they are serves as the measure of good and bad.

 sym06

Nietzsche’s The Genealogy of Morals

Once the meaning of good and bad has been established, a theory of justice grows up on its basis. Justice for the strong amounted to a simple sense of proportionality: when an individual incurs a debt, he must discharge it by repaying it and/or submitting to retributive punishment. As the imperialistic Romans would say: pacta servanda sunt (agreements must be honored). Nietzsche implies that, for the strong, facing up to wrongdoing and accepting punishment was largely a matter of honor, so in societies governed by the noble valuation justice was usually meted out quickly and brutally. You could be hanged for stealing a loaf of bread.

The preconditions were now in place for the birth of the gods. In Nietzsche's view, polytheistic religions emerged out of the stories that the strong told themselves about their long-forgotten, prehistoric origins. First, they imagined that the founders of their community were just like them, only stronger--and they developed rituals of sacrifice that enabled them to express gratitude and discharge imagined debts to these founders. Then, as their community grew in power and extent over time, the founders that the strong projected onto the past became even stronger. Eventually, the founders came to be thought of as gods or at the very least demi-gods, who served as noble ideals for the strong to emulate as they sought to cultivate their power and cruelty.

According to Nietzsche, it was within this context of divinely sanctioned oppression that an epochal "transvaluation of values" took place. This "slave revolt in morality" began when the weak--out of what Nietzsche calls their ressentiment and their "spirit of revenge" against the strong--started to teach a series of radically new and ingenious ideas. To begin with, they claimed for the first time that there is such a thing as free will, so the brutal actions of the strong, far from being simply "what they do," came to be understood as the result of a choice. The weak then likewise asserted that their own failure to triumph over the strong was a result of the choice to refrain from such actions, rather than an inability to do so. For the slavish revolutionaries, all human beings are tempted by "sin" to engage in "evil," and the strong are noteworthy above all else for their decision to embrace and even encourage such behavior, while the weak define their lives by the struggle to resist it. Thus it comes to be that what was formerly considered bad--namely, weakness--is christened as the highest good, while the formerly good--namely, strength--is transformed into evil. Thus Nietzsche could dub Judaism and Christianity and its advocacy of non-violence, a religion of weak slaves who had fashioned a life-denying "ascetic ideal" to replace the life-affirming valuation of the strong. Here again, some have heard echoes of Nazism.

 Along with it comes the notion of a new kind of deity--a God above all other gods, to whom each of us owes a debt--an "original sin"--so great that we are powerless to discharge it on our own, without His gratuitous gift of redeeming grace. Unlike the gods of the strong, who behaved like outsized brutes and whose cruelty served as an attainable ideal for the strong to emulate, the God of the slaves is so transcendently good that all attempts to approximate His holiness inevitably fall short. Far from serving as a healthy ideal, then, the ascetic God ends up negating the world and everything in it, including human beings, by His very existence. Obviously this god needs to be killed.

 sym07

Nietzsche’s last 11 years were lived in a catatonic state
after he began descending into madness in 1889

The ascetic ideal that gives birth to God is thus much more complicated than the valuation that preceded it. Whereas the noble valuation grew out of and enhanced the self-affirmation of the strong, the slaves adhere to an ideal that denigrates pride and therefore seeks to diminish and humiliate the self. In the Genealogy, Nietzsche describes this violent "self-splitting" as an example of how "life" can turn "against life," and, in turn, actually enhance life in new and interesting ways. In seeking to attain the impossible--to become "worthy" of a God whose goodness transcends the world--the ascetic slave directs his own will against itself, and thus creates a wholly new form of cultural life founded on guilt and bad conscience. It is a culture of psychological depravity, as individuals, tutored by a new ruling class of priests, come to despise themselves, and never so much as when they begin to experience the least bit of happiness or success. Nietzsche's narrative derives much of its shock effect from the fact that it so profoundly contradicts the dominant story of the rise of modern science, in Nietzsche's time as well as ours. While modern intellectuals typically argue that science arose in opposition to the Church, Nietzsche considers science to represent the "perfection" of the same ascetic ideal that originally gave birth to Christianity.

In Nietzsche's view, science is marked by an unwavering belief in the goodness of truth--and the conviction that one reaches this truth by negating the world in a way that is similar to, but much more radical than, the method employed by Christianity. Modern Western culture is permeated by an ethic of ascetic reductionism that seeks to tear down all existing cultural structures. One need not work in a laboratory to further the ascetic ideal. On the contrary, as we learn toward the end of the Geneology, Nietzsche understands his own thought to represent the ultimate consummation of the ascetic ideal--the moment at which "science" unmasks itself as the perfection of the ascetic ideal, and, in turn, discovers that this ideal is an arbitrary valuation projected onto reality in order to derive a sense of purpose in the face of chaos. It is in this way that the ascetic ideal manages both to give birth to and then to kill the Christian God. Nietzsche thus concludes the Geneology as he began The Birth of Tragedy, by asserting that, when faced with the ugly truth of things, mankind responds by producing illusions that come to be taken as true--until they are eventually exposed for the lies that they are. Art provides many of those illusions.

Shortly after declaring that we have killed God, the madman asks a series of rhetorical questions: How shall we comfort ourselves, the murderers of all murderers? What was holiest and mightiest of all that the world has yet owned has bled to death under our knives: who will wipe this blood off of us? What water is there for us to clean ourselves? What festivals of atonement, what sacred games shall we have to invent? Is not the greatness of this deed too great for us? Must we ourselves not become gods simply to appear worthy of it?Here Nietzsche clearly suggests that the death of God requires that we take His place by becoming a race of gods. The meaning of this extraordinary suggestion is elaborated most fully in Thus Spoke Zarathustra which is perhaps the most difficult book in Nietzsche's corpus.

 sym08

Thus Spoke Zarathustra by Friedrich Nietzsche

The religious character of this book is Nietzsche's answer to the Bible. He creates an anti-Christ of sorts. It tells the story of a man named Zarathustra, who, at the age of thirty, "left his home . . . and went into the mountains" for a life of complete solitude. Then, ten years later, he resolves to return to civilization, to share his incomparable wisdom with humanity. Upon his return he discovers that, although his fellow human beings are oblivious to the fact that "God is dead," His passing has begun to have significant detrimental effects on mankind. Among the most memorable passages in Zarathustra is the account of the "last man," who, in God's absence, believes he has "invented happiness." This last man no longer strives for anything great, he is too cautious to stand out from the "herd," he consumes various "poisons" to ensure an "agreeable sleep" and an "agreeable death," and he looks back on all of human history with a smug sense of his own superiority. Such a man is one step away from becoming so "poor and domesticated" that he will no longer "shoot the arrow of his longing beyond man." Without a God to look up to, man is on the verge of becoming less than human, a walking zombie without consciousness or a conscience.

At one point Zarathustra declares, as he gazes in disgust at the last man, that "The time has come for man to set himself a goal. The time has come for man to plant the seed of his highest hope." The death of God therefore presents, in addition to great dangers, an extraordinary opportunity. While we may very well become subhuman, we may also transform ourselves into something superhuman. Thus does Zarathustra describe his purpose: "I teach you the Overman." Combining the Social Darwinism so common in the late nineteenth century with his own unique brand of anthropo-theological speculation, Nietzsche's Zarathustra announces that "man is something that shall be overcome." The seductive poetic beauty of his prose (using aphorisms) undoubtedly adds to attractiveness his philosophy throughout the 20th century. Is there any doubt that Hitler saw himself as an Over-man of sort?

But what about the past? Don’t we have to face the dilemma that, as Martin Heidegger put it, each of us is "thrown" into a world we did not create and did not choose? Whereas our present and future emerge, at least to some extent, out of our choices, our past is given to us. Nevertheless, Nietzsche appears to have believed that once we had affirmed our present and future, affirmation of our past would follow in its wake. After all, if the person I am today is worth affirming for all eternity, then the person I once was must be equally worthy, since my past self made my present self possible. The future redeems the past, no matter how criminal that past may be. Here we have echoes of Machiavelli: the end justifies the means. When I begin to think of myself in this way, I not only accept the necessity of my fate and its role in making me who I am, but I also come to love that fate (amor fati). In fact, my affirmation of my own past can expand to such an extent that I begin to act as if I could will it. And when that happens, my will comes to fill the entire meaningful universe--past, present, and future. In such a world, man has definitively fallen into idolatry and taken the place of God; he may even worship his idea of God just because it is his idea. Nietzsche wanted nothing less than to make us totally at home in the world, and he understood that this monumental task could be accomplished only by convincing us that we possess the power to redeem it, all by ourselves, without God.

 sym09

Yet we have reason to think that Nietzsche himself came to believe, in his madness, that he had attained the self-divination he longed for. There are scholars who maintain that it was feigned all along, although, if one looks at his photos during this period of complete mental collapse, the conjecture appears untenable. In January 1889, just after his hysterical collapse in the streets of Turin at the sight of a carriage driver beating a horse which he embraces compassionately, and a few weeks before being institutionalized in a psychiatric clinic, Nietzsche wrote a letter to the esteemed historian Jacob Burckhardt, in which he declared that "in the end I would much rather be a Basel professor than God; but I have not dared to carry my private egotism to the point that I would desist from the creation of the world."

Nietzsche went on to live eleven years in a semi-catatonic state, dying in 1900, on the threshold of a century that he had predicted would be one of worldwide wars and unprecedented violence. Indeed he had predicted the Nazis but he did not create them or endorse them. Ever since he slipped into psychosis, it has been a commonplace for romantic interpreters of Nietzsche's life and thought to conclude that he, like Novalis, Hölderlin, and many other modern philosophers, poets, and artists, was driven mad by his own heroic efforts to grasp the truth in all of its horror. This interpretation, of course, accepts without question that Nietzsche was right to think that the truth stands radically opposed to the beautiful and the good and the true and that the ancient Greeks were wrong in conceiving transcendental Beauty, Truth and Goodness as interrelated and indivisible. Since nearly every word he ever wrote flows from this assumption, any attempt to evaluate Nietzsche's work as a whole must confront it head on.

So, we are confronted in the end by a conundrum: is Nietzsche advocating a two-fold conception of truth: one for radical artist-philosophers, and the other for practical men, not in search of superman but in search of justice? Could he, in fact, have not have pursued his adventures in thinking without "abandoning the idea of democracy and justice?" How can we begin to evaluate this Nietzschean anti-faith posture? We find a compelling suggestion in the thought of Nietzsche's early nemesis, Socrates. In two of Plato's dialogues, Socrates confronts characters who espouse proto-Nietzschean views. For both Thrasymachus in the Republic and Callicles in the Gorgios, morality has no foundation in the order of things, which is utterly indifferent to human concerns, and justice is nothing other than "the rule of the stronger." The parallels to Nietzsche's view, especially as he articulates it in the Geneology, are uncanny.

In examining the opinions of these sophistical anti-moralists, Socrates does not attempt to refute them using logic or empirical evidence of one kind or another. Rather, he takes what might be called a psychological approach. He attempts to show them that they are less consistently opposed to the good than they profess themselves to be. In the case of Thrasymachus, for example, Socrates' dialectical questioning reveals a fundamental tension in his soul. On the one hand, Thrasymachus believes that "might makes right"--that the victor in a struggle for power demonstrates that he deserves his victory in the very act of winning it. But on the other hand, he admires the intelligence and cunning that enables certain individuals to triumph over others--so much so, in fact, that he finds the thought of an unintelligent man winning power to be deeply distasteful. Such a brute would not, in other words, deserve his victory. Thrasymachus, it seems, looks up to something besides mere power. Although he claims to orient his life toward nothing but force and violence, part of him believes in a higher good.”  The question arises here: might not Nietzsche be vulnerable to a similar self-refutation?

 sym10

Portrayal of Nietzsche as Overman, beyond good and evil

It bears mentioning here that Nietzsche was a consistent partisan of the strong against the weak in every aspect of life. The reason why he took such a brutal position becomes apparent in a passage of Twilight of the Idols (1888) in which he rails against the French Revolution and Jean-Jacques Rousseau's defense of the common man: “What I hate about the French Revolution is its Rousseauan morality--the so-called "truths" of the Revolution through which it still works and attracts everything shallow and mediocre. The doctrine of equality! There is no more poisonous poison anywhere: for it seems to be preached by justice itself, whereas it really is the termination of justice. "Equal to the equal, unequal to the unequal"--that would be the true slogan of justice; and also its corollary: "Never make equal what is unequal." This sounds uncanningly similar to Ayn Rand’s philosophy as applied by the Tea Party in America, sometimes the same sort of people who consider themselves good Catholics and Christians.

What is remarkable about the statement above is that Nietzsche endorses its truth and resolves on its basis that human equality is fundamentally contrary to justice. One cannot help but conclude that Nietzsche--the man who gleefully proclaimed in a book titled Beyond Good and Evil that it was his goal to "sail right over morality"--was himself a perverse kind of moralist concerned above all about the injustice of shallowness and mediocrity. One cannot but conclude that he despised democracy. It is even possible to speculate that Nietzsche's visceral hostility to democracy, compassion, peace, equal human dignity, and perhaps even God Himself, may have been motivated by a love for a particularly one-sided, profoundly distorted vision of justice. Ultimately one is bound to at least consider that Nietzsche has substituted his “will to power” to Aristotle’s “will to truth.”

But we continue to suspect that despite Nietzsche's incessant denial of any possible foundation for a higher good in the order of things, he could not help but presuppose that such a good exists and that it has been violated by the rise of social and political equality which he considers the real enemy of justice. The presence of a similar psychological dynamic in Thrasymachus and a number of Socrates' other interlocutors eventually led Plato to conclude that the Idea of the Good exceeds all things--even being itself--"in dignity and power." Aristotle likewise chose to begin the Nicomachean Ethics with the declaration that "every art and inquiry, and similarly every human action and deliberate choice, . . . aims at some good." For the ancient philosophers, love of the good is coeval with the human condition.

As regards Nietzsche’s descent into madness, the urgent question is this: was it a medical disease, an advanced state of syphilis, as some have speculated; or was it the direct result of his psychology and philosophy which proclaimed that one must go beyond good and evil, go beyond the secure sea of rationality and risk irrationality, which like saying, risk one’s mental health and the descent into madness. Hard to tell. The debate on the causes and the true nature  of his illness will no doubt continue. What about us? Given that Nietzsche continues to be an influential philosopher, first adopted by the right-wingers in the political spectrum, who love his concept of “will to power,” later by the left-wingers who love his nihilism, what stance should we adopt?

In my opinion, we are ultimately faced with a choice: We can follow Nietzsche in refusing to take our philosophical bearings from pre-philosophical intimations of the good and Aristotle’s recognized drive to truth as integral part of human nature. Or we can place our trust in those intimations, allowing the good that is reflected in common opinion and experience to serve as an indication of what is likely to be true. Those are the options. Paradoxically, the very prophecies that Nietzsche warned us with in regard to the 20th century, may go a long way in convincing us that the disastrous experiments against the good, Nietzsche’s truth being one of them, have not only not offered a satisfactory solution to the difficulties of our civilization, but have become integral part of the problem. As we attempt to create the vision of a new civilization and humanism, a more just and harmonious world, it is to be hoped that the second choice will be found to be the more enlightened one by most people, and that such a choice is then translated in social justice and peace. The two seem to go together, for without justice there is no peace either.

*********************************************************

2

A 1907 Essay by Benedetto Croce on Nietzsche’s The Birth of Tragedy
As suggested by Ernesto Paolozzi and translated by E. Paparella

 sym11

Benedetto Croce (1866-1952)

How many readers, attracted and seduced by its expositive form, will truly understand this genial book just translated into Italian (1907) in a translation that is not that great but is passable? In any case, let me express my doubt, going against the current of a Nietzscheism that is currently in vogue.

One needs to look for the interpretative elements of The Birth of Tragedy in the classical period of German literature and philosophy. Those who do not know thoroughly the poetry of Goethe and Schiller, and the minor poets of that time, the philosophy of Kant or Jacobi, of Fichte and Hegel and the minor philosophers all the way to Schopenhauer, the literary history of Herder and Schlegel, will think, as he reads Nietzsche’s pages that he has understood, and will repeat affirmations and words, will approve or oppose, but in the end will not have understood and will remain on the surface.  This book by Nietzsche is the legitimate son of the Goethian era: it is the last product of that great movement which appeared too late (1871), when the movement had already spent itself together with the problems which had produced so much angst in the preceding generation, or better, the one before the preceding.

As regards the three series of interpretative elements to which I have alluded, The Birth of Tragedy, possesses in the first place a metaphysics, that is to say, an attempt at solving the mystery of reality: a metaphysics through which we accept as premises the Kantian discoveries, where the limits and the failure of science are declared, while the solution of the mystery is found in Art, as others had already done (among whom Schelling of the first mannerism). In second place, it contains an attempt at literary history in the most genuine mode of the pioneer of literary history. In Germany, philology is an instrument to arrive at an understanding of the spiritual conditions of past times: the interpretations which are examined as worthy of examination, are always those of Goethe, of Schiller, of Schlegel with some disdain for the epigones of Gervinus, and a complete silence toward pure philology which arrived later. Finally, there is the poetry of the style: The Birth of Tragedy connects with the poetry of Faust.

I believe that this artistic value of this book of Nietzsche will be largely recognized. As the author himself writes: “I should have sung about this new soul and not reason about it. What a shame that I could not say as a poet what I had to say!” He envisioned his work as a book “for artists who possessed analytical and retrospective talent: especially artists whom we have to look for, but which we shall never discover.” Exactly as a poem Faust style. And we should not regret that Nietzsche decided to reason: what was produced was a scientific book in its theme but suffused with art; a philosophy which is truly poetic, which contains lyricism, drama and satire. Aeschylus and Archiloso, Euripides and Socrates which are represented by Nietzsche are genuine dramatis personae.

In regard to the scientific value, it is well known that the Nietzschean interpretation of literary history was the object of spirited debates among German philologists; undoubtedly it can be accused of exaggeration and excessive simplification. And yet it has exercised a beneficial efficacy in as much as it reminds texts’ manipulators that those texts are souls.

As far as the philosophical problem is concerned, Nietzsche should be praised for having recognized the poverty of Schopenhauer, which does not understand life, plays games with asceticism, and is just as false as the optimism which it opposes. His problem was this: to overcome pessimism not with asceticism, but with the full consciousness of life in its tragic contrasts.

Unfortunately Nietzsche had an erroneous idea of philosophy, identifying it with the exact science which the Greeks had created and the moderns had perfected, of which Kant identified the limitations and the powerlessness. Philosophy proper remained unrecognized by him. Philosophy avails itself of quite different methods from those of the sciences which operate via the principle of phenomenological causality. He recognized in Socrates the precursor of naturalists and mathematicians rather the precursor of the dialectical Plato, of the metaphysical Aristotle, of the neo-Platonists, and of the idealistic modern philosophy. Of Kant he only saw the Kant of the first Critique, ignoring the Kant of the other two. In this he was misled by Schopenhauer, who also exalted the first Kant undervaluing the other two, thus distorting his work in order to more easily dispose of post-Kantian philosophy. He knew nothing directly and exactly about Hegel. When he mentions him in some of his books, he shows a common and conventional idea, probably learned from Schopenhauer’s invectives. Had he really known him, he would have found a spiritual brother who also loved Greek tragedy, and, as a young man, had also opposed Christianity preferring to it Greek culture, searching like him, a synthesis of the Apollonian and the Dionysian.

The consequence of this mental status of Nietzsche was that, although he had correctly seen the problem of a conception of life in which pessimism substitutes for a secondary moment, he was unable to resolve the problem as set-up. The reason is that the trust he put in art was no solution; or when it seems that it solves the problem it is because it goes beyond art. Those ancient artistic forms which Nietzsche identifies in ancient Greece are more than forms of art; they are myths, that is to say an incipient philosophy; and what he finds satisfying in them is the philosophical, not the artistic element. It remains to be ascertained how far those philosophical elements were historically true; in fact he himself was aware of having contaminated them. As he writes: “We have to agree that the value of the tragic myth, as we have set it up, has never been clearly perceived by Greek poets, not to speak of philosophers: the language of their heroes, seems to be more superficial than their actions: myth is unable to find in language an adequate objectivity. The succession of different scenes and the spectacles of images proclaim a wisdom which is deeper than the one attained by the poet through words and ideas.” He makes the same observation on Wagner’s Hamlet; he expected from Wagner not just art but philosophy; hence his delusion in the development of Wagner’s art, especially in regard to Parsifal and the romanticism and the Christian ethos indicated there. But this was not a betrayal by Wagner of his friend. If there was any betrayal it was on the part of Art; if we can call a betrayal the rebelliousness of Art toward Philosophy while following with docility the various phases of sentiments and feelings.

On the other hand, Nietzsche, along with several errors, expounds concepts about art within which we detect the high philosophy of aesthetics which came to head in the romantic period, or perhaps classical of German thought. As far as logic is concerned, can we find a better propaedeutics than this book of this imaginary anti-Hegelian in order to understand what Hegel proposed as the problem of the opposites?

*********************************************************

A comment by Abigail George: Poor Nietzsche who was by all accounts a great man. A great philosopher. A great thinker who languished for the last years of his life in a catatonic state producing nothing, thinking nothing. Now where was the justice in that. I am left thinking, was that the price he had to pay for his oeuvre, his magnificent life work? Was that it, and when it came to mental illness and creativity did it affect the great male writers, artists and composers more than it affected great female writers, artists and composers? In the end was Nietzsche really just another madman like Mrs. Rochester in Jane Eyre was just another madwoman?

I am often left wondering what happened to female philosophers, writers, artists and composers. The gifts of a feminine spirit. You can't follow their holy and sacred progress in life really as much as you can their male counterparts down through the ages. It's tragic and this tragedy plays itself out against the backdrop of the creative impulse and creativity, producing, composing, writing, genius and illness and the nature of art that goes into all of the above. Was Nietzsche the creative atheistic genius of his generation? Did he live
in a parallel reality or another dimension made up of a humanity that had killed God with elements of insanity, evil, sin with their bare hands?

A Response by Emanuel Paparella to the comment above by Abigail George and the essay on Nietzsche by Croce. Indeed, there is something unjust and unfair in all illnesses and suffering. They have always been part of the human condition but somehow we feel that such a condition afflicted by them is not normal, especially when it comes to the suffering of innocent children. In philosophy this conundrum goes by the name of the problem of evil. Dostoyevsky resurrects it in the famous debate between two brothers in The Brothers Karamozov.

You are also quite right, Abigail, in pointing out that suffering is compounded when it is confronted with the apathy and indifference of others toward it. Some theologians sustain that the more innocent and more noble the sufferer is, the more precious and redeeming the suffering is. Christ’s innocence and nobility is cited as evidence. That’s why he is called the Redeemer. But the scheme remains unfair nevertheless and it goes a long way in explaining our shabby treatment of so many animals which we consider exploitable because they are allegedly inferior to us, but that’s another issue; what remains true is that there have been legions of women who have created wonderful works of art in silent suffering under the burden of mental illness throughout the ages, and they are obscure, waiting to be discovered, for nobody seems to know who they are. That is not to say that there are not men who suffered the same fate. Such a sad situation would remain true even if all creative women had never been afflicted by mental illness. In our 33rd meeting we must have mentioned at least a dozen or so creative women in an attempt to compensate for the historical neglect. I could wager that many readers only heard for the first time of the likes of Jonker, or Martins in South Africa, or Gentileschi, or Deledda or Montessori in Italy, respectively great narrators or painters or educators, all excelling in their field.

Specifically on Nietzsche, whether his suffering was derived from some acute physical condition (some say syphilis) or had a powerful psychological or philosophical dimension to it, remains debatable. Croce does not mention anything about Nietzsche’s personal life. He stays with his philosophy and more particularly his aesthetics, as the above essay clearly indicates. Some scholars say that he feigned his illness all along. That is hard to believe when one takes a close look at his appearance in the last ten years of his life. Some say that his atheism, arrogance and extreme narcissism, coupled with making of himself a god or superman of sort, led directly to his madness when it proved impossible for him to live up to his own expectations and the myth he had attempted to create about himself; that too is course plausible but highly debatable. Be that as it may, it is important to remember that it was not Nietzsche but the madman who announces the death of God as caused by us modern humans; also important to remember that we all may be carrying with us a false or unhealthy notion of God which may need to be substituted with a more genuine one. Perhaps due to a transfer of a flawed image of our own father to “our father” in heaven, we end up thinking of him as a strict moralizing authoritative disciplinarian of sort, ready to zap us with thundering anathemas (Zeus-like) as soon as we get out of line or overstep our limitations. In that case, one wonders if it may not be preferable by far to call her Mother.

Reply by Abigail George. For myself as an artist, as a poet, as a writer, as a feminist I cannot separate what I do, the art that I create and especially what I think about from God. I shudder to think of the life lived in spiritual poverty, that desolate landscape in the mists of despair and dogged depression. Perhaps I will always be writing from the perspective of a Christian feminist. I cannot let go of those values that I grew up with, and now I turn my thoughts to Nietzsche's childhood and wonder what it was like for him in the world of a child. Nietzsche the discoverer of kingdoms in nature.

Was darkness already visible on the periphery of his imagination and his vision and my heart goes out to that innocent child. Nietzsche as a seriously-minded boy. Was he coddled by his mother? Did he have an
indifferent, aloof, neglectful father who was distant and abandoned him? Did Nietzsche as a youth have abandonment issues I mean perhaps that would explain this complex personality, this complicated man? All neurosis I think stems from childhood (although as much as I don't want to think like that, I do). I don't think from the barbarism that is now displayed in the world even embraced.

The violence that is embraced, the violence in the history of our world that to have that psychological framework of being sane and not insane comes at a very, very high price. Living in a gated community,
living behind high walls, having those terrifying dogs, having that security system on the premises, guards on patrol twenty-four hours seven days a week on your property patrolling the grounds of your house. Still I cannot let go of that picture I have of Nietzsche in my mind now, as I cannot let go of the love I have for my biological father.

I think my father has been the one person who is mostly responsible for the person that I have become, who is responsible for my complex personality and whom I inherited bipolarity from. It was in his genes and now it is in mine. And then I think of Nietzsche as a child and already my heart goes out to him. Already my heart bleeds for him because probably by then he was already the seriously, intellectually-minded interloper, I'm just guessing here, I could be wrong. If he was not understood by his parents would this have
prepared him for his future? I am a poet and I also believe in God.

A follow-up reply by Emanuel Paparella. Nietzsche’s father was actually a pastor in a Protestant denomination. Like Croce’s parents, they were pious Christians. The expectations were that he’d follow in the father’s footsteps but in this he disappointed both his parents early in his life. What remained constant however was an obsession with the idea and the image of God, an obsession which also applied to many other philosophers beginning with Plato and Aristotle who considered the idea of God the highest idea a philosopher can attain to. I am of the opinion that, like many others who read his philosophy, his parents misinterpreted what he was driving at. His purpose was not that of preaching atheism, to the contrary he prophesized what a century without God, the forthcoming 20th century, would look like in its utter chaos and lack of meaning. We have seen his prophecies come true in both Nazi Germany and atheistic Soviet Union and the rest of Europe, proud of the rejection of its traditional faith. It appears to me that the baby has been thrown out together with the dirty water.

Perhaps it bears mentioning here that another great disservice done to the reputation of Nietzsche by a family member of his, who also failed to understand his ideas, was the posthumous editing and publishing of some of his writings by his care-taker sister who edited by choosing and picking and where Nietzsche is made to appear as some kind of anti-Semite, something which the sister was since she was married to one such, but Nietzsche definitely was not.

*********************************************************

3

Stone Voice

An Essay On Mental Illness and the Writer
followed by some of Sylvia Plath’s Journal Entries

A Presentation by Abigail George

I

Here in this courtyard with its garden chairs, washing line, grass shooting feebly out of the ground, a patio for the semi-productive crazies, there is a line beaming through all the hospitalised residents. Outside I can feel the wind move through me. In the impression of the wisps of it touching my hair, the nape of my neck, I can feel the design of a dream, the architecture of a foundation. If I write about this foundation and how much it hurts as it locks its bipolar self into place, it will nourish the sum parts of me, the portions of my estranged soul from my spirit, missing history, perhaps I won’t be a case study for long, under observation, aware of a feeling of futility, sadness, pent up rage and frustration. There I was, Jean, the ice queen, eyes glittering picking a name for the frustration. It took a miracle to get me here and now all I want is to get out of this place, escape this effortless order and routine, the nurses in their flash of white, this gated community.

 sym12

If I write about what hurts me the most as an experiment perhaps that will assuage some of the pain I feel. The way of pain is cruel and bitter. It has an unstable core. Insecure and conscious of the darker voids within me can burn the edge off any kind of natural high I feel. Most of those highs were to be found in the pool next to the mansion, (the grounds of the hospital were extensive). I imagined my life as a fish stroke for stroke swimming next to the pale ghost of a bone-thin girl. It would suit me well to have gills, fins, webbed feet, swimming with a school. If that happened, nothing would be able to touch me, if only officially I could be more educated, smarter and funnier, if only there was something more elemental about this day, I would feel more real, suited up as a human being. Even the lifeless page is not so lifeless after all–cool and blue to the touch of a pen’s scraping. Even though I knew deep down that all of that cigarette smoke was bad for me, it made me feel like jazz was flowing through me and all that would seem to spirit itself, spirit me to some far off eternal paradise where life and living seemed more peaceful and ordered.

 sym13

Distress and Suffering

I have carried illness inside of me for the longest time, exploring the tiger balm of recovery like the way I read, poised, sometimes numb to the perfect order that other women would call routine and which female writers would chronicle. The emotional, sensitivity, the intimacy drawn in the fiction of those writers would always be dramatic, children in the background placing their footsteps obediently where their mother would tell them, husbands hovering, husbands drinking over the weekend, hiding their bloodshot eyes, the smell of beer in the air while a wife would scream blue murder in return to hisses, punching the air with curses. I was always mindful of expectation of the collective experimental flooding my brain, exploring that dry, unknown field, walking across it already as a condemned girl-woman with the impulse of flight, ready at the turn of a switch across the beating abstract metaphor of it. The pulse of the field glimmering like waves of heat, dust rising, being kicked up by my heels in this a field of dreams.

And then there was the stone voice.

All that time away from it I thought it had gathered dust, was of no more use to me but now released, after I aimed for it in my cells I discovered it belonged to me more than ever, my head, a head that was a fragile mess. Still, it had a centre albeit that it was an overworked one. The voice itself had intelligence. While inside of me it felt like a stone washed by tides, waves constructed to dance and whirl, stone set to the rhythm in a river.

 sym14

Broken Mind Vector

I was a child breathing in the positive air of that divine realm, breaking the myths that it carried. What is the voice like of children, who write, create and why is it that what they write and create is just so striking? Where does it come from, that stone voice? Does it come from the infinite space, a sense of a kingdom (theirs) that is an intimation of where they are going, where they are going to end up? Until finally when childhood becomes just a remnant, like birds flying high out of reach, out of sight, of mind, where does the fire and rain of inspiration come from next, if not love, the experiences of returning love with that same gift? What condemns a girl-woman if not the force of her vulnerability, her future and present relationships with both males and females? Childhood that did not merge with adulthood and the knowledge of the awakening of death is what finally condemned me.

Physical health figured with strength in my early life. As I grew so did the night. It gave me hell.

The resident evil of that hell soon became in part the sublime. As swiftly as illness descended upon me I took to writing about that life experience. How invasive is the blackness of depression, of tiredness, of doing the most simple of all things, peeling a Granny Smith, of suffering in silence when time does not fly by. Instead it’s a glass case, a sealed box I am encased in with oxygen tanks a-plenty. Quiet all around can haunt, hurt my ears, tears blind me bleeding their salt into the lines of my moon face. They become all things turning, turning tied with a knot to silence. Its nothing is blinding. It begins with a cry for help and you have to wait, for there’s a substance to it at first glance, a faint, small, chain of breakthroughs coming through the fog, a spiritedness, congeniality that was not there before, laughter ringing in the air, mitigating circumstances to explain away, brush away the ill feeling metallic as blood. I was a tiger waiting to jump, leap in thirst. ‘Touched with madness’, there was a perfumed lightness in every step I took there that seemed to smell like flowers.

I was a child who wrote who became a grown woman who wrote.

Language was my summertime, a stolen liqueur chocolate from Daddy’s birthday present to Mummy or to say he was sorry, wrapped in coloured foil bursting with tart sugariness. When I sought closure it, writing delivered that and gave me closure and I found a worthy ally and opponent within her. The onset of a novel season would seem to tilt me sideways, put me off the beaten track and the only way I could revert to normality was if I became conscious of people and animals, dogs and cats in particular, since we had always had them as pets ever since I was a young child. Writing was also a bellyaching affair. It gave me nervous, sleepless nights of tossing and turning where I would find one end of a string of jumbled words scribbled or rather suspended like my daily reality often was and eventually I would give up, quit and lose the end of the string of words at the core of it. I told myself I should become more spiritual than I already was. It would help my writing more if I believed more in community and did more and came out more often into society.

 sym15

Happy baby with down syndrome

And with the promise of love or a girl-woman’s infatuation came the violent letting go of blissful goals that would always be determined by inexperience, the fall-out of marked expectations. The voice that sustained me was the one from my childhood. The voice that tasted of devil’s smoke, Blake burning bright, flame and moth, a mother’s depression, anguish and rage, all her secret hiding places revealed, a father’s mental illness, friends that I knew in another inner world, a space and lifetime away who were flushed with the imprint of history. It would be live-men, so much more virulent, funny and wise than I could ever be, men who for the better part of their grown lives would be manipulative and keen at the same time to mentor the young, men who were promiscuous in their dealings with the inexperienced opposite sex. They would show me the cause and effect that illness would have on me in later years. They taught me that it would be my safety net. Even if they didn’t know it at the time, they were offering me the world on a silver platter.

The mystic in me plays at an unfinished game of hangman, noose planted around my neck remembering Mr Smith’s brown shoes, lace-ups under the table where he sat, the master and commander of the class, skin olive and pink from a touch of the sun. Even my father did not wear brown shoes. I imagine his foot in that brown shoe. It must be a well-rested foot for the most part. Not one that has to walk all the time where he has to get to, one that communicates pain and blisters like mine sometimes do. It is a foot that has a sense of the material world and of peaceful belonging. It is a foot that belongs to a body that pilots an educated mind that has experienced both pleasure and privilege at the hands of lesser men and women. He is a man who did not grow up with prejudice. I knew nothing then as I know nothing now of his life outside the school, his ‘England’. I just dreamt of inhabiting the aura around him. As if I could connect with him somehow on a spiritual plane. It was a lesson in love for me, poor Jean, terrified, scared to death of it.

Whenever madness (a wild-haired, locked up in the attic Mrs Rochester), was temporarily conceived in the characters I read about, I relished it. My own life just off of a few years to follow suit, to mirror my father’s life of wards, canteens, sitting on benches waiting for family visits, pills like bees in the hive. The stone voice was still there. My fingers would linger on the spines of books in the library, touch the titles, the names of the authors as if I was leaning against from where they first came from, a tree, as if I was in a forest full of them watching the hours pass by, God’s hand in the air. It would be years before I watched my brother grow into a flock of suits and ties and sharply pointed shoes for work in an office space, my sister growing into another country, swiftly cold and distant, a faraway voice on the end of a telephone line while I floated, or rather pretended to in the bath of now cool water, shivering, dipping my face underwater and smelling of soap. My old life is null and void at the worst of times. I have to reach formidably for health.

 sym16

A patient in the Accra Psychiatric Hospital in Ghana

Worst being the prickling loneliness, the loose pain I have internalised killing me, carving flashes of a covenant between despair, mania and the highs of euphoria until I am still, still like black pine branches after they have mourned a passing season, still like my skull. It is not natural for human beings to be truthful, it feels more natural for them to be swayed by what they and their heart want to hear. The stone in my voice is old, ancient. It is the voice of children and women, female philosophers who have passed on, their blood and bone in the vision of their thinking for the world to see. This stone is made up of a supply of part ingenious mortal thinking and the other part, forest, forest that will never feel the need to commit itself to suicide or evaluation because although a tree is a living thing, it does not have a mind-set that is programmed to be introspective, to talk, walk, observe, describe and contemplate. The forest that I find myself in, in that other dimension is where magic races through me when I touch a spine of a book, run my fingertips across the letters of the name of the writer.

I am a newer version of me with two sides. If the mania makes me seem vivacious and spirited, the depression masks that. The life I live now is a life where I went from being hospitalised for depression, the terror of sadness forming patterns in a pensive mechanism. Slowly I became used to hospitals, wards, psychiatrists and therapists. My life from my twenties to my early thirties is one where I had no control, no say except to listen to the doctors and the treatment they prescribed. The first time I realised I was different was when I met the other women in my room at the hospital. Four beds to a room. My new life became one where I would lie on the grass with the other girls from the other wards, usually younger than me, shorter, who bodies seemed fused to play hockey, swim in galas and play tennis. Bone-thin girls who were hospitalised for eating disorders, who came out of homes where there was abuse, the physical kind aimed at their mothers and usually the emotional scarring would not escape them. All of us would stretch out in the afternoon sun bathing in its light, trying hard not to stare into the brightness up at the chameleon sky.

When I came home-home I was always hungry and would escape into the kitchen to dazzle myself, preparing meals my mother would not touch.

‘It’s too spicy. The curry was too hot. Is there salt in here?’

After my bath in the evenings I would write on the steamed up bathroom mirror love letters. The skin of where my fingerprints would come from, wrinkled. The weight of water would meet me in dreams. I would often float on my back when I went to the swimming pool. It made me feel as if my bones were more than lovely; they were immortal in some way. Floating, arms at my sides, a still life in the water I pretended I was dead and in one sense I was. Outside as my life world gathered like confetti or rice, anger built up inside of me, whirling like a nimbus, tasting like a cake that had been too long in the oven, I would drown in that voice that was above all others and Johannesburg, Tara, Hunterscraig, Garden City Clinic, Helen Joseph, Swaziland and Port Elizabeth all would merge and dance so fast until their bodies shifted into blurred figures and I could once again be Jean. Like at the scene of the discovery of minor shock, all I could is do is sigh and wish the trauma away. We are all tenants in this major society. How we live in the end is up to us in the final analysis of it all.

I was bitten by islands on maps, the lifespan of lies in pools of truth and I wondered how that could serve me in my audacious quest for sanity, hoping that I, Jean would remain intact through everything. There is a lonesome motion in being, playing at numb. Instead I began to see life from God’s point of view and although life is cruel, there’s a majesty that coexists in every emotive curve, in the known and the unknown symmetry of humanity. When I feel tired I rest. When I am full I stop eating and I remember those bone-thin girls that I met when I was 21, with their shiny, rinsed hair, laughing and joking, playing at being half-productive zombies, drinking warm soda and passing it around in the group and the fact that just about everything about them seemed so delicate as if they could break when they fell. Girls who looked as if they could fit in the picture of a magazine, who with one taste of chocolate that passed their lips would throw it up. They were girls with a pink rose in each cheek, pinching inconceivable belly fat, searching for flab. For a while I became one of them.

I was made to understand children, adults and youth with the mind of a child even if they weren’t my own. And discovered that what is right about family is only found in theory. I found a modern unit and sense of family everywhere I journeyed with the onset of maturity. It is only the rain that flickers out of the corner of my eye. I don’t cry. I don’t have the energy for it anymore and its unceremonious intrusion. In seeing things around me I became a saint in motion. Nothing could touch me unless I gave that force or person permission. All I had to do was believe that I was here to follow the light, be an instrument of peace.

Every day at the hospital, walking from room to room in the ward is a day in recovery, it can inspire. You’re free to dream. No one can say anything if you do. The bright lights of the big city can hardly be seen from anywhere on the grounds. I’m shielded by high walls and trees. With illness, you can go from feeling like the most capable human in the world and then when that goes you feel extraordinarily incompetent, the introverted nature of being ill assumes fierce control and you are left retiring and docile, cooling your heels. My bright shouts draw a red line of emotional self-destructive behaviour through me. It doesn’t take much to get me to a plane of being piloted by the life lessons depression leaves me with. There is something of a sweet dream about it. I’ve grown to love to fall into that sleep. It’s a skill.

Sometimes you think the journey of the illness renders you invisible like air in your addiction for the tiny ball of golden light of health. So even if you’re self-conscious of any small mistake you make, it makes you feel beautifully humanoid as if you weren’t constructed by glorious organs, perfect tissue, cells, platelets, blood and bone and the image of genes in a jungle of veins. The doctors would like to think of change from being ill to an undeniable state of physical wellness was instant but I think that happened for the most part only in their dreams. Here, in this nameless, shapeless country, there were scenes of looking out into darkness, badly drawn addiction, the act of alcoholism that had played a role in someone’s life, the life of a family. Sufferers and victims and survivors bonded over a meal, gossip, the chit-chat of small talk. We were all joined together in the pursuit of becoming an out-patient. Of escaping what so easily we had come to think of as a route to follow to reality, normalcy. 

I was a discoverer of the fractured known and the terrible force of the unknown. The flow I had to come to grips with clasped battle lines. For the most part I felt like a pin in a pincushion, snow falling and given room to grow spreading itself across the landscape.

The jewel of mental health is to keep your spirits up. You are at the mercy of the honesty of the illness. You’re always curious to succeed even though you’re at your most fragile. Humanity, normality still had the power to seduce. I had not completely abandoned that trail of thought. Hunger and hell became equals. The colour of the day was usually intensely blue (when I felt the depression articulate its nightmarish self), white (when I spent most of the day reading paperbacks, feeling medicated acutely and that it was the  most unnatural feeling that I had ever felt) or red. That was when I couldn’t put my rage, frustration and pack it into words. The only thing I could do was that I had to store it up in reserves. It gave me energy. But that energy was temporary like a fuse that blows or a spark.

When I left the hospital all I wanted to do was read books that doctors had written about depression, that pharmaceutical companies printed in their bright little pamphlets filled with colour and magazine models demonstrating ‘sadness’, ‘family life affected by depression’ and the symptoms. I could tick them all off one by one. In no uncertain terms square-shaped boxes told me for certain I was depressive. I read books on depression in which the detailed, uncompromising text left me reeling and scribbling away with a compelling and affecting urgency. I picked up memoirs or books on the lives of creative people who had suffered just like I had and found myself being reflected back at me in a novel yet disconcerting way.

The bottom of depression usually sinks further and further away into an abyss of nothingness. There is nothing I can do about it except stare into space until my eyes hurt and start to water or close them and wish the spell away. Once I was a city type of person rushing everywhere I needed to go but it soon paled. Poetry never did. And although poets were people whose lives were often not sanguine or bliss I believed in them, worshipped them. I discovered there were walls everywhere. To keep me in, protect me, to keep the death of me out.

I watch my weight constantly as if I’m under surveillance. I pick at my food. Nothing is good for me. I swear I eat in little bites as if it would help me in some way as if there is no dietician watching over my shoulder to tut-tut at the portion size. I don’t keep it down for long. My throat burns as I run water in the sink in the bathroom. Nothing is good enough, filling, delicious and nutritious. I never had a healthy, nourishing relationship with food even when I was a child. As a child, I would never say no to second or third helpings. I devoured the heaps of food on my plate with delight, savouring every crumb. All through high school I was skinny. But the world turned on me. Soon everything began to hurt like the plague.

Why couldn’t all my eccentricities translate itself into something that was not touched by madness? Wherein I could find solace in something reasonable. But there is a powerful triumph in all of this – I can still write. It became my source.

I wished I could shrug off blood, sweat and tears in high heels, with alluring self-confidence in an office space. But that is not me. It would not increase my knowledge of this planet; make me worthy of being in competition with my contemporaries.

It is disheartening feeling, thinking that you are never good enough. Never perfect. It came from a padded childhood and the reward of that had already shown up in my life. Already I had convinced myself I was less than zero – a blurred negative, shallow and vain. Imagine thinking so little of yourself that you thought being self-destructive was redemptive in some way. I cannot shrug off the memory of blood, of devilish ‘cutting’, the target my soul. Something that says, ‘I no longer can take care of me.’ Love and worth is a wasteland to me. They’re difficult for me to imagine. Only the negative, only the shared pain on this planet seems real enough for me.

If I sleep the whole day it is only because I need my rest. If I need silence, it is because I can’t stand the noise, there’s too much of it. If I dream while I sleep, my mouth open, hair unkempt in a parallel dimension of the world I live in, the other one pinpoints from my subconscious what I should be living for. 

When the world went black and the sky became hard, wrapped in stone, magic would course through me, my fingertips tingling, promising me a slight reprieve in my bed at home. Trauma felt like thunder and unravelled me in seconds. There is a record of all of this in diaries that I have kept for years. As a child letting go, set loose upon the world and a grown up.

Somewhere in the picture would be my family like a fossil that you would have to dig deep for, have the ‘eye’ for some prehistoric dinosaur bone, just one in a million other fossils, stuck grounded by the dynamic of gravity, one in a million of other families struggling to put food on the table, struggling to survive as a unit. They were never enough for me, with all their itineraries, constraints they placed upon me to ‘behave myself’ because even as a child I felt my bearings were connected to something within me and not to the external. I would find that when I was still, quiet something would shift inside of me hectically like a fish whose very life, the internal was being snuffed out like candlelight by a fisherman’s hands.

I would as an adult begin to search for truth in my writing. I always thought of myself, even as child, separate from other people, other mother’s progeny. Officially I wasn’t educated, I had never followed the right roads, when I found inner harmony, the peace I sorely craved I changed direction and soon became masterful at that. My world was as stable as an elastic band. I had to learn to heal myself as my struggle and my future became more and more certain, roles were locking themselves into place around me and the universe gave me kindred spirits when I found that they were sorely lacking. I was grateful for the ability to search in the pit of the dark fire of difficult melancholy yet it was still inspiring to delve deep into that abyss and come out reaching and formidable. I observed to live, to describe, to journal, to experience, to daydream in my youth and to reach out to others vicariously.

But I knew really, in my heart of hearts that I was not one of them. I could only write, stop time and place in their tracks. It stopped the pathways of nerves of hurt from navigating through me to my oftentimes dark and intense soul. The illness laid bare the material that made up the psyche of the rest of my family, a sister, a brother and a mother. There were questions only answered later in life and I found out that it did hurt me as if the illumined blue pearl of my world was caving in, like I was hitting my head against a brick wall with glitter snowing down all around me, like I didn’t get the fairytale ending or like I was just diagnosed with orphan abandonment issues as if I was some case study at a state hospital. Some days bipolar was a monster too tough for me to girl fight it out but it was easy enough for those close to me to notice a change in the air. Any negatives and I would be down, a fussy eater who pushed the food around on her plate wanting, waiting to gorge herself on chips and fizzing soda with a stream of bubbles bursting like ripe pomegranate seeds on my tongue.

I would be evil and cantankerous. I would just be waiting to explode like a volcano at the turn of a switch. Anything would, could set me off, anything that would touch the surface of my world, my equilibrium. There were days when I didn’t like the mirror. When I wrote especially into the early hours of the morning I felt something come alive inside of me, something rather splendid and unbreakable. It came with pangs of love, although I wouldn’t call it a childhood love and from my brain’s pale depression, its ‘crown of thorns’, that wasteland, that wilderness of dying to belong had finally brought me to something greater than myself. All my life I had been the chaser of dreams. There was now urgency; a quest lay in front of me, a novel and almost poetic intensity to my dreams and my goals now. In water, it held me captive. I could feel a current flowing through me with a bright force. Words still had the power to render me speechless. I was determined to work at this, to perhaps make something of my life with it. It had cast a spell over me, my mind and I had found in my imagination a home, a path set in stone and roots.

People stayed away, the family on my father’s side stayed away and the more they stayed away, the more aware I became of how I did not fit into society, the more blurred around the edges ‘normal’ became. No one came to see us; no one came to the house except my brother’s friends who came to see him. They traipsed into our house all hours of the day and night, sneaking beers into his bedroom, walking on tiptoe to the bathroom, up and down the passage, keeping my mum and my dad and me awake in our beds the whole night. They usually left in the early hours of the morning, the same way they came, through the front door, usually a bit unsteady on their feet. I began to dream at all hours.

So darkness opened up full circle. It speaks to me. As I wait upon the world it says that there’s a voyage out there awaiting me. I must write.

II

Sylvia Plath

A Biography of a Creative Genius
followed by some of her Journal Entries

 sym17

Sylvia Plath (October 27, 1932 – February 11, 1963) was an American poet, novelist, and short-story writer. Born in Boston, Massachusetts, she studied at Smith College and Newnham College at the University of Cambridge, before receiving acclaim as a poet and writer. She married fellow poet Ted Hughes in 1956. They lived together in the United States and then England, and had two children, Frieda and Nicholas. Plath suffered from depression for much of her adult life, and in 1963 she committed suicide. Controversy continues to surround the events of her life and death, as well as her writing and legacy.

Plath is credited with advancing the genre of confessional poetry and is best known for her two published collections, The Colossus and Other Poems and Ariel. In 1982, she won a posthumous Pulitzer Prize for The Collected Poems. She also wrote The Bell Jar, a semi-autobiographical novel published shortly before her death.

An Extraordinary Life: Journal entries

The page frees me in a sense, in a way I can’t describe. I write and that’s my life. I am a mother and a wife and a lover and a poet and I feel that is also just a part of my life. Sometimes the two meet and sometimes they don’t. Sphere upon sphere upon another sphere. Poetry is a god to me. When I write I am a woman on her own. Reality is out of the picture and it doesn’t seem to count for anything really. It’s never enough for me. I stand and watch the busyness of life, observing nature and most of all human nature and I slowly empty out. It’s a useful exercise kind of like meditation. I know nothing about it.

sym18

Mad Girl’s Love Song: Sylvia Plath and Life before Ted
A Biography of Sylvia Plath by Andrew Wilson

It’s just something I read as a girl in a book long ago when I was at college and at the time it was just too much for me to handle. The thought of going out of myself made me go numb and cold. It gave me the shivers. If I was alone I would go mad with grief and rage and I would be that girl again. I think I’ve been supportive. I’ve been encouraging. All I see is constellations in words and it is driving me sweetly out of my mind. I am the rabbit in Wonderland and there I go down that hole. There are people out there who have peace around them all the time. Why can’t I be one of those people? Life is a cruel trick. I want to escape from my reality.

Women don’t set out to alienate men. It’s not their lot in life. Men and women are supposed to get along so they can walk down that sunny road, settle down and marry and have those kids and start the modern family. Sylvia and Ted are just complex, endlessly searching particles bumping into each other for clarity like oil and water, like acid rain. Now we, the both of this ‘us’ that he keeps on talking about have this one thing in common and that is poetry and the goal was for us to work together but now it is working against us. I never dreamed that this would be kismet.

Last night I was electric. I told him where to get off and come hell or high water I am going to stick to it. So sticking to my guns, that’s me. I put the universe under observation. To be a wonder, I sometimes long for that. To sparkle, to vibrate, to feel that there’s enough in the world, to bask in the revelation that there’s an abundance healing the world of all its iniquities through ritual, that there’s healing across family bloodlines. I long to be so innocent and pure and that I would have no knowledge of the raw energy of blood and guts in writing poetry. I go inside.

Inside the deepness, the thoroughfare of the sense and sensibility of every female poet and what do I find there wherever I look. Boxes that are locked and keys that need to be found, a heart that needs to be connected to the material, the physical part of the universe to view even the light and dark battling it out. Poetry has become my life work, my death of self, a force to be reckoned with steely-eyed determination, my love, my creative impulse and passion. It is the fruit of my spirit and the way of my soul. I have found the world, worlds really that exist in my consciousness, that state I can only reach when I am very still and quiet.

The state I could reach when I was young. You only have that kind of inclination when you are young and you don’t live in a constant state of denial of fear and the ego and insecurity. So I have found consciousness, that clear and fluid stream of thought that tends to linger. The heavenly creation of a dream does not. And when you wake up in the morning there is action and vision and doing your ablutions, brushing the curls out of your hair, there’s a sense of orderliness in the routine. There is always something human. I must have courage now. This is not my first hurt.

I see myself as a poet and a female writer second. There’s no contest. All of life is feeding ghosts that came before and after, running on your own personal velocity, the flow of poetic motion, a writer saying, ‘I need an ending to this’ blasting through his or her dream. Inside the mind/vision of a poet means going into the black and that there are always two possibilities within reach, life or death, feeding the gods of beasts or feeling ghosts near your fingertips, depression or feeling that you’re more normal, stable than the next person. I think I have found my ending.

Once you are there you’re running, running with scissors (and didn’t even know it). For writers all of life is childhood continued. As a writer, now is the time of my life. Sylvia write every day, that is the purest sum of parts of a writer. Don’t edit. Don’t censor yourself. Before you show ‘the work’ to anyone else, journal with intent. Loss is a hard fall. You’re standing and then the world becomes something of a hallucination. Writing no longer is a task for me. Feeling broken is a splendiferous stain. Held up to the world it is my main inspiration. It packs it in, crosses thresholds, divides, and flaunts, what it isn’t is anonymous.

In my writing I don’t have to don a mask and mask my pain. I don’t have to filter my moods and then I turn to my reflection and say, ‘Bravo, Sylvia. You’ve done the impossible. Bravo.’ Perhaps it is true. I am behaving like a spoilt, coddled child. But if I take him back what does that say about me, all my principles, the family values I cherish. People talk and what if they do. It is none of my business what they think of me, of us, of this wounded relationship. Poets do not know how to live. We only know how to die. Daily I get glimpses of the portrait of a writer.

It feels kind of surreal to me (more like a dream) especially the consciousness of the writer and the ‘thought-magic’ that we wield and that we harbour in our communities. In front of the writer lies a battlefield. The portrait’s skin and its flesh and bone and blood are made up of history and poverty, the divide between everything that came before, the divide that lies between the powerful and the vulnerable and a rich diversity. It houses the thought and the community I have spoken of before. At heart we, the writer are creative beings. The poet is the mystic being finding everything around him bearable and unbearable.

Always reckoning those two forces of nature, those two cycles, seasons in the circle of life. I write because it’s my life. Writers write because it is their saving grace. I write because I don’t know what to do with the raw energy I have of blood and guts. I regard the world as delicious images crowding my mind, jostling for position and a fairy tale filled with angels and demons. There’s always entrapment by ghosts. Oh, how they want to belong, those kindred spirits and what they wouldn’t give to feel alive again. They vanish and appear at will and call our name in the wee hours of the morning scaring us half to death, they taste like air.

Smoke, honey, blood and they thirst for land. What they wouldn’t give to walk and talk, speak truths and be tourists? Today has been the colour of rain. A pale, washed-out colour and a dreary mood was hanging in the air but then Frieda smiled at me and then everything was alright in the world again. I am like a wounded animal, a hungry bear in the wild and there are days when I feel as if I am a woman on a mission. A mission to find love and I can’t rest until I have rekindled it in the ones I have lost. Poetry is my voice, my light, my sport. I must be obedient and forgiving. Isn’t that what a wife is supposed to be?

 sym19_400

Sylvia Plath as a mother, with her newborn child and her husband, poet Ted Hughes

He had the audacity to stand there and lecture me as if I was a bad person, a bad mother. Have I been a bad wife? I don’t know. Have I neglected my children and been too self-absorbed? Perhaps, perhaps, perhaps. I don’t find enough time in the day anymore to write like I used to. I remember how my husband used to help with little Frieda and especially Nicholas when I wanted some time to myself. But most importantly when I wanted to write. When I first met Ted all I wanted to do was make him happy. To see him smile, read his poetry and what an effort he made by reading mine and giving me helpful advice just lifted my spirits.

It felt like a dream being near him, listening to him and now I have lost that dream and I must dream another. I have lost him to another woman. Is she better than I am? Is she a lady? Is she the perfect woman?

*********************************************************

 END  OF 35th SESSION OF THE  OVI  SYMPOSIUM (25/09/2014)

*********************************************************

Intro - P. 1 - P. 2 

2nd Meeting - 3rd Meeting - 4th Meeting - 5th Meeting - 6th Meeting - 7th Meeting - 8th Meeting -

9th Meeting - 10th Meting - 11th Meeting - 12th Meeting - 13th Meeting - 14th Meeting - 15th Meeting -

16th Meeting - 17th Meeting - 18th Meeting - 19th Meeting - 20th Meeting - 21st Meeting -

22nd Meeting -23rd Meeting - 24th Meeting - 25th Meeting - 26th Meeting - 27th Meeting -

28th Meeting -29th Meeting - 30th Meeting - 31st Meeting - 32nd Meeting - 33rd Meeting -

34th Meeting -35th Meeting -

***********************************************************************

 


     
Print - Comment - Send to a Friend - More from this Author

Comments(0)
Get it off your chest
Name:
Comment:
 (comments policy)

© Copyright CHAMELEON PROJECT Tmi 2005-2008  -  Sitemap  -  Add to favourites  -  Link to Ovi
Privacy Policy  -  Contact  -  RSS Feeds  -  Search  -  Submissions  -  Subscribe  -  About Ovi