“Art reminds us of states of animal vigor; it is on the one hand an excess and overflow of blooming physicality into the world of images and desires; on the other, an excitation of the animal functions through the images and desires of intensified life; an enhancement of the feeling of life, a stimulant to it.” ~ Nietzsche, 1887
What is creativity? How does it function? What does it do for us?
These are huge questions that give a fine field of play for our curiosity and the desire to live with amplitude and authenticity which accompany it. They are nowhere better addressed than in the works of Friedrich Nietzsche (1844 – 1900), the most creative of philosophers.
The form of the works, as well as the content, are both relevant to our questions: Nietzsche’s writing is beautifully rich in imagery, aphorism and narrative—a feature which however, caused Bertrand Russell (1946) to dismiss him as a ‘merely literary philosopher’ who made no ‘technical’ contribution to the discipline.
For Russell, philosophy should aspire to the condition of empirical science and be able to provide trueanswers to philosophical questions (in the form of propositions)—it is an attitude which has colored much Anglo-Saxon philosophy for at least the last hundred years.
For Nietzsche, however, philosophy is art and should construct liberating pictures of life and the world.
His writing exemplifies this, comprehensively de-constructing the Western philosophical and theological traditions in order to craft something new and more life-affirming. Not only does Nietzsche engage in this artistic enterprise with all the passion of an artist who believes his material to be the very future of culture, but he gives us an astonishingly nuanced account of his own creativity, and creativity in general.
This account though is not given gratis. The relevant remarks and discussions are scattered throughout the oeuvre, and even when gathered together, we still face the complexity of the evolution of Nietzsche’s views. Entering this labyrinth is probably a reckless act, but the prize is the acquisition of some explosive perspectives.
Not less important is the perspective in which Nietzsche makes connections between rapturous intoxication, creativity and the roles these play in “the counter-movement to nihilism.”
The nihilism that Nietzsche refers to here would, he thought, afflict people of our time, and take the form of a devitalized passivity and an enervating belief in nothing. In this cultural situation, only art could reconnect us with our life force and will to power.
Nietzsche was actually narrating his own self-story here as well as (accurately) predicting the future. He had seen the temptations to nihilism at close hand in his own vividly somatic philosophical struggles, and had an acute sense of history enabling him to see how these temptations would be writ large as more and more people repudiated the comforts of organized religion and received notions of how life, self and world are.
He reports that he had redeemed himself of this passive nihilism through his creative philosophical work.
Nietzsche found that this work was often ecstatically inspired. When gripped by inspiration, Nietzsche tells us, one feels oneself to be merely the “medium of overwhelming forces”; something is revealed to one which “shakes and overturns one to the depths”; there is a “a complete being outside of oneself”; and “everything is in the highest degree involuntary but takes place as in a tempest of a feeling of freedom, of absoluteness, of power, of divinity” (Thus Spoke Zarathustra).
It was in this state that Nietzsche wrote five major works in 1888, the last productive year of his life, before collapsing into madness and losing his creative powers. It is clearly a state of very high energy and Nietzsche himself thinks of it like that.
Indeed, Nietzsche develops his thought on creative inspiration and rapture in general by initially considering two fundamental, embodied ‘energies’ which fuel distinctive creative modes. These are the Apollonian and the Dionysian (after the Greek gods Apollo and Dionysus) energies.
When Nietzsche started talking about these energies in The Birth of Tragedy (1872), he spoke of them “…as artistic powers which spring from nature itself,” the Apollonian being connected to dream images and the Dionysian to orgiastic intoxication which, in this early formulation, amounts to ego-loss.
As Nietzsche puts it, the Dionysian presents itself “as an ecstatic reality, which… pays no heed to the individual, but even seeks to destroy individuality and redeem it with a mystical sense of unity.” There is a hint that this Dionysian ecstasy might be worth pursuing through ascetic attempts at self-annihilation.
However, by the time Nietzsche is revisiting the Dionysian in 1888, it has changed in character in an important way. Nietzsche’s conception of the Apollonian now slides almost completely into the Dionysian which itself loses any residual ascetic character.
Besides being an intoxication which, at the very least, blurs the ego-boundary (“the mystical sense of unity”), there is also an intense feeling of power: “The condition of pleasure called intoxication is precisely an exalted feeling of power.”
What has happened between 1872 and 1888 is that, crucially, Nietzsche has exhaustively considered the phenomenon of asceticism, both as individual psychology and as culture. Asceticism, he finds, particularly in On the Genealogy of Morals (1886), to be an active kind of nihilism which is against those aspects of life—sex, dominance, change, instinctive life—which are obviously embroiled in our suffering.
A good deal of repression is involved in this ascetic project and it is often engaged with in the name of religion. Hence, the quintessential ascetic maneuver is to attempt to overcome one’s individuation, one’s ego, by discipline and force of will, thereby, it is hoped, dissolving the subject which supposedly does the suffering whilst at the same time being virtuous.
For Nietzsche, this came to represent an outmoded project, driven by life-negation, which ran counter to his quest to affirm life totally in spite of those features of it which cause suffering, its tragic character. And not only that: he analyses the impossibility of the ascetic project, noting how the attempt to repress—even extinguish—the instincts and the ego ultimately strengthens them as life fights back.
Furthermore, by 1888, Nietzsche is not speaking of ego as something to be waged war on but as something without inherent existence, that is, an interpretation amongst others of embodied human experience. So ego, rather than a reality to overcome, is a pragmatic interpretation of features of the phenomenal realm to be seen for what it is.
We should note that Nietzsche’s anti-asceticism and atheism did not consign him to a spiritual flatland, as could be reasonably expected, at least at first glance. On the contrary, his accounts of his inspiration indicate a life rich in interiority and an often ecstatic being.
But, this is not an ecstasy bought with the currency of self-torture, self-abnegation and self-eradication—it has none of the morbidity of such experimentation with the body’s endogenous opiates.
Instead, it is an intense creativity in which negating power is not sought over what is natural, biological and animal within us, rather one which becomes a productive channeling of that same raw, voluptuous energy of nature that as ascetics we would have sought to subdue with the quantum of will we could manage to attach to our egos.
What does this story tell us? Artists can usefully let go and let be.
Creativity is energetic, that is, physiological, embodied and potentially ecstatic. The creative ecstasy, though going beyond the individuation of the artist, is also a tremendous power, though not a power wielded by an ego, as we are prone to conceive all power, but the dancing power of nature herself. We can allow it!
This is what Nietzsche means when he pictures the world as a cosmic dance (the cosmological will to power), and rhapsodizes thus: “The world is will to power. And you, my brothers, you too are will to power.”
Clearly, this creativity is life-affirmative and born out of life-affirmation, and Nietzsche’s example shows that it is as proper to the philosophical imagination as it is to the poetic imagination. We could do worse than to avail ourselves of it.
Written by Peter Yates.
Bibliography and further reading:
Nietzsche, Friedrich (1968) The Will to Power. New York: Vintage Books (Random) (Translators: Walter Kaufmann & R.J. Hollingdale) WP
Nietzsche, Friedrich (1996) On the Genealogy of Morals. Oxford: Oxford University Press (Translator: Douglas Smith) GM
Nietzsche, Friedrich (1969) On the Genealogy of Morals. New York: Vintage Books (Random) (Translator: Walter Kaufman) GM
Nietzsche, Friedrich (1979) Ecce Homo. Harmondsworth: Penguin (Translator: Holingdale, R.J.) EH
Nietzsche, Friedrich (1993) The Birth of Tragedy. Harmondsworth: Penguin (Translator: Whiteside S.) BT
Russell, Bertrand (1984 1st.edn 1946) A History of Western Philosophy. London: Routledge