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The Madness Letters: Friedrich Nietzsche and Béla Tarr

On January 3rd 1889, while staying with a friend in Turin, Friedrich Nietzsche suffered the mental collapse that is the basis of Béla Tarr’s newest (and according to him, final) film, The Turin Horse. Seven years earlier, in 1882, Nietzsche wrote this earth-shattering aphorism: THE MADMAN — Have you not heard of that madman who lit […]

Friedrich Nietzsche, photographed in mid-1899, after a mental breakdown and two strokes. This image is a part of the series "The Ill Nietzsche" photographed by Hans Olde.

On January 3rd 1889, while staying with a friend in Turin, Friedrich Nietzsche suffered the mental collapse that is the basis of Béla Tarr’s newest (and according to him, final) film, The Turin Horse. Seven years earlier, in 1882, Nietzsche wrote this earth-shattering aphorism:

THE MADMAN — Have you not heard of that madman who lit a lantern in the bright morning hours, ran to the market place, and cried incessantly: “I seek God! I seek God!”—As many of those who did not believe in God were standing around just then, he provoked much laughter. Has he got lost? asked one. Did he lose his way like a child? asked another. Or is he hiding? Is he afraid of us? Has he gone on a voyage? emigrated?—Thus they yelled and laughed

The madman jumped into their midst and pierced them with his eyes. “Whither is God?” he cried; “I will tell you. We have killed him—you and I. All of us are his murderers. But how did we do this? How could we drink up the sea? Who gave us the sponge to wipe away the entire horizon? What were we doing when we unchained this earth from its sun? Whither is it moving now? Whither are we moving? Away from all suns? Are we not plunging continually? Backward, sideward, forward, in all directions? Is there still any up or down? Are we not straying, as through an infinite nothing? Do we not feel the breath of empty space? Has it not become colder? Is not night continually closing in on us? Do we not need to light lanterns in the morning? Do we hear nothing as yet of the noise of the gravediggers who are burying God? Do we smell nothing as yet of the divine decomposition? Gods, too, decompose. God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him.

“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 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? There has never been a greater deed; and whoever is born after us—for the sake of this deed he will belong to a higher history than all history hitherto.”

Here the madman fell silent and looked again at his listeners; and they, too, were silent and stared at him in astonishment. At last he threw his lantern on the ground, and it broke into pieces and went out. “I have come too early,” he said then; “my time is not yet. This tremendous event is still on its way, still wandering; it has not yet reached the ears of men. Lightning and thunder require time; the light of the stars requires time; deeds, though done, still require time to be seen and heard. This deed is still more distant from them than most distant starsand yet they have done it themselves.

It has been related further that on the same day the madman forced his way into several churches and there struck up his requiem aeternam deo. Led out and called to account, he is said always to have replied nothing but: “What after all are these churches now if they are not the tombs and sepulchers of God?”

—Friedrich Nietzsche, The Gay Science (1882, 1887) para. 125; Cambridge University Press (Cambridge, 2001), pp.119-120.

Nietzsche’s breakdown was similar, if not exactly identical. As The Turin Horse tells it through voiceover, a cab driver was having trouble with his horse and in his frustration began to whip the animal. Nietzsche happened to be passing by, and was so terribly distraught by the scene that he ran to the horse’s aid, throwing his arms around its neck to protect it from the blows of the whip. Taken home by his neighbor, Nietzsche lay on a couch for two days without speaking a word and then uttered his “obligatory” last words: “Mutter, ich bin dumm (Mother, I am dumb).” Tarr’s film investigates the rest of the life of that horse, but the rest of Nietzsche’s life is worth investigating too, which I will try to do here.

During the few days after his breakdown, Nietzsche wrote seemingly psychotic letters to a number of friends and various figures of European royalty. These letters are called the Wahnbriefe or Madness Letters, and he signed them alternatively as “Dionysus” or “The Crucified.” The Nietzsche Channel has an archive of all of these letters in their original German, but generally they focus on a hedonistic understanding of humanity, and call for the death of the Pope, Wilhelm, Bismark, Stöcker, and “all the anti-semites.” These alarmingly unhinged letters worried their recipients so much that within a week, Nietzsche’s family came to Turin and brought him back to Basel, where he was hospitalized and diagnosed with the syphilis that would generally be blamed for his mental decay.

A portrait of Friedrich Nietzsche by Edvard Munch, 1906

At this point, it’s interesting to see how Nietzsche seemed to foretell his own demise. Within a decade after writing his famous Parable of the Madman, Nietzsche lost his wits and stumbled into a town square, screaming, and wildly unsettled by something seemingly usual—the beating of a horse. And just like his madman, Nietzsche spent the next few days after this breakdown decrying the church. How different is it to say that churches are “the tombs and sepulchers of God” and to call for the death of the Pope? In these letters, Nietzsche appoints  himself as a figure somewhere between Christ, “the Crucified”, who he had previously criticized harshly for subscribing to the “ascetic ideal,” and Dionysus, a figure so close to his heart that he often uses “Dionysian” as a synonym for his famous “the Will to Power.”

These two figures are wildly at odds with each other, in Nietzsche’s view, since they represent the logical extremes of the opposing worldviews he puts forward. In On The Genealogy of Morals, Nietzsche says, “the meaning of the aescetic ideal is none other than this: that something was missing, that man was surrounded by a gaping void—he did not know how to justify, explain, affirm himself, he suffered from the problem of his meaning” (1887, third essay, para. 28; Oxford University Press (Oxford, 1998), pp. 135-6). This falls, in Nietzsche’s analysis as a “will to nothingness,” as opposed to the “will to power” that is exemplified by the Dionysian exercise of creative-intuitive power and dissolution of boundaries and morality. These two things, both so strongly at odds, actually make up the basic thrust of Nietzsche’s philosophical project, which put VERY simply is this: the best and least hypocritical individuals are those who exercise their will to power (as opposed to the will to truth, nothingness, etc.). So his conflation of these two extreme figures, Christ and Dionysus, really puts credence behind the idea that Nietzsche had some sort of psychotic break, a break that allowed him to see such black and white concepts as the same.

But back to the event itself, there has been a lot of skepticism about Nietzsche’s diagnosis. Nietzsche was certainly losing his mind, a common side-effect of the nervous system infection that comes from 10-20 years of untreated syphilis, but he had few of the other side-effects, and was later re-diagnosed with a series of unusual mental conditions: manic depression with periodic psychosis, vascular dementia, frontotemporal dementia, and cerebral autosomal dominant arteriopathy with subcortical infarcts and leukoencephalopathy syndrome to name a few. Philosopher and critic George Bataille put forth a different theory: that Nietzsche’s breakdown and following mental illness was due to a full acceptance of his philosophical doctrine. In Nietzsche’s Madness, Bataille says “He who has once understood that in madness alone lies man’s completion, is thus led to make a clear choice not between madness and reason, but between the lie of ‘a nightmare of justifiable snores,’ and the will to self-mastery and victory” (October, 1986, pp. 45). What does this mean exactly? Only that Nietzsche’s madman from his parable was in fact the completed Nietzsche, and at least as Bataille sees it, Nietzsche was forced to choose between portraying the figure his philosophy forced him to become, or living a lie.

This brings a little more light to the moment that inspires The Turin Horse, a film that, like the Turin horse that Nietzsche saved, is the completion of his life’s work. In an interview with Tarr I asked him this very question:

Jeremy Meckler: Is it a coincidence that what you have said is your last film is about the last moment of sanity in Friedrich Nietzsche’s life?

Béla Tarr: Of course there is some connection, because before, when I started this project, I knew it would be my last. But you have to know also that we really just wanted to do a very simple, very pure film. We’re just showing how [the world] will be over, the horse will be over, life will be over. It’s very simple. Please just trust your eyes. That’s too much—don’t be sophisticated, okay?!

Obviously enough, I am having trouble not making this sophisticated (or at least complicated) but maybe, just maybe, The Turin Horse could be as complete for Tarr as saving one horse in Turin could be for Nietzsche. This is not to advocate for Tarr going insane, but that is not his duty. He is not a philosopher, only a filmmaker, and with this final film he is hanging up his camera and opening a film school in Croatia. Hopefully in the completed stage of Tarr’s life as a filmmaker he will be able to inspire another generation. As he said in an interview with The Hollywood Reporter, “I don’t want to be a stupid filmmaker who is just repeating himself and doing the same shit just to bore the people.”

For a little more background, our full interview with Béla Tarr can be found here.