Faust, Nietzsche and the Psychology of Inspiration

Inspiration is often depicted as a possession. In-spirare, to inspire, is literally to ‘breathe into’; that is, to animate, to give spirit to. The muse whispers in the ear, and animates the mouth. The speaker may appear lively, but they are passive, acting as a medium, as in Homer’s opening invocation: ‘Sing in me, muse’. In modern speech, we speak of ‘flow states’ and the loss of self, but these are just different ways of saying the same thing: inspiration is possession, or perhaps more accurately: inspiration is creatively productive possession.

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The Inspiration of Saint Matthew by Caravaggio

Nietzsche, who was, by his own account, possessed by his muse Zarathrustra, provides one of the best descriptions of this possession:

With the slightest scrap of superstition in you, you would indeed scarcely be able to dismiss the sense of being just an incarnation, just a mouthpiece, just a medium for overpowering forces. The notion of revelation — in the sense that suddenly, with ineffable assuredness and subtlety, something becomes visible, audible, something that shakes you to the core and bowls you over — provides a simple description of the facts of the matter. You hear, you don’t search; you take, you don’t ask who is giving; like a flash of lightning a thought flares up, with necessity, with no hesitation as to its form — I never had any choice

He calls it ‘a perfect being-outside-yourself’, and emphasizes the extreme passivity of the experience. Nietzsche, who is among the most braggadocious of philosophers, refers to himself, quite modestly, as ‘just a mouthpiece’. With inspiration, there is a sense in which the inspired could have been anyone. Of course, in typical Nietzsche fashion, he ends the passage claiming that you would need to go back a millennia to find someone who can claim to have experienced the same sort of inspiration — and, in a sense, he is correct. The inspired could have been anyone, they are arbitrary in relation to the ‘overpowering forces’ that flow through them — but the fact that they could have been anyone prompts the unmistakable feeling of being chosen. At the very least, the inspired can claim to possess a disposition suited to inspiration. The Romantics were very aware that such a disposition exists and deliberately attempted to cultivate it. The result of this cultivation has been passed down to us in the image of the tortured artist, whose tropes have become cliche. A tortured artist is someone who bares themselves to the muse, someone sensitive, open, empathic — attributes that have historically been associated with femininity, which is interesting considering the predominance of men among the class of tortured artists. The women among this class, by contrast, appear to exhibit the opposite — a pronounced masculinity, characterised by recklessness, focus and aggression — which would suggest that the disposition best suited to inspiration is a sort of temperamental androgyny.

Already we have come across several dualities. The inspired acts through passivity; are arbitrary but chosen; feminine and masculine. To these opposites, we can add the inspired’s bipolar, manic-depressive behaviour. In Nietzsche’s description, inspiration is a ‘rapture whose immense tension is released from time to time in a flood of tears’. This is the lot of the inspired; ascents and descents: ‘a depth of happiness where the most painful and sinister things act not as opposites but as determined, as induced, as a necessary colour within such a surfeit of light’. It is the Icarus myth in repeat. Remember, the muse is capricious. It comes and goes. When it comes, it illuminates and enlivens. When it goes, it is a like winter of the mind. In this sense, inspiration is less like the myth of Icarus, more like the myth of Faust.

Faust in his Study by Ary Scheffer

The Faust myth, which is loosely based on an actual person, the self-proclaimed ‘second magus’, Johann Georg Faust (1480 or 1466–1541), is widely considered to be one the defining myths of the post-classical West. The basic story concerns a knowledgeable scholar who trades his soul to the devil in exchange for further knowledge and increased power. In Christopher Marlowe’s version, the play Doctor Faustus (1604), it is the demon Mephistopheles who convinces Faustus to sign himself away, and when he does, when Faustus enters into a covenant with the devil, Mephistopheles is the source of all his insights and his abilities. Mephistopheles inspires Faustus. It is a possession. Faustus may have thought he summoned the demon with ‘conjuring speeches’, but as Mephistopheles tells him, he was already on his way: ‘I came now hither of mine own accord’. Faustus is chosen because he ‘abjures the scriptures’ and is unafraid of ‘damnation’. Although he knows better (and this ‘knowing better’ is crucial to the Faust myth), he is willing to sacrifice anything in his pursuits — even himself.

In Thomas Mann’s adaptation, the novel Doctor Faustus (1947), Mann’s focus — like Nietzsche’s in the passage above — is the psychology of inspiration. In fact, with Mann’s Faust — a talented composer named Adrian Leverkühn — we find an only slightly altered Nietzsche. Mann himself denied using any particular model for Adrian, but the similarities are striking: both were precocious child prodigies, both geniuses in their respective fields, both contracted syphilis in likely their only sexual encounter, both suffered from various physical ailments (most likely a result of said syphilis), and both bounced between bouts of torpor and ‘monstrous creative activity’ — a consequence of what Stefan Zweig might call their ‘struggle with the daemon’. Their ends are also remarkably similar: after a major mental breakdown, they both spent their last ten years of life in a dilapidated and dependent state, returned to the care of their matriarchs.

Friedrich Nietzsche (1899) by Hans Olde

Aside from their biographical similarities, Nietzsche and Adrian also share a particular disposition — one that we might call the disposition of the inspired. It is what makes them both prototypical Faust-figures. It is characterised first and foremost by a reckless abandon (a phrase I find particularly fitting because it combines the sense of recklessness and surrender necessary for inspiration). Like Faust, both men know better, but choose the ‘destructive ecstasy’ of daemonic inspiration. As Stefan Zweig says of Nietzsche:

[…] it was voluntarily, in full lucidity of mind, that he renounced a secure existence in order to build for himself a life apart, doing so out of a profound tragical instinct. With unprecedented courage he challenged the gods, so that he might, in his own person, “experience the highest degree of danger it is possible for man to live through”

In some sense, it is not even really a choice. They are compelled by what feels like an overwhelming force: what can best be described as an insatiable curiosity. This curiosity, which is felt to be both a gift and a curse, sets them apart from others. They can often appear callous and impassive, but this is only because they are not interested in what is common — etiquette included. They see through things — in the sense of things being a farce and in the sense of seeing passed something, seeing into the distance. In Mann’s Doctor Faustus, great attention is paid to the eyes — particularly Adrian’s. His eyes are said to ‘take things in’, to devour: ‘The look he cast on me was the look, the familiar one that made me almost equally unhappy, no matter whether myself or another was its object’. At times his gaze is ‘afar and strange’, at others, ‘one could read in his eyes the creative energy with which he daily arose to his task’. While in ill health, his eyes are painful and ‘half overhung by drooping lids’; but when he is inspired, his eyes are ‘almost exaggeratedly wide open’:

there was about the widened gaze a fixity– or shall I say it was a stare?– the nature of which I puzzled over until it occurred to me that it depended on the unvarying size of the not quite round, rather irregularly lengthened pupils, as though they remained unaffected by any alteration in the lighting

His ‘irregularly lengthened pupils’ evoke the ‘death-dealing eye of the basilisk’. His stare is ‘wordless, veiled, coldly remote to the point of offensiveness’. As his mind begins to deteriorate, he could be observed ‘moving his eyeballs rapidly to and fro’ in what appears to be involuntary eye movements — potentially, a sign of psychosis. It is only at the end of the novel, when he is fully catatonic, that his eyes are finally ‘vacant’.

His signature gaze, which is often followed by a ‘smile with closed lips and sneeringly dilating nostrils’, is a Kubrick stare (picture Jack Nicholson in The Shining).

Jack Nicholson in Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining

It is a combination of stalking predator and wide-eyed prey. Historically, masculine and feminine forms. In Andersen’s The Little Mermaid, which Adrian ‘uncommonly loved and admired’, these forms find expression in the eyes of the mermaid: ‘blue as the depths of sea’; and that of the ‘dark-eyed prince’ whose love she seeks. Those of us more familiar with the Disney movie might not be aware that, in Andersen’s version, once the mermaid trades her voice for legs, every step she takes feels like she is walking on knives. Adrian not only admires her ‘wilfulness’, he relates to it in terms of his own health issues: ‘He played with the comparison between the knife-sharp pains which the beautiful dumb one found herself ready to bear […] and what he himself had ceaselessly to endure’. In Jungian terms, the little mermaid is Adrian’s anima (the feminine part of the male personality). He calls her his ‘sister and sweet bride’, and claims to have impregnated her after the devil brought her to his bed as his ‘bed-sister’. Despite what these words might suggest, this is not an incest fantasy, it is autoerotic. Adrian identifies with the mermaid. Consummation is, in this context, ‘completion’ — the integration of the anima. It is not a coincidence that in Andersen’s fairytale, marriage to the prince means the mermaid will obtain an immortal soul, as a part of his soul will flow into her — an act of in-spiration.

Illustration by Helen Stratton

Adrian also identifies with the mermaid because he sees himself as a chimera: a half-human, half-fish hybrid, capable of insights that seemed to be ‘robbed from the depths, fetched up from there and brought to the light of day’.

Ocean depths are another of Adrian’s obsessions. Although he only ever read about it, he spoke of the ‘extravagant living things down there […] as though he had personally seen and experienced it all’:

at seven hundred and fifty to seven hundred and sixty-five metres, came solid blackness all round, the blackness of interstellar space whither for eternities no weakest sun-ray had penetrated, the eternally still and virgin night, which now had to put up with a powerful artificial light from the upper world, not of cosmic origin, in order to be looked at and looked through

To ‘look at the unlooked-at’, this is what motivates the mermaid to walk on land and it is what motivates Adrian to go ‘down below’ — which also means to see what is inside himself.

In Doctor Faustus, the suggestion is that Mephistopheles exists only in Adrian’s mind. This would make Mephistopheles a projection of Adrian’s ‘shadow’ (another Jungian term referring to the dark, unknown part of the psyche). Hallucination or not, Mephistopheles acts as a catalyst, providing ‘only a little heating, elation, intoxication’, so that ‘something brilliant could be brought out’.

There are parts of ourselves that are so foreign to who we think we are that we completely dissociate ourselves from them, treating them like separate entities. This is what happens with inspiration; what feels like a possession is really just a lowering of our defences — enough so that another part of ourselves, a previously unknown part, can take control. These unknown parts are like the ‘monsters of the deep’; some ‘grisly’, some ‘comic’, all seeming to be ‘seized by spasms of twitching excitement’ — which manifests itself as mania. The problem, as Adrian acknowledges, is that these creatures are adapted to the depths, they are products ‘of seclusion, sequestration, of reliance on being wrapped in eternal darkness’. Bringing them to the surface is not easy, and even if they are brought up, they do not last long — this manifests itself as melancholia.

Perhaps Adrian would have been better off if he acknowledged Mephistopheles to be a part of himself. When I think of this scenario, I am reminded of the hauntingly repeated lines from The Stone Roses’, ‘I Wanna Be Adored’: ‘I don’t have to sell my soul / He’s already in me / I don’t have to sell my soul / He’s already in me’.

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Eddie Ejjbair

‘Gradually it’s become clear to me what every great philosophy has been: a personal confession of its author and a kind of involuntary and unconscious memoir’