Saturday, November 20, 2010

A Brush with Nihilism

I wrote that short story -- mentioned in the previous post -- during the spring of my sophomore year.  It sparked a wild creative impulse in me that would culminate in a nervous breakdown two years later.  I was playing with fire:  isolated from those things that are supposed to give life meaning, including family, religion, and edifying art of any kind, I delved into my own mind.  I wrote stories, poetry, and contemplated the nature of life, the mind, and society.  But I did so largely without the benefit of a guide.  I was arrogant, and simply assumed that, using pure reason and raw creativity, I could unlock something new -- something more meaningful than either science or art.

I was looking for religion, but without realizing it.

In my studies I continued to do well.  In fact, my GPA steadily rose through my senior year, and I managed to graduate with honors.  I participated in fascinating research each summer, and had a great social life.  It was spiritually that I was in trouble.

Egged on by my amused peers, I started writing humorous, philosophical essays poking fun at the arrogance of scientists, the worship of pure intelligence, and the pointlessness of philosophy.  These were all worthy targets, but I had nothing to put in their place.  I flirted with nihilism. 

In fact, in the summer before my senior year I discovered Nietzsche.  For the first time in my life, I thought I'd found someone who seemed to understand me perfectly.  In case you've never really appreciated the seductiveness of his prose, try to imagine what effect the following passage had on a young man such as myself:

"I venture to speak out against an unseemly and harmful shift in the respective ranks of science and philosophy, which is now threatening to become established, quite unnoticed and as if it were accompanied by a perfectly good conscience.  I am of the opinion that only experience -- experience always seems to mean bad experience?  -- can entitle us to participate in the discussion of such higher questions of rank, lest we talk like blind men about colors -- against signs the way women and artists do ('Oh, this dreadful science!' sigh their instinct and embarrassment; 'it always gets to the bottom of things!')." (Beyond Good and Evil, Section 204)

Continuing this thought in a later passage:

"The dangers for a philosopher's development are indeed so manifold today that one may doubt whether this fruit can still ripen at all.  The scope and the tower building of the sciences has grown to be enormous, and with this also the probability that the philosopher grows wary while still learning or allows himself to be detained somewhere to become a 'specialist' -- so he never attains his proper level, the height for a comprehensive look, for looking around, for looking down. (Section 206)"

Such passages had a profound effect on me.  My growing passion for Nietzsche's writings would have a powerful influence on my decision to pursue grad school in philosophy after graduation.

If you were to ask me today, I would say that reading Nietzsche can have a positive influence on your life, if you are prepared for it and guided through it.  In my case, I dived right in on my own, and though the frankness and scope of his thinking had a positive influence on me, his deep cynicism had a decidedly negative impact that took me years to shake off.

Hopefully I've given enough background that you can see why I might have experienced such an intense psychological collapse my senior year.  When it reached its climax (an experience I don't care to describe in detail here), I checked myself into a mental hospital for three days.  My final quarter of coursework was completed that summer.  I experienced a full recovery by fall, but flashbacks and anxiety attacks would persist for several years.

The breakdown I experienced was overdue and needed.  It allowed me to glimpse God for a brief moment and win back my soul.  Immediately afterwards, I discovered that I was, overall, a more sensitive person.  I couldn't listen to heavy music anymore, I had to take it slower when I read poetry or philosophy, and it pained me to notice myself behaving arrogantly.  I even had a harder time watching violent or emotionally intense movies.  I found myself preferring art with a moral message.

Something deep in my brain had rebelled-- and powerfully-- against my lifestyle.  I didn't realize the significance of this until several years-- and several hundred books-- later.

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