Nietzsche on Depression and the Rehabilitation of Hope
By Maria Popova
“The gray drizzle induced by depression,” William Styron wrote in his classic memoir of what depression is really like, “takes on the quality of physical pain.” In my own experience, the most withering aspect of depression is the way it erases, like physical illness does, the memory of wellness. The totality of the erasure sweeps away the elemental belief that another state of being is at all possible — the sensorial memory of what it was like to feel any other way vanishes, until your entire being contracts into the state of what is, unfathoming of what has been, can be, and will be. If Emily Dickinson was correct, and correct she was, that “confidence in daybreak modifies dusk,” the thick nightfall of depression smothers all confidence in dawn.
And yet daybreak does come, with a shock and a rapture, to find us asking ourselves in half-belief: “What hurt me so terribly all my life until this moment?”
This rapturous rehabilitation of hope is what German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche (October 15, 1844–August 25, 1900), poet laureate of the troubled psyche, describes in the preface to the second edition of his most personal book, The Gay Science: With a Prelude in Rhymes and an Appendix of Songs (public library) — a chronicle of “high spirits, unrest, contradiction,” which gave us his vitalizing New Year’s resolution and his famous proclamation that “God is dead.”
Nietzsche writes just before his thirty-seventh birthday:
Gratitude pours forth continually, as if the unexpected had just happened — the gratitude of a convalescent — for convalescence was unexpected. “Gay Science”: that signifies the saturnalia of a spirit who has patiently resisted a terrible, long pressure — patiently, severely, coldly, without submitting, but also without hope — and who is now all at once attacked by hope, the hope for health, and the intoxication of convalescence. Is it any wonder that in the process much that is unreasonable and foolish comes to light, much playful tenderness that is lavished even on problems that have a prickly hide and are not made to be caressed and enticed? This whole book is nothing but a bit of merry-making after long privation and powerlessness, the rejoicing of strength that is returning, of a reawakened faith in a tomorrow and the day after tomorrow, of a sudden sense and anticipation of a future, of impending adventures, of seas that are open again, of goals that are permitted again, believed again.
Nietzsche offers a complementary sentiment in the 268th of the aphorisms collected in the book:
What makes Heroic? — To face simultaneously one’s greatest suffering and one’s highest hope.
Complement this particular portion of The Gay Science with poet Jane Kenyon on life with and after depression, Rebecca Solnit on hope in the dark, and Tchaikovsky on depression and finding beauty amid the wreckage of the soul, then revisit Nietzsche on how to find yourself, what it really means to be a free spirit, and why a fulfilling life requires embracing rather than running from difficulty.
Published February 12, 2018