Creativity, Magic, and Madness
Nietzsche, Chaos Magic, and the liberation of the self through dreams.
“Madness in individuals is rare — but in groups, it is the rule.”
The controversial philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche suffered from mental illness in the years leading up to his death. He is often quoted for the passion with which he wrote his thoughts: he called for the radical liberation of the self from the chains of politics, institutionalized religion, and arbitrary cultural norms. One path to freedom is by courageously diving inward and expanding one’s self from within. In doing so, one destroys the boundaries of the ego and achieves a state of being beyond social pressure. But, to quote Herman Hesse in “Steppenwolf”, the entrance is not for everybody: it is for madmen only.
Apollo and Dionysus
Nietzsche noted that the gods of the ancient Greeks, with their flawed and lusty personalities, were elemental representations of our shared psychology. This echoes what Sigmund Freud said about how myth may be seen as the collective dream of a nation, representing their fears and ambitions. Freud observed how storytellers and poets used words to evoke images that help us access the raw inner world (which he called the Unconscious Mind). Similarly, Nietzsche said that poetry is like dreaming, and to dream is to be an explorer of the mind. He said that “men of philosophical disposition are known for their constant premonition that our everyday reality, too, is an illusion, hiding another, totally different kind of reality.” In exploring the inner world, one gains a better grasp of the external world.
Myth may be seen as the collective dream of a nation, representing their fears and ambitions.
There are two ways we dream, based on two important Greek gods: Apollo and Dionysus. Apollo is the handsome god of logic and truth, so Apollonian dreams happen when we rearrange the mess of the world into more pleasant, logical systems. Nietzsche criticizes this form of dreaming as a love of illusion. By using only the things that we already know, we are simply romanticizing our basic, immediate reality. He says that “during the Apollonian phase does man’s will desire to remain on earth, so identified does he become with existence, that even his lament turns to a song of praise.” This form of fantasy does not challenge our view world, so it limits the dreamer. He also says that “as a moral deity Apollo demands self-control from his people and, in order to observe such self-control, a knowledge of the self… the esthetic necessity of beauty is accompanied by the imperatives, ‘know thyself’, and ‘nothing too much’.”
On the other hand, Dionysus doesn’t care. Being the god of wine and revelry, Dionysian dreams allow the dreamer to forget himself. Here, “the slave emerges as a freeman; all the rigid, hostile walls which either necessity or despotism has erected between men are shattered.” Compared to Apollo’s comforting illusions, Dionysus disturbs with magnificent chaos. Nietzsche says that “wherever the Dionysiac voice was heard, the Apollonian norm seemed suspended or destroyed.” The reason we are terrified of this and call it madness is because our Apollonian attitude is put on the defensive in the presence of such a raw, unstoppable, natural force.
Madness and Magic
The 70’s gave birth to the punk scene, and this revolutionary spirit possessed eccentrics who were tired of the exclusivity and elitism of institutionalized religion. A radical perspective emerged, called Chaos Magic. Chaos magicians believed that the supernatural is a pervasive, accessible reality that can be studied empirically and manipulated at will. Individuals who practiced Chaos Magic did not usually agree with each other and rarely succeeded in building coherent, long-lasting societies. There are many self-published books on the topic, but these are often just informative diaries that gossip about the messy history of Chaos Magic and its subjective, contradicting ideas. There are people who take it seriously, but for many, Chaos Magic is merely a creative exercise. Chaos does not mean anarchy, only revolution.
Some people might say that this system is too liberal, but it’s not unusual for regular people to cherry-pick and choose what works for them. One might observe religious people who go to mass and also consult tabloid horoscopes, hang both a crucifix and a Bagua in their store, or ask both a Feng Sui expert and a Catholic priest to bless their home. This is because religious belief – or people’s connection to the Divine – is rooted in something raw and human. We can call it either the soul or the Unconscious Mind; either way, like the assertion of Chaos Magic, we know that the supernatural is felt, in its full effect, subjectively.
An interesting concept that echoes Nietzsche’s Dionysian dreaming is known as gnosis. Chaos magicians believe that the physical mind has a filter, called the “psychic censor”. Without this, the individual would lose their ability to focus or pay attention to anything; they would be exposed to all the stimuli that all their senses could observe, all at the same time. Gnosis is the momentary inhibition of this psychic censor in order to access all of reality at once, with the goal of talking to the Divine or invoking old gods. The danger with this is that it sounds exactly like madness. This doesn’t mean that the Divine is messy, only that the human mind doesn’t have the capacity to understand truly terrifying spiritual matters.
Gnosis is where the mage seeks to be overpowered by stimulation — he is subjugated and shattered until the ego is no more, because the easiest way to overcome it. There is freedom in this absolute lack of ego but it is a form of freedom that is uncommon, and so it frightens regular people with common sense. In madness, there are no rules, there are no others, and there is no self. This, however, can’t (and shouldn’t) last long because of its many obvious dangers. This is a crash course to the contents of the Divine, but the same effect can be achieved through consistent spiritual discipline over the years. A steady, meditative Apollonian approach allows the mage to get used to dealing with the Divine mysteries. That is good, but slow.
In ancient cultures, madness was considered prophetic because it was believed to be how the physical mind is affected by higher reality. Prophets are generally considered to be more sensitive, or conscious, of the Divine. This seems to go against what we know about the material properties of the human brain. Most physical scientists would tend to agree that consciousness is a property of the mind but some researches have suggested that we should not rule out other perspectives. Graham Hancock suggested that the relationship of the brain to consciousness is like a television set picking up a television signal. The TV set (brain) can produce distorted images and it can be broken down and even thrown away, but the signal will persist. This suggests an ethereal region in space that is a larger, shared, universal consciousness. It’s interesting to note that his TEDx talk on the topic, “The War on Consciousness”, has been banned — which makes the more creative conspiracy theorists among us raise our eyebrows. For now, though, let’s keep ourselves grounded.
Modernity seems to have given too much importance to the strictly rational — so, we find ourselves fearing those whose experience of reality is different from the agreed-upon norm. This puts too many obstacles in front of the growing mental health movement. Mental health issues have been called a public health concern; it severely affects the more vulnerable areas of society. Frankly, the reason for this may be that it is difficult to believe something that you do not yourself experience. Nothing is more important than learning how to empathize with others and, in doing so, expanding our own perspective. In “D.I.Y. Magic”, Anthony Alvarado shares his experience with schizophrenic clients, saying that “our society, by stigmatizing it, castigating it, and casting it out of our rational framework, has made it a worse condition to suffer than it is in some cultures, where the madman is seen to hold a kind of wisdom.” He suggests volunteering at outreach programs and listening to people who have radical, and often surprisingly lucid, perspectives. He says that “just beyond prejudice, wisdom can be found.” Of course it is important to treat mental illness with seriousness, but maybe the first step to genuinely helping people out is by first addressing the stigma associated with their experience.
Apollo strengthens the dreamer’s understanding of himself, but Dionysus expands his perspective. Both methods of dreaming contribute to the individual’s growth. Embracing the possibility of madness may be our path to greatness.
- Alvarado, A. (2012). D.I.Y. Magic: A Strange and Whimsical Guide to Creativity. New York: Perigree.
- Carroll, P.J. (1987). Liber Null & Psychonaut. Maine: Weiser Books.
- Hancock, G. (2013). The Consciousness Revolution. Graham Hancock Blog. Retrieved from: https://grahamhancock.com/the-consciousness-revolution-hancock/
- Nietzsche, F. (1983). “Apollonianism and Dionysianism”. In Jacobus, L.A. (ed.), A World of Ideas: Essential Readings for College Writers (pp. 209–228). New York: St. Martin’s Press.
- Tugade, R. (2017) We need to talk about mental health. CNN Life. Retrieved from: https://cnnphilippines.com/life/culture/2017/04/25/mental-illness-stigma.html