Forest Russell

Nietzsche’s Brain Eaten by Microfauna

a very sick Friedrich Nietzsche, referring to himself as Dr. Nietzsche, would write himself prescriptions—for opium, for chloral hydrate—to medicate pain and insomnia; he rarely drank alcohol. In Turin in the last year of his sanity he knew dimly that some of his illness was due to syphilis*;. He says that he “infected” himself twice: was he a bug chaser? Cellular Biologist Lynn Margulis describes his affliction with appalling detail. Syphilis , a venereal disease said to be originally contracted in the “new world” by Columbus’s crew, is, when not treated by penicillin, a terminal illness by which the body is infected with very small corkscrew-shaped bacteria known as spirochetes, and who then begin to breed and colonize the body as humans colonize the biosphere. Tertiary Syphilis begins once these bacteria have succeeded in infiltrating the blood-brain barrier and start to devour the brain. Nietzsche’s absurd and euphoric production of 1888—The Case Against Wagner, Twilight of the Idols, The Anti-Christ, Ecco Homo, The Dionysian Dithyrambs—was due in part to the incredible fact that these bacteria were literally consuming what would amount to the last shreds of his ego and its resistances even while accelerating his apocalyptic style to the point of megalomania and psychotic breakdown. “Has not all philosophy been a misunderstanding of the body?” he once asked. How horrible and how strange that his final prodigious output was propelled by the lethal bodily-invasion of an alien species.

* Syphilis is the biographer’s best guess based on the diagnosis of the time, Nietzsche’s own account, a “chancre” scar on his penis, and various symptoms that align with the disease and with the experience of other terminally syphilitic patients such as Guy de Maupassant. However, any postmortem diagnosis 130 years after-the-fact must be only conjecture; what’s more there are inconsistencies with the syphilis theory; such as Nietzsche surviving for another 11 years of raving madness, far longer than most cases; likewise, his nose did not collapse nor did his hair fall out as is typical with tertiary syphilis. The theory of a non-syphilitic psychotic break is rather less grisly and more romantic: Nietzsche stared into the abyss of human life on planet earth until this abysmal life, staring back, drove him insane.

†Margulis, Lynn. “On Syphilis and the Nature of Nietzsche’s Madness.” Daedalus, vol. 133, no. 4, 2004, pp. 118–25.