Master Builders

A Typology of the Spirit

by Stefan Zweig

der_kampf_mit_dem_daemon

Translated from the German
by Eden and Cedar Paul
Viking Press, 1930

PART TWO

The Struggle with the Daimon

Hölderlin
Kleist
Nietzsche



Excerpted from the introduction:

Hölderlin, Kleist, and Nietzsche are obviously alike even in respect of the outward circumstances of their lives; they stand under the same horoscopical aspect. One and all they were hunted by an overwhelming, a so-to-say superhuman power, were hunted out of the warmth and cosiness of ordinary experience into a cyclone of devastating passion, to perish prematurely amid storms of mental disorder, and one of them by suicide.

A power greater than theirs was working within them, so that they felt themselves rushing aimlessly through the void. In their rare moments of full awareness of self, they knew that their actions were not the outcome of their own volition but that they were thralls, were possessed (in both senses of the word) by a higher power, the daimonic.

I term “daimonic” the unrest that is in us all, driving each of us out of himself into the elemental. It seems as if nature had implanted into every mind an inalienable part of the primordial chaos, and as if this part were interminably striving—with tense passion—to rejoin the superhuman, suprasensual medium whence it derives. The daimon is the incorporation of that tormenting leaven which impels our being (otherwise quiet and almost inert) towards danger, immoderation, ecstasy, renunciation, and even self-destruction. But in those of common clay, this factor of our composition which is both precious and perilous proves comparatively ineffective, is speedily absorbed and consumed. In such persons only at rare moments, during the crises of puberty or when, through love or the generative impulse, the inward cosmos is heated to the boiling point, does the longing to escape from the familiar groove, to renounce the trite and the common-place, exert its mysterious way. For the daimon cannot make its way back to the infinite which is his home except by ruthlessly destroying the finite and the earthly which restrains him, by destroying the body wherein, for a season, he is housed.

Thus it comes to pass that everyone whose nature excels the commonplace, everyone whose impulses are creative, wrestles perforce with his daimon. This is a combat of titans, a struggle between lovers, the most splendid contest in which we mortals can engage. Many succumb to the daimon’s fierce onslaught as the woman succumbs to the passion of the impetuous male; they are overpowered by his preponderant strength; they feel themselves joyfully permeated by the fertilizing element. Many subjugate him; their cold, resolute, purposive will constrains his ardours to accept their guidance even while he animates their energies.

Hölderlin, Kleist and Nietzsche were the Promethean race which is in revolt against customary forms and tends thereby to destroy itself. There is no art worthy of the name without daimonism, no great art that does not voice the music of the spheres.

The first thing that is obvious in Hölderlin, Kleist, and Nietzsche is their detachment from the world. The daimon plucks away from realities those whom he holds in his grip. Not one of the three had wife or children, any more than had their congeners Beethoven and Michelangelo; they had neither fixed home nor permanent possessions, neither settled occupation nor secure footing in the world. They were nomads, vagrants, eccentrics; they were despised and rejected; they lived in the shadows. Not one of them ever had a bed to call his own; they sat in hired chairs, wrote at hired desks, and wandered from one lodging-house to another. Nowhere did they take root; not even Eros could establish binding ties for those whom the jealous daimon had espoused. Their friendships were transitory, their appointments fugitive, their work unremunerative; they stood ever in vacant spaces and created in the void. Thus their existence was like that of shooting stars, which flash on indeterminable paths, whereas Goethe circled in a fixed orbit.

For Kleist, Hölderlin and Nietzsche, living was not to be learned, nor worth learning. Fire became their element; flame, their mode of activity; and their lives were perpetually scorched in the furnaces which alone made their work possible. As time went on, they grew even more lonely, more estranged from the world of men. To the daemonic temperament reality seems inadequate: Hölderlin, Kleist, and Nietzsche, each in his own way, were rebels against the existing order.

The formula of Goethe’s life was the circle, a closed curve; that of an existence perfectly rounded and self-contained; the daimonics’ curve is the parabola: a steep, impetuous ascent, an uprush into limitless space, a brusque change of direction, followed by no less a steep, a no less impetuous decline. The climax, both in respect of imaginative creation and in respect to the artist’s personal life, is reached immediately after the fall. Goethe’s death, on the other hand, is an inconspicuous point in the circle; but the life of the daimonic terminates in an explosion or a conflagration. In the latter case death compensates for the material poverty of life.

Invariably, even in the most perplexing and most dangerous manifestations, the creative genius has a value supreme over other values, a meaning profounder than that of all other meanings.

Published in: on July 31, 2013 at 3:46 am  Leave a Comment  

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