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Karl Jaspers: Melancholy and Creativity

Mis à jour : janv. 11

Karl Jaspers, circa 1911

Karl Jaspers on Melancholy

by Alina N. Feld


In this essay I propose to analyze Karl Jaspers’ view of melancholia and schizophrenia developed in General Psychopathology, further explored in the comparative psychiatric study Strindberg and Van Gogh - Swedenborg-Holderlin (1922) and expanded in the Groningen Lectures on Kierkegaard and Nietzsche collected in Reason and Existence.


Before the pathographies of Strindberg, Swedenborg, Holderlin, and Van Gogh, as well as Kierkegaard and Nietzsche, already in General Psychopathology, Jaspers poses the ancient and Renaissance question, made respectable again by Kant for the Romantics, of the relationship between diseased psyche and creativity, between genius and madman, between saint and fool.

Thus, in "Psychopathology of Mind", Jaspers considers the relation between creativity and psychopathy, especially melancholy and schizophrenia. He explains the value of self-understanding and interpretation of psychic distortions in the formation of Weltanschauungen. The paradox of a positive significance of the negation or evil of disease is proposed. Consider

"The problem regarding the significance of illness for creativity. We need to investigate empirically which types of disease have not merely a destructive but a positive significance. Pathographies regarding outstanding personalities always pose the question whether the creativeness was in spite of the illness or came about among other things because of the illness (e.g. creativeness during hypomanic phases, aesthetic content arising from repressive states or metaphysical experiences in schizophrenic episodes). So too in events of historic moment, the problem arises, was the morbid event only destructive or was it an ally in positive creation ?"

The question whether creativity occurs in spite of illness or because of it; whether creativity emerges by overcoming morbidity, or whether the latter creates the conditions for the possibility of creativity is in fact a false question, since the sickness, as the Other of health or the negation of it, is — in Schelling's theogony of The Ages of the World — simultaneously the negation and the ground of creativity. Interestingly, on this occasion, Jaspers, the clinical psychiatrist, clearly distinguishes between mania, depression, schizophrenia, on the one hand, and their corresponding creations on the other : he relates mania to creativeness, depression to art, and schizophrenia to elaborate metaphysical visions, i.e. full­fledged religious dramas.

This distinction is original : traditionally, from Aristotle to Kant, melancholia has been the cipher for both artistic genius and religious virtuoso. It is Jaspers, with his clinical psychiatric expertise, who constellates anew the different manifestations of psychic morbidity. He notes an uncanny closeness between specific illnesses and particular cosmologies, i.e., between Gnosticism and compulsive disorder, journeys of the soul and schizophrenic experience, mythologies, superstition, witchcraft and dementia praecox, as well as, between the sick and religious figures, shaman, saint, founder of religion. But Jaspers, the existential philosopher, does not make distinctions among the morbid manifestations: he considers the generic category of madness or melancholy in both religion and art as a cipher of tragic destiny and profound human mystery. Thus

"It has been a different situation with poetry and art. Here the sick person is often presented as sick and at the same time as a symbol of a profound human mystery. Philocretes, Ajax and Herakles all ended their tragic existence in madness; Lear and Ophelia go mad, Hamlet plays at madness. Don Quixote is almost a typical schizophrenic. In particular there is a repeated presentation of the Doppelganger experience (E.T.A. Hoffman, E.A. Poe, Dostoyevski).

In contrast, with Goethe, madness plays scarcely any part and when it appears it is treated unrealistically (Gretchen in prison) if we compare it with the realistic presentations of Shakespeare and Cervantes. Velazquez painted idiots. Fools were maintained at the Royal Courts and enjoyed the freedom of fools in their talk. Dürer's engravings are melancholia itself ; Hans Baldung Grien drew the saturnine individual as typical of melancholic distress.

Many more examples could be quoted and they cannot be subject to a single, common and exhaustive interpretation. But it is certain that some hidden correlation often stood in the background between the fact of illness and the profoundest of human possibilities, between human folly and wisdom." (GP 730-731)

Folly and wisdom, illness and health, these dialectical opposites coincide in a true coincidentia oppositorum. Jaspers recalls the illustrious figures of our cultural history that have opened for consciousness horizons previously unknown of abysmal depths and soaring heights. The list is a twentieth century continuation of the Aristotelian list of remarkable melancholic men. The history of the hermeneutics of madness and melancholy is evoked by the mention of its landmarks. What perplexes Jaspers is the coincidence of religion and madness. He wonders:

Could we interpret it that where the individual himself is in extremity, the extremity of his existing vital state provides a basis for meaningful experience ?

(...) According to Jaspers, being ill belongs to living as such, and Man is the locus of this identity. He muses:

Man is exceptional among all living things. He has the largest potential scope and the biggest chances but with this goes the greatest risk. Thinkers have often conceived man's life as a whole in the form of a sickness, a disorder of living or a primeval disarray, a wounding of human nature through original sin.

If man's life is a form of sickness, this sickness is also of exceptional and superior ontology to health: Plato and Nietzsche are in agreement on this point and refer to illness not in the sense of being less than health and simply destructive, but rather being more than health, as "an enlarged state, an enhanced state, a state of creativity." Jaspers understands madness as an existential limit, a boundary or marginal situation that must be accepted as such; it is only in that acceptance and exposure that the message from the "margins of experience" can be received.

"In any case where there is an awakened sense of the human abyss and no possible pretext for ordering the world, no possible human ideals of genuine outlook on the world, madness and psychopathy acquire a human significance. They are an actuality in which such possibilities are revealed, which the healthy person conceals from himself, avoids and guards himself against. But the healthy person who keeps his psyche marginally exposed and who investigates the psychopathological will find there what he potentially is or what is essentially there for him, distant and strange though it may be, a message from beyond the actual margins of his experience." (GP 786-787)

In Part VI, the philosophical coda of General Psychopathology, and a latter addition, Jaspers extracts the existential meaning of all the clinical and psychiatric material and articulates a genuine Dasein analysis. Jaspers, the clinical psychiatrist and the man of vast culture, had patiently collected the existential evidence that will be put to use in this concluding philosophical reflection on the nature of the human being and the meaning and the sine qua non value of limit situations for authentic Existenz: the shattering in madness is certainly a limit — a two faced Janus, one looking into the abyss, the other, like Dante, at the stars.

Jaspers considers the reality of human incompleteness: he understands "the essence of Man as the incompleteness of his Being". For a being defined by incompleteness, sickness must be an ontological condition. For such, to provoke the event or psychological state, i.e., anxiety that initiates the descent into the abyss is a task of pedagogical love. Jaspers acknowledges his psycho-philosophical position grounded in but going beyond clinical psychiatry and quotes Gebsattel:

"We cannot rid ourselves entirely of some basic philosophical viewpoint when formulating our psychotherapeutic goals … we cannot develop any psychotherapy that is purely medical, self-contained and appears to be its own justification. For instance, to dispel anxiety is generally thought to be a self-evident therapeutic aim. Gebsattel's dictum is true:

"We are doubtful whether we really want a life without anxiety as we are certain that we want a life without fear."

Large numbers, particularly of modern people, seem to live fearlessly because they lack imagination. There is as it were an impoverishment of the heart. This freedom from anxiety is but the other side of a deeper loss of freedom. Arousal of anxiety and with it of a more vital humanity might be just the task for someone possessed by Eros paidagogos (informing passion)." (GP 803)

The existentialist philosopher sacrifices the clinical psychiatrist: existential anxiety, as apocalyptic — "revelatory" in its original etymology — and a condition for freedom, must be cultivated by the human individual whose horizon of Being must be the actualization of Existenz. As for Boehme, Pascal, Schelling, Kierkegaard or Nietzsche, so for the existentialist thinker: the beginning of authentic life originates in Angst. It is only confronted with the limit situation of the melancholic or schizophrenic pathos that the gifted personality reaches the deep hidden sources of Existenz and, as a consequence, his creativity increases — a pearl born in the anguished labor of the wound.



Karl Jaspers on Melancholy, by Alina N. Feld