Thinking Flesh: Nietzsche’s Hysterical Body

hysterical escape large

Writing on the nature of conscious life in The Will to Power, Nietzsche remarks “that which is called ‘body’ and ‘flesh’ is of such unspeakably greater importance” for the production of thought than the “superfluous” sentiments of consciousness (WTP §674). “In the vast multiplicity of events within an organism,” writes Nietzsche, “that part which becomes conscious is but a small corner of it” (WTP §674). Far from being the centre of human life, the height of being, or the natural ruler of the body, the conscious mind is instead understood as a minor element among myriad unconscious processes which determine the visible workings of the mind. What appears to our conscious minds as a unity of self or an autonomy of mind is merely an illusion or  mask which hides the polyphonic base of the thinking subject. As Lou Andreas-Salomé remarks: “He willingly relinquishes personal unity—the more polyphonic the subject, the more it pleases him” (2001, 20). Similarly, Gilles Deleuze marks this fragmented conception of the self as central to Nietzsche’s philosophy, stating that

“Nietzsche didn’t believe in the unity of a self and didn’t experience it. Subtle relations of power and of evaluation between different ‘selves’ that conceal but also express other kinds of forces – forces of life, forces of thought – such is Nietzsche’s conception, his way of living” (2001, 59).

This emphasis upon the multitudinous forces which precede the thinking subject has likewise been emphasised in the commentary of Pierre Klossowski, who writes that “starting from these impulses, Nietzsche suspected that beyond the (cerebral) intellect there lies an intellect that is infinitely more vast than the one that merges with our consciousness” (1997, 33). What this paper suggests, however, is that this attention to the unconscious forces both discovered in Nietzsche’s writing and at work in his thought have not been fully situated historically. Emerging from among the late nineteenth century’s growing medical and literary discourses of the body, Nietzsche’s writings speak to a wider interest in the transfiguration of the body as key to the secrets of the mind. Contemporaneous with Nietzsche’s theorisation of the corporeality of thought are the medical discourses of hysteria, which saw the feminine body as a flux of malleable and preconscious signs. Drawing from works by Janet Beizer and Kelly Hurley on the medical and literary history of hysteria, I propose that the vagaries of the flesh in Nietzsche’s late philosophy be read as an adoption of the hysterical body as a model of creative, ecstatic existence.


In the final pages of his chapter on “The free spirit” in Beyond Good and Evil, Nietzsche returns to the question of the unconscious processes which precede thought, writing that we possess “front and back souls whose ultimate aim is clear to nobody, with fore- and backgrounds that no foot can fully traverse” (BGE §44). Elsewhere, he rebukes those who place the conscious mind at the centre of human life, declaring that “‘inner experience’ enters consciousness only after it has found a language which the individual understands” (WTP §479). But what is the nature of this “back soul” which never ceases to send its inscrutable messages into the mind’s foreground to occupy our attention? In short, Nietzsche characterises it not as a single hidden depth of the soul, but as a multiplicitous chaos of psychic drives, physical processes, and the endless “noise and battle with which our underworld of serviceable organs work with and against each other” (GOM II.1). The human organism is in a constant tumult, with the conscious mind comprising only one component afloat in an unseen war for dominance among the various unconscious forces of the body.

Although Nietzsche states that the “organism runs along oligarchic lines,” with the conscious intellect exercising a sovereignty over its constituent parts, it is a stewardship fraught with dangers of revolt from below (GOM II.1). In contrast to the privileged position of the conscious mind, “the body provide[s] Nietzsche with a completely different perspective, namely, the perspective of active forces which (as organic and therefore subordinate functions) express […] a will to break with this servitude” (Klossowski 1997, 24). Nietzsche’s “back soul” is thus best understood not as a hidden double to conscious life, but the very place from which the mental foreground springs, and which constantly threatens to throw the order of consciousness back into the bodily flux.

Mobility, restlessness, capriciousness, inconstancy, and the potential displacement of rational order by bodily revolt: with each of these qualities in mind I wish to argue that Nietzsche’s account of bodily consciousness replicates the qualities most associated with the hysterical body. Hysteria, once spuriously defined as the migration of the womb about the body of the afflicted, was in Nietzsche’s time not so much redefined as its association with the “mobility of women’s bodies and spirits” was “deliteralized [and] conceptually refined” to denote any upheaval of social or bodily order, convulsion of reason, or chaos of the senses which could not be assimilated to the order of the day (Beizer 1994, 58). Even as medical developments meant that hysteria had less and less to do with its uterine namesake, it brought with it all the connotations of a feminine mind at the mercy of an insubordinate body.

In this manner, hysteria transformed from the popular misogyny of the irrational, passionate, and bodily woman into a more broadly applicable pathology of the mind’s anxious relationship to the body and was given a significant place within the imaginary of fin-de-siècle Europe as the pre-eminent disease of the decentred thinking subject. Mirroring Nietzsche’s supposition of a hidden, amorphous background to the soul, the hysterical formulation declares “that which the conscious mind cannot acknowledge, and the subject cannot speak, the body tells instead” (Hurley 1996, 48). In its late-nineteenth century incarnation, hysteria was conceived as an emphatically expressive affliction, in which the body became a site of dermatographic inscription—the hysteric’s skin raising in welts according to the touch of the doctors—and the hysterical voice in all its “barks, grunts and babbles” functioning as “the negative double of accepted patriarchal speech” (Beizer 1994, 44). The hysterical body  marked a horrifying limit for the medical practitioners who studied it, as the place where mind and matter dissolved into a purely corporeal morass of signs, and “spirit and body alike [were] circumscribed within the terrible reality of physicality” (Hurley 1996, 117).

This inconstancy of the hysterical body was not always conceived in purely negative terms, however, as we see in Nietzsche’s writings an attempt to turn the flux of the body to the ends of producing ever-greater heights of philosophical expression. We free spirits must be grateful, writes Nietzsche, “even for difficulties and inconstant health, because they have always freed us from some rule and its ‘prejudice,’ grateful to the god, devil, sheep, and maggot in us, curious to a fault, researchers to the point of cruelty, with unmindful fingers for the incomprehensible” (BGE §44). In Nietzsche’s account, within every body exists this hysterical potential of hidden forces, personas, and drives which may rise up to dethrone the idols of consciousness and reinstate a new order upon the mind.

On the role of hysterical thinking in fin-de-siècle art and literature, Gothic scholar Kelly Hurley writes that “hysteria should also be seen as a form of delirium, wherein pleasure predominates as much as nausea, and indeed the two emotions cannot be separated. […] What the [hysteric] demonstrates is that there are no limits to the plasticity of form: any morphic trait can be admixed with any other; any body can be shapen or distorted to, and past, its ‘extreme limit’” (1996, 156). Similarly, Janet Beizer describes the ways in which the hysterical collapse of the self was conceived by artists of the time as a moment of pure aesthetic re-creation of oneself:

“It is at the moment of greatest fragmentation—when, convulsed, the body is in pieces, out of control—that a reintegration of disparate realities is achieved. With the ravages of illness comes the vision of healing, the image of wholeness. Flaubert holds up to his ailing nerves and flailing limbs the mirror of his writing, which reflects psychic reunification and aesthetic harmony in place of corporeal incoherence” (1994, 97).

In his summoning of the active powers of the body, the background of the soul, and the teeming gods and maggots which infest his unconscious mind, Nietzsche demands of himself this same hysterical dissolution in the name not of aesthetic creation, but philosophical discovery.


In Nietzsche’s hysterical account of the body we find not only a corporealisation of thought, but an account of thought’s genesis in the interplay of forces which compose both body and mind. This need to fragment and recompose oneself no doubt took its toll on Nietzsche as a living organism, and the pathology of his thought has been taken up by various commentators as both his greatest strength and the cause of his illness. Salomé remarks that upon every recovery and return to wellbeing, Nietzsche was “immediately gripped again by something like a fever or restlessly surging overflow of inner energy that ultimately turns its sting against him: he is the cause of his self-induced illness” which seems “to stem from nothing else than falling ill because of thoughts and recuperating through thoughts” (2001, 13). Taking this connection between bodily chaos and philosophical insight a step further, Klossowski sees in Nietzsche’s life the moments of illness take primacy over moments of wellbeing, with the latter being only pauses in the ongoing war of his mind:

“Convalescence was the signal of a new offensive of the ‘body’—this rethought body—against the ‘thinking Nietzsche self.’ This in turn paved the way for a new relapse. For Nietzsche, each of these relapses, up until the final relapse, heralded a new inquiry and a new investment in the world of the impulses, and in each case he paid the price of an ever-worsening illness” (1997, 30).

For all the malleability of the body, and the hidden potential made accessible in its dissolution, Nietzsche also endeavoured to recompose himself and to a form a new bodily cohesion:

“He struggled at one and the same time with the to-and-fro movement of the impulses, and for a new cohesion between his thought and the body as a corporealizing thought. To do this, he followed what he called, in several places, the guiding thread of the body. […] Once the body is recognized as the product of the impulses (subjected, organized, hierarchized), its cohesion with the self becomes fortuitous. The impulses can be put to use by a new body, and are presupposed in the search for new conditions” (1997, 30; 33).

From out of Nietzsche’s hysterical collapse a new body and a new way of thinking is born. Salomé: “Nietzsche intuits that the unavoidable requisite of all creativity for him lies in the constant and painful process of self-transformation” (2001, 16). But what is this new body? What transformations does Nietzsche make upon himself? In answer to this, Salomé offers a hint when she writes that “if we enter into his philosophy, we are in a rustling forest of shade-giving trees and are surrounded by the luxurious vegetation of a superbly wild nature. His superiority consisted of being fertile ground for each seedling, a capacity he himself recognized as a sign of true genius” (2001, 30). Each attack, each collapse, is only the tilling of Nietzsche’s body and the making fertile of his mind for the seeding of new thought. Or, in more direct terms, Salomé suggests: “In Nietzsche’s spiritual nature was something—in heightened dimension—that was feminine” (2001, 30).

I do not wish to argue here for an essentialist position on the nature  of sex or womanhood, but to push the metaphoric position of hysteria to the point that it encompasses not only the malfunction of bodily order, but also the generative matrix of meanings surrounding the womb and birth. To be clear, hysteria was a medical fiction, an umbrella term used to diagnose any body in revolt with a denigrated femininity—ranging from the bodies of non-conforming women and men charged with hysteria, to the propaganda leveled against the revolutionaries of the Paris Commune as hysterical inflammations of the body-politic. From its beginnings hysteria functioned metaphorically to inject perceived feminine qualities and connotations into various adjacent discourses of the body.

For this reason, I wish to propose that in taking on hysteria as a form of corporealised thought, Nietzsche brings with it a model of thought which is clearly and specifically coded as feminine and maternal. In Nietzsche’s own words: “There are two types of genius: one that fundamentally begets and wants to beget, and another that is happy to be impregnated and give birth” (BGE §248). Elsewhere he writes that this “spiritual pregnancy produce[s] the character of the contemplative type, to which the female character is related: these are male mothers” (GS §72). At the core of Nietzsche’s account of thought is this question of cultivation and fertility, how to make oneself a vessel of genius, and how best to prepare the body for its philosophical labour.


In Nietzsche’s writings on the body, hysteria unfolds from a bodily pathology into a model of thought which transforms the “figure of femininity […] associated (by way of traditional misogyny) with disorder, duplicity, and alterity” into the pre-eminent subject of philosophical thought (Beizer 1994, 19). This stands in contrast with the traditional formulation of hysterical thought as “the point at which association gets a little too free, spinning off in its own directions and making links without reference to any central core” (Plant 2000, 331). Lacking an innate unity of body or mind, the hysterical thinker becomes susceptible to impressions from outside herself, and in danger of incorporating them into her bodily flux. As Vicki Kirby suggests: “It is as if the hysteric is a mirror of her surroundings, incorporating the signs from an other’s body as the reflection of her own” (1997, 57). Yet, Nietzsche’s desire to make himself receptive to forces of thought from beyond his conscious mind, to become the male mother impregnated by the body’s genius, re-evaluates precisely the qualities for which hysteria has been made a pejorative for all things irrational, excessive, and incomprehensible.

“Paradoxically,” writes Janet Beizer, “it is precisely the representation of woman as sexually disfigured Other (as hysteric) that enables her to be transfigured as oracular voice or mantic text. The apparent interiority, mutability, alterity of female nature constitutes an absence that can easily be reformulated as potential presence, a lack that can be transformed into promised supplement—a blank that can be filled in as sign” (1994, 53). In Nietzsche’s corporeal thought too, this perceived mutability of the body is supplemented with a reordering of the senses and a new model of thought. From out of this conception of the body emerges a new genesis of thought which does not emerge from the heights of consciousness but from the body in the ecstatic throes of a positive hysteria. As Anne Williams writes of the hysterical narratives of the Gothic novel, “imagining mind as ‘female’ creates a new metaphor, a new ‘map’ of mind. […] Conception, pregnancy, and birth, the process of becoming a mother,” as metaphors for thought allow the conception of “a kind of humanity that is neither mind nor body, essence nor substance, nature nor culture, male nor female, but a mixture, a creation of them all” (1995, 157).

Where, then, does a hysterical reading of Nietzsche leave us? Firstly, following the commentaries of Salomé, Klossowski, and Deleuze we come to see the primacy of the body in Nietzsche’s philosophy as an amalgamation of corporeal forces, subordinate organs, and unconscious drives which exercise a determining influence on the intelligible products of the mind. Secondly, we discover that this body is coded specifically as feminine by way of Nietzsche’s replication of fin-de-siècle discourses surrounding the hysterical body, from its malleability and disorder to its fecundity as a vessel for creative impulses. Finally, by way of this focus upon the feminine alterity of the body, we arrive at a model of thought without cannot do without the hidden underworld of bodily forces both productive and destructive. We do not know what a body can do, what form it may take, what forces may rise from its teeming depths, and what thought it may engender within us. What the figure of the hysteric provides for Nietzsche is the evidence that there is no rational thought “except on the basis of a primal, chaotic, maternal formlessness, which explodes the […] hierarchy of form and content,” mind and body, reason and possession (Buci-Glucksmann 1994, 151). From within the matrix of fin-de-siècle bodily discourses, from Nietzsche’s notebooks to those of medical practitioners and Gothic writers, we encounter minds made matter, the terror of bodily transformation, and the collapse of the thinking subject into the flesh which surrounds and composes it.


Beizer, Janet. Ventriloquized Bodies: Narratives of Hysteria in Nineteenth Century France. New York: Cornell University Press, 1994.

Buci-Glucksmann, Christine. Baroque Reason: The Aesthetics of Modernity. Translated by Patrick Camiller. London: Sage Publications, 1994.

Deleuze, Gilles. Pure Immanence: Essays on A Life. Translated by Anne Boyman. New York: Zone Books, 2001.

Hurley, Kelly. The Gothic Body. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996.

Kirby, Vicki. Telling Flesh: The Substance of the Corporeal. New York: Routledge, 1997.

Klossowski, Pierre. Nietzsche and the Vicious Circle. Translated by Daniel W Smith. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997.

Nietzsche, Friedrich. Beyond Good and Evil. Edited by Rolf-Peter Hortsmann and Judith Norman. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002. (BGE)

——. On the Genealogy of Morality. Edited by Keith Ansell-Pearson, translated by Carol Diethe. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994. (GOM)

——. The Gay Science. Edited by Bernard Williams, translated by Josefine Nauckhoff and Adrian del Caro. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001. (GS)

——. The Will to Power. Translated by R Kevin Hill and Michael A Scarpitti. London: Penguin, 2017. (WTP)

Plant, Sadie. “On the Matrix: Cyberfeminist simulations” in The Cybercultures Reader, edited by David Bell and Barbara M Kennedy, 325-336. London: Routledge, 2000.

Salomé, Lou. Nietzsche. Translated by Siegfried Mandel. Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2001.

Williams, Anne. Art of Darkness: A Poetics of Gothic. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995.

2 thoughts on “Thinking Flesh: Nietzsche’s Hysterical Body”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s