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.