Nietzsche and Wittgenstein: Suicides, Folds, Tones, and Surfaces

3cd9e60a4f7c9d4b03aa309ba726bf4aThinking sometimes seems like conversing and borrowing and remembering.

A colleague or friend says something that starts one off on a path that is half conversational response and half remembering. One remembers having traveled sometime past the conversational thought-paths that are now emerging.

When one writes down one’s thinking it is then borrowing from one’s friends and one’s past conversations and not only responding to an idea that blossoms spontaneously, or is planted by a seed from the gods.

A friend writes about a study that reports an alarming rise in suicides among white males 30-50 in rewards-of-despairthe States and in the UK that directly correlates with the economic downturn of 2008.

Suicides must feel stripped of meaning. Is it unfeeling or crass to say they are as stripped as their bank accounts are? The pain must be existentially real and profound.

My friend speaks sympathetically but not encouragingly to those who seek metaphysical-theological answers — who seek surefire assurance that deep behind all the despair and all the bad news, and deep behind the good news, too, there is the answer to the riddle of meaning in or of life.

A desperate search for deep answers can be sparked by job-loss or income-decline, and just as often, by loss of friends or family, loss of health or of a sense of vocation. The search didn’t begin yesterday, or in 19th century angst. In the land of Uz, Job asks defiantly, plaintively, angrily what the meaning can be of his sudden and inexplicable losses. His wife counsels suicide: “Curse God and die!”

images-3A book my British friend has just discovered weaves into our conversation. It has a wonderful line from Wittgenstein, that I didn’t remember, but should have. Now I borrow from my past as well as from conversation.

Wittgenstein was not despair-free. Suicide was rampant in his family. He yearned for peace from spiritual, philosophical, even theological afflictions. But he often found peace, and when he did, it was “walking on a mountain of wonders” (see Bearn, below).

When he found patches of serenity, these were not linked to proofs of meaning, or statements of purpose, or the doctrinaire, assertive answers of a creed. Serenity, for him, was linked to wonder and amazement. It was linked to immersion in music, in a landscape, in a striking, existentially transporting sentence.

Wonder doesn’t put money in your pocket, but it might let some depression about finances slow down rather than accelerating to take over all of one’s life in limitless despair.

Perhaps few search for “the hidden meaning-to-it-all.”  Not everyone is a seeker. And paradoxically, Wittgenstein wished he wasn’t a seeker. At least he fought the allure of futile and disappointing searches for “the hidden meaning of it all.” Those searches were ill-conceived. Metaphysical yearning needed to be put to rest.

We can imagine Wittgenstein remembering his capacity to respond to evident non-hidden meanings — wonders that are here and now in the folds of experience: the loyal dog on the rug, the careless birds at the feeder, the smile of an innocent child. That remembering might restore the sense of “waking to wonders” or to a “mountain of wonders.”

images-1Nietzsche has this to say:

What is required is to stop courageously at the surface, the fold, the skin, to adore appearance, to believe in forms, tones, words, in the whole Olympus of appearance!

Finding something deeply restorative (and so something profound) right here on the surfaces is not  settling for something superficial. To find meaning in “folds” or phrases, or eloquent skin is to ditch the idea that appearances are dispensable and that a true reality lies beneath them in God’s world, in heaven, or in a realm of perfection never to be directly experienced by mere mortals.

Finding the restorative in “forms, tones, words” is to reject the theological idea that profundity is always lodged elsewhere, in hidden Gods or hidden Afterlives or in powerful and enigmatic theological Beliefs — say the Belief that simple goodness must be anchored in the preaching of cardinalGod’s Son.

Wonder, if it were personified, would say:

Don’t try to explain. Don’t remember a creed. Don’t look  behind anything. Open your eyes and ears. Touch this leathery hand, get a whiff of this morning breeze.

A fold of meaning must be like a turn of phrase or a gesture of singing: something effervescent, fleeting, but nonetheless striking and restorative.

This immersion in surfaces, folds, or tones doesn’t make economic downturns disappear. It doesn’t guarantee that lost loves will restored. But it can have restorative effects. It’s something Wittgenstein, Thoreau, and Nietzsche (and many others) know first hand.

Back to borrowing and remembering: take this passage I read long ago from Gordon Bearn, and recovered yesterday through conversation with my friend. It tells us how Wittgenstein and Nietzsche undermined suicidal despair by preserving and caring for folds, tones, and surfaces.

the peace for which [Wittgenstein] yearned will be ours when we give up the search for metaphysical comfort, when we give up the thirst for explanation, when we awaken to wonder.

The happy surprise—our good fortune—is that the absence of what we thought essential to our satisfaction can itself satisfy.

3cd9e60a4f7c9d4b03aa309ba726bf4aComing face to face with the dumb fact that some things do and some things do not make sense can incite the feeling that one is, in Wittgenstein’s words, “walking on a mountain of wonders.”

The trust, or faith, that operates here is trust or faith that meaning can surprise us quite apart from seeking a fixed, certain, eternal “meaning of it all.” We can find meanings in life’s ceaseless unfolding, in its here and now. We can find meanings in life’s poetic turns of phrase, in its melodies and liquid eyes.

Ed Mooney, Zeteo Contributor

See his Excursions with Thoreau: Philosophy, Poetry, Religion, Bloomsbury, 2015, and Lost Intimacy in American Thought: Recovering Personal Philosophy From Thoreau to Cavell, Continuum, 2009.

Credits: Gordon, C. F. Bearn, Waking to Wonder: Wittgenstein’s Existential Investigations; see p. 208, note 21. The quote from Nietzsche is found in his 1886 Preface to The Gay Science, trans Walter Kaufmann, Vintage, 1974.



  1. William Eaton

    I would be interested to read more about this apparent increase in male suicides. What are the statistics? Men in what circumstances are killing themselves? Recently, at a baseball stadium, I overheard one man (in his 60s) recalling and reflecting on a statement his ex-wife had made: “’If you’re not making any money, what good are you?’ That’s the last thing she said to me.”

    Perhaps this touches the depths of meaninglessness in our day and age: not making any money, thus no good and not sexually (erotically) attractive either.

    On another level, it’s an interesting reading of Thoreau, as addressing the question why not — for example, after the death of his brother — commit suicide? What can “I” find in life to sustain me?

    I would also argue — after Beckett — that what’s most extraordinary is how, in the absence of meaning, we continue to struggle to survive and to search for meaning, turning our backs on the fact that we continue to struggle in the absence of meaning.

    From L’Innomable (The Unnamable; my translation): “What to do, what am I going to do, what should I do, given my current situation, how to proceed? By pure aporia or rather by assertions and counter-assertions invalidated as I go, or sooner or later. . . . There must be other approaches. If not, there would be no hope. But there is no hope. By the way, before going any further, forging ahead, I should say that I am using the word ‘aporia’ without knowing what it means.”


  2. Ed Mooney

    William — neglecting your reflection on Thoreau and your powerful citation of Beckett, that is, responding only to your curiosity about the statistics showing (?) an increase in suicides,the source is The Guardian for Thursday 12 Nov 2015. Here’s the essence:

    “Academics from the universities of Bristol, Manchester and Oxford estimate that an 1,000 extra deaths from suicide and an additional 30-40,000 suicide attempts may have occurred from 2008-2010 following the economic downturn, reversing previous trends in Britain where suicide rates among men were falling.

    Debt and the impact of austerity measures are likely to be other important contributors in this rise, according to research by the universities, which was funded by the National Institute for Health Research (NIHR).

    The analysis summarises findings from a wider £1.8m study aimed at preventing suicide and improving the care of those who self harm.”


  3. John Sumser

    A beautifully written essay. In the mornings, I read the New York Times online while outside my window the leaves are turning and the morning sun shines red on the roof across the alley. It is hard sometimes to put the two worlds together — the violence, dishonesty, bickering, and greed that constitutes so much of what we consider news and the morning light opening a new day.

    There are two “whys” to suicide, as Durkheim shows us. At the individual level, it is I think what Gordon Bearn suggests — a loss of a connection to the actual texture of life. How the link is broken haunts those that suicide leaves behind; why my brother Robert put a bullet in his brain is an infinitely complex puzzle. Why the suicide rates change is, in contrast, a “social fact” and is ironically much easier to get a handle on. It is important, I tell my students, not to confuse the two levels of explanation.

    Again, thank you for a very nicely written essay.


  4. Thank you John, for your appreciative note, and for the distinction between two ways of focusing suicide. And I love the scene: perhaps so familiar we lose the poignancy. The New York Times open with news mostly depressing, the window letting in a radiant new day.


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