From the Feeling of Power to the Power of Feeling: Nietzsche’s Genealogy of Intoxication By Seth Binsted

Who will ever relate the whole history of narcotica?—It is almost the history of ‘culture,’ of our so-called higher culture.

– Nietzsche, The Gay Science[1]

He who begets something which is alive must dive down into the primeval depths in which the forces of life dwell. And when he rises to the surface, there is a gleam of madness in his eyes because in those depths death lives cheek by jowl with life

Walter Otto, Dionysus[2]

The following paper aims to make sense of Nietzsche’s typology of intoxication. As I will show in the first section, an adequate interpretation of Nietzsche’s understanding must overcome a certain deliberate ambiguity, since it remains unclear whether or not intoxication is ultimately a symptom of health or a symptom of sickness. In the second section of this paper, I will show how one can overcome this ambiguity by recognizing how Nietzsche situates the phenomenon of intoxication as the necessary precondition for any aesthetic activity whatsoever.

I. Nietzsche’s Ambiguity

Why speak of intoxication? For one, any sustained meditation on this theme is absent from the Western philosophical canon, and one has only to reflect on the role that the phenomenon of intoxication plays in human experience – in its ecstasies and addictions, its inspirations and enervations – to see how this absence is in many ways conspicuous. And yet, as is so often the case, Nietzsche is a bold exception. Not only will he level his own critique against the alcoholism and opiate addictions of his own time[3], he will also seek to diagnose these epidemics as symptoms of deeper cultural—historical, aesthetic, physiological, moral, religious and, yes, philosophical—misunderstandings of intoxication and its relation to truth. Indeed, it seems that one can unearth a veritable genealogy of intoxication over the course of Nietzsche’s work, from the aesthetics of intoxication in The Birth of Tragedy, to its physiological and philosophical forms in Dawn and The Gay Science, to its moral manifestations in The Genealogy of Morality and The Will to Power. At the very least, when one surveys Nietzsche’s work as a whole, it becomes clear that the phenomenon of intoxication is just as integral to his philosophical revaluations as that of suffering, music, and health.

Despite the centrality of intoxication in his life’s work, Nietzsche lived, by our standards, in relative sobriety. As he puts it in Ecce Homo: “Alcohol is bad for me: a single glass of wine or beer in one day is quite sufficient to turn my life into a vale of misery”… “In vino veritas: it seems that here, too, I am at odds with all the world about the concept of ‘truth’—in my case, the spirit moves over water” (Ecce Homo, “Clever”).[4] But sobriety notwithstanding, Nietzsche’s understanding of, and sensitivity to, intoxication and its history is profound. In fact, far from being reducible to the effects of substances (e.g. “drugs and alcohol”), Nietzsche points to the manifestations of intoxication on much more primordial levels of experience. For example, there is:

the intoxication that follows all great cravings, all strong emotions; the intoxication of the festival, of the competition, of daredevilry, of victory, of every extreme commotion; the intoxication of cruelty; the intoxication of destruction; intoxication due to certain meteorological influences, such as the intoxication of spring; or under the influence of narcotics; finally, the intoxication of the will, the intoxication of an overloaded and swollen will.”[5]

But for all that, exactly what does Nietzsche mean by intoxication? First, it is important to recognize that his philological sense here is well-attuned to the various senses expressed in the German Rausch. This word has the sense of the English “rush,” (as in “I feel a rush”) referring both to the mood of a drugged stasis (Drogenrausch), but also to the action of acquiring this rush (einen Rausch haben). Interestingly enough, the  noun in certain collocations can refer either to the frenzy (Blutrausch, Mordrausch) that characterizes the act of “getting drunk” (sich einen Rausch antrinken), or to the act of sleeping something off, as in seinen Rausch ausschlafen. Of special importance, however, is the pathos of distance one already hears in the English, and which is also expressed in the German Ekstase (ecstasy, transport, rapture). Evidently, what Nietzsche wants to express in the German is not the opposition but the tension between activity and passivity in the Rausch of movement. Rush, the feeling of a rush, transport, acceleration: all these phenomena point to a more fundamental tension, namely, between the activity of what moves and the passivity of what does not, between the activity of what accelerates and the world left behind it, between the heightened sensitivity and aesthetic activity of intoxicated reality, in which all forms speak directly to us, and the sobriety of everyday reality. For Nietzsche, any experience of intoxication always points to the manifestation of this tension.

It is by revaluating this tension and analyzing its inner history that Nietzsche also betrays that familiar repugnance toward the easy distinctions of essentialism, at the simple oppositions between sobriety and drunkenness, dream and reality. As with his other genealogies (e.g. of moral phenomena), the question here always concerns the use and value of the phenomenon. On this basis, one can even see a dramatic typology of intoxication unfold in The Birth of Tragedy. Hence, for the pre-Hellenic Greeks, intoxication was valued in terms of Dionysian health, joy, strength, overflowing life, the means of getting in touch with the aesthetic power of nature. From this perspective of intoxication, from the “glowing life” of the Dionysian cult initiates, the epopts, the self-consciousness of philosophical sobriety appears “corpselike and ghostly.”[6] According to Nietzsche’s narrative, it is this community of epopts whose intoxication by the Eleusinian sacrament is taken up and transfigured in the tragic chorus. Moreover, it is the drunken satyr to whom the oldest and most profound wisdom, tragic wisdom, enters the history of culture. Tragedy—as specific type of use and valuation of intoxication—comes to embrace the highest, i.e. most noble, form of intoxication.

On the other hand, what we see in The Birth of Tragedy is that, upon the death of tragedy, this situation is reversed. The once-active power of intoxication becomes reactive and degenerate. It is at this point that intoxication turns against life, no longer corresponding to its heightened sensitivity but rather to a means of gaining distance from life, of numbing pain, a loss of feeling, a symptom of degeneration, sickness and weakness, the corrupting element of culture that undermines the resolve to overcome. What was the “glowing life” of Dionysus becomes the rationality of Socratic culture and, looking ahead, ultimately the masochism of the ascetic priest. What was the enthusiasm of the maenadic initiates in The Birth of Tragedy regresses into “that tiny, noble community of intractable, half-mad fantasists, people of genius who cannot control themselves and who take all possible pleasure in themselves only at the point where they have completely lost themselves,” “oppressive and ruinous of earth and air into the farthest future.” (D, §50)

At this point one can ask, rather justifiably: is intoxication a figure of truth or falsity? Life or Death? Health or sickness? Alas, there is indeed the point where one faces yet another example of Kurt Tucholsky’s famous claim: “Tell me what you need and I will supply you with a Nietzschean citation…for Germany and against Germany, for peace and against peace, for literature and against literature—whatever you want.”[7]

II. Intoxication as the Feeling of Power

We can work through this confusion by asking what significance intoxication has in the overall context of Nietzsche’s work. For instance, in Dawn we find a clear answer. Here, Nietzsche says plainly: “Intoxication is the feeling of power.” In Twilight of the Idols, Nietzsche claims that “what is essential in intoxication is the feeling of increased strength and fullness.” (TI, “Skirmishes”) What, then, does it mean to take intoxication as an increase in strength and the “feeling of power”? What sense can we make of this increase in the “feeling of power”? Intoxication is a feeling, but not reducible to hedonic pleasure, nor to the pleasure associated with the famous “contemplation without interest” central to Kant and Schopenhauer’s reflections. For Nietzsche, the feeling of power and strength, in its active sense, is not so much a “metaphysical comfort” as a feeling of the possession of power. However, it is of crucial importance to recognize that this feeling of possession is a precondition for any physiological activity whatsoever, be it aesthetic, scientific, moral or philosophical. As Nietzsche puts it,

For there to be art, for there to be any aesthetic activity and observation, one psychological prerequisite is indispensable: intoxication. Intoxication must have already heightened the sensitivity of the whole machine: otherwise, no art will be forthcoming. All kinds of intoxication, as different as their causes may be, have this power: above all, the intoxication of sexual excitement, that oldest and most primordial form of intoxication. (TI, Raids of an Untimely Man, §8)

Why is intoxication a precondition for aesthetic activity and observation? What makes this possible? Because an increase in power and sensitivity is accompanied by an increased capacity for suffering. And conversely, an increased capacity for suffering begets a need to invent, a creative impulse that would allow one to endure and justify that suffering.

The Feeling of Power as a Twofold Force of Concealment and Revelation

 In a sense, we might say that intoxication is synonymous with the force of a muse: Intoxication literally a-muses, it reveals to us our own artistic powers, or as Nietzsche puts it, it “leads us to donate to things, to make them take from us, to force ourselves on them—this process is called idealizing…what is decisive is an immense drive to bring out the principal traits, so that the others disappear in the process.” (TI, Raids of an Untimely man, §8) Intoxication, as the feeling of power, is thus apparently more complex than what initially appears. Intoxication, as a feeling of power, precipitates idealization, i.e. the bringing out of principal traits and the disappearance of others. To be clear, this involves two moments, one concealing (disappearance of traits), one revealing (the bringing out of principal traits). What is concealed or suppressed by intoxication is everyday reality. What is revealed is the truth behind that reality, or rather, the illusory character of everyday reality. For instance, our own experience of sleep and dreaming can attest to this concealment. We know from our own experience how, in sleep, the feeling of power is enjoyed not by “me”, as it is in awakening, but rather by my body, the body that hypnotizes and conquers me each night as I fall asleep. In the intoxication of dreaming, something deeper within me awakens, and waking intoxication only reminds my body of what it had already enjoyed while dreaming.

In waking life, we can understand this process in the sense of narcosis (which Nietzsche uses interchangeably with intoxication). Narcosis does not refer to the mere absence of pain as it formulated in hedonism, nor is it the static state of numbness or unconsciousness. Rather, it is the feeling of the suppression of pain, of pain circulating at a distance, the distant stir of pain, the distancing of pain, or the feeling of a movement away from pain. More precisely, narcosis enters consciousness as a release from pain, a loss of self-consciousness. It is at this point that our body suppresses our self-consciousness and enjoys its own aesthetic freedom.

On the other hand, what is revealed through this concealment/suppression is a deeper truth of power. For example, Nietzsche suggests that what is revealed in the “paroxysms of intoxication” that characterize Dionysian festivals, and later attic tragedy, is “the artistic power of all nature.” (BT §1) Here, “something never before experienced struggles for utterance.” (BT, §1) All this is another way of expressing the sense in which power reveals itself to itself, gives form to itself, appearance to itself – becomes conscious of itself. As Nietzsche puts it, intoxication is that moment whereby “Excess [reveals] itself as truth. Contradiction, the bliss born of pain, [speaks] out from the very heart of nature.” (BT §1) It is “as if the veil of maya had been torn aside and were now merely fluttering in tatters before the mysterious primordial unity.” (BT §1)

Looking back, we clarified the initial ambiguity we faced by taking Nietzsche’s formula: intoxication is the feeling of power. But we saw that intoxication can only be a feeling of power inasmuch as it is also both a narcosis (suppression) as well as a growth in sensitivity (revelation). Together, these movements produce an experience that is quite literally ec-static, which is to say, an experience in which one is transported outside themselves, in which they achieve distance from themselves, the distance necessary for self-revelation. In other words, according to a Nietzschean register, intoxication is an increase in power insofar as it is an opportunity to survey the feeling of one’s own power. But the power that is revealed, however, does not belong to something like the “pre-natal” ego state. Rather, as Nietzsche will suggest in The Birth of Tragedy, it is a revelation of the primordial self that dwells in the invisible world hidden from all vision:

With what astonishment must the Apollinian Greek have beheld him! With an astonishment that was greater the more it was mingled with that shuddering suspicion that all this was actually not so very alien to him after all, in fact, that it was only his Apollinian consciousness which, like a veil, hid his Dionysian world from his vision. (BT, Attempt at Self-Criticism)

Put simply, intoxication is for Nietzsche simply a figure for the aisthesis (αἴσθησις) of power: it is not simply the feeling of power, but more specifically a sort of initiation or baptism, one in which we are given over to an opportunity for self-seeing, an opportunity to experience just as much the self-revelation of power as the power of self-revelation. Looking again at The Birth of Tragedy, we can see that Nietzsche stages this baptism/initiation in the Greek figure of the Dionysian revelers, the Epoptoi (whose meaning comes from the compounding of epi– and optomai, literally I see myself). Again, we saw above that Nietzsche wants to emphasize how intoxication – i.e. as an occasion for self-perception – is the precondition for any artistic creation. But this is precisely why Nietzsche will suggest that the intoxication of the Dionysian reveler is “the presupposition of all dramatic art”: “in this magic transformation the Dionysian reveler sees himself a satyr, and as a satyr, in turn, he sees the god, which means that in his metamorphosis he beholds another vision outside himself.” (BT §8) Thus, the satyr is the reveler’s medium for his vision of god, but it is the metempsychosis of the reveler—“to see oneself transformed before one’s own eyes and to begin to act as if one had actually entered into another body”—that makes this divine revelation possible. (BT §8) The vision of the god Dionysus would not be possible without intoxication, but only because in the ecstasis of intoxication, the reveler is granted not mere feeling but a transfiguring vision of the being that underlies both himself and the satyr:

Only insofar as the genius in the act of artistic creation coalesces with this primordial artist of the world, does he know anything of the eternal essence of art; for in this state he is, in a marvelous manner, like the weird image of the fairy tale which can turn its eyes at will and behold itself; he is at once subject and object, at once poet, actor, and spectator. (BT §5)

Now, of course the movement of intoxication follows a denouement. The distance or tension intoxication creates between everyday reality and intoxicated reality will inevitably collapse. Put simply, we always “sober up.” But at this point the will runs the risk of becoming reactive and degenerate. As Nietzsche puts it in The Birth of Tragedy,the rapture of the Dionysian state with its annihilation of the ordinary bounds and limits of existence contains, while it lasts, a lethargic element, in which all personal experiences of the past become immersed. This chasm of oblivion separates the worlds of everyday reality and of Dionysian reality. But as soon as this everyday reality re-enters consciousness, it is experienced with nausea: an ascetic, will-negating mood is the fruit of these states. (BT §7)

It is under the influence of this mood that we see the origin of what Nietzsche refers to as decadent art, art that “tries to intoxicate the audience and force it to the height of a moment of strong and elevated feelings.” (GS §86) Here intoxication becomes used in order to suppress pain, i.e. as a narcotic. Nietzsche’s prime example here is of course Wagnerian music, which was for Nietzsche “the most un-Greek of all possible art forms—a first-rate poison for the nerves, doubly dangerous among a people who love drink and who honor lack of clarity as a virtue, for it has the double quality of a narcotic that both intoxicates and spreads a fog.” (GS §86) Ultimately, the danger lies in what Nietzsche will refer to in Dawn as the “belief in intoxication,” that is, the belief that intoxication, as the loss of the self, is the only path to the true self. (D §50)

Conclusion: Nietzsche as Epopt

Is there a Nietzschean alternative to this belief? Ultimately, Nietzsche will suggest that it is the belief in intoxication that lies at the heart of our Socratic culture, and that the entire history of our culture can be understood in light of a genealogy of intoxication. Whether its art’s “seductive veil of beauty fluttering before our eyes,” the delusion of modern science that it can heal the wound of existence with scientific knowledge and technology, or finally the metaphysical comfort offered by tragedy, each of these functions to serve “those who actually feel profoundly the weight and burden of existence, and must be deluded by exquisite stimulants into forgetfulness of their displeasure.” Nietzsche’s claim here is precisely “All that we call culture is made up of these stimulants; and, according to the proportion of the ingredients, we have either a dominantly Socratic or artistic or tragic culture.” (BT §18) Furthermore, it cannot be denied that Nietzsche makes an appeal to intoxication as a locus of truth, and the force of his so-called “science of aesthetics” is grounded in the certainty of vision that befalls one in paroxysms of intoxication. Just as the heightening of sensitivity that occurs in intoxication is the precondition for aesthetic activity and observation, so too would it have to be a precondition for Nietzsche’s own genealogy of intoxication, inasmuch as this genealogy is an aesthetic activity.

Finally, the Nietzschean alternative is not a question of choosing sobriety or intoxication, but rather of elevating one’s perspective so that intoxication opens onto a new pathos of distance from which one can gain insight into the hidden unities underlying apparently opposed phenomena. What is at stake here is precisely the intoxication of Zarathustra, or rather, that specifically Greek-inspired cheerfulness. Nietzsche describes this experience in the following way:

A rapture whose tremendous tension occasionally discharges itself in a flood of tears—now the pace quickens, now it becomes slow; one is altogether beside oneself…a depth of happiness in which even what is most painful and gloomy does not seem something opposite but rather conditioned, provoked, a necessary color in such a superabundance of light; an instinct for rhythmic relationships that arches over wide spaces of forms…Everything happens involuntarily in the highest degree but as in a gale of a feeling of freedom, of absoluteness, of power, of divinity…The involuntariness of image and metaphor is strangest of all, one no longer has any notion of what is an image or a metaphor: everything offers itself as the nearest, most obvious, simplest expression. (EH, “Thus Spoke Zarathustra”: §3)

If we were not already convinced of the specificity of this form of experience, it is worth pointing out that Nietzsche claims that this was his own “untimely” experience of intoxication, and that “one has to go back thousands of years in order to find anyone” who could have had the same experience. In various contexts, be it moral, aesthetic, religious, scientific or philosophical, the real force of Nietzsche’s wisdom comes from the depths of this experience. From this perspective, any atom-like structure of identity in these domains—e.g. good, evil, beauty, pain, truth, God, Self—is only a semblance or appearance that suppresses and builds upon more fundamental differences. The case is no different when it comes to intoxication. The example I have focused on here is his analysis in The Birth of Tragedy, which illustrates how the aesthetic experience (i.e. intoxication) proper to Greek tragedy is in fact a synthesis (or synesthesia) of two more rudimentary types of intoxication, namely, Apollinian intoxication and Dionysian intoxication. Again, Nietzsche’s aim here is not to reduce intoxication to oppositions but rather undermine the very identities on which they are built, namely, oppositions between intoxication and sobriety, sleep and awakening, enjoyment and suffering, medicine and toxin. Hence, intoxication is somehow both a feeling of power and a feeling of powerlessness, both a revealing and a concealing, both an awakening and a slumber, an enjoyment and a suffering. If this sounds paradoxical, it is because Dionysus is the god of paradox. And by highlighting this paradoxical structure of intoxication, Nietzsche’s aim is to place us in that same state of wonder that overtook the Apollinian man of Doric culture in Nietzsche’s dramaturgy:

only the curious blending and duality in the emotions of the Dionysian revelers remind us—as medicines remind us of deadly poisons—of the phenomenon that pain begets joy, that ecstasy may wring sounds of agony from us. At the very climax of joy there sounds a cry of horror or a yearning lamentation for an irretrievable loss. (BT §2)


Works Cited

—Jusit, Eliot (2000). Beyond Hegel and Nietzsche: Philosophy, Culture, and Agency. Cambridge, Mass, MIT Press.
—Nietzsche, Friedrich Wilhelm, Raymond Geuss, and Ronald Speirs. The Birth of Tragedy and Other Writings. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge UP, 1999. N. Print.
—Nietzsche, Friedrich Wilhelm, and Walter Arnold Kaufmann. §86. The Gay Science: With a Prelude in Rhymes and an Appendix of Songs. New York: Vintage, 1974. 142. Print.
—Nietzsche, Friedrich Wilhelm, and Walter Arnold Kaufmann. The Gay Science: With a Prelude in Rhymes and an Appendix of Songs. New York: Vintage, 1974. Print.
—Nietzsche, Friedrich Wilhelm, and Walter Arnold Kaufmann. “Ecce Homo.” Basic Writings of Nietzsche. New York: Modern Library, 1968. Print.
—Nietzsche, Friedrich Wilhelm, and R. J. Hollingdale. Twilight of the Idols; And, the Anti-Christ. London, England: Penguin, 1990. N. Print.
—Otto, Walter Friedrich. Dionysus, Myth and Cult. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1965. Print.

[1] Nietzsche, Friedrich Wilhelm, and Walter Arnold Kaufmann. §86. The Gay Science: With a Prelude in Rhymes and an Appendix of Songs. New York: Vintage, 1974. 142. Print. (Hereafter cited as GS).
[2] Otto, Walter Friedrich. Dionysus, Myth and Cult. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1965. 136. Print.
[3] Cf. Nietzsche, Friedrich Wilhelm, and Brittain Smith. “§50.” Dawn: Thoughts on the Presumptions of Morality. Stanford, CA: Stanford UP, 2011. 40. Print. (Hereafter cited as D).
[4] Nietzsche, Friedrich Wilhelm, and Walter Arnold Kaufmann. “Ecce Homo.” Basic Writings of Nietzsche. New York: Modern Library, 1968. 694. Print. (Hereafter cited as EH).
[5] Nietzsche, Friedrich Wilhelm, and R. J. Hollingdale. “Raids of an Untimely Man.” Twilight of the Idols; And, the Anti-Christ. London, England: Penguin, 1990. N. pag. Print. (Hereafter cited as TI).
[6] Nietzsche, Friedrich Wilhelm, Raymond Geuss, and Ronald Speirs. “§1.” The Birth of Tragedy and Other Writings. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge UP, 1999. N. pag. Print.
[7] Jusit, Eliot (2000). Beyond Hegel and Nietzsche: Philosophy, Culture, and Agency. Cambridge, Mass, MIT Press.