In 1882, Friedrich Nietzsche experienced a number of earth shattering revelations in which he understood life on the world in ways no philosopher had before.
But… nobody was interested.
Than in 1890, he had a complete mental breakdown and spent the rest of his life insane. This came as no surprise in Nietzsche’s opponents who’d always suspected that he was a little unbalanced and possibly completely bonkers.
In the early 20th century, a new school of painting appeared in Germany called Expressionism. Expressionist painting looked incredibly weird with bodies and buildings twisted into terrible new shapes. When people asked them why they painted in this crazy way, the painters insisted that their work showed 20th century life as it really was and they invoked Nietzsche’s philosophy to justify their art. But to their many critics, the Expressionists were simply bonkers.
The thing is being free is not as simple as Dizzee Rascal makes it sound. It’s one thing to reject the normal accepted way of understanding and representing the world and say, “I’ve seen the truth.” But how do you convince other people that you’re right? If you can’t, you’ll end up having to rely on your faith in the authenticity of your vision. This can be very lonely work and being lonely can drive you mad.
The good news is that madness in this context can seem heroic because in art, we’ve become accustomed to the idea that going bonkers can be a form of insight.
Whether or not it’s true, this idea became extremely popular in artistic circles after Nietzsche’s demise. And it got a further boost from the Expressionists whose insane art now looks like the only reasonable response to the society that produced World War I. But madness and insight have actually gone hand in hand since at least the middle ages.
The medieval historian, Gregory of Tours, records the story of a man from Lordes who is played by a swarm of flies which drove him mad. He started to have visions and pretty soon he had a swarm of disciples to go with his flies. To these devoted followers, the man was a profit and possibly a messiah. When in fact, he was most likely just… bonkers.