Seizing The Darkness: An Essay On Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe’s Bipolar Disorder

By Angela Li

As Friedrich Nietzsche once said, “One must have chaos in one, to give birth to a dancing star.” Considered to be Germany’s greatest literary mind of the modern era, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe certainly was a whirlwind of chaotic creativity. With such a profound influence that he is known as the Shakespeare of Germany, critics and readers around the world have wondered about where his genius stemmed from. Although difficult to pinpoint the exact formula for his scale of success, one of the great factors that contributed to his ability to convey such raw emotion and captivate his audience was in fact his bipolar disorder. It is an unfortunate reality that many of the millions around the world with bipolar disorder are relegated to the shadows, as the stigma around their illness sweeps away their faith in themselves. When they are often labelled as weak, incapable or fragile by damaging societal stereotypes, it can difficult for those affected to reconcile with their disorder. While the disorder may severely affect one’s ability to lead a healthy and fulfilling life, an incontrovertible and important truth is that it certainly does not put a limit on their capacity for success. This is best shown by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s literary genius, whose emotional turmoil caused by his bipolar disorder stirred up an invaluable source of inspiration and motivation to explore artistic endeavors. Goethe was not only a German poet, playwright, novelist and theatre director but also a scientist, statesman and artist who has been revered for his brilliant comprehension of human nature, optimistic faith in the human spirit and his writing about universal truths and agonies. Many of his works have been the face of the Romantic movement such as his play Faust, Europe’s greatest long poem since John Milton’s Paradise Lost. Yet it was not always a smooth path to success for Goethe, who had spent much of his life in the dark. Since the age of fourteen, he suffered from severe depressive and manic episodes, characteristic of bipolar II disorder. Because he lived during the 18th century, mental illnesses were poorly understood and there were few treatments, thus making his struggles with bipolar disorder even more difficult. As a result, he often isolated himself and was dragged down by waves of suicidal thoughts. However, it was the intensity of his emotions that fueled many of his greatest pieces. For instance, in 1774, he published his first novel called the Sorrows of Young Werther, a seminal piece in literature on depression and mood incongruent delusions which became instantly successful and was even lauded by Napoleon Bonaparte. In writing these pieces he was not only able to reach out to many individuals in similar situations but was also able to expel many of his darkest suicidal thoughts and cope with his agonizing episodes. After one of his most severe depressive episodes, he spent months crafting his monumentally tragic play Faust, which would later play an essential role in the creation of depth psychology. In the face of such immense suffering, Goethe’s triumph in the battle against his own mind is remarkable but he is not alone. Author Kay Redfield Jamison, PhD, psychiatry professor at Johns Hopkins University has shown that artists and writers are disproportionately more likely to be depressed, suicidal or manic and that there is a correlation between bipolar disorders and artistic temperaments, hence, the term “poet’s melancholy.” During the initial stages of hypomania, individuals tend to have increased energy and productivity and having personally been affected by the disorder, they have greater insight on human suffering that allows them to express themselves in ways others simply cannot. Having bipolar disorder can be described as having dark, wispy clouds looming over one’s head. It can linger with you and be agonizing; it can be frustrating and isolating. However, many such as Goethe are able to seize the darkness and channel it into creative endeavors that become the silver lining of it all. As awareness around bipolar disorder increases and the stigma surrounding it is shattered, it is hoped that light will be shed on the vast potential and creativity that resides within those with bipolar disorder. After all, it is within that darkness that Friedrich Nietzsche’s described “dancing stars” are born.

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