The Madman in the Crowd: The Death of God as a Social Crisis in Nietzsche’s “The Madman”

14.5.2006 Clark Buckner
When reading Nietzsche’s parable of the madman who laments the death of God, it strikes me as crucial to consider the constitution of the crowd in which he appears. They are not, as one might expect, pious religious people. To the contrary, they are the modern, enlightened bourgeous people, who find themselves in the marketplace before daybreak, and do not believe in God. In fact, as suggested by their treatment of the madman, they find the very idea of God, and the madman’s need to question after Him, to be ridiculous. With their jokes, they make it clear that they stand above such superstitions like adults over children.

In this regard, the parable’s proclamation of the death of God resists being read as a metaphysical claim, whose validity would need to be defended logically. Nietzsche does not argue against the belief in God as a skeptic confronting the faithful. The madman who speaks for him in the parable does not confront believers at all. He confronts the non-believer’s. In this way, rather than standing in simple opposition to the crowd, the madman’s proclamation of the death of God echoes what is already the case with them. And, in their laughter, the crowd reaffirms its truth.

While certainly at odds with one another, the madman and the crowd nevertheless express something similar. “Has He got lost?” asks the enlightened bourgeois. Indeed, so far lost that the question sounds hysterical. It is a joke. What distinguishes the madman from the crowd is not whether or not he believes in the existence of God. Both he and the crowd do not believe. What distinguishes the two rather is their experience of this disillusionment and the way in which they manifest this experience in their words and actions.

For the enlightened bourgeoisie, the idea of ’the death of’ God seems to reinforce their sense of their autonomy and the authority of their reason over both the superstitions of religion and the ravings of madmen. It appears to be both a scientific point and an ethical point – an expression of the mature concession of the cold, economic objectivity of the world that defines what it means to be rational. Against the background of this sober rationality, the madman’s ravings appear absurd.

For the madman, on the other hand, the idea of the death of God expresses a profound sense of dislocation and dispossession. In this way — though we would be wrong to presume exclusively – it gives voice to his experience of the crowd itself. At stake for the madman in the death of God is his experience of modern society – of the burden God’s death places on who we are and how we find ourselves situated in the world. In his response to the crowd’s ridicule, the madman cries out, “Whither’ is God… I will tell you. We have killed him — you and I. All of us are his murderers!!” (l) The death of God is, for the madman, a burden that we share alike!! It unites us in our fate!! “How shall we comfort ourselves,” he continues, “who will wipe this blood off us? What water is there for us to clean ourselves? What festivals of atonement? What sacred games shall we have to invent?”(2)

Rather than a matter of scientific truth alone, for the madman the problem of the death of God carries social significance!! For the madman, we share in common the loss of the sense of an orienting principle – of a telos in our social activity – and hence, the loss of our social solidarity, and sense of our proper place in the world.

The fate we share is the burden of nihilism — as a consequence of the complete divorce between fact and value in the thoroughly rationalized modern world. The madman continues, “But how did we do this? How could we think up the sea? Who gave us the sponge to wipe away the entire horizon? What were we doing when we unchained this earth from its sun? Whither is it moving now? Whither are we moving? Away from all suns? Are we not plunging continually? Backward, sideward, forward, in all directions? Is there still any up or down? Are we not straying as through an infinite nothing?”(3) In the wake of the death of God, we share the burden of a common sense of’ displacement. It defines us as lost.

But is this a legitimate point of social criticism? Might the madman not simply be mad? Against the madman’s complaint, one might argue that the sacrifice of teleological speculation indeed defines the rise of modern science and the development of the modern world – but as the development of the truth in reason, rather than its demise. While perhaps romantically compelling, the madman’s nostalgic longing for a speculative truth — his melancholia over the death of God — would thus seem to be misdirected. The very separation of fact and value that he bemoans conditions the possibility of detached observation. It enables, not only the objective insights of scientific inquiry, but furthermore the surmounting of distorting prejudices and oppressive conventions. It defines, one might say, modern civilization itself. As I understand it, this is the standpoint expressed in the crowd’s attitude towards the madman. In light of it, their apparent sense of their own maturity would indeed have to be recognized; and their laughter, while perhaps excessive, would appear to be justified
as intrinsically edifying. The madman, if he wants to overcome his hysteria, will have to learn to accept rea1ity. God is dead; the work is left to us. However compelling his longing might be, it is misconstrued as grounds for social criticism.

Reading Nietzsche’s parable in this fashion, however, presumes that the death of God is strictly an objective matter, concerning which the madman and the crowd have different standpoints, and against which the madman’s hysteria might therefore be checked! It presumes that the madman and the crowd, while apparently saying something similar, might nevertheless be categorically distinguished, that the relationship between them might be reduced to the formal distinction between truth and falsity, and that the enlightened crowd’s concern for objective fact might provide grounds to dismiss the madman’s hysteria.

What remains obscured is consideration of the subjective relationship that pertains between them, and that so defines their respective experiences of God’s death as experiences of the social.

At stake in the death of God are, for the madman, the place of reason in the world and the sense of objectivity! His complaint cannot therefore be understood as a matter of simply formal concern. Whereas the crowd celebrates the critical overcoming of teleological speculation as the edification of reason, and derides the madman as if he didn’t understand, the madman, to the contrary, knows the significance of this accomplishment too well! He meets it in their ridicule and persecution!! In it, however, he sees not only the establishment of reason’s authority in the world, but furthermore, the institution of a necessary opacity within the functioning of reason itself. As a necessary condition for sustaining their sense of the authority of reason, the crowd denies not only the logical justification of teleological speculation, but furthermore, the very need for it.

Where the crowd ridicules the madman’s irrationality as the result of a deficiency in reason, the madman experiences his irrationality as a result of the accomplishment of reason itself (i.e. as a consequence of God’s death) and so as immanent to it. The madman sees the enlightened crowd too as irrational — blinded to their own actions and lost in the world by virtue of their very objective reasoning. “Deeds, though done,” he cries, “require time to be seen and heard. This deed is still more distant from them than the most distant stars — and yet they have done it themselves.”(4) Despite their uproarious celebration of their own autonomy, the crowd remains heteronomously qualified by the need for teleological orientation that its objectivity otherwise proscribes.

Rather than standing opposed to the objectivity of the crowd, the madman sees himself as sharing a common subjective standpoint with the crowd — a common anxiety and irrational need — that otherwise remains veiled by the apparent opposition between them. He insists on being seen within the crowd, as embodying its own irrationality, rather than set against it and ostracized from it. The question must therefore be asked: When the madman calls the crowd irrational and declares the problem of nihilism to be a burden that they share in common, is there truth in his identification with them? Does the crowd’s enlightened objectivity betray an intrinsic irrationality? Does the madman’s irrationality, to the contrary, reveal the truth in the constitution of the crowd?

In Nietzsche’s parable, the crowd’s irrationality is explicit. While the authority of reason is indeed at stake in their ridicule, the crowd’s response to the madman’s complaint is not itself rationally motivated. To the contrary, their sober rationality has
been suspended, and they are doubled over in hysterics. Rather than rational, their response to the madman is affective, visceral and dramatic. The madman does not simply speak nonsense to the crowd. They do not soberly turn away from his complaint as unworthy of consideration. The madman excites their need to ridicule and denounce him. He provokes their laughter. And nonsense in itself is not funny. In this regard, the crowd betrays their identification with the madman.

They understand what he is talking about, even if— or rather, precisely insofar as — they find it ridiculous. And this appreciation of the madman’s complaint is not cognitive alone: it excites them not simply to agree or disagree with him, but to mimic him. They repeat his words, “Where is God?” They repeat his hysterical gesticulations in the contortions of ’their’ laughter. While apparently insisting upon their rational distinction from the madman, the crowd seizes the occasion of his appearance to act mad themselves. But they do so as a joke.

While acting mad themselves, the members of the crowd disavow their irrationality by enjoying it in the name of reason. Rather than providing the basis of their response to the madman, reason provides the crowd an alibi for the enjoyment of their own irrationality. Beyond a formal excuse, however, reason justifies their denial of this identification with a vengeance. Their rationality is affectively loaded. They spite the madman and belittle the problem he laments. In this way, the crowd demonstrates not only an identification with the madman, but furthermore the need to defend itself against this identification. The crowd works to sustain the authority of reason — immanently threatened by the appearance of the madman’s irrationality — through the indulgence in an irrational excess.

Rather than demonstrating distinct subjective attitudes towards a common objective fact, the madman and the crowd present different objective manifestations of a common subjective experience. They both know the displacement and dispossession articulated by the madman. What distinguishes the two are their distinct expressions of this experience: while the madman finds himself forced to admit the burden of his guilt for the death of God, and to persist in the contradiction of mourning for an object that never existed at the expense of his psychological coherence; the crowd find themselves compelled to deny any such burden, and to obscure the contradiction in their objective attitude. In order to sustain their psychological coherence, they require the madman to bear the burden of their irrationality. In this way, as he himself insists, the madman in Nietzsche’s parable embodies the madness — and so, the truth — in the constitution of the crowd itself.

What confirms this correspondence between the madman’s and the crowd’s anxiety can, to my mind, be discerned in the manner in which the crowd profits from their mimicking abuse of the madman. In it, they enjoy the satisfaction of what their rational objectivity otherwise denies them: the need for social solidarity. They are united by an affective social bond in their common identification with and hatred of the madman, while simultaneously disavowing the need for any such bond. They enjoy fraternity in their laughter, and allegiance to a common unspoken telos, despite their conscious dismissal of such prejudicial associations and speculative commitments.

Paradoxically, the telos they serve is the reiteration of the status quo — rational conformity as an end in itself. What justifies this obedience and the valuation that it entails is the spite that the crowd enjoys in their persecution of the madman: their common guilt in his sacrifice. By forcing the madman to bear the burden of their own need for teleological orientation, the crowd defends the “objectivity” of the rationalized world through an act of irrational violence.

Understood as a point of social criticism, the madman’s declaration of the death of God reveals the irrationality of the crowd in the authoritarianism of their treatment of him. In Nietzsche’s parable, the problem of authoritarianism appears not as an aberration or infelicity external to the rationality of the modern world, but rather as a danger intrinsic to its constitution. What the sacrifice of speculative teleology means for the crowd is obedience to the economic demands of the world as it happens to be. This is the tyranny they impose upon the madman, when denying his need to mown the death of God; while, at the same time — as the madman makes clear — it is the tyranny that they might be supposed to suffer, Rather than realizing the subject’s autonomy, the rationalization of the world has resulted in the subordination of humankind to a world of its own creation. By establishing the authority of reason in the world, modern man has lost the sense of his place in it.

The world rather stands over and against him as a cruel and arbitrary master. Rather than determining his relationship to the world, the individual is left to perform isolated and arbitrary functions, negotiating a set of predetermined variables without any apparent relationship to a totalizing end or qualitative goal. In the modern world, the individual finds himself and his social life shattered by the accomplishment of reason itself. This fragmentation, in fact, defines what it means to be an individual in modern society, i.e. as part of the crowd. In the crowd, the enlightened bourgeoisie stand together in isolation. They are — as the madman deplores — mutually displaced as instruments of rationalized processes, concerning which they make no evaluative judgment and have no ultimate understanding. While preserving the aura of self-assurance, the crowd suffers an immanent dissolution through the very rational processes they obey.

They are systematically divided, and suffer this division not as a merely mathematical matter, but rather as the traumatic loss of their sense of belonging in the world. According to the madman, every member of the crowd suffers by the violence sustaining the apparent objectivity of the modern world. Paradoxically, he argues that it defines them as such. They are mutually displaced from a world in which they find their lives determined by forces beyond their control. In their fragmentation, they suffer about authoritarianism implicit in the rationalization of the modern world. This authoritarianism irrupts explicitly in violence when the problem of nihilism appears undeniable, and the need for teleology reveals itself in spite of the objectivity of the modern world. In this moment, what the enlightened crowd attempts to deny by holding apart, reveals itself in its dialectical identity.

In Nietzsche’s parable, the madman in the crowd thus reveals as his doppelganger the so-called “madmen,” who – in the history of the twentieth-century – have been sustained by the irrationality of crowds as authoritarian demagogues, in spite of the rationalization of the modern world. The identity between the two is defined by the moment of violence in which the madman is cast out from the crowd. This violence (along with the problem of God’s death itself) is reiterated when, at the end of the parable, the madman is thrown out of the church (which he describes as God’s sepulcher). In this moment, which unifies the parable as a whole, the madman suffers, and in his suffering, embodies the social breakdown implicit in the constitution of modern society.

(1) Nietzsche, Friedrich. The Gay Science with a Prelude in Rhymes and an Appendix of Songs. Translated by Walter Kauffmann. Vintage Books New York, 1974! P. 181.
(2) ibid., p.181.
(3) ibid,, p. 181.
(4) ibid., p.182.