Friday, April 10, 2009

“this is what makes my life at present”

“I am training myself to get rid of the habit of haste in willing to know; all scholars suffer from that and it is what deprives them of the glorious calm which comes from all insight gained. A simple household, a completely regulated daily routine, no irritating appetite for honors or for society, the life together with my sister (which makes everything around me so Nietzschean and strangely tranquil), the awareness of having most excellent and kind friends, the possession of forty good books from all ages and peoples (and of several more which are not exactly bad), the constant joy of having Schopenhauer and Wagner educators and in the Greeks the daily objects of my work, the faith that from now on I shall no longer lack good students – this is what makes my life at present. Unfortunately there is the added to this my chronic misery, which seizes me for almost two whole days every two weeks, and sometimes longer periods – well, that ought to come to an end one day.” (letter to Carl von Gersdorff, December 15, 1875, Selected Letters, page 140)

This is an intimate snapshot of Nietzsche during the couple of years when his life, despite recurring illness, settled into a routine of academic professorship. In 1874, he was appointed dean of faculty for that year. Teaching and research consumed him. He spent much of his limited free time with friends.

Fritz met Carl von Gersdorff as a classmate in 1862 while in school at Pforta – his pre-university days. Gersdorff was originally impressed with Nietzsche’s improvisational piano playing which Fritz featured regularly at 7 p.m. during a daily intermission period in the tightly scheduled day.

Carl was one of a small but intimate number of friends Fritz acquired during his student and academic years. Nietzsche was a social figure, perhaps it was the foundation for his apparent distinction as a lecturer. He certainly spent most hours alone and preferred it that way so as to work on his ideas, but until the last few years of his sanity he spent time with all sorts of people and enjoyed many lifelong friendships.

Fritz and Carl shared a great interest in art and music. They once attended ten matinees together over an extended period of days featuring the music of Liszt, Berlioz, and Wagner. They were constantly discussing Schopenhauer. All the way back in 1866, Fritz wrote to his friend: “Three things are my relaxations, but infrequent ones: my Schopenhauer, Schumann’s music, and then solitary walks.” (SL, page 12) It is obvious he and Carl were intellectually intimate.

After Pforta, Carl went on to study and practice law. For many years they were separated but there continued a large, constant, lively correspondence between the two. They managed to get together now and then.

Carl served with distinction the Franco-Prussian war, being released from no less a unit than the Prussian Guards as a lieutenant wearing a Knight of the Order of the Iron Cross. Carl met Fritz and his sister, Elizabeth, shortly thereafter and spent two weeks in their company. Doubtlessly, the two resumed their wide-ranging conversations of their letters and prior years.

Carl knew Erwin Rohde very well and the two shared many moments with Fritz. The three thought enough of their friendship to have themselves photographed. Carl is on the left, Rohde the center, Fritz is right.

Once the three of them agreed to perform a toast simultaneously at 10 o’clock in the evening on a specific day, drink red wine and cry “Khairete Daimones! (Spirits, hail!)” Apparently, this sort of ritualism was important to Nietzsche as it was also the basis for his parable in his lectures on education and he performed other such rites throughout his youth.

“The triangular oath seems to have been executed, more or less simultaneously, in the three geographic points of Kiel, Berlin and Basel. Erwin Rohde, having no open window through which to heave his half-glass of wine, propitiated the ‘deities’ in Jesuitical fashion by surreptitiously spilling some of it out under his tavern table. Gersdorff’s performance left even more to be desired; finding himself at the appointed hour short of red wine, the former Guards officer and presently reluctant lawyer popped the corks from several bottles, much of whose foaming contents spilled out on his study floor before he could wet the pavement of the Alexandrinenstrasse. Nietzsche, better prepared for the solemn moment, hied himself to the house of the fifty-three-year-old historian Jacob Burckhardt, who must have been a bit startled to find himself invited to take part in such a demon-appeasing rite. In earlier centuries, he pointed out, emptying a glass of wine out into a Basel street could have led to prompt arrest for indulgence in ‘sorcery’. This being a less stringent age, Burckhardt good-naturedly agreed to empty a beer-glass full of Rhone wine into the street below, to the Dionysian cry of, ‘Khairete Diamones!’” (
Cate, p. 130)

Clearly, Fritz was no longer religious but he was certainly, genuinely a ceremonious person, a Late-Romantic quality.

In 1871, from Basel, Fritz wrote Carl after the Franco-Prussian War. “Forgive me, my dear friend, for not thanking you earlier for your letters, which each one reminds me of the vigorous cultural life you lead, as if you were basically still a soldier and were now seeking to show your military cast of mind in the realm of philosophy and art. And that is as it should be; only as fighters have we in our time a right to exist, as vanguard fighters for a coming seaculum, whose formation we can roughly presage from our own selves – that is, from our best moments; for these best moments do obviously estrange us from the spirit of our own time, but they must have a home somewhere; therefore I believe we have in these moments a sort of obscure presentment of what is to come. Have we not also retained from our last common Leipzig recollection the memory of such estranged moments which belong in another saeculum? Well then – that is how it is - and let us live for wholeness, fullness and beauty! But that takes a vigorous resolve and is not for just anyone.” (SL, p. 82)

Carl was highly impressed with The Birth of Tragedy and came to Fritz’s defense when the book came under heavy criticism. The two friends spent a brief time at Beyreuth in 1872 to attend
Hans von Bulow’s performance of Wagner’s Tristen and Isolde. Fritz was thrilled with the atmosphere, the performances and his friendship with Carl.

That summer Fritz, Carl, and other friends enjoyed swimming in the mountain lakes near Zurich. It was, perhaps, the last, most happy summer of his life. The Birth of Tragedy had still not yet damaged his career and his friendship with Wagner was very strong as well. Open horizons.

When Nietzsche turned so violently ill in the early preparation of the Polemic on David Strauss, Gersdorff came to his friend’s aid. If Carl had not assisted “Fritz with the laborious writing, reading, and correcting of the partly dictated manuscript, Nietzsche could never have finished his anti-Strauss polemic.” (Cate, page 175)

As Nietzsche was working on the essay on history in 1873, “on 10 December Carl von Gersdorff turned up in Basel, after completing a three-month artistic tour of cities in central and northern Italy. He and Fritz went over the first draft, page by page. On the 18th Gersdorff left Basel, taking with him a number of chapters which he generously volunteered to rewrite in his far clearer script once he reached his parents’ home in Silesia. (Cate, p. 184)


Nietzsche had many ideas that he wanted to express and explore but he was tied to being a successful academic. He shared this with Carl: “There can be no talk of real productivity as long as one is still to a large extent confined in unfreedom, in the suffering and burdensome feeling of constraint – shall I ever really be productive? Doubt after doubt. The goal is too far away, and even if one ever reaches it, most often one’s powers have been used up in the long search and the struggle; when one reaches freedom, one is as exhausted as an ephemeral fly when evening comes. I am so much afraid of that. It is a misfortune to be conscious of one’s struggle so early in life!” (letter to Gersdorff, April 1, 1874, SL, page 125)


It is interesting here that Nietzsche complains of doubt about seriously pursuing his philosophical interests. The letter written some 21 months later which begins this post shows he had come to terms with his desire for freedom. He would strive to avoid the mistake of “haste”. These represent the most routine and ordinary years of Nietzsche’s professional life. At this time he was truly Professor Nietzsche…and he had close friends.

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