Sunday, May 10, 2009

The Sociable Fritz: Part One

"As well as being happy in his cave (his apartment), Nietzsche enjoyed a vibrant social life. He was regularly to be found in the homes of colleagues and in Basel's best patrician houses - often overlapping categories since many of the professors came from the best families." (Young, page 165) Indeed, the man who became Basel's prodigy professor entered his academic career full of social life, just as he had enjoyed in Bonn and Leipzig before. "In the first years of his being (in Basel) he had a rich social life that included dance-evenings. The young women were enchanted with him." (Young, page 202)

We have seen glimpses of Nietzsche’s mind and personality in his own writings and letters. But, there is a large body of material available regarding what those who knew Fritz thought of him. A clearer picture of just who Nietzsche was can be found when one takes their writings into consideration.

Fritz enjoyed many friendships in his student days at Pforta and at Bonn. While attending Bonn he had the reputation of going out and drinking rather heavily, usually with a group of young men. These were his “party days” and there was no shortage of drinking buddies to accompany him. Perhaps the foremost of these was Paul Deussen, a friend at Pforta who decided to go with Fritz to Bonn to study theology. Deussen stayed with theology, ultimately graduating from the University of Bonn while Nietzsche switched to philology and at went to Leipzig.

It is obvious that, regardless who it was, a significant basis for any friendship with Nietzsche was a love for a wide range of aesthetic subjects as well as the enjoyment of long walks…and a sense of humor.

“On our solitary walks all possible subjects of religion, philosophy, literature, the fine arts, and music were discussed; often our thoughts trailed off into obscurity, and when words then failed, we looked each other in the eye, and said to one another, ‘I know what you mean.’ This expression became a familiar saying between us; we resolved to avoid it as trivial and had to laugh when occasionally it nonetheless slipped out.” (
Conversations with Nietzsche, page 14)

Duessen is our only primary source regarding Fritz visiting brothels. Or rather, a brothel. His telling of things, however, seems a bit contrived as Fritz did nothing at the brothel except have an anxiety attack and bang two very loud notes on the parlor piano and leave. I suspect he probably banged more than that and on future occasions as well.

Much later, in 1888, it was Duessen who “persuaded a number of Berlin friends to make a joint donation of 2,000 marks to cover the publishing costs of future books”. (Cate, page 522) Deussen was close enough to be chosen as Fritz’s “second” in the one and only duel Nietzsche fought in his life. With foils. He wrote about 1865: “Of course the dueling floor was visited zealously; even Nietzsche practiced as well as he could…With some foreboding I saw the day approaching when our friend, who was somewhat corpulent…and moreover very myopic, would have to undergo an adventure for which his qualifications were so ill-suited. After barely three minutes the opponent applied a cut diagonally across the bridge of Nietzsche’s nose right where too hard a pinch leaves a red mark. The blood was dripping to the ground…I loaded my well-bandaged friend into a carriage and took him home…and in two or three days our hero recuperated except of a tiny diagonal scar across the bridge of his nose, which he kept all his life and which did not look bad on him.” (pages 22-23)

A. Fritsch was an acquaintance of Fritz’s at Pforta.

“I came to know Nietzsche through music. In the central building of the institution was a room which contained the best piano. Only a few students selected by the music professor were allowed to play this piano. It was mostly afternoons between four and five. I first came in personal contact with Nietzsche on these practice afternoons, to which I was also admitted despite my great youth. He often played for us; he also liked to improvise on the piano, which made a great impression on all of us. We all idolized him somewhat in those days, for he wrote poetry and, what especially impressed me, he also composed wonderful pieces of music.” (page 17)

Fritz met Ida Rothpletz, the future wife to Franz Overbeck (whose special friendship we will discuss in a future post), in 1870. Ida recorded her initial thoughts regarding one afternoon when Fritz, Franz and Ida all enjoyed performing some music together. I think her more critical appreciation of Fritz is indicative of how well she and her husband knew him and respected him very intimately.

“He gave me the impression of a very introverted, somewhat ailing man. He tended to avoid encounters and conversations; but if they took place, then he was striking for the cordiality and earnestness he developed and seemed to direct to his counterpart. One immediately felt challenged to tell him something that one felt to be important. During a music session we played him Brahms’ four-handed love-waltz and Beethoven’s Opus 26. He listened attentively, then replied with Wagner’s ‘Eulogy’ from Die Meistersinger. He played it freely and seemed to reproduce it according to a performance he had heard rather than a studied extract of sheet music. In later years I heard it played again by him in exactly the same manner. He had no virtuosity, played almost hard and squarely, seeking the tones in memory, then on the keyboard.” (page 32)

One of Fritz’s physicians, Dr. Promitz, recalled the effect of Nietzsche’s aversion to strong sunlight on the atmosphere of his lectures in the early 1870’s at Basel.

“Since his eyes needed protection at an early age, even with moderate sunlight the window blinds had to be kept half-shut. The beneficial twilight heightened even further the magic effect of his method of instruction, which was completely ruled by the spirit of aesthetic freedom. He was far from any rigid pedantry and unhesitatingly allowed the reasonable use of German translations, provided we read as many Greek authors as possible with pleasure. Now it happened quite often that he randomly asked: ‘Now tell me, what is a philosopher?’ After the astonished student’s not very exhaustive reply he finished the class with a captivating extemporization.” (page 37)

Rudolf Eucken was a colleague at Basel and interacted often with Fritz at various academic parties. This remembrance is from the spring of 1871…

“I still remember vividly how amiable Nietzsche was toward doctoral candidates, how he was never unfriendly or excited, but discussed in a kind but superior manner; one got a most favorable impression. Then we often met at small parties, where he proved to be a pleasant conversationalist, without any trace of pettiness or malice; he was more reserved than obtrusive, but he could tell charming little stories and he was not without humor.” (page 40)

Malwida von Meysenberg would play a significant role in Nietzsche’s life. We will cover this in detail in a future post. She initially met Fritz in June 1872 at a Wagner concert. He was with Carl von Gersdorff at the time. She knew Nietzsche’s intensity, his gentility, and his joking manner.

“…the performance of Tristan and Isolde in Munich under the direction of Hans von Bulow. During the intermissions the two gentlemen (Fritz and Carl) …we walked around in the aisles of the first row in a joyful and excited mood, praising the high work of art we had seen. ‘I feel so happy,’ said Nietzsche, ‘not at all stormily excited, as was prophesied of this work, but internally happy and delighted that such a thing could have been created and performed so magnificently.’ And it was indeed a magnificent performance. We parted in cordial friendship, and there now began between us a correspondence which was for many years among the dearest of my associations. Here I first got to know Nietzsche’s amiable, friendly, kindly nature, of which the present letter gives eloquent evidence. He always wanted to help. To be useful, to do something kind and friendly for his friends, and even the sharpest excesses of his critically negative reason had a touch mitigating humor that often led us from the deepest seriousness to merriment and laughter.” (page 49)

Ida von Miaskowski was one of several female acquaintances Fritz had during this time. He was not romantically involved with any of them. Generally, the interaction involved music and literature. At social gatherings, Fritz apparently enjoyed reading aloud in addition to performing on the piano. Often the reading choice was a witty one.

“’For this evening Professor Nietzsche is said to have once again obtained a simply magnificent book to read aloud from.’ It was Mark Twain’s humorous short stories, which had just been published.”

“In the winter of 1874-75 Nietzsche also came every Friday afternoon to accompany my singing. He always brought many new scores, which we studied and practiced together. At the end my husband used to join us, while Nietzsche improvised or played extracts from Wagner’s operas, which he always did from memory and very masterfully.” (page 52)

Of special significance was Fritz’s friendship with Peter Gast. Gast was the pseudo-name of Heinrich Koselitz who was a mediocre composer that took a great deal of interest in Nietzsche’s early work. For his part, Fritz found Gast an invaluable assistant. Like so much of his work, less would have been accomplished due to Nietzsche’s constantly recurring (perhaps partly psychosomatic) sicknesses without the assistance of friends, particularly Gast.

“Closer relations with Nietzsche began for me, however, really only from the moment he told me that he had begun but left incomplete an Untimely Meditation on Richard Wagner. This was at about the end of April 1876….he considered the work too personal for publication. From that time on I helped Nietzsche by taking dictation (and at times by reading aloud), at first very rarely, but almost daily from September 1876 until he went to Sorrento, then again in the winter semester 1877-78 until my departure for Venice (April 1878). From Untimely [Meditations] IV until the end of 1881 I also read without exception every proof of his successive works for publication.” (page 59)

Nietzsche would champion the composer’s music under the name of “Peter Gast” at times throughout these years. Most likely he advocated Gast, in part, as a tool in his growing assault against Wagner, as he ironically broke from Wagner at the moment of Wagner’s highest achievement and at the time of the publication of “Wagner at Bayreuth.” It would be a profound crisis in his young life. But, Fritz also advocated Gast out of being a genteel person. He wanted his friend to succeed and he wanted to help him. It was this quality that Malwida von Meysenberg and Franz Overbeck saw so clearly in him and it drew him many personal admirers.

Gast would help convince Nietzsche to finish the essay on Wagner.

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