Sunday, July 12, 2009

Summer 1876

Nietzsche as Professor of Philology at the University of Basel is captured by Ludwig von Scheffle, one of his admiring students, reminiscing upon the summer of the Ring at Bayreuth, but a few months before. He gives us some remarkable intimate details of Fritz.

Professor Nietzsche entering the classroom…

“I had not expected the professor to come into the room in the fire of thought, like Burckhardt. And I probably was already learning that provocative tone in a writer does not always match his behavior as a private person. But such modesty, indeed humility, of deportment was surprising to me in Nietzsche.

“Moreover he was of short rather then medium height. His head deep in his shoulders of his stocky yet delicate body. And the gleaming horn-rimmed glasses and the long hanging mustache deprived the face of that intellectual expression which often gives short men an impressive air.

“And yet his whole personality showed anything but indifference to his personal appearance. Here one saw not Jakob Burchhardt’s short haircut, not the crude linens, nor the threadbrare, almost shabby suit, hanging loosely on the laughing stoic’s powerful frame. No, Nietzsche had adjusted to the fashion of the day. He was wearing light-colored pants, a short jacket, and around his collar fluttered a delicately knotted necktie, also of lighter color. Not as if there were anything particularly striking in his wardrobe. Nietzsche was probably trying less to play the dandy…than to suggest something artistic in his appearance. The long hair framing the face not with curls but with only strands of hair suggested this. But how far removed from artistic casualness everything else was that characterized the man! With a heavy, almost weary stride, his little finely shod feet carried him up to the rostrum.

“Nietzsche had a voice! Not the rounded tone of an orator, nor the sharply articulated but really ineffective modulation typical of the pathos of many a university professor. Nietzsche’s speech, soft and natural as it struggled through his lips, had only one thing in its favor: it came from the soul! Hence the strongly agreeable trait was immediately communicated to the hearer, the irresistible power which led me toward ideas which, merely read, would have aroused me to the most vehement contradiction.

“He spoke slowly, often halting, not so much seeking an expression as checking the impression of his dicta to himself. If the thread of thought led him to something particularly extreme, then his voice also sank, as if hesitatingly, down to the softest pianissimo. The warmth of his presentation, the manner in which this worldview took shape before us in his words, nonetheless gave the impression of something new and completely individual. It lay like a cloud on this man’s entire being. Then suddenly the speaker gave his sentences a sharp epigrammatic twist. An aphorism instead of a conclusion. Nietzsche sank back into his chair as if listening. Then he got up slowly. And gently and silently as he had come, he walked back out the door.”
Conversations with Nietzsche, edited from pages 65-67)

Being invited to Fritz’s apartment, obviously well-kept and decorated by Elizabeth.

“…in Nietzsche’s apartment, soft large armchairs invited one to sit down. They had white lace coverlets with delightful flower patterns…Bouquets of violets and young roses! And when one was half sunk into a gigantic armchair, one’s gaze fell again on fresh flowers! In glasses, in bowls, on tables, in corners, competing in their discrete mixture of colors with the watercolors on the walls! Everything airy, aromatic and delicate! Lightly curtained windows, filtering the glare of daylight, made one feel like a guest invited not to a professor’s house but to a beloved girlfriend’s. Nor was this impression dispersed when the harmonious tones of Nietzsche’s pleasant voice broke the silence of the room.

“The Professor, as I said, did the honors himself, serving the tea with a smile that glided across his blank face like a ray of sunshine. Yet there was something constrained about his social demeanor, and the conversation would soon have lapsed, had not Koselitz (Peter Gast) taken it over with his pleasant loquacity. So Nietzsche was able to lean back in his easy chair with the tiredness I was accustomed to observe in him, and he played the role of listener making occasional brief remarks.

“Nietzsche had taken off his glasses while I was speaking. I felt his large lusterless eyes focused on me. A challenge for me to describe my impressions all the more graphically! But suddenly I was unable to continue, especially since a deep sigh of the Professor’s had already confused me.

“I had begun speaking about ourselves, about Jakob Burkhardt’s youthful audience! I stressed that just as the master rejected all pedantry almost passionately and sought to stimulate only our individual interest in the subject, so we his followers tried to clarify our taste for art completely personally. …Even the boldest remained still before Holbein’s self-portrait in the hall of drawings! And I now struggled futilely in Nietzsche’s presence to define the magical attraction of that wonderful portrait. It did not help that I so-to-speak traced line after line of that face. This approach was combined with the charm of fresh youth. And I failed to capture even the individual traits in their full value. I faltered when I came to the mouth. I could see the lips before me. So fully rounded yet so energetically closed@! Not avid, yet as if created for pleasure!

“’A mouth…,’ I stammered bewilderedly.

“’A mouth to kiss!’”

“Disconcertingly I looked aside. Truly, it was Nietzsche who had spoken, in a attitude and a tone which seemed to contrast most strangely with the mildly sensual coloration of his words. For leaning far back in his armchair, his head bowed onto his chest and his arms hanging limply on the armrests, he seemed to have spoken out of a dream rather than as a comment on my report.

“It was natural that after that visit a more friendly association developed between the professor and me. We conversed not only after class, but occasionally I accompanied him part of the way home with or without ‘Peter Gast.’ We then spoke not of Plato, but of travel destinations, of a hike in autumn, and his whole being became visibly animated each time. But once I was to find myself in a most special situation with him. Alone in class with him! Yes, once he gave me his lecture to me alone!!

“…he received me with the greatest friendliness, indeed with a new cheerfulness I had never seen in him. He shook my hand with a smile and then swung up to the rostrum more elastically than ever.

“Heraclitus! I will never forget how Nietzsche characterized him. If not that lecture, at least what he had to say about the sage of Ephesus will be found in his posthumous papers. I always feel a shudder of reverence when I think of the moving end of that lecture. Words of Heraclitus! According to Nietzsche they summed up the innermost motive of an Ionian philosopher’s thought and intention (and his own?) He drew a breath in order to pronounce the sentence. It resounded then fully in the harmonious tones of the Greek original text. More tonelessly yet understandably in German. Nietzsche folded the pages of his manuscript together as he said: ‘I sought myself!!’” - (Conversations with Nietzsche, edited from pages 69-73)

This offers details of a very mundane Nietzsche. Almost without exception, the people who knew Fritz saw him as genteel and considerate. As a brilliant, though unconventional scholar with a superb grasp of ancient Greek language and thought. As a fatigued man, yet with intense energy, a long hiker. As a sick man, his body in recovery as often as he was ill (perhaps largely due to hypochondria, perhaps an untreated syphilis, though no one of his time knew the things that historical research as uncovered). Fritz possessed a need for pupils, for anyone to listen to him other than Elizabeth, Overbeck, Peter Gast, Wagner (who now apparently saw Fritz merely as part of a vast crowd of necessary persons) and a very limited number of previous friendships and associations, while still not completely knowing what he was driving at.

Fritz lived for a time in Basel in a quiet suburb, surrounded by flowers, rather routinely speaking of art over tea in moments when he let the world in. He was internally wrestling with his relationship to Wagner now that Wagner had achieved his goal. Fritz didn’t know what his own goal was. It was so fragmented we can only now see the connection and foundation of it all as it ties to his writings later in life as one of the world’s greatest philosophers. Fritz was yet to be intimately acquainted with the intellectual equivalent of his passion for art and music and bold yet vague notions.

That was about to change.