Thursday, October 22, 2009

Sorrento Days

Albert Brenner joined Fritz and Paul Ree at Frl. Meysenbug’s villa. Brenner was a student of poetry at Basel and a great admirer of Nietzsche’s lectures. Brenner was sent to Sorrento “by his worried parents to be cured of adolescent moodiness and fits of suicidal despair.” (Cate, page 226)

Frl. Meysenbug’s home provided a suitable environment for rest and rejuvenation within the context of a “spiritual rationality” nested in the peaceful southern Italian surroundings. “The villa stood on the coast a fifteen-minute walk from Sorrento with a view over the open sea to Naples and Vesuvius. ‘We live…in a quarter in which there were only gardens and villas and garden-houses,’ Brenner wrote to his family. ‘The entire quarter is like a monastery.’ Later Nietzsche himself wrote to Reinhard von Seydlitz, a writer and painter with whom he was acquainted: ‘We lived in the same house and moreover we had all our higher interests in common: it was a kind of monastery for free spirits.’ The ‘secular monastery’ which he had discussed with (Erwin) Rhode had, for a short time, become a reality.” (Hollingdale, page 108)

“The friends swam, walked, or worked, depending on the weather. Sometimes they hiked over the mountains south of Sorrento to the Gulf of Sorrento. In the evening, Paul Ree read aloud to the group. From fall to spring their reading and discussion program was quite extensive: they began with notes from Jacob Burckhardt’s lectures on Greek civilization, with commentary by Nietzsche, who had discussed the lectures with Burckhardt in great detail; they went on to read the two great Greek historians, Herodotus and Thucydides, along with Plato’s massive late work, Laws….At Christmas Malwida presented Nietzsche with a huge fan to use as an eye shade, and a red satin sleeping cap with a long red tassel to help keep his head warm night and day, in an effort to fend off headache. To Ree, who claimed that vanity lay at the root of all moral systems, she gave a gilded mirror. While Nietzsche, his eyes protected behind the visor, reclined in his easy chair, and Malwida and Brenner sat close to the hearth, peeling oranges, Ree, seated at a table with a lamp, read to the group. Malwida saw them as ‘an ideal family’ living in a kind of ‘mission house,’ preparing to ‘scatter seed for a newly spiritualized culture.’ During the day, Ree and Nietzsche searched out grottoes along the rocky coast where the fledgling missionaries might instruct their pupils, women and men alike, in the ways of enlightenment and emancipation. By Christmas time the reading program had shifted, perhaps due to Ree’s influence, but certainly in line with Nietzsche’s own desires, to the Frennch moralists and skeptics: Montaigne, La Rochefoucauld, Vauvenargues, La Bruyere, and Stendhal – although the great Voltaire cannot have been neglected. Finally, in spring, the four read and discussed Afrikan Spir’s Thought and Reality, Ranke’s History of the Papacy, and the New Testament. Once again, Nietzsche delivered the principle commentary on the last-mentioned text, for his study in philology had shed light on this fateful book as well. Quite late in his active life, as he was writing The Antichrist, Nietzsche had occasion to remember those discussions in Sorrento.” (The Good European, pages 98, 100)

“The daily regime, beginning with a 7 a.m. cup of warm milk, soon followed by a pot of tea for breakfast, could not have been more wholesome. As Paul Ree reported to Fritz’s sister Elizabeth two weeks after their arrival: ‘After the [breakfast] tea he dictates something and then he goes for a walk before lunch. The lunch, thanks to the loving care of Fraulein von Meysenbug, this clever and angelic lady, is always simple and plentiful. After lunch there is a long, general siesta, then we all go for a walk. Your brother has recently been able to take walks lasting for hours up mountain paths, and this surely is in largely part the reason why has been spared headaches since the latest, brief, but nevertheless severe attack.’ The condition of Nietzsche’s eyes throughout his seven-month stay in Sorrento was such that all he could bring himself to write (with but one or two exceptions) were postcards….Daily life at the Villa Rubinacci soon settled into a calm routine. On days when he was not bedridden and suffering from blinding headaches, Nietzsche spent the morning dictating new paragraphs and aphorisms to his devoted disciple Brenner….Some of these aphorisms were inspired by the stimulating evenings when, before or after dinner, Malwida and her three house guests gathered in the spacious living room….it would be a grave error to believe that, because the readings at the Villa Rubinacci were devoted to ‘classic’ authors and subjects, they were in any way stuffy and pedantic. Malwida von Meysenbug’s memoirs make it clear that they were, on the contrary, constantly enlivened by the wry wit that spiced and peppered so many of Nietzsche’s letters. Not to be outdone, Paul Ree, while reading, would often straight-facedly skip a few pages just to see if his ‘audience’ was still awake and listening – which, to judge by the ensuing protests and laughter, it usually was. So extraordinarily harmonious was this cohabitation between foster-mother and her three adopted ‘children’ that it revived in good Malwida, and impenitent idealist, the desire to set up the kind of model school that she and other kindred souls had founded years ago in Hamburg to further the ‘emancipation’ and education of young women. The many letters she had been receiving from admiring female readers of her memoirs confirmed her in the belief that, with the help of talented ‘professors’ like Friedrich Nietzsche and Paul Ree, it would be possible to establish a ‘kind of haven for missionaries’ (as she put it) where young men and women would be encouraged to ‘develop the noblest faculties of the mind’ before going out into the great world ‘to sow seeds of a new and higher culture’. The scheme generated such fervour among the inmates at Villa Rubincci to nearby grottoes, some of them so large that they resembled vaulted churches, within whose cool interiors, well protected from the torrid summer sun, future ‘disciples’ could gather to listen to the inspired lectures of their ‘teachers’. For to Malwida, as to Nietzsche – both of them in this respect still ardently Schopenhauerian – it went without saying that no such school or ‘colony’ of teachers could possibly thrive in the fetid air of a modern city.” (Cate, pages 233 – 235)

The high leisurely and intellectual atmosphere was precisely what Fritz had been looking for. Here was an opportunity to break from the burdens he felt with his professorship and devote his life to less practical, more idealistic pursuits. He longed to live a life of “high culture” and this was the closest he had ever come to doing so.

If he had also hoped, however, that living such a conducive daily routine might help with his persistent, recurring illnesses, he was mistaken. Though, this lifestyle undoubtedly inspired him and he would dictate to Brenner and Ree many new ideas and passages for a larger philosophic work than he originally planned, Nietzsche nevertheless remained severely limited and debilitated. His actual handwritten capabilities during this time were limited to writing postcards.

“One 1 February, Paul Ree, who had dutifully been supplementing Nietzsche’s laconic postcards with longer letters to Naumburg to keep his mother and sister informed of Fritz’s health and activities, wrote to say that the past six weeks had been exceptionally good, with but two bad days. Unfortunately, one of Nietzsche’s eyes suddenly became even more short-sighted, with an impression of ‘shimmering’ which caused the letters on any page before him to ‘collide’ and to form into lumps. Though Ree was persuaded this as the result of a cold, his friend had been forced to give up all kinds of reading and writing.” (Cate, pages 237 - 238)

By coincidence, Richard Wagner and Cosima were also in Sorrento, vacationing until the end of November from the complex, obsessive atmosphere of Bayreuth. Fritz had several meetings with the man he still admired. The distance between their two minds, however, was becoming sharply definable.

“Wagner met Nietzsche several times: they indulged in long talks, as they had in the Tribschen days – Wagner doing most of the talking, Nietzsche the listening – and outwardly there was harmony. Inwardly, however, Nietzsche was saddened by the impressions he received from his former idol. Wagner, he repeats in his letters of this and a slightly later time, is old and cannot now change his ways. It was not simply a matter of years: Wagner was only 63 and only seven years older than he had been when Nietzsche had first met him; but he was mentally old and his mind was rigidly made up on all conceivable questions.” (Hollingdale, page 108)

”Malwida and her gentlemen visited the Wagners many times over the next few weeks for sightseeing trips or soirees. The most adventurous of their outings was a trip by donkey to Il Deserto, at the tip of the peninsula on which Sorrento is located, in order to celebrate Malwida’s birthday. Yet Cosima’s terse diary entries and Nietzsche’s almost total silence indicate how great the distance between Nietzsche and the Wagners had become. No doubt Nietzsche’s friendship with Ree, who Cosima, after ‘close inspection,’ discovered was an ‘Israelite,’ offended her. At all events, the von Meysenbug party experienced a little relief once the Wagners had departed for Rome on November 7.” (The Good European, page 97)

This would be the last time Nietzsche ever personally saw Wagner. It was the end of one phase of Fritz’s life. Another was dawning. Brenner and Ree left Frl. Meysenbug’s in the spring of 1877. Nietzsche stayed on, his mind alive with his grandest philosophical project to date.