Wednesday, January 28, 2009

The Neurotic

For much of his life, Fritz was ill. The fact he got so much academic work and writing accomplished despite his rather constant cycle of illness and recovery is remarkable.

From childhood he had poor eyesight and began wearing glasses at age four. He required stronger glasses as he aged and often experienced severe headaches, even migraines, from long hours reading and writing by poor light.

Matters worsened after be became a professor at Basel. “For the first time, he was having stomach problems on top of his other symptoms. Eyestrain, headaches, and vomiting gradually worsened. Minor illnesses such as hemorrhoids and shingles were annoyances. He felt in 1873 that ‘the machine was breaking down.’ It was during this time that he began his dabbling with a multitude of treatments for his symptoms, interspersed with consultations with various physicians. Leeches and cupping were again used as in his Pforta days. Diets, hydrotherapies, physical therapies, electrotherapies, kinds of medications, and home remedies were tried at different times. He was a voracious reader of medical and physiological texts.” (Richard Schain, page 19)

That he remained equal to the stresses and challenges of academic research and teaching indicates how obsessive Nietzsche must have been of his work. Insomnia was another of his many complaints and doubtlessly he often focused on his writing and lecture preparation far into the night. This further strained his eyesight.

Fritz defined the almost overwhelming level of illness to enter his life in his own words in 1871: “…the classroom drudgery of Basel, plunged Nietzsche into a state of deep depression, finally culminating in a nervous breakdown. On or around 21 January, after three weeks of silence, he informed his worried mother that he was suffering from stomach upsets, sleepless nights, too little exercise, severe eye-strain and ‘intolerable weather’. He was overworked, he felt at times completely fed up with the ‘whole professional business’, he was frustrated by the feeling that the best years of his life were being consumed in ‘excessive school-mastering’.” (Cate, page 122)

A combination of what he perceived as being enslaved to his professorship and his growing breach with Richard Wagner exasperated his illnesses, giving them a neurotic quality.

“What Nietzsche really desired was to withdraw into an informal private world which he was trying to construct. There was the constant dream that he could pursue his philosophical interests. When he discovered the Alps, he found he could disappear from the world through long walks in the forests, sometimes for six to eight hours. …He was tired of what he felt to be the slavery of professional life.” (Schain, page 20)

He was completely torn between the reality of his life as a professor and as a close associate of Wagner: “…we should, in this case, speak of ‘neurotic’, and a sign that Nietzsche was becoming neurotic during the mid-1870s is that his emotional inclination was all towards what he knew intellectually he should be giving up….Taking into account all we know of him at this time, we cannot doubt that the stomach trouble which drove him to Steinabad and away from Bayreuth at just this moment was psycho-somatic in origin.” (Hollingdale, pages 86-87)

“Throughout the autumn and early winter on 1873 Nietzsche was almost permanently unwell, suffering not only from acute eye-aches every time he tried to read for more than an hour or two, but also from nausea, stomach upsets and even vomiting – almost certainly due to his hyper-nervous condition at moments of difficult creativity. As his doctor friend, Professor Immerman, one day said to him, knowing in advance that it was an impossible prescription: ‘Be more stupid and you will feel better.’” (Cate, page 184)

In 1875, when he attempted to publish some early essays (to be discussed here in a future post), his publisher responded that he wanted Nietzsche to provide a new essay every nine months. One might think Fritz would have been elated at the prospect of being published on a regular basis. Instead, the deadlines mixed the pressure of creativity in with his workload and other concerns to such an extent that it had a “shattering effect on Nietzsche, unleashing a psychosomatic crisis of extreme gravity. For the next six weeks, despite the consoling presence of his sister, he suffered from acute eye-aches and headaches, and convulsive stomach upsets, some of then sp protracted that blood came up with the vomit. When other treatments failed Fritz tried massive doses of quinine. One shudders in imaging the acute abdominal spasms that this traitement de cheval must have generated in ‘attacking’ Nietzsche’s stomach ulcers. The vomiting, sometimes going on for hours on end, was often so convulsive that Nietzsche felt that his last hour had come and yearned for nothing so much as a quick, ‘easeful death’.” (Cate, page 214)

Basel granted him a leave of absence in 1876 on grounds of illness. He did not resume his teaching duties until the fall semester of 1877. But, by 1879 Nietzsche was incapable of continuing his professorship. He was forced to resign from the university. He would live off his modest pension from Basel for the rest of his life. In The Good European we find an example of how commonplace his various illnesses became: “By the end of 1879 he had experienced 118 days of severe illness – a ‘lovely statistic,’ as he wryly commented to Elizabeth on December 29.” (page 122)

Then there is the matter that, apparently, Fritz caught a sexually transmitted disease from a prostitute and was never adequately treated for it. Syphilis. Though some disagree, offering alternate theories, current scholarly consensus is that, in the end, syphilis likely led to Fritz’s ultimate mental demise.

It seems he frequented brothels, particularly in his student and soldiering years. As the theory goes he contracted the disease at this time and it went untreated all his life. The impact of Nietzsche’s possible contraction of syphilis will be discussed in a future post when we reach the point of his breakdown in Turin in January 1889.

Young suggests that the sexual disease diagnosis is unnecessary, however. "Nietzsche clearly suffered from symptoms indistinguishable from those of migraine. Nausea and vomiting, sensitivity to light, and fatigue are classical migraine symptoms, while the things that affected Nietzsche, emotional stress, bright light and loud noise are classic triggers. Nietzsche suffered intermittent stomach pain all his life, but certainly did not die of a stomach ailment. This suggests that 'irritable bowel syndrome' (IBS) is a more plausible diagnosis of the stomach-pain side of Nietzsche's complex medical condition." (page 209)

One of Nietzsche’s many primary themes in his mature philosophy is the concept of “self-overcoming.” Exactly what he meant by this term is subject to interpretation, of course. However, it is certainly plausible that Nietzsche’s own, intimate and virtually continuous, struggle to remain healthy enough to live a full of life of art and philosophy, of travel and discovery, had a profound influence on his attitude toward the nature of human strife and the need to overcome the limitations of oneself.

To that extent, being sick was (ironically) a vital part of Nietzsche’s refinement as a thinker.

Monday, January 19, 2009

The Wagnerian

Richard Wagner surpassed everyone Nietzsche had ever met before. Fritz almost worshipped the man and Wagner soaked in the bright young man’s intellect and passion, as perhaps Wagner’s primary disciple. This would not last. But, upon becoming a professor at Basel, Fritz was fairly close to Wagner’s home on Lake Lucerne.

When told of his offer of professorship, "Nietzsche was so overcome by his good fortune that he spent an entire afternoon walking up and down the Leipzig promenade humming tunes from Tannhauser - appropriately, since one of the great attractions of Basel was that it was only a stone's throw from Tribschen, Wagner's place of exile." (Young, page 79)


Fritz initially approached Wagner boldy yet in awe and not without some trepidation. "On Saturday, May 15, 1869, interrupting a paddle-steamer trip around the lake, he alighted at the Tribschen pier and arrived unannounced at the Wagners' villa. He stood irresolute outside the house for a time listening to the insistent repetition of a plantive chord on the piano - it later proved to be from the third act of Siegfried, on which Wagner was working. He eventually plucked up enough courage to knock on the door, only to be told that the master was working and could interrupted by no one, not even Cosima. He was however, invited to return for dinner two days later on Whit Monday." (Young, page 107)

Hollingdale explains at length: “From then onwards he was a regular visitor, staying with the Wagner family twenty-three times between May 1869 and April 1872, when Wagner departed for Bayreuth. He was a guest for Christmas 1869 and again in 1870….Before the 1869 was over he had been accepted – one might almost say adopted – as a member of the household, with a room of his own which he might use any time he chose to; often he had charge of the Wagner children, who treated him like an elder brother. The importance in Nietzsche’s life of his relationship with Wagner can hardly be exaggerated. The experience was an awakening: his eyes were opened to the possibilities of greatness that still existed in human nature. He learned the meaning of genius and strength of will, expressions he had used without any lively sense of their real significance.” (pages 56-57)

The attraction was mutual. Wagner appreciated Nietzsche’s young, brilliant mind. The two shared a profound appreciation for Schopenhauer. Of course, music was the primary basis for the relationship. Fritz was versed enough and talented enough to understand and admire what Wagner was creating both technically and aesthetically. Wagner, weak in his understanding of earlier cultures that served as the inspiration for much of his musical works, found Nietzsche to be almost a boundless source of information.

Safranski sees the essential connection between them as regarding the place of myth in modern life. “Nietzsche and Wagner each attempted to resuscitate myth, and refused to put up what Max Weber later called the ‘disenchantment’ of the world by rationalization, technology, and a bourgeois economic outlook. They agonized at the mythlessness of their times and saw in the sphere of art an opportunity to revitalize or re-create myths.” (page 88)

But it was precisely on the place of myth that their break occurred. “For Wagner, art assumed the place of religion. The idea intrigued Nietzsche, but ultimately struck him as too pious, and he retreated from it in favor of an artistic approach to life. He sought enhancement of life in art, not redemption. In a borderline case – and Nietzsche always had borderline cases in view – one should fashion an unequivocal work of art out of one’s life.” (Safranski, page 89)

Fritz not only visited Wagner’s home but traveled as much as his teaching schedule allowed to see the premiers of Wagner’s operas in various German cities. Nietzsche was especially fond of Die Meistersinger and performed piano pieces from the opera on numerous occasions for his own pleasure and for others. He was personally invited by Wagner to the laying of the foundation stone for Bayreuth and Wagner frequently invited Fritz (more as a summons than an invitation) to pay him a personal visit as the great composer traveled through Germany. Occasions when Fritz was unable (due to illness or previous commitment) to answer the call to Wagner’s side infuriated the composer. Clearly, this wasn’t a friendship for Wagner. It was a matter of respect for the art projects he had undertaken, revealing how esteemed he considered Nietzsche as a component in his life’s work at the time, but also how much of an object Fritz was from the composer’s perspective – an instrument of Wagner’s vision.

Often, while Wagner was busy composing during his visits to Tribschen, Fritz found himself alone with Cosima, Wagner’s wife. They exchanged many letters, took long walks together, and performed in small skits together (along with Wagner’s children) to entertain Wagner. “Nietzsche and Cosima spent hours conversing together in the upstairs study, now christened the Denkstube (‘think-room’) in honour of the pensive professor from Basel, even though it was intended to be a classroom for the children.” (Cate, page 105) It is probable that in the association Fritz had deeper feelings for Wagner’s wife than he revealed at the time. Certainly, he had never interacted with another woman so intimately outside of his own mother and sister.

One indication of this was the giving of gifts to Cosima. For Christmas 1870, he offered her an essay entitled The Genesis of Tragic Thought (Cate, p.121) which was one of the fore-runners of The Birth of Tragedy. For Christmas 1871, he presented her with a performance and completed score of his Eine Sylvesternacht composition. (Cate, page 133)

Wagner left Tribschen soon after the publication of The Birth of Tragedy to start his massive Bayreuth project. This marked the beginning of a gradual deterioration of Nietzsche’s relationship with him. Soon, Fritz saw Wagner in a new light. By 1874, Nietzsche began recording private criticisms of Wagner in his notebooks. He remained publicly supportive and this dichotomy resulted in all manner of psycho-somatic sickness for Fritz, as will be recorded in the next post.

As Bayreuth became a reality, for Nietzsche it represented a kind of decadence that was far removed from his original interest in Wagner as a key to cultural transformation. Instead, Wagner was making himself into a demigod. Meanwhile, Nietzsche was beginning to see himself “not as a mere appendix to Wagner.” (Hollingdale, page 91)

Safranski writes of the tension building in Nietzsche’s mind in the summer of 1875. Wagner had come to rely too much on “the aesthetic mysticism of redemption. Nietzsche explained that his investigations served to differentiate which evils are ‘fundamental and incorrigible’ and which can be ‘improved’. In this way, the original plan for personal detoxification evolved into a universal program of enlightenment. Myths, the meaning and significance of which had just finished defending – notably, the Wagnerian mythology of art – now struck him as mystifications that would need to be combated.” (page 157)

This dawning realization troubled Fritz deeply. He was torn between a powerful emotional link with Wagner and a strongly original, independent intellectual need to blaze his own path, a path in which Wagner seemed an adversary. This, in turn, led to a breakdown in Nietzsche’s health.

Walter Kaufmann summarized that Nietzsche became “firmly convinced that Wagner had been thoroughly corrupted by his belated ‘success’ and ‘power’ and that, to maintain and increase them, he had made his peace with State and Church and bowed to public opinion. Wagner’s retreat into conformity can only have strengthened Nietzsche’s conviction…that power, i.e., worldly power, is essentially evil.” (page 180)

The transformation of Nietzsche the disciple of Wagner into Nietzsche the critic of Wagner took place slowly over the course of about 5 years. Ultimately, the physical and mental consternation caused by his break with Wagner directly influenced his first great purely philosophical work, Human, All Too Human.

But, before that occurred, Nietzsche would defend Wagner vehemently in two of his four Untimely Mediations. Wagner would remain a constant influence, troubling Nietzsche to such an extent that he was, in fact, reviewing proofs of another work entitled Nietzsche Contra Wagner at the time of his collapse in 1889. Clearly, the wound of his association cut deeply and never truly healed.


Thursday, January 1, 2009

The Dandy

Apparently, throughout his academic years, Fritz paid special attention to the way he looked, particularly where clothes were concerned. Hollingdale explains: “This appearance during the ten years he was at Basel excited comment because of his excessive attention to dress, amounting almost to dandyism. According to Bernoulli he was, apart from an old state counselor in Baden, the only man in Basel to wear a grey topper.” (page 49)

Indications are that he cared for his moustache a great deal and groomed it to be a distinctive feature of his appearance.

As a student and more so as a professor, Fritz treated himself to tailored made suits. His appearance in class was always important to him. He particularly enjoyed dressing up for more formal affairs as well, such as academic functions and important social gatherings.

Take his active participation in classical choral music, for example. In June 1865: “On the 2nd he travelled to Cologne to take part in a Lower Rhine music festival. Dressed in black tails and with a red-and-white silk ribbon string across his waistcoat, he joined the 182 sopranos, 154 altos, 112 tenors, and 172 basses in the Gurzenich Hall, where with extraordinary gusto they sang Handel’s Israel in Egypt under the skillful direction of the celebrated orchestra conductor Ferdinand von Hiller.” (Cate, page 48)

Likewise, he always wanted to look his best around the Wagner home. On one particular occasion he had a rather comical difficulty with obtaining a tailored suit for a Wagnerian affair. Fritz narrated the moment in a letter to a friend: “It was six-thirty, time to put on my things and get myself ready, for I live very far out. Right, the man has my things, I try them on, they fit. An ominous moment; he presents the bill, I take it politely; he wants to be paid on receipt of the goods. I am amazed, and explain that I will not deal with him, the employee of my tailor, but only with the tailor himself, to whom I gave the order. The man becomes more pressing, the time becomes more pressing; I seize the things and begin to put them on; the man seizes the things, and stops me from putting them on – force on my side, force on his side. Scene: I am fighting in my shirttails, for I am trying to put on the new trousers.

“Finally, a show of dignity, solemn threat, cursing my tailor and his assistant, swearing revenge; meanwhile, the little man is moving off with my things. End of second act: I brood on the sofa in my shirttails and consider a black jacket, whether it is good enough for Richard.

“Outside the rain is pouring down.” (Selected Letters, page 38)

Nietzsche had a wonderful, lively flair in writing many of his letters as well as in preparing his lectures. This was part of his emerging style.