Sunday, September 13, 2009

Leave of Absence

“Nietzsche had anticipated that Bayreuth would put an end to the mistaking of ‘entertainment at any price’ for art. As it turned out, outrageous prices were being charged for food, lodgings, and carriage rides between the city and festival hall. Monarchs, princes, diplomats, and women of ill repute were the center of the attention. These people typically languished during the performances, but perked up at social events. Later Nietzsche wrote about Bayreuth: … ‘more than anything else, I saw how even to the inner circle the ‘ideal’ was not the point, that entirely different matters was considered weightier and more passionate.’” (Safranski, page 138)

Fritz felt that his fourth Untimely Meditation was the cultural highlight of Wagner’s Ring Cycle première at Bayreuth. Wagner, too busy with the social magnitude of the opening, failed to personally acknowledge Fritz’s philosophic attempt to place the high art of the event in a greater context. Suddenly, Fritz realized there was no higher context after all. It was the beginning of the final break with Wagner and with Nietzsche’s original line of thinking in The Birth of Tragedy.

“Nietzsche grew aware that these eras of the past could be conjured up in the mind, but their renaissance could be enacted only at the cost of self-deception. A modern mythical consciousness is hollow; it represents systematized insincerity. Wagner had the gods die on stage – a great achievement, in Nietzsche’s view. But Wagner clung to the will to enchantment by means of myth. Nietzsche concurred with him until he realized that once the gods have died, only the aesthetic event remains. Aesthetics can be decked out in myth, but not transformed into a religious event. Making a religion of art was not the answer. Nietzsche began to recognize this clearly before the shock of Bayreuth in 1876, when he experienced firsthand how a hallowed art could deteriorate into banality.” (Safranski, page 140)

“Just as Nietzsche aspired to contribute to the project of moving ‘human knowledge forward,’ he also recognized that this type of work could be achieved only by means of individual inquiries and initiatives….He wanted to attack…to clear out the underbrush of opinions that had choked off the growth of human facts. Myths, the meaning and significance of which he had just finished defending – notably, the Wagnerian mythology of art – now struck him as mystifications that would need to be combated.” (Safranski, page 157)

Seeing how disgruntled and ill he was at Bayreuth in 1876, Malwida von Meysenbug (see photo at right), Fritz’s friend since 1872, extended an invitation for him to stay with her in Sorrento, Italy. She felt the climate and the distance would be good for the professor – to clear his mind and give him some perspective away from Basel. More than that, Frl. Meysenbug had an idea that matched Fritz’s own personal ideal perfectly – to form some sort of artistic and philosophical group, a group of “free spirits” (a term both she and he used) to live the life of a “higher culture.” Fritz was at a low point physically and mentally. The prospect of living among “free spirits” was most appealing to his seemingly directionless life.

“Having a companion to help him was an elementary travel precaution, for Nietzsche’s eyesight had now so deteriorated that he could hardly see. The drastic treatment prescribed by his ophthalmologist, Professor Schiess – atropine eyedrops, derived from the deadly nightshade plant – seems to have aggravated rather than alleviated the head- and eye-aches, and to have been equally ineffective in warding off the serious relapses, which now recurred with painful regularity every eight to ten days. His sister Elizabeth having decided to return to Naumburg after a year-long stay at Basel, Fritz moved back to his old bachelor lodgings…it was a real joy for Nietzsche to be able to share his lunches and dinners …with Dr. Paul Ree, a twenty-seven year old admirer who three years before had been persuaded…to leave Leipzig and come to Basel to follow Nietzsche’s lectures in classical philology....On 26 September Nietzsche wrote Malwide von Meysenbug that he would be accompanied by Dr. Ree (whom she had met at Bayreuth), a scholar of independent means who he described in laudatory terms as having an ‘altogether clear head’ and a ‘considerate, truly friendly soul’.” (Cate, pages 226-227)

“Ree was a pioneer of the psychological approach to problems of philosophy and as such exercised a profound influence on Nietzsche: when Human, All Too Human appeared in 1878 those of his friends who were dismayed by his tone and outlooked blamed Ree, and Nietzsche himself called his new outlook ‘Reealism’…..Ree was an atheist who realized that the ‘religious experience was a reality and tried to account for it with the notion of ‘subjectivism’: belief in God was, he thought, a subjective phenomenon which could be accounted for independently of whether God had any objective existence….Of particular importance for Nietzsche was Ree’s investigation into morality: according to Ree, morality was custom and not ‘nature’, there was no specific moral sense, the good and the evil were no more than conventions. What struck Nietzsche about him was what he called his ‘coldness’, by which he meant his independence and clarity, as a thinker: ‘coldness’ was precisely what Nietzsche himself lacked at this time….Having arrived at the insight that the world was ‘meaningless’, (Ree’s) mind seems to have been paralyzed by the idea: it was the end, as well as the beginning, of his philosophy….For Ree, the senselessness of existence was a source of despair; for Nietzsche, on the contrary, it became the ground for freedom.” (Hollingdale, pages 90-91)

In spite of his physical difficulties, however, Fritz still managed to cobble together some notes for what he thought would be his next Untimely Meditation. It turned out to be the beginnings of a philosophical work that would take up much of his time over the next couple of years. The work was still nebulous at this stage and his notes were interspersed with another essay entitled We Philologists, a critique of the cultural value of his profession, which he never finished.

“In the few weeks between the Bayreuth Festival and his departure for southern Italy, he compiled his notes for an expository essay called ‘The Free Spirit,’ which he had first collected in his notebook under the title ‘The Plowshare.” While working on the project, Nietzsche must have realized that the material would not form a cohesive whole, but would instead retain an aphoristic character. From this point on, Nietzsche had to grapple with a nagging suspicion that the aphoristic form might be an admission of failure. Did he lack sufficient stamina for a sustained treatise?” (Safranksi, page 158)

Due to being virtually incapacitated by his recurring illnesses of headaches and nausea, in October Fritz was released from his teaching duties at Basel for a period of one year. He and Ree traveled together and ultimately arrived at Sorrento, where he would stay a number of months with Frl. Meysenbug.

Today such trips would take some hours, a day at most. But, in Fritz’s time travel took place in the luxury of time. He and Ree would have plenty of time to share ideas. Three weeks in October 1876 were spent lodging and en route to Sorrento. The bulk of those weeks were spent in Bex, Valais, Switzerland, residing at the Hotel du Crochet. But for Fritz there must have been very little writing.

“A bad time leaving Bex; somewhat better in Geneva – had lunch in the Hotel Post….Night journey through Mont Cenis; the next day arrival in Genoa with splitting headache – to bed at once, vomiting, and this state lasting for forty-four hours. Today – Sunday – better; just back from a trip around the harbor and out to sea. Most beautiful evening tranquility and color. Tomorrow (Monday) evening departure by steamer to Naples; we…have decided on the sea journey. Warmest greetings to you. (unsigned letter to Franziska and Elizabeth Nietzsche, Geno, October 22, 1876, Selected Letters, p. 149)

By the time he reached Sorrento Fritz was reconsidering his original idea for The Free Spirit. He thought there was enough material developing in his subject matter that called for a much more ambitious work. It is somewhat amazing that he continued to be productive in his work, his vision for it growing as he battled recurring illnesses. There is an obvious appreciation for ordinary moments in his letters, as he reports mundane aspects of the long and diverse three-week trip.

“The whole journey to here from Bex took eight days. In Genoa I was ill; from there we took three days for the sea journey, and – look! – we were not seasick; I also prefer this way of traveling to train journeys, which are quite terrible for me. We found Frl. Von M(eysenbug) in a hotel in Naples, and traveled together yesterday to our new home, the Villa Rubinacci, Sorrento, near Naples. I have a very high room, with a terrace outside it. I have just got back from my first swim – the water is warmer, according to Ree, that the North Sea in July. Yesterday we were with the Wagners, who are in the Hotel Victoria, five minutes away, and will be staying through November.” (again to mother and sister, October 28, 1876, Selected Letters, page 149)