Saturday, December 31, 2011

"The Color of my 'Nature'"

“Nobody at this low point in his career, and probably not even Nietzsche – who felt that from the euphoric heights of Orta and the Monte sacro in early May he had been precipitated by mid-November to the dark depths of the ‘abyss’ – could guess that within a few weeks he would rebound and reach a new zenith in an astonishing ‘eruption’. But this is what happened. It was a triumph of will power, of Selbstuberwindung (self-overcoming), as he called it, and it offered dramatic proof that, as he had written Franz Overbeck, the ‘watch-spring’ of his overly tensed, ‘machine-like’ brain had not snapped and that he still possessed enough of the magic powers of the alchemist to be able to transform the ‘dung’ of misfortune into verbal ‘gold’.

“Climatic factors again played a major role in this amazing resurgence. During the first two weeks of January 1883 Rapallo was so lashed by wintry gales and rain that never in his life had Nietzsche felt so frozen as in his small, seaside albergo. He was forced to spend much of his time in bed, racked by blinding headaches and fits of vomiting.” (Cate, page 392)

“Suffering prolonged attacks of vomiting, headaches, eye pain, and insomnia – he could only sleep with high doses of chloral hydrate – he became, once again, extremely depressed. Above all, his mother’s words about his being a ‘disgrace to his father’s grave’ went round and round in his head, making ‘the barrel of a pistol’ a tempting thought. Only his mission, his overriding commitment to his ‘main task’, prevented him from taking the beckoning exit from an ‘extraordinarily painful life’.” (Young, page 357)

“But then, suddenly, the skies cleared, he was able to sleep at night and, as he wrote to Heinrich Koselitz (who had gone back to Venice), he again became ‘master of himself’. His energies galvanized by a warm sun and blue skies, which made his morning walks past the pine trees overlooking the lovely bay so enjoyable…” (Cate, page 392)

“In spite of this pall of misery, an unexpected break in the weather – ten clear, fresh days in January, 1883 – produced, as it had in January of the previous year, a mood of gratitude: ‘we sufferers’, Nietzsche reflects, ‘are very modest (in our expectations) and given to immoderate gratitude’. It was in this mood, in the ten clear days, he produced ‘Part I’ (originally conceived as the entirety of a work which ended up with four ‘Parts’) of his most famous book, Thus Spoke Zarathustra.” (Young, page 358)

“On 1 February he wrote to Koselitz that he had finished a ‘quite small book: roughly one hundred printed pages. But it is my best, and with it I have rolled a heavy stone from off my soul. Nothing of mine has been more serious and nothing gayer; my heartfelt wish is that this color – which need not at all be a mixed color – should be the color of my “nature”.’” (Cate, pp. 392-393)

So, Fritz began his most famous work by writing 100 pages in 10 days out of nowhere. There are some scattered scribblings and notes on what is presented in Part One of Zarathustra, but the massive collection of note-making and various drafts of ideas only began after Part One was completed. Prior to that, he was consumed with writing letters to Lou and Paul and his mother and sister.  First, the letters of the love affair itself after his return from Sicily. Then, numerous and lengthy drafts of hateful and self-pitying letters. Then…this work in 10 bright days. Part Two was also written in about 10 days some months later during his second summer stay at Sils-Maria. The sequential short bursts of productivity might suggest a balance of spontaneous originality with traditional regimented, Prussian precision.

“Though the weather in Sils was exceptionally cold, with snow down to the village, he was delighted to be back in the Durischs’ house, where all, including little Adrienne Durisch, greeted him almost as a returning native. He enjoyed the convenience of being able to buy many of the things he needed in the grocery store on the ground floor – English biscuits, corned beef, tea, and soap…Sils felt to Nietzsche like home. ‘Here, and nowhere else’, he wrote von Gersdorff, ‘is my proper homeland and place of meditation’.

“In this idyllic mood he completed, probably the first ten days of July, the final draft of Part II of Zarathustra, describing it as ‘justifying’ and giving ‘new meaning’ to the whole year…” (Young, page 361)

In between the writing of the first and second part of Zarathustra three important threads run through Fritz’s life. He reconciled with his sister, Elizabeth. Richard Wagner died. He fought with his publisher over the publication date of Part One. Of course, there was still an occasional letter to Paul Ree or Lou Salome, but this became a small part of all the other drives at work in his life. His days fighting for his work’s publication were more the focus of his attention than his bitterness toward Lou, though that certainly remained as an undercurrent along with all the other small details of his intimate life. But, his perspective all changed in a matter of weeks in early 1883.

That it took Nietzsche so much effort to get Part One (at the time thought by him to be a complete work) published has an ironic context. “Four weeks had passed since his manuscript to his publisher, who seemed in no hurry to bring out this new, short opus. Three days later (Easter Sunday) he sent Schmeitzner a furious letter of reproach. This angry outburst elicited an apologetic reply. But it was not until early April that Nietzsche learned the truth: the Leipzig printer, Teuber, had shoved the Zarathustra manuscript aside in order to meet a rush order for 500,000 hymnals, which had to be delivered in time for Easter. The realization that his fearless Zarathustra, the ‘madman’ who had the nerve to proclaim to the somnambulists around him that ‘God is Dead!’ should have been momentarily smothered beneath the collective weight of 500,000 Christian hymnbooks struck Nietzsche as downright ‘comic’ – even though, as he wrote to Schmeitzner in a forgiving letter, it had cost him five nervous ‘weeks of fever and quinine-eating’ in the ‘damp, windy, frozen city’ of Genoa.” (Cate pp. 395-396)

It is worth noting again Fritz’s nomadic manner of living. He moved around frequently, constantly searching for a favorable balance of climate and quarters conducive to the demands of his writing. Generally, his travels were health related – either seeking the best conditions for his health or attempting to flee the shadow of recurring illness which was cast over his daily life.

In February, 1883, Richard Wagner died. News of this death reached Nietzsche within 24 hours. Old feelings emerged not dealt with in years. All the repressed and unresolved mixture of animosity and admiration for his former mentor and obvious musical genius bubbled to the surface. “From his sickbed he wrote Malwida that it had been ‘extraordinarily hard for six long years to be the opponent of someone who one has honored and loved as I loved Wagner’, adding, however, that a ‘deadly insult’ had come between them – a reference, as we have seen, to Wagner’s claim that the root of his problems was ‘masturbation…with indications of pederasty’.” (Young, page 359)

Fritz wrote to Cosima Wagner for the first time in years. He had briefly loved (or, at least, was infatuated with) her similarly to the way he had loved Lou. Cosima was an early influence on his life during the time of his young professorship. He wrote a formal letter to her, sympathetic but almost devoid of real intimacy. To Koselitz, being a close friend and a (minor) composer of music, he sent a letter that was more honest. Young summarizes Nietzsche’s admissions in these correspondences: “What these reactions to Wagner’s death make clear – a point which, because it is almost universally denied, I have been emphasizing for some time – is that though Nietzsche rejects Wagner the all-too-human man and artist, the Wagnerian ideal is something which, in 1883, he still adheres to. They also make clear that, with Wagner’s passing, he himself, as standard-bearer of that ideal, sees it as his task to lead the ‘higher men’ of his acquaintance back from Wagner the man to Wagner the ideal.” (page 360)

Wagner would haunt Nietzsche the rest of his sane life. Nietzsche would compose a late-philosophic piece primarily regarding Wagner, ending his body of work as he began it - with artistic and cultural criticism.

Zarathustra Part One was finally published near the end of April 1883. It was conceived as a complete work at the time it was published though Nietzsche would write Part Two a few months later. It was about this time that Fritz accepted an invitation to stay with Malwida von Meysenbug in Rome. He stayed there five weeks and there met his sister. Elizabeth had similarly been invited by Malwida who attempted to “godmother a reconciliation between brother and sister.” (Young, page 360)

“He arrived on 4 May and, as he wrote to his mother nine days later, the near-by mountain crests were still covered in snow, and the spring air was so crisp that not once had he so far been able to put on a pair of handsome white trousers he wore (somewhat old-fashionedly) during the warm summer months. ‘Aunt Malwida’ greeted her ‘wayward son’ with open arms, as she had done the previous May, and was tireless in introducing him to members of the German colony in Rome. One of them was Franz von Lenbach, Richard Wagner’s favorite portrait painter, who later told friends that Nietzsche’s luminous and deeply brooding eyes were the most beautiful he had ever seen on a man.” (Cate, page 397)

In Rome, Elizabeth and Fritz became friendly again (giving some measure as to how far the wounds of his relationship with Lou had healed) and they decided to take a short trip together when leaving Rome. “Finally, on June 14, Fritz and his sister said goodbye to the hospitable Malwida and travelled northward by train up the long shank of the Italian peninsula , headed for Milan. Fritz, in a merry mood, amused himself composing comic verses which Elisabeth found so funny that they could hardly stop laughing. Believing himself to be the butt of this unseemly mirth, an irate Englishman climbed down at the next stop in search of a quieter compartment. At Milan they parted. Elisabeth wanted to go see Lugano, while Fritz headed for Bellagio, at the center of Lake Como. The grey, pitted waters were barely visible through sheets of pouring rain. After weeks spent in stimulating company, Fritz confessed to his sister (who had moved on to Basel): ‘I now almost shrink from solitude: but I long ago learned to clench my teeth.’” (Cate, page 398)

Zarathustra’s initial publication sold only a couple of hundred copies. Nietzsche gave many copies away to various people, most of whom were puzzled. It is hard to believe that just 31 years later, in 1914, the complete four-part Zarathustra was issued to many thousands of German soldiers in World War One. But, that is one measure of how popular and influential the work became after Nietzsche’s death. It is not Nietzsche’s greatest work, in my own opinion, but it clearly is his most influential on society as a whole in the context of philosophic literature. Even to this day, many are those who, particularly in adolescence and young adulthood, fall under the sway of its powerful prose.