Saturday, April 30, 2011

Lou: An Interlude

Louise von Salomé was the striking daughter of the Inspector General of the Russian Army, greatly favored by Tsar Nicholas I. She was given the name Louise after her mother, the daughter of a wealthy sugar manufacturer. Thus the von Salomé’s enjoyed the air of nobility. Lou was the youngest of the couple’s four children, the other three all being brothers.

Thus Lou grew up in the best society, battling her childhood with older brothers and a domineering father who nevertheless showered her with affection. Her mother evidently played a role of strict traditionalist with her daughter, desiring for her to marry into nobility and to give the General and herself grandchildren.

But, Lou was fiercely independent, an exceptionally bright child with an extraordinary imagination. She soon grew adversarial with her mother. She lost her faith in God in early adolescence when she felt that all prayers went unanswered. When her father suddenly died, she also lost the first man she genuinely loved. An enormous void opened in her life, without God, without a father figure.

Around the age of 17 she became desperate to leave Russia. She wanted to escape her inherited culture and visit elsewhere in Europe, possibly as a student. Lou head-strongly rejected the wishes of her mother to be practical and conventional. As far as Lou was concerned, the only thing preventing her from escaping the cultural trap she felt in Russia was the fact that passports abroad could not be issued to anyone who was not confirmed of the Christian faith. Being agnostic, it was quite a quandary for her.

Then, upon the advice of a friend, she visited the Dutch Reform Church in St. Petersburg to hear the 40-year-old liberal pastor Hendrick Gillot. “Gillot was a man of the world, a fascinating causeur and a brilliant orator. Of Dutch descent he was widely traveled, had acquired the manners of a grand seigneur and the Weltanschauung of an eighteenth-century rationalist…” (Peters, page 50)

“Every Sunday, Gillot’s church was crowded with elegantly dressed men and women of all denominations and all nationalities. There was something about his bearing, his manner and his looks the stirred more than pious sentiments. And then there was Gillot’s voice, that beautifully modulated voice that seemed like an aural caress. His listeners were spellbound.” (Peters, page 51)

Lou was immediately attracted to Gillot. She was, of course, herself a rather stunning, petite, energetic yet dark beauty. A teenager full of youthful ideas and aspirations. Gillot quickly agreed to Lou’s suggestion that the two secretly meet so he could serve as her tutor in philosophy and religion. Lou’s mother would never have approved of such a thing.

“From then on over a period of months she visited Gillot regularly but without telling her family. The clandestine nature of these visits added much to their excitement. In the privacy of Gillot’s study they found each other: the girl transported in his presence into a state of ecstasy – there were moments when she felt she loved him as Santa Teresa loved the Lord Jesus – and the man overwhelmed by an adoration no other woman ever showed him.” (Peters, page 53)

“Gillot’s demand that she bring her make-believe world into the light of reality was a dangerous mixture of talk therapy, intellectual enlightenment and erotic stimulation. He demanded that she tell him everything. He required that she give up the tyranny of her own ego – her sheltering inner world of fantasy – and submit to him, thereby rising to her higher self….Playing God with her nebulous mind, Gillot began instructing her in a rigorous study of philosophy and religion. He assembled great philosophic works before her. To his great surprise the seventeen-year-old could quickly absorb anything he gave her.” (Vickers, page 20)

But, eventually Lou confessed to her mother of the discreet tutorage. Madame von Salomé was enraged and confronted Gillot to explain himself. An intense argument ensued but Gillot was persuasive. Her mother agreed to allow the lessons to continue. Lou was exposed to Kierkegaard, Kant, Fichte, and Schopenhauer among others. She understood their reasoning and questioned their deeper aspects with her bright mind. There was such a vast world of ideas out there and Lou couldn’t seem to be introduced to all of them fast enough.

Meanwhile, Lou and Gillot, who was married with two children, became closer. “She began having fainting spells. Once she fainted while sitting in his lap. An eighteen-year-old girl on the lap of a man whom she adores and who is obviously fascinated by her is asking for trouble.” (Peters, page 56) “That there was an erotic element in the teacher-pupil relationship was quite obvious to Lou. But she loved him in an idealized way – he was her lost god, a father figure. She and her aunt Caro openly discussed the erotic implications of the relationship: ‘how heavily he must suffer from a conflict of feelings raging within him…but what strength of will this man must possess!’ Lou was not secretive of her love for this older, married man; neither was she morally conflicted. She believed in the absolute purity of their love. She worshipped Gillot and felt she would do anything he asked her to. But when during one of her lessons he suddenly, as she put it, approached the subject of marriage (though, given her reaction, it seems more likely he approached her physically), a shock came over her. Just as sudden as the disillusionment she had experienced with God was her sense that a veil had lifted now: she saw Gillot as a mere man rather than the exalted being she had imagined.” (Vickers, page 22)

“Her sudden and horrified disillusionment makes more sense when being caused by the mad kisses of a middle-aged married man of God – as she depicts a similar scenario in a novel years later – rather than by a man simply ‘approaching the subject’ of marriage. Gillot was a confident man, and had little doubt about the intensity of his protégé’s love for him. What he didn’t know was the strength of his own delusion. If the situation had been brought to what Lou called a human conclusion, her fantasy image of him as a god-man would certainly have been destroyed.” (Vickers, page 22)

Yet, her desire to learn remained insatiable. “Disregarding her mother’s warnings, she continued frantically reading and studying, developed insomnia, headaches, coughs and what seemed to be a form of incipient consumption, with occasional bleeding of the lungs. Seriously alarmed, Louise Salomé had finally decided she would have to leave the harsh northern climate of St. Petersburg and take her daughter south and westward to the more temperate climate of Switzerland.” (Cate, page 323)

Too bad Lou no longer believed in answered prayers. For surely her desire to leave Russia was realized at last. But, first there was the matter of the religious confirmation. Gillot, perhaps wrestling with a bit of guilt, agreed to perform the ritual and to do it in Dutch with only her mother as witness. The ceremony was held and Lou’s mother, who could not speak Dutch, witnessed something she could not understand.

It was held on a Sunday in May 1880. Lou was 19. “’Fear not for I have chosen you, I have called you by name: you are mine.’ To which the girl answered, ‘You bless me, for I do not leave you.’” (Vickers, page 9) It was a secular ritual, religiously performed. Gillot had taken to calling her “Lou” during his time alone with her. And Lou she became.

“The Sunday in May, in the simple Dutch church, was the most significant moment in Lou von Salomé’s life – a life that seemed to be full of significant events. The ceremony changed Gillot ‘from a God into His priest,’ and he ‘became he who confirmed me in my quest for all things great and beautiful.’ It was not only important that Gillot loved her but that he sent her off into the world with an armor of intellect, what Lou would call ‘a boyish readiness’.” (Vickers, page 24)


“Signs of mental strain and physical illness had appeared before Lou went to Zurich. She had had fainting spells when she worked with Gillot. Now they became more frequent. She complained of fatigue. Her face looked drawn and pallid and, most alarming of all, she started to cough blood. Scarcely a year after they arrived in Switzerland her mother realized that Lou was seriously sick. She took her to a number of watering places, put her on a diet, and made her rest. But nothing seemed to help. While Lou’s mind was as active as ever, her body was visibly weaker. In the end Madame von Salomé was told the only hope for her daughter’s recovery was in a complete change of climate.” (Peters, page 67)

Her mother had chosen Zurich as the target of the rehabilitation of her daughter’s health. There Lou took classes at the University of Zurich. “She took courses in comparative religion, theology, philosophy, and the history of art. Her teachers agreed she was a brilliant student, and there were famous men among them…” (Peters, page 66)

“She developed a special rapport with theologian Alois Biedermann. Biedermann wrote to Lou’s mother of his ‘heartfelt interest in the spiritual and intellectual life of this most unusual girl…pure and genuine being…an unusual woman possessing both childlike purity and integrity of mind as well as unchildlike, almost unfeminine direction of spirit and independence of will. In both, she is a jewel.’” (Vickers, page 25)


“She studied Hegel and supplemented her precocious erudition by reading extracts from the Hindu Rig-Veda, the pre-Socratic philosophers of ancient Greece, Confucius and the Tao-teh-king, the German mystic Jakob Bohme, Goethe and Victor Hugo. She also joined a literary circle presided over by Gottfried Kinkel, an elderly professor of art and archeology who, like Malwida von Meysenbug, had been an ardently republican supported of the revolutionary movements of 1848.” (Cate, page 323)

“During that first year she drove herself to the breaking point, obsessively studying beyond her endurance, just as she had done with Gillot. She transferred the pain of her lost love – and lost illusion – into a fiery energy. She drew perverse pleasure from her state of feverish bliss – ‘the way after the break with Gillot, I fell ill in full joy and life-affirmation.’ Throughout her time in Zurich she suffered from severe coughing and headaches.” (Vickers, page 26)

Lou’s mother was given a proper reference for relocation, in the much milder climate of central Italy. "Still chaperoned by her mother, Lou Salomé reached Rome in early February of 1882, in time to celebrate her twenty-first birthday amid the joyful tumult of the carnival season...desperately anxious to free herself from irksome maternal surveillance..." (Cate, p.323) “By the grace of Gottfried Kinkel, Lou had brought with her a note of introduction to Baroness Malwida von Meysenbug, the famous author of the Memoirs of an Idealist. Meysenbug was 65 around the time Lou arrived in Rome, a small elderly woman, simple in bearing and dress, with clear blue eyes, a quick, calm smile and a gentle, kind expression.” (Vickers, page 26)
Their hostess was impressed with Lou’s bright mind and progressive attitude, being feminist to the extent that Lou felt herself the mental equal of any man. “Lou was by nature self-centered. She was determined to live her life regardless of the consequences to herself or to others. Malwida was an altruistic idealist. She was bent on following her own conscience, but only if doing so she did not hurt others. No consideration would have stopped Lou from doing what she wanted to do.” (Peters, page 73)

Lou was a part of Madame von Meysenbug’s intellectual social salon for several weeks. "It was into one of these exquisitely refined literary soirees, attended almost exclusively by polite, high-minded ladies, that on 17 March Paul Ree had suddenly burst - like a gust of wind blowing open a window. Or so it seemed to the delighted young Lou Salomé. Here at last was something new and different!" (Cate, page 323)