Sunday, July 31, 2011

The Kiss at Monte Sacro

If the late-summer of 1881 changed Nietzsche completely with his “discovery” of the eternal return of the same, then the late-spring of 1882 was equally momentous and compelling. I would argue that no single moment in his life affected Fritz more profoundly than a extended walk taken with Lou just before sunset one day in early May 1882. It would reverb through his thought and emotions for many months, if not years, afterwards. It ultimately led him down the path to composing his most famous philosophic work.

Paul and Fritz joined Lou and her mother in the small town of Orta on what was apparently a beautiful spring day. As has been mentioned, the meeting was delayed by a sudden bout of illness in Fritz. But, he rallied quickly and things went pretty much as he and Lou had planned.

“…so the party arrived on an early May day in the ancient town of Orta, situated on a peninsula that juts out into the lake from the eastern shore. Opposite it, like an emerging pearl, lies the Island of St. Giulio, and directly behind it, gently rising to a total height of some three hundred feet, a wooded hill, dedicated to the memory of St. Francis and known far and wide as Monte Sacro.

“It is a superb setting, peaceful and majestic, the ideal location for a quiet and contemplative life. The impact of such an environment on sensitive and questing temperaments is profound. It arouses their deepest feelings, confirms their fondest hopes.” (Peters, page 98)

“When the party arrived in Orta they decided, like most tourists, to start their sightseeing by spending the morning on the island. The crossing took about fifteen minutes in a rowboat; they left the charming Piazza of Orta behind and approached St. Giulio, its ancient square tower of weather-worn, yellow stone reflected in the blue water of the lake. The gently rocking motion of the boat lulled them into a sense of peace and serenity. They disembarked and with hushed voices walked about the old church and stood subdued in front of the magnificent pulpit of black Oira marble, fashioned by a master craftsman of the eleventh century.

“The spiritual magic of St. Giulio affected Madame von Salomé least of all. She had never forsaken her faith and what she experienced on the island merely reaffirmed what she had always known. With Ree it was different. He could not and did not want to believe. The force of those irrational sentiments which he, too, felt irritated him. He wanted to get away from it. Nietzsche and Lou, on the other hand, were deeply moved. They were both searching – and this is the secret of the kinship they felt for each other – for a new faith, a faith that affirmed the power and glory of life and did not insist on the mortification of the flesh.” (Peters, page 98 – 99)

Lou’s mother was tired after the tour and Paul, no doubt queasy from the experience of the place and desiring to leave as quickly as possible, offered to remain on a bench with Madame von Salomé. Lou and Fritz were inspired by events, however. They decided to go for a short walk. Expectations were for a prompt return.

“At long last, Nietzsche had found the opportunity to take a walk alone with Salomé. The path led up to Monte Sacro. Nietzsche later recalled this walk as a virtually holy event, full of promises that never materialized…” (Safranski, page 251) “Here, inspired by the saints call to authenticity, something of an intense nature occurred. Possibly Nietzsche revealed the secret of the eternal return, to which he had just given definitive form in The Gay Science. Possibly there was an embrace and possibly a kiss.” (Young, page 342)

The two engaged in what appears to have been a spirited, convivial, and open dialog, Lou allowing Fritz to take her to heights of intellectual ecstasy (as she had before with Hendrick Gillot) while Fritz himself, alone with the bright young beauty, became emotionally affected. In that singular moment, each found what they were searching for in the other.

“On the summit of the sacred mount, long revered by the Franciscans, Nietzsche subjected the eager, nervous, palpitating Lou to a rigorous cross-examination. She was an attentive listener and her intelligent replies seem to have impressed Nietzsche. Lou Salomé later reported to Malwida von Meysenbug that, to her surprise, she had found the supposedly god-scorning Nietzsche to be someone of a profoundly ‘religious nature’ (like herself).” (Cate, page 330)

“At any rate, an hour or so of intense conversation made a deep impression on Nietzsche’s feelings. He now believed that his relationship with Lou had a unique importance. She was the only person to whom he could reveal the full content of his personal philosophy: ‘the greatest gift anyone could make’. Paul Ree did not come into this category: Nietzsche saw now that Ree’s ideas were firmly established and told him little of his own new thoughts. Lou was capable of growing and learning, and was already just as extraordinary in her precocious philosophizing as Malwida had said.” (Small, page 139)

“The gentle climb, fresh alpine air and religious ruins made the event magical to them both. Exactly what transpired no one would ever know but them, but it deeply affected Nietzsche and afterwards he referred to it as ‘the most exquisite dream of my life!’ He imparted something of his philosophy that, until that moment, he had entrusted to no one. Later he would write her of the effect of the moment, ‘Back on Orta I conceived a plan of leading you step by step to the final consequence of my philosophy – you, as the first person I took fit for this.’

“From that moment on Nietzsche regarded her as a soul mate, sharing what he called a brother-sister brain. He could speak about things with her that he dared not say to anyone else. And she would receive his ideas with radiance and enthusiasm. If there was an erotic element in Nietzsche’s sermon on Monte Sacro, it merely fueled their mutual philosophical epiphany. Both had learned, years before, to repress their sexual passions by channeling them into intellectual pursuits.” (Vickers, pp. 41-42)

“A leisurely walk on Monte Sacro should not take more than an hour at most. It is unlikely that either Lou’s mother or Ree would have been offended if Lou and Nietzsche would have returned in that time. They must therefore have been away much longer than that. By way of explanation Lou says they extended their stay because they wanted to see the sunset on Santa Rose. The trouble is one cannot see Santa Rosa from the top of Monte Sacro. Something else must have detained them.” (Peters, page 99)

“Whatever happened, its impact on Nietzsche’s mind was disastrous. In the agonized letters he wrote Lou after their break, and even on unhinged drafts of letters in his notebooks, the recurring pharse is: “The Lou of Orta was a different being.” He complained that he was suffering from “Orta weather” and that the thought of it was driving him mad. The violence of Nietzsche’s emotional reaction to the walk on Monte Sacro is surely a sign that he underwent a powerful experience. It is hardly credible that he would have reacted in such a manner if he had merely spent a few pleasant hours in intellectual conversation with Lou. Nor is it likely that he would have behaved as he did when they returned from their walk. He was in a state of jubilant animation.” (Peters, page 100)

“When the two ‘mountaineers' descended to the lakeside, hours later than expected, it was almost dark. Lou’s worried mother treated her daughter to a tongue-lashing for disrespectful and unseemly behavior, while Paul Ree sulked and made no attempt to conceal his annoyance over his exclusion from this philosophical ‘initiation’.” (Cate, page 331)

“A few days after the party broke up, Lou, her mother and Ree journeyed to Lucerne, while Nietzsche went to visit his friends the Overbecks, in Basel. He stayed with them for five days, still in a jubilant mood. In fact, the Overbecks had never seen him like this. He talked incessantly, mostly about Lou. Like a man who has caught sight of the promised land, he shared with the Overbecks his high hopes for the future. They were alarmed and wondered what kind of girl Lou was. She seemed to have bewitched Nietzsche.” (Peters, page 100)

It had been many months since Fritz had last visited with his close friends, Franz and Ida Overbeck. They welcomed him, of course. But, it is plain that the event of Monte Sacro coupled with all the rest that had transpired to him since the previous summer in Sils Maria had somewhat changed the man they thought they knew.

“Availing himself of Ida Overbeck’s standing invitation, Nietzsche turned up quite unexpectedly at Franz’s house on the Eulergasse and spent five days ‘incognito’ with his dear friends. Host and hostess were amazed by his healthy looks and suntan and their guest’s newly found robustness and vitality – so different from what they had known in the past that not once during his stay did Nietzsche suffer a nervous fit. Seated at his usual place – a chair with its back to the living room’s white porcelain stove – he kept them up each evening until midnight, talking and listening, explaining his plans for the future, getting up every now and then to play the piano. He spoke of his desire to lead a less solitary life, one more ‘open to contact with things and human beings’. In young Lou Salomé he had found an alter ego. Someone who, like himself, had wrestled and suffered with an intense youthful love of God. How candid he was in speaking about her, it is impossible to say; for, as Ida Overbeck observed years later in a long essay of reminiscence, Nietzsche in his conversations preferred to be allusive rather than exhaustive. ‘He knew how to listen and take in, but he never revealed himself completely or clearly. To hold himself back in concealment was for him a necessity; it was not truly a distrust toward others, rather it was a distrust towards himself and the response he encountered.’” (Cate, page 331)

By this time Fritz had read passages from the yet-to-be proofed much less published The Gay Science not only to Lou and Paul but to the Overbecks as well. As I mentioned, Nietzsche felt this represented the completion and summation of his philosophic work to date. His plans were to turn toward a study of the physical sciences and who better to do that with than Paul? He might write again but he had no plans to write anything based upon his journals at this time. Perhaps, he felt that amor fati and the eternal return of the same were experiences best grounded in science rather than belief and desired time for study and research to uncover the grounds. At any rate, with regards to his writing Fritz chose differently, as we shall see.


For now he was content with the evolving plan of a "philosophic trinity". In Fritz's view he would tutor and mentor Lou while broadening his own understanding of science with the assistance of Paul. Lou, enraptured with Fritz's mind and ideas, was only too anxious for this to happen - learning from Fritz and enjoying the bright mind and clever personality of Paul. Meanwhile, Paul saw the "trinity" as his best hope for remaining in Lou's companionship.