Wednesday, November 30, 2011

"I am lost"

“From Leipzig, where the first wintry snows were already falling, Nietzsche took the train to Basel, to ‘help’ Franz Overbeck celebrate his forty-fifth birthday on 16 November. He told his Basel hosts that his ‘idyll’ with Lou Salomé was finished, without explaining what had gone wrong. Lou’s health was so fragile – like his own – that she was as ill-suited to look after him as he was to take care of her. ‘Now I am going into complete solitude,’ he had abandoned as hopeless his short-lived endeavor to ‘return to the world of men.’

“If Nietzsche heard the nasty rumor that was already circulating in Basel’s academic circles – about the ‘mistress’ he had brought back from Italy and whom he had been ‘sharing’ with a friend of his in Leipzig – it was certainly not from the Overbecks. But what infuriated Nietzsche was to discover that his sister Elisabeth, in her righteous zeal as the self-appointed guardian and preserver of her brother’s ‘sullied reputation’, had taken it upon herself to ‘set the record straight’ not only by denying the ugly rumor – the surest way of giving it some credence – but also by exposing Lou Salomé as a scheming adventuress whose main ambitions in life were to marry a rich husband and to establish a serious reputation as a ‘brilliant intellect’ by shamelessly stealing ideas and thoughts from others.” (Cate pp. 382-383)

So began the petty soap opera that Fritz’s life became after Leipzig. It involved several weeks of accusations in the form of hasty postcards and letters contrived largely in anger between Fritz, Elizabeth, Lou, and Paul among others. Fritz journeyed from Basel back to the Italian coast where, as usual, he became violently ill and almost unable to function but for wallowing in his own self-pity and frustration over losing the love of his life. In the meantime, Lou and Paul continued together, both becoming increasingly critical of Fritz. Lou refused to take any responsibility for the turn of events and furiously blamed Fritz for the destroying her ‘trinitarian experiment.’ The whirlwind of activity spiraled steadily downward into crude and undignified (need I add human, all too human?) depths.

“‘This summer and autumn he has experienced the worst time of his life,’” Franz Overbeck wrote to Fritz’s old friend Erwin Rohde following the brief stop in Basel, “‘the result of which is that he is now condemned to a new kind of loneliness that even he can’t bear. Following the events of this summer loneliness is the worst poison for him…I was powerless to help him…What has absolutely shattered him (next to the separation from the Russian – which in the circumstances is a blessing) is the complete break with his family…his future is a very dark place.’

“Overbeck did not exaggerate. Having lost the love of his life, his closest intellectual companion, and a mother and sister who, for all their faults, he was viscerally attached, Nietzsche now indulged in an orgy of recriminations. In a series of letter sketches, sometimes to Lou and sometimes to Rée (some but not all were sent), he calls Rée a wastrel: an exceptional nature collapsing through laziness and lack of genuine intellectual commitment, a ‘noble nature in decay’. His main abuse, however, was reserved for Lou. He describes her (alleged) slandering and ridiculing of his character at Bayreuth, Jena, and Tautenburg as the ‘ugliest’ way anyone has ever acted towards him in his entire life – which confirms the success of Elizabeth’s attempts to poison his mind against her. He complains that he gave her Schopenhauer as Educator to show her his fundamental cast of mind, which he thought she would share, but discovers her to be utterly ‘superficial’, lacking in ‘respect, gratitude, piety, politeness and wonder’. ‘You really don’t think that the ‘free spirit’ is my ideal’ he adds. The force of the last remark is to contrast the intense, morally serious idealism demanded by Schopenhauer as Educator with the idea that ‘anything goes’. The accusation is, in a word, nihilism: Lou tramples roughshod over current social conventions (and people’s hearts) without having anything to put in their place: she is a free spirit of the worthless ‘second rank’, light years away from the creative ‘first rank’.” (Young, pp. 353 – 354)

It was, perhaps, with consideration to this hierarchy in Nietzsche’s thought that he began to wander back toward his deeper thinking for the first time in months. There he rediscovered that he was a free spirit of the first rank, but this did not happen in November and December of 1882. During that time he was still very much a lover dealing with the end of love.

In the margins of one pathetic, unsent letter to Lou Fritz made a series of notes about his impressions of her personality. They reveal as much about him and his state of mind as anything: “rich in the utilization of what she knows…without taste, but naïve in this lack…without any delicacy of feeling for taking and giving…without sentiment and incapable of love…in emotion always sickly and close to insanity…without gratitude, shameless towards the benefactor…incapable of politeness of the heart…without shame, always undressed in thinking, powerful in particulars against herself…not ‘stout-hearted’…crude in matters of honor…monstrously negative…character of a cat – the beast of prey that installs itself as a pet…cruelly perturbed sensuality…superannuated child-egotism as a result of sexually stunted growth and retard…without love for human beings, but love for God…need for ostentation…sly and full of self-control with regard to the sensuality of men…” (Cate, pp.386-387)

Cate goes on to frame what these brief notations have to say about Fritz himself: “As Nietzsche had already observed in one of his notebook jottings: ‘Religion as a spiritual release of erotic needs is something irreplaceable for all women in whom the satisfaction of the sexual drive has been forbidden by moral custom and shame’….the most revealing of these psychological comments was, as far as the author was concerned, the very last ‘sly and full of self-control with regard to the sensuality of men’. Since Paul Rée by his own admission was the most unsensual of men, this reproach could only refer to Nietzsche himself. It is an unmistakable admission of masculine frustration. It made mincemeat of his exalted claim to have been pursuing a sublimely pure, altruistic, self-ennobling grand design with Lou Salomé. Like Pygmalion, he had become enamored of his tempting idol and had unconsciously desired – the most powerful human instincts being unconscious – to sleep with the alluring creature he wished to reshape into a nobler, superior, more perfect human being.” (page 387)

Fritz’s neurotic behavior became much more pronounced during this time. He self-medicated with massive doses of opium and other drugs in an attempt to induce sleep during the periods when he was not already bedridden with violent headaches and nausea. The final two months of 1882 challenged him in ways he had never experienced before. The existential gaiety which he expressed immediately following his “discovery” of eternal recurrence of the same in 1881 was now transformed into the horrible possibility that he would now have to perpetually relive the suffering of massive loss. This permeated his being and it was almost more than he could bear.

In mid-December, whether from guilt or from desperation or from recognition of what Elizabeth had so destructively accomplished or from the sudden, embarrassing realization of the extent to which he debased himself in venting his rage at virtually everyone he cared about, near the end of the ordeal, when it was far too late to repair the damage, his bridges all burned, Fritz begged Lou and Paul to forgive him in a drug-induced, childish, self-absorbed fashion. “My dear ones, Lou and Rée: Do not be too upset about the outbreaks of my ‘megalomania’ or my ‘hurt vanity’ – and even if, prompted by some feeling, I should accidentally take my life some day, that, too, would not be reason for too much sorrow. What are my fantasies to you! (Even my ‘truths’ were nothing to you hitherto.) By all means, take into due consideration between the two of you that in the end I am a half-madman who suffers in the head and whom long solitude has confused completely. This, as it seems to me, reasonable insight into the situation I have reached after taking an immense dose of opium – from despair. But instead of thus losing my reason, I seem to have found it at long last.” (quoted by Kaufmann, page 58)

Friedrich Nietzsche had hit rock bottom and he was utterly alone. Yet, regardless of how he tried to arrange facts in his mind, he had no one but himself to blame. Yes, there was friction between Lou and Paul and Fritz to begin with. There was no other way the underlying currents of Fritz’s erotic nature could have reacted to the attractive girl’s beauty, brilliant mind and budding manner of being. Lou contributed with her earliest carefree flirtations and a careless kiss. Elizabeth certainly did all she could to undermine at possible relationship between her brother and that girl. In the process she got their mother involved. The essential passions of the moment ripped everything apart.

“Elizabeth, the cloistered, religiously-minded spinster, with her narrow code of morals and vindictive hatred for a woman less inhibited and freer than she was, knew no better than to pursue such a woman with all the spite outraged virtue could summon up; Nietzsche did know better, but instead of restraining he abetted her. He must have felt some shame at this, for to the end he laid responsibility on his sister. ‘I should like to put right what my sister has put wrong,’ he says, but no one can believe he was a mere tool in Elizabeth’s hands: the relationship between them was not of that kind, for he was always the dominant personality. Ultimately, if his affair with Lou Salomé ended in a welter of mud-slinging and abuse, he was to blame.” (Hollingdale, page 156)

But fault is a poor substitute for actual emotional pain. For a moment the spiritual wind had been knocked out of Fritz. “He had bared the innermost workings of his mind to (Lou) as never before to another human being, sensing an unparalleled depth of understanding between them. Salomé touched the core of his ‘talents and objectives’, and Nietzsche felt that she understood him completely: ‘Several major directions of the spiritual and moral horizon are my most powerful source of life. I am glad that our friendship has struck it foots and hopes in this very soil’ – June 12, 1882. In fact, he considered the two of them ‘all too similar, blood relatives’- August 14, 1882.” (Safranski, page 256)

The break-up was a monstrous blow to his intimate pride and his sense of personal philosophic self-worth: “No, the truly unbearable realization for Nietzsche was the fact that she understood him completely and then, with her boundless curiosity for people, simply moved on to others and did not remain under his spell. To make matters worse, she left him behind as a mere stage in her educational career. He felt exploited and abused because his disciple had made clear that she understood him, but also understood how to find other teachers for herself. Nietzsche was greatly offended. He had abandoned himself to her and then found himself abandoned by her.” (Safranski, page 257) The fact Lou was obviously bright, and could converse in a like-minded way, and still chose to move on past Nietzsche threatened (from Fritz’s perspective) the inherent importance of Nietzsche’s still-emerging philosophy.

On Christmas Day, 1882, isolated from his sister and mother, he wrote to Overbeck from Rapallo: “This last bite of life was the hardest I have chewed yet, and it is still possible I may suffocate on it. I have suffered of the ignominious and tormenting memories of this summer as of a madness…I tense every fiber of my self-overcoming – but I have lived in solitude too long, living off my ‘own fat,’ so that now, more than anyone else, I am being broken on the wheel of my own feelings. If only I could sleep! But the strongest doses of my opiates help me to no more than six-to-eight hour marches. If I do not discover the alchemists’ trick of turning even this – filth into gold, I am lost. – Thus I have the most beautiful opportunity to prove that for me ‘all experiences are useful, all days holy, and all human beings divine!!!'” (quoted by Kaufmann, page 59)

I’m not sure Nietzsche gets any deeper or more relevant to the prescribed style of amor fati than in his discovery of how to re-embrace life in the midst all his loneliness and pain. Within him, perhaps miniscule but clearly powerful, he found “the most beautiful opportunity”. Given his existential state and the fact that you and I and every human being has been there and tasted that, Nietzsche saw an opportunity for “self-overcoming” in the most weighty sense and he found beauty in it. This is deep Nietzsche.

Indeed this was true of him at this moment. Gradually, Nietzsche began to conceive of how amor fati was embraceable even in at his lowest point. Even with the loss of most everything he held dear, his ideas and concepts were proving themselves. There was a way to embrace the entirety of the wretched mess that was once so promising and wonderful. Out of the ruins and the arrogant pain and self-debasing expression of anger the final aphorism from the fourth book of The Gay Science resonated in his mind.

His most famous philosophic journey was about to begin.