Thursday, January 31, 2013

Five Letters: Summer 1883

Nietzsche's writing desk and washing basin in his small room at Sils-Maria.
We briefly carried Fritz’s life forward into 1885 in a previous post.  For the moment I want to back up a bit and begin to reexamine in more detail the years in which he created Zarathustra.  1883 found Nietzsche spending his third summer at Sils-Maria.  He had completed Zarathustra II and was taking extensive notes for the third part.  Five letters to four intimate individuals reveal the full-spectrum of Fritz’s state of mind at this time.  He was obsessed with his writing and enthused about his work.  He was still recovering from the final effects of the Lou Salomé affair, the break-up of his friendship with Paul Rée, and he was quarrelling with his sister, Elizabeth, feeling isolated from the family he loved and, indeed, from the whole world.  They reveal a very human side to Nietzsche as he was conceiving and creating his lofty words and ideas.  As always throughout this blog, all word emphasis is Nietzsche's.

In late-summer word arrived that the mother of his long-time friend Carl von Gersdorff had died.  Both men were intimately connected with their mothers, so Fritz wrote what was intended to be a letter of commiseration but it was short on compassion and long on reflections about his own life and current work.

“We have had a hard time of it in our youth, you and I – for various reasons; but it would be beautiful and right if, in the years of our manhood, some gentleness and comfort and heartening experiences would come our way.

“As for me, I have a long, difficult period of intellectual asceticism behind me, which I took upon myself willingly and which not everyone might have expected of himself.  The past six years have been in this respect the years of my greatest self-conquest – which is leaving out of account my rising above such matters as health, solitude, incomprehension, and execration.  Enough – I have risen also above this stage of my life – and what remains of life (little, I think!) must now give complete and full expression to that for which I have endured life at all.  The time for silence is past: my Zarathustra, which will be sent to you during the next few weeks, may show you how high my will has flown.

“I am now in the Upper Engadin again, for the third time, and again I feel that here and nowhere else is my real home and breeding ground.  Ah, how much there is still hidden in me waiting to be expressed in words and form!  There is no limit to the quiet, the altitude, the solitude I need around me in order to hear my inner voices.” (Middleton, page 213)

To his best friend, Franz Overbeck, Fritz summarized the importance of his work to his life as he began to emerge from the troubles of 1882.  His spirit was galvanized by an inspiration to express what he believed to be the profoundest insights.

“I have an aim, which compels me to go on living and for the sake of which I must cope with even the most painful matters.  Without this aim I would take things much more lightly – that is, I would stop living.  And it was not only this past winter that anyone seeing and understanding my condition from close at hand would have had the right to say; ‘Make it easier for yourself!  Die!’; in previous times, too, in the terrible years of physical suffering, it was the same with me.  Even my Genoese years are a long, long chain of self-conquests for the sake of that aim and not to the taste of any human being that I know.  So, dear friend, the ‘tyrant in me,’ the inexorable tyrant, wills that I conquer this too (as regards physical torments, their duration, intensity, and variety, I can count myself among the most experienced and tested of people; is it my lot that I should be equally so experienced and tested in the torments of the soul?).  And to be consistent with my way of thinking and my latest philosophy, I must even have an absolute victory – that is, the transformation of experience into gold and use of the highest order.” (page 214)

His long relationship with Malwida von Meysenbug allowed him a certain familiarity with her in regards to the sordid social affairs of the previous year.  His letter to her reveals how much emotional pain Fritz still experienced some ten months since he had broken off with his friends Lou and Ree.  Fritz was obsessed with his work, but he still found plenty of energy for self-pity and whining.  It is interesting to note that while he was declaring the creation of the “Übermensch” in Zarathustra he still wallowed in all-too-human despair over a romance that never was.  The depth of his bitterness and his association of it in contextualizing human compassion is rather pathetic.

“I have had, and am still having, a bad summer.  The sorry tale of last year has started all over again; and I hear so much that has ruined for me the glorious solitude of nature and has practically turned it into a hell.  According to everything I have heard now – ah much too late! – these two people Ree and Lou are not worthy to lick my boots.  Excuse this all too manly metaphor!  It is a protracted misfortune that this R., a thorough liar and crawling slanderer, should have ever crossed my path.  And for how long have I been patient and sympathetic with him!  But Schopenhauer’s ‘pity’ has always been the main cause of trouble in my life – and therefore I have every reason to be well disposed toward moralities which attribute a few other motives to morality and do not try to reduce our whole human effectiveness to ‘fellow feelings.’  For this is not only a softness which any magnanimous Hellene would have laughed at – it is also a grave practical danger.  One should persist in one’s own ideal of man; one should impose one’s ideal on one’s fellow beings and on oneself overpoweringly, and thus exert a creative influence!  But to do this, one has to keep a nice tight rein on one’s sympathy, and treat anything that goes against our ideal (for instance, such low characters as L. and R.) as enemies.  You will observe this is how I ‘read a moral lesson’ to myself – but to attain this ‘wisdom’ has almost cost me my life.” (pp. 216-217)

With Peter Gast, one of Nietzsche’s most trusted devotees and someone who proofed almost all of his writing at this time, Fritz was more business-like.  He reflected on the state of the Zarathustra manuscript so far and mused about the larger plan Nietzsche had for his work.

“Yesterday the page proofs of Zarathustra II arrived from Naumann; on reading them I found four misprints.  Apart from that, the book is nice and tidy.  I do not yet have an objective impression of the whole thing; yet I feel that it presents a not insignificant victory over the ‘spirit of gravity.’ Considering how difficult it is to present the problems in it.  That the first part comprises a circle of feelings which forms a basis for the circle of feelings in the second part, this seems to me recognizable and ‘a good job of work’ (to talk like a carpenter).  Aside from that, I have all the difficulties and the worst difficulties still before me.

“To give a fairly accurate estimate of the whole architecture, there will be just about as much again – roughly two hundred pages.  If I can achieve this, as I seem to have achieved the first two parts (despite terrible feelings of hostility that I have toward the whole Zarathustra configuration), then I shall have a party and die of delight in the midst of the festivities.  Excuse me!

“Probably I would, from artistic motives, have chosen darker and more somber and garish colors for the first two parts, if I had kept my soul serene and bright this year – for the sake of what happens at the end.  But this year the solace of more serene and airy colors was vitally important to me; and so in the second part I have cavorted about like a clowning acrobat almost.  The detail contains an incredible amount of personal experience and suffering which is intelligible only to me – there were some pages which seemed to me to drip with blood.” (page 217)

Fritz began another letter to Overbeck in late-summer somewhat ominously with “(This letter is for you alone.)”, meaning he did not want his friend sharing its details even with Frau Overbeck.  Nietzsche reflected upon his melancholy feelings throughout the summer even as he had completed Zarathustra II and began consideration of Part Three in his notebooks.  He truly dreaded leaving Sils-Maria and going to visit his mother and sister.

“…I was possessed by evil, black feelings;  among them there was a real hatred of my sister, who has cheated me of the success of my best acts of self-conquest for a whole year, by keeping silent at the wrong times and by speaking at the wrong times. So that I have finally become the victim of a relentless desire for vengeance, precisely when my inmost thinking has renounced all schemes of vengeance and punishment.  This conflict is bringing me  step by step closer to madness – I feel this in the most frightening way – and I hardly think that a journey to Naumburg would lessen this danger.  Quite the opposite – this might give rise to the most dreadful moments; and also that long-developing hatred could break out in word and deed, and I would be the one to come off worst.  Then too, letters to my sister are not advisable now – except the most harmless ones (recently I sent her one letter full of amusing verses).  Perhaps my reconciliation with her was the most fatal step in the whole affair – I now see that this made her believe she was entitled to take revenge on Fraulein Salome.  Excuse me!” (page 218)

Taken together, these five letters provide some insight into the character and personality of Friedrich Nietzsche in 1883.  He was working passionately on developing his mature philosophy in Zarathustra.  He believed himself to be full of “self-conquest” yet he seems blind to his own emotional sensitivity and pettiness.  He had risen out of apparently suicidal depths or at least recovered from a depressing, lethargic period.  This is no small matter as any reader knows from their own intimate challenges whenever they experience a heavy emotional blow. 

Nevertheless, the ideal of the Übermensch cannot be detected in these letters to his closest associates.  He was disenchanted with his family, particularly his sister.  Though the worst was behind him, he was still floundering in the remains of the Lou Salomé affair.  As ever, he was battling his perpetual illnesses.  In truth, Fritz was in a sorry state.  From that perspective, it is rather remarkable that he was able to conceive of the heights of Zarathustra and to begin the formulation of a philosophy that would be revolutionary in its approach to morality, creativity, and power.  He was still overcoming himself in 1883.  In some ways he had succeeded.  In many other respects much work remained yet to be done.  I would venture to say that, at this point, his work was more necessary escapism for him than applied existential reality.