According to Julian Young, Nietzsche felt gloomy at the beginning of 1887 about the lack of sales of his books, his increased feeling of isolation, and the uncomfortably cold winter weather that chilled him to his bones. During this time three things elevated Nietzsche’s life, however.
“Towards the end of January…his spirits received a lift from an unexpected quarter: a visit to Monte Carlo to hear the prelude to Parsifal. ‘Leaving aside the question of the use of such music and regarding it purely aesthetically,’ he wrote Koselitz, ‘has Wagner ever done anything better? The highest psychological awareness and definiteness with regard to what should be said, expressed, communicated, the shortest and most direct form thereof, every nuance of feeling reduced to the epigrammatic: a clarity of music as a descriptive art…and a sublime and extraordinary feeling, experience, eventfulness, of the soul at the very heart of the music which honors Wagner to the highest degree.’
“And in the notebooks he calls it ‘the greatest masterpiece of the sublime that I know’. ‘Nothing else grasps Christianity so deeply or brings one to have such intense sympathy with it’, he writes, adding that ‘no painter had painted such a dark, melancholy vision’ as do its final bars, ‘not Dante, not Leonardo’.” (Young, page 450)
“The second event that helped lift the oppression of winter was the discovery, at the beginning of February, of Dostoyevsky….In connection with the Nietzsche-Dostoyevsky affinity it is worth noticing that both men (Dostoyevsky after his mock execution and exile to Siberia) were strong opponents of ‘socialism’, ‘anarchism’, and ‘nihilism’, and that both believed in the retention and restoration of the firm, aristocratic, religiously sanctioned social hierarchy of the past. The difference, however, was that Dostoyevsky believed in a Christian aristocratic society. This is why Nietzsche writes Brandes that while he esteems Dostoyevsky as ‘the most valuable psychological material that I know’, he is, nonetheless, ‘in a strange way thankful to him that he is quite contrary to my basic instinct’.” (page 451)
“The third, strangely cheering event was a major earthquake which claimed two thousand lives on the French Riviera as a whole….Nietzsche, as a man of Prussian bearing and training, ‘strolled’ through the town, ‘attending to people I knew who were sitting in the open, on benches or in coaches, hoping to escape the danger’. ‘I myself’, he adds, pleased to have acquitted himself well in the face of mortal danger for a second time, ‘experienced not a moment of fear – even a great deal of irony’.
“’We are living in the most interesting expectation of perishing thanks to a well-intentioned earthquake which made more than dogs howl, far and wide. What a pleasure it is when the old house above rattles like a coffee-grinder! When the inkwell declares its independence! When the streets fill up with terrified, half-clothed figures with shattered nervous systems.’” (page 451)
Nietzsche visited Zurich through the years as a way-station while transplanting his nomadic self between the mountains in the summer and the coast during the winter in a constant quest for the perfect temperature and humidity. He was only there for a week at the beginning of May 1887. His social competence thrived in that city but there was little to engage him this time, perhaps reinforcing his journey into solitude.
“Mostly, as we have seen, Nietzsche had had good times in Zurich, times of, for him, unusual sociability. On this occasion, however, though Overbeck came over from Basel for a couple of days, he found it hard to catch up with people. Meta von Salis was under pressure to finish her doctoral thesis while at the same time needing to help her sister refurbish her house, recently gutted by fire. He did manage to meet up with Resa von Shirnhofer, but only after she returned from Paris at the end of his stay. Like him, she had discovered Dostoyevsky, which led to an intense discussion about House of the Dead.” (page 453)
That summer, Nietzsche wrote in short, sharp bursts of energy, much as he had since undertaking Zarathustra in 1883. The Good European provides useful a chronology of Nietzsche’s life. It has an extended entry for July 10-17: “N composes the bulk of On the Genealogy of Morals, the manuscript of which is mailed to C.G. Naumann on July 17. (The third treatise is revised some weeks later in August.) N is pleased by the news that Johannes Brahms has been avidly reading his Beyond Good and Evil. He works on his final musical composition, “Hymn to Life,” based on his and Lou Andreas-Salome’s “Hymn to Friendship”…the “Hymn to Life,” his only published score, is printed by Fritsch at the end of October. N takes his noonday meal at the Hotel Alpenrose in Sils, where the group surrounding Meta von Salis (including Fraulein Mansuroff and Mrs. Flynn) provides some companionship.” (page 239)
Curtis Cate offers splendid details of Nietzsche’s life in the autumn of 1887. “On September 20…Nietzsche left the chilly highlands of the Upper Engadine and descended via the familiar route and railway stations of Chiavenna and Como to sea-borne Venice. Despite an electrifying thunderstorm over Lake Como, the trip was relatively painless, while the Adriatic air of Venice seemed to him on arrival of an ‘elastic limpidity’. He found his favorite maestro (Heindrich Koselitz, alias ‘Pietro Gasti’) luxuriously lodged, fed and cared for by a noble Venetian family, and so completely recovered from his previous morosity that he was delighted to help Nietzsche correct the proofs of his new book.
“Nightmarish, in comparison, was the next train-trip (from Venice to Nice) – brutally interrupted by a breakdown in a dark tunnel between Milan and Genoa, which unleashed violent headaches. But these were soon dispelled by the ‘intoxicating’ air of Nice and the warm welcome he received at the Pension de Geneve. For a special price of 5 ½ francs per day (2 ½ francs less than the cheapest rate for others) he was given a north-facing room where it was often so cold that Nietzsche suffered from ‘blue fingers’ in the morning. Heeding his mother’s sensible advice, he finally hired a small stove: or what (in a letter to Koselitz) he called a ‘fire-idol’ and around which, once lit, he ‘leaped and pranced’ in a dance of pagan jubilation.” (Cate, pp. 509-510)
Despite his concern for how poorly his books sold, Nietzsche was slowly becoming more widely known. “Before the month of November was over he received a moving letter of thanks – for gift copies of The Genealogy of Morals and Beyond Good and Evil - from George Brandes, a Danish literary critic who had read Nietzsche’s two latest books, as well as Human, All Too Human, without recoiling in horror, Brandes declared that he had found the books ‘the breath of a new and original spirit. I do not yet fully understand what I have read; I do not always know towards what issue you are headed. But there is much that accords with my own thoughts and sympathies – the contempt for ascetic ideals and the deep indignation against democratic mediocrity, your aristocratic radicalism. Your scorn for the morality of compassion is something I have not yet been able to fathom….You belong to the few people with whom I would like to talk.’
“It is easy to imagine the thrill with which Nietzsche read and reread this extraordinary letter. Here, clearly, was an authentic Freigeist who was not afraid to speak his mind, to praise and to avow perplexity, and who, in just two wonders - aristocratic radicalism - had grasped the very essence of his philosophy. Fate, which had treated him so harshly, was now at least beginning to relent, confirming what he had long suspected: that, in accordance with the adage – ‘a prophet is not without honor save in his own country’ – the recognition he so desperately craved would come to him first of all from non-Germans.” (pp. 510-511)
But even as he saw a glimmer of hope for his work to become more widely known Nietzsche felt increasingly isolated, even expressing some regret regarding his lack of intimate companionship. “He wrote his mother form there on October 18, 1887. His missive betrayed the effects of protracted solitude, and it included the following barbed words: ‘The fact that ever since my childhood I never heard a profound and understanding word – such is my lot, and I do not remember ever having complained about it’. On October 22 he departed Venice for Nice, where, however, the sense of isolation only increased. His final, desperate effort to salvage his friendship with Erwin Rohde, in a letter written on November 11, 1887, ended with the words, ‘I now have forth-three years behind me, and I am every bit as alone now as I was when a child’. The next day he wrote to Overbeck:
“’When I exclude Richard Wagner there is no one who ever came to me with a thousandth part of passion and pain in order to reach ‘an understanding’ with me. I was alone in this respect even as a child, and am still so today, in my forty-fourth year of life. The terrifying decade I have now put behind me gave me a generous taste of what it means to be alone, of reclusion to an extreme degree: the isolation and defenselessness of an infirm man who has no means of protecting himself, or even ‘defending himself.’…The best thing I can say about is that it made me more independent; perhaps also harder and more contemptuous toward my fellows than I would like to have been. Fortunately, I have enough of the esprit gaillard in me to laugh at myself concerning these reminiscences, as I laugh at everything that touches only me; further, I have a task that does not allow me to worry much about myself (a task or destiny, call it what you will). This task made me ill, and it will make me healthy again; not only healthy but also friendlier toward my fellows, and whatever else pertains to that.’” (The Good European, pp. 201-202)
Music was still vital to Nietzsche's life and one of his few remaining social pleasures. He frequented concert halls and maintained a special affinity for Bizet's great opera. “Shortly before Christmas, Nietzsche had attended his fourth performance of Carmen in the Nice Opera’s newly opened Italian theater. Once again it was a ‘true event – I learnt and understood more in these four hours than in the previous four weeks’, he wrote, sounding his often-repeated theme that music, or at least musical mood, emotion, gives birth to thought. Reflecting on the same experience a month later, he wrote Koselitz: ‘Music now gives me sensations as never before. It frees me from myself, it sobers me up from myself, as though I survey the scene from a great distance, overwhelmed. It strengthens me…and every time, after an evening of music, I am full of resolute insights and thoughts the following morning. It is very strange. It is as though I had bathed in some natural element. Life [and evidently thought] without music is simply a mistake’. Notice, once again, Nietzsche’s continuing attachment to the experience of self-transcendence through music.” (Young, pp. 458-459)
1887-88 seems to be the time he became more self-critical, something that would culminate in his work Ecce Homo in late 1888. “Among Nietzsche’s many preoccupations during the final winter in Nice and spring in Turin was the fear – which we have already seen in a letter to Overbeck – that he was becoming too hard-of-heart, too harsh in his judgments. Even though Zarathustra had counseled ‘Become hard!’ Nietzsche feared the excess of hardness, the advance of brittleness, that he sensed in himself. On February 1 he confided to Koselitz:
“’To lack health, money, reputation, love, protection – and for all that not to become a tragic growly bear; this is the paradox of my current situation, its problem. A state of chronic vulnerability has come over me, on which, in my good moments, I take my revenge in a way that is not really that flattering, namely, though an excess of hardness. Witness my last book [On the Genealogy of Morals]. Even so, I take all this with the cleverness of an astute psychologist without the slightest moral prejudice: oh, how instructive it is to live in so extreme a state as mine! Only now do I understand history; I’ve never had such profound eyes as in the past few months.’” (The Good European, page 203)
It was during this time that Nietzsche's plan for his primary life work took more concrete form, which he felt almost as a weight upon him - his life's 'task.' “The year 1888 began, as its predecessor had finished, cold. Sitting in his room in the Pension de Geneve, redecorated with his own choice of dark, reddish-brown wallpaper, Nietzsche found the stove imported from Naumburg ‘de rigueur’ with respect to the otherwise intractable ‘blue-finger’ problem. Seated at his large writing table he had begun serious work on what was intended to be the main event of his life, the production of his ‘systematic masterwork’, The Will to Power, to which all his previous works were the mere prelude. This was to be a four-volume work of ‘extreme’ and ‘rigorous seriousness’ that would provide a grounding and synoptic exposition of his entire philosophy. By February 13 he had completed the first detailed plan (with the title now altered to Attempt at a Revaluation of All Values). But though he continued to work steadily, he suffered from diarrhea and insomnia, with his spirits – not improved by failing to win the half-million-franc prize in the Nice lottery – under the weather.
“Since many of his fellow guests were, like him, hoping the Nice climate would ameliorate their various conditions, dinner-table conversation in the pension centered on climate and health. A lady from Berlin, for example, suffering from ‘a kind of melancholic desperation’ at home and scarcely able to leave the house, had, she claimed, been completely cured by the dry air of Nice. A short sharp ‘change of air’, Nietzsche agreed, had much to recommend it.
“As well as the right climate, a rigorous and unchanging daily routine was, he felt, essential: to bed at nine, up at six-thirty, tea with two rusks, an hour’s walk in the morning, lunch at noon, three hours walking in the afternoon, always the same route, dinner at six, no wine, beer, spirits, or coffee, always the same, day after day.
“To relieve the monotony, at the beginning of January he took himself off to another concert in Monte Carlo. This, however, proved a disaster: César Franck and other ‘modern French music or, to speak more clearly, bad Wagner…nervous, brutal, insufferable, demanding, and boastful – and so tarted up’. It was, he concluded, pure ‘decadence’, just like Baudelaire – ‘libertine, mystical, ‘satanic’, but above all Wagnerian’. A couple of months later, on the other hand, he was charmed by three pieces by Offenbach, ‘buffoonery but in the form of classical taste, completely logical…wonderfully Parisian’, a comment manifesting the ever-increasing taste for light music that marked the final year of his sanity.” (Young, pp. 485-486)
“The four months Nietzsche spent in Nice, from early December of 1887 to the end of March 1888, were the happiest he had yet known at the Pension de Geneve. For the first time in eight successive winters he was spared the ‘blue-fingered’ torments of early morning frosts, thanks to the crackling benevolence of his ‘fire-idol’ stove. There was a notable improvement in the quality of the food he was offered in the pension’s dining-room, where his most stimulating conversational partner was Baroness Plankner. Related to a court chamberlain serving with the Crown Princess Victoria, she kept Nietzsche well informed of the frail health of imperial Germany’s greatest political hope for the future: the anti-Bismarkian Crown Prince Friedrich, who spent this winter at nearby San Remo, trying to recover from a throat-cancer operation.
“Thanks to a strict diet – no wine, no beer, no alcoholic spirits, no coffee – thanks to long walks (one hour in the morning, three in the afternoon), and thanks to many bright, cloudless days, Nietzsche’s physical sufferings (with headaches and vomiting) were relatively mild. But, as he confessed to his mother in mid-February, spiritually he was a ‘brave’ but also ‘sick animal’, apt to display a ‘ridiculous and wretched vulnerability’ to shameless superficial reviews of his books. Equally upsetting was the ‘unbearable tension’ from which he suffered ‘night and day, brought about by the task that lies upon me and the absolute ill-will of all my previous acquaintances towards the solution of such a task.’
“The daunting task Nietzsche had imposed upon himself was nothing less than the completion of a four-volume work intended to supply the crowning arch or dome to the philosophical ‘temple of the future’ he wanted to erect, of which (as he had once written to Malwida von Meysenbug) the Zarathustra ‘trilogy’ was merely an ornamental ‘entrance hall’. This new series, as later planned, was to appear under the overall title, ‘The Will to Power’ (Wille zur Macht) – with the subtitle, An Attempt at a Revaluation of all Values. Each volume was to consist of three parts, thus resembling The Genealogy of Morals. In this first, entitled ‘What is Truth?’, Nietzsche proposed to analyze the ‘psychology of error’, to judge the relative worth of ‘truth’ and ‘error’, and finally to demonstrate how the ‘will to truth’, when properly understood, helped to justify the positive ‘yes-value of Life'. In the second book, devoted to ‘The Origin of Values’, he proposed to deal, more thoroughly than ever before, with 1) his old enemies, the ‘metaphysicians’, 2) the ‘hominess religiosi’ (by which Nietzsche meant persons who are genuinely religious and not merely robed or bearded ‘dispensers of the faith’, and 3) ‘The Good Ones and the Improvers’ – a diatribe against Christian optimists naively bent on improving a wrecked world. (A fragment of his thinking on this question was later incorporated in Gotzen-Dammerung – Twilight of the Idols. The third book, aggressively titled ‘The Battle of Values’, would begin with ‘Thoughts on Christianity’ (later developed by Nietzsche in The Anti-Christian); would continue with a study of the ‘physiology of Art’ (i.e. an analysis of ‘healthy’, as opposed to ‘sickly’ art); and would be rounded out with a ‘History of European Nihilism’. The series would then rise to the majestic climax of the fourth volume (‘The Great Midday’), the first part of which hammered home the unpalatable truth that every genuine culture and civilization depends upon accepted Rangordnung (Order of Rank) between power-wielders and subjects.” (Cate, pp. 511-512)
But as this great 'task' took generalized form, Nietzsche, already in a mode of self-critique, hesitated. “Throughout the cold but sunny winter weeks Nietzsche wrestled with his self-imposed ‘task’, torn between an impatient desire to ‘get on with the job’ and a monitory feeling that, in trying to go too fast, he would undermine the solidarity of what he was trying to build. So disturbing were these contradictory forces that he kept altering the initial outline of March 1887. He even decided to scrap the overall title, Der Wille zur Macht (The Will to Power), realizing that in the super-patriotic climate of the Second Reich, with its intoxicating ‘Deutschland! Deutschland uber Alles!’ rhetoric, his four-volume magnum opus would be misinterpreted as a philosophical endorsement of Bismarck’s Blut und Eisen (blood and iron) policies.” (page 513)
In the spring of 1888, he visited Turin for the first time. It would profoundly affect him and would ultimately lead to an explosion of writing - much of which was directed away from the weight of his self-appointed task. It was as if he dreaded fleshing out the grand ideas forming in his mind or he was simply distracted as his mental abilities took a turn toward megalomania. Before examining the prolific nature of his final works, we will take a closer look at Nietzsche in Turin and the final, prolific summer at Sils-Maria in my next post.