Sunday, July 1, 2018

Nietzsche's Journey to Sorrento

Note:  This post can be considered an addendum to my previous post entitled Sorrento Days.

Nietzsche’s Journey to Sorrento by Paolo D’Iorio offers us an intimate look at Nietzsche's time in that Italian town at the beginning of the formation of thinking that would turn him away from his past with Richard Wagner and The Birth of Tragedy toward the future of his “positivist period” where concepts such as the “free spirit” took root and flourished.  It spans his notebooks and correspondences of late-1876 into 1877 to reveal the circumstances of his life and thought that lead to the profound period of philosophical development which resulted in Human, All Too Human.

The subtitle for the work is apt: “Genesis of the Philosophy of the Free Spirit.”  The books does address the intricacies of his free spirit philosophy.  Rather, it is an account of its birth and early development during and immediately following his time in Sorrento.  The author relies heavily on Nietzsche’s notebooks of this time, among other sources.

"This notebook contains twenty fragments that directly concern ' the way toward the freedom of the spirit' and judge that 'a man who thinks freely experiences the evolution of entire generations ahead of time.'  It is affirmed here that the free spirit lives for the future of man, inventing new possibilities of existence and weighing the old ones.  These fragments divided humanity into free men and slaves....It is also a matter of the way to make life easy and light: 'Every man has his recipes for enduring life (partly to let it be easy, partly to make it easy, if it has once revealed itself as hard), even the criminal.  This art of living applied everywhere must be reconstructed.  Explain what the recipes of religion actually achieve.  Not to lighten life but to take life lightly.  Many want to make it harder in order to offer afterwards their supreme recipes (art, aesthetics, etc.).'  The conclusion of the book, which was to be called Das leichte Leben, The Light of Life, had to connect freedom of spirit and love of truth to life made light and easy according to the double-meaning of leicht in German: 'We can live like the gods who live who live lightly if we learn to stand before the truth in vivid rapture....In conclusion: free spirits are gods who live lightly.'  Other fragments reveal the desired effect of these meditations on the reader: 'Goal: to put the reader in such an elastic state that he stands on his tiptoes....Free thought, fairy tales, lasciviousness lift man onto his tiptoes.'" (page 16)

It will be remembered that Nietzsche traveled with his friend Paul Rée and one of his pupils Albert Brenner to Sorrento at the invitation of Madam von Meysenbug.  As usual, travel was difficult for Nietzsche and he to fight against the various maladies that plagued him for most of his productive life.  This entourage initially formed in Naples and we know a bit of Nietzsche’s intimate experience during this time from a letter by Brenner.

"Finally, at one o'clock in the morning on Wednesday, October 25, the three friends arrived in Naples, where Malwida von Meyesenbug is waiting for them...Albert Brenner, Nietzsche's young student, testifies to the adventurous testifies to the adventurous circumstances of the arrival in a letter to his family:

"'We arrived at the port last night (Wednesday), at one o'clock in the morning and were foolish enough to push on to Naples instead of staying on the ship.  We therefore found ourselves in a narrow boat, rowed by four sailors from the port.  It was dark night, no sound could be heard any longer except for several incomprehensible words exchanged now and then between our suspicious oarsmen.  I began to see ghosts and gripped my dagger under my cloak, cursing the elegance of my top hat, which I would have readily seen at the bottom of the sea.  We landed in a small, secluded port illuminated by hardly any light.  Several seaside customs officers approached us, looking even more like thieves, and demanded a tip.  The four oarsmen divided up our two suitcases and dragged them along the narrow street....Nietzsche, Rée, and I had to oversee our luggage carriers: they walked at a distance of around twenty or thirty paces from one another.  I hardly doubted that they were leading us astray, to some remote boutique in order to abduct us...

"The following day, however, the four friends remain in Naples and find time to take a long coach ride in the city's streets, which Nietzsche will remember later.  For the moment, Milwida is the one who, in a letter to her adoptive daughter, captures the magic of Nietzsche's ecstatic contact with the South:

"'On the evening of the day before yesterday, I traveled through Posillipo in a coach with my three gentlemen; the light was divine, truly fairylike, Mount Vesuvius was majestically crowned with thunderclouds, and from the flames and the gloomy black-red glow there rose a rainbow.  The city gleamed as if made of gold while the other side, the deep blue sea extended; they sky, covered with bright, glistening clouds was translucent green and blue and the glorious islands stood among the waves as in a fairy tale.  It was so marvelous that the gentlemen were drunk from ecstasy.  I have never seen Nietzsche so lively.  He laughed for joy.'" (pp. 21 - 22) 

By coincidence, Wagner had repaired to Sorrento following the first Bayreuth festival.  Nietzsche had more or less worshiped Wagner since their friendship began in 1872.  But he began to feel disillusioned by Wagner when Nietzsche encountered the atmosphere of Bayreuth.  Things did not turn out as either of them had envisioned, though Nietzsche was far more affected by this than was Wagner.  By the time at Sorrento, Nietzsche saw Wagner in a completely different light and was less enchanted with the great composer’s artistic vision.  

"...Nietzsche and Wagner met for the last time, attracted by melodies and passions henceforth radically different.  IT was probably during these few days when they lived near one another that he experienced when the thought of the Holy Grail and the Eucharist.  This was, for Nietzsche, the last straw...for a man who, already, had not withstood the disillusionment of the festival at Bayreuth and who, well before, had begin to take the first steps in the direction of his own path.  The beautiful friendship and intellectual solidarity, the brotherhood of arms at the heart of the Bayreuth project for the rebirth of the Hellenic civilization in Germany thanks to the magic of Wagner's musical theater were extinguished at Hotel Vittoria.  Without a scandal.  Their relations cooled, their paths diverged: everything was clear from then on, and everything was over.  The philosopher and the musician would thereafter attack one another publicly - Nietzsche in Things Human, All Too Human, Wagner in an article  in the Bayreuther Blatter titled 'Public and Popularity" - but without naming one another explicitly." (page 32)

"'It was a moment when I began, in secret, to laugh at Richard Wagner" at the time when he was preparing to play his final role and appeared before his dear Germans with the gestures of a thaumaturge, a redeemer, a prophet, and even a philosopher.  And since I had not ceased to love him, my own laughter gnawed at my heart: such is the story of all those who become independent from their masters and at last fine their own way.'  But how to find his path, how to learn to walk alone, without Schopenhauer and Wagner and, potentially, even against them?  Despite the bad condition of his health and his suffering eyes, Nietzsche begins to write again and realizes that the moment has come to make his subterranean reflections, not only by allusions and fragments, as he had done before in Birth of Tragedy and in the Untimely Meditations, but as a whole and in coherent fashion, developing and completing them with the new ideas that settled day after day on the pages of his notebooks, thanks, in part, to a dialogue with a series of books that he had bought throughout the previous months and which he was reading with Paul Rée and with his little circle of friends at Villa Rubinacci." (page 34)

The foursome of Brenner, Rée, Nietzsche and von Meysenbug now entered a comfortable, idyllic, stimulating, leisurely yet frugal life together.  There was a schedule. Malwida explains: "'Our life in Sorrento organized itself very comfortably.  In the morning we were never together; everyone attended to his own occupations in total freedom.  The midday meal was the first to reunite us, and sometimes un the afternoon we would take a stroll together through the enchanting surroundings, among the gardens of orange and lemon trees as tall as our apple and pear trees and whose branches, covered in golden fruit, bent over the garden walls and cast their shadows along a path; or we would climb up gently sloping hills and pass by farms where lovely girls were dancing the tarantella - not the contrived tarantella that bands of decked-out ladies dance in hotels for foreigners these days, but the rustic dance full of natural and innocent grace.  Often, we would take longer excursions, riding on donkeys, which are reserved there for mountain paths, and out laughter and merriment on those occasions knew no bounds; the young Brenner especially, with his awkward, schoolboyish manner and his long legs that nearly trotted alongside those of the donkey, was the target of many good-natured jokes.  In the evening, we reconvened for dinner and then in the sitting room, for animated conversation and communal readings.'" (page 37)

Paul Rée offers some insight into these days in a letter he wrote to Nietzsche’s sister, Elizabeth: "Here is the daily timetable.  At seven in the morning, your brother drinks milk, a beverage that agrees with him particularly well.  Over tea, he dictates something or other until lunchtime, usually.  The food is always simple and hearty, thanks to the care of Miss von Meysenbug, that wise lady with the goodness of an angel.  After lunch, the great, general siesta, then a communal stroll.  Lately, your brother has been capable of walking for hours on end, even on mountain paths, and this is doubtless the main reason why he has been spared headaches since his last seizure, which was brief, but still extremely violent.'" (page 38)

"The daily schedule includes, in the evening, at least two hours of communal reading in the sitting room, by the fireplace.  Malwida's letters give us a description of the atmosphere during these evenings shared by the little community in Sorrento: 'In the evening, at home once again, Rée reads to us for about an hour before dinner and for an hour after dinner.  At nine o'clock we go to bed.  We are currently reading Voltaire's Zadig and Le siecle de Louis XIV, by which we are entranced.  Nietzsche and Rée especially are fervent admirers of old French literature.'" (page 38)

Malwida wrote: "Rée with his readings, is quite simply my benefactor...in my armchair by the fireplace, the splendid readings, with spirited remarks, often interrupted by hearty laughter - no, truly, I only dread the time when it will end....When we are reunited this way in the evening, Nietzsche sitting comfortably in the arm chair behind his eyeglasses, Dr. Rée, our beneficent reader, at the table where the lamp burns, the young Brenner by the fireplace next to me and helping me peel oranges for dinner, I often say jokingly: 'We truly represent and ideal family.'" (page 40)

Nietzsche thrived under these circumstances, though still often bedridden for days.  But, more days than not, he was fully experiencing life in Sorrento as his own thoughts began to take shape.  Wagner was now reprehensible to him.  The direction of his previously published works no longer interested him.

"The profound change that Nietzsche is in the process of living is the distancing from his recent past: the Basel years, the friendship with Wagner, and the whole constellation of ideas of The Birth of Tragedy and of the Untimely Meditations  seem to him, now, to be very far away.  This change digs deep into his soul and produces something like a reversal: it exhumes earlier states of mind and buries those that are recent.  It is not by chance that Nietzsche had written during the summer of 1876, the first kernel of the thoughts of Things Human, All Too Human, was title Die Pflugschar, 'The Plowshare,' a technical term designating the piece of iron in the plow that serves to chop and turn over clumps of earth." (page 47)

The origin of Human, All Too Human started out as another part of his recent series of published meditations.  It was only after his thought deepened and broadened that he realized what he had to say could not be captured in a mere essay.  The essay he started writing remained unfinished, the last gasp of his former perspective.  Parts of it were eventually rewritten into a major new philosophic work. 

"...at the beginning of the journey South, in Bex, Nietzsche was indeed working on the fifth Untimely; he spoke of it to the enthusiastic Isabelle on the train and he had dictated parts of it to Brenner.  He even announced to his sister that it was finished, and his friends were already talking about it.  And the subject of his fifth Untimely, the free spirit, could well have served as a transition toward a new phase in his philosophy.  But Nietzsche no longer had either the strength or the desire to write it, for it retained the Wagnerian schema of the fight against the timeliness for a reform of German culture, and Nietzsche's thought now definitely exited the magic circle of this strange untimeliness, deeply connected to the present.

"A new style, a new book, a new phase of thought...For many of Nietzsche's friends, it was not easy to follow the philosopher in this rapid intellectual evolution.  Mawilda was the first to detect this profound change and was horrified by it." (page 66)

"The preliminary drafts of Things Human, All Too Human mark, above all, an antimetaphysical turn.  In The Birth of Tragedy (1872), Nietzsche had constructed a metaphysics of art and the artist affirming that existence is worth living only from an aesthetic perspective. Among the Sorrento papers, there is a very explicit passage on this subject: 'I want to declare expressly to the readers of my earlier works that I have abandoned the metaphysical aesthetic views that essentially dominated them: they are pleasant, but untenable.'" (page 68) 

Nietzsche wrote Wagnerian Mathilde Maier about his new point of view: "'It cannot be changed: I must create distress for all my friends - precisely as I finally express how I saved myself from distress....If you could only feel the pure air of the altitudes that I live in now, the sweet sentiment toward the people who still dwell in the mist of the valleys, more than ever devoted as I am to all that is good and active, a hundred steps closer to the Greeks than I have ever been; and how I myself now live striving for wisdom to the smallest detail, while before I only worshiped and idolized the wise - in short, if you could undergo as I have this transformation and crisis, then you would have to desire to live something like it.

"'It was during the summer in Bayreuth that I became fully conscious of it: after the first performances that I attended, I fled to the mountains and there, in a small village in the forest, the first draft came into being, approximately a third of my book, at the time titled 'The Plowshare.'" (pp. 72-73)

"From the terrace of the Villa Rubinacci, Nietzsche sees, every day, far off in the distance, in the sea between Mount Vesuvius and Capri, the rugged silhouette of the Isle of Ischia.  As he reflects upon the school of educators, on the civilization of free spirits and the project of creating a place for the training of higher men, he has before him this volcanic, fertile island, rife with history.  This image, which is not mentioned in the Sorrento manuscripts, remains, however, imprinted in his mind and reemerges over the course of the following years, in an extremely important passage in his body of work.  Nietzsche will say so himself, seven years later.  In the summer of 1883, at Malwida's suggestion, Nietzsche had planned to go and live on the Isla of Ischia with his sister, but on July 28, a violent earthquake had destroyed a considerable portion of the island..." (page 79)

Nietzsche departed Sorrento a changed person but he was still very sickly.  In a pivotal moment of his life, he decided not to continue being a professor teaching philology at Basel.  To his fellow professor and confidante in Basel, Overbeck, he wrote the day before he left: "'My health is ever worse, to such a degree that I must depart as soon as possible - I am bedridden every three days. Tomorrow, I am leaving by boat; I want to try a cure in Pfafers, Near Regaz. [...] It is not to be thought that I will recommence my courses this fall: therefore! Please help me a little and advise me to whom (and with what title) I should make my demission  request.  This remains, for now, your secret; the decision was very difficult for me, but Miss von Meysenbug maintains that it is absolutely imperative.  I must expect to live with my suffering for a long time to come, perhaps years.  I cannot help but afflict you with this.'" (page 91)

"If Nietzsche's life is in his thoughts, the true biographical event that details the philosophical meaning of this first journey South is contained in a few lines written in pencil in one of the notebooks that he has with him during the sea crossing.  Even if in Sorrento he had been inclined toward the acceptance of life and retained in his memory the words of Spinoza...('The free man thinks of nothing less than death, and his knowledge is not a meditation on death but on life'), he still had a long path to travel.  The Sorrento papers he carries with him in his suitcase and the plan for a new book, still untitled, constitutes a promise of freedom, but also an imposing task." (page 95)

Nietzsche’s Journey to Sorrento is about the personal, physical as well as spiritual journey of Nietzsche’s early travels in Italy.  It gives us a few intimate details about what his life was like at this time, illness and all.  While it is also about his philosophical journey, it draws no major conclusions about Nietzsche’s thought other than to note how it was transforming.  And that is all the book needs to do to justify being studied.  Human, All Too Human had not happened yet.  He was breaking from Wagner and taking a new path from the previous direction of his own published ideas.  Essays and Greek mythology were no longer enough.  There was a philosophy of a free spirit to discover.  It was found during a five-month sabbatical in Sorrento.

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