Lou Andreas-Salomé was the greatest intellectuals’ woman of her age, the two decades on either side of 1900; the most distinguished performer since Madame de Staël in her particular field, but unique as a tease, as an exponent of not kiss and tell. Her three principal conquests (Nietzsche, Rilke, and Freud) clearly exceed in distinction the three husbands of Alma Mahler, her only possible contemporary competitor (Mahler, Gropius, and Werfel), and although Rilke was the only one Lou went to bed with she played quite a significant part in the lives of the other two.
She was born in St. Petersburg in 1861, the daughter of a Baltic German general who was in charge of the accounts of the Russian army. In her late teens she fell under the influence of a good-looking Dutch clergyman, Hendrik Gillot, who awoke her voracious intellect with theological discussion and a course of reading. To get over the unhealthy excitement this engendered she was taken to Zurich by her mother in 1880 and embarked on a regime of theological and philosophical study so intense as to be injurious to her health. In 1882 she met Paul Rée, a pathetic character who attempted to shore up his damp soul and forget his unappetizing appearance by developing a toughly reductive theory about the origins of conscience.
Rée’s close friend Nietzsche was greatly taken with Lou, seeing in her a potentially ideal disciple. They established an odd and unstable triangle, whose abiding memorial is a photograph of Nietzsche and Rée pulling a small cart in which Lou kneels, holding an ineffective-looking whip, its meager thong dangling impotently. Their plans for studious retirement together came to nothing very much. Rée jealously slandered Nietzsche to Lou, while she, in a dire confrontation with his sister Elisabeth, poured out her revulsion from Nietzsche as a dirty old man. Nietzsche and Lou broke off their relations. Lou says she made the break despite Nietzsche’s persistent entreaties: Professor Binion makes a vast and persuasive case for the view that this was a lie.
For the next few years she lived, non-sexually, with Rée, getting a proposal of marriage from the psychologist Ebbinghaus and exciting a considerable emotional disturbance in the breast of the sociologist Tönnies, familiar to all students of his subject for distinguishing Gemeinschaft from Gesellschaft. In 1886 she married an Oriental philologist, Friedrich Carl Andreas. The marriage was never consummated. This fact must have played some part in the general fruitlessness of Andreas’s career, assisted, no doubt, by his nocturnal habits, his intuitive and disorganized methods of thinking, and his inability to adjust himself to the orderly expectations of the German academic world.
Lou soon became associated with the Freie Bühne group—in particular with Gerhart Hauptmann—and began to write for their periodical. She assembled a collection of pieces on Ibsen’s heroines in one book and in 1894, with Nietzsche safely tucked away inside his madness, another on him in which she exploited their brief but turbulent relationship to the full. A left-wing journalist fell in love with her and attempted, on discovering the nature of her relations with Andreas, to detach her from him. After exciting the amorous propensities of Wedekind and going on outings with Schnitzler she herself fell in love with the poet and dramatist Richard Beer-Hofmann, but he rejected her for the opposite reason from Nietzsche’s: he wanted something more simple and earthy, not something higher and more spiritual, than she had to offer.
This seems to have done the trick. In 1895 or ‘6 the most noticeably obstinate virginity in Central Europe collapsed in face of the vigorous approaches of Dr. Friedrich Pineles, known as Zemek. The susceptibility of this change of name to Freudian interpretation is left uniquely unexploited by Binion. Lou’s affair with Zemek endured on and off for a number of years and probably led to an abortion. She tried to remove all trace of him from her memoirs, quite possibly because he was not famous.
Lou now made up for lost time. She took on Rilke, the first and greatest of what Binion calls her boy-lovers, in 1897. She lived with him, in her usual intermittent, Andreas-based way, for three years, made two trips to Russia with him, probably had a second abortion on his account, changed his name from René to Rainer, and exercised an analogous stiffening-up influence on his verse, which had hitherto been excessively diaphanous and ethereal. In the end she sent him rather brutally about his business. She heard that Rée, whom she had not seen for years, had died from a fall and chose to interpret this as suicide caused by his loss of her. Zemek was waiting and continued to serve until 1908. Between 1895 and 1905 the bulk of Lou’s imaginative writing was produced: novels and stories of an emotionally melodramatic sort.
In 1903 Andreas at last secured a proper job, at the University of Göttingen, and celebrated the fact in the following year by getting the maid pregnant, not unreasonably after seventeen years of mariage blanche to Lou. For her a fallow period of illness and thoughts of suicide followed, until in 1911 a new boy-lover, Paul Bjerre, introduced her to Freud. While working her amorous way through various members of Freud’s circle—Bjerre, Tausk, Gebsattel—she was talking and writing to Freud and studying psychoanalysis. Soon she was practicing as a lay analyst, sufficiently entranced to see patients for as much as nine hours a day and then to undercharge or forget to charge them altogether.
For a while, as might be expected of a Nietzschean, she toyed with the heresies of Adler. Freud was indulgent and eventually welcomed her decision in favor of orthodoxy. He was the main guiding light of her last twenty years, unwearyingly generous to her with time, correspondence, and money, even if he could offer no more than gratitude for her ecstatic and voluminous endeavors to develop his doctrines, great loose effusions which he did not pretend to understand nor, it may well be thought, make any great effort to understand. This would not seem to detract from Freud’s reputation for good sense.
Andreas died in 1930. For her remaining seven years Lou consoled herself with a succession of poodles, some dependent daughter-figures, as well as an elaborate exercise in consolatory fantasy, posthumously communicated to the world in 1951 in the disguise of memoirs, and the recruitment into this project of falsifying her past of Ernst Pfeiffer, the inheritor and guardian of her literary estate, a man, it would seem from the frustrations endured by her biographers, brilliantly cast for the role of dog in the manger.
What sort of biography does such a person as Lou Salomé deserve? Something fairly brief and chatty, one might have thought, making the most of her as a particularly colorful example of the emancipated woman of the fin de siècle in the central European culture area. Such a work does indeed exist: My Sister, My Spouse by H. F. Peters, a German-born professor at Portland State College, who has also written a book about Rilke. Peters leans fairly heavily on Lou’s reminiscences and thus, as Binion pretty convincingly establishes, his book contains a good deal of fiction. It is pleasantly written, although a little infected with that rather cloying hotel manager’s geniality sometimes imparted by the editors of publishing houses to the manuscripts of academic authors. Another possibility would have been to use Lou as a pretext for a collective study of the vast array of cultural lions that she so indefatigably sought to tame, since by main force she managed to cross the path of a whole generation of middle European writers and thinkers.
Rudolph Binion, a professor at Brandeis whose previous book was a more or less conventional biographical study of three French politicians of the Third Republic, has undertaken something utterly different from either of these in Frau Lou: a psychoanalytic, if here and there trans-Freudian, investigation of Lou’s personality from infantile fantasy to post-mortem defense of her system of illusions through the instrument of Pfeiffer. Moreover, he has based it all on a most brilliant, persevering, and microscopic retrieval and use of every possible scrap of evidence.
It is impossible not to admire the astounding pertinacity with which Binion subjects every preliminary polite excuse for a late reply in her letters, every conceivable suggestion on her part of more intimacy with the great than she actually possessed, to a thorough, detective scrutiny. Her minor social dishonesties in correspondence are exposed with the kind of extravagance of detail and conjecture that is usually applied only to the writings of Shakespeare or the more theologically crucial bits of the Bible. Other readers may suspect, with me, that their own correspondence would not stand up much better under this ruthlessly intense illumination. Binion sets about the correlation between what she actually did and what she said she did, however trivial the deed, with the bulldog resolution of a divorce detective on a fat retainer who happens also to be a classical scholar manqué. Nothing escapes his notice. In 1898 she wrote to a woman friend: “I spent nearly every hour with my mother and family.” Binion is watching: “this,” he says, “was an excuse for not having written sooner—phrased to suggest that she had been in Petersburg her whole time away from Berlin.”
Such Pinkerton material is, however, by no means the largest constituent of Binion’s quarter of a million words of text, even if it is the occasion for the majority of his 2,425 bibliographical references. What bulks largest is his speculative analysis of Lou’s personality. This starts with due boldness on the second page of the main text. “Her trouble was psychic growing pains which fortunately can, and unfortunately must, be traced to their crude source. This was a craving for her father excited by excretion and attended by darkling visions of re-entering his bowel-womb to repossess his penis.”
Here, one might feel, Binion presumes too much on a very short acquaintance with his reader. He appears to take it for granted that the latter will nod his head, murmuring “of course, of course,” at the implied causal connection between Lou’s excretings and her desire for her father, that he will take cheerfully in his stride the ascription to General Salomé of that odd piece of Freudian anatomy, a bowel-womb, and that he will not merely be ready, as a good mid-twentieth century educated person, to recognize penis-envy in infant girls but will endorse the view that the baby Lou was animated at the outset of her emotional pilgrimage by a desire to get her penis back from her father. On reflection, furthermore, the itinerary she is alleged to have chosen to get to her destination seems a bit quaint.
In general Binion’s psychoanalytical interpretation of Lou is conveyed by this kind of presumptuous intimation, as if he were addressing a close and familiar group of fellow-workers who are fully seized of and wholly committed to the theoretical framework of his interpretation. Quite often some utterance of Lou’s will be contradicted or otherwise redirected in a footnote with an “of course” calculated to make the potential critic feel embarrassingly rustic and imperceptive: for example, “Lou of course loved—through Beer-Hofmann—Nietzsche.” One barely intelligible quasi-explanation follows another; there is never a pause for clear summary and consolidation.
The directly biographical inquiries make it clear that Lou was a liar or, more specifically, a self-inflating fantast. Binion’s most glittering demonstration of this is his contrast between the actualities of an uninvited visit by Lou and Rilke to Tolstoy and the richly elaborate fairy tale she subsequently managed to weave out of her recollections of that farcical encounter where Tolstoy was at his gruffest, refusing to recognize his callers whom he had met before, letting Lou in but slamming the door in Rilke’s face, all in a setting of general domestic turmoil with the sound of shouts, sobbings, and large thuds coming from behind closed doors. Binion locates Lou’s systematic deception of herself and others as well as the doctrine of mystical self-identification with the universe at large, which was the basis of her early theological and her later psychoanalytical musings, in the framework of an all-engulfing narcissism. In such very indeterminate terms he makes a good case, but the precise articulation of his account of her and the way in which the evidence he cites supports it are intolerably difficult to grasp.
It is in his use of her writings, particularly her explicitly fictional writings, to establish this theory about her that the heaviest going in a generally exhausting volume is to be found. Consider this specimen passage: “Gillot’s engagement, which had broken upon her in Kiev, backed up Rainer’s behind Dimitrii’s—which in effect topped off Witalii’s courtship of Margot in Kiev, signifying Gillot’s of herself. Predominantly, however, Witalii was Lou as Kolya…” Lou, Gillot, Rainer, and Kolya (= Nikolai Tolstoi) are real people; Dimitrii, Margot, and Witalii are characters in a story called “Rodinka.” Even if there is anything to be found out by this sort of procedure, Binion makes its cost in complexity and involution prohibitively high.
Frau Lou reinforces a moral already well enough supported: that really enthusiastic total immersion in psychoanalysis can lead the most learned and intelligent people into a dreadful, sticky, featureless swamp where every familiar object turns out to lose its identity, to be a symbol or substitute or analogue for something else, which in turn yields to the same interpretative corrosion, and so on ad infinitum. Cases in point are Norman O. Brown’s Life Against Death, a hymn to polymorphous perversity, and Brigid Brophy’s Black Ship to Hell.
Those unwilling to step off the duckboards of rationality into this kind of morass should not let themselves be discountenanced by accusations of anal anxiety or something of that sort. Psychoanalysers of the more cosmic variety frequently attempt to invalidate rational criticism by attributing it to the personality disorders of their critics. No polemical strategy more openly invites the retort: tu quoque. Why on earth should Binion devote such prodigies of skill, learning, and energy to the microscopic study of an eccentric Russian woman whose only work translated into English is the diary of her relationship with Freud? The attention he gives to her smallest utterances is comparable only to that given by a lover to the flat communications of a conventional or indifferent loved one.
It is only fair to say that Binion does in the end step back from his rapt inquiry, but only to announce with the gratification of Jack Horner that his biography is no more than an incomplete sketch, that possible further lines of inquiry stretch off indefinitely in all directions. He does not ask: why pursue the subject at all? Certainly what he has to say about the execution of his project endows it with some of the fascination of A. J. A. Symons’s Quest for Corvo. Peters, in his more digestible book on Lou, had written at some length of his frustrations at the hands of Pfeiffer: “at first everything went well…. Pfeiffer seemed genuinely interested…. yet I could not help feeling that he looked upon me as a rather dangerous intruder in his private domain.” Binion records a similar experience with more acerbity. Old Pfeiffer seems to be doing a fine job as censor of his mysteriously appetizing accumulation of repressed material.
Frau Lou’s Complaint April 24, 1969