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The Last Days of Nietzsche

Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche was born in Röcken, in Prussian Saxony, in 1844. His father and grandfather were parsons, and his mother, the enigmatic Franziska, to whose bosom Friedrich was to return after his mental collapse at the age of forty-four, was the daughter of a pastor. The father, born in the same year as Nietzsche’s future father figure, Richard Wagner, died when Friedrich was four, a loss from which the son never fully recovered. The young Nietzsche was brought up in a household of women—grandmother, mother, his rabidly anti-Semitic sister Elisabeth, and two maiden aunts. He was educated at Schulpforta, a re-nowned school run on military lines, where despite privations and the harsh discipline he was happy, and did well academically, though not to a remarkable degree. Later he attended the university in Bonn, studying theology and philology, the latter subject being the one in which he began a career that was to be quickly aborted.

In 1865, while still a student, Nietzsche visited Cologne, where he was taken by friends to a brothel. The details, and even the likelihood, of this visit were long disputed, but it is accepted now that it was on this occasion that he contracted syphilis. In 1867 Nietzsche was treated for a syphilitic infection which eventually led to the mental collapse of January 1889, effectively the end of Nietzsche’s life, although he was to live, silent and lost in himself, until 1900. In her excellent account of Nietzsche’s last days, Lesley Chamberlain gives a useful summary of his many illnesses.

As for the drama of ill-health, it never left him after he reached his mid-twenties. Even in childhood he had suffered headaches and myopia, and the weakness seemed to run in the family since it also afflicted Elisabeth, and their father Carl Ludwig, who had died at thirty-six of a brain disease. Nietzsche gave out never to know quite what was wrong with himself, though he suspected a hereditary problem and congratulated himself on surviving beyond his father’s age. Yet how can he not have known he had syphilis, with a scar close to his foreskin and a history, albeit brief, of treatment? He surely lied to Wagner’s doctor, Otto Eiser. The syphilis caught from prostitutes in his student days was complicated by diphtheria and dysentery contracted as a medical orderly in the 1870 Franco-Prussian War. Nietzsche was left with a delicate stomach and poor digestion and a recurring migraine, with constant vomiting and retching maximizing the pain in his head and the disruption [of] work. For days he could do nothing but lie in a dark room….

Syphilis was the AIDS of its day, and when we read Nietzsche, especially the late work, we should keep the fact of his illness firmly in mind. Apart from prostitutes, Nietzsche, so far as we know, never slept with a woman, although he had a number of loyal and loving women friends, among them the formidable Lou Andreas-Salomé. The secret love of his life, however, was surely Cosima Wagner: the French critic Charles Andler remarked that the triangular entanglement of Nietzsche and the Wagners was the great unwritten romantic novel of the nineteenth century. Cosima was one of the people he wrote to in the last, frantic days before the collapse at the beginning of January 1889. Among the dementedly playful missives he fired off in all directions comes the anguished cry he addressed to her: “Ariadne, I love you. Dionysus.”

After Bonn he studied at Leipzig, and in 1867 was conscripted to serve a year in a field artillery regiment of the Prussian army. This bout of military service was not strenuous, although an injury sustained in a riding mishap caused him much pain and required a long convalescence. When the Franco-Prussian War broke out in 1870 Nietzsche served as a medical orderly, and suffered a physical and emotional collapse after a train journey of three days and two nights which he spent in a closed carriage tending six severely wounded soldiers.

A year previously, at the remarkably early age of twenty-four, Nietzsche had been appointed to the chair of classical philology at Basel, where he met the historian Jakob Burckhardt1 and the agnostic theologian Franz Overbeck—the latter was to be a lifelong friend. However, more important to him than these friendships, or academic success, was his virtual adoption by the Wagners. He first visited the composer in May 1869 at Tribschen, the Wagners’ house near Lake Lucerne, and thereafter became a regular visitor: at Christmas a year later he was present at the famous first performance of the Siegfried Idyll in the front hall.

Wagner graciously accepted Nietzsche’s adulation, cannily spotting a disciple who could be expected to spread the Wagnerian creed; in fact, Nietzsche was to be a relentless critic of Wagner and Wagnerism. Cosima, who was thirty-four when Nietzsche first came to Tribschen, was amused and probably a little flattered by this intense young man’s attendance on her as the Master’s muse. For his part, Nietzsche, alone and adrift, was captivated by the little world of Tribschen, seeing it as a version of Valhalla, while managing to ignore Wagner’s maniacal self-absorption and petty-mindedness, Cosima’s condescension, and the constant if casual anti-Semitism of the household. When the break came, and Nietzsche turned on Wagner, castigating him as a fraudulent purveyor of opiates, the result was devastating, for Nietzsche if not for the infinitely tougher Wagner; having lost his natural father, Nietzsche now was faced with the task of killing the surrogate, a grim task he had still not completed when he came to the end of his rational life.

In 1869 Nietzsche had successfully asked to be formally relieved of his military obligations, which under the regulations of his militaristic homeland meant he would cease to be a citizen of Prussia. He applied instead for Swiss citizenship, but was turned down. Thus from then on Nietzsche was to be stateless. It was an apt con-dition for a man of such a restless disposition. After suffering a general nervous collapse in 1870, Nietzsche became a dedicated hypochondriac, wandering through Switzerland and Italy in search of cures not only for his bad health but for the incurable condition of being himself. He secured longer and longer leaves of absence from his post at Basel, and eventually relinquished the chair altogether, and for the rest of his life would live from hand to mouth on a minuscule pension. For all his brilliance—perhaps because of it—he was not suited for the academic life, as was made clear by the publication in 1872 of The Birth of Tragedy, an entranced, dithyrambic reinterpretation of the origins of Greek tragedy which scandalized his peers by its poetic tone and lack of scholarly apparatus.

With this book Nietzsche showed himself to be, as Hans-Georg Gadamer has it, “an ecstatic witness,”2 identifying in the figure of Dionysus the savage force at work at the heart of Greek life and art. Although this early work is deeply flawed, it contains in embryonic form many of the most enduring of Nietzsche’s philosophical themes. For Nietzsche, the function of tragedy is not to provide catharsis, as Aristotle saw it, but to offer an exemplary spectacle of glorious waste. As he wrote in Twilight of the I dols:

Affirmation of life even in its strangest and sternest problems, the will to life rejoicing in its own inexhaustibility through the sacrifice of its highest types—that is what I called Dionysian, that is what I recognized as the bridge to the psychology of the tragic poet. Not so as to get rid of pity and terror, not so as to purify oneself of a dangerous emotion through its vehement discharge—it was thus Aristotle understood it—:but, beyond pity and terror, to realize in oneself the eternal joy of becoming—that joy which also encompasses joy in destruction…. And with that I again return to the place from which I set out—Birth of Tragedy was my first revaluation of all values….3

Despite such attitudinizing, however, he knew himself for the frail poor creature that he was. As he wrote in a notebook, “And I, too, have tried to affirm—but ah.” As the Italian critic Claudio Magris has observed, he was a Jesus who longed to be a Dionysus.

In the mid-1870s Nietzsche embarked on what would be more than a decade of restless flittings from the mountain country of the UpperEngadine to the south of France and on into Italy, in search of a place to rest his weary and increasingly frenetic spirit. Lesley Chamberlain writes:

…In almost ten years of wandering, Nietzsche had lived in Sorrento, Genoa, Venice, the Swiss Alps, Zurich and Nice. Becoming a Wanderer, talking to his Shadow, gave him common experience with exiles from Diogenes to Dante. What glory it was to be homeless and how it deepened his sense of being European!4

Like so many Germans before him, notably his beloved Goethe, Nietzsche had only to step onto Italian soil to fall in love with the country. In Turin, where he came in April 1888, he thought he had found his true place at last. “But Turin!” he wrote to his friend Peter Gast, in the exclamatory style of an excited tourist.

…What a dignified and serious city! Not at all a metropolis, not at all modern, as I had feared, but a princely residence of the seventeenth century, one that had only a single commanding taste in all things—the court and the noblesse. Everywhere the aristocratic calm has been kept: there are no petty suburbs; a unity of taste even in matters of color (the whole city is yellow or reddish-brown). And a classical place for the feet as for the eyes! What robustness, what sidewalks, not to mention the buses and trams, the organization of which verges on the marvelous here! One can live, it seems, more cheaply here than in the other large Italian cities I know; also, nobody has swindled me so far. I am regarded as an ufficiale tedesco (whereas I figured last winter in the official aliens’ register of Nice comme Polonais).5 Incredible—what serious and solemn palaces! And the style of the palaces, without any pretentiousness; the streets clean and serious—and everything far more dignified than I had expected! The most beautiful cafés I have ever seen. These arcades are somewhat necessary when the climate is so changeable, but they are spacious—they do not oppress one. The evening on the Po Bridge—glorious! Beyond good and evil!

Nine months after writing this dith-yramb to an idealized city, Nietzsche flung his arms about the neck of an ill-treated horse in the Via Po and collapsed into a dementia from which he would never recover.

In Nietzsche in Turin Lesley Chamberlain declares her intentions in the first line of her preface: “This book is an attempt to befriend Nietzsche.” Naturally, the reader’s heart quails a little, and Chamberlain knows it. “Philosophers may smile,” she writes, “…But it seems to me important to know, approximately, what it was like to walk down the road with this strained, charming, malicious and misunderstood thinker so important to the present age.” She succeeds to a surprising degree in communicating a sense of the man and the thinker, in all his strangeness. His friend Erwin Rohde said of him that he was like a man who came from a country where no one else lived. Of himself, Nietzsche remarked: “Some people are born posthumously.”

  1. 1

    Nietzsche’s respect verging on reverence for Burckhardt was not reciprocated. “That Nietzsche fellow?” Burckhardt is said to have remarked. “He couldn’t even have a healthy bowel motion.”

  2. 2

    Philosophical Hermeneutics, translated and edited by David E. Linge (University of California Press, 1977), p. 6.

  3. 3

    Twilight of the I dols, translated by R.J. Hollingdale (Penguin Books, 1968), p. 121.

  4. 4

    An odd and oddly endearing record of Nietzsche’s travels is provided in The Good European: Nietzsche’s Work Sites in Word and Image, by David Farrell Krell and Donald L. Bates (University of Chicago Press, 1997), which looks like a coffee-table book but is more a sort of peripatetic biography—with itineraries, photo-graphs, and many extended, and apposite, quotations from Nietzsche’s books and letters.

  5. 5

    It was one of Nietzsche’s pretensions to grandeur that he came of a noble Polish family. He based the claim partly on the orthography of his un-Germanic surname, with its central crunch of consonants. It is a small irony that, to English speakers, the name Nietzsche carries disturbing undertones not only of nay-saying, but of Nazism.

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