Nietzsche’s Complaint

In response to:

The Last Days of Nietzsche from the August 13, 1998 issue

To the Editors:

A number of readers have written to The New York Review to question my contention that it is generally accepted that Nietzsche suffered from syphilis, probably contracted on a visit to a brothel in Cologne in 1865, and that it was this disease that led to his mental collapse in 1889. Certainly, it has never been proved that Nietzsche was afflicted by this dreadful disease, as many authorities have been careful to point out, including Otto Binswanger, director of the Jena University psychiatric clinic where Nietzsche was treated from January 1889 to March 1890; the medical faculty of Tübingen University in opposing a doctoral dissertation published in 1990; and Nietzsche’s English-language biographer, Ronald Hayman (“The aetiology of Nietzsche’s illness and his madness are especially problematic because contemporary diagnoses are unreliable and the surviving evidence is exiguous”; but also: “In January 1889, after the onset of madness, he said he had infected himself twice in 1886” [Hayman, p.10]).

Of course I did not suggest in my article that the diagnosis of syphilis had been proved—how could it be, given, as Hayman says, the state of medicine at the time, and the passage of years since Nietzsche was treated? It is the business of scholars to argue such issues. I am not a scholar, and Lesley Chamberlain’s book is not a work of scholarship, nor does it pretend to be. However, despite the absence of proof, I believe it is not unjustified to say that it is and was widely accepted—by Thomas Mann, among others—that Nietzsche was syphilitic, in the same sense that while it is not proved that Jesus Christ was crucified, it is generally accepted that he was.

John Banville