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,…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your account.