Friday, January 11, 2013

Nietzsche Under Lou Salomé’s Whip

This famous--if not infamous--photograph was taken in a photographer's studio in Lucerne, Switzerland, on May 13, 1882.  Friedrich Nietzsche and Paul Rée are pulling a cart on which Lou Salomé sits, holding a whip fashioned with sprigs of lilacs.  Later, in a letter to Lou, Nietzsche wrote: "Oh, that naughty photographer!  And yet: what a lovely silhouette perches there on that delightful little cart."  Some readers of Thus Spoke Zarathustra have wondered whether the "little old woman" is referring to this photograph when she declares:  "You are going to women?  Do not forget the whip!"  And give the whip to the woman!

When this photograph was taken, Nietzsche was truly under Lou's whip.  Earlier in the day, he had proposed marriage to her for the second time that spring, and for the second time, she had turned him down.

Nietzsche and Rée had been close friends for about seven years.  In March of 1882, Reé had met Lou--a 21 year old Russian woman travelling with her mother--and Rée became enthralled with her after long philosophic conversations.  He wrote letters to Nietzsche describing her spirited intellect.  He arranged for Nietzsche and Lou to meet on April 25 in Rome at St. Peter's Basilica.  Nietzsche first words to her were "From what stars have we fallen together here?"  She replied, "I came from Zurich."

The three of them developed a plan to live together as an intellectual community of three people who could stimulate one another in their philosophic work.  Nietzsche spent many hours with Lou alone, during which she was the first human being to hear about Nietzsche's world-shattering idea of eternal recurrence.  He identified her as "the most intelligent of all females," and as someone who could help him develop his intellectual vision for the future.  But soon Nietzsche and Rée became romantic rivals in their pursuit of Lou, who insisted that she wanted only intellectual friendships with them.  At the same time, Nietzsche's sister became resentful of Lou's influence over her brother.  By late October, Nietzsche found the situation so tense that he left his two friends and never met them again.

From 1883 through 1885, Lou and Rée continued to live and work together, but their love was never sexual.  Lou then married Friedrich Carl Andreas, but forced him to accept that their marriage would never be consummated.  Later, she had a long love affair with Rainier Maria Rilke, who drew inspiration from her for his poetry.  She became a novelist, a poet, a literary critic, and even a psychoanalyst who joined Sigmund Freud's inner circle.  She became a muse for some of the greatest thinkers and artists of her time, beginning with Nietzsche.

During her time with Nietzsche, Lou began writing notes about Nietzsche's philosophy, which eventually led to the publication in 1894 of her book Friedrich Nietzsche in seinen Werken.  This was the first book on Nietzsche, and it is still perhaps the best book ever written on Nietzsche.

As I have indicated in some previous posts, I find that Nietzsche's best writing was during his "middle period," when he wrote Human, All Too Human, which shows the influence of Darwinian evolutionary psychology coming through his friendship with Rée.  Human, All Too Human was also Lou's favorite of Nietzsche's books.  But this is not the common view.  Most popular readers and scholars of Nietzsche assume that his greatest work is found in the early writing (The Birth of Tragedy) and the late writing (beginning with Thus Spoke Zarathustra).  But despite the obvious brilliance of Nietzsche's early and late writing, Lou shows that his middle writing has a scientific basis that makes it far more intellectually defensible than is the case for the other writing, which shows a delusional religious fantasy that has no grounding in reality and thus leads to the madness into which Nietzsche fell.

I see at least four deep insights in Lou's book that open up Nietzsche and the intellectual drama surrounding him and his work.

First, Lou was the first person to see the division in Nietzsche's writing into three periods.  As in The Birth of Tragedy, his early period shows the influence of the romantic metaphysics of Richard Wagner and Arthur Schopenhauer in filling the void left by his loss of his childhood Christian faith.  His second period began with his break from Wagner and Schopenhauer and his friendship with Rée.  This was the period in which he wrote under the influence of modern natural science and a free-spirited skepticism in the pursuit of knowledge rooted in evolutionary science.  After breaking off his friendship with Rée, Nietzsche turned away from scientific naturalism and adopted an atheistic religiosity expressed in his teachings about the Ubermensch, eternal return, and the will to power, which was first shown in Thus Spoke Zarathustra.

The second insight in Lou's book is seeing that Nietzsche's philosophizing is autobiographical--that it expresses the personal experiences of Nietzsche himself.  Thus, she applies to Nietzsche what he had said about other philosophers, and he agreed with her about this in one of his letters to her.

The third insight is that the deepest motivation for Nietzsche was his religious longing, so that once he lost his childhood faith in the Christian God, he had to find a replacement for God that would give the world some eternal meaning; and he did this by divinizing himself as Dionysus and eternalizing human experience through eternal return.

The fourth insight is that in contrast to the scientific reasoning of the middle period, the appeal of Nietzsche's early and later writing is purely mythopoetic delusion unsupported by empirical evidence or argumentative reasoning.  For example, she reports that in 1882 Nietzsche told her that he wanted to spend the next ten years studying natural science to find scientific support for his idea of eternal return.  But then when it quickly became apparent to him that natural science could not confirm his teaching, he wrote Zarathustra as a purely poetic expression of his teaching that would not require any grounding in reality.

For me, all of this confirms my conclusion that the Darwinian science of Nietzsche's middle period--particularly, Human, All Too Human--is the only intellectually defensible part of Nietzsche's work.

And yet, the rest of his work is valuable--as Lou shows--by indicating how the Darwinian refutation of the universe as a moral cosmology provoked a turn to art and religion as mythmaking to escape from this "deadly truth."  (As I have indicated in some previous posts, Leo Strauss and his students show this in their scorn for Darwinian science as a dangerous truth, and their preference for Nietzsche's later writings and rejection of the free-spirited evolutionary science of his middle period.)

I do see, however, at least two deficiencies in Lou's book.  First, while she recognizes the scientific character of Nietzsche's middle works as influenced by Rée--which she identifies as "positivism"--she does not recognize this science as specifically evolutionary or Darwinian science.

The second deficiency is that she does not consider the political implications of Nietzsche's teaching in the middle period.  She says nothing about Nietzsche's support for liberal democracy as compatible with a free-spirited science (particularly, in sectons 438-82 of Human, All Too Human).  Thus, she does not see the connection between science and liberalism in Nietzsche's middle works or how his move away from science in his later works leads him to antiliberal politics, which inspired the Nazis.

Perhaps if Lou had agreed to marry Nietzsche, she could have calmed his religious longings and sustained his free-spirited love of scientific knowledge in a way that would have avoided the dangerous delusions of his later writing.

Some of my previous posts on Nietzsche and Darwin were posted in August of 2009.


Paul said...

I do not exactly see the inconsistency of Nietzsche's middle and late writings. In his middle writings, Nietzsche argues that Darwinian and Historical science are deadly truths. In Beyond Good and Evil, Nietzsche claims that he wants to discuss the value of truth, which I have always understood him to mean the value of Darwinian and Historical truths. Nietzsche already believed that these were deadly truths insofar as they assaulted our sense of the world we live in as a moral cosmos; yet I think Nietzsche was so ecstatic because he believed that he had invented a myth that was broadly consistent with the truths of Darwinian science and promoted them as an expression of our place in the cosmos. I am not sure what to make of Nietzsche's politics, but his metaphysics in his late writings seem almost banal to me.
What else could it be but a truism to say that everything intelligible is governed by an arche? What more is Nietzsche even saying when he claims that the intelligible character of the world is will to power and nothing else?

I guess I am attempting to argue the point that I think Nietzsche was arguing; even within the framework of Darwinian science, we are still free to judge and make evaluations of the world. The metaphysics of science and knowledge can be given expression in mythopoetic fashion, and probably in more than one mythopoetic fashion. However, I am open to persuasion that Nietzsche was going beyond merely presenting his evaluation of science in mythopoetic fashion. But why shouldn't science and philosophy have some of the romance of myth?

Troy Camplin said...

I am of the opinion Nietzsche was beginning to understand self-organizing network processes, fractal geometry, strange attractors, etc., but did not have the scientific language with which to speak of them. When you are trying to say the unsayable, you must turn to poetry.

I discuss Nietzsche's later works and these ideas here: