Being Nice to Nietzsche

In his vagabondage around western Europe in the decade of white-hot creativity that was granted him after he resigned his chair in philology at the University of Basle, three other cities were of particular importance to the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche: Nice, Genoa and Turin—all cities with an Alpine background. The last of them impressed him most of all, and as the scene of his breakdown in December 1888 Turin has assumed an emblematic importance, to which Italo Calvino alludes, when he suggests that the planned architectural logic of the city was enough to tip Nietzsche into a madness from which nothing of his former genius was ever recuperated.

Torino_Mole Antonelliana Alps
The Alps advance on the gates of Turin

Where the nuances are understood

In April 1888, after years of stateless wandering across the continent, Friedrich Nietzsche stopped in Turin, a baroque urban planning project set out in its magnificent detail by the architect Guarino Guarini in the late 17th century.

He took to it like no European city he had come across before. From the cheap lodgings he found with an Italian family in the historic centre of the city “opposite the grand Palazzo Carignano of 1680, five paces from the great Portici and the Piazza Castello and the post office!,” he marvels in almost daily letters to his friends in the north about Turin’s quiet, stately streets and the bracing wind, the theatre and the soft colours, the Galleria Subalpina orchestra striking up another overture. He can see beyond the city into the world of snow. The streets seem to run straight into the Alps. “It is the air that does it—dry, exhilarating, happy.” He stands in awe of the Mole Antonelliana which, with its 165 metres of wrought iron on brick and granite, was the literal pinnacle of the great Piedmontese brick-building tradition: “perhaps the most ingenious building ever constructed” reminded him “of nothing so much as [his] Zarathustra.” He rediscovers the music of Bizet (“tutto Torino carmenizzato!”) and Rossini’s operas, deliciously light relief after Wagner. The restaurants and coffee houses are marvellous; the ice cream only thirty centimes a scoop; the streets clean and orderly; everything breathes an atmosphere of “aristocratic tranquillity”. It is the perfect city for Nietzsche, provincial but grandiose. “I find the inhabitants pleasant and I feel at home,” he writes to his old friend Franz Overbeck.

It is where he writes his ultimate books, Ecce Homo (finished in three weeks), Nietzsche contra Wagner and the Dithyrambs of Dionysus. In a letter to his composer friend Peter Gast (Heinrich Köselitz) he describes it as “the first place where I am possible!” A hundred and fifty years earlier, Jean-Jacques Rousseau had walked to Turin to consolidate his conversion to Catholicism, and had been similarly enchanted by the city: Mass at the Chapel Royal was effectively an orchestral concert. He, too, had thought the city would provide him with a stage on which he could indulge the “hope of soon becoming a person worthy of [him]self.”

When Nietzsche returned to the city in September, after passing the summer in the mountains at Sils Maria, the elation had become intoxicating. Turin was now sanatorium and labyrinth, though still bathed in a miracle of light: “autumn here was a permanent Claude Lorraine—I often asked myself how such a thing could be possible on earth. Strange! For the misery of the summer up there, compensation did come. There we have it: the old God is still alive…”

He gets a tailor to cut him a new suit, and revels in being received everywhere as a distinguished foreign visitor: the man facing him in the mirror has never looked better or younger. He dares to go out for a walk without his glasses, and is gratified to observe young women turning to stare at him. He tells his former patron Malwida von Meysenbug—verehrteste Freundin!—that he has been “suffering from a surfeit of righteousness.” He is waiting to reign in glory, “the first and freest spirit of Europe,” the philosopher whose writings “will sunder the history of mankind.”

He would like to shed a little light and terror as regards himself; the tone of his work, he tells Overbeck, is “one of gay detachment fraught with a sense of destiny.” Turin, he informs Meta von Salis, is not a place to leave. Nowhere else has he ever felt that the nuances were so well understood. He says Yes, he says it again and louder; nothing happens. Bismarck receives a copy of Ecce Homo in December and Nietzsche writes to Carl Fuchs that its publication should be accompanied by a declaration of war: “the next few years will stand the world on its head: since the old God has abdicated, I shall from now on rule the world.” The world is stone-deaf: writing to his publisher in Leipzig in an attempt to buy back the rights to his books (for which he had never received royalties), he tells him that he has the distinction “of publishing the foremost human being of all millennia.” His mind parcels itself up into various personalities: Voltaire, Dionysus, Buddha, even two contemporary French criminals he had read about in the Journal des Débats. His last, disinhibited letter to his “great teacher” Jacob Burckhardt accuses the old historian of “private egoism” and cultivating an aesthetic detachment from the world (which was precisely what Nietzsche had tried to do with his famous adage about the world only being justifiable as an “aesthetic phenomenon”—and here was evidence of its failure, this moral act of sacrifice!). He would have preferred, he tells Burckhardt, to have retained his professorship in Basle rather than play God—a god ‘condemned to entertain the next eternity with bad jokes.”

On 3 January 1889 he is reported to have embraced a pair of mistreated dray-horses in a street adjoining the piazza Alberto, a theatrical gesture not unlike the dream of Raskolnikov, in which his younger self embraces an old mare which has been drunkenly battered to death by her peasant owner; bystanders promptly called the police. He was barely lucid. Years earlier he had written in his essay Schopenhauer as Educator: “more profoundly feeling people have at all times felt sympathy for the animals.” Pity, Zarathustra once said, was his “deepest abyss.”

Alerted by Burckhardt, his old friend Overbeck took the train a few days later from Basle, and found Nietzsche correcting proofs on the couch in his lodgings. Landlord and lady reported incessant piano-playing and nude dancing upstairs. With a dentist escort, the three of them took the train back to Basle; Nietzsche sleepy with chloral tried to take off his clothes, talked to strangers and crooned the gondola song from Nietzsche contra Wagner. He was wearing his landlord’s papalina, a nightcap with tassle. From Dr Wille’s psychiatric clinic in Basle (a name no novelist would dare to invent) he was taken back to the asylum in Jena, his mother’s house in the old ecclesiastical town of Naumburg where he had spent his youth, and the chalk landscapes near his old school. He had never entirely liberated himself emotionally from the stifling protestant atmosphere of Naumburg: now he was back within its actual walls.

He lived on, a man who happened to bear his name, in a state of total incapacity. In another of his ultimate books, Twilight of the Idols, he had written in favour of physician-assisted euthanasia: “Vegetating on in cowardly dependence on physicians and their methods, once the meaning of life, the right to life, has been lost, should be greeted with society’s profound contempt.” For another eleven etiolated years vegetating on was all he did: he was cared for by his mother and his sister Elisabeth who, after his death, was to become not only the jealous administrator of his fame but the first of his vulgarisers. “I don’t like my mother,” he had written in 1883, “and to hear my sister’s voice is disagreeable to me; their company has always made me ill.” It might have been Friedrich who wrote the excerpts that were later published as The Will to Power but it was Elisabeth—“the llama” as he nicknamed her—who counterfeited them as his last words in the biography that she saw through the presses between 1895 and 1904.

Logic, madness and the planned city

Nietzsche’s act of “self-criticism” in Turin is such a pathetically signal moment of modernity in crisis that Lesley Chamberlain, in her book Nietzsche in Turin, must have had some doubts about addressing it all. His descent into personal Bedlam has been tackled by a large number of scholars, all of different ideological persuasions (something the contradictions in Nietzsche’s unsystematic writings notoriously provide licence for), and several novelists have flogged to the bone that incident with the horse, but few English-speaking writers have tried to “befriend” him in the passionate, committed way that Chamberlain has (she calls herself the “lingering friend”). “It is my fate to have to be the first decent human being,” Nietzsche wrote in the Why I am a Destiny chapter of Ecce Homo; it is this humane version of the great browbeater that she develops. She is largely successful in doing so, despite an occasional tendency to yield to the novelistic—insinuating beyond the known facts, though it may well be all but true that Nietzsche never had an “erotic friendship with a woman”—or to interpose such archly melodramatic phrases as “I continue to live with Nietzsche then in that Dionysian spirit” or “Yet, oh gods in heaven protect him, he still fell at Wagner’s feet…”.

Torino 1880s
Turin in postcard view of the 1880s

Chamberlain quivers with the emotional needs which kept Nietzsche writing, even as his Innerlichkeit crushed him with despair—a man innocent of politics and social life, and in pursuit of the self-knowledge whose very lack was bound up with the institutional life he had turned his back on: if his former colleagues, the classical philologists, had really felt the realities of the world they studied they would have shrivelled in horror. (It didn’t stop Nietzsche himself issuing calls for the resumption of human sacrifice.) His is, after all, a well-documented life: in reconstructing his last sane nine months she has been able to lean on the hugely detailed Kritische Studienausgabe and the Colli-Montinari edition of letters addressed to Nietzsche as well as his own missives to a wide circle of correspondents.

Part of that context is, of course, Turin. With its veiled light sources and spatial harmony, the voluminously felt city—later to serve as a backdrop for the Greek-Italian painter Giorgio de Chirico and the school of pittura metafisica, Cesare Pavese and the level-headed Primo Levi (who didn’t care at all for Nietzsche’s shrill and hectoring tone)—is as much the book’s subject as the philosopher. Writing his memoirs many years later, Chirico wrote that he had tried to express in his painting “the strong and mysterious feeling I had discovered in the books of Nietzsche: the melancholy of beautiful autumn days, afternoons in Italian cities.” Italo Calvino commented that Turin is “the ideal city in which to be a writer,” but adds, in a footnote, that being a place which is marked by vigour, linearity and style, “it encourages logic, and logic opens the way towards madness.” Turin was also home, when Nietzsche was there, to the criminologist Cesare Lombroso, though Chamberlain doesn’t mention the rather ironic presence of the pioneering criminal anthropologist: Lombroso would surely have interested himself in a man plotting to overthrow the entire world order—had he ever heard the name of Nietzsche.

The “royal residential city” also brings out a theme that runs through Nietzsche’s creative years: how the Enlightenment project itself ultimately contributes to his credibility. Perhaps he felt that affinity himself when he called Turin a place that made him possible. Chamberlain registers the full force of Nietzsche’s boast about his German prose-style (“Before me one did not know what can be done with the German language”), his huge imaginative effort to get beyond strenuousness and “sweaty” German values to “a bold and exuberant intellectuality that runs presto.” (Elsewhere, in the preface to Daybreak, he had written that he and his book were “friends of lento”: the philologist’s slow reading is one thing, but the record of the explosive last years of his life suggests he was anything but the slow writer he also claimed to be.) The Greeks, he had written elsewhere, were superficial out of profundity. In fact, his philosophy had to do a lot of sweating to aspire to the light, divine, mercurial thinking he valued so highly: though he aspired to write like Stendhal Nietzsche is really the Martin Luther of the age of psychology. Luther, too, in one of his most influential tracts The Bondage of the Will, had denied fallen humankind the reality of its phenomenological sense of freedom, and impugned what are generally assumed to be the purest (because least selfish) ethical motives. Thinking is what the body does—though as Martha Nussbaum has pointed out, for a philosopher who so conspicuously celebrates the body he appears on the whole entirely unconcerned about how its material needs are satisfied. Heidegger, who talked a lot about the body too, can be accused of the same high-mindedness.

Together with the poignancy of Nietzsche’s last few conscious months—and there can be little doubt that the physical basis of his dementia was tertiary syphilis—there is the uncanny way intellectual acuity continued to cohabit with a disintegrating psyche right up to the last few days. “Sing a new song for me,” he wrote to Köselitz on 4 January, “the world is transfigured and all the heavens rejoice.” He signed that thumbnail sketch of The Birth of Tragedy The Crucified One. It was a tale of two men, and two cities. Overbeck, who came down from Basle—where it had all started when Nietzsche resigned his chair in 1879—to rescue him in Turin on 8 January, comments in his memoirs that he could never quite resist the thought that his illness was simulated, and for several critics there are analogies between Nietzsche’s behaviour and Hamlet’s. There has hardly been a writer in the last two hundred years who hasn’t felt Hamlet’s predicament to be his own at some point, but it might be more pertinent to observe, with René Girard, that nobody has fallen into the hands of the living God, and endured such a dreadful fate. Chamberlain cites his Burckhardt letter as a “final plea for his worth as a Shakespearean fool to be considered,” echoing Nietzsche’s own description of buffoonery as a possible disguise for “desperate, all-too-certain knowledge.” Perhaps it might even be possible to see Nietzsche as a fool for Christ. After feeling Dionysian for a while he tended to sign off as The Crucified. The fool was unprotected. Nietzsche, in the end, was unequal to Zarathustra’s call to overcome the spirit of revenge: his whole work is an accusation of an accusation. Only a poet might have avoided that bind; though the group of disciples who gathered around Stefan George and developed a “party line” dedicated to “the Master” brings even that supposition into question.

Hans Olde_Nietzsche 1899
Nietzsche in a bathchair the year before his death, photo by Hans Olde

Nietzsche neglected to notice that his bright, clinical, hygienic deity Apollo had another face: as oppressor and flayer of Marsyas. And isn’t there something of the Viennese doctor about Nietzsche?—forever diagnosing but short on therapy (schnapps was pretty much all they offered as palliative treatment in those days in the Vienna hospitals). Not that his philosophy took place under anything like clinically controlled conditions: the Superman went beyond good and evil, but as a populist demagogue of the most brutal kind. (A true Superman would be someone like Jesus, who, innocent of the need for Nietzsche’s philosophy, would insist on telling others his kingdom was not of this world.)

Nietzsche, like Dostoevsky, whose Grand Inquisitor turned up in Moscow in the 1930s, failed to foresee how explosively a moral-psychological grammar of catastrophe (and a heroics of self-overcoming empty of ethical content) would translate into practical politics. “A dominant race will grow up only out of violent and terrible beginnings. Problem: where are the barbarians of the twentieth century?” Blaise Pascal, to whom Nietzsche owes much, could have told him that when men strive to be angels (supermen) they are just as likely to end up as beasts (submen). If some people can lift themselves above humanity, others can be safely excluded from its kind. Pascal could also have directed his attention to the fateful loss in his writings of the middle register, or as Chateaubriand insisted: “a moderation… without which everything is a lie.” Pascal’s pensée 537 (on Morality and Doctrine) could almost have been written with Nietzsche in mind: “Christianity is strange; it bids man to recognise that he is vile, and even abominable, and bids him to want to be like God. Without such a counterpoise his exaltation would make him horribly vain or his abasement horribly abject.” Most of the time,

Nietzsche’s writings are so shrill with rhetorical one-upmanship as to be beyond what makes politics possible; and that, of course, is the problem. How could he call himself “the last disciple of the philosopher Dionysus” when he must have known from his readings of Euripides that Dionysus, in his ability to accommodate all human passions, including the most ferocious homicidal frenzy, is the mob? Heraclitus, in one of his fragments (CXVI), even says that Hades (aides meant “invisible” in the philosopher’s Ionic dialect) and Dionysus are the same: what passes for enhanced vitality is, unbeknown to the bacchic celebrant, already psychic death.

Rigour—the kind of rigour which led Nietzsche to call Kant ‘the Chinaman of Koenigsberg’—is a quality of mind that roused Nietzsche’s suspicion: it seemed a mask of cowardice bound up with the need for certainty—but his suspicion itself is unthinkable without an altogether more positive and critical rigour. How could Nietzsche talk meaningfully about power without an intimate knowledge of the institutions set up to regulate it by appeal to a canon that determines its nature and scope? By what dint could he so consistently ridicule authority in others? Who, in what is an old problem of the German intellectual, constituted his public? (Nietzsche would surely be the last person to parrot Schiller, who, in 1784, declared “the public is now everything to me—my preoccupation, my sovereign and my friend.”) Conversation, the supremely bourgeois value, seemed to Nietzsche the mark of an irremediable weakness. Only that “damned soul” Max Stirner, psychopathic author of what is a grandiose parody of the subjective trend of Western individualism, Der Einzige und sein Eigentum, tried, in any similar way, to become a “law unto himself.” Nietzsche’s grand economy of self-preservation was built on a Schopenhauerian equation that self-evacuates, like the Cheshire cat from its smile: “the species is everything, one is always none.” Similarly Nietzsche: music was the form in which we perceive “the delight felt at the annihilation of the individual.”

Is it this refusal of agency, even a most attenuated agency, that seems so suspect? Nietzsche took his own speculative freedom for granted, yet trying out ideas and their contraries, refashioning his life as a work of art could only have been possible within a liberal democracy (and with the help of the University of Basle’s modest pension plan). Nietzsche was blind to how the industrial revolution, in his own century, had utterly transformed the material conditions of life. More than a hundred years after his death some of his French followers such as Gilles Deleuze and Michel Onfray still fail to appreciate just how important the market is in generating “nomadic desire.” Indeed, it seems as if Nietzsche was foretelling not a struggle to the death between titanic ideas but the febrility of our present market society: “become who you are” is the trademark slogan of the Prozac generation. No lifestyle choice can ever resemble an act of fate.

Live burial of a petrified feeling

In the murk, which Goya had tried to paint at the other end of the nineteenth century, we find not Nietzsche’s political programme, such as it was, but his style: radical negation that doesn’t want to halt at No, disengagement from ordinary society, “heroic” commitments. If Nietzsche’s goad was a scripture, “God shall vomit up the lukewarm,” we need to ask why he called on Dionysus to bring back, rather than the weakened and internalised form of vengeance (ressentiment) he so detested, real carnage and slaughter. “In times of painful tension and vulnerability, choose war: it hardens, it gives you muscles.” Had the terror of bloodshed become wholly unintelligible to the wealthy bourgeois civilisation of which Nietzsche was in so many respects a representative figure? If it had, the same can hardly be said of its twentieth-century extension. When democracy broke down in the 1930s it wasn’t just the most cynical expression of the will-to-power (der Wille zur Macht) that flaunted itself, but a regressive tendency to put out the lights (der Wille nur Nacht)—the phrase comes from Ernst Weiss, Prague novelist and friend of Franz Kafka.

In the event, there was no haul back to lucidity for Nietzsche. His strategy for liberating the primitive sacred—G.K. Chesterton quipped that if God is great for Islam then Nietzsche merely upturns the formula and makes greatness his godhead—failed to bolster what often seems like a determination on his part to obliterate original sin, and in the century that he just lived into and described so unerringly well (having had a hand in writing it) walking along the mountain tops above the human fray has come to seem a pretty questionable aspiration. Like so many artists of the time, Nietzsche was a primitivist: he thought that eating from the Tree of Knowledge would make us conscious of our innocence, the ardent ability to be. It would be a state beyond guilt and sorrow, essentially a kind of unknowing. That, according to Heinrich von Kleist in a fable Nietzsche surely took to heart, would be the last chapter of the history of the world, and is presumably why Chamberlain provides such a weighty subtitle to her book: the end of the future. But Nietzsche knew he couldn’t escape his intensifications: Zarathustra had to step out as the legislator of freedom from the law. Victory didn’t arrive, couldn’t arrive, and madness arrived to wipe away doubt—and reason.

Harry Count Kessler, who helped finance the foundation run by Nietzsche’s sister in Weimar, left a vivid description of the unmindful invalid recumbent in his sister’s villa in Weimar: “He was asleep on the sofa, his mighty head had sunk down and rightwards onto his chest, as if it were too heavy for his neck. His forehead was colossal; his great mane of hair is still dark-brown, like his shaggy, protruding moustache. Broad, dark brown lines beneath his eyes are cut deeply into his cheeks. One can still see in the lifeless, flaccid face a few deep folds cut there by his thought and will, but softened and getting smoothed out. His expression shows an infinite weariness. His hands are waxen, the veins a greenish violet, and a little swollen as they are on a corpse. The close air of a thunderstorm had tired him, and although his sister stroked him several times and fondly called him ‘darling, darling’ he would not wake up. He did not resemble a patient or a lunatic, but rather a dead man.”

Chamberlain is attempting in her book to do posthumously what so many young visitors to the benighted philosopher hoped to do while he was still alive: heal him by swaddling him in an adoring community. In so doing, she is actually subverting the signal insight of the philosopher who, somewhere in the thin pure air of Sils Maria, had grasped that being condemned to individuality was the worst pain of all. “Ich bin die Einsamkeit als Mensch” (January 1889). Loneliness had taken the human form of Friedrich Nietzsche. The price of the detached intellect is the pain of its isolation: “life has proposed my duty to me,” he wrote to a correspondent, “with the terrible condition that I should fulfil that duty in solitude.”

It was Nietzsche’s peculiar courage to endure this wound, done with a Swiss army knife in the Engadine high over the world: “The last philosopher I call myself, for I am the last human being. No one speaks with me beside myself and my voice comes to me as the voice of one dying. With the beloved voice, with you the last remembered breath of human happiness, let me talk, even if only for another hour. Because of you, I delude myself as to my solitude and lie my way back to manifoldness and love, for my heart shies away from believing that love is dead. I cannot bear the icy shiver of solitude. It compels me to speak as though I were Two.” Nietzsche was not exempt from the rule that the reverse side of self-love is a self desperately in need of being loved.

For all his reluctance to believe that love is dead, empathy is not the right quality for approaching Nietzsche, who, in a letter of 1888, asked his future readers—“monsters of curiosity”—not to side with him: “a dose of curiosity, as if presented with some unfamiliar plant, and an ironic resistance would be an incomparably more intelligent position to adopt.” A few years before, he had counselled, in one of his books: “It is part of the humanity of a master to warn his pupil about himself.” Both remarks—as full of self-insight as could be wished—worry away at something odd about Herr Professor Nietzsche in his “azure isolation”:

that the fear which Zarathustra talks about as the originary human drive was something Nietzsche knew too much about as well as too little. The letter he addressed in December 1887 to the Danish critic Georg Brandes (Georg Cohen), the first academic to give serious consideration to his philosophy, is more a warning than a welcome: “But a philosophy such as mine is like the grave—one no longer lives with others.”

It is a warning he turns into a difficult pedagogical exercise—as if oblivion and recognition were two aspects of the same state of being—in one of his last letters (postmarked 4 January 1889) to the same Brandes: “To my friend Georg! Once you discovered me, it was no great feat to find me: the difficulty now is to lose me…”

“Being Nice to Nietzsche”, The Good European, Carcanet Press, 2006