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27 July 2022

Nietzsche before the breakdown

In the 1880s, the ailing philosopher prophesied the West’s violent decline – but not even he could prevent it.

By John Gray

“Wait for tea to cool before drinking it, avoid all alcohol, crowds, reading, writing letters, wear warm clothes in the evening, eat rhubarb from time to time, have a napkin at breakfast, remember notebook.” These memoranda, as recorded in Lesley Chamberlain’s Nietzsche in Turin, capture the regime Friedrich Nietzsche followed in that city, in the last of his many lodgings during his wanderings across Europe. He loved long walks, but any interruption of routine was as toxic for him as bad food, so he avoided fashionable cafés and promenades. Even a bookshop was off-limits for fear of bumping into an acquaintance who might want to talk about Hegel. He needed, above all, a quiet life.

Nietzsche had cultivated the habits of an invalid for many years. Migraines, myopia, insomnia and nervous exhaustion pursued him from his twenties. Born in 1844 into a third-generation family of Lutheran pastors, he was appointed to a professorship in classical philology at the University of Basel in 1869, aged just 24. After ten years of worsening health he resigned to become a peripatetic writer. He sought out ambiences where the light was mellow, the breeze gentle and the people cheerful. He tried Sorrento, Genoa, Venice, Switzerland and Nice. Turin suited him perfectly.

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Formerly the capital of the Duchy of Savoy and then of the Kingdom of Sardinia, the elegant, geometrically designed city embodied what Nietzsche, in his seminal first book, The Birth of Tragedy Out of the Spirit of Music (1872), defined as the Apollonian virtues of reason and order, which emerged in opposition to the Dionysian forces of ecstatic vitality. In Greek mythology, Apollo was the god of music and the sun, Dionysus of wine and dance. In Nietzsche’s view, both Apollonian harmony and Dionysian energy were necessary in a balanced culture. With its picture of the Presocratic Greeks struggling against a deep-seated sense of the tragic irrationality of the world, the book scandalised the classicists of his time, who – like many people, even today – clung to a simplistic image of Greece as the birthplace of reason. Nietzsche’s essay remains a powerful criticism of “Socratism” – the belief that logic, science and morality can curb conflict and destruction in human life. But in exploring this polarity Nietzsche was (like all philosophers, he believed) engaged in an autobiographical exercise. The warring gods reflected conflicts in his personality, from which he was released chiefly by absorption in music. In Turin, his room was yards away from an opera theatre.

There have been several accounts of Nietzsche’s travels. The Good European (1997) by the philosopher David Farrell Krell and the photographer Donald L Bates is a definitive guide to what Nietzsche found in the cities and landscapes in which he chose to work and live. Sue Prideaux’s I Am Dynamite!: A Life of Friedrich Nietzsche (2018) tells the compelling story of how Nietzsche became “the empty occupant of furnished rooms”. In 2020, the admirable Pushkin Press published Stefan Zweig’s Nietzsche – which first appeared in 1925 as part of a larger book on European thinkers – in an English translation by Will Stone.

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Now Pushkin has reissued two outstanding studies of his later years. Published in 1929, Nietzsche in Italy by the German-born Swiss essayist and biographer Guy de Pourtalès (1881-1941), freshly translated by Stone, remains remarkably penetrating in its interpretation of Nietzsche’s thought. Nietzsche in Turin (1996) by Chamberlain – who later wrote The Philosophy Steamer (2006), an evocative history of Lenin’s deportation of Russian intellectuals in two German ships in 1922 – is the most detailed account of how the philosopher’s travels ended, as well as the best-written and most intelligent.

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When he arrived in Turin in the spring of 1888, Nietzsche had reached a complicated juncture in his life. His friendship with the composer Richard Wagner, whom he had seen as an ally in an ambitious attempt to renew German culture, had ended a decade before. Nietzsche’s relations with his sister Elisabeth Förster-Nietzsche – at the time living in a racist colony, Nueva Germania, which she had founded in Paraguay with her anti-Semitic husband – were acrimonious, partly because of her role in sabotaging his relationship with Lou Andreas-Salomé. Captivated by the spirited, Russian-born young woman, he made her a proposal of marriage via another admirer, his friend the philosopher Paul Rée, which she declined. Nietzsche responded by reviving a plan they had previously discussed for a platonic ménage à trois, but instead she went off with Rée. Salomé’s rejection of him left Nietzsche shaken and embittered. Yet there was never any prospect she would spend her life with him. Salomé, who would later, with the support of Freud, become one of the first practising female psychoanalysts, must have quickly recognised that Nietzsche was incurably unwell.

Nietzsche was suffering from syphilis, most likely contracted during a visit to a brothel in his student days. (His ill health was compounded by the effects of the dysentery and diphtheria from which he suffered while serving as a medical auxiliary in 1870 during the Franco-Prussian War.) Nietzsche seems to have had no sustained sexual relationships of any kind. In this he differed from his first intellectual lodestar, the celebrated pessimist Arthur Schopenhauer (1788-1860), who had many affairs with women, some long-lasting. A chapter of The World as Will and Idea, where Schopenhauer argues that human life is ruled by unconscious impulses rather than rational choices, presents a forensic analysis of sexual desire.

[See also: HG Wells and the human animal]

Though the two never met, Schopenhauer was a pivotal figure in Nietzsche’s life. Discovering his treatise in a second-hand bookshop while a student in Leipzig in 1865, Nietzsche was overwhelmed. He came to reject its philosophy as life-negating, but both thinkers looked for a way of living that did not depend on theistic myths. While Nietzsche proclaimed the death of God from the rooftops, Schopenhauer noted the deity’s demise and calmly moved on. The pessimist believed fulfilment could be found only in renouncing the ego, but took care not to practise his philosophy, fashioning a satisfyingly selfish life for himself. A colder and merrier soul than his sometime disciple, Schopenhauer felt no need to save humankind.

Nietzsche, on the other hand, could not rid himself of the belief – he was the son of a pastor, after all – that the world needed redeeming. In his last months in Turin he gave full vent to his messianic passion. In January 1889, after tearfully embracing a carthorse that was being flogged in the street, he fired off letters to friends announcing he had imprisoned the pope and calling for a concert of European powers against Germany. Others he drafted were to be sent to Bismarck and the Kaiser. Many were signed “Dionysus”, or “the Crucified One”.

Nietzsche’s thought was then unknown except to a few devotees. By the time he died in August 1900, he was on the way to becoming a global intellectual celebrity. His reputation as a precursor of fascism was formed by the editions of his works that his sister – a Nazi sympathiser, whose funeral Hitler attended – edited and at times redacted; she may also have forged some letters from him. Nietzsche was a lifelong opponent of German nationalism – so much so that on several occasions he denied his Germany ethnicity and claimed Polish origins. Preferring the Old to the New Testament, he loathed anti-Semitism. In many ways he was the opposite of a proto-Nazi. At the same time he planted a bomb under the foundations of liberal rationalism, whose thunderous detonation can be heard today.

In the autumn of 1880, Pourtalès records, Nietzsche was living in an attic room above a grass-covered street in Genoa. He spent his days walking through the city, composing attacks on Christian values. The fruit of his meditations was one of his best books, The Gay Science (1882), where he proclaimed the death of God as an opportunity to find joy in earthly things. Watching him always alone, book in hand, his neighbours called him “il piccolo santo”, the little saint, and gave him candles for his devotions, which he accepted gladly. With “no alcohol, no renown, no women, no newspapers, no honours”, as he put it, he turned a modest existence on a professor’s pension into a life of holy poverty. “How at root he is a Christian,” Pourtalès writes, “this future anti-Christ!” Near the end in Turin, watching the passing cortège of a famous admiral, Nietzsche had the impression that he was attending his own state funeral. Accosting passers-by, he told them, “Be joyful. I am God. I am just in disguise.”

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If Pourtalès presents Nietzsche as an anti-Christian messiah, Chamberlain shows him as a casualty of modernity. Ecce Homo – his last complete book, written in 1888 but published in 1908 – is in her view “an auto-obituary”. The death of God meant the erasure of any transcendental realm through which humankind could find meaning and value. Nietzsche’s response was to make himself into a sacrificial offering – half Christ, half Dionysus – whose posthumous gospel would deliver the world from nihilism, its hidden sickness.

As Chamberlain writes, “He associated nihilism with illness, his own illness and the cultural decay of all Europe.” The ailing Übermensch may have realised he cut a droll figure. Chamberlain reports that as he was leaving Turin for a psychiatric clinic in Basel he asked his landlord for his papalina, a triangular nightcap with a tassel: “So dressed he left Turin, the tragic philosopher who not only willed himself to be a clown but willed himself to bequeath that visual image to posterity.”

Contrary to his comic-book reputation, Nietzsche did not welcome Dionysian frenzy. It was Apollonian harmony he craved – both in his own life and in society. The Birth of Tragedy identified the besetting weakness of the modern West as the belief that reason can bring order into human life. Nietzsche envisioned a new kind of human being who, without denying the reality of Dionysian forces, could contain the chaos they brought with them. The most prophetic of 19th-century thinkers, he discerned that the seemingly triumphal march of European progress was heading for a cataclysmic fall. He feared an era of great wars, which as he drifted into madness he imagined he could prevent. His breakdown may have come with the realisation that, like his illness, the malady he diagnosed was fated to run its course.

Nietzsche believed that without a spiritual realm in which goodness and truth are one and the same – as Plato affirmed in his timeless forms, and Christianity in a divine Logos – values are ultimately expressions of human will. Rationality, in that case, is simply a tool which can be used for the sake of chaos and barbarism as much as order and civilisation. At present, as Vladimir Putin prosecutes a war of terror with calculated savagery, reason is serving Dionysian forces of the darkest kind. If you want solutions to the disorder of our time, you will gain little from reading Nietzsche. Yet there is much to be learned about the sources of the West’s decline from the struggles of this unbelieving Christian, who found in ancient Greece a tragic vision that he spent his life struggling vainly to escape.

Nietzsche in Turin
Lesley Chamberlain
Pushkin Press, 256pp, £12.99

Nietzsche in Italy
Guy de Pourtalès
trs Will Stone
Pushkin Press, 112pp, £9.99

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This article appears in the 27 Jul 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Special