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Rapture, Religion and Madness Part One: Lou Andreas-Salomé on Nietzsche

By D.A. Barry.

The powerful currents of atheist polemic in 21st century European and American intellectual culture have resulted in Friedrich Nietzsche’s ideas having something of a resurgence. Presently in the Twittersphere, Nietzsche bots churn out endless 140-character quotes from his writings. Books such as Life Lessons from Nietzsche by John Armstrong, published by Alain de Botton’s School of Life, offer to readers an entertaining and perhaps comforting version of Nietzsche’s thought. But it’s hard to imagine an understanding of the value of Nietzsche’s writing, or the lack of it, other than through a deep engagement with his work: a conscious wrestling with his concepts as he seeks to undermine the reader’s preconceptions — whether Christian or Platonic or Kantian or even Nietzschean — in order to encourage a ‘revaluation of all values.’ Even after years of close reading, distinguished Nietzsche scholars such as Alexander Nehamas and Walter Kaufmann hold differing views on the meaning and value of his thought.

In order to provoke a re-examination of a wide spectrum of assumptions with regard to Nietzsche’s philosophy and how that philosophy played out in his life, I’d like to revisit the ideas in a much maligned biography of Nietzsche, that was written by Lou Andreas-Salomé: Friedrich Nietzsche, The Man in His Works (1894).

The first time that I encountered Lou Salomé by name and image was in a cinema in Rome in 1984. I’d been invited to see the movie by a woman-friend who was an admirer of Liliana Cavani. Cavani’s film Al di lá del Bene e del Male (Beyond Good and Evil) is a fictional depiction of Salomé’s relationship with Friedrich Nietzsche and the Positivist philosopher Paul Rée. The story is loosely based on the time that the threesome spent together over eight months in 1882. It was easy for my friend and I to fall in love with the ‘idea’ of Lou Salomé: a liberated intellectual woman, a feminist of sorts — although she wouldn’t have claimed so — who lived across the cusp of previous centuries, who intrigued both of these men so much that they proposed to her. Salomé was a novelist and a poet. Nietzsche set one of her poems to music. She was a literary critic. Her first published work in 1892 was called Henrik Ibsen’s Female Characters. She was a theorist of the erotic; and finally she became a psychologist after studying with Sigmund Freud. Her biography of Nietzsche is really a psychological portrait though it reveals a deep engagement with his philosophical writings.

Some biographical notes on Lou Andreas-Salomé

Lou Salomé was born in St Petersburg in 1861. Her father was a Baltic German general in the Russian Army. Those who taught her — she studied theology, philosophy and psychology throughout her long life — became fascinated with her. The first to become infatuated with her, when she was in her late teens, was Hendrik Gillot, a Dutch clergyman, who was wont to sit her on his knee during their unorthodox theological discussions. She was scandalised, however, when he proposed marriage to her. She left Russia ‘for health reasons’ to travel with her mother through Germany and Italy. At the salon of Malwida von Meysenbug, at the Via della Polveriera in Rome, Salomé met with the Positivist philosopher Paul Rée. Rée, smitten by Salomé, wrote to Nietzsche about her. Nietzsche replied:

“Greet this Russian for me, if that has any purpose: I lust for this species of soul. I shall now look forward to plunder, and with what I have in mind for the next ten years, I will need her. An entirely different chapter would be marriage — at the most I could agree to a two-year marriage…”

But propose he did. Salomé and Nietzsche met in Rome in March 1882, introduced by Rée in a side chapel of St Peter’s Basilica. At the time of Nietzsche’s proposal she was twenty-one years old and Nietzsche was thirty-eight. Rée was thirty-three. It was Rée who acted as go-between despite having proposed to Salomé himself. She turned down both men’s marriage proposals but suggested that all three of them could live together in a celibate household where they might discuss philosophy, literature and art. Respected Nietzschean scholar Walter Kaufmann quotes letters among Salomé, Rée and Nietzsche where he seeks to show that the plan never came to fruition, although they did spend three weeks together in an apartment in Leipzig in the autumn of 1882.

Just the idea of living together as a threesome had been a complete scandal to Nietzsche’s mother and sister – and to Wagner’s circle with whom the three were connected. The full plan eventually fell apart amid jealousy among the would-be cohabitants. Salomé and Rée left Nietzsche to live together in celibacy in Berlin and eventually she split with Rée. She entered into a celibate marriage with a Professor of Persian Language, Carl Andreas. Her sexuality blossomed during an affair with Rainer Maria Rilke. She first came to his attention when he read a Nietzschean essay she had written, called Jesus the Jew. She had other affairs throughout her life although she remained married to Andreas until his death in 1930.

On 25th October 1912, Salomé met Sigmund Freud. She became a personal student of his, a psychologist in her own right, and she continued to correspond with him until her death in 1937. Salomé’s short autobiography Looking Back has a scant five pages on Nietzsche and far more on Freud. Perhaps she had written enough on Nietzsche. Her biography of him provoked passionate praise and equally passionate criticism. No matter how calumnious the public attacks on her, particularly from Elisabeth Förster-Nietzsche during the Nazi period in Germany, Salomé did not respond to them. Whatever its shortcomings, Salomé’s biography of Nietzsche reveals a deep reading of his work and reflects on the eight-month period when they were involved with each other. It offers her unique insights into Nietzsche’s troubled psychology.

Friedrich Nietzsche, The Man in His Works

Salomé saw the roots of Nietzsche’s madness and the genius of his philosophy as the struggle with the religious conditioning that had marked him since childhood. She believed that the drive to overcome this conditioning led to warring emotions within his psyche, which he sought to dominate and subsume through his philosophical insights. The ferocity and intensity of the emotions he experienced led to fiery expression in his poetic hyperbole, culminating in Thus Spake Zarathustra. As Salomé states in the biography:

“All of Nietzsche’s knowledge arose from a powerful religious mood and was insolubly knotted: self-sacrifice and apotheosis, the cruelty of one’s own destruction and the lust for self-deification, sorrowful ailing and triumphal recovery, incandescent intoxication and cool consciousness. One senses here the close entwining of mutual contradictions; one senses the overflowing and voluntary plunge of over-stimulated and tensed energies into chaos, darkness and terror, and then an ascending urge toward the light and most tender moments — the urges of a will ‘that frees him from the distress of fullness and overfullness and from the affliction of the contradictions compressed within him’ — a chaos that wants to give birth to a god, and must give birth to one.”

Despite Salomé’s appreciation of the Positivist aspects of Nietzsche’s philosophy in Human, All Too Human and her praise for The Gay Science with regard to the poetic nature of the work where the character of Zarathustra first appears, according to Mandel’s introduction to the English version of her biography,

“… she believes that only disaster can come of substituting an idolatrous version of one’s self for the lost image of God: further, she believes that the philosopher-creator envisioned by Nietzsche is an aesthetic fallacy and a creature of religious mysticism.”

Nietzsche, Salomé posits, is mistaken in thinking he has found something new: his mysticism is a return to religion.

The Overman and the Death of God

In the introduction to the Penguin edition of Nietzsche’s Human, All Too Human, Marion Faber points out that Nietzsche’s rejection of Schopenhauer,

“led to both an acceptance and rejection of the conclusion reached by Kant in The Critique of Pure Reason (1781): an acceptance in that Nietzsche shared the view that any “real world” or “noumenon” — as opposed to the phenomena we know through our senses and reason — is inaccessible to us. Nietzsche also went a step further by asserting that this real world was not only inaccessible but also of no significance to man.”

The traditional Christian worldview of God and the afterlife, already battered by the storms of the Enlightenment, had met shipwreck on the rock of Darwin. Nietzsche welcomed the discomfort of Christians. In Dawn, Nietzsche declares:

“In former times, one ascribed the sense of grandeur in man to his godly origin: this path has now become closed because at its portal stands the ape, amid other horrible animals, and apprehendingly bares his teeth as if to say, ‘no farther in this direction!’ And so, one now tries an opposite direction, a path which mankind takes to prove its grandeur… Alas, that too is in vain!”

‘That too is in vain’ because the idea of evolution — as progress of any species — was alien to Nietzsche. In his notes gathered under the rubric Anti-Darwin in The Will to Power, quoted in Kaufmann’s Nietzsche, Philosopher, Psychologist Antichrist, Nietzsche states:

“My general view. — First proposition: man as a species is not progressing. Higher types are indeed attained, but they do not last. The level of the species is not raised.

Second proposition: man as a species does not represent any progress compared with any other animal. The whole animal and vegetable kingdom does not evolve from the lower to the higher — but all at the same time in utter disorder, over and against each other…

…That the higher organisations should have evolved out of the lower has not been demonstrated in a single case… I do not see how an accidental variation offers an advantage.”

Nietzsche’s response to his own loss of religious faith — he was a pastor’s son — was to find its expression in his materialist philosophy clearly stated in the Positivist-influenced Human, All Too Human; but in later works was frequently expressed in a hyperbolic language reminiscent of the Bible. Certainly his poetic language is an expression of self-creation in the ‘grand style’ by which he sought to live.

But what does this language style portend?

The first appearance of the phrase ‘God is dead’ in the works of Nietzsche is in Book 3, Stanza 108, of The Gay Science. Here is that short stanza, entitled ‘New Struggles’:

“After Buddha was dead, his shadow was still shown for centuries in a cave — A tremendous gruesome shadow. God is dead; but given the way of men, there may still be caves for thousands of years in which his shadow will be shown — And we — we still have to vanquish his shadow, too.”

Nietzsche saw that the destruction of the traditional Christian world view was an opportunity for a revaluation of all values: a revaluation that needs to be constant and not constrained by any system. He was, however, aware of the potential cost of such a destruction of values. The sections of Book 3 that follow on from Stanza 108 of The Gay Science reach a poetic crescendo in Stanza 125, known as ‘The Parable of the Madman’. It is written in a biblical language that he was to revive in Thus Spake Zarathustra. Here is a section of Stanza 125 of The Gay Science from Kaufmann’s English translation:

“The madman jumped into their midst and pierced them with his eyes. ‘Whither is God?’ he cried. I will tell you. We have killed him — you and I. All of us are his murderers… What were we doing when we unchained the earth from its sun? Whither is it moving now? Whither are we moving? Away from all suns? Are we not plunging continually? Backward, sideward, forward, in all directions? Is there still any up or down? Are we not straying as through an infinite nothing? Do we not feel the breath of empty space? Has it not become colder? Is not night continually closing in on us? … God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him….How shall we comfort ourselves, the murderers of all murderers? What was holiest and mightiest of all that the world has yet owned has bled to death under our knives; who will wipe this blood off us? What water is there for us to clean ourselves? What festivals of atonement, what sacred games shall we have to invent? Is not the greatness of this deed too great for us? Must we ourselves become gods simply to appear worthy of it? There has never been a greater deed; and whatever is born after us — for the sake of this deed he will belong to a higher history than all history hitherto.”

The last line is one of optimism. Those who come after the murderers of God will find a new value system. Or will they have to become gods themselves? They can create themselves as Nietzsche did. But Nietzsche understood that if you take away the concept of God, the result in the collective consciousness of a theistic society is that you undermine many of their cultural and ethical values. Nietzsche may well have been happy to witness the destruction. But many people don’t want that kind of devastation to be wreaked on their psyches. Nietzsche understood this. He claimed his philosophy was not for ‘the herd.’ It is for those who can overthrow the Christian/Platonic paradigm and can revaluate all values and pave the way for the emergence of the ‘Overman,’ an intellectual giant:

“A giant calls out to another one through the desolate connecting rooms of time, undisturbed by the malicious noisy dwarfs who crawl away, as highly intellectual conversations continue.”

The Eternal Recurrence

Nietzsche rejected any ‘Ideal’ reality — Platonic or Kantian — behind the world of appearances. He rejected any post-mortem condition but he claimed that one of the central tenets of his philosophy was the idea of Eternal Recurrence. Is this Eternal Recurrence a metaphor? If so, to what does it allude? To most philosophers or otherwise, it is unclear exactly what Nietzsche meant by Eternal Recurrence. Kaufmann and Heidegger both point out that Nietzsche’s view of the Eternal Recurrence is intimately connected with that of the Overman and his concept of the Will to Power.

Kaufmann — in the chapter ‘Overman and Eternal Recurrence’ in Nietzsche: Philosopher, Psychologist, Antichrist — posits the Overman as supra-human and the Eternal Recurrence as supra-historical. Kaufmann argues that the total acceptance of the present moment as the joyous expression of the Will to Power is such that the Overman experiences the rapture of the Eternal — beyond time — wherever he finds himself within the continuum of time. This state is ‘unattainable’ by ordinary humans. Is this not mystical? Is not this unattainability precisely that which Salomé rejects for being an unattainable aesthetic image? Or does this metaphor have any close parallels with Zen satori or other states of consciousness attainable (or non-attainable) through ‘mystical’ practices? We’ll come back to this question when we examine Heidegger’s view of Nietzsche’s ‘Will to Power’ in part two.

Kaufmann quotes the metaphorical ‘demon interrogatory’ of the Eternal Recurrence from The Gay Science:

“The greatest weight. — What, if some day or night a demon were to steal after you into your loneliest loneliness and say to you: ‘This life as you now live it and have lived it, you will have to live once more and innumerable times more; and there will be nothing new in it, but every pain and every joy and every thought and sigh and everything unutterably small or great in your life will have to return to you, all in the same succession and sequence — even this spider and this moonlight between the trees, and even this moment and I myself. The eternal hourglass of existence is turned upside down again and again, and you with it, speck of dust!’ Would you not throw yourself down and gnash your teeth and curse the demon who spoke thus? Or have you once experienced a tremendous moment when you would have answered him: ‘You are a god and never have I heard anything more divine?’ If this thought gained possession of you, it would change you as you are, or perhaps crush you.”

The Overman recognizes that he would rejoice in the possibility and ‘instead of relying on heavenly powers to redeem him, to give meaning to his life, and to justify the world, he gives meaning to his own life by achieving perfection and exulting in every moment.’

But if this is the case, why did Nietzsche declare that the Eternal Recurrence was a central scientific tenet of his whole philosophy? The Eternal Recurrence seems at best an idea that remained undeveloped; at worst it appears to be an embarrassing aspect of Nietzsche’s philosophy — could it be the product of a deluded opiated ‘insight’ rather than any rational philosophising?

It’s impossible to know.

On 5th May 1882, according to Salomé, she and Nietzsche climbed Monte Sacro where he told her of the concept of the Eternal Recurrence ‘in a quiet voice with all the signs of deepest horror.’ We have only her word for this, of course, but that Nietzsche experienced the idea of the ‘Eternal Recurrence’ at times as liberating and at other times as horrifying is not impossible.

Salomé clearly considers his concepts of the Overman and the Eternal Recurrence as mystical. On the Overman, she has this to say:

“…Nietzsche finally resolved the tragic conflict of his life — the conflict between the need for God and the compulsive need to deny God. At first, he fashioned the mystical superior-human ideal through self-intoxicated fantasy, dreams, and rapture-like visions; and then, in order to save himself from himself, he sought to identify himself with them through one tremendous leap. Finally he became a dual figure — half-sick and suffering; half-saved; a laughing and superior human. The one is like a creature, the other a creator; the one assumes a reality and the other a mystical sur-reality.”

Did Salomé misunderstand Nietzsche’s proposition of the Overman and the Eternal Recurrence or did she ‘inconveniently’ point out the mysticism in the ideas, which would be considered improper to analytical philosophy and irritating to militant atheists? Salomé had a great respect for Nietzsche. Her biography was meant as a psychological observation of a philosophical mentor and friend who had suffered a collapse into irrecoverable mental illness. Whether syphilis or schizophrenia or some other disease had an influence on Nietzsche formulating his ideas can never be ascertained.

Salomé claimed that the embryo of the self-god Zarathustra was already present in The Gay Science, and the inflated ‘vision’ of Zarathustra was a clear indication of a pathology in the making.

Heidegger on Nietzsche’s Will to Power

Much of the language collected in Heidegger’s Nietzsche, Volume 1, which includes two lecture series: The Will to Power as Art, and The Eternal Recurrence of the Same has parallels in religious or mystical paradigms. Heidegger declares that the ultimate state for Nietzsche — the Overman — is found when the individual is fully expressive of his own Will to Power. This expression of the Will to Power is evidenced by a state of creative rapture. (David Farrell Krell’s translation of Rausch — which can also be ‘intoxicated frenzy’ or Dionysian ecstasy.) It’s not difficult to recognise that Heidegger infers that the unimpeded (rapturous) expression of Will to Power has affinities with what he calls authentic Dasein, a condition that he proposed in his own masterwork Being and Time.

As appropriate, therefore, Heidegger’s lectures on Nietzsche will be examined in more detail in Part Two and the mystical attributes of the Will to Power brought into focus; along with Lou Andreas-Salomé’s ideas on religion and psychology; and an examination of her distorted image in several areas of academic and popular culture.


Author image by Andrew Stevenson

D.A. Barry has published three novels with Jonathan Cape: The Chivalry of Crime, A Bloody Good Friday and Cressida’s Bed. He’s written a thesis called The Escape of the Imaginary Author about David Enrique Spellman and the multi-platform novel Far South. His shorter prose has been published in The New YorkerGranta and in anthologies including Sea Stories and London Noir. His first novel, The Chivalry of Crime, won Spur Awards from the Western Writers of America. He tweets from @farsouthproject. He’s putting the final touches on a new novel set in New York City.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Monday, October 12th, 2015.