An ex­plo­sively in­sight­ful reap­praisal

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - BOOKS REVIEWS - HUGO DROCHON


On the morn­ing of Jan­uary 3rd, 1889 a half-blind Ger­man pro­fes­sor, sport­ing a lux­u­ri­ous mous­tache, left his lodg­ings on the third floor of Via Carlo Al­berto 6 in Turin. He was used to tak­ing his daily walk through the fa­mous ar­cades of the city, which shielded him from the light, and along the banks of the river Po. He would walk up to five hours a day, which ex­plained his mus­cu­lar frame: some­what in dire con­trast to the var­i­ous ill­nesses that no­to­ri­ously plagued his life.

But that day he did not get very far. He walked less than 200m to the Pi­azza Carig­nano, and what hap­pened next is the stuff of leg­end: see­ing an old re­cal­ci­trant horse be­ing flogged mer­ci­lessly by its owner, the pro­fes­sor threw his arms around the horse to pro­tect it – per­haps even whis­per­ing “Mother, I have been stupid” in its ear (how can any­one have heard that?) – and col­laps­ing. He was saved from be­ing es­corted by two po­lice­men to the asy­lum by his land­lord, Da­vide Fino, who brought him home. We might never know ex­actly what hap­pened on that fate­ful day, but one thing is cer­tain: the pro­duc­tive and in­tel­lec­tual life of the great philoso­pher Friedrich Ni­et­zsche had come to an end.

In her won­der­fully grip­ping new bi­og­ra­phy of Ni­et­zsche – the type you stay in bed all Sun­day just to fin­ish – Sue Prideaux casts doubt on this story. In­deed, the horse only makes an ap­pear­ance in the leg­end 11 years later – in 1900, the year of Ni­et­zsche’s death – when a jour­nal­ist in­ter­viewed Fino, the land­lord, about the events of the day. And only in the 1930s – more than 40 years later – do we hear about the horse be­ing beaten and Ni­et­zsche break­ing down in tears; this time in an in­ter­view with Fino’s son, Ernesto, who would have been about 14 at the time.

De­spite no cor­rob­o­ra­tion on the Ger­man side – from nei­ther his sis­ter nor his friend Over­beck, who brought him back to Basle – the “Ni­et­zsche horse meme”, to put it in to­day’s terms, has proved hugely pop­u­lar. It fea­tures in Mi­lan Kun­dera’s The Un­bear­able Light­ness of Be­ing, and the horse it­self has got its own biopic in the form of an 2011 film The Turin Horse by Hun­gar­ian film-mak­ers Béla Tarr and Ágnes Hran­itzky, which pro­poses a sto­ry­line of what hap­pened to the horse af­ter the event. To make things even stranger, the story of a horse be­ing flogged to death ap­pears in Ni­et­zsche’s favourite au­thor Fy­o­dor Dos­toyevsky’s Crime and Pun­ish­ment, writ­ten when the lat­ter was 44: ex­actly Ni­et­zsche’s age when he broke down.

Prideaux casts even more doubt on the cause usu­ally at­trib­uted to this in­san­ity: syphilis. Pop­u­larised by Thomas Mann’s novel Doc­tor Faus­tus, which has a Ni­et­zsche-like char­ac­ter con­tract syphilis in a brothel, the ev­i­dence sim­ply doesn’t stack up. Al­though di­ag­nosed as such when ad­mit­ted to the asy­lum in Basle, Ni­et­zsche showed none of symp­toms now as­so­ci­ated with it: no tremor, face­less ex­pres­sion or slurred speech. If he was at an ad­vanced stage of de­men­tia caused by syphilis, Ni­et­zsche should have died within the next two years; five max. He lived for an­other 11. The two in­fec­tions he told the doc­tors about were for gon­or­rhoea, con­tracted when he was a med­i­cal or­derly dur­ing the Franco-Prus­sian War.

In­stead Prideaux puts for­ward the – cor­rect – view that Ni­et­zsche prob­a­bly died of a brain tu­mour, the same “soft­en­ing of the brain” that had taken away his fa­ther, a ru­ral pas­tor, when Ni­et­zsche was a boy. In­deed both sides of the fam­ily showed signs of neu­ro­log­i­cal prob­lems, or of suf­fer­ing of “nerves”, as one put it at the time. Ni­et­zsche’s younger sis­ter Elis­a­beth cer­tainly seemed prone, in posthu­mously mak­ing him palat­able to the Nazis in her Ni­et­zsche Ar­chive in Weimar, to a de­gree of mega­lo­ma­nia her­self (she had her­self buried in the mid­dle of the Ni­et­zsche fam­ily burial ground, on the spot orig­i­nally re­served for her brother).


At stake is whether Ni­et­zsche’s writ­ings, and es­pe­cially his the­ory of the Über­men­sch, should just be dis­missed as the rav­ings of a mad­man. Here the story of the horse takes on par­tic­u­lar im­por­tance: if true it would mean Ni­et­zsche re­pented his views, ask­ing for for­give­ness for hav­ing de­manded that mod­ern man should “over­come” him­self, to be­come “hard” by eschew­ing pity. This is cer­tainly Kun­dera’s view, and it makes for a much nicer, more docile Ni­et­zsche. But if there is no horse, or at least if there is no sob­bing and pro­tect­ing a flogged horse – that there is a men­tal break­down is beyond doubt – then Ni­et­zsche means what he says and his think­ing is, in the words of Prideaux, dy­na­mite.

Ni­et­zsche’s in­fa­mous line con­cern­ing women is of course “You go to women? do not for­get the whip!” Yet in the photo that im­mor­talised that phrase it is Lou An­dreas-Salomé, the Rus­sia psy­cho­an­a­lyst and muse of Freud, who is hold­ing the whip, with both Ni­et­zsche and his friend Paul Rée pulling the cart. As Prideaux shows, Ni­et­zsche en­ter­tained re­la­tions with, and was ap­pre­ci­ated by, the lead­ing women – some­times fem­i­nist women – of his day.

The pic­ture she paints of Ni­et­zsche’s early time in Trib­schen with the com­poser Richard Wag­ner and his wife, Cosima, who came to greatly ap­pre­ci­ate the young pro­fes­sor, is, with the de­scrip­tion of the silk-lined house and bu­colic walks in the moun­tain, wor­thy of a Turner, and the book is laced with hu­mour and the eye for a bon mot. This is much like her pre­vi­ous bi­ogra­phies, on Munch and Strind­berg, who were both in­flu­enced by Ni­et­zsche.

Prideaux’s Ni­et­zsche is one who is in­vested with all the hopes and as­pi­ra­tions of a fam­ily that had lost a fa­ther at a young age, and who is per­ceived, within that in­ti­mate cir­cle, as some­thing ap­proach­ing a god. He more than ful­filled that destiny, but ul­ti­mately not in the way ei­ther his mother, a de­vout Chris­tian, nor his sis­ter would have wished. And for it he paid the high­est price. With Ni­et­zsche’s life we are again left to pon­der the trib­ute ge­nius must pay to in­san­ity.

Hugo Drochon is the au­thor of

■ GreatPol­i­tics



Por­trait of the Ger­man philoso­pher and writer Friedrich Ni­et­zsche, Septem­ber 1882.

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