Some remarks upon...
STEFAN ZWEIG (1881-1942),
Part of the trilogy “The Struggle With The Demon – Kleist, Hölderlin and Nietzsche”
Introduction and Translation by Will Stone.
Hesperus Press, London, 2013.
PART I. A DANGEROUS LIFE
Maybe the thrill in our veins when we read Nietzsche derives from the sense of danger that his words exhale: he’s inviting us to dance near the abyss, and without safety nets. Nietzsche desires life to be risky and full of surprises, and is furious against all tendencies of sheepish conformity. A true lover of art and poetry, Nietzsche was both a great thinker and a great artist – one who claimed that “we have art so that we might not die of the truth.” For him, an authentic “free spirit” doesn’t shy away from confrontation with the riddles of existence, even the most scary and painful ones: if you want knowledge, you’ll have to face the monsters of the abyss, and let the abyss stare into you!
As Karl Jaspers wrote on his awesome book about Nietzsche, the philosopher worthy of his task is a figure similar to Theseus: he enters boldily into the labyrinth, willing to face the danger of being eaten by the Minotaur. In Stefan Zweig’s writings on Nietzsche we feel the emphasis falling upon the dangerousness of Nietzsche life and fate. In his introduction, Will Stone recalls how much Zweig’s book focuses on “the decisive abandonment of security by Nietzsche and his propensity to take an ever more self-destructive tightrope walk, where all safety nets are strictly forbidden.” (Will Stone, Introduction, XIX)
“Voluntarily, in all lucidity, renouncing a secure existence, Nietzsche constructs his unconventional life with the most profound tragic instinct, defying the gods with unrivalled courage, to experience himself the highest degree of danger in which man can live.” (Zweig, p. 6)
Few philosophy books can be said to be as exciting as a roller-coaster ride or a bungee-jump. I believe Nietzsche’s impact on posterity has to do, partly, with those adrenaline shots we receive from his writings. We can re-read his words many times because they provoke us, entice us, marvel us, enfuriate us – but hardly ever leave us indiferent. The flame of life, in each to us, seems to burn more brightly and intensely when we come to spend so time in company with Nietzsche’s flaming words. My experience as a reader of Nietzsche’s books leads me to cherish him as a powerful voice who affects people deeply – some may disagree with him, but this disagreement itself is usually so vehement and intense that it serves as a sign of the echoes, either consonant or dissonant, that Nietzsche’s words arouses. Philosophy in the 20th century was profoundly shaken and inspired by Nietzsche’s books, but in his life, as Zweig points out, he was eaten alive, bit by bit, by the demon of solitude.
Despite his attempts to make his voice be heard, many commentators point out that Nietzsche lived an utterly lonely, isolated existence – “a solitude deprived even of God”, writes Zweig. Nietzsche ended up “crushed by the world’s silence.” (pgs. 5-7) In the following lines, Zweig is less a biographer than a painter: he’s trying to get us in synch with the philosopher’s emotional mood: “One feels here is a man residing in the shadows, apart from all social conviviality, (…) a man who over the years has lost the habit of social interaction and dreads the prospect of being asked too many questions.” (pg. 10)
Nietzsche’s health can be seen as one reason for his choice of an isolated life-style, but it doesn’t explain why the philosopher chose to cut himself even from the most basic of relationships needed, for survival reasons, for someone in his condition: the relationship with a doctor! Nietzsche rarely sought aid of professionals in the medicine field: he mostly self-medicated. He kept away from alcoholic beverages, never drank cofee nor smoked cigarettes. His pension-room had always among its furnishing elements, according to Zweig’s lively description, “an horrifying arsenal of poisons and narcotics”:
“On a shelf, innumerable bottles, flasks and tinctures: for headaches, which regularly occupy so many wasted hours, for stomach cramps, spasmodic vomiting, instestinal weakness, and above all, those terrible medicaments to control insomnia – chloral and veronal.” (11)
Imagine Zweig as a painter, and his words as drawings in our imagination, and let’s hear how he further paints Nietzsche portrait: the philosopher’s eye-sight is poor, without his glasses he would be blind as a bat. But that seems to be no impediment to his will to devote so much energy into the activities of reading and writing (which demand so much eye-labor). Most nights, Nietzsche’s brain just won’t turn off, and he can only restore his energies by sleep if he ingests some kind of soporific medicine.
“Sometimes he spends the whole day confined to bed. And no one comes to his aid, not even a helping hand, no one to lay a cool compress on his burning brow. No one to read to him, to chat with him, to laugh with him… never a warm naked female body beside his own.” (p. 11-12)
A grim picture of disease and loneliness is painted before our eyes by these Zweigian words, but they serve merely as background for the main figure in the painting: a tragic hero in the realm of knowledge, Nietzsche himself, and the process by which he falls down into the abyss. Would we dare, right here and right now, rebelling against the silence that springs from his grave, delve into the mystery of Nietzsche’s life and death?
Zweig seems to want his reader to pity the fragile and lonesome state of poor Nietzsche – friendless, abandoned, unloved. I couldn’t help imagining how Nietzsche himself would judge Zweig’s portrait. Nietzsche himself was never attracted by self-pity, and it may be argued that he chose voluntarily to lead a life in which we wouldn’t bother others with his health issues – as if he was trying to put to practise a radical attempt at self-reliance, even in the worst conditions. As Jacob Burckhardt points out, Nietzsche lived as if his task were “to increase independence in the world” (quoted by Zweig, pg. 89), and it’s hard to imagine a philosopher who took so seriously the task of being independent. The fluctuations of his health had profound impact upon his emotional state and the “mood” of his tought: by his own life-experience Nietzsche extracted awesome insights into the inner workings of the human mind. He’s arguably one of the greatest psychologists of the 19st century (he claimed to have learnt psychology mainly with Stendhal and Dostoivésvki), an certainly a pioneer in pre-Freudian times.
Zweig’s book focuses a lot on Nietzsche’s life, especially the connection between his existential loneliness and his outstanding artistic and philosophical productions. It leads the reader to ask himself: why did this philosopher, who had demolished the moral ideals of asceticism (mainly in his Genealogy of Morals), chose to live in a condition of isolation similar to those hermits he criticised so much? What caused Nietzsche’s attitude of removal from sociability: was it arrogance or pride ? What could have acted as an impediment in the route to Alterity, in Nietzsche’s life? What was the obstacle he couldn’t trespass, keeping him from crying out for help and accepting the aid of human love? Were the people around him to blame for being indiferent and uncomprohensive?
According to Zweig, aways, everywhere he lived, Nietzsche was a foreigner. And that usually doesn’t make easier the task of building friendship. It can’t be said that friendship is highly valued in his books. And it doesn’t seem to me that Nietzsche pursued in his life, with much interest or passion, a quest for human warmth and love. Lou Salomé is maybe the sole female figure in Nietzsche’s life to have aroused in him some kind of dream about redemption by love, some passionate widening of his emotional chest to the realm of the Other, but we know well things didn’t turn out that rosely. Nietzsche couldn’t see la vie en rose and his passion for Lou Salomé turned out to be a devasting heart-break. After the rupture with Lou Salomé, facing what he calls “the greatest crisis of his life”, he writes Zarathustra, a work-of-art and an philosophical poem that carry the mark of something unique. His bond with Lou had collapsed, in ruins were all the bridges of dreams, and in utter solitude he set out to write a book about a character who spent ten years far from all human contact, and tries to re-descend among the humans, to reveal what he learned whilst dwelling in the wilderness, only to discover that everyone miscomprehends him. A book born out of Nietzsche’s abyss, filled with dancing stars, chaotic and colourful as life itself.
PART II. THE WOUND OF NO REPLY
“The year-in year-out lack of a really refreshing and healing human love, the absurd loneliness that it brings with it, to the degree that almost every remaining connection with people becomes only a cause of injury; all that is the worst possible business and has only one justification in itself, the justification of being necessary.” – Letter sent by Nietzsche to his friend Overbeck, 3.2.88
Much speculation about Nietzsche breakdown in Turin is to be found in dozens of books. To this pile of speculation, Zweig adds his own contribution:
“For 15 years this cave life of Nietzsche continues from rented room to rented room, while he remains unknown…. only the flight of Dostoyevsky, almost at the same moment in time, with equitable poverty and neglect, is illuminated by the same cold grey spectral light. Here, as there, the work of a titan conceals the gaunt figure of the poor Lazarus who daily expires from his despair and infirmity in solitude, as day by day, the miracle savior of creative will awakens him from the depths. For 15 years, Nietzsche emerges thus from the coffin of his room, moving upwards and downwards, with suffering upon suffering, death upon death, resurrection upon resurrection, until, over-heated by such a flood of energy, his brain breaks apart. (…) Un-accompanied and unkown, the most lucid genius of the spirit rushes headlong into his own night.” (13)
Tough Nietzsche suffered a lot, he didn’t turn angrily against life, nor did he sought final relief in suicide. His philosophy is born out of the dwellings of his mind with his pains: “pain always searches to know the causes, whilst pleasure remains in a fixed position and does not look backwards”, he wrote. “Mighty pain is the last liberator of the spirit; she alone forces us to descend into out ultimate dephts.” And elsewhere: “I know life better, because I have so often been at the point of losing it.” (p. 23)
“Nietzsche never sets up house, with a view to economizing and conserving, he builds no spiritual home; he wants (or perhaps he is forced by the nomadic instinct in his nature) to remain eternally without possessions, the solitary Nimrod who wanders with his weapons through all the forests of the spirit, who has no roof, no wife, no child, no servant, but who, on the other hand, has the thrill and pleasure of the hunt; like Don Juan, he adores not the enduring feeling but the fleeting moments of greatness and ecstasy. He is solely attracted by an adventure of the spirit, by that ‘dangerous perhaps’ that stimulates and excites as long as the chase is on but as soon as attainmet is reached loses its grip.” (29)
In Zweig’s perspective, Nietzsche sounds the alarms and alerts us – prophetically – against the ills of nationalism and praises cosmopolitism:
“Nietzsche is content to be without country, without home or possessions, cut off forever from that ‘parochialism of the fatherland’, from all ‘patriotic subjugation’. His perspective will be the lofty one of the bird in flight, of the ‘good European’, of that ‘essentially nomadic race of men who exist outside of nations’. (…) Once Nietzsche has established himself in the south, he steps definitively beyond his past; he is peremptorily de-Germanized, de-Christianized… the navigator to the realm of the future is too happy to be embarking on ‘the fastest ship to Cosmopolis’ to experience any nostalgia for his unilateral, uniform and univocal fatherland. That is why all attempts to re-Germanize him should be strongly condemned.
At the same time as de-Germanizing him, the south also serves to de-Christianize him completely. Whilst like a lizard he enjoys the sun on his back and his soul is lit right through to his innermost nerves, he ponders what exactly had left the world in shadow for so long, made it so anguished, so troubled, so demoralized, so cowardly conscious of sin, what had robbed the most natural, the most serene, the most vital things of their true value, and had prematurely aged what was most precious in the universe, life itself. Christianity is identified as the culprit, for its belief in the hereafter, the key principle that casts its dark cloud over the modern world.This ‘malodorous Judaism, concocted of Rabbinic doctrines and superstition’ has crushed and stifled sensuality, the exhilaration of the world and for fifty generationshas been the most lethal narcotic, causing moral paralysis in what was once a genuine life force. But now (and here he sees his life as a mission), the crusade of the future agains the cross has finally begun, the reconquest of the most sacred country of humanity: the life of the world.” (pg. 61-63)
Zweig also suggests that, with Nietzsche, it appears for the first time upon the high seas of German philosophy the black flag of a pirate ship. With Nietzsche, it dawns
“a new brand of heroism, a philosophy no longer clad in professorial and scholarly robes, but armed and armored for the struggle. Others before him, comparably bold and heroic navigators of the spirit, had discovered continents and empires; but with only a civilizing and utilitarian interest, in order to conquer them for humanity, in order to fill in the philosophical map, penetrating deeper into the terra incognita of thought. They plant the flag of God or of the spirit on the newly conquered lands, they construct cities, temples and new roads in the novelty of the unkown and on their heels come the governors and administrators, to work the acquired terrain and harvest from it the commentators and teachers, men of culture. But the final objective of their labours is rest, peace and stability: they want to increase the possessions of the world, propagate norms and laws, establish a superior order.
Nietzsche, in contrast, storms into German philosophy like the filibusters making their entrance into the Spanish empire at the end of the 16th century, a wild unruly swashbuckling swarm of desperados, without nation, ruler, king, flag, home or residence. Like them he conquers nothing for himself, or anyone following him, not for a god, or a king, or a faith, but uniquely for the pleasure of conquest, for he wants to acquire, conquer and possess nothig. He concludes no treaty nor build a house, he scorns the rules of war put in place by philosophers and he seeks no disciple… Nothing was more foreign to Nietzsche than to merely proceed towards the habitual objective of philosophers, to an equilibrium of feeling, to repose in a tranquilitas, a sated brown wisdom at the rigid point of a unique conviction. He spends and consumes successive convictions, rejecting what he has acquired, and for this reason we would do better to call him Philaleth, a fervent lover of Aletheia, truth, that chaste and cruelly seducing godess, who unceasingly, like Artemis, lures her lovers into an eternal hunt only to remain ever inaccesible behind her tattered veils.” (pg. 43)
In Nietzsche’s fate we can read the tragedy of someone who, tortured by disease and anguish, embarks head-on in Knowledge’s dangerous adventure. Alone and frail, but bold and curious, he’s a man who, like a serpent, exchanged skins thoughout his life. But, as Zweig points out, his only homeland was solitude. Wherever he lays his hat, there he’s alone. He journeys through the land, but doesn’t seem ever to leave loneliness behind. There’s a song by Portishead in which Beth Gibbons wails: “This loneliness just won’t leave me alone”. It’s quite possible Nietzsche knew a lot about this emotional mood. The philosopher has been acquainted with the blues. Sometimes, it seems, he tries to believe isolation is a merit and that the geniuses of humanity shouldn’t mix with the riff-raff – that’s why many nostrils can smell arrogance in Nietzsche attitude, some aristocratical eliticism, as if the man believes he shouldn’t wallow in the mud of common vulgarities.
This loner consoles himself, to lessen the pains of his solitude, with the idea that posterity will understand and honour him. Free spirits yet to be born keep him company through his darkest hours. He warms himself by the fireside of his imagination of future glories. Zarathustra is filled with images, bursting from a mind intoxicated by poetry, of better days to come, of men who have outgrown mankind as we know it. The question I pose is: how maddening is it to seek human warmth on the imaginary realm? Can you cure yourself from loneliness with the dreamt shadow of future friends?
In Nietzsche’s final years, he gets increasing bombastic. Now he brags he’s dynamite. His previous books were almost completely ignored by the general population of the planet, and he can’t deal with this easily, emotionally speaking: he felt “only immutable solitude multiplied” and this is what, according to Zweig, “turns his soul gangrenous”: the wound of no reply.” (75)
His descent into the abyss is portrayed by Zweig as a tragedy of utter solitude. Nietzsche sinks, his brain shatters, because the burden of the world’s indifference and deafness is too much to bear. Nietzsche’s own judgement of his past achievements, in Ecce Homo, may sound deeply narcisistic and self-glorifying: he believes, for example, that Zarathustra is the biggest gift ever given to humanity, the greatest book ever written, and that whole universities should be created and devoted to its study. Some chapters of Nietzsche’s intriguing auto-biography are filled with self-celebration and megalomania, as if he’s trampling modesty underfoot: Nietzsche explains to his readers why he is so wise, how does he manage to write such great books, and considers himself to be an event in History that will divide it in two epochs. Zweig’s interpretation invites us to understand this as a symptom of his social isolation, of his frustration about the silence that surrounded his ideas, and which was so rarely broken in Europe during his life (only George Brandes, professor in Copenhagen, made an effort to spread Nietzsche’s ideas in academic circles during the philosopher’s life).
When he reached the period when he wrote his last books – among them are The Antichrist, Twilight of the Idols, Ecce Homo… – Nietzsche seems to be increasingly furious, bombastic. He writes with outbursts of rage and indignation, striving to get some answer from the world around him. Even hostility from readers seems to him to be better than silent indifference. This is how Zweig describes this late Nietzschean works:
“There are contained the most unbridled scornful cries of rage and heavy groans of suffering, flayed from his body by the whip of impatience, a savage growling through foaming mouth and bared teeth… provoking his epoch so that they react and let go a howl of rage. To defy them still, he recounts his life in Ecce Homo with a level of cynicism which will enter into universal history. Never has a book exhibited such a craving, such a diseased and feverish convulsion of impatience for response, than the last monumental pamphlets of Nietzsche: like Xerxes insubordinately battling the ocean with a scourge, with insane bravado he wants the indifferent to be stung by the scorpions of his books, to defy the weight of immunity which enshrouds him. (…) In the glacial silence and lost in his own entrancement, he lifts his hands, dithyrambic his foot twitches: and suddenly the dance begins, the dance around the abyss, the abyss of his own downfall.” (p. 77)
Stefan Zweig’s book is filled with this kind of highly dramatical images, as if he’s trying to honour Nietzsche with a painting worthy of a tragic hero. It’s certainly a very impressive and sensitive portrayal of Nietzsche, tough in its less than 100 pages it doesn’t share many details of the philosopher’s life (this has been done by Curt Paul Janz, Rudiger Safranski and other biographers). Zweig’s perspective is filled with melancholia and he decribes the “struggles with the demon” experienced by Hölderlin, Kleist and Nietzsche as something he also has experienced in his own flesh. Zweig’s life, similarly to that of Nietzsche, can’t be said to have ended happily: he was living in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, when he commited suicide in 1942. He had sought refuge from the horrors of the World War in Europe, a jew fleeing from the claws of the Holocaust. For a while, he believed Brazil to be “the country of the future”, a safe harbour where no racism or anti-semitism existed. In his book, Brazil – Country of The Future, he idealizes his new home with the eyes of the refugee who was leaving behind a world of intolerance, hatred and persecution. Then, frustration takes over, and he shoots himself in Petropolis. But that’s another story.
I believe Zweig’s Nietzsche is a book whose great merit lies in the description of Nietzsche’s existential position, one of social isolation of almost complete lack of community bonds. He’s downfall, according to an interpretation by Brazillian philosopher Oswaldo Giacoia, one of the leading figures in Nietzsche studies in Latin America, is deeply related the fact that he couldn’t belong to what Hannah Arendt used to call “a common world”. One of the most interesting psychological problems posed by Nietzsche’s fate, it seems to me, is this: how important for psychic health are the lived experienced of community bonds? What are the consequences of radical rupture with the whole dimension of alterity? Or, put more simply, what’s the price that pays the person who lives without any of the warmth provided by friendship and love?
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