Dear Herr Professor, when it comes to it I too would very much prefer a professorial chair in Basel [University] to being God; but I did not dare to go as far in my private egoism as to refrain for its sake from the creation of the world … being condemned to entertain the next eternity with bad witticisms.Friedrich Nietzsche to Jacob Burckhardt
Letter of 6 January 1889
It is a tragic fact that Nietzsche was ill, and this illness famously resolved itself into madness. Yet, despite his errors, his contradictions, his contribution to modernity’s moral malaise, he kept one foot planted in the camp of civilization. A part of him struggled against nihilism. At odd intervals he looked forward to the reconstruction of civilization — even allowing (in one passage) that the “death of God” was “only a rumor”; that he himself could believe in God, as long as it was a “dancing God.” In his madness, indeed, Nietzsche said he would have rather been a professor at Basel University than God.
Considering the more demonic attributes of latter-day professors, we need not assume the worst about the ailing Nietzsche; for unlike today’s academics, there was method in this madness. “Every form is accompanied by an inclination,” noted Aquinas. If our latter-day professors tend to malevolence, there was a streak of benevolence in Nietzsche. Yes, he questioned the foundations of morality; but only to find a pathway back from nihilism to the madhouse.
It is a peculiar feature of Nietzsche’s thought that he both dreaded and welcomed the end of civilization. His nihilism was therefore inconsistent. Charity directs us to appreciate, rather, his keen criticism of mankind’s hypocrisy. There was only one Christian, Nietzsche said, and He died on the cross. Here we find a deeper appreciation of man’s wickedness than one usually finds in academics. Nietzsche summarized man’s situation as “Nero on the throne, [and] God on the cross.”
Nietzsche, of all the dubious thinkers of modernity, was primarily thinking of us — of those who would reap the grim harvest of nihilism. In this matter he referred to himself as a “posthumous man” — a thinker whose intelligibility would only come into focus after his death. The Victorian Age in which he lived could not see that an age of unimaginable violence and tyranny was approaching; that ideological dictators would arrive with the twentieth century. The Victorians, naively believing in the triumph of Christian values, could not foresee the coming inversion of those values — what Nietzsche called “the transvaluation of all values.”
If Nietzsche’s insights were sometimes contradictory or confused, his foresight was nevertheless outstanding. He taught us to regard people and things not as they were, but as they were becoming. Nietzsche despised Christians because they were not at all Christ-like. Nevertheless, he believed that Christian civilization produced a conscientiousness and truthfulness that made science possible, that brought men to a higher standard of honesty. It was through the degeneration of Christianity he feared the emergence of a new and terrible socialist religion. In the “parable of the madman” Nietzsche proposed something which must have seemed shocking at the time; namely, that the Christians had murdered their own God without even knowing it.
Nietzsche lost his mind in January 1889. At this time he wrote a series of strange letters to persons known to him and those, like the King of Italy, he did not know. For example, Nietzsche wrote to August Strindberg: “Alas … not divorced after all?” This is almost funny, given Stringberg’s plays. Nietzsche signed it, “The Crucified.” To Fraulein von Salis he wrote, “God is on the earth. Don’t you see how all the heavens are rejoicing? I have just seized possession of my kingdom, I’ve thrown the Pope in prison, and I’m having Wilhelm, Bismarck, and [antisemitic politician Adolf] Stocker shot.” Once again, he signed it, “The Crucified.”
Nietzsche told his landlord in Turin that the king and queen of Italy would soon pay a visit. Adding to this picture of madness, Nietzsche tore up money that was later found in his wastebasket. On 3 January 1889 he was escorted home by two policeman after attempting to shield a horse from being beaten. It is a scene, curiously enough, copied out of Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment, wherein Raskolnikov dreamt “of drunk peasants beating a horse … and, overcome by pity, he embraces the dead animal and kisses it.”
Cosima Wagner received a very strange note from Nietzsche. “To Princess Ariadne, My Beloved. It is a mere prejudice that I am a human being. Yet I have often enough dwelled among human beings and I know the things human beings experience, from the lowest to the highest. Among the Hindus I was Buddha, in Greece Dionysus — Alexander and Caesar were incarnations of me, as well as the poet of Shakespeare, Lord Bacon. Most recently I was Voltaire and Napoleon, Perhaps also Richard Wagner … However, I now come as Dionysus victorious, who will prepare a great festival on Earth … Not as though I had much time … The heavens rejoice to see me here … I also hung on the cross …”
Nietzsche wrote a series of small notes to Cosima Wagner to proclaim the “Gospel” and his love of her as “Ariadne.” He wrote to Georg Brandes, who would later make him famous, “To my dear friend Georg! After you discovered me, it was no great feat to find me. The problem now is how to lose me …” To Hanns von Bulow he wrote: “Considering that you started out as and have been the first Hanseat, I, in all modesty, merely the third Veuve-Cliquot of Ariadne, I may not have already ruined the match for you: rather I condemn you to the ‘Lion of Venice’ — who may devour you …” He signed it “Dionysus.”
To the historian Jacob Burckhardt, his former colleague at Basel University, he wrote: “My highly honored Jacob Burckhardt: That was the little joke on whose behalf I bear the tedium of having created the world. Now you are — thou art — our great greatest teacher: I, together with Ariadne, need only to be the golden mean in all things, having in every respect such superiors …” He signed it, “Dionysus.”
On 4 January 1889 he wrote to Paul Deussen: “After you have irrevocably risen to the position that I have really created the world, it appears that friend Paul will also be provided for in the world plan: he shall be, together with Monsieur Catulle Mendes, one of my greatest satyrs and festival animals. Dionysus.”
To Peter Gast he wrote, “To my maestro Peitro. Sing me a new song: the world is transfigured and all the heavens are joyous. The Crucified.”
To the King of Italy he wrote, “To my beloved Umberto. My peace be with you! Tuesday I shall be in Rome. I should like to see you, along with His Holiness the Pope. The Crucified.” To Cardinal Mariani, the Vatican Secretary of State, he wrote: “My beloved son Mariani. My peace be with you! Tuesday I shall be in Rome, in order to pay my respects to His Holiness. The Crucified.” He wrote to the House of Baden: “Children, it is not good for you to get involved with the crazy Hohenzollern [rulers of imperial Germany], although you, through Stephanie [Napoleon’s niece], are of my race … Withdraw yourselves modestly [and] return to private life, I give Bavaria the same advice … The Crucified.”
To Franz and Ida Overbeck he wrote that he could pay his debts and that “I am just having all the anti-Semites shot.” He wrote a complementary letter to “the Illustrious Pole” and to Erwin Rohde: “To my growly bear Erwin,” and then he made reference to Hippolyte Taine as a composer of the Vedas, and “transposed” Rohde to the gods, “with the most beloved goddesses at your side … Dionysus.”
The crazy letters do not even stop here. Nietzsche wrote a brief note to Carl Spitteler about taking revenge on himself for being a god. To Supreme Court Justice Dr. Wiener he wrote of Wagner’s irresponsibility, perhaps alluding to the great composer’s antisemitism, signing himself “Dionysus.” Then came a long letter to Jacob Burckhardt, once more: “Dear Herr Professor, When it comes right down to it I’d much rather have been a Basel professor than God … But I did secure a small room, fit for a student, opposite the Palazzo Carignano (– in which was I was born as Victor Emmanuel), from whose desk I am able to hear that splendid music coming form below me, in the Galleria Subalpina. I pay 25 frs. including service, make my own tea and do all my own shopping, suffer from torn boots, and constantly thank heaven for the old world, whose inhabitants were not simple and quiet enough. – Since I am doomed to entertain the next eternity with bad jokes, I am busy writing, which leaves nothing to be desired, is very nice and not at all taxing. The post office is five steps away, I take the letters in myself, handling the great feuillitoniste of the grande monde. Naturally I am on terms with Figaro, and so that you will have an idea of how harmless I can be, here are my first two bad jokes….”
Being insane, Nietzsche told the doctors he had contracted syphilis. The doctors readily echoed this diagnosis. Public opinion later accepted it without question, though his sister Elizabeth sought to undo the stigma. However, Nietzsche’s illness almost certainly started in childhood. Others have tried to attribute his illness to his philosophy. In a letter to Nietzsche’s attending physician, Dr. Binswanger, dated 23 March 1889, Elizabeth Forster-Nietzsche wrote the following words from distant Paraguay: “Learned friends of my brother’s will want to demonstrate mental disturbance from his books. Do not believe them, they are prejudiced, they confuse genius with insanity. I myself am of course not in agreement with the results of my brother’s philosophy, but what I can recognize clearly is that they are new, yet completely logical. I want to prove that with my limited female intelligence.” Of course, the last person Nietzsche wanted to inherit his legacy was a sister he once described as a “resentful antisemitic goose.”
What did Nietzche actually suffer from? Elizabeth believed that her brother’s madness was due to Chloral poisoning. But Dr. Binswanger thought Nietzsche suffered from an inherited illness, since Nietzsche’s father had previously died of “softening of the brain.” In terms of a more updated diagnosis, the National Library of Medicine states, “Friedrich Nietzsche’s disease consisted of migraine, psychiatric disturbances, cognitive decline with dementia, and stroke. Despite the prevalent opinion that neurosyphilis caused Nietzsche’s illness, there is lack of evidence to support this diagnosis. Cerebral autosomal dominant arteriopathy with subcortical infarcts and leukoencephalopathy (CADASIL) accounts for all the signs and symptoms of Nietzsche’s illness.”
Notes and Links
Karl S. Guthke, “Nietzsche’s collapse: The View from Paraguay” –https://dash.harvard.edu/bitstream/handle/1/42665563/Nietzsche%27s collapse.pdf?sequence=1&isAllowed=y
Daren Jonescu, “Nietzsche’s Collapse Into Madness,” leaves me with the thought that Nietzsche’s collapse was a fabled patchwork of literary borrowings. Jonescu does not see anything redemptive here or, for that matter, anywhere: “The human race, on so many levels, has proved, even beyond the worst expectations of this very jaded and unoptimistic soul, to have been reduced to a condition of submissive slavishness for which a hundred years of universal tyranny will be the lightest sentence we may even hope for. Increasingly … I have lost any faint dreams of effective resistance, let alone revitalization … having resigned myself that today’s defeat is total and final….” Nietzsche said this type of “fatalism” reflected the very decline we see on every side.
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