Saturday, August 1, 2015

A Pathetic Superman

Nietzsche by Edvard Munch

In the first days of January, 1889, Friedrich Nietzsche collapsed in the middle of the street in Turin, a city where he had been staying since April, 1888. A few days later, he was admitted to a psychiatric hospital in Basel. Until his death on August 25, 1900, he would be without his faculty of reason.

But who is this "prophet of the 3rd millennium", this "most important philosopher since Plato", this Antichrist who promises to be the true God inaugurating a new era? And what if Friedrich Nietzsche, whose thought continues to dominate the contemporary intellectual scene, was a man destroyed by his own immoderation?

A recent book provides a fascinating analysis of the last months before Nietzsche’s breakdown. It is a work of a historian, rigorous and well-documented (more than 30 pages of bibliography and close to 400 book titles). But the originality of this work lies mainly in a confrontation between Nietzsche and the Crucified, hence the title of the book(*).

In Turin, Nietzsche stayed a few hundred meters from the cathedral chapel which shelters the Holy Shroud. Whether or not you believe in the authenticity of the Shroud as a testimony to Jesus crucified, this closeness is striking when one connects the influence that Nietzsche has on the world today and the fact that he was literally obsessed by Jesus during the last months of his lucid life.

Might these last months of sanity, then this decade of breakdown, be the sign of a spiritual struggle in the depths of the one who proclaimed God's death? It was in 1888 that he wrote the Antichrist and Ecce Homo. It was during this period that the name of Christ appears most often in his writings, but only to describe him as an "idiot". In his last letters, in 1889, his signature repeatedly reads "The Crucified". And, on January 3rd, 1889, while pointing to himself, he announced that "God is on earth."

During the same period, the "superman" worried especially about his food; he writes in Ecce Homo, "the salvation of humanity depends on the question of diet much more than on any theologian's old subtlety". He dedicates considerable time and extensive correspondence to the acquisition of a stove from the Nieske company in Dresden. He was passionate about the worldly gossip and funerals of Turinese celebrities. Finally, the man who wrote that "without music, life would be a mistake" and who, as a young man, thrilled over Bach, Palestrina and Wagner, fell to such a low point that his passion focused on La Mascotte, of Audran (whose famous aria clearly demonstrates the heart of its concern: "I like my turkey, I like my sheep, when they make their soft glug glug, when each of them makes bê bê bê..."), and music hall shows!

Anyway, the superman had become quite pathetic. His descent into hell had begun. Would he meet Christ there? Didier Rance assumes so and then proposes a striking parallel with a poem by Baudelaire, Punishment of Pride. Judge for yourself:
It is said that one day a most learned doctor
— After winning by force the indifferent hearts,
Having stirred them in the dark depths of their being;
After crossing on the way to celestial glory,
Singular and strange roads, even to him unknown,
Which only pure Spirits, perhaps, had reached, —
"Excellent description of Nietzsche’s megalomaniac pride just before the breakdown", writes Rance.
Panic-stricken, like one who has clambered too high,
He cried, carried away by a satanic pride:
"Jesus, little Jesus! I raised you very high!
But had I wished to attack you through the defect
In your armor, your shame would equal your glory,
And you would be no more than a despised fetus!"
"... To the contemptuous 'Jesus, little Jesus' (...) corresponds [Nietzsche’s] retarded Jesus, and parallel insults spring from both mouths! 'Fetus!', 'idiot!' "
After the insulting pride follows madness. The superior intelligence is broken, locked, and the key is lost...
At that very moment his reason departed.
A crape of mourning veiled the brilliance of that sun;
Complete chaos rolled in and filled that intellect,
A temple once alive, ordered and opulent,
Within whose walls so much pomp had glittered.
Silence and darkness took possession of it
Like a cellar to which the key is lost.
And the poem ends with "a description of the fallen proud became a poor lunatic, who looks very much like the crazy Nietzsche during his walks in the streets of Weimar..."
Henceforth he was like the beasts in the street,
And when he went along, seeing nothing, across
The fields, distinguishing nor summer nor winter,
Dirty, useless, ugly, like a discarded thing,
He was the laughing-stock, the joke, of the children.

It was during one of these walks, in Weimar, between 1897 and 1900, that Nietzsche met a little girl who looked at him with big, questioning eyes. He stopped, put his hand on the child's head and told his companion: "Is this not the image of innocence?" Didier Rance recalls that Daniel Halevy, after reporting this episode, says that Nietzsche, like Goethe's Faust, had surrendered himself to the devil. But he wonders where the Marguerite is who will save him by her prayer. The answer will be later suggested to him by a reader: "You ask what voice will pray for Nietzsche? Why not this girl encountered on a Weimar path?"


(1) Didier RANCE, Nietzsche et le Crucifié. Turin 1888, Ed. Ad Solem, 2015, 470 p., 27 €. Let us hope that the book will be translated into English.