A Winter in Nice

Author: Christian Schärf
Translator: Alexandra Roesch

The following day Nietzsche wrote to his mother and sister in Naumburg saying he could barely find the words to describe the invigorating, indeed, literally electrifying effect that the abundance of light in Nice was having on his entire system. The constant painful pressure on his brain, which had begun in Naumburg in September and not left him since, had disappeared. So had the sensation of needles piercing his eyeballs that had accompanied his arrival here. His temples were entirely at peace now; the sciatic nerve had settled. He needed light, light above all, dull days crushed him and here in Nice there was light, even in December, in abundance.Furthermore, he had made some acquaintances of which he could report. During his lunch in the Pension de Genève, he had met a Prussian general and his daughter. He was ultra-conservative and deadly boring, but a man of sterling qualities with an impeccable genealogy. Also at the table had been a certain Lady Memet Ali, who claimed to be the wife of an Indian maharaja. She was always giving meaningful looks and he was unable to converse easily with her, as she spoke only English, and even less than he did, but this didn’t bother him. He knew that they had nothing worth sharing anyhow and that the maharaja’s wife preferred to impress with her robes rather than her command of foreign languages.

Still, there was an elderly pastor’s wife from southern Germany, who spoke perfect English, albeit with a Swabian accent and was always willing to translate. But translations were requested only rarely.

One among the colourful array of guests was particularly imposing, a flamboyantly dressed Persian, who usually shared Nietzsche’s table and never uttered a word. It was said that he had never spoken, but he impressed simply by way of his peacock-like appearance. He seemed to have recently emerged from an old oriental fairy tale and would probably soon be returning there.

So, as should be apparent to his mother and sister, he was keeping good company, yes, excellent company, Nietzsche summed up in his letter.

The Russians and the English above all impressed him. He observed the Russians’ comportment in particular with considerable respect, he said, as they flaunted their wealth in a manner that he had not previously encountered. The Russian upper class strolled up and down the Promenade des Anglais in sophisticated outfits in numbers that seemed to increase daily, giving him the impression that Nice would soon without doubt become a Russian city. The climatic hardships the Russians had to endure in St Petersburg or Moscow were reversed for them in Nice on the Côte d’Azur.

The train journey from St Petersburg to the Côte d’Azur took three days and three nights; the trains only stopped to take on provisions. Their interiors were furnished in sumptuous luxury and their southbound carriages carried only blue-blooded passengers hungering for warmth and light.

The first to arrive here, in 1856, Nietzsche had learnt from the landlord of the Pension de Genève, were the tsar and tsarina. After the Russians had lost access to the Mediterranean as a result of their defeat in the Crimea, the tsar and his family recovered from this disgrace in the Mediterranean of all places, and picked the city on the Bay of Angels as their preferred residence.

Nietzsche saw himself as a Pole of aristocratic descent driven into barbaric Germany, and as such considered himself in good, even excellent company here. He deemed it characteristic of his mother’s attitude towards him that she reacted so violently to the Polish bloodline Nietzsche had steadfastly appropriated for himself, even at home in Naumburg.

She was from Pobles near Leipzig and not from Posen or Warsaw, she had said to him on more than one occasion, and he should accept the fact that he was a Saxon and his father had been a protestant priest, not a Slavic earl who hunted wild boar in the forests of the Oder, danced ecstatic dances and allowed the population to bleed dry. All he needed to do was to recite the name Pobles several times in rapid succession, she said, and then he would know where his roots were.

The last September he had spent in Naumburg had been the worst month of his life thus far. He had completed the first two parts of Zarathustra. He saw this work as a tremendous synthesis, which he believed had never before taken place in anybody’s mind or soul; a herculean task had been completed, which in his eyes was without historical equal. And then, after this effort unique to global history, he had had to grapple with his riff-raff relatives in Naumburg. Had any man of his stature ever had to endure suchlike?

No sooner had he arrived in Naumburg than everything revolved solely around sausages and woollen socks. No sooner had he sat down in the kitchen with his mother than she began to ask him about his intentions to get married. No sooner had he encountered his sister than she found him lacking the efficacy and worldliness of a professor. When he crossed the market square, old people who knew him from his childhood days still addressed him as if he were a schoolboy and asked if he had returned to Naumburg for good and would finally relieve his mother from her cumbersome daily chores.  Each day spent there became a tale of woe.  Then he had to deal with his vindictive sister, who was consumed by jealousy. In his eyes, she was a truly nasty piece of work who crushed every one of his attempts to find a wife – they truly existed, yes, they did, these attempts – and would continue to do so. She would not desist, unless – which did not seem all that improbable – she were to be devoured by termites in the jungle of Paraguay, together with her anti-Semitic husband.

This husband of his sister’s pursued the idée fixe of founding Germany anew at the other end of the earth. To this purpose, he was assembling a troupe of scattered and unsettled people in Saxony, people without work or hope and exhausted farmhands, impoverished aristocrats and previously convicted men, fallen women and frail old people.

Nietzsche laughed out loud when he thought of this assemblage. He imagined them destroying each other in the jungle driven by hate and envy, degenerating through inbreeding, dragging the stupid anti-Semite down with them. None of them would ever return from that termite hell, including his sister. This notion warmed his heart so much so that he felt ashamed, something that happened vey rarely.

In Naumburg in September, his mother had time and again advised that he should now endeavour in earnest to finally find a wife at last, and his sister, the snake in the grass, had concurred. Yet it had been her who had systematically destroyed his friendship with Lou von Salomé. Now that Lou had disappeared from his life, they were once again feigning concern. Beforehand they had done everything humanely possible to alienate the young Russian from him. Lou had been the woman with whom he wanted to live his life. She would have made it complete, this project, for his life was nothing but one great, immense project. She was the only woman fit to hold a candle to him, and she of all people had been driven away by the Naumburg pack with their beastly scheming and obscure meanness.  Now he was completely on his own, from now on he would have to manage everything himself.

It was around this time that his sister brought this rabble-rouser named Förster home, a lunatic schoolmaster. An unbearable fellow, about whom she raved incessantly when he was absent and over whom she fawned when he was around, which in turn attested to her fundamental stupidity and of course proved her deranged fear of being left on the shelf; after all she would soon be turning forty. Dr Bernhard Förster, on the other hand, nurtured a ridiculous adoration of Richard Wagner. He considered Wagner, whose music Nietzsche was sure he was not even able to grasp, to be the spiritual pioneer who paved the way for his own anti-Semitic excesses. Sometimes, with a moralizing undertone, he quoted from memory from Wagner’s diatribe ‘Judaism in Music’. Moreover, Förster was preoccupied with Germanic colonization plans that he considered nothing less than a global concept; Paraguay was just meant to be the beginning. Once Förster had told his future brother-in-law, affecting a show of confidence and tone that was both prophetic and conspiratorial, that there would come the day when the world could, yes, indeed, should be healed by the German spirit. A statement that made Nietzsche want to vomit, a feeling that remained with him most of the night.

Together with his sister, Förster had then indulged in heroic self-denial for entire afternoons, something he considered to be of the highest virtue but that was actually a form of hypocrisy that had become second nature to him. First he had lauded Christianity, then paganism and then the Middle Ages and the Germanic people.

Most recently he had also begun enthusing about the Saxons, whom he planned to take with him to Paraguay, and praised the Saxon breed, which he considered to be unique, in his words, among all German tribes. During these speeches, Elisabeth followed this assistant schoolmaster, oblivious to all that went on around him, with shining damp eyes. This was the sort of thing she wanted to hear from her brother, yet he did not speak at all when Förster was around or simply mumbled incomprehensible comments to himself, which by no means implied agreement.

Förster considered himself to be a vegetarian and an Aryan, a combination that Nietzsche considered repugnant purely by virtue of its vocabulary. Nietzsche would, he said to Förster, if he could, devour as much meat as he was able get his hands on; he would, if he could, sink his teeth into living, raw, still twitching meat every day and tear whole chunks from this life. Yet he simply could not do it, his condition did not allow it, but his reasoning was no different than that of an insatiable meat-eating animal.

When their mother noticed that his sister had completely and utterly succumbed to this Förster and, even worse, was now seriously considering accompanying this fool into the South American jungle, she asked him, dear Fritz, to help her do something about it. Just as she had previously colluded with his sister against Lou, she now intended to work with him against Förster, making the Naumburg house, including his sister, intolerable to him. Yet his sister, needless to say, had expected her mother’s reaction to her relationship with Förster and anticipated her plans. Thus she had, as quickly as possible and without giving the merest inkling of it beforehand, got engaged to Förster, by means of a letter, to add insult to injury. Nietzsche could not believe that such a thing was even legally possible. An engagement was not a legal act, Elisabeth replied with a superior smile.

During these days, Nietzsche had realized that there had to be a sequel to his Zarathustra; that he now had to present an antidote to any and all false moral and every form of hypocrisy, whose origin and place he had determined in Christianity, which is why he planned ‘A guide to redemption from morality’ as a third part of his book. After just three days, Nice had filled him with so much light and hence assurance that he no longer hesitated to tackle this creation immediately.

His sister and his mother embodied to the finest detail that against which he had to emplace the transvaluation of values, he called out in a strangely deep voice, and Cécile swore that it was audible all the way down by the harbour. She had entered his room once more that evening to see if he needed anything further. He had started to talk then, without pause or punctuation, of his family, his former fiancée and of the immense plan that he was compelled to realize. And once more Cécile had the feeling she must start over with the puzzle that this guest laid out for her time and again.

This sudden recovery, he exclaimed, this heady feeling of being healthy and becoming ever more so – who before him would have been in a position to write about the philosophy of convalescing?

In a flash, the wonderful light in Nice had helped him visualize the entire third part of the Zarathustra, in its form, and that was all that mattered. With the form so clearly visible, now all he had to do was to write everything down, find words, but they would simply come to him; he would be guided like a child in a dark forest.

He needed light, even more light for this, and he needed a friend at his side and had already called for Heinrich Köselitz from Annaberg, residing in Venice as Peter Gast from Munich, alias Pietro Gasti from Venice, who had simply needed a pseudonym, being unable to win any prizes with his quintessentially Saxon name, and who Nietzsche called Peter Gast, which he was sorry to say in Italian translated as Pietro Gasti, a name that nonetheless would do extremely well on opera posters and in various feature sections. So he needed the light, he needed Peter Gast, and she, Cécile, should please excuse him speaking to her so frankly, but thirdly, he would probably also need a woman.

After three days, Cécile had almost given up hope that the new lodger would come back to this. Cécile had made the acquaintance of many men and she had made notes on their preferences and their dislikes in particular, but she had never met one like Nietzsche. She had begun her notes as a form of bookkeeping, solely with the intention of keeping track, and had soon reached a point where she went beyond the mere fact that someone had been with her and had paid this or that price and began to make notes concerning the individual quirks of her guests.

Before she left him alone that evening, she recommended, because of the light that he so valued, an excursion to Èze. Nowhere in the whole area were the lights brighter than in Èze, she said. He nodded absentmindedly, as if he had not understood what she had said, and then asked her whether she would accompany him there. Sunday was her day off, she said, but she would not be able to converse with him, whose world was anything but hers. Nietzsche made a sweeping gesture with his arm, indicating that such objections were not valid and that the joint endeavour had been decided upon.

“My world is very easy to understand, believe me, young lady. You can breathe it in; you can taste it and feel it with all your senses. And whoever manages to physically experience even the smallest part of my world will never want to live anywhere else but there.”

“See you Sunday then,” she replied, with a brief, scrutinizing glance as if to assess his mental state, and left.

From Ein Winter in Nizza  © Eichborn Verlag 2014