Stefan Zweig : Nietzsche's Seventh Solitude

Portrait of Friedrich Nietzsche, 1895

(Heliogravure after the painting by Curt Stoeving)

Extract from :

Stefan Zweig

The Struggle with the Daemon: Hölderlin, Kleist, Nietzsche



Theatrical poses are not consonant with greatness; anyone who feels a need for posturing is false ... Beware of those who aim at appearing picturesque !

NIETZSCHE WAS NOT A POSEUR , nor was he represented as a hero during his lifetime. Since his death, many who claim to be his disciples have pictured him as an archetypal hero. Defiant carriage of the head; a lofty brow furrowed with sombre thoughts; thick, wavy hair, clustering down to the strong column of the neck; two falcon eyes beneath bushy eyebrows; every feature of this masterful countenance taut with willpower, health and strength — such is the portrait usually given of him.

Like a second Vercingetorix, he is shown with a heavy moustache falling manfully over the hard-set lips which surmount a prominent chin, and involuntarily the image called up is that of the barbarian warrior, a Viking of the Teutonic north striding forward sword in hand to victory, his hunting horn slung over his shoulder and a spear within easy reach. It is thus that our sculptors and painters delight in portraying him, a Germanic superman, a Prometheus bound, hoping thereby to render this great recluse more accessible to men of little faith who, corrupted by school books and stage presentations, are incapable of detecting tragedy unless it is draped in theatrical trappings. But genuine tragedy is never theatrical, and the true portrait of Nietzsche is far less picturesque than busts and paintings of him would have us believe.

To obtain a real likeness of the man, we need to see him in his actual surroundings. What were they ? A dining room in some modest boarding house, quarters in an equally modest hotel among the Swiss mountains or on the Italian Riviera; insignificant fellow boarders, for the most part elderly females, experts in small talk. A gong sounded for the third time and the guests filed in to dinner. One of them was a slouching figure, peering before him as if he had just emerged from a dark cave — for Nietzsche, who was “six-sevenths blind”, always groped his way when entering a room.

His clothes were dark of hue and carefully brushed; his face was gloomy and crowned with a mane of brown hair; his eyes, too, looked melancholy behind the thick lenses of his spectacles. Quietly and even timidly he sought the place reserved for him at the table, and he remained shrouded in an uncanny silence during the meal. One felt that this was a man who dwelt among the shadows, a man beyond the pale of human society and conversation, one who winced at the slightest noise.

He would bow courteously to his fellow guests, wishing them politely “Good day”, and in return his fellow guests would with equally polite indifference greet “the German professor”. With the tentative movements of near-sighted persons he would draw his chair up to the board; with the cautiousness of those suffering from a weak digestion, he would examine every dish, asking whether the tea was not perhaps too strong, the food too highly spiced — for an error in diet might cause him days of racking pain.

There was never any wine or beer or coffee served where he sat; he smoked neither cigar nor cigarette after meals; allowed himself nothing that would cheer, refresh and relax; kept up a perpetual Lenten abstinence accompanied by a trickle of superficial conversation with a chance neighbour, but when he made the effort to talk it was as if he had not done so for many years, had lost the knack and dreaded lest he be asked too many questions.

Immediately the meal was ended he would retire to his room, a typical chambre garnie, exiguous and chilly and dowdy. The table was usually littered with sheets of manuscript, with jottings on scraps of paper, with proofs. Not a flower, not an ornament, hardly a book, seldom a letter would be found. Away in a corner was a heavy and clumsily made wooden trunk — his only possession in addition to a change of underlinen and a second suit.

On a shelf were ranged innumerable bottles of tinctures of this, that and the other medicament to cure headache (to which he was a martyr), colic, spasmodic vomiting, constipation; more numerous than any other drugs in his pharmacopoeia were chloral and veronal, those terrible specifics against insomnia. A ghastly collection of poisons, the only resources he had to fall back upon in case of need in the dreary silence of his lair, where he knew no other kind of repose than the brief interval of artificially produced sleep.

Wrapped in a loose overcoat, a woollen muffler round his throat — for the miserable stove merely smoked when lit and gave forth no heat — his fingers stiff with cold, two pairs of spectacles on his nose, which almost touched the paper as he wrote, he scribbled for hours at a stretch, scribbled down words which his eyes were hard put to decipher when the work was done. These poor eyes burned, and watered with fatigue. One of the rare joys in his life was when a friendly person came along and offered to take down his thoughts from dictation for a couple of hours.

On fine days he might take a stroll, but he would invariably go alone, alone with his thoughts. Never did he encounter a soul to cheer him, never did he have a companion, never did he meet an acquaintance. He hated grey weather, rain, snow which dazzled his eyes, and during such inclement days he would remain a prisoner in his dingy room. He never paid calls, never came into touch with other human beings. Of an evening he supped on a few biscuits and very weak tea, which having swallowed he would resume his endless communing with his thoughts. Hour after hour sped by in the glare of a sputtering lamp. Then the tension would relax and a welcome lassitude invade him. A gulp of chloral or other soporific, and he would snatch at sleep, at sleep which is the facile boon of those who do not think overmuch and who are not perpetually harassed by the daemons.

There were days which he spent entirely in bed, a prey to cramp in the stomach, to nausea, reduced to semi-consciousness by pain, his temples pulsing furiously, his eyes blinded by suffering. No one came near him to place a cooling bandage on his forehead, to read to him, to talk or to laugh.

Everywhere he went, the chambre garnie was the same. The names of the towns he visited changed from Sorrento to Turin, from Venice to Nice or Marienbad, but the chambre garnie remained identical, a rented room, a room totally lacking in any feeling of home, a room filled with dreary, old, worn-out furniture, with a table at which he worked, with a bed upon which he suffered, and with his unalleviated solitude.

During all the years of his pilgrimage he never once put up in friendly and cheerful surroundings, never at night felt the warm body of a woman pressing against his; never did the sun rise to see him famous, after a thousand nights of dark and silent labour. How immeasurably vaster was Nietzsche’s loneliness than is the picturesque highland of Sils-Maria where between luncheon and tea our tourists wander in the hope of capturing some of the glamour that clings to a spot sanctified by his presence. Nietzsche’s solitude was as wide as the world; it spread over the whole of his life until the very end.

If on some rare occasion a stranger dropped in, Nietzsche was no longer able to respond. Fifteen years of solitude had hardened the crust around his heart, so that he felt incapable of being genial and sociable. The anchorite could breathe, assuaged and comfortable, only when his chance visitor had departed ! Conversation wearied and irritated him who constantly gnawed at his own vitals and whose hunger for himself, and himself alone, was never satiated.

One little ray of brightness came at times to pierce the gloom — music. He would hear Carmen performed in a second-rate theatre at Nice, or catch the lilt of melody in some concert hall, or spend a few hours at the piano. But this relaxation, too, hurt him, moved him to tears. A pleasure once renounced becomes so lost to him who has forgone it that he can henceforward feel it only as suffering, as something that pains.

Nietzsche’s lonely pilgrimage from one chambre garnie to another lasted fifteen years. During that time he remained unknown to everyone but himself. He wandered like a wraith in the shadow of great towns, in dusty trains, in various sickrooms, while all around him the vanity fair of the arts and sciences was in full swing. The only other life journey in the slightest degree comparable is that of Dostoevsky, who during the almost identical period was experiencing similar poverty and oblivion.

In both cases alike the work of a titan masks the sepulchral figure of a Lazarus who dies daily from his poverty and his sores, and who daily rises from the tomb through the saving miracle of his own creative will. Every day, for fifteen years, Nietzsche rose from the grave which was his lodging-house room, to go back to it anon, lapsing from torture to torture, from one death to another, from one resurrection to another, until in the end his brain, overheated in the furnace of his energies, was shattered.

Strangers found him, the man who was so great a stranger to his own epoch, lying in a street at Turin. They conveyed him to a strange room in the Via Carlo Alberto. None witnessed the death of his mind. His intellectual end is shrouded in obscurity, in a saintly isolation. Solitary and unknown, the most lucid genius of the epoch was precipitated into the night of his own soul.