In the late winter of 1881-82, Lou traveled to Italy with her mother and visited her mother's good friend Malwida von Meysenbug in Rome. Lou was just 21 years old. What she did not know, at the time, was that Malwida was also a friend of Friedrich Nietzsche and his family. In fact, Nietzsche's first meeting with Malwida had been at Wagner's cornerstone-laying at Bayreuth, in May 1872. Malwida von Meysenbug was an author and ardent revolutionary, a champion of radical opinions. Her attitude toward Nietzsche was "motherly" and she remained a faithful friend throughout his creative life. It was, in fact, at Malwida's house in Sorrento that Nietzsche had composed much of his book Human, All-too-Human.
Another of Nietzsche's friends was a young Jewish philosopher by the name of Paul Ree. Ree was deeply interested in psychology, a follower of Schopenhauer, and an atheist. He had lived with Malwida and Nietzsche throughout much of the period while Nietzsche was writing Human . . ., and he had aided Nietzsche taking dictation. That the debt was real, Nietzsche himself recognized in public comments that gave Ree "paternity rights" for the book.
Quite by coincidence, Paul Ree was also visiting Malwida when Lou and her mother arrived. Ree wrote Nietzsche soon afterward and, at the very least, praised the bright young Russian woman he had met. Whatever else he said in this letter we do not know, but Nietzsche's response was bizarre. "Greet this young Russian from me if you think it does any good. I am greedy for her kind of souls. In the future I am going to rape one. Marriage is a different matter altogether. At the most, I could agree to a two-year marriage, and even that only because of what I have to do in the next ten years." (Peters, 86) When Nietzsche finally appeared in Rome, he greeted Lou with an abrupt question, "From which stars have we been brought together here?" (Peters, 92)
The situation of Nietzsche's developing relationship with Lou Salome could not have been more complex and less auspicious. Paul Ree had already had ample time to fall in love with Lou himself. Nietzsche clearly fell in love with her immediately. Meanwhile, Lou herself seems to have wanted only to remain outside of Russia for as long as possible and to enjoy the attention of artists and intellectuals. Nietzsche asked Ree to propose to Lou for him, apparently not realizing that Ree was in love with her himself. Both, for their different reasons, wished to help Lou remain outside of Russia as long as possible. They came up with a plan of studies that would last through the year; the only aspect of this plan that was common to all was the fact that it would keep them together for as long as possible.
Nietzsche's own role in this situation was complicated by his relationship with his sister, Elizabeth, and his mother. His mother definitely stood in the position of a traditionally religious matriarch. Nietzsche and his sister had bonded, at the very least, in a youthful opposition to the mother. But Elizabeth had been even closer to Nietzsche --- traveling with him, occasionally keeping house for him, and sharing much. Nietzsche was not something that either Elizabeth or the mother was about to release from her control. And Nietzsche headed directly into this impending storm. Imagining that somehow, Elizabeth could help legitimize this intellectual menage d'trois, Nietzsche wrote Elizabeth to enlist her aid as a chaperon. Elizabeth was scarcely fooled by Nietzsche's intellectual intentions and was not about the help in the matter. Worse yet, however, it was the beginning of a campaign by Elizabeth and the mother to undermine the young Russian!
In late April, the Salomes began moving north and Nietzsche and Ree met them in Milan and traveled to Lake Orta, a magnificantly beautiful Alpine area. In the afternoon, after some touring, Nietzsche finally got a chance to be alone with Lou, Madame Salome and Ree being tired. So Lou and Nietzsche took a hike onto Monte Saco, a relatively small wooded hillside, dotted with old buildings, an hour's hike that lasted, as it turned out, into the late afternoon. Whatever happened during that hike, Ree and Madame Salome were both disturbed; and Lou said, years later, "whether I kissed Nietzsche on Monte Saco, I do not know now." Nietzsche himself wrote to Lou, later, "I owe to you the most beautiful dream of my life." And, later on when Nietzsche was recovering from the experience, he wrote, "The Lou of Orta was a different being." Nietzsche visited his friends in Basle, the Overbecks, several days later, and they had never seen him in such a mood. "He talked incessantly, mostly about Lou . . . [and was] like a man who has caught sight of the promised land." (See Peters, 97-101)
Nietzsche's next meeting with Lou was quite soon, in Lucerne. She was "detached." Nietzsche proposed marriage again, this time personally; Lou rejected the idea. Nietzsche was at last suspicious that Ree and Lou were lovers and that they were merely using him to legitimize the affair. It was within this mood that Nietzsche orchestrated a "photo opportunity" with Jules Bonnet (a famous Swiss photographer) that has become quite famous. In the photo, as Nietzsche supposedly choreographed it, Lou kneals in the front of a small farmer's cart, holding a whip, while Ree and Nietzsche stand in front of the cart, linked to Lou's hand by ropes. Nietzsche himself looks out of the picture to the right, somewhat disengaged. The picture speaks a lot of what Nietzsche must have felt. It was not long after this that Nietzsche wrote, "You go to women? Don't forget the whip." (Peters, 101-103)
Late on the same day, Nietzsche and Lou spent a few somber hours together visiting the Wagner's former home, Tribschen, where Nietzsche shared much of the emotional burden that he still carried from his long relationship with Wagner. A day or so later, the Salomes were off. Nietzsche returned briefly to Basle, to see the Overbecks (who said that he looked distracted and tired), and then went on to his family home in Naumburg. Ree went to his family home in Stibbe, near Berlin, where the Salomes eventually joined his family and began a two-month's visit. Correspondence traveled back-and-forth between various parties to this strange relationship, especially Malwida. Nietzsche had by no means given up, and he was putting together a plan. Elizabeth, Nietzsche, and Lou would meet at Bayreuth, in July, and Elizabeth would invite Lou to spend the month of August with them in Tautenburg. To Nietzsche's enormous joy, Lou accepted both invitations. Meanwhile, Lou had won the protracted battle with her mother, who now agreed to leave Lou in Western Europe, indeed, with the ambiguous plan that Ree, Nietzsche, and Lou would spend the winter studying together in Vienna. As Nietzsche prepared himself for the Bayreuth Festival of 1882, his imagination and emotional energies were kindled and he spoke of wanting "an heir and a disciple." Ironically, this year's Festival was to be the premier performance of none other than Wagner's Parsifal! Bayreuth was filled to overflowing with Wagner's greatest admirers.
Both Bayreuth and the Tautenburg retreat passed. Nietzsche, in fact, enjoyed premium time with Lou, day after day. That this even had a softening and encouraging effect on Lou is clearly indicated in the diary that she kept throughout. "We are also spending happy hours at the edge of the forest on a bench near his farmhouse. How good it feels to laugh and to dream and to chat in the evening sunshine when the last rays fall on us through the branches of the trees." (Peters, 121)
Nietzsche's undoing was neither Lou nor Ree; it was his sister Elizabeth. As Peters suggests, "If Elizabeth Nietzsche had made a deliberate effort to meet someone who was bound to offend her [own] frustrated emotions [being a 36-year-old spinster], she could not have done better than with Lou. Lou represented everything that she abhorred. Her unconventional habits, her shockingly free behavior with men, her indifference even to ordinary cleanliness caused Elizabeth to feel an almost physical revulsion. How could her brother want to associate with such a creature?" (Peters, 114) Elizabeth watched Lou mingle freely with Wagnerian society in Bayreuth and was further shocked by her apparent insensitivity to the tensions between her brother and Wagner. Somewhere in all of this, she vowed to eliminate this threat. And after the month in Tautenburg, Elizabeth made her move, splitting with Nietzsche and refusing to return to the family home with him in residence. Such extreme measures, of course, necessarily brought their mother into the crisis. Nietzsche was now entirely isolated even from his family! He left Naumburg for a small apartment in Leipzig, both his mother and sister scandalized and rallied against him. Ironically, in their minds, Lou was assailing Nietzsche and their anger was raised by his apparent lack of ability to fend her off. Quite the contrary was the case, of course; it was Nietzsche who assailed Lou.
Nietzsche, now isolated from both the Wagners and his own family, was more committed to his relationship with Lou and Ree than ever. His other friends had been reduced to the Overbecks, Peter Gast (the young composer), and Malwida. Lou and Ree visited him in Leipzig but, try as Nietzsche might, he was unable to raise his relationship with Lou back up to its "Tautenburg standard." Lou and Ree returned to Berlin and, by December, they were living together fairly openly. Lou was enjoying what she had always idealized, an informal emotional relationship filled with the joys of evening meetings with young intellectuals. Through November and December, Nietzsche finally became profoundly aware that Lou and Ree were absorbed in each other, leaving no place for him; he had now lost everything. Nietzsche was at the very bottom. In mid-November, German was headed into winter; neither Nietzsche's psyche nor his health could stand up to that. He left Leipzig for Italy, stopping by the Overbecks' in Basle, on his way. From the Overbecks we know that Nietzsche looked like a wreckage. They urged him to stay but he wouldn't. They feared he would take his life. Indeed, Nietzsche's letter throughout the period, into January, hint of or even speak directly of suicide.
Nietzsche was at the very depth of depression. Ironically, all of this happened immediately after one of his great "heights," the publication of The Gay Science. His recovery was to be equally spectacular. Nietzsche returned to his writing with a veritable fever for creation. He wrote the first part of Thus Spoke Zarathustra in only a few days of late January, 1883.
Lou lived happily with Ree for several years, but it was not a lasting relationship and was soon displaced, to Ree's own fatal amazement, by another relationship, with Friedrich Carl Andreas. Andreas was a man who challenged Lou more than any other and they were married in 1887, remaining married until his death in 1930. Nor did this slow down Lou's intellectual passion; both Rilke and Freud remained on Lou's horizons.
[Note: This essay is based entirely on H. F. Peters, My Sister, My Spouse: A Biography of Lou Andreas-Salome (W. W. Norton, 1962).]
Copyright 1995 by Tad Beckman
Back to Course Notes