Friday, July 8, 2016

Sorrento and the Neapolitan Riviera: Thoughts on Friendship

I visited Sorrento in May of this year for the second time, after a 16-year interval. It seemed more crowded than before, but just as enchanting (October was a better month to visit this very popular area). On this occasion, I decided not to visit Pompeii, Herculaneum and Paestum and had more time to meditate on Nietzsche, music and friendship.

View of Mount Vesuvius, Sorrento, Italy

   Nietzsche spent several months in Sorrento, from the end of October 1876 to May 1877, in the company of his friends and free spirits Malwida von Meysenbug, Paul Rée and Albert Brenner. He often dreamt of establishing a small colony of enlightened lovers of truth and beauty, where ideas could be shared and new ones inspired. This was a spontaneous attempt at such a colony. They stayed in Villa Rubinacci with views of Mount Vesuvius looming in a distance. While respecting each other’s privacy and space, they often sat together in the evenings while one of them reading aloud to the others. Thus they relished in poetry, Plato’s dialogues and accounts of the great Greek historians Herodotus and Thucydides. Somebody would be peeling oranges for all to share…

   Malwida von Meysenbug recorded some time afterwards: “How mild, how conciliatory Nietzsche still was back then. His generous, amiable nature was in equilibrium with his acerbic intellect. How cheerful he could be, how heartily he could laugh.” *

   For Nietzsche, friendship was the most revered, deepest human bond, much in the tradition of ancient Greece. Sadly, Sorrento was the place where his eight-year friendship with Wagner, the most meaningful of his life, finally ended. He later wrote:
Stellar Friendship — We are friends and have become estranged. But this was right, and we do not want to conceal and obscure it from ourselves, as if we had reason to feel ashamed. We are two ships, each of which has its goal and course; our paths may cross and we may celebrate a feast together, as we did—and then the good ships rested so quietly in one harbour and one sunshine, that it may have looked as if they reached their goal and as if they had one goal. But then the almighty force of our tasks drove us apart again into different seas and sunny zones, and perhaps we shall never see each other again; perhaps we shall meet again, but fail to recognize each other: our exposure to different seas and suns has changed us! That we have to become estranged is the law above us: by the same token we should also become more venerable for each other — and the memory of our former friendship more sacred! There is probably a horrific but invisible stellar orbit in which our very different ways and goals may be included as smaller parts of this path; let us rise up to this thought. But our life is too short and our power of vision too small for us to be more than friends in the sense of this sublime possibility. — Let us believe in our stellar friendship and even if we should be compelled to be earth enemies (The Gay Science, IV: 279).
   It is perhaps significant that Wagner was the age Nietzsche’s father would have been had he lived. Pastor Nietzsche died when Nietzsche was as young as four. However the idyllic memories of his father improvising at the piano, with him sitting on his lap, kept returning. Through his friendship with Wagner, was Nietzsche unconsciously trying to “will the past” and undo the paradise lost?

   The ending of that friendship was nothing short of a Greek tragedy with a distinctly Roman twist. His worship of the composer could be compared to that of Brutus in relation to Julius Caesar, together with murderous impulses towards the tyrant for the sake of “the independence of the soul”.

   Nietzsche risked his entire academic career by publishing The Birth of Tragedy from the Spirit of Music in 1872, in which he extolled Wagner as Aeschylus incarnate and a reviver of Greek tragedy. It pleased the Master’s vanity, but he expected more and persuaded his young admirer to write a devastating attack on David Strauss (whose book The Life of Jesus Nietzsche had previously much admired). Wagner had been involved in a public feud with Strauss and unceremoniously used Nietzsche as his hitman.

   Nietzsche often stressed that a real friendship can only be inter pares. Tragically for him, perhaps with the exception of Erwin Rohde (a renowned German classical scholar), only Wagner fell into this category. Rohde abandoned him and he abandoned Wagner. Famous Jacob Burckhardt never really reciprocated Nietzsche’s affection and young Heinrich von Stein died before they could get on closer terms. Others (not equal, but pretending to be) such as Rée and Lou Salomé betrayed him.

   There was, however, one friend who never let him down, a fellow professor from Basel, Franz Overbeck. He was Nietzsche’s Horatio. And to him Nietzsche wrote this poignant letter:
My dear friend: what is this our life? A boat that swims in the sea, and all one knows for certain about it is that one day it will capsize. Here we are, two good old boats that have been faithful neighbours, and above all your hand has done its best to keep me from 'capsizing'! Let us continue our voyage —each for the other's sake, for a long time yet, a long time! We should miss each other so much! Tolerably calm seas and good winds and above all sun ― what I wish for myself, I wish for you, too, and I am sorry that my gratitude can find expression only in such a wish and has no influence on wind or weather (November 14, 1881).
   The Sorrento idyll was to be the last spell of happiness and reasonably good health in Nietzsche’s life. Two years later, he resigned from his position as a philology professor and embarked on a 10-year lone odyssey that ended in the long night of madness.

* I am much indebted to David Farrell Krell and his brilliant book, The Good European: Nietzsche's Work Sites in Word and Image. I highly recommend it to those interested in Nietzsche’s life and philosophy, as well as the beauty of some select places in Europe.