Nietzsche's Journey to Sorrento: Genesis of the Philosophy of the Free Spirit

Nietzsche's Journey to Sorrento: Genesis of the Philosophy of the Free Spirit

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“When for the first time I saw the evening rise with its red and gray softened in the Naples sky,” Nietzsche wrote, “it was like a shiver, as though pitying myself for starting my life by being old, and the tears came to me and the feeling of having been saved at the very last second.” Few would guess it from the author of such cheery works as The Birth of Tragedy, but as Paolo D’Iorio vividly recounts in this book, Nietzsche was enraptured by the warmth and sun of southern Europe. It was in Sorrento that Nietzsche finally matured as a thinker.

Nietzsche first voyaged to the south in the autumn of 1876, upon the invitation of his friend, Malwida von Meysenbug. The trip was an immediate success, reviving Nietzsche’s joyful and trusting sociability and fertilizing his creative spirit. Walking up and down the winding pathways of Sorrento and drawing on Nietzsche’s personal notebooks, D’Iorio tells the compelling story of Nietzsche’s metamorphosis beneath the Italian skies. It was here, D’Iorio shows, that Nietzsche broke intellectually with Wagner, where he decided to leave his post at Bâle, and where he drafted his first work of aphorisms, Human, All Too Human, which ushered in his mature era. A sun-soaked account of a philosopher with a notoriously overcast disposition, this book is a surprising travelogue through southern Italy and the history of philosophy alike.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226288659
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 09/07/2016
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 176
File size: 6 MB

About the Author

Paolo D’Iorio is director of the Institut des textes et manuscrits modernes at the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique at the École normale supérieure in Paris. His work on Nietzsche includes publications on the concept of eternal return in both its philosophical and cosmological aspects and on the significance of pre-Platonic philosophy for Nietzsche’s thought. He is general editor of Nietzsche Source and contributes to the French and Italian editions of Nietzsche’s complete works. Sylvia Mae Gorelick is a freelance translator and poet.

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Nietzsche's Journey to Sorrento

Genesis of the Philosophy of the Free Spirit

By Paolo D'Iorio, Sylvia Mae Gorelick

The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 2016 The University of Chicago
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-226-28865-9


Traveling South

To reconstruct this moment of such importance in Nietzsche's life, it will be necessary to consult the testimonies of the travelers who accompanied him on his way to the South. Indeed, because of his poor health and because his sight was severely weakened, Nietzsche left us only very few letters that might shed light on the proceedings of this transitional journey. But his traveling companions gave various testimonies, which will help us to grasp the atmosphere of this small circle of friends and to illuminate this period in Nietzsche's life from different perspectives. And yet, even if he writes few letters, the philosopher does not, for all that, give up writing or dictating his thoughts; by reading the notes that he jotted down in his notebooks, we will also follow the internal dialogue that he weaves with the authors who are dear to him. Thus our narration will follow two paths, making heard the voices of those who spoke of Nietzsche in their letters, and listening to the voice of the philosopher himself in the pages of his drafts.

The first of these figures who gravitated toward Nietzsche at that time is the countess Malwida von Meysenbug. A friend of Richard and Cosima Wagner, of Giuseppe Mazzini, of Gabriel Monod, of Romain Rolland ... Malwida imagined herself, with her Memoirs of an Idealist, to be the educator of the German and European youth: "Her books," wrote Charles Andler, "drip with this tepid sentimentality, liquid and depthless. All of the 'idealists' without vigor, the discontented who, not daring to risk a real opposition, settled for a vague and elegant flight of the soul, flocked to her." Sixty years old at the time, she belonged to the circle of Wagner's intimate friends and had met Nietzsche in 1872, when the first stone of the theater at Bayreuth was laid. It was also at Bayreuth, during the festival of 1876, that she had conceived the idea of the journey to the South. She had first proposed Naples and then finally Sorrento as the ideal place to unite a small circle of friends. Nearing the end of her long life, she recounts the preparation for this journey:

I had been bound to Friedrich Nietzsche by the ties of a warm friendship since 1872, and at that time, his health had deteriorated to such a degree that he found it necessary to request a prolonged leave from the University of Basel in order to rest completely, for once. He felt drawn to the South. It seemed to this Greek parched for beauty that the blissful nature there would be able to cure him entirely. But he needed to be surrounded and cared for, and neither his mother nor his sister could accompany him. Since I had not yet established my residence in Rome, I wrote to him, proposing that he come with me to spend the winter in Sorrento, to seek rest, even recovery, in the lucky dolce far niente of the South. He responded: "Venerated friend, I really don't know how to thank you for what you propose to me in your letter; later, I will tell you how this word from you was said at the right time and how much more dangerous my condition would become without it; today I announce only that I will come." [...] I had taken a preparatory journey to Sorrento and found an apartment suitable for the little colony that we were to form after being only two. Namely, Nietzsche had invited one of his very dearest friends, Dr. Paul Rée, and one of his students, a young man from Basel named Brenner, to join us in Sorrento. I knew only the latter, who had come to Rome for his health, and, seeing no obstacle to this plan, I had looked for a house where we could all stay together. I found a vacant hotel in the middle of a vineyard, run by a German woman. On the second floor, there were bedrooms for the three men with terraces; on the third floor, bedrooms for me and my chambermaid, and a large living room for communal use. From the terraces there was a magnificent view beyond the flourishing foreground of the garden onto the Gulf and Mount Vesuvius, which was in full activity at the time and sent columns of smoke up to the sky in the evening.

Malwida's account, written twenty years after the fact, is centered on her relationship with Nietzsche who, at the end of the century, had become one of the most famous and most quoted philosophers among his contemporaries — it is for this reason that Malwida neglects to mention that the stay in Sorrento had originally been organized not for Nietzsche but for Albert Brenner, a young man with fragile health, a student at the law school at the University of Basel and the philosopher's pupil.

A Stateless Man's Passport

Nietzsche thus accepts Malwida's proposition and prepares for the journey. To travel to Italy, he needs a passport. But there is a problem: when he became a professor at the University of Basel, he had been forced to renounce his German citizenship, and in 1876, he had not yet been granted Swiss citizenship, which required eight years of uninterrupted residence. On September 29, 1876, the city of Basel thus issued him a special passport, a kind of safe-conduct valid for one year. However, it is this document that the philosopher will use until 1889. From a legal point of view, therefore, considering the fact that he will never regain his German citizenship, Nietzsche the traveler will be a stateless person for the rest of his life, moving throughout Europe with an expired passport that he will use only to withdraw money at the post office. He will write, in 1881: "I have no passport and anyway, I have no use for one [...] My old passport from 1876 is still valid for the post office." Apparently, in the era of rising nationalism, illegal immigrants moved through Europe more freely than today. In any case, this legal status of stateless philosopher seems to be particularly appropriate for the man who would place his hopes in the coming of the good Europeans of the future.

With his new passport in his pocket, Nietzsche begins his journey to the South with a two-week stop, from October 1 to 18, at the Hôtel du Crochet at Bex, in Switzerland. He is accompanied by a young philosopher, Paul Rée, who will play an important role in the stay in Sorrento and in this phase of Nietzsche's philosophy.

I have been in Bex for eight days and am enjoying the beautiful autumn in the company of Rée, the incomparable. Yet I had to stay in bed for a day and a half with the most violent pains (they lasted from Monday at noon until Tuesday night, over thirty hours). The day before yesterday and yesterday the first stages of a new attack began, which I'm expecting tomorrow. This place and the stop at the Hôtel (where Rée and I are staying alone in an annex) are exceptionally beautiful. From seven to eight o'clock (before sunrise), I take a walk. Likewise from four-thirty to seven o'clock, after sunset: during the day, I sit on the terrace in front of our rooms.

— October 18, journey to the South.

A year later, in a letter to Nietzsche, Rée will remember this stay in the little annex at the Hôtel du Crochet, measured by walks, resting, and reading, and where Nietzsche had celebrated, on October 15, his thirty-second birthday. Paul Rée will even regard this time as "the honeymoon of their friendship": "These days, my thoughts wander toward Bex and have no desire to be called back to the present. It was, as it were, the honeymoon of our friendship, and the little house apart, the wooden balcony, the clusters of grapes, and The Wise Man complete the picture of a perfect situation."

In the peacefulness of these two weeks in Bex, Nietzsche had returned to his notes on the liberation of the spirit that were to form the basis of a fifth Untimely Meditation. He even announces to his sister Elisabeth that the text of this Meditation is already finished and that he is only missing someone to whom to dictate it in order to send it to the publisher. On October 18, the two friends prepare for the journey toward Genoa where a boat for Naples awaits them: "Beloved sister, it's the day of our departure, the foehn blows a very southerly wind. It's hard to believe that I'll be as happy in the South as in Bex. The choice was excellent!"

Shortly before the departure, in response to a telegram from Wagner sent from Venice, Nietzsche had written: "When I think of you in Italy, I remember that the inspiration for the beginning of Rheingold came to you there. May it always remain a land of beginnings for you! [...] You know, perhaps, that I am also going to Italy next month, to find the land not of beginnings, but of the end of my suffering." In reality, as we shall see, the physical suffering will not end, but the journey to Italy will mark, for Nietzsche, the birth of a new cycle of thought.

Night Train through Mont Cenis

Nietzsche and Rée make their next stop in Geneva, at the Hôtel de la Poste, where Albert Brenner meets them. At nine in the evening, Nietzsche and Brenner take the night train, which carries them to Genoa on the afternoon of October 20, while Rée, who had prolonged his stay in Geneva, will only arrive in Genoa during that night. Nietzsche writes a telegraphic-style report of the journey to his mother and his sister: "Bad departure from Bex; in Geneva, a bit better; at lunchtime ate at the Hôtel de la Poste. Brenner arrived. Night journey through Mont-Cenis, afternoon the next day, arrived in Genoa with a severe headache: immediately to bed, vomiting, and duration of this state 44 hours. Today, Sunday, better; just now returned from a trip to the port and the sea. Beautiful silence and colors of the evening. Tomorrow (Monday) evening departure on the steamboat to Naples, we three friends have decided together on a sea journey. Warmest regards to you both."

Not a word in this postcard about a strange meeting in the night train with the baroness Claudine von Brevern and Isabelle von der Pahlen. The latter, however, was so overwhelmed by her meeting with Nietzsche that she would give a detailed description of it in her 1902 book devoted to the philosopher, lyrically evoking this "great stranger," this "Croesus of thought who had worlds to give." This is how Isabelle von der Pahlen relates what she considers as one of the most extraordinary experiences of her life:

It was in Geneva, on a soft October evening in the year of grace 1876 that the long-cherished desire for a stay in Italy was fulfilled. Under the protection of a friend of my mother's, I cheerfully boarded a first-class compartment, which promised us a night of refreshing rest, for it was empty except for a masculine shape, leaning motionless in a corner. Thanks to her comfortable down cushion, my companion soon fell into a peaceful slumber, while I wore myself out with my preparations for sleep. My father, in his loving care, had given me an air cushion, which I tried in vain to inflate. Absorbed in my love's labor's lost, I suddenly catch sight of a finger approaching the rubber monster.

Weary of my battle with the object, I give up on my efforts and say, laughing: "Please, see if you can help me, if you have more breath than I." The great stranger seizes the spineless shell and tries in vain to breathe his spirit into it.

We give it up, both decide against sleep, and spend the night in lively conversation: a true orgy of thoughts, which left me with the freshest and most luminous memory, often brought to my mind as one of the most singular experiences of my life.

What did we chat about during those unforgettable hours? Of each and every thing that exists between heaven and earth, of art and science, of the heights and depths of existence, with the exception of all personal circumstances. I know that I was literally intoxicated by the power and novelty of the ideas that sprang from the lips of the man who sat facing me in such astonishing abundance and original manifestations. A Croesus of thought who had worlds to give and who was in just the right mood to do it. [...]

My partner carried La Rochefoucauld's Maxims with him, to which the first threads of our conversation were tied. He praised the gift of the French, La Rochefoucauld, Vauvenargues, Condorcet, Pascal, for sharpening a thought so much that it could compete with a medal in acuity and relief. He also spoke of the roughness of the content, which, through the application of the most difficult form, attains artistic perfection. He supported this claim through the following verses, which, by their impact, have remained in my ears:

    Oui, l'œuvre sort plus belle
    D'une matière au travail rebelle —
    Vers, marbre, onyx, émail —
    Point de contraires fausses,
    Mais que pour marcher droit —
    Muse, tu chausses,
    Un cothurne étroit

(I later found this stanza in Théophile Gautier's Émaux et Camées — his motto is: "Le buste survivra à la cité.")

In these words lies the formative principle of his aphoristic style. But at the same time they contain the conviction of the first artist of language, beside Goethe and Heine, that the German tongue is an extremely rough material, on the same level as stone and ore.

From the subject of social problems, my companion now began to speak of religious and philosophical things, of which my humble intelligence must, after all, have attained a considerable understanding, for I remember that he asked me, quite unexpectedly, this question: "Is it not so, miss, that you too are a freethinker [Freigeist]?"

I protested against this designation as a translation of the term "esprit fort" ["strong spirit"] which, invented in the last quarter of the eighteenth century by the encyclopedists, carries a strongly polemic connotation, and added: "My wish is to be a 'free spirit' ['freier Geist'], which could, if necessary, correspond to the 'libre penseur' ['freethinker'] of the French."

At this point he made a note in his pocket book, as he had often done over the course of our conversation. I remembered this later, in 1880, when, on the first page of Things Human, All Too Human, the subtitle "A Book for Free Spirits" sent me vividly back to that hour. I regarded this second title as a dedication in which I also had my part, and I relished the work as a magnificent commentary, containing the entire world, of our dialogue on that soft Italian night.

It is more than likely that Isabelle exaggerates the importance of her nighttime conversation in the train from Geneva to Genoa for the genesis of Things Human, All Too Human, which had been published in 1878. In reality, the idea of a book on the free spirit came long before this meeting. From 1870, one of the first titles that Nietzsche had given to what would later become The Birth of Tragedy was Tragedy and Free Spirits. This first title bore witness to an intention to connect the Eleusinian wisdom of the Wagnerian music drama with the philosopher's freedom of spirit and, in perspective, to open a dimension proper to the philosophical genius of the new culture of Bayreuth. But the artistic genius had ended up occupying the whole stage as well as the entirety of Nietzsche's notebooks and writings, at the expense of the freedom of the philosophical spirit. Yet after the festival at Bayreuth, Nietzsche returns, this time in full force, to his meditations on the free spirit, inspired in part by a rereading of Montaigne's Essais. In particular, a diary of 1876 can be regarded as the true "notebook of the free spirit": this is very likely the notebook that Isabelle watched fill with notations in the train to Italy.

This notebook contains twenty fragments that directly concern "the way toward the freedom of the spirit" and judge that "a man who thinks freely experiences the evolution of entire generations ahead of time." It is affirmed here that the free spirit lives for the future of man, inventing new possibilities of existence and weighing the old ones. These fragments divide humanity into free men and slaves: "the man who does not have two-thirds of his day to himself is a slave, no matter what else he may be: statesman, businessman, official, scholar." It is also a matter of the way to make life easy and light: "Every man has his recipes for enduring life (partly to let it be easy, partly to make it easy, if it has once revealed itself as hard), even the criminal. This art of living applied everywhere must be reconstructed. Explain what the recipes of religion actually achieve. Not to lighten life but to take life lightly. Many want to make it harder in order to offer afterwards their supreme recipes (art, asceticism, etc.)."The conclusion of the book, which was to be called Das leichte Leben, The Light Life, had to connect the freedom of spirit and love of truth to life made light and easy according to the double-meaning of leicht in German: "We can live like the gods who live lightly if we learn to stand before the truth in vivid rapture [...] In conclusion: free spirits are gods who live lightly." Other fragments reveal the desired effect of these meditations on the reader: "Goal: to put the reader in such an elastic state that he stands on his tiptoes [...] Free thought, fairy tales, lasciviousness lift man onto his tiptoes." This whole set of motives will be used later for the composition of key aphorisms in Things Human, All Too Human, such as number 225:

Free spirit a relative concept. — He is called a free spirit who thinks differently from what, on the basis of his origin, environment, his class and profession, or on the basis of the dominant views of his time, would have been expected of him. He is the exception, the bounded spirits are the rule; the latter reproach him that his free principles either originate in a desire to shock and offend or eventuate in free actions, that is to say in actions incompatible with bounded morals. Occasionally it is also said that this or that free principle is to be attributed to perversity and mental overexcitation; but this is merely the voice of malice, which does not believe what it says but desires only to wound: for the superior quality and sharpness of his intellect is usually written on the face of the free spirit in characters clear enough even for the bounded spirit to read. But the two other derivations of free thought are honestly meant; and many free spirits do in fact emerge in one or other of these ways. But for this reason, the principles they arrive at along these paths could still be truer and more reliable than those of the bounded spirits. In the case of the knowledge of truth, the point is that one possesses it, not from what impetus one sought it or on which paths one found it. If the free spirits are right, the bounded spirits are wrong, regardless of whether the former have arrived at the truth by way of immorality or the latter have hitherto cleaved to untruth out of morality. — In any event, however, it is not inherent to the free spirit's nature to have the more correct opinions but, rather, to have liberated himself from tradition, whether successfully or unsuccessfully. As a rule, though, he will nonetheless have the truth on his side, or at least the spirit of the search for truth: he demands reasons, the others, beliefs.


Excerpted from Nietzsche's Journey to Sorrento by Paolo D'Iorio, Sylvia Mae Gorelick. Copyright © 2016 The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

Translator’s Preface
Introduction: Becoming a Philosopher Chapter 1: Traveling South A Stateless Man’s Passport
Night Train through Mont Cenis
The Camels of Pisa
Naples: First Revelation of the South Chapter 2: “The School of Educators” at the Villa Rubinacci Richard Wagner in Sorrento
The Monastery of Free Spirits
Dreaming of the Dead Chapter 3: Walks on the Land of the Sirens The Carnival of Naples
Mithras at Capri Chapter 4: Sorrentiner Papiere Rée-alism and the Chemical Combinations of Atoms
The Logic of Dreams
An Epicurean in Sorrento
Sacred Music on an African Background
The Sun of Knowledge and the Ground of Things
The Blessed Isles Chapter 5: The Bells of Genoa and Nietzschean Epiphanies Epiphanies
The Value of Human Things
Crossed Geneses
The Azure Bell of Innocence
Zarathustra’s Night Song
Epilogue to the Bell Chapter 6: Torna a Surriento Editions, Abbreviations, Bibliography
Works Cited
List of Figures

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