Nietzsche spent the final days of 1870 with Richard and Cosima, revelling in the unmatched philosophical discussion. But his love for them could not lastby Sue Prideaux / December 25, 2019 / Leave a comment
In 1870, Nietzsche was 26. He had recently been promoted to full professor at Basel University when the Franco-Prussian war broke out. This presented him with a moral dilemma. Basel being in Switzerland, the university wanted him to stay in his teaching job. But Nietzsche, being German, felt it his duty to defend his country despite his loathing of mindless German nationalism. “Deutschland, Deutschland über alles, that is the end of German philosophy!” he wrote. He absolutely did not want to fire cannonballs against France, a country whose culture and philosophy he loved dearly. His compromise was to volunteer to go to the front as a medical orderly. Nursing the wounded and dying on the battlefields, he caught dysentery and diphtheria simultaneously, and was invalided out.
During his recovery, he was invited to spend Christmas with Richard and Cosima Wagner in their elaborate mansion on Lake Lucerne. Nietzsche was in love with Cosima, who had married Wagner while Nietzsche was at war. The daughter of Franz Liszt, Cosima was terrifyingly effective; capable even of dominating the notoriously libidinous Wagner. When Nietzsche had volunteered for war, stern Cosima had briskly told him that “a gift of a hundred cigars would be more use to the army than the presence of a dilettante,” a remark that made him adore her all the more.
Now, on his return from the battlefield, Nietzsche had grown in the eyes of his hosts into the heroic philosopher-warrior. He accepted their invitation without realising that his wartime experience had in fact opened a chasm between them that would eventually widen into a full-blown rift. War left Nietzsche committed to European cooperation, while it stoked Wagner and Cosima’s blazing, vengeful, nationalism. Wagner—who spoke French perfectly well—was refusing even to read letters sent to him written in French.
On Christmas morning, ravishing sounds came pulsing through the scented air of the house. Wagner had secretly smuggled Hans Richter and a 15-piece orchestra on to the staircase where they played a glorious piece of music for the very first time. It was the Siegfried Idyll, Wagner’s sublime symphonic poem composed to celebrate Cosima giving birth to his only son, Siegfried, named after the human hero of Wagner’s epic Ring cycle.
Cosima writes in her diary that on hearing the music wafting up the stairs, she exclaimed; “Now let me die.” “It would be easier,” Wagner answered, “to die for me than to live for me.”
The exchange was typical of the elevated plane on which conversations were exhaustingly and unrelentingly conducted in the Wagner household, often punctuated by sobs, tears and one or other falling to their knees. The Siegfried Idyll, Cosima wrote, transported her into “a waking dream, a euphoric melting of boundaries, an unawareness of bodily existence, supreme happiness and the highest bliss.” She felt as if she had at last attained the Schopenhauerian goal of dissolving the boundaries between Will and Representation, between the material world and the ideal.
Wagner and Cosima were giving no gifts this Christmas. The gesture was a tribute to those still experiencing the hardships of war. Nietzsche had not been forewarned of this sensibility. He arrived laden with gifts. For Wagner he had thoughtfully chosen a copy of Dürer’s great engraving The Knight, Death and the Devil, an image that since its creation in 1513 had been taken as a nationalist rallying point, a significant symbol of German faith and German courage in adversity. Wagner accepted it with great pleasure. Never a stranger to vanity, he saw it as a picture of himself: the composer riding to the rescue of pure German culture, mounted on his “Music of the Future,” Zukunftsmusik, his nation’s true music that, he felt, had been derailed by foreign composers like Offenbach (French) and Meyerbeer (Jewish). Both composers—maddeningly—far more popular than himself. Nietzsche had chosen his present well. It fed Wagner’s idea of himself as the knight whose lance would slay the dragon of multiculturalism.
Cosima was also delighted with her Christmas gift from Nietzsche: the manuscript of The Birth of the Tragic Concept, an early draft of the philosopher’s own The Birth of Tragedy. In the evenings, Wagner read passages aloud. Wagner and Cosima praised it as being “of the greatest value and excellence.” Nietzsche purred.
Nietzsche was the only guest. He stayed eight days. One evening he read out his essay on the Dionysian attitude, which they then discussed. Another, Wagner read out the libretto for Die Meistersinger. One day when Wagner was out, Hans Richter played the ravishing music from Tristan und Isolde for Nietzsche and Cosima alone. They discussed the comparative merits of Hoffmann and Edgar Allan Poe, and this led them to agree on the profundity of the idea of looking upon the real world as unreality, an attitude which Schopenhauer remarks is the mark of philosophical capacity.
On New Year’s Day 1871, Nietzsche left them to return to Basel. The month of January was depressing. The Franco-Prussian war continued in all its brutality. France was crushed. On 18th January, Kaiser Wilhelm was proclaimed emperor of a united Germany—in the Hall of Mirrors at Versailles, of all places. France’s humiliation was complete. Wagner and Cosima rejoiced. Nietzsche was utterly miserable. Away from Wagner and Cosima, he experienced the full conflict between his love for them and his convictions. It would take him some years to summon the strength to jump over the abyss of moral hypocrisy. The choice between love and idealism has never been easy, even for a philosopher.
Sue Prideaux is the author of I Am Dynamite! A life of Nietzsche (Faber)