Dear Lou Andreas Salomé:
I met you recently in “Freud”, a Netflix series about the founder of psychoanalysis (or, rather, a random namesake from Vienna), where you play the role of a charming and tormented medium, possessed by a demon with a ridiculous name. I caught a glimpse of you in a movie, where you play the part of the rebellious and unconventional femme fatale. I said “a glimpse,” because you looked like an early 20th century Amelie, and I didn’t get past the trailer. I googled you, of course. There’s only this story around: the fascinating Russian who bewitches all the brilliant men she meets. Philosophers, poets, sociologists, psychologists, politicians, journalists, economists, doctors… everyone falls in love with you after a few seconds.
Nietzsche tried to pick you up as soon as he saw you (“From which stars have we fallen to meet each other here?”[i] – what a player!), while Paul Rée became immediately a doormat at your feet. And then R. M. Rilke, Ferdinand Tonnies, Gerhart Hauptmann, Franz Wedekind – the latter two being little-known men who even killed themselves for you. You also charmed Freud; it seems that only old Tolstoy was immune to your spell. I looked for some portraits of yours. Your colours are drowned in the photographs’ sepia, but your shapes emerge sharply from the contrasts of the shadows. You have a regular face, free of imperfections or flaws. If it weren’t for your eyes, which betray the agility of your mind, you’d have the unobtrusive beauty of a stock photo model: you are not beautiful, but a screen where people project beauty.
Well, I fell for it too. I described you as someone else’s mirror. And yet, if you inspired the best minds of your time, you must have had something to offer beyond an enchantment. On the other hand, anyone who has loved more than once knows that the only magic in passion is the ease with which we fall into the trap of simple mechanisms. Your most famous suitor wrote to you that “two people fall in love because the soul of one is the sounding board that echoes every sound in the other’s chest. Or they fall in love because they discover that the same sounds are sung in their souls. In the first case harmony is a consequence of love, in the second case love is a consequence of harmony”[ii]. You have been called ‘a sounding board’ for geniuses, but like everyone else you had your own music, with your chords and discords. Like your namesake, who danced at Herod’s court for the head of John the Baptist, you were allowed to dance but not sing.
Elizabeth, Nietzsche’s unpleasant and anti-Semitic sister, wrote that “I can’t remember anything good about Miss Salome, who is too mean and too ridiculously full of empty words and lies”[iii]. Fritz (Elizabeth’s pet name for Nietzsche), after his disappointment in love, called you a “dried, dirty, smelly little monkey with fake breasts”[iv]. Not very nice of you, dear Fritz. And again:
“By voice and by letter they described your daughter as a being almost too good for this world, a martyr of knowledge since her childhood, ready to sacrifice every happiness, every comfort of life, and even her health, for a single purpose, the truth […] I don’t want to talk about how much effort I’ve put into keeping at least a drop of this image alive, and how much, in doing so, I had to forget and forgive”.
“Your daughter”? Did your mother think so badly of you, too? Not really; her letters show nothing but love that comes along with a true concern for the fate of a girl so inadequate in the society in which she was born. How much advice was she asking for! And the answers she received offer the most precious clues to investigate your nature, Salomé. This is how Emanuel Biedermann describes you (my italics):
“Although I fully recognize her aspiration to knowledge, her uncommon talent and energy, I have nevertheless pointed out to her that […] I could not recommend to anyone the profession of the pure writer – much less to a woman. […] Your daughter is an exceptional woman, she has a childlike purity and straightforwardness of mind, and at the same time she has no childish or feminine orientation of intellect”[v].
So, where were you wrong? I suspect you were simply unsuitable (and rightly so) for the marginal role reserved to your gender, because, as you wrote, “I can’t live according to a model, nor can I ever be a model for anyone, but I will build my life in my own image, and I certainly will, whatever it takes”[vi].
You’ve been dead for almost a century and corpses are not that sexy, so I run no danger in investigating whether your witchcraft fame is due to a diabolical power or is the usual label used by patriarchal societies to marginalize independent women. Don’t get me wrong, from your letters emerges an attitude that makes you the last person one hopes to fall in love with, because you always repeat a dynamic of illusion and denial. You weren’t doing it for money nor profit, since no one mentions it. And to tell you the truth, I found nothing seductive in your correspondence. Perhaps, that was what drove your men crazy. What drove Fritz to describe you as follows, in a moment of greater calm but still furious anger?
“For the great strength of her will and her absolutely original intelligence, she was predestined for something great; anyway, because of her morality, prison or the asylum might be the most suitable places for her”[vii].
The “prison or the asylum” you deserved were for the guilt of making your suitors fall in love – or deluding them, at worst. It’s a bit too much punishment, don’t you think? You had your knots like everyone else, or maybe you just hadn’t found the right person to love. I will not psychoanalyse you – Freud did it himself – but let me tell dear Fritz that I have experienced my unhappy loves as well, and I know that if you approach the wrong person, well, you should blame yourself above all.
If for someone it was dangerous to fall in love with you, others could simply enjoy your mind, but alas! It’s not the role that suits a woman. Pardon me if I intruded in your private affairs, but, as Nietzsche wrote to you, “your idea of reducing philosophical systems to the personal acts of their authors is precisely an idea that has come out of a brotherly brain: I myself in Basel set out the history of ancient philosophy in this sense, and I loved to say to my listeners: “This system is refuted and dead – but the person behind it is irrefutable, the person cannot die’”[viii].
So, let’s listen to your works, starting with the biography you wrote after Nietzsche’s death, the first to be published, together with his sister’s unfortunate work. As little as I can understand, you captured both the philosophy and the man behind it, in a book that you described as “an investigation of religious psychology; [because] it is only on this field that beams of pure light can illuminate the meaning of his character, his suffering and his self-beatification”[ix]. Your description of the physical look of the philosopher outlines his thought so well that I report it almost in full:
“To the hasty observer, his figure had nothing special: this man of medium stature, simple dressed, with relaxed features and backward combed brown hair could easily go unnoticed. The contour of his mouth, thin and expressive as ever, was almost entirely hidden by his big moustache; he had a quiet laugh, a quiet way of speaking, a cautious and meditating gait; it was difficult to imagine such a man in the middle of a crowd: he carried the mark of those who remained on the sidelines, of those who were alone. Of incomparable beauty and nobility of form were Nietzsche’s hands, that he himself believed revealed his spirit. […] Nietzsche’s eyes were also revealing. Though half-blind, they possessed nothing of that inquisitive, winking, unintentionally importunate character that is characteristic of many short-sighted people; they seemed to be guardians of treasures, protectors of dumb secrets that no gaze should violate. The weakness of his eyesight gave his features a very special charm, because instead of reflecting the external and iridescent impressions, it gave back only what he drew from within. These eyes looked inward and at the same time far away, or rather, inwardly as if in a distance”[x].
Your other essays are a more complex subject. Reading them as scientific texts, although contextualized in their time, I was not passionate about them, especially those of a psychoanalytic nature. But this is not the right way to read them, given your original syncretism between philosophy, science and poetry. Here is an example of your scientific-poetic prose:
“In the conjugation of unicellular organisms (which from time to time also seems to be at the basis of their self-reproduction) the two cell nuclei merge totally together, thus forming the new being, while on the periphery of the old cell only a small part of living matter detaches itself by dying: procreation, child, death and immortality coincide for a single moment”[xi].
The eroticism, which you so often arouse without living it, is one of your main themes, but from the way you talk about it the tension seems more mystical than carnal:
“In the most beautiful love songs lives something of this powerful emotion, as if the beloved is no longer just itself, but also the leaf that trembles on the tree, the ray that reflects on the water – a feeling transformed into all things and that transforms all things – an image exploded into the infinity of the whole, so that wherever we want to go we are always at home”[xii].
Maybe yours wasn’t malice, illness or desire for independence. You literally wanted to “be in the skin of all men”, not like a Circe but like St. Teresa; the story of your conquests coincides with the tragedy of your missed ecstasy. How else to read a passage like this, in which you write that
“The erotic takes an intermediate position between the two great groups of feelings of selfishness and altruism […] these two opposing principles, which on the surface are divided and irreconcilable, are instead united at the root by the deepest dependence, and the affirmation of those who lose themselves: “I want to be everything!”, like that of the stingy-avid: “I want to have everything!” have the same meaning, the search for a supreme communion with everything[xiii].
Nietzsche addressed Pindar’s incitement to you, “Become what you are!”, but like the other great men you’ve met he wanted you to become what you were to him. It has always been this way, since your tutor Gillot, who wanted to leave his wife and daughters (of your age) to marry you. But you wanted to be yourself, without giving up your affections nor putting yourself in competition. You wrote that “the intellectual and practical competition that [a woman] can engage with a man, the desire to prove at all costs that she is equal to him in any profession and that she can do as well as he did, is a real monstrosity, and the resulting ambition is the most dangerous feeling a woman can cultivate”[xiv]. By this you didn’t mean that women should stay in their place – remember when Ida Overbeck threatened you “You are coming into conflict with society, with the family, with the woman’s natural profession!”[xv]? You were simply claiming the right to a spiritual path the ultimate meaning of which was not to demonstrate something about this or that man, but the realization of one’s own very personal goal. As far as I have read you, I have been able to find something that seemed authentically yours just in a few autobiographical passages.
In a note you write, all in italics, that your happiest experience was the radical feeling that a single, immeasurable destiny unites us with everything that exists. You speak of the “indistinguishability of our destiny, and not only of mankind’s destiny – an indistinguishability that contains in itself even the cosmic dust. And which, precisely because of its nature, can never be affected by criteria of judgment and value emerging in the course of life; as if there were nothing left to justify, praise or condemn before the evidence of its existence”[xvi]. Your words failed because a society too busy with silencing women couldn’t listen to their silence. Yet, only silence expresses your greatest thoughts, because “our most elementary, most intimate experiences do not deliver their secret to words. What is truly essential remains hidden in the unexpressed”[xvii].
In your autobiography you wrote that
“when I had to face [a mirror], I was almost speechless, clearly observing that I was just what was in front of me: a limited being, imprisoned, forced to cease to exist before everything else, even before its closest things. If I avoided mirrors the impression was not so strong, and yet something within me denied the fact that I was no longer part of everything else, that I had been kicked off from it, that I could no longer find refuge there”[xviii].
Dear Salomé, you have been described as a mirror, but you are among the few who grasped mirrors’ true nature.
[i] Ernst Pfeiffer, Mario Carpitella, Triangolo di lettere, Adelphi, Milano, 1999
[ii] Ernst Pfeiffer, Mario Carpitella, Triangolo di lettere, Adelphi, Milano, 1999
[vi] Ernst Pfeiffer, Mario Carpitella, Triangolo di lettere, Adelphi, Milano, 1999
[viii] Ernst Pfeiffer, Mario Carpitella, Triangolo di lettere, Adelphi, Milano, 1999
[ix] Lou Andreas Salomé, Nietzsche, SE, Milano 1999
[xi] Lou Andreas Salomé, La materia erotica, Mimesis, Milano, 1998
[xii] Lou Andreas Salomé, L’erotismo, Vanda, Milano, 2016
[xiv] Lou Andreas Salomé, Uno sguardo sulla vita, SE, Milano, 2017
[xv] Ernst Pfeiffer, Mario Carpitella, Triangolo di lettere, Adelphi, Milano, 1999
[xvi] Lou Andreas Salomé, Uno sguardo sulla vita, SE, Milano, 2017