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"Nietzsche's Seventh Solitude", by Stefan Zweig

Dernière mise à jour : 3 mai 2023

Portrait of Friedrich Nietzsche, 1895

(Heliogravure after Curt Stoeving)

Extract from :

Stefan Zweig

The Struggle with the Daemon: Hölderlin, Kleist, Nietzsche



Theatrical poses are not consonant with greatness; anyone who feels a need for posturing is false ... Beware of those who aim at appearing picturesque !

NIETZSCHE WAS NOT A POSEUR , nor was he represented as a hero during his lifetime. Since his death, many who claim to be his disciples have pictured him as an archetypal hero. Defiant carriage of the head; a lofty brow furrowed with sombre thoughts; thick, wavy hair, clustering down to the strong column of the neck; two falcon eyes beneath bushy eyebrows; every feature of this masterful countenance taut with willpower, health and strength — such is the portrait usually given of him.

Like a second Vercingetorix, he is shown with a heavy moustache falling manfully over the hard-set lips which surmount a prominent chin, and involuntarily the image called up is that of the barbarian warrior, a Viking of the Teutonic north striding forward sword in hand to victory, his hunting horn slung over his shoulder and a spear within easy reach. It is thus that our sculptors and painters delight in portraying him, a Germanic superman, a Prometheus bound, hoping thereby to render this great recluse more accessible to men of little faith who, corrupted by school books and stage presentations, are incapable of detecting tragedy unless it is draped in theatrical trappings. But genuine tragedy is never theatrical, and the true portrait of Nietzsche is far less picturesque than busts and paintings of him would have us believe.

To obtain a real likeness of the man, we need to see him in his actual surroundings. What were they ? A dining room in some modest boarding house, quarters in an equally modest hotel among the Swiss mountains or on the Italian Riviera; insignificant fellow boarders, for the most part elderly females, experts in small talk. A gong sounded for the third time and the guests filed in to dinner. One of them was a slouching figure, peering before him as if he had just emerged from a dark cave — for Nietzsche, who was “six-sevenths blind”, always groped his way when entering a room.

His clothes were dark of hue and carefully brushed; his face was gloomy and crowned with a mane of brown hair; his eyes, too, looked melancholy behind the thick lenses of his spectacles. Quietly and even timidly he sought the place reserved for him at the table, and he remained shrouded in an uncanny silence during the meal. One felt that this was a man who dwelt among the shadows, a man beyond the pale of human society and conversation, one who winced at the slightest noise.

He would bow courteously to his fellow guests, wishing them politely “Good day”, and in return his fellow guests would with equally polite indifference greet “the German professor”. With the tentative movements of near-sighted persons he would draw his chair up to the board; with the cautiousness of those suffering from a weak digestion, he would examine every dish, asking whether the tea was not perhaps too strong, the food too highly spiced — for an error in diet might cause him days of racking pain.

There was never any wine or beer or coffee served where he sat; he smoked neither cigar nor cigarette after meals; allowed himself nothing that would cheer, refresh and relax; kept up a perpetual Lenten abstinence accompanied by a trickle of superficial conversation with a chance neighbour, but when he made the effort to talk it was as if he had not done so for many years, had lost the knack and dreaded lest he be asked too many questions.

Immediately the meal was ended he would retire to his room, a typical chambre garnie, exiguous and chilly and dowdy. The table was usually littered with sheets of manuscript, with jottings on scraps of paper, with proofs. Not a flower, not an ornament, hardly a book, seldom a letter would be found. Away in a corner was a heavy and clumsily made wooden trunk — his only possession in addition to a change of underlinen and a second suit.

On a shelf were ranged innumerable bottles of tinctures of this, that and the other medicament to cure headache (to which he was a martyr), colic, spasmodic vomiting, constipation; more numerous than any other drugs in his pharmacopoeia were chloral and veronal, those terrible specifics against insomnia. A ghastly collection of poisons, the only resources he had to fall back upon in case of need in the dreary silence of his lair, where he knew no other kind of repose than the brief interval of artificially produced sleep.

Wrapped in a loose overcoat, a woollen muffler round his throat — for the miserable stove merely smoked when lit and gave forth no heat — his fingers stiff with cold, two pairs of spectacles on his nose, which almost touched the paper as he wrote, he scribbled for hours at a stretch, scribbled down words which his eyes were hard put to decipher when the work was done. These poor eyes burned, and watered with fatigue. One of the rare joys in his life was when a friendly person came along and offered to take down his thoughts from dictation for a couple of hours.

On fine days he might take a stroll, but he would invariably go alone, alone with his thoughts. Never did he encounter a soul to cheer him, never did he have a companion, never did he meet an acquaintance. He hated grey weather, rain, snow which dazzled his eyes, and during such inclement days he would remain a prisoner in his dingy room. He never paid calls, never came into touch with other human beings. Of an evening he supped on a few biscuits and very weak tea, which having swallowed he would resume his endless communing with his thoughts. Hour after hour sped by in the glare of a sputtering lamp. Then the tension would relax and a welcome lassitude invade him. A gulp of chloral or other soporific, and he would snatch at sleep, at sleep which is the facile boon of those who do not think overmuch and who are not perpetually harassed by the daemons.

There were days which he spent entirely in bed, a prey to cramp in the stomach, to nausea, reduced to semi-consciousness by pain, his temples pulsing furiously, his eyes blinded by suffering. No one came near him to place a cooling bandage on his forehead, to read to him, to talk or to laugh.

Everywhere he went, the chambre garnie was the same. The names of the towns he visited changed from Sorrento to Turin, from Venice to Nice or Marienbad, but the chambre garnie remained identical, a rented room, a room totally lacking in any feeling of home, a room filled with dreary, old, worn-out furniture, with a table at which he worked, with a bed upon which he suffered, and with his unalleviated solitude.

During all the years of his pilgrimage he never once put up in friendly and cheerful surroundings, never at night felt the warm body of a woman pressing against his; never did the sun rise to see him famous, after a thousand nights of dark and silent labour. How immeasurably vaster was Nietzsche’s loneliness than is the picturesque highland of Sils-Maria where between luncheon and tea our tourists wander in the hope of capturing some of the glamour that clings to a spot sanctified by his presence. Nietzsche’s solitude was as wide as the world; it spread over the whole of his life until the very end.

If on some rare occasion a stranger dropped in, Nietzsche was no longer able to respond. Fifteen years of solitude had hardened the crust around his heart, so that he felt incapable of being genial and sociable. The anchorite could breathe, assuaged and comfortable, only when his chance visitor had departed ! Conversation wearied and irritated him who constantly gnawed at his own vitals and whose hunger for himself, and himself alone, was never satiated.

One little ray of brightness came at times to pierce the gloom — music. He would hear Carmen performed in a second-rate theatre at Nice, or catch the lilt of melody in some concert hall, or spend a few hours at the piano. But this relaxation, too, hurt him, moved him to tears. A pleasure once renounced becomes so lost to him who has forgone it that he can henceforward feel it only as suffering, as something that pains.

Nietzsche’s lonely pilgrimage from one chambre garnie to another lasted fifteen years. During that time he remained unknown to everyone but himself. He wandered like a wraith in the shadow of great towns, in dusty trains, in various sickrooms, while all around him the vanity fair of the arts and sciences was in full swing. The only other life journey in the slightest degree comparable is that of Dostoevsky, who during the almost identical period was experiencing similar poverty and oblivion.

In both cases alike the work of a titan masks the sepulchral figure of a Lazarus who dies daily from his poverty and his sores, and who daily rises from the tomb through the saving miracle of his own creative will. Every day, for fifteen years, Nietzsche rose from the grave which was his lodging-house room, to go back to it anon, lapsing from torture to torture, from one death to another, from one resurrection to another, until in the end his brain, overheated in the furnace of his energies, was shattered.

Strangers found him, the man who was so great a stranger to his own epoch, lying in a street at Turin. They conveyed him to a strange room in the Via Carlo Alberto. None witnessed the death of his mind. His intellectual end is shrouded in obscurity, in a saintly isolation. Solitary and unknown, the most lucid genius of the epoch was precipitated into the night of his own soul.

Nietzsche ("The ill Nietzsche" by Hans Olde, 1899)



A great man is pushed and hustled and martyrised until he withdraws into solitude.

“O SOLITUDE , you are my home !”

Such is the melancholy chant which issued from an icy world of silence. Zarathustra composed his evening song, the song of his homecoming. Has not solitude always been the dwelling place of the wanderer, his cold hearth, his stony shelter ? Nietzsche lived in many different towns; he travelled into countless realms of the mind; frequently he endeavoured to escape from solitude by crossing a frontier into a foreign land; but always his journeyings brought him back to solitude, heartsore, weary, disillusioned.

During her constant roaming with this man of many transformations, she herself suffered a change, so that when he looked her in the face he was alarmed, for she had become so like himself in the course of these peregrinations, harder, crueller, more violent; she had learnt to make another suffer and had grown threatening. Though he still continued to call her his “dear old solitude”, the affectionate familiarity seemed out of season; his solitude had become complete isolation, the final, the seventh, solitude, wherein one is not merely alone but also forsaken.

A void surrounded him, an awe-inspiring silence; no hermit or anchorite in the desert was ever more abandoned. They, at least, still had their God whose shade dwelt in their huts or fell upon the tops of their columns. But he, “the murderer of God”, had neither God nor man to companion him. To the extent that he drew nearer to himself, he receded from the world, and, as his voyages extended, “the desert widened” around him.

Generally the works conceived and written in loneliness gain more and more ascendancy upon the minds of men; by a magnetic force they attract increasing numbers of admirers into the invisible circle of their influence. But Nietzsche’s books alienated even his friends; each successive issue cost him the affection of some person who was dear to him. Little by little all interest in him and his writings was extinguished. The first to desert Nietzsche were his professorial colleagues, then Wagner and the Wagnerian coterie, then the companions of his youth. In Germany no publisher would any longer accept his manuscripts. During his twenty years of production, his manuscripts accumulated in a cellar and came to weigh many hundred weight. He had to draw upon his own slender resources in order to get his books printed.

Not only did nobody buy the few volumes that were issued, but he found no readers when he gave them away. The fourth part of Thus Spake Zarathustra was printed at Nietzsche’s expense in forty copies only, and he intended to distribute them among his friends. But he could muster only seven people to whom to send the gift. Is not this sufficient proof of the man’s loneliness ? In order not to forfeit the friendship of Overbeck, the last remaining intimate of youthful days, he wrote apologetically:

“Dear old friend, please read the book from beginning to end, and pray do not allow it to disturb you or alienate you. Summon all your kindness in my favour. If the work as a whole is intolerable to you, maybe you will yet find a hundred details to your liking.”

Thus humbly did the greatest mind of the century petition his contemporaries to consider the greatest book of the epoch, and the finest thing he could say of his most intimate friendship was that nothing had been able to disturb it, “not even Zarathustra”. Not even Zarathustra !

So heavy a burden, so distressing an ordeal had Nietzsche’s creative work become for his nearest and dearest, so vast was the chasm between this man’s genius and the pettiness of the time. More and more did the air he breathed become too rarefied, too soundless, too emptied of commonplace interests, to be respirable by others. This stillness made an inferno of Nietzsche’s last, his seventh, solitude, against whose metallic walls he was knocking out his brains. Practically no reviewer or critic took the slightest notice of Zarathustra, which the author described as “the greatest gift ever bestowed upon men”. One day he lamented:

“After such an appeal as my Zarathustra, a cry that came from my heart, it is terrible not to hear a responsive word, to hear nothing, absolutely nothing, to be surrounded by silence, to be a thousand times more isolated than heretofore. This is a situation exceeding all others in horror; even the strongest might die under the strain ... And I am far from being the strongest. Sometimes it seems to me as though I were indeed wounded unto death.”

Yet what he asked for was not applause, agreement, renown. Quite the contrary ! His bellicose temperament would have thoroughly enjoyed savage opposition, indignation on the part of his readers, disdain, even mockery.

“For a man whose tensions are at breaking point every emotion is wholesome so long as it is violent and passionate.”

Any kind of response would have been welcome, were it icy or heated or lukewarm, but at least a sign that he was alive and had a spiritual existence. His handful of friends behaved as badly as the critics and other strangers, vouchsafing no comment either in their letters or elsewhere, avoiding outspoken opinions as something unpleasant. This gnawed at his vitals, undermining his proper pride, inflaming his self-assertive impulse, consuming his soul.

Lack of recognition was the shaft which poisoned his isolation, and raised his temper to fever heat. The fever lurked in his veins like a smored fire beneath the turves, until at length it burst into flame. If we make a closer examination of Nietzsche’s writings and letters of the years immediately preceding the final breakdown, we shall find that the blood was pulsating more violently as if at an excessive altitude. Mountain climbers have had experiences of the sort after reaching very great heights. In Kleist’s last letters the same dangerous vibrations may be detected, the boiling and bubbling of a machine on the verge of bursting.

Nietzsche’s attitude of patience and calm yielded place to an access of nervous irritability. “Prolonged silence has exasperated my pride.” At all costs he wanted a response, sending letter upon letter, telegram upon telegram, to his printers, urging them to push on with the job — as if the least delay would be a calamity. He had intended to finish his leading work The Will to Power, but he could no longer stick to his plan. Instead, he detached fragments of the book and hurled them like flaming brands into the midst of his epoch. The “halcyon tone” vanished; groans of suffering, cries of wrath, rose up from his impatient heart. He who had habitually shown the utmost indifference to his contemporaries now set about provoking them in the hope of forcing a reaction among them.

Ecce Homo, a kind of autobiography, was a challenge to his time, for herein he recounted the adventures of his life with “a cynicism which will become part of universal history”. He was daunted by a morbid anxiety lest he should fail to achieve success before he died. One feels as one reads that he paused to take breath from time to time during the furious onslaught, in the hope of hearing a cry from those he attacked so savagely. Not a voice was raised. No reply reached him in his “azure solitude”.

At length he understood that no power, divine or human, was going to come to his assistance and rescue him from his isolation. Blindly and wildly he flung his missiles far and wide, never looking to see if they hit the mark. Since he had slain the gods, he set himself up as a divinity.

“Must we not become gods if we are to be worthy of such deeds ?”

Having overthrown all the altars, he built an altar for himself in order to praise himself, seeing that no one else would acknowledge him. He chanted his own dirge with enthusiasm and exultation, mingling it with songs celebrating his deeds and his victories. To begin with, a twilight covered the landscape of his mind as when black clouds stalk up from the horizon and distant thunder growls; then a strident laugh rent the sultry air, a mad, violent and wicked laugh full of despair, heartbreaking — this was the paean of Ecce Homo.

As the book develops, its cadences become increasingly spasmodic, the yells of laughter are more shrill amid the glacial silence; he is, as it were, outside himself. His hands are raised, his feet stamp rhythmically; he breaks into a dance, a dance over an abyss, the abyss of his own annihilation."

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