Friedrich Nietzsche and Lou von Salomé, the myth of marriage proposals
The following is not really a paradox as such, but rather falls into the category that I call ‘philosophy gossip’. It could still be thought of as a paradox, but then in the Greek sense of the word – something that is “contrary to common belief”. There is also a double paradox that is the result of the following analysis; though my primary aim here is to shed some light on a historical misrepresentation that continues to this day regarding the relationship between Friedrich Nietzsche and Lou Andreas-Salomé.
While going over some notes on Nietzsche’s biographical sketch for a separate project that I am involved in, it occurred to me that Nietzsche’s relationship with Lou Andreas-Salomé is still largely based on erroneous information that has persisted over the course of a century. What the reasons are, I am not sure. Perhaps, it is because a lot of contemporary introductions to his work still use old sources; perhaps, it is because there is an interesting anecdote that could be told in between the more serious philosophical thought while teaching undergraduates; or perhaps, it is just scholars being lazy and reproducing this gossip in order to fill up pages long enough to publish a book. Most probably, it is a combination of the three to some degree. It is in any event certain that the relationship between Nietzsche and Salomé had been deemed of more interest by scholars than, say, his relationship with Malwida von Meysenbug. This despite their friendship lasting from Nietzsche’s times as a student (in contrast, the relationship with Salomé took only a few sporadic meetings over the course of a few months).
Regardless of the reasons for erroneous reproduction of the relationship, the relationship itself nevertheless marks an important departure for some scholarly work. In particular, Nietzsche’s understanding of women, and indeed the often used metaphor of a woman in his work, comes under scrutiny based on this misrepresented historical event. And it seems to me that in order to take Nietzsche’s views on this topic (i.e. women) seriously, this myth has to be clarified and some errors corrected. It is my view that we have to dispel the ‘importance’ of this event altogether. Though, in my modesty, I should start with only clarifying why the unfortunate reproduction of the event is incorrect.
Lou von Salomé met Paul Rée in Italy, and the two quickly became close. There is little evidence on the two being sexually involved, though they could be considered a ‘couple’. Nietzsche joined the two in May 1882 (on some accounts, their first meeting was late April of that year). He was invited by both Paul Rée and Malwida von Meysenbug to meet this bright young Russian woman, of whom von Meysenbug at least thought to be close to Nietzsche philosophically: “she strikes me as someone who has reached much the same philosophical conclusions as you” (in Janz 2,121 – sorry, but finding an English edition on Amazon is impossible).
That the two quickly found each other’s company of interest is certainly true, if we consider their letters to one another (some letters are below). At any rate, the three – Rée, Nietzsche and Salomé – (strictly speaking, it was four, as Salomé’s mother accompanied them) roamed Italy making plans for the winter. For most Nietzsche readers, the picture used in the heading is quite familiar. The implication of a ‘ménage à trois’ cannot be missed; and who knows, perhaps their were ‘plans’ of this to happen as well. But it should be stressed that the account of both Nietzsche and Salomé throughout 1882 confirms an intellectual ménage à trois, not a sexual one.
The myth of marriage proposals
The myth starts here, as allegedly Nietzsche proposed to marry Salomé. He did so twice (some claim he did so three times), first asking his friend Rée to do this on his behalf; and again, when he realised Rée to be his competition (who allegedly proposed to Salomé as well), and after they spent some time alone at Lake Orta, Nietzsche proposed to her in Lucerne (Luzern). He was, according to Salomé, desperately smitten with love, but these feelings were not mutual. This is how Salomé saw Nietzsche towards the end of their relationship:
In some deep dark corner of our beings, we are worlds apart. Nietzsche’s nature is like an old castle that conceals within it many a dark dungeon and hidden basement room, not apparent at first glance and yet likely to contain all the essentials. It is strange, but recently the idea suddenly struck me that we could wind up facing each other as enemies someday (in Safranski’s Nietzsche: A Philosophical Biography, p. 254-5).
What I posit here is twofold: 1) there is no contemporary evidence to support the marriage proposals by Nietzsche towards Salomé. The only sources start after Nietzsche’s death in Salomé’s letters; which, if we follow the letters between Nietzsche and Salomé, or from Nietzsche to his friends, can easily be discredited. 2) I also posit that the relationship was not based on love, but on intellectual merit that Nietzsche saw in Salomé. Nietzsche’s interest was in her academic mind, rather than a sexual interest.
I will get to the letters on which I base my conclusions briefly. Let us first look how the academics have perpetuated this myth up until the latest publications:
1. Carol Diethe’s Historical Dictionary of Nietzscheanism, pp. 14f: “Nietzsche asked Rée to propose to Lou … on his behalf … He told the Overbecks about this new turn of events”. (I’m unable to find anything in Nietzsche’s letters to Overbecks regarding this; if you do, please let me know). The rest of the pages is based on nothing but speculation and conjectures, no actual proof of a proposal. To be sure, Diethe presents a more nuanced view in Amazon, citing Ida Overbeck’s diary that claims Nietzsche’s worry that Lou may have the wrong impression: “Frau Overbeck, then, clearly refutes any suggestion that Nietzsche had proposed to Lou Salomé” (p. 50n). The analysis that follows, however, may as well have not. What is especially troublesome with Diethe is that the more nuanced version is published in 1996, while the historical dictionary is published in 2013!