When Nietzsche Wept, Yalom, Irvin D

You must be ready to burn yourself in your own flame: how could you become new, if you had not first become ashes?

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She was a woman of uncommon beauty: powerful forehead, strong, sculpted chin, bright blue eyes, full and sensuous lips, and carelessly brushed silver-blond hair gathered lackadaisically in a high bun, exposing her ears and her long, graceful neck. He noticed with particular pleasure the wisps of hair that had escaped the gathering bun and stretched out recklessly in every direction.

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“He often terms himself a ‘posthumous philosopher’—a philosopher for whom the world isn’t yet ready. In fact, the new book he is planning begins with that theme—a prophet, Zarathustra, bursting with wisdom, decides to enlighten the people. But no one understands his words. They aren’t ready for him, and the prophet, realizing that he’s come too soon, returns to his solitude.”

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Can I have discovered a psychological equivalent of pharmacologic replacement therapy? A benign drug like valerian can replace a more dangerous one like morphine.

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And both women frightened him: each dangerous, but in different ways. This Lou Salomé frightened him because of her power—of what she might do to him. Bertha frightened him because of her submissiveness—because of what he might do to her.

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“Despair is not a medical symptom, Fraulein; it is vague, imprecise. Each of Anna O.’s symptoms involved some discrete part of her body; each was caused by the discharge of intracerebral excitation through some neural causeway. Insofar as you’ve described it, your friend’s despair is entirely ideational. No treatment approach exists for such a condition.”

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“Doctor Breuer, this hour has been too short. I am greedy and desire more of your time. May I walk with you back to your hotel?” The statement struck Breuer as bold, masculine; yet from her lips it seemed right, unaffected—the natural way people should talk and live. If a woman enjoys a man’s company, why shouldn’t she take his arm and ask to walk with him? Yet what other woman he knew would have uttered those words? This was a different sort of woman. This woman was free!

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“Of course, but”—and she drew her arm from his, to stand facing him, self-enclosed, forceful as a man—“to me, the word ‘duty’ is weighty and oppressive. I’ve pared down my duties to only one—to perpetuate my freedom. Marriage and its entourage of possession and jealousy enslave the spirit. They will never have dominion over me. I hope, Doctor Breuer, the time will come when neither men nor women are tyrannized by each other’s frailties.” She turned with all the assurance of her arrival. “Auf Wiedersehen. Till our next meeting—in Vienna.”

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He noted that each of these states of mind had its own emotional coloring: the inflated one had sharp corners—a nastiness and irritability—as well as a loftiness and loneliness. The other state, in contrast, felt round, soft, and accepting.

These were definite, identifiable emotions, Breuer thought, but they were also modest emotions. What about more powerful emotions and the states of mind that brew them? Might there be a way to control those stronger emotions? Might that not lead to an effective psychological therapy?

He considered his own experience. His most labile states of mind involved women. There were times—today, ensconced in the fortress of his consulting room, was one of them—when he felt strong and safe. At such times, he saw women as they really were: struggling, aspiring creatures dealing with the endless pressing problems of everyday life; and he saw the reality of their breasts: clusters of mammary cells floating in lipoid pools. He knew about their leakages, dysmenorrheic problems, sciatica, and various irregular protrusions—prolapsed bladders and uteruses, and bulging blue hemorrhoids and varicosities.

But then there were other times—times of enchantment, of being captured by women who were larger than life, their breasts swelling into powerful, magical globes—when he was overcome by an extraordinary craving to merge with their bodies, to suckle at their nipples, to slip into their warmth and wetness. This state of mind could be overwhelming, could overturn an entire life—and had, in his work with Bertha, almost cost him everything he held dear.

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After ushering Fraulein Salomé into his office and motioning her toward a heavy black leather-upholstered chair, Breuer sat down in the chair next to her. He couldn’t help remarking, “I see you prefer to do things for yourself. Doesn’t that deprive men of the pleasure of serving you?”

“We both know that some of the services men provide are not necessarily good for women’s health!”

“Your future husband will need extensive retraining. The habits of a lifetime are not easily extinguished.”

“Marriage? No, not for me! I have told you. Oh, perhaps a part-time marriage—that might suit me, but nothing more binding.”

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God knows I have no idea about curing despair: I can’t cure my own.

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“Nietzsche is extraordinarily sensitive to issues of power. He would refuse to engage in any process that he perceives as surrendering his power to another. He is attracted in his philosophy to the pre-Socratic Greeks, especially to their concept of Agonis—the belief that one develops one’s natural gifts only through contest—and he is deeply distrustful of the motives of anyone who forgoes contest and claims to be altruistic. His mentor in these matters was Schopenhauer. No one desires, he believes, to help another: instead, people wish only to dominate and increase their own power. The few times when he surrendered his power to another, he’s ended up feeling devastated and enraged. It happened with Richard Wagner. I believe it is happening now with me.”

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But now, exposed to the power of her charm, he felt his strength slipping away. Her comment about her blush was remarkable: never in his life had he heard a woman, or anyone else for that matter, speak of social intercourse with such directness. And she was only twenty-one years old!

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“I was immediately attracted to Nietzsche. He’s not an imposing man physically—medium height, with a gentle voice and unblinking eyes that look inward rather than out, as if he were protecting some inner treasure. I didn’t know then that he is three-quarters blind. Still, there was something extraordinarily compelling about him. The first words he spoke to me were: ‘From what stars have we dropped down to each other here?’

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“But we are free-thinking idealists who reject socially imposed restrictions. We believe in our capability to create our own moral structure.”

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He urged me instead to join him in pursuit of the ideal relationship—passionate, chaste, intellectual, and nonmarital.

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To find dawns and golden possibilities, to love a rich, bold soul: everyone needs that, he thought, at least once in a lifetime.

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We talked about the relativity of good and evil, about the necessity to free oneself from public morality in order to live morally, about a freethinker’s religion. Nietzsche’s words seemed true: we had sibling brains—we could say so much to one another with half-words, half-sentences, mere gestures. Yet this paradise was spoiled, because all the while we were under the eye of his serpent sister—I could see her listening, always misunderstanding, scheming.”

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‘Don’t let my outbreaks of megalomania or wounded vanity bother you too much—and if I should one day happen to take my own life in some fit of passion, there wouldn’t be anything in that to worry about overmuch. What are my fantasies to you! . . . I came to this reasonable view of the situation after I had taken—from despair—an enormous dose of opium——’

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No, I was thinking, not of writing, but of reading these books. Oh, the endless labor of the intellectual—pouring all this knowledge into the brain through a three-millimeter aperture in the iris.

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“That was but my last stop,” Nietzsche said, sitting stiffly. “My whole life has become a journey, and I begin to feel that my only home, the only familiar place to which I always return, is my illness.”

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The joy of being observed ran so deep that Breuer believed the real pain of old age, bereavement, outliving one’s friends, was the absence of scrutiny—the horror of living an unobserved life.

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Vienna’s wind and wet gloom poisoned him, Nietzsche said. His nervous system cried out for sun and dry, still air.

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Before the end of his evaluation, Breuer obtained still another answer: Nietzsche had so little contact with other human beings that he spent an extraordinary amount of time in conversation with his own nervous system.

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“But surely”—and Nietzsche shook his clenched fists—“you must realize that there is no reality to any of your preoccupations! Your vision of Bertha, the halo of attraction and love that surround her—these don’t really exist. These poor phantasms are not part of numinal reality. All seeing is relative, and so is all knowing. We invent what we experience. And what we have invented, we can destroy.”

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“Ah, I know that dilemma,” said Nietzsche. “The most desirable woman is the most frightening one. And not, of course, because of what she is, but because of what we make of her. Very sad!”

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“I’ve always believed, Josef, that we are more in love with desire than with the desired!”

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“Ach, who could understand you better? At times I think I’m the most alone man in existence. And, like you, it has nothing to do with the presence of others—in fact, I hate others who rob me of my solitude and yet do not truly offer me company.”

“What do you mean, Friedrich? How do they not offer company?”

“By not holding dear the things I hold dear! Sometimes I gaze so far into life that I suddenly look around and see that no one has accompanied me, and that my sole companion is time.”

“I’m not sure if my aloneness is like yours. Perhaps I’ve never dared to enter it as deeply as you.”

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