To be no longer ashamed
'There is a false saying, ‘Whoever cannot save himself - how can he save others?’ But if I have the key to your chains, why should your and my lock be the same.’
From Nietzsche’s personal notes
Nietzsche was no lothario. He never married, despite venturing a few proposals (all of which were rebuffed, by the way). He had no children and, despite some intellectual friendships with educated and forward-thinking women over the course of his life, he never had a mistress or a lover that we know of. To all appearances, Nietzsche was romantically and sexually naive. Notwithstanding this lack of intimate experience, it is commonly theorized that he died from syphilis, a nasty and ignominious bacterial infection passed on through unprotected sex.
It is speculated that he acquired the disease at a brothel when he was a student, or possibly when he was serving in the military during the Franco-Prussian war of 1870. This theory may or may not be true - certainly, he did visit a bordello at least once in his youth and deteriorating vision and insanity, both of which foreshadowed Nietzsche’s death, are associated with the so called 'French Malady’ - but there are many other theories with just as much, if not more, credibility.
The physician who attended Nietzsche following his breakdown ascribed his condition to syphilis but the diagnosis was perfunctory because Nietzsche’s family was of modest means and doctors were expensive. No bacteriological testing took place, the science being very much in its infancy at that time.
Syphilis was common during the period and any older man with signs of neurological problems was in danger of being written-off as a syphilitic. As a man in his forties, unmarried, unemployed and of no fixed abode - almost certainly an anomaly in those ultra-conformist times - Nietzsche would have been considered an oddball at the very least, if not potentially of morally questionable character (both of which are true, arguably, though for reasons others than syphilis).
In fact, modern researchers have noticed that Nietzsche's symptoms do not correlate very well with those of syphilis and it is worth remembering that Nietzsche’s father died mysteriously in his late thirties of a neurological condition too. The cause of death was not confidently ascertained and so the case was written off, in terms that sound amusingly archaic now, as 'softening of the brain'. Despite the lack of any definitive diagnosis, as a married man and protestant minister, Nietzsche’s father was spared the shameful suspicion of syphilis and one cannot help but wonder if some hereditary pathology was in-play.
No matter, the judgement had been passed and in the decades after the Second World War, the new world was only too ready to accept it. Nietzsche’s name was defamed among the victorious nations of the allies, due to the mistaken association of his philosophy with Nazism. Societies demonize those who they think are their enemies and what better way to blacken the credibility of such a pariah, brushing aside their ideas, than to cast them as a moral degenerate and a madman.
We have discussed Nietzsche’s supposed syphilis before, so we need not detain ourselves here. The truth of the matter may never be known but setting aside such intrigues and Nietzsche’s lack of success in matters of the heart, his books document the observations of an incisive psychologist’s mind with regard to human nature and relationships. His insights are often surprisingly ahead of their time.
Indeed, some of the advice for long-term relationships given by Nietzsche sounds like plain common sense - ‘Marriage is a long conversation’ so make sure you marry someone who you can have years of good, long talks with; and 'a good marriage is founded on the talent for friendship’ so being congenial and getting on well together, rather than just being physically attracted to each other, are important requirements.
Maybe he was even something of a sexual permissive (by Edwardian standards, at least). He thought it sensible that a couple should try things out by living together first before taking the plunge and committing to a lifelong partnership - a scandalous proposal at the time. He may also have advocated more ‘open’ conjugal arrangements. He writes of marriages sometimes benefiting from the occasional ‘exception’. In The Gay Science he goes further and gives an enigmatic description of what might be seen as a much more laissez faire take on romantic relations:
'We are two ships, each of which has its own goal and course; we may cross and have a feast together, as we did – and then the good ships lay so quietly in one harbour and in one sun that it may have seemed as if they had already completed their course and had the same goal. But then the almighty force of our projects drove us apart once again, into different seas and sunny zones’
However enlightened or relaxed - even tender - some of this advice may seem, Nietzsche wore no rose-tinted spectacles when it came to love and sex. As with all human activity, love and sex were just brute impulses traceable back to instinct and inasmuch as any creature motivated purely by instinct is an animal, so the human being is an animal - albeit the 'most interesting' one.
He knew that many would find this conclusion demeaning and reductive - as he writes in Beyond Good and Evil, ‘We know well enough how offensive it sounds when someone says plainly and without metaphor that man is an animal’. In fact, the human animal is special in some ways but it is also uniquely afflicted too. The crucial difference is that, unlike all other animals, it is inherently fucked up. In Nietzsche’s terms, it is 'the bungled animal’ and ‘the animal with red cheeks’. That is to say, it is the only animal that knows SHAME - the most abhorrent psychological affliction ever to infect the human psyche.
Shame is, of course, indelibly associated with sex, even in our ostensibly more progressive era. Nietzsche is unequivocal is his stance on the issue:
'Whom do you call Bad? - Him who always wants to put others to shame.
What do you think most humane? - To spare a person shame.
What is the Seal of Attained Liberty? - To be no longer ashamed of oneself.'
We are going to discuss instinct, shame, sex and love in the following posts. Our goal will be to understand these impulses, needs, desires and pathologies and clear the way for a healthy and unimpeded expression our human natures.
Firstly, we need to take a brief look at the cultural history of the west, which has served to pollute and poison the font of life itself. Many of you will know that Nietzsche attributed much of this corruption to Christianity, but the rot goes back further still; much, much further – to the very genesis of civilisation itself.
Next Post: Getting Laid the Nietzschean Way
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