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Nietzsche on Love

Willow Verkerk considers what Nietzsche has to teach us about love.

What could Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900) have to teach us about love? More than we might suppose. Speculations about his sexuality abound: did he really contract syphilis at a bordello, for instance? And what about Lou Salomé: did he love her, or were his feelings towards her something she exaggerated? The answers to these questions vary. What can be found in Nietzsche’s letters is that he had quite a few friendships with educated and musical women throughout his life, and that he thought about love and marriage. His solitude and corresponding loneliness, often assumed to be a matter of preference, were predicaments of his nomadic years, when he had to travel to seek out the best climate for his ailing health. Even during these times, between physical suffering and intense periods of writing, he pursued the company of learned women. Moreover, Nietzsche grew up in a family of women, turned to women for friendship, and witnessed his friends courting.

Nietzsche also did not fail to express his philosophical concerns about the idiosyncratic characteristics of love in his writings. He uses his provocative style – which aims to make his readers feel uncomfortable about their values and assumptions – in his aphorisms on love in The Gay Science (Die fröhliche Wissenschaft, 1882). Nietzsche’s penetrating study of love here is one trajectory of his larger project in this book of doing ‘joyful’ or ‘gay’ science, in which “life itself has become a problem” and must be interrogated – examined more deeply and severely than one has previously attempted. One of Nietzsche’s most important intellectual strategies is to question the boundaries between traditional oppositions by collapsing our presumptions about the essential qualities of the things held to be opposed. In this respect, love is no exception. By calling our attention to the base, vulgar and selfish qualities of (heterosexual) erotic or sexual love, Nietzsche aims to strip love of its privileged status and demonstrate that what we conceive to be its opposites, such as egoism and greed, are in many instances inextricably bound up in the experience of love. Thus we can recognize Nietzsche’s goal of humanising life through a provocative affirmation of the dissonance inherent in erotic love. In doing so, Nietzsche disassociates love from its other-worldly Christian-Platonic heritage, and so asserts his ethical claims concerning the value of the Earth over the other-worldly, and the truth of the body over the sacred.

To see how Nietzsche achieves these goals, let’s turn to a number of selections from the text.

Love Is Animal Instinct

Friedrich Nietzsche dressing to impress in 1868

Nietzsche undermines any self-deceiving idealism about love through the exposure of its less attractive motivations. In section 14 of The Gay Science, entitled ‘The things people call love’, Nietzsche challenges romantic conceptions of erotic love with the claim that love “may be the most ingenuous expression of egoism.” He proposes that love is close to greed and the lust for possession. Love is an instinctual force related to our biological and cultural drives, and as such, cannot be considered a moral good (GS 363). Moreover, the socialisation of these drives often results in prejudice and even psychological suffering, particularly for women (71). However, he makes no obvious effort to convince his readers that love, in its self-serving expressions, should be changed; nor does he suggest that even the most pervasive delusions in love must be rectified. Instead, he observes that the strong human propensities towards illusion in erotic love are necessary for that love to be successful, and he praises some of the creativity of the artistry of love and the roles people adopt. Men and women play out these roles differently, and Nietzsche spends considerable time emphasizing the dramatic distance the sexes are from each other in the ways in which they love.

Nietzsche’s attempts to expose the more selfish motivations that underpin erotic love are clearly illustrated in aphorism 14. Here Nietzsche claims that it is the urge to possess and assimilate, to change “something new into ourselves” that is behind the experience of both love and greed. Nietzsche writes, “Greed and love: what different feeling these two terms evoke! Nevertheless, it could be the same instinct that has two names – once deprecated by those who have, in whom the instinct has calmed down to some extent, and who are afraid for their ‘possessions’, and the other time seen from the point of view of those who are not satisfied but still thirsty, and who therefore glorify the instinct as ‘good’.” In other words, the experiences of both greed and love are the same drive or instinct, but depending upon the level of satisfaction one has achieved, this drive will be alternatively named ‘greed’ or ‘love’: satisfied people who feel their possessions (their lover for example) threatened by others will name other’s instinct for gain greed or avarice, whereas those who are still searching out something new to desire will impose a positive evaluation on that instinct and call it ‘love’. So erotic love is really a drive towards possession that “has been glorified and deified” (14) by those in search of acquiring something to enrich themselves. Here, the notion of love as altruistic, and the opposite of greed, is placed into doubt. We can recognize the undertones of Nietzsche’s larger project to destabilize the assumed status of binary moral opposites.

Sexual Prejudice

The ways in which the instincts express themselves differently in the sexes is discussed by Nietzsche unapologetically in aphorism 363, called ‘How each sex has its own prejudice about love’. In this section, Nietzsche asserts that men and women do not have “equal rights in love” because their understanding of love differs. They do not have synonymous expectations about the opposite sex and the experiences of love they will share with the other.

Nietzsche pointedly distinguishes masculine from feminine love by the notions of devotion and fidelity. Whereas women want to surrender completely to love, to approach it as a faith, “to be taken and accepted as a possession” (363), Nietzsche claims male love hinges upon the possessive thirst to acquire more from the lover, and states that men who are inclined towards complete devotion are “not men.” He proposes that “a man who loves like a woman becomes a slave; while a woman who loves like a woman becomes a more perfect woman” (363). Nietzsche claims that fidelity can become an attribute of male love over time, due to, for example, gratitude or a specific taste, but that it is not an essential masculine quality.

Lou Andreas-Salomé (1861-1937)

It appears from these statements that Nietzsche believes that biological differences between the sexes correlate with oppositional gender roles in love relationships. This conclusion seems perplexing in light of one of the broader goals of The Gay Science specified in the Preface, to undermine the presumed distinctions between traditional opposites. Perhaps the question to ask here is, can Nietzsche approach the problem of gender with the critical distance he advocates as crucial to his project of doing gay science, or is it an exception for him?

We need only glance at the rest of aphorism 363 to find more evidence for this concern. There Nietzsche writes, “Woman gives herself away, man acquires more – I do not see how one can get around this natural opposition by means of social contracts or with the best will in the world to be just, desirable as it may be not to remind oneself constantly how harsh, terrible, enigmatic, and immoral this antagonism is. For love, thought of in its entirety as great and full, is nature, and being nature, it is in all eternity something ‘immoral’.”

Nietzsche has made considerable efforts in this aphorism, as in 14, to convince the reader that erotic love, as the expression of a natural instinct or drive, is not a ‘good’ to be esteemed, but rather a need that gains a surplus evaluation through romantic culture. Love is in its most fundamental form base; it is the creative drives in culture that give it a sense of splendour or beauty (57: see also 370 and 372 for Nietzsche’s views on romanticism and idealism). It seems that Nietzsche is thinking in the same vein about the sexes: the differences between men and women are a product of instinctual forces that cause the sexes to love distinctively, and as such, we cannot expect egalitarian reciprocity in erotic relationships. However, this still does not shed light on Nietzsche’s odd treatment of the ‘natural opposition’ between men and women in the context of the work’s broader challenge to conventional opposites. Perhaps we may gain some insight into this by turning to the second part of the Gay Science, in which Nietzsche examines the relationships between the sexes in greater detail.

Body & Soul

The aphorisms of Book Two qualify what could appear to be biological reductionism in aphorisms 14 and 363 by emphasizing the influence of culture and artistry on love. In the opening section of Book Two, Nietzsche writes ‘To the realists’, challenging them to consider how objective their love of ‘reality’ is. He asks, “And what is ‘reality’ for an artist in love? You are still burdened with those estimates of things that have their origin in the passions and loves of former centuries” (57). Nietzsche is saying that what we love has a history, shaping both our concept of love and the things or people that we love. In the following aphorism he explains how language forms our concepts, and then proceeds with a number of sections that discuss love between men and women. The fact that Nietzsche’s discussion on love comes after his discussion on the impact of language, history and culture on our perception of reality, is not a coincidence: it’s to demonstrate that the gender roles men and women play in love are shaped by those forces too.

Nietzsche siblings
The loving Nietzsche siblings: Elisabeth and Friedrich

In aphorism 59, ‘We artists’, Nietzsche speaks critically about the possessive or tyrannical qualities of masculine love alongside its fictionalising tendencies, stating that the natural functions of a woman’s body disgust men because they prevent him having complete access to her as a possession; they also encroach upon the conceptual perfection of love. He writes, “‘The human being under the skin’ is for all lovers a horror and unthinkable, a blasphemy against God and love.” One of the unhealthy consequences of this is that the body is negated in the interest of the sacred. Nietzsche here draws a parallel between erotic love and the worship of God, suggesting that romantic love is as fictional as God’s omnipresence. One must ignore human physiology and empirical observation in order to remain faithful to them: the notions of both ‘God’ and ‘woman’ allow the creative drive to impose itself with such force that men dismiss any competing information that might dislodge their idealism. The irony in this predicament is that a great number of men are completely unaware of the power that their passionate attachments have both on the formation of their values and on their interactions with the world. Thus men in love are, according to Nietzsche, delusional. Women, on the other hand, are actors: their greatest skills in love rely on appearance, artistry and the playing of the ‘correct’ gender roles.

The status of woman as actor is addressed by Nietzsche in Book Five, ‘On the problem of the actor’, where he challenges us to “Reflect on the whole history of women: do they not have to be first of all and above all else actresses?” (361). Nietzsche says that love has a comic dimension in this regard, because it involves a kind of theatre that paradoxically relies on the distance of woman. In aphorism 60, he had stated, “The magic and the most powerful effect of women is, in philosophical language, action at a distance, actio in distans; but this required first of all and above all – distance.” This point is reasserted in aphorism 67, called ‘Simulating oneself’, where Nietzsche states that when women become too accessible or ‘real’ to men, men lose interest in them. In order to be successful in love, he counsels women to “simulate a lack of love” and to enact the roles that men find attractive. Nietzsche finds love comedic because it does not consist in some attempt to know the other deeply, but rather in the confirmation of male fantasies in which women perform their constructed gender roles.

Nietzsche’s Sex Education

In contrast to Nietzsche’s unapologetic statements in aphorism 363 about the ‘natural opposition’ between the sexes, aphorisms 68-71 of The Gay Science convey a sense of concern for the quandary that women find themselves exposed to in love relationships as a result of education and culture. For example, in aphorism 68, Nietzsche states that both men and women “need to be educated better” in regards to the nature of the relationship between men and women, “For it is man who creates for himself the image of woman, and woman forms herself according to this image” (68). And although Nietzsche is confident that some women can turn against and even destroy this image (see 69), he continues to offer sympathy for the fact that women are in many respects subjected to particular roles in love, and are required to act out a character in order to gain the love of a man (see 60, 70 and 74).

In aphorism 71, ‘On female chastity’, Nietzsche comments on the lack of sexual education particularily of upper-class women, and the adverse psychological impact this has on them. These women are made shameful and ignorant of all sexual matters as part of their feminine honour for the securing of their husband. However, once they are married, they are faced with the expectations of a sexual life without any preparation; and the man they respect and love most now asks of them precisely what they were previously taught to consider vulgar and unacceptable. Nietzsche empathises with this paradoxical situation for women when he writes, “to catch love and shame in a contradiction and to be forced to experience at the same time delight, surrender, duty, pity, terror, and who knows what else, in the face of the unexpected neighbourliness of god and beast… Thus a psychic knot has been tied that may have no equal” (71). In other words, the gender roles that are part of the formula of courtship and love, in many instances have an adverse psychological affect on women.

Nietzsche’s writings on love have not surprisingly been influential on many feminist reflections on sex/gender. Although he is not making moralising claims about how one should love, his discussion of the difficult impact erotic and romantic relationships have on women, as well as his commentary on the ironies both sexes face in love, force his readers of both sexes to examine the roles that they play in love. It is difficult when reading him not to question one’s own performances in romantic relationships.

Especially in The Gay Science, Nietzsche’s musings express a provocative yet friendly voice by which he draws out the reader’s delusions about love. Whether he makes you laugh, frown, or both, Nietzsche’s questioning of love offers up more than the ravings of a grumpy misogynist.

© Willow Verkerk 2014

Willow Verkerk is a doctoral candidate at the Institute of Philosophy, University of Leuven, Belgium.

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