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Nietzsche: Love, Guilt & Redemption

Eva Cybulska peers into Friedrich Nietzsche’s stormy psyche.

Where one can no longer love, one should – pass by!
Thus Spoke Zarathustra (1883), ‘Of Passing By’

Whatever I create and how much I love it – soon I have to oppose it
Thus Spoke Zarathustra, ‘Of Self-Overcoming’

Few would associate Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900) with love. And yet this most passionate of philosophers wrote ‘with blood’ and only about things he loved. Characteristically, he felt an urge to oppose what he loved – moreover, he had to kill it. Redemption was for Nietzsche not a deliverance from sin, but a total affirmation of life, with all its pain, suffering and absurdity. As for the guilt – few have been burdened with more!

Paradox permeates Nietzsche’s oeuvre. To understand the contradictoriness of Nietzsche the philosopher, as well as of Nietzsche the man, one must understand the concept of coincidentia oppositorum – the coincidence of opposites. This concept originated in Heraclitus, who was much admired by Nietzsche.

Heraclitus believed that all things were characterised by pairs of contrary properties, for example one and the same thing may be both hot and cold. As these contrary properties strive with each other they move towards unity and harmony, the concepts draw near to each other and “the path up and down is one and the same.” The battle of opposites, fuelled by his life-long mood fluctuations, became a turbulent undercurrent in Nietzsche’s philosophy. The constant tension and energy from the conflict were a source of inspiration and creativity for him: the strife led to “ever more powerful births.” His kaleidoscopic re-arrangement of opposites would at times be so rapid that existentialist Karl Jaspers commented: “you have not read Nietzsche carefully enough if you haven’t found at least two contradictions on the same page.” (Nietzsche: an Introduction to the understanding of his Philosophical Activity.) The ‘Apollonian’ and the ‘Dionysian’ became the most famous of Nietzsche’s binary concepts [see film column]; but other Heraclitus-inspired ideas are even more provocative: “pain and pleasure are not opposites”, “health and sickness are not essentially different”, “scorners are only hidden admirers”, “truth is a lie according to fixed convention”, etc. Significantly, Nietzsche’s discourse is not an exercise in Hegelian dialectics (involving a synthesis of opposite ideas), but a contrapuntal (intertwining) dance of ideas; hence it is futile to look for synthesis or a final resolution in his writings.

Nietzsche chose as his patron Dionysus – the god of dark unconscious forces, of excess and frenzy, of shades and shadows. Dionysian consciousness is essentially bisexual, and for Nietzsche it was precisely the lunar aspect of this consciousness, the abysmal depths of the feminine, that was both appealing and frightful. Nietzsche’s feminine side was deeply hidden behind a double-layered mask of Übermensch and Zarathustra. As a ‘philosopher of masks’, Nietzsche maintained that “one must learn to speak in order to remain silent” and that saying was a form of concealment. Although often screaming at the readers through his various masks (such as the rebel, the Antichrist, the misogynist, the madman), he also spoke softly. And when he did, the silhouette of “a boy with tired hot eyes” lurked from behind the veil: pain and sorrow lay just underneath the hard surface.

Love Desires, Fear Avoids

I fear you close by, I love you far away.
Thus Spoke Zarathustra, ‘The Other Dancing Song’

Nietzsche’s craving for love was only matched by his fear of it. He seemed to embody Schopenhauer’s famous parable about the porcupines who needed to huddle together for warmth, struggling to find the optimal distance that made them feel sufficiently warm without hurting one another.

In The Gay Science (1882), Nietzsche argued that love was closely related to avarice; they both express the same instinct – the instinct to possess. Deeply wounded by his complicated love triangle with Lou Salom é, he warned against women who were nothing but “little beasts of prey” possessed by lust for pregnancy. He infamously advised in Zarathustra: “Are you going to women? Don’t forget the whip.” And yet, it was Lou who was brandishing the whip above the heads of Nietzsche and R ée in the famous picture, which she often displayed as her trophy. Nietzsche’s plans to get a young, attractive wife never materialised, and his two marriage were proposals rejected. Perhaps he knew well how to propose ‘safely’, mindful of Schopenhauer’s warning: “Marrying means to grasp blindfolded into a sack hoping to find out an eel out of an assembly of snakes.”

But Nietzsche also wrote this about love:

It is night: now do all leaping fountains speak louder. And my soul too is a leaping fountain…
Something unquenched, unquenchable, is in me that wants to speak out. A craving for love is in me, that itself speaks the language of love…
It is night: only now do all songs of lovers awaken. And my song too is the song of a lover.
Thus Spoke Zarathustra, ‘The Night Song’

What were the most important loves in Nietzsche’s life? By his own admission, the composer Richard Wagner was the only man he truly loved. The other great love (and hate) of his life was Christianity. Sometimes (as we shall see) Wagner and Christianity coalesced into a single target to be attacked.

The funeral of Nietzsche’s father took place when little Friedrich was less than five years of age, and his Hamletian ghost was to return to him again and again: this early loss of his father left Nietzsche with a life-long, albeit ambivalent, yearning for care and guidance. This longing – never to be fulfilled – he projected initially onto God, and later onto Wagner. As a young man, Nietzsche – still an exultant believer (his father was a Lutheran pastor) – wrote a poem, entitled To The Unknown God:

I lift up my hands to you in loneliness –
you, to whom I flee,
to whom in the deepest depth of my heart
I have solemnly consecrated altars

Torn between faith and truth, between reason and unreason, between veneration and rage, many years later he exclaimed “Whoever wants to be a Christian should tear the eyes out of his reason” and launched a devastating attack on religion. In The Gay Science we read:

“What? A god who loves men, provided only they believe in him, and who casts an evil eye and threats upon anyone who does not believe in his love? What? A love encapsulated in if-clauses attributed to an almighty god? A love that has not even mastered the feelings of honour and vindictiveness?”

Nietzsche’s love for Wagner had a similar beginning, and a similar end to his love of God. As a teenager he played Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde in a piano duet; and he also played it when in a grip of madness in January 1889 in Turin. He also wrote to a friend: “Has any painter painted such a melancholy gaze of love as Wagner did with the last accents of his prelude? Something of that sort occurs in Dante – nowhere else.”

Nietzsche met Wagner in Leipzig shortly before taking up his appointment to the chair of Classical Philology in Basel in1869. During the next three years he became a frequent visitor to the Wagners’ residence in Tribschen near Lucerne. This was the happiest period in Nietzsche’s life and here a paradise once lost was briefly regained. Nietzsche extolled Wagner to his friends, saying that in his presence he felt as if in the presence of the divine. Yet his private notes reveal criticisms of the master long before the end of their eight-year friendship. Later, he accused Wagner of returning to “decadent Christian values” in his last opera Parcival. In his bitter late polemic, The Wagner Case (1888), Nietzsche raged against Christianity as a “denial of the will to life”, and against Wagner as a prophet of redemption. Thus his two love-hate objects here merged into one. Yet like God, Wagner remained distant, emotionally unavailable and unresponsive to all these highly provocative insults.

Nietzsche’s inner solitude, fortified by pride, would render his yearnings for love unfulfilled; instead, forced joyfulness, indeed euphoria, became his response to pain. In a letter to his friend Overbeck he wrote: “The perpetual lack of a really refreshing and healing human love, the absurd isolation which it entails, making almost any residue of connection with people merely something that wounds one – that is all very bad indeed…”

In his last book, Dithyrambs of Dionysus (1889), Nietzsche included ‘Ariadne’s Lament’, a poem full of pain and longing:

Who still warms me, who still loves me?
Offer me hot hands!
Offer me coal-warmers for the heart!…
He is gone!
He himself has fled,
My last companion,
My great enemy,
My unknown,
My hangman-god!

Nietzsche often spoke of Ariadne, a faithful companion of Theseus. She helped him when he had to venture into the Minotaur’s Labyrinth, by providing him with a thread by means of which he could fine his way back out again. While in a grip of madness, Nietzsche wrote to Cosima Wagner (Richard’s wife), “I love you Ariadne” and signed it “Dionysus.” Yet unlike Theseus, who held on to Ariadne’s thread, Nietzsche ventured into the labyrinth of his soul all by himself. But although one can get in alone, one needs the help of another human being to get out. Even Nietzsche, this advocate of ‘hardness’ and self-sufficiency, needed his Ariadne, with her love and the thread of her wisdom to anchor him in reality. Unlike Theseus, Nietzsche never returned.

Guilt, Debt and the Pale Criminal

Devise the love that bears not only all punishment but also the guilt!
Thus Spoke Zarathustra, ‘Of the Adder’s Bite’

For Nietzsche, genuine love cannot evoke guilt. In his book On the Genealogy of Morality (1887), following his customary ‘via etymologica’ [response to the derivations of words] he regards guilt primarily as a form of debt (in German die Schuld means both). For Nietzsche, for both guilt and debt, the act of giving (of love or money) must never overwhelm the receiver. So Nietzsche’s rejection of Christian doctrine was above all a rejection of Christ’s sacrifice for the sake of mankind’s redemption, which burdened humanity with a non-repayable debt, and so with ‘bad conscience’. By contrast, “the [ancient] gods served to justify man to a certain degree… they did not at that time take the punishment on themselves, but rather, as is nobler, the guilt” (Genealogy). Consequently, “A god come to earth ought to do nothing whatever but wrong; to take upon oneself not the punishment but the guilt – only that would be godlike” (Ecce Homo). In Nietzsche’s moral universe, a truly loving God would have to be a sort of devil!

Furthermore, in The Antichrist (1888), Nietzsche portrays Jesus as a rebel who stood up against the Jewish establishment, and got what he deserved for doing so. He died for his guilt, and Nietzsche says that at another time and in another place Jesus would have been sent to Siberia as a political criminal.

‘Criminal from a sense of guilt’ appeared to have been Freud’s ingenious idea that guilt precedes – not follows – a criminal act. But this insight originally belonged to Nietzsche, who in Thus Spoke Zarathustra referred to such a guilty individual as the pale criminal. The theme of murder from a sense of guilt (or ‘debt’) was central to Dostoevsky’s writings, particularly to Crime and Punishment (1866). The image of the pale criminal brings to mind Dostoevsky’s protagonist Raskolnikov (an uncanny incarnation of the Übermensch?) who, shortly before his departure to a Siberian prison for a double murder, reflects: “But why do they [mother and sister] love me so much, if I don’t deserve it? Oh, if I were alone and no one loved me and I had never loved anyone! All this would have never taken place!” The idea of the guilty pre-criminal was also given a powerful dramatic voice by Eugene O’Neill (who read Nietzsche and Dostoyevsky obsessively) in his play The Iceman Cometh. This complex drama, imbued with Christian symbolism, opens with a scene reminiscent of the last supper, absurdly taking place in a downmarket saloon. A bunch of alcoholic outcasts await the arrival of Hickey, a travelling salesman, who periodically turns up and buys them rounds. They await him as if he were a Messiah. On this occasion, however, Hickey seems different – content, liberated and sober. As the drama unfolds, he recounts how he killed his loving, ever-forgiving wife Evelyn, because “There is a limit to the guilt you can feel and the forgiveness you can take.”

Redemption as Joyous Affirmation of Life

To redeem the past and to transform every ‘It was’ into an ‘I willed it thus!’ – that alone I call redemption!
Thus Spoke Zarathustra, ‘Of Redemption’

The word ‘redeem’ means ‘to buy out’, and it was used specifically in reference to the purchase of a slave’s freedom. According to Christian teaching, we are redeemed from our prior condition of ‘slavery to sin’ by Christ’s death on the cross. Nietzsche vehemently rejected Christianity’s presupposed sinful wretchedness of our existence, and the eternal, non-repayable debt to the Redeemer. By engendering feelings of impotence, guilt and damnation, the Christian doctrine of original sin denigrated life on earth to waiting in an ante-chamber which led to some other-worldly existence. Furthermore, Christianity’s disparagement of passions, particularly the sexual ones, lowered the believer’s general state of vitality. In short, to Nietzsche, Christianity was an anti-life religion.

For Schopenhauer and for Wagner, ‘redemption’ (Erlösung) was a form of release from suffering and the need to exist; a liberation from life itself. It meant an annihilation of the Will, a release from individuated existence from the prison of being oneself and dissolution into the all-embracing bliss of nothingness. In Tristan and Isolde, this release from life is achieved by the self-sacrificial love of a woman who is prepared to share her lover’s non-existence and unite with him in death. Yet what for Schopenhauer and Wagner was an annihilation of the Will and a release from suffering, for Nietzsche became Overcoming and the Will to Power: we must overcome pain and suffering – even will it: only then will we ‘become what we are’. Opposing his ‘tragic world view’ to Christian doctrine, Nietzsche reclaimed the ‘innocence of suffering’ and viewed pain and sorrow as a natural, inevitable part of human condition, and not a punishment for sins. Moreover, for him, suffering rendered existence noble. For Nietzsche, therefore, redemption was not an escape into the nothingness of Schopenhauerian Nirvana, but an inward act of joyous affirmation of life, of self, and of one’s fate. He christened this attitude ‘amor fati’. (Ironically, it was Nietzsche who led an ascetic life while neither Schopenhauer nor Wagner seemed to have practiced the ‘renunciation of the Will’!)

The ‘Eternal Return of the Same’ (that is, cyclical time), became for Nietzsche the ultimate redemptive, life-affirming formula. By celebrating the present moment, it allowed man to walk tall, once again. “My formula for greatness in being is amor fati: that one wishes nothing to be different, not forward, not backward, not in all eternity. Not merely to endure what happens of necessity… but love it” (Ecce Homo).

It was early in August of 1881 in Sils-Maria in the Swiss Alps, “6000 feet beyond man and time,” when Nietzsche’s deeply-felt sorrow transfigured itself into a moment of ecstasy and culminated in this enigmatic idea. The previous winter had been probably the most awful in his life; plagued by ill health and deep melancholy, he even forgot his own birthday! Nietzsche was 36 years old at the time – the age his father died, the age he often feared he would die too.

The hauntingly beautiful scenery of Sils-Maria has an air of Hades about it, not least because of a large pyramidal boulder at the edge of the lake that looks as if it has been just dropped by Sisyphus, that infernal hero of the absurd. Not surprisingly, Nietzsche made several references to Dante’s Inferno during that period. As he descended the wooded slope towards Lake Silvaplana, “in the middle of life and so encircled by death”, the memories of happier, yet irretrievably perished times returned to him, crushing him down (as Dante said, “there is no greater sorrow than to remember happy time in misery”). It was by that Sisyphean boulder at the edge of the Lake, where the path of pain intersected with the path of elation, that the thought of Eternal Return was born:

What if, some day or night, a demon were to steal after you into your loneliest loneliness and say to you: ‘This life as you now live it and have lived it, you will have to live once more and innumerable times more; and there will be nothing new in it, but every pain and every joy and every thought and sigh and everything unutterably small or great in your life will have to return to you, all in the same succession and sequence…’ If this thought were to gain possession of you it would change you as you are, or perhaps crush you. The question in each and everything, ‘Do you desire this once more and innumerable times more?’ would lie upon your actions as the greatest weight.”
The Gay Science, aphorism 341

Nietzsche entitled this aphorism ‘The Greatest Weight’, and he shuddered whenever he spoke about the idea. Perhaps it was more of a damnation than a redemption, after all.

Lucifer as Redeemer?

Nietzsche’s name has often been associated with Nazi ideology, much of that owing to his Machiavellian sister Elisabeth, who invited Hitler to her brother’s shrine in Weimar in 1934, and made an offering of his philosophy. Ideas such as Übermensch and Will to Power had an instantaneous appeal for the Führer. But did not Nietzsche court this destiny? “I know my fate.” he wrote. “One day there will be associated with my name the recollection of something horrific – a crisis like no other before on earth, of the profoundest collision of conscience, of a decision evoked against everything that until then had been believed in, demanded, sanctified. I am not a man, I am dynamite.” This prescient passage comes from Ecce Homo, Nietzsche’s penultimate book (1888) and self-styled autobiography. The words ‘Ecce Homo’ (‘Behold the man’) originate from Pontius Pilate, who presented Jesus Christ bound and crowned with thorns, to a hostile crowd, shortly before his crucifixion. While on the verge of a total mental eclipse, Nietzsche signed several of his letters the Crucified, and Karl Jaspers believed that he saw himself in rivalry with Christ, unconsciously trying to supersede him. However, by taking upon himself not the punishment but the guilt, Nietzsche may instead have become like Milton’s Lucifer, who would rather “reign in Hell than serve in Heaven” (Paradise Lost). And perhaps this was the essence of Nietzsche’s Antichrist, a contrapuntal figure par excellence.

© Dr Eva Cybulska 2011

Eva Cybulska is an independent scholar and writer living in London. Formerly a psychiatrist, she is currently working on her book Nietzsche: A Hero’s Journey into Night.

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