That which does not kill me
Nietzsche’s body was afflicted with so many and varied tribulations that in the end he could with perfect truth declare: “At every age of my life, suffering, monstrous suffering, was my lot.” Headaches so ferocious that all he could do was to collapse onto a couch and groan in agony, stomach troubles culminating in cramps when he would vomit blood, migrainous conditions of every sort, fevers, loss of appetite, exhaustion, hæmorrhoids, intestinal stasis, rigors, night-sweats—a gruesome enumeration, indeed. In all his correspondence there are barely a dozen letters in which a groan or a cry of lamentation does not go up from every page.
A time came when his vocabulary of superlatives was exhausted, and he found no words to describe his anguish. The rack called forth monotonous cries, repeated with increasingly rapidity and becoming less and less human. They reach our ears from the depths of what he described as “a dog’s life.” Then, suddenly, like lighting in a clear sky—and none of us can fail to be taken aback by so unprecedented a contradiction—he announced in his Ecce Homo: “Summa, summarum, I have enjoyed good health” (he is referring to the fifteen years which preceded his mental death)—a fine expression of faith, strong, proud, clear-cut, seeming to tax with falsehood the groans of despair that had gone before. Which are we to believe, the cries of distress or the lapidary aphorism?
His vitality was less resistant during rainy and overcast weather: “grey skies make me feel horribly depressed”; heavy clouds disturbed him “to the very inwards”; “rain takes all the strength out of me”; dampness enfeebled, drought renewed his vigor, the sun brought him to life again, winter was for him a kind of “lockjaw” and filled his mind with thoughts of imminent death. The fluctuations of his nerve-barometer were like those of April weather, rushing from one extreme to another, “he triumphed and he saddened with all weather.” What he needed was a serene, a cloudless landscape, high up on a plateau of the Engadine, where no wind came to disturb the peace and calm. In this livest of thinkers, body and mind were so intimately wedded to atmospheric phenomena that for him interior and exterior happenings were identical.
Soon, however, the “dry” climate of Nice lured him south again, and after staying there for a while he went to Genoa and Venice. Now he longed for the woodlands, then he craved for the sea; again he wished to live on the shores of a lake, or in some quiet and little town where he could procure “simple but nourishing food.”
I wonder how many thousands of kilometers Nietzsche traveled in quest of the fairyland where his nerves might find repose. He pondered over huge works on geology, hoping to find the exact place where he might win repose of body and tranquility of mind. Distance was no obstacle to its attainment: he planned a journey to Barcelona, and voyages to the mountains of Mexico, to Argentina, to Japan. Notes were made on the temperature and the atmospheric pressure at each place he selected; the local rainfall was scheduled to the uttermost exactitude.
As soon as his mind had ceased to pity his body, no longer participated in its sufferings, he recognized that his life had acquired a new perspective and his illness a deeper significance. Consciously, well knowing what he was about, he now accepted the burden, accepted his fate as a necessity, and since he was a fanatical “advocate for life,” loving the whole of his existence, he accepted his sufferings with the “Yes” of his Zarathustra and, as accompaniment to his tortures, sang the jubilant hymn “again and yet again for all eternity!”
He discovered (with the joy he invariably felt in the magic of the extremes) that he owed to no earthly power so much as to his illness, that, indeed, it was his tortures that he had to thank for his greatest blessing. “Illness itself frees me,” he wrote; illness was the midwife that brought his inner man into the world, and the pains he experienced were labor pains. Henceforward the tortured poet-philosopher sang a pæan of gratitude to “holy suffering,” recognizing that through suffering alone can man attain to knowledge. “Great suffering is the ultimate liberator of the mind, it alone constrains us to plunge into our innermost depths,” and he who has suffered “even unto the agony of death” has the right to pronounce the words: “I know life better because I have so often been on the verge of losing it.” It was out of torment, it was when he was upon the rack, that he formulated his creed.
Like all those possessed by the daimon, he was a slave to his own ecstasy. Health! Health! This was the device inscribed upon his banner. Health was the standard of every value, the aim of life, the meaning of the universe. After ten years of groping in the dark, suffocating with torments, he quelled his groans so as to intone a hymn of praise in honour of vitality, of brute force, of power-intoxicated strength.
In Ecce Homo he boasted of his unfailing health, denied that he had ever been ill; and yet this book was penned on the eve of his mental breakdown. His pæan was not sung to life triumphant but, alas, to his own death. No longer are we listening to the ideas of a scientifically trained mind but to the incoherent words of the daimon which had taken possession of its victim. The euphoria of this penultimate phase is a well-known symptom preceding the final collapse.
Ideas flowed from him like a cascade of fire, his tongue spoke with a primitive eloquence, music invaded every nook and cranny of his being. Withersoever he looked, he saw the reign of peace. Passers-by smiled at him as he roamed the streets. Every letter he wrote conveyed a divine message, glowed with happiness. In the last letter he was fated to write, he said to Peter Gast: “Sing me a new song: the world is transfigured and the heavens rejoice.” Out of the same heavens came the bolt which laid him low, mingling in an indissoluble interval of time every suffering and every beatitude.