Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Through Resa's Eyes: Nietzsche, Wagner and Hashish

Resa von Schirnhofer, fifth from left, the only female in her class. 

“I would only believe in a god who could dance. And when I saw my devil I found him serious, thorough, profound, and solemn: it was the spirit of gravity—through him all things fall. Not by wrath does one kill but by laughter. Come, let us kill the spirit of gravity!”

 Friedrich Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra

A Facebook friend reminds me that this week is the birthday of Friedrich Nietzsche. Of all the writers in the book Conversations with Nietzsche: A Life in the Words of His Contemporaries it was a younger woman named Resa von Schirnhofer who had something to say on the subject of Nietzsche and hashish.

"If one wants to rid oneself of an unbearable pressure, one needs hashish. Well then, I needed Wagner," Neitzsche wrote. This quote, truncated to remove the Wagner reference, is everywhere Googlable. But it took Resa to make the connection, and put it in the context of the time.

"He touched upon his favorite theme, this time grieving deeply, with tears in his eyes, lamenting the irreplaceable loss of his former friendship with Wagner," Resa wrote. Neitzsche wrote of Wagner, "He has supplied the precious varnish wherewith to hide the dull ugliness of our civilisation. He has given to souls despairing over the materialism of this world, to souls despairing of themselves, and longing to be rid of themselves, the indispensable hashish and morphia wherewith to deaden their inner discords." This use of the word hashish is similar to that of George Eliot (aka Mary Ann Evans) in The Lifted Veil (1859):  "She intoxicated me with the sense that I was necessary to her… A half-repressed word, a moment's unexpected silence, even an easy fit of petulance on our account, will serve us as hashish for a long while.”

Resa spent a holiday with Nietzsche in Sils-Maria around the time he wrote Thus Spoke Zarathustra [aka Zoroaster]. Here the author "told me about his bouts of raging headaches and the various medications he had tried against them. In Rapallo and in other places of the Riviera di Levante, where he had spent his times of worst health, he had written for himself all kinds of prescriptions signed Dr. Nietzsche, which had been prepared and filled without question or hesitation. Unfortunately I took no notes and the only one I remember is chloral hydrate. But since Nietzsche, as he expressly told me, had been surprised never to be asked whether he was a medical doctor authorized to prescribe this kind of medication, I conclude that some dubious medicines must have been among them. At any rate, he claimed to know his own sickness better than any doctor and to understand better which medications were to be used.

"Nietzsche never spoke of having used hashish, nor can I remember ever hearing the word hashish from his lips, but no doubt in his intensive reading of contemporary French authors—among them Baudelaire—he was already familiar with hashish in the summer of 1884 as a new drug that had recently appeared in Europe. Hashish smoking is mentioned as early as 1882 in The Joyful Science, though only as an Oriental habit of self-intoxication.

"When I came to Paris at the end of October 1884 all kinds of things were told to me about hashish use; I read an article about the physiological and psychological differences between opium intoxication and hashish intoxication and I heard celebrities from the ranks of high society mentioned as having tried to dream the hashish dream, etc. In my notebook from that time can be read: 'Hashish, or dawamesk is a distillate of cannabis indica, mixed with a fatty substance, with honey and pistachios to give it the consistency of a paste or jelly.' [Baudelaire, Les Fleurs du Mal.] I was also told there were very tasty hashish candies. I felt a desire to try its effect myself--just once, out of psychological curiosity--but I resisted the attraction of this sweet poison."

Once during an illness, Nietzsche "described to me how, when he closed his eyes, he saw an abundance of fantastic flowers, winding and intertwining, constantly growing and changing forms in exotic luxuriance, sprouting one out of the other." He asked if she thought it was "a symptom of incipient madness." Sounds like he was hallucinating to me.

Resa von Schirnhofer (1855-1948) was born in Austria and came to Zurich in 1882 as a pioneering female doctoral student. Here is her description of Nietzsche: “A soft voice full of gentleness and melody and his very calm way of speaking caused a pause in the first moment….When a smile lit up his face, bronzed by so many sojourns outdoors in the south, it took on a touchingly childlike expression that called for sympathy. His look generally seemed to be turned inward, like the one we see on statues of Greek gods, or seeking out of the depths something he had almost ceased to hope for; but his eyes were always those of a man who has suffered much and, although he has remained a victor, stands sadly over the abysses of life. Unforgettable eyes, shining with the freedom of the victor, accusing and grieving because the meaning and beauty of the earth had turned into nonsense and ugliness.”

Describing an interaction, "I told him how, when I was a five-year-old child in the country, my mother and I, pursued by an enraged bull, had barely escaped to the first house of the village. An interesting conversation followed about the wave-effect, often through an entire life, of a nervous shock received in childhood."  She reports that Nietzsche was visibily moved as he bade her farewell, saying “with tears in his eyes: I hoped you would stay longer. When will I hear you refreshing laughter again?” The fool may have rejected her for lack of comliness, telling someone at the time his ideal woman would be beautiful and stupid.

When Nietzsche asked Resa why she intended to get a doctorate, "I explained that I set little importance on the title for myself, but in the interest of women’s rights I did not want to leave the university without having gotten the degree.” In letters to Nietzsche’s sister Elisabeth she writes that "she never married because she would have imposed two requirements: great love from her partner and the provision of affluent circumstances. She says that as it is usually impossible to have both of these in bourgeois marriage, she soon resigned herself to not marrying at all.”

Originally of affluent circumstances, she lost most of her resources by investing in government bonds during the first world war, forcing her to earn a living by giving piano and language lessons. Her recollections of her time with Nietzsche were discovered in her papers after her death.

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