NIETZSCHE’S EYEBALLS

Well it has certainly been awhile. HELLO. Are any of you even still out there? I don’t know why I’ve fallen off updating this thing so steeply. I got busy with an actual career I guess, and now I’m old as dirt and spend my free time sleeping (not true), but then also there’s something about working on learning to write intensely/deeply/critically (like I do for my job) that makes it harder to put breezy blog entries down on paper, as it were. I keep wanting to go back and edit them all. “Writing” occupies a different part of my brain now than it used to. In many ways I’m glad, as learning to read and write at the scholarly level has been incredibly transformative for my brain and life. But I miss informal writing. Oh laddie the times they are, ah, becoming quite different

I did feel honor-bound to update the internet about how I have CURED MY NIGHT SWEATS, on the off chance a fellow afflicted will find this and learn of this miracle. As you know I’d had years of unhelpful doctors and unfruitful self-cure attempts. Somebody put me on PROZAC for awhile because sometimes it has a side effect of regulating night sweats. And I took it! That’s how bad it was. Finally I went in for a routine pelvic exam to my new gyno. At this point, I put “night sweats” on all medical intake forms on the off chance someone has a brilliant idea, but I had given up hope of actually being helped. Then this lady was like “huh, have you tried magnesium?” and I was like whaaaaat? and she was like, sometimes your body can’t absorb vitamin D and magnesium helps you do that. And I was like OKAY and started taking magnesium and IT WORKED, it like mostly worked. I was down to three sweats a month instead of fifteen or twenty. The magnesium was intense and gave me truly transcendent morning shits but I was still happy. THEN Jessica posted about this magnesium product on instagram and the product is all about maximum absorption and I just had a feeling about it and I went and got it and it was like aaahhhhhhhhh, PEACE AT LAST. The product is Natural Calm and it’s a powder you put in water and drink. I am free. I can sleep at night. The shits are no longer transcendent. My boobs don’t hurt all winter long anymore. I no longer dread going to bed; I no longer sleep between two beach towels. I am so happy, thank you to our Lord and Savior for this blessed release from pain. Thank you to Jesus for MAGNESIUM SUPPLEMENT. Anyway, if anyone out there is struggling with wintertime night sweats, give MAGNESIUM a try!

I keep thinking what people with this affliction did in the nineteenth century. Just suffered I guess. My parents are having all these medical issues suddenly, they’ve both had surgery this year and they’ve both survived cancer this year (my dad by being patient #1 in an experimental immunotherapy drug trial??? “I’ve always been lucky”–my dad’s life motto). My dad had this weird pinched nerve due to his lifetime of hunching over a typewriter or computer finally catching up to him (word to the wise, also to myself) that DEADENED his left arm, like not only was it incredibly painful but it turned his whole left arm numb and weak and useless. And he got surgery to correct it and it worked. And the other day he was like, what did people do in the old days, when they didn’t have painkillers and corrective surgery? And I was like, well, they SUFFERED. Much like today, if you don’t have health insurance. You suffer. Then I told him about how medieval doctors performed eye surgeries on patients with no anesthetic whatsoever, and the patient would just kneel gently on a cushion at the doctor’s feet while the doctor probed around in their eyeball. So it seems like pain and suffering also are cultural, like maybe an old dead arm that’s super upsetting and painful in middle class America today wouldn’t have felt like that big a deal back then. I don’t know.

J.S. Bach got eyeball surgery! Also Louis XVI got penis surgery.

When it comes to pre-modern surgery I say: no thank you

I am also reading this totally bonkers new Nietzsche biography I AM DYNAMITE! It is so, so good. It’s mostly all about Wagner, actually, so it’s right up my alley. Talk about nineteenth-century medical issues!!!!! Good lord!!! You want to see someone who suffered medically look no further, plus the treatments he endured were worse than the disease. For starters, from childhood he was plagued by this weird sickness that would come over him all sudden-like, where he’d get super sick, be unable to tolerate light, have splitting headaches etc., maybe like migraines?? But the biographer doesn’t suggest this diagnosis; it sounds like nobody to this day knows what was wrong with Nietzsche, although his father died of “brain softening” at age 35 and the family had a history of mental illness and weird neurological problems. But this is just the start of poor Friedrich’s woes.

As he grew up he became very brilliant and also kept getting sick a lot. His friends would read to him during these times because reading hurt his eyes and brain too much. He was sick A LOT. And every time one of these bouts came over him, he’d be sick for a full week. So it really took a lot out of him. But it’s so interesting–he developed his aphoristic writing style explicitly because of this pattern of epic sickness followed by unpredictable amounts of time of feeling ok. So he developed this writing style where he basically just wrote incredibly brief pithy things, as developing long arguments was impossible for him. He started wearing glasses that were tinted deep green, along with a green visor, to shield his weird eyes from the sun. As he descended into madness in his early thirties he started thinking electricity from the sky was what gave him brain problems.

On a doctor’s recommendation he started putting deadly nightshade in his eyes to paralyze the eye muscles (this was a cool nineteenth-century version of pain relief), which apparently relaxed his eyes so much that he couldn’t see at all and his pupils grew enormous and everyone said he looked “frightening.”

MEANWHILE he suddenly goes to serve as a medic in the dang Franco-Prussian war! He is not medically trained, nor is he particularly physically fit (see above re: gigantic pupils) but he wants to be part of this great historical moment and serve his country in some way. He gets 2 weeks of medical training then is sent out into the field, where he’s literally sawing off legs and treating people whose guts have been blown out of their body. He has this utterly harrowing experience where he’s the only medic on board a hideous cattle car full of dying soldiers, for three days. During that time he contracts dysentery and diphtheria, on top of all his other problems. He also witnesses the utter horror of war and becomes a “Europeanist,” eschewing nationalism for its tendency to generate violent cultural clashes. His cosmopolitan beliefs will strengthen over the course of his life and ultimately cause the breakup of several friendships with German nationalists, whom he will come to see as vulgar and disgusting.

Anyway the treatment for his wartime medical problems was enemas of tannic acid, which destroyed his digestive system irreparably. So now he’s got that to contend with on top of everything else. For the rest of his life he takes intense, too-large doses of things like opium in an effort to find relief from his unbearable chronic pain, but everything he takes for the pain also worsens his physical condition. By his early thirties he’s a shambling wreck. It’s honestly hard to read about.

As basically a child, he becomes a famous professor in Switzerland. One thing I will say the nineteenth century, specifically in Germany, has going for it is the enormous esteem professors were held in. The descriptions of his fame are so funny in the context of how professors are seen today, at least in this country! He’s considered a national treasure–every time he even SEEMS like he might be considering taking a job somewhere else, his university ups his salary and stuff. The actual country of Switzerland considers him an asset and plies him with praise and money to try to make him stay. I think at one point he receives a medal from the city?? Crazy shit like that. And he’s famous with students, students come from all over to study with him, etc. He’s only like 24 years old–he was named the CHAIR of Philology before he’d even finished his degree, and he didn’t have any teaching certification. But they were like PLEASE COME RUN OUR DEPARTMENT, so his current school just GAVE him a doctorate and sent him off. In short, he was very smart.

Around this time he befriends Richard Wagner, an internationally famous/infamous superstar composer currently being supported by the teenaged King of Bavaria (Ludwig, aka “the Mad King Ludwig”) and kicking up a ruckus wherever he goes. Nietzsche was obsessed with Wagner for various complicated reasons having to do with philosophy and Germany and capitalism and cultural renewal and Schopenhauer. Wagner is like 30 years older than him and they develop this strange father/son thing where for many years Nietzsche is sort of in thrall to him and worships him and wants him to like all his writing and approve of him. This kind of thing goes hard on a person when disappointment or disenchantment creeps in, as it did For Nietzsche for several well-known reasons and one (to me) totally previously unknown reason that made me scream!

There’s this hilarious period where he’s hanging out with the Wagners at their beloved home in Tribschen ‘pon the lovely lake and talking about universal harmony and shit. Supposedly the first time Nietzsche approached the house he heard Wagner playing something from Siegfried over and over again on a piano and he was struck with raptures of the soul (in the nineteenth century everyone wrote like this about their emotional life, it’s so amazing. Seeing or hearing cool art sends people into “paroxysms” and makes them faint and makes them beg for death because they can not tolerate knowing that such beauty exists in the world, it obliterates them, etc. Cosima Wagner is constantly begging her husband for death after hearing a piece of music he’s been working on and he’s like my love, if thou diest so die I and then they weep together. It sounds like, from reading her diaries and this Nietzsche book, these explosions of group weeping and begging for death happened regularly, every couple of days, including one famous time on Christmas morning when Wagner got Hans Richter and a fifteen piece orchestra to play music from Siegfried on the staircase to wake Cosima up. “NOW LET ME DIE” she begs). Anyway there’s also a lot of weird descriptions of the rainbows caused by the mist over the lake, and Wagner standing before it and projecting his shadow massively over the mountain and being like I AM A GOD and then shinnying up the drainpipe and standing on a balcony and yelling because he did something he was ashamed of. And making his servant row him back and forth over the surface of the lake while he recites poetry and makes ribald jokes. Wagner sounds like a real character; he actually sounds a lot like Trump, like Trump if Trump were somehow really smart and did actually have deep thoughts. It’s a really weird personality combo–all the thuggish self-aggrandizement and demanding of attention and reverence of a Trump but then also sitting around thinking incredibly deeply about, like, the nature of existence and writing this unbelievably complex music that takes 20 years to fully realize. Also he was intensely, intensely empathetic toward animals and would scream and weep if he saw a carriage driver beating a horse, etc., which it’s admittedly hard to imagine Trump doing. Anyway!

So things are going well For Nietzsche, aside from the aforementioned genuinely hideous physical ailments. He’s actually befriended his hero, and he (the hero) thinks his writing is profound! What bliss! There’s this weird part where somehow Nietzsche doesn’t realize that Cosima is 9 months pregnant and he’s there in the house when she gives birth and somehow doesn’t realize it’s happening even though Cosima is screaming all night and the midwife is running up and down the stairs and everything; Nietzsche just goes to sleep and when he wakes up somehow Wagner magically has a son. Must have been pretty surprising.

So things are going well BUT THEN, disaster strikes! He publishes The Birth of Tragedy and it’s a total flop; no one knows what to make of it, and those that do actually read it hate it SO MUCH, including his former mentors, fans, people who love him. The kindest thing these people do is just NOT review it; so there’s this weird period of total silence when he’s waiting for people to comment on his brilliant book and nothing happens and no one will respond to his letters about it. Finally somebody writes the most epic screed, the most classically nineteenth-century take-down, a blistering review that includes a demand that Nietzsche be removed from his teaching position. Disaster! Poor Nietzsche doesn’t get it, he’s like, but my book is awesome! (Also there’s a quieter tragedy during this period because he sends one of his musical compositions to Wagner and expects that Wagner will respond with praise but instead Wagner just never responds at all; in Cosima’s diary she records that they had Hans Richter play it to them and then they all sat around so bummed and annoyed by how bad it was and then they decided the kindest thing to do is just not write back to him about it. Desperately seeking approval Nietzsche makes the mistake of sending it to Hans von Bulow, who, long story, but anyway he hates it and writes back another blistering screed, literally at one point asking N if this is supposed to be a joke, etc. Anyway N is devastated and embarrassed, as anyone would be. I will say as a sidenote that after I read this part we found a recording of this piece and listened to it and it indeed is really not very good, it’s like a mashup of Beethoven and Wagner emotional drama but without anything interesting going on musically; when it was over we looked at each other with kind of wry “that’s a shame” looks on our faces and I started laughing imagining those very same expressions being on the faces of Richard, Cosima, and Hans Richter once they turned and looked at each other when Richter finished playing. POOR FRIEDRICH)

Anyway because of this horrible disaster of a book publication NO STUDENTS WILL SIGN UP FOR HIS CLASSES ANYMORE and the school has to put him on leave. CAN YOU IMAGINE

So he’s wandering around town in his green eyeglasses and green eye shade, the disgraced professor, if you can even call him that now, and the Wagners have moved to Bayreuth and he’s bereft and lonely and sick.

Then a lot of other stuff happens. INCLUDING the amazing thing that made me scream, which is the actual reason for the famous breach between Nietzsche and Wagner. In my field the canonical story is that Wagner sold out to the aristocracy–he began as a kind of revolutionary but by throwing in his lot with Ludwig and certainly after the building of Bayreuth he became more of an icon of the State and his works were seen as upholding the glory of the monarchy and stuff–and also that he got too Christian (with Parsifal). Nietzsche’s horrible sister Elisabeth, who controlled much of the discourse about him following his death (and I say “horrible” not in the run-of-the-mill misogynist way where every famous man’s female relatives are kind of belittled in the discourse surrounding that man but because she was a LITERAL NAZI and indeed her virulent racism is what drove Nietzsche to finally cut off all ties with her and tell her she was a disgusting pig despite their years of closeness in childhood), anyway, Elisabeth spread around this story about N and W climbing a mountain together and then at the top of the mountain W told N the plot of Parsifal and he talked for hours as N grew slowly more and more disillusioned and upset, and at the end of the conversation N was like “fuck Wagner.” That’s the canonical story of the end of their friendship. And these aspects were indeed a part of it–N goes to the first Bayreuth festival and is totally disgusted and appalled. Wagner’s installed himself as a sort of emperor, living in a newly-built mansion with a special second-floor balcony built expressly for the purpose of him standing and waving at parades in his honor; he’s hob-nobbing with kings and dukes and all the kinds of trash aristocrats that he and N spent years talking about overthrowing and destroying; whereas before, during the idyllic days in Tribschen, his piano was set up so that he looked out onto the glory of God’s sublime creation as he played (the lake, the mountain), in Bayreuth his piano is set up so that he looks out AT HIS OWN GRAVE, which he’s had specially built for him and Cosima and their two dogs (apparently at night he and Cosima stand out on the balcony and look down at their graves with their arms around each other, yearning for death as usual). FUCKING EPIC. So anyway Nietzsche is, to say the least, bummed about all this, but he still reveres Wagner and feels deep loyalty to both of them.

BUT LITTLE DID HE KNOW!!!!!!

Some years previously, Wagner had gotten him an appointment with a famous ophthalmologist to try to get him some relief for his eye problems. And, because this was a time before anything resembling doctor-patient confidentiality, Wagner and this doctor wrote letters to each other about Nietzsche’s condition. And in one of these letters, Wagner–clearly out of genuine worry, but still–tells the doctor that after years of observing Nietzsche he’s positive the man must be a chronic masturbator, because he doesn’t have normal relations with women (meaning he’s not only unmarried but also doesn’t seem to visit prostitutes; highly abnormal and suspect behavior). Wagner goes on and on about how N must be masturbating constantly, and how this must be the source of his eye problems. This theory being a scientifically-accepted one in this period–eye problems being caused by masturbation–the doctor writes back and is literally like “well I examined him, and he assured me that he does visit prostitutes, but still I defer to your greater observation of his lifestyle and so I’m sure you’re right, he must be an awful chronic masturbator and I do think that’s why his eyes are so fucked up.” Furthermore the doctor says that in men of his “advanced condition” (meaning: the masturbation is SO chronic and long-term) there is very little hope that the eyes will ever improve.

Nietzsche did not know that Wagner and the doctor were writing these letters. He found out five years later, when out of spite this newspaperman who served as Wagner’s secretary spread this information around at the second Bayreuth festival. And it was THE TALK OF THE TOWN. Kings and queens were literally gossiping about it, about how that disgraced philologist Friedrich Nietzsche is a chronic masturbator!! My dear it’s simply TERRIBLE, did you hear?? At this time Nietzsche was living in a completely asexual experimental menage-a-trois with his friend Paul Ree and this wild philosopher woman Lou Salomé whom he considered his intellectual soulmate. They took an unfortunate and immediately notorious photograph in which Nietzsche and Ree are hitched to a carriage like oxen and Salomé is in the carriage pretending to whip them. This did not help N’s reputation as some sort of sex pervert.

Then a lot of social drama happens, but at any rate the point is that N was really genuinely so hurt by these revelations about Wagner calling him a masturbator. And that’s what really ended the friendship. And Elisabeth knew this, and specifically spread the Parsifal/mountain story around to try to cover up the real story for posterity. And it worked! The truth was not discovered until 1981 when someone dug it up. What a fun scholarly discovery that must have been!!!! I’d love to discover something like that.

Then Nietzsche goes crazy and dies.

THE END

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10 Responses to NIETZSCHE’S EYEBALLS

  1. Z says:

    I truly can’t remember if I even know you or how I started following your blog, but thank you for the magnesium thing. I won’t go into my own drama, but this might help. Urban Honking: come for the salacious philosophy history; stay for the offhand medical advice!

  2. tony says:

    please don’t ever stop writing this blog. my wife and i love it so.
    are you still mopping your floor every day?

  3. Leander says:

    GREAT STORY!! Thank you! (and welcome back – you have been missed!)

  4. Lizzie says:

    I’m still out here and still reading. It’s good to see you back.

  5. Denise says:

    Welcome back! Still here and still reading. :)

  6. dv says:

    Still reading. Missed the updates :)

  7. alex says:

    STILL HERE, LOVED THIS POST

  8. Sarah says:

    Still here! This was fascinating, thank you!

  9. Kerry says:

    I missed this but came back looking for your old Hawaii post because I wanted to compare from our recent trip, and got bonus NIGHT SWEAT AND WINTERTIME BOOB ACHE ADVICE!! I had NO idea!! It’s all that god damn vitamin d deficiency!!! So excited to try it out! Also glad your parents are doing ok that is so intense.

  10. Lizzie says:

    Your blog readers miss you, Yours Truly. Are you doing OK? How are the snoopy and the old man? What do you think of Leonard Bernstein’s Norton lecture series? (Seriously, that thing just blew my mind.) Et cetera.

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