May 9, 2009

When Nietzsche Wept

The picture above shows Armand Assante as Nietzsche and Katheryn Winnick as the irresistible Lou Andreas Salome. (Lou served as a muse to Paul Ree, Nietzsche, Freud, and Rilke. She has something in common with Alma Schindler who became the wife of Gustav Mahler, Walter Gropius, and Franz Werfel, and who had an affair with Oscar Kokoschka. That common element being an attraction to seminal minds in literature, philosophy, and the arts.)

The film is based on a novel by Irvin Yalom, a psychotherapist who writes novels that frequently deal with philosophy and philosophers, such as Nietzsche and Schopenhauer.

In the movie Joseph Breuer, co-author with Freud of Studies in Hysteria, is persuaded by Lou to undertake the treatment of Nietzsche for despair. Because of Nietzsche’s perceptiveness the treatment is disguised, and Nietzsche is persuaded that he is treating Breuer. Over the course of the film we’re treated to discussion of some elements of Nietzsche’s philosophy. One notable example being that “God is dead.” Now it is possible to write long articles on what that phrase means. The usual interpretation is that it’s an atheistic statement. That’s not necessarily so. If I recall Walter Kaufmann’s book on Nietzsche correctly, he presents a rather different interpretation. What is dead is not so much God as the 19th century’s concept of God. Now I don’t necessarily have a problem with killing off various concepts of God, because that fits in with the negative theology of Pseudo-Dionysius, some medieval theologians, John of the Cross, and his nada, nada, and even Ramakrishna and his neti, neti. The problem that might arise is his view that this necessitates the creation of a new code of values, and that the new code will be written by the Ubermensch.* The movie is not really concerned with presenting Nietzsche’s ideas in the way that Kaufmann or one of the more recent interpreters would, but in giving us a flavor of the philosophy, and of the philosopher. So it should really be taken as a stimulus to read Nietzsche, rather an expository lecture.

* I may have conflated Nietzsche's views with those expressed by Shaw in Man and Superman. A former classmate who went on to graduate studies in Nietzsche at Cornell offers a different interpretation.

Breuer’s dreams are presented. These are frequently sensual, and are centered around his patient Anna O., aka Bertha Papenheim, one of the cases presented in Studies in Hysteria. Breuer’s dreams provide a key to his relations with Bertha.

Ultimately Nietzsche and Breuer part. Nietzsche go to Basel and writes Also Sprach Zarathustra, and the rest of his late works; Breuer returns to the practice of medicine, but does not resume work with what later becomes psychoanalysis. Lou eventually becomes a psychoanalyst, and has her house trashed by Nazis.*

* I am informed by a friend who did graduate study in Nietzsche at Cornell that Nietzsche did not write Zarathustra at Basel. That statement might have come from the movie's epilogue where it gives the fate of the characters, or it may have been my own error.

Is the movie worth seeing? Well Winnick is pretty, and conveys some idea of Lou Salome must have been like, the rest of the cast is capable. Some details are wrong, such as Nietzsche’s mustache, which as shown as it was in his last years, and the discussion of his philosophy is elementary and sketchy. If it serves to make you read Nietzsche, rather than just posing as an expert on the basis of the movie, then I think it serves a useful purpose.

I don’t necessarily agree with everything Nietzsche wrote, or even with anything, but he is a major philosopher, and a major influence, even on Benedict XVI who quotes from him in Deus Caritas Est. Though it should be noted that Benedict rejects Nietzsche’s statement.

A final note. Why is Berg’s Violin Concerto in the sidebar? Well, since I mentioned Alma Mahler, I thought it only right to include the concerto because it was inspired by the death of her daughter. Berg died before he could complete Lulu, because of his composition of the concerto.