St. Therese of Lisieux.
Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Nietzsche is my Brother

That’s Therese Martin, aka St. Therese of Lisieux, aka The Little Flower, portraying Joan of Arc in a play that was acted at her convent. She’s the subject of a play by another Carmelite nun, Bridget Edman, O.C.D., entitled Nietzsche is My Brother. Now if you’re Catholic and religious, the two not always being the same, you’re probably thinking “Whoa, what does that darling little saint have to do with that beastly atheist philosopher who said God is dead.” You may also ask when Nietzsche and Therese met.

The answer to the second question is the easiest. They never met. As far as I know the closest that Nietzsche got to the Carmel of Lisieux was Turin*. However, the fact that Nietzsche never met Freud did not prevent a novel and film called When Nietzsche Wept from being written and filmed.

* If anyone cares to work out the physical distance between Nietzsche and Therese at any given time feel free to do so. My notion of geography gets pretty sketchy once I get outside of Virginia. Update: August 6, 2015—The flying distance between Lisieux and Turin is 449 miles, or a little over 700 km.

The answer to the first is a bit harder. I’ve read Nietzsche, and I started reading him when I was in my teens. I read the old Modern Library translations of Beyond Good and Evil, The Genealogy of Morals, Ecce Homo, as well as some other works. However, I would not claim any great degree of expertise in Nietzsche studies, particularly since, outside of opera titles, I can’t read German. On the other hand, in pursuing graduate studies on Shaw, I read a fair amount, and can manage a more or less intelligent conversation on Nietzsche. So, gentle reader, if you’ve read this far, take this as your dose of salt regarding what I say on the topic of Nietzsche.

Most people know the old joke or graffiti that goes:

—God is dead. Nietzsche.
—Nietzsche is dead. God.

There’s sometimes a reply to the last statement:

—Some are born posthumously.

The last is a quote from Nietzsche.

Lets deal with the death of God. Nietzsche announces this in aphorism 125 of The Gay Science (Die Fröhliche Wissenschaft), but in the context, that of a madman who announces that we have all killed God, it is less an atheist pronouncement that there is no God, than the recognition that modern society is Godless. This is more or less the interpretation that Walter Kaufmann advances in his book on Nietzsche. In this sense Nietzsche recognizes the crisis of faith that began in 17th and 18th centuries with the advent of the “Higher Criticism” of the Bible, and that culminated in 1859 with The Origin of the Species. Despite the attempts of men like Paley to re-establish the argument from design, which had been subjected to criticism by Kant, the old religious spirit was dying out. You can see reflections of this in Middlemarch, in which the clergy don’t really seem to believe in much of anything, and in The Way of All Flesh, in which the main character undergoes a conversion away from the church after reading some of the “Higher Criticism” and after reading Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation by Robert Chambers. Nietzsche’s own crisis of faith moved him away from the piety of his youth.

For some, such as Kierkegaard in Philosophical Fragments, and The Concluding Unscientific Postscript, the crisis of faith moved them to make a “leap of faith,” which can be related to the school of negative theology that began with pseudo-Dionysius, and that reached its most perfect theological form in St. John of the Cross. This was not the path that either Nietzsche or the 19th and 20th centuries took.

You can make a plausible case that both Nietzsche and Therese experienced dark nights, and that the difference between the saint and the philosopher is how each reacted to that sense of the absence of God.

Sr. Edman attempts to do that in this short play (about 80 pages). She opens with a Nietzsche in his study. Apparently this is Nietzsche at the height of his productive powers. He describes the absence of faith, and his loss of faith. There are several quotes from his work, possibly from The Antichrist, and from others as well. Eventually the scene shifts, and we see Therese discussing the appalling idea of disbelief with her sisters. This sets the scene for the remaining four movements. (Sr. Edman links the play to Mahler’s Tenth Symphony, which is an incomplete symphony. This may suggest that the play itself is incomplete, or tentative.)

As the play progresses Therese becomes ill with the tuberculosis that will eventually kill her. In movement III she has a dialogue with an unbelieving doctor. The doctor is reading Also Sprach Zarathustra, (Thus Spake Zarathrustra), which Therese, who knows no German, cannot read. She then encounters Nietzsche in a sort of visionary state. The dialog with the doctor and with Nietzsche is marked by stichomythia.** This serves to hasten the pace of the action, but it is also a reflection of the shortness of time between Nietzsche’s final collapse, which was hastening on, and Therese’s death.

** This is defined by the OED thus: “In classical Greek Drama, dialogue in alternate lines, employed in sharp disputation, and characterized by antithesis and rhetorical repetition or taking up of the opponent's words. Also applied to modern imitations of this.”

Movement IV ends with Therese recommending that the doctor be given Teresa of Avila’s autobiography. I don’t recall if anything like this really happened, but it was Edith Stein’s reading of the Life that motivated her to become a Catholic and a Carmelite nun. There may be an implication that the doctor will convert here. Nietzsche suffers his final collapse here.

There is some dispute as to the cause of Nietzsche’s collapse. The author of the introduction to the volume that I read as an adolescent attributed it to overwork. Others have claimed that it was a form of general paralysis, i.e., syphilitic madness. Still others, and these are more recent, have attributed it to a brain tumor. In any case he went insane and stayed that way for the next 12 years till his death.

The final movement takes place while Nietzsche is insane and under the care of his mother. Therese and Nietzsche have a final encounter, again marked by stichomythia. This is inconclusive, much like Mahler’s 10th, which is supposed to accompany it.

Some of the most moving and affecting plays of the 20th century are about saints, and they are frequently by major literary figures such George Bernard Shaw (St. Joan), T. S. Eliot (Murder in the Cathedral), Jean Anouilh (Becket and The Lark), and even Bertolt Brecht (St. Joan of the Stockyards), so it’s fair to ask if Sr. Edman’s play is in the same category. I’m not sure that it has the tragic force of St. Joan, or Becket, but for what it is, a play dealing with the nature of faith, and the crisis that culminated in the 19th century and the effects of which are still being worked out today, it is quite good.

Sr. Edman specifies Mahler’s 10th as the musical accompaniment for the play, and it may read better if the symphony is playing in the background. I have Deryck Cooke’s original completion on vinyl, however, that’s over 40 years old now, so I’ve put up a link to a more recent performance. Be aware that there are multiple performances, and even multiple versions of the completed score. You may want to buy several.

Next up is more drama, and again it will be of a religious nature, The York Mystery Plays from medieval England.