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Nietzsche: The last days before the fall

It had been an extraordinarily rainy summer in Sils-Maria. The mountains were surrounded with water and it was time to move somewhere else. Turin was a good option. The Italian city had been kind to Nietzsche previously. Now, 43 years old, almost blind and with a frail health (and mind), he is as productive as ever. In that year he will publish 3 books and conceives a grand project that is destined to shake the foundations of Western civilisation. A four volumes critique of Christianity, Philosophy, Morality and History.


Nietzsche after his mental breakdown

He was exultant in Turin. He liked everything: the city, the food, his lodging, the weather… It was the right time and place to write his magnum opus. On the 30th of September of 1888 he finishes ¨The Anti-Christ¨ a raw attack on Christianity (but no the figure of Christ). It was a very controversial topic and some of his books were already banned in countries like Russia, but it was also there where Nietzsche´s philosophy was more influential.


In his personal correspondence he is increasingly deluded and aggressive. He considers himself well above the rest of the humans. He is the Supreme Court of Judgement. With him, a new era awakens and everybody must know. He is not a man, he is the übermensch, so you better listen to him.

But Nietzsche was completely alone. In Turin he did not have friends, neither he received any visit. In fact, some of his friends and acquaintances were getting annoyed by his radicalism and his attacks to religion and his former friend and ally Richard Wagner. Many replied to his letters in anger or just ignored him. Some were starting to suspect that something was not right.


On the day of his birthday he decided to write an auto-biography where he compares himself to Jesus. Some chapters of the book have titles like: “Why I am so wise”, “Why I am so clever”, or “Why I write such books”.


Despite all his claims of vigour and good health, he was a very sick man walking towards a great fall. Worryingly, he started to loose control of his facial expression. He uncontrollably pulled faces and was increasingly delusional about how people treated him. According to some of his letters, people in Turin would take him for a prince and would open doors for him with extreme deference.


When Christmas approaches and it is time to write to his family and friends, Nietzsche is already in an advanced state of delirium. He writes incoherent things and signs his correspondence with names like "Your old creature", "The crucified", "Nietzsche Cesar", or “Dyonisus".


After receiving a particularly outlandish letter from Nietzsche, the Basel professor Jacob Burkhardt got worried. He showed it to Franz Overbeck, a common friend, and he immediately knows that something was very wrong. He took the letter to a psychiatrist who recommends placing Nietzsche in a mental institution immediately. Overbeck wrote to Nietzsche asking him to return to Basel. Nietzsche’s answer was: “I am just having all anti-semites shot…”. Overbeck took a train to Turin that same day. He was accompanied by an assistant in case Nietzsche did not want to travel with him.


In the meanwhile, on the 3rd of January, Nietzsche suffered the famous incident with the horse being mistreated by his master. The events of that fateful day are not completely clear but for what we know Nietzsche was walking through a square where a coachman was whipping an old horse that did not seem to obey. Seeing this cruel scene, he could not contain himself and, sobbing, pounced on the animal's neck to hug him. Then is when he collapses and the police notifies his landlord, Davide Fino, who took Nietzsche to his room where he spent the next three days (and nights) in a complete delirious state. He was laughing and singing, dancing and sobbing, shouting and cursing. He played the piano with fury. The landlord’s family did not know what to do.


Finally, Overbeck arrives to Turin and he is shocked by what he sees. His old friend and former fellow teacher at the university of Basel is now like a possessed person in a dionysian trance. It is not easy, but with tricks and subterfuges they manage to put him on a train back to Basel where he is admitted to a clinic for the mentally ill. The doctor who takes care of him diagnoses that it is a psychotic breakdown, common in the last stages of syphilis. This meant that he will soon enter in a state of progressive paralysis. They give him between one and two years maximum.


In one of his reports the doctor writes: The patient often asks for women. Says that he has been ill for the past week and often suffers from severe headaches. Says he has had a few attacks. He felt exceptionally well and exalted during attacks. He would have liked to embrace and kiss everybody in the street. He would have liked to climb up the walls. It is difficult to tie the patients attention down to anything definite; he only gives fragmentary and imperfect answers or none at all.

No tremor and no speech disorder. The flow of speech constant, confused and without logical connection. Continues throughout the night. Often a high state of maniac excitement. Considerably priapic content. Delusions of whores in his room.


A few days later, Nietzsche is taken into another train, this time the destination is Jena. There, he would be taken into an asylum for the care and cure of “the insane”. He was expected to live only one or two more years but instead he lived for another 11 years, which means that he was not correctly diagnosed. However, he was so delusional, so lost in his world and so incontinent that six months passed before they allowed his mother to visit him.


He was moved to an apartment and eventually to his family home in Naumburg where he was looked after by his mother and his manipulative and ambitious sister Elisabeth.


It is ironic that Nietzsche achieved international fame just when he could no longer be aware of it. He always lived modestly and his books, instead of bringing him money, cost him a good part of his modest pension since he self-published them on many occasions.

As his fame grew, he received more visitors in his family home, but he did not recognize anyone and fluctuated between periods of tremendous excitement with periods of self-absorption and inactivity.


Still in Nietzsche's life, many artists were inspired by his books. Examples of this are the composer Richard Strauss, the playwright Strindberg and the Norwegian painter Edward Munch. Young people from all over Europe began to have Nietzsche's vitalist philosophy as their reference. It offered them a way out from nihilism and the pessimism of innaction. The figure of Nietzsche, who in recent years had been almost forgotten, grew spectacularly but sadly he could not enjoy even a little of that fame.


Nietzsche with his mother Franziska

Who did, and ostensibly, was his sister Elisabeth. She created an archive and a foundation to honor the memory and encourage the study of Nietzsche's work. However, Elisabeth purged the texts that she liked least and she adapted ideas from Nietzsche's thought to be in line with the nascent national-socialism that would end in the Nazi regime of Adolf Hitler.


On the death of Franziska, Nietzsche's mother, in 1897, Elisabeth was left as the only person in charge of her brother. She gathered enough money to buy a villa in Weimar (a literary city par excellence) and there she built a foundation named after her brother where she transferred all of his papers. When everything was ready, she also took Nietzsche there, who was sometimes "exhibited" in some of the meetings that she liked to organize. Nietzsche was nothing more than a puppet that his sister could manipulate as she pleased.


On August 25, 1900, Friedrich Nietzsche died at the age of 55. He died in bed, and if we are to believe his sister, after a stroke.


For his funeral, Nietzsche did not want any Christian symbols or priests. He had been the greatest enemy of Christianity, he even called himself the anti-Christ. Instead, Elisabeth arranged a long Christian funeral. Nietzsche mentioned that the only music he wanted was his own composition "Hymn to life", inspired by the poem written by Lou von Salomé, his unrequited love and, despite everything, the woman with whom he lived some of the happiest (and saddest) moments of his life. But that is another story that deserves its own chapter.

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