Awhile back I wrote a piece arguing that the supposed sexual repression of Christendom grew from the financial obstacles standing in the way of respectable marriage, which in turn can be traced to the efforts of ambitious families to maintain or raise their statuses via favorable marriages (i.e., marriages which bring wealth into the family). I gave special attention to St. Augustine, Nietzsche, Thoreau, and Rimbaud, all of whom came from marginal families who hoped that their sons’ education in the classics– at the cost of deferring marriage for a decade or more — would allow them to enhance the family status.
These four authors expressed their high degree of alienation with the extraordinary eloquence which they gained from their intensive literary educations, and as a result their dissident points of view were better expressed than the more mainstream points of view of other contemporary authors who were luckier, lazier, and happier. Only St. Augustine seemed fully aware of this problem, though it can easily be seen in the biographies of the others.
Nietzsche was the most brilliant German philologist of his generation and became a full professor younger than anyone ever had before. His family was completely respectable, but his mother was widowed and far from wealthy, and since academics were not well paid he was not marriageable – certainly not after his retirement with a disability. His relationships with women were few and unsuccessful, apparently being limited to infatuations with the wives of friends and perhaps the encounter with a prostitute proposed by some biographers.
On the other hand, women who met him testified that he was courtly and pleasant and by no means unattractive – “not like a professor”, as one explained. Nietzsche is often enough treated as a sexless object of ridicule, but I am willing to argue that his sexual problems were mostly situational. Nietzsche was always a good boy, and during the bourgeois XIXc, especially in Lutheran Germany, the demands on good boys were enormous: hard work, educational and professional success, good manners, deference to superiors, chaste and decent behavior, and adherence to an ethicized (Kantian) version of Lutheran modernist orthodoxy which emphasized Duty above all. Nietzsche rejected these demands to some degree, but actually lived an essentially conventional life. What he retained from his heritage was an emphasis on distinction, refinement, superiority, and self-improvement: the superman may be regarded as an intensified replacement for the already absurdly high Lutheran standard which had been imposed on him from birth.
Instead of making life easier and more fun, Nietzsche chose to make it more difficult: he was in thrall to The Seriousness. In theory he rejected the bourgeois work ethic in favor of the more heroic aristocratic ideal and rejected Lutheran moralism for a freer, more aristocratic way of life. The traditional aristocrat was not answerable to anyone, and while moderns tend to misrepresent aristocrats as effete and sissified, the traditional aristocracy consisted of elegant but brutal military specialists with strong hedonistic and erotic tendencies. In theory. But in fact, Nietzsche was still a Protestant: at the end of Zarathustra we read
Trachte ich denn nach Glücke? Ich trachte nach meinem Werke!
(Do I then strive after HAPPINESS? I strive after my work!)
It’s unlikely that Nietzsche’s marital prospects would have been much better in a less bourgeois society. Let us take Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility (1811) as a case study in the actual life of an aristocracy. Austen’s book describes the lifeboat ethics of the children of the English gentry, many of whom were doomed by demographics to downward mobility. Elegant, pious propriety masked the use of every means necessary to destroy rivals for favorable marriages and inheritances – rivals who were usually very near kin. In Austen’s book the people tend to be epiphenomenal, with the real players being the titles to parcels of landed property. The class systems which made culture and refinement possible by concentrating wealth also produced cultured people of uncertain status who had to be ejected and forgotten, and at the same time doomed most of its members to conventional and often unhappy marriages.
The perfect good marriage partner would be of good family and reasonably well-bred, belong to the right sect and political faction and approximately the same social circle (which seemingly required being “cousins or something like it”), and — above all — have an adequate income. Any personal requirements imposed by the individual partners would further restrict the pool of eligibles, and often marriages were arranged in complete disregard for the desires of their nominal principals. And the aristocrats in Austen’s book, as is typical of aristocrats everywhere, were not supermen or anything like supermen. They did not aspire to self-overcoming, but were perfectly happy to occupy themselves with hunting, whist, hot toddies, dances, flirtation, and seduction. While Nietzsche envied the amoral ease and grace of the aristocracy, as a self-confessed decadent (i.e., as a bourgeois Lutheran) he could not hope to attain it, especially insofar as it was linked with stupidity and laziness. Instead, he invented a new rigorous, strenuous, hyper-bourgeois, hyper-Lutheran ideal, even more difficult than the ideal he had been born into.
But the big question is this: if Nietzsche had been an Austen character, could he have married one of Austen’s Dashwood sisters? I think that the answer is “maybe — but probably not.” In his favor is Jane Austen’s own bias toward reserved, dignified suitors. When she concocted improbably happy endings for her books, Austen made sure that the “nice guy” got the girl and forced the dashing, impulsive seducer to slink offstage in disgrace. As Gilman’s book shows, Nietzsche was tolerably like the characters Austen favored, and during his younger days he probably even had the ardent sincerity Marianne (the “sensibility” sister) demanded. At the same time, however, both sisters hoped for an upper class income (1000 to 2000 pounds), and Nietzsche would have been totally out of luck for that reason.
It’s wrong, of course, to identify a character in a novel with the novel’s author. At the same time, there’s nothing wrong with asking which of the characters in a novel would have been capable of writing it, and of the characters in Sense and Sensibility, Elinor is obviously the one (though her sister Marianne might have written something a bit smarmier). Of the two sisters, she is the one who gravitated naturally toward courtly, reserved gentlemen of Nietzsche’s type. Since Jane Austen never married, it’s reasonable to develop the question a bit further. If Nietzsche (with a bit more income) had married Jane Austen, would the marriage have worked out?
Not well, one fears. Austen was hardly the kind of feminist Nietzsche feared so intensely, but one doubts that he could have been a supportive husband for any woman of talent. The marriage probably would have been good for Nietzsche, at Austen’s expense, and perhaps a married Nietzsche would have been little less tightly wound, and might thus have written equally-penetrating, but less intensely alienated works . But as we have seen (Western civilization being what it is) such an outcome was in reality utterly out of the question.
FIRST PERSON REPORTS ON NIETZSCHE
Here are some contemporary descriptions of Nietzsche, more than half by women. Let the reader judge whether he’s a Darcy. I think that these descriptions do lay to rest the common belief that Nietzsche was a pitiful, neurotic bookworm with delusions of grandeur — three of the authors specifically note that he didn’t seem like a typical German professor academic. (From Conversations with Nietzsche, ed. Sander Gilman, Oxford, 1987.)
Sebastian Hausman (p. 139):
This is absolutely not the impression I had got on meeting Nietzsche; on the contrary, I found him extraordinarily fresh and lively…. (p. 140) “[he] spoke with me in such a friendly, amiable manner [that] he gave me the impression that at the bottom of his soul he must have been an unusually kind and loving person.
Meta von Salis-Marschlins (p. 159):
Even the first impression was comparable with no other. The strangeness and un-Germanness of his face matched his anassuming behavior, which gave no clue to his being a German professor. A strong self-confidence made any posturing superfluous.
Helen Zimmern (p. 167):
[One] immediately became aware of being in the presence of a man who was completely conscious of his value……” “Not only was there no sign of insanity detectable in him, but he was not even eccentric….” (p. 168): “I also know what Nietzsche wrote about women. But according to my experiences I can only say that Nietzsche was always of the most perfect gentilezza….
Adolf Ruthardt (p. 183):
Nietzsche’s external appearance made an extremely agreeable impression on me. Above middle height, slender, well-formed, with erect but not stiff stance, his gestures harmonious, calm, and sparing….. [this] allowed him so little to resemble the type of a German scholar that he called to mind a Southern French nobleman or an Italian or Spanish higher officer in civilian clothes.
Marie von Bradke (p. 190):
The man walking there, I noted clearly, had an artist’s eyes and bore high, lonesome, unique thoughts into his experience of nature’s beauty. When one saw the great, strong, well-dressed figure with the full, rosy face and the mustache, hastening along so, one would have taken him for a Junker [landed nobility] rather than a scholar or an artist.
How much was 2000 pounds a year in 1800 in today’s dollars? Answers vary widely, but the annual subsistence income for a laborer, for example seems to have been in the low double figures. Brad Delong suggests that he had an income of about 6 million a year in 2007 dollars.
How rich is Darcy?
Gilman, Sander Conversations with Nietzsche, ed. , Oxford, 1987.
Hexter, J. H., “The Education of the Aristocracy in the Renaissance,” Journal of Modern History, XXII (1950), 1-20; also in Reappraisals in History, Harper, 1963.
Foucault, Michel, The History of Sexuality, 3 vols., Vintage, from 1995.
Shapin, Steve, A Social History of Truth, Chicago, 1994.