The Straight Dope

I was at a lecture on existential philosophy, and it was mentioned in passing that Nietzsche proposed to someone early in his life. She turned him down, and he got bitter. Later in the same lecture, I was told that another famous philosopher met this same woman at an artists' colony and had an affair with her. What was this woman's name, and who was the other philosopher? I can't remember, the professor is dead, and I'm not finding anything on the Web. Please help -- I have a bet going, and if I don't come up with the info, I lose.

-- Regan Lane, via the Internet

The Web's a great research tool, Regan. But sometimes there's no substitute for looking things up in, you know, a book. Also, trying to win a bet is a somewhat dubious motive for taking on a question as momentous as this one. What you really want to know is whether Nietzsche's lack of success with women informed his philosophical ideas and indirectly caused World War II. I'm pretty sure the answer on both counts is no, but with these philosophers one never knows.

Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900), one of the seminal modern philosophers and a forefather of existentialism, seems to have had a pretty sucky personal life. In chronic poor health, he was a lifelong but apparently unwilling bachelor. He made two marriage proposals that we know about, both of which were shot down. In 1876, when he was 32 years old, he popped the question to Mathilde Trampedach, a pretty, self-assured 21-year-old. It's a measure of Nietzsche's cluelessness in these matters that (a) he proposed to Mathilde mere days after meeting her, and (b) he sent his rather breathless letter in the care of her boyfriend, conductor Hugo von Senger, whom she later married. Having been rejected, Nietzsche wrote Mathilde an apology, no doubt sensing that his performance had been less than totally cool.

He didn't improve with practice. Six years later he did the same thing with Lou Salome, a Russian-German writer who apparently turned the heads of quite a few male intellectuals in her day. This time he sent his proposal by way of philosopher Paul Ree, who had already proposed to Lou himself. She turned down both men but did suggest a menage à trois. Scholars somewhat prissily assume she was talking about an intellectual rather than a sexual arrangement, but in any case nothing came of it. Lou later married a professor, then had a celebrated affair with the poet Rainer Maria Rilke -- Lou must be the woman you heard about in that lecture.

Nietzsche's philosophy has been tied to the rise of Nazism -- unfairly, I might add, though his talk of supermen, slaves, the will to power, et cetera, surely lent itself to misinterpretation. The question is whether Nietzsche's lousy luck with women influenced his philosophy. Hard to say, but I bet his philosophy probably had something to do with his lousy luck. This is, after all, the man who inspires books like Nietzsche: Philosopher, Psychologist, Antichrist. Here are some of his thoughts on the female of the species: "When a woman has scholarly inclinations, there is usually something wrong with her sexually." "Woman has so much reason for shame; so much pedantry, superficiality, schoolmarmishness, petty presumption, petty licentiousness, and immodesty lies concealed in woman." "Everything about woman has one solution: that is pregnancy." You can see where a guy like this might have trouble getting a date, much less a wedding band. Indeed, as far as we know, Nietzsche never had a genuine romance. He did manage to get laid but probably wished he hadn't; his mental derangement after 1889 and his death in 1900 were supposedly caused by an advanced case of syphilis contracted in a brothel. But what the hell -- at least he could be philosophical about it.

Is there something you need to get straight? Cecil Adams can deliver "The Straight Dope" on any topic. Write Cecil Adams at the Chicago Reader, 11 E. Illinois, Chicago, IL 60611; e-mail him at cecil@chireader.com; or visit "The Straight Dope" area at America Online, keyword: Straight Dope.

 
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