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30 March  Lou Salome and Rilke  - Matthew Del Nevo

Behind every great man is a woman. This  is a second of a series of three talks is on the influence of Russian born Louise Andreas-Salome (1861-1937). Nietzsche proposed marriage, the great lyric poet Rilke had a life-long love affair, and Freud sought her guidance.  Lou Salome wrote 15 novels plus philosophical and psycho-analytical works. With her indifference to moral conventions and insatiable intellectual curiosity, Lou Salome challenged the gender roles of her day.

Lou Salomé was born in St. Petersburg in 1861 and her mother took her to study theology at the university of Zurich, the only university at that time that took women.  For health reasons her mother (who had accompanied Lou to Zurich, as to travel unaccompanied as a young woman of class in her day was inconceivable) took her off to Italy, where in Rome she met Paul Rée and through him, met his friend, Nietzsche.  Both men fell for her. Right away, of Nietzsche, she could intuitively tell that while fascinating and creative, suffering and loneliness were written all over his destiny, hence his awkwardness and his masquerading. A masquerading which she believed came through in his work, to the advantage of its subtlety. But it is interesting that Lou should extol Nietzsche’s masks, because, perhaps like many people of her class, in her time and place, she had her own. Lou married neither suitor (neither Rée nor Nietzsche) but instead, quite suddenly and surprisingly, she married the academic Orientalist, Karl Andreas. This was a few years later in 1887. She was then 26.  And they remained married until his death in 1930, at the age of 84.

In 1892, she published Ibsen’s Heroines, Hendrik Ibsen’s Frauengestalten, and two years later in 1894, her book on Nietzsche, Friedrich Nietzsche in seinen Werken.  By this time Nietzsche was in an asylum for the mentally insane.  In the next ten years Lou wrote another six books and fifty articles. With the Ibsen and the Nietzsche books alone she achieved literary fame. We ought to note, in passing, as we shall be talking about Lou’s feminism, that in the Ibsen book she analysed six of his plays in terms of the social and cultural captivity of women and their sometimes tragic and self-destructive attempts at freedom.  Ibsen’s plays dramatically pitted a woman’s conjugal duty against her freedom.  His plays were seen as fanning a revolutionary spirit and banned from theatres across Europe; however, private theatre companies like Bruno Wille’s in Berlin, where Lou was living at the time, shot up all over the place, and staged them instead. 

Ibsen’s theatre was realistic and in describing his female characters and their feminine predicaments in her book, Lou took him at his word, reading the characterisations as real and analysing them.  Lou wrote:

“I can neither base my life on models nor make of my life a model for anyone; instead, I will most certainly fashion my life in my own way, whatever may come of it.  With that, I need not represent any principle but something even more wonderful – something that resides within oneself and is warm and resounding life, something that is jubilant and wants out…”

Lou never sexually consummated her marriage with Andreas. They only had extra-marital relations.  Being married prevented them getting in too deep with their lovers; but this kind of marriage arrangement encouraged them to have lovers – which suited Lou more than Andreas, who actually didn’t like the arrangement, given what a femme fatale his wife was, but he didn’t have a choice.  In April 1897 Lou went from Berlin to Munich with her friend Frieda von Bülow, who was going to give a public lecture on her explorations in Africa.  In Munich Lou was introduced to a lot of people, a lot of men she hadn’t met before, but who had heard of her, among them, a 22 year old Austrian man who had just moved to Munich from Prague, who was introduced to her as a poet. His name was René Maria Rilke. 

He was a slight rather short and effeminate man with huge bulging eyes brushed back hair and a fuzzy little goatee beard.  Until this time, Lou had been celibate.  Her extra-marital affairs had not been sexually consummated either.  But this meeting would change her life.  Not only would this unlikely looking fellow break her sexual fast, not only would she re-baptise him, Rainer, rather than the girly René Maria, but he would become the greatest lyric poet in Europe and one of the greatest poets ever to write in German, and she would be right alongside him through his ascent, in fact, keeping him on the straight and narrow; she would be his soul-mate, his therapist, and most of all, his muse, until his death twenty-nine years later in 1926. 

Lou’s affair with Rilke lasted two and a half years, until she called a stop to it.  After that they corresponded and met from time to time.  The break worked for both of them. 

After the affair with Lou, Rilke married then as quickly separated.  During this period, Rilke had written to Lou in 1903 about working with the sculptor Rodin and how it was affecting his notion of work. It was on this subject, of the relation of artist to work that in a letter of August 10th 1903 Lou pointed out to Rilke that a poet’s relation to his material is quite different to Rodin’s, and necessarily so. The sculptor sculpts physical matter; the poet’s material is inward, Lou pointed out, at “the point that art and life become one”.  Her words helped to steer the poet in a mentoring kind of way. But she makes a powerful observation which is reflective, in a broad sense, I think, of her philosophy. She says this: “we must all seek our own combination, our own personal balance point between art’s life and life’s art.”  (Letters, p.75)  To do this, she says, we need to stand apart from ourself, in a sense, and we need solitude, “and indeed I could say of myself,” she continues, “that I (although no artist) have denied myself motherhood in response to the demands of both.” 

What Lou Salomé is talking about here, I think, is life-style.  On grounds of life-style, she eschewed motherhood, and also a conventional marriage – conventional relationships of any sort in fact.  This is her philosophy in a nutshell. 

Lou’s important work Die Erotik, (Eroticism), published in 1910, the year before she met Freud, sums up her thought of the previous decade or more, that is, the Rilke years, when they were collaborators on one another’s ideas.  They would remain intimate, but after Lou started training in psychoanalysis, her language would change. They would still be in love, but she would be less and less dependent upon him. She had found herself as a psycho-analyst.   Martin Buber first published Die Erotik in his serial journal Die Gesellschaft, which published monographs in social psychology.

Lou’s feminism is very much tied to her understanding of the erotic, given in her book. But reading her on the erotic and narcissistic, one must remember what we have said, that behind her notion of womanhood is the sense of the integral nature of art and life.  In Die Erotik, for Lou, sexual love, artistic creativity and religious fervour are three aspects of one life force, which Freud will call libido.  The erotic, the artistic and the religious are three ways we are possessed, and this possession we call “passion”.  To be passionate about religion, is to be possessed by the religious spirit, which religious persons, if they are Christian, might refer to as the holy spirit, or their religious vocation and so on.  Sometimes two aspects overlap, for instance the artist who chooses erotic themes and gets mixed up with his subject matter erotically, as in the case of the poet Baudelaire, or a painter like Toulouse Lautrec.  The passion for religion often expresses itself erotically, as in some of the veneration of the Virgin Mary, or pagan goddesses, or in tribal religion, in the sacrifice of virgins, or sacred prostitution, or totems and taboos of sexual nature.  In these ways the erotic, artistic and religious overlap or co-inhere with one another.

Lou’s philosophy was that underlying the libido, is a desire for union.  In other words, behind sexual attraction and the sexual urge, is a deeper unconscious longing for oneness.  Art, religion and sex are really about oneness. Sexual passion is really about union with one’s lover.  The religious passion is about oneness with God; achieving nirvana is about achieving unity with all that is or with nothing; religious union may be conceived in terms of a unity of being (God) or non-being (nirvana). In art, the oneness is with the work.  The work stands in relation to the soul of the artist more intimately than the artist’s everyday self.  The authenticity of the artist is in his or her work, not in what she wears or where she shops or the incidental matters of day-to-day living. 

These are conclusions that Lou had come to mainly through her own work, especially her fiction, because her fiction is very much like a mode of self-analysis, containing strongly biographical or autobiographical elements.  Her first novel, A Struggle for God, is like this, and a number of her other novels as well.  But alongside her thought of desire for union as the unconscious of religious, sexual and artistic passion, is a masochistic theme: a woman who while seeking freedom from constraints, like Ibsen’s heroines, also desires to be subjugated by a strong, even brutal, masculine will.

The tension between the man of iron will who can have his way with her and strict celibacy which allowed no man to have her, runs through her fictions, and in all probability, her fantasies.   In terms of the three-fold desire for union though, the erotic passion, the artistic passion and the religious passion, her fantasy might echo the tension and connection between the debauched woman of erotic passion and the holy maiden of religious passion, who we will call madonna, the holy woman, the woman set apart.   We can see in Lou, in her fiction, and perhaps her fantasy, mistress and madonna are held together in the unconscious life; and madonna is both the holy woman and the young maiden.  But because these passions, religious and unreligious belong to the same stem, the same life-force, they do not pare into a “split-personality”; for to separate mistress from maid or madonna is to think of them abstractly, not psychologically.  Psychologically, madonna and mistress form what Freud would later call a complex.  A woman can be torn by her passion in either direction, mistress or madonna.  To the eyes of society a woman may be a young maiden, or an old maid, while in her secret fantasy, being the mistress, or vice versa, being known as someone’s mistress while harbouring secret desire for the purity of spiritual holiness.  These tensions according to Lou Salomé can be found in real women, she found them in herself, and they indicate a friction between reality and fantasy in femaleness. In the description just given, a woman is both madonna and mistress – and of course this is the stuff of the psychoanalytical couch.  Another example of the tension between modes of femaleness may be taken from Lou’s biography. This is given by Lou’s switch from being Rilke’s lover to being his mentor.   Going by hints from Lou, Rilke was very physically forceful in sexual matters, belying his rather puny looks, so the switch would not have been easy.  Being Rilke’s mentor was more of a mothering role. This was a switch Rilke was able to make, because in fact his work needed a mother more than it needed a monogamous quasi-marriage.  But the inner experience here is the tension between mother and lover.

Alongside the mistress, the mother and the madonna as modes of femininity tied to a life of art and an art of life, is a fourth mode. This is the mode that “stands apart”, the scientific mode, which can look back at and describe the others.  In her own art, Lou would switch, after she met Freud, from semi-biographical and loosely autobiographical fictions, which are interior to the phenomenon they investigate and show it forth, like an art work, to the exterior mode of the scientific paper.  Scientific or psychoanalytical discourse enabled her to stand apart from herself in her modes of femaleness.  Perhaps her true self, then, was the analyst.

Lou detested what in her day was known as “the blue stocking”, this was a type of woman determined to do and be everything a man can do and be. For Lou, this was to deny the essential difference.  Such stridency in a woman was a problem Lou argued about with her friend Frieda von Bülow, the explorer, who had helped found an African state and also founded hospitals in Zanzibar and Dar el Salaam.  They got on well, but had opposed views on feminism.  For Lou, a woman had a softness which bound sex to gender, and this natural softness and ability to be passive was not just so in the physical sense, although it may well be physical too, but it indicated a receptivity and inwardness that a man doesn’t naturally have, at least not the same extent.  For Lou, if a woman lost her essential psychological softness, then she lost her femininity, and this was a problem that she saw with a lot of what passed for feminist liberation. A woman’s ambitions, Lou thought, should be subordinate to her sex.  Lou would argue about all this vociferously with Frieda von Bülow, who held the opposite opinion.  In von Bülow’s mind, a woman who forfeits her ambitions for some notion of sex, has, roughly speaking, forfeited herself.  We might note that this difference between Lou Salomé and Freida von Bülow is a difference within the structure of historical feminism. 

Lou saw being a mistress as positive and creative. She saw the tension between being a mistress and a mother.  She eschewed motherhood at the same time as she pursued dangerous liaisons with various brilliant and well-to-do men.    At the same time she was a symbolic mother, to Rilke, and more actually, to her husband’s illegitimate daughter, who she spoilt as if she were her own.  At the same time Lou was a madonna in the sense of a hieratic figure, celibate until her late 30s, regarded with awe and honour in Freud’s circle, where her old connection with Nietzsche was legend. Lou held the three parts of womanhood (as she saw it) together: the mistress, the mother and the madonna; just as she held together the three passions that rule a life, erotic, artistic, and religious.  In this she remained true to her advice to Rilke about keeping our own personal balance point between art’s life and life’s art.

Lou learnt more about this “personal balance point” years later, when she had begun her studies with Freud.

Her study of the myth of Narcissus, which she began with Rilke, led Lou to realise that behind the mistress, the mother and the madonna, was a psychological truth, captured in the myth.  Lou thought the myth of Narcissus principally through Rilke’s poem of that title, which he sent her, handwritten, in July 1913.   In the myth of Narcissus Lou discerned the double direction of the soul: self-love and self-surrender.  

According to Lou, in the myth, Narcissus sees his reflection in the water, but he also sees it in two aspects. First, he experiences that he is not an integral part of this world, for he can see the stones beneath the water, indifferent to him, and in an altogether different element, which he is outside of and to which his image is surrendered. His image floats in another world.  Second, simultaneously, he sees his image and experiences love of it, self-love, which instantly enchants him, backlit as he is by the blue of heaven.

It becomes evident to Lou that every person has this double-direction in the soul: self-love and self-surrender and these form an unconscious tension deep within a man or a woman.  But the deep unconscious tension is not the same for a man as it is for a woman. Lou’s starting point is sexual difference here.  The tension between self-love and self-surrender have a meaning for a woman whether mistress, mother or madonna, that the tension cannot have for a man.  The mother is where the tension is best resolved.  The mistress and madonna both surrender themselves, the mistress to her master or lover, the madonna to God or her religious ideal.  But their self-surrender outweighs their self-love, therefore such a woman is carried away by her womanliness. This is not the case for the mother. The mother surrenders totally to her child, but this child is also a continuation of the mother and embodies, or re-embodies the self-love of the mother.  For the mother self-love and self-surrender intersect in a way that they don’t for the mistress or the madonna; for the mistress is not mirrored in her lover or the madonna in her God as perfectly as the mother is mirrored in her child. Her position on this question of femaleness with regard to motherhood is another reason that Lou is rejected, or suppressed, by ideological feminism.  

Femaleness, in her view, has a biological dimension, it has social construction mounted on it, but essentially, it is psychological.  The famous photo taken in 1911 of the founding members of what would become the International Psychoanalytical Society, at the Weimar Congress, which has Freud and Jung standing side by side, and Lou seated in front of Freud, in furs, is symbolic of the softness which Lou thought was an essential female quality.  No woman in her right mind, but a man, would make weapons, hunt, kill and skin the animal; but when the dirty work was done and the fur was beautiful, then the man would give it to a woman and she would receive it with pleasure and its enveloping softness would lend itself to her own.

Matthew Del Nevo
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