View from Monte Commune towards Capri (photo: Philippe Vandenbroeck)

On a Ridge Between Two Seas

Nietzsche in Sorrento (1876–1877)

Soundtrack: Ben Lukas Boysen/

In October last year, I travelled to the Sorrento peninsula, a narrow, rocky crest — at its highest point almost 1.500 meter above sea level — that juts decisively forward into the Mediterranean. It separates the Bay of Naples in the north from the Gulf of Salerno in the south. The north-eastern horizon is dominated by the elegant shape of Mount Vesuvius. The island of Capri lies off the peninsula’s western tip. The area has been inhabited since the earliest times.

I was on a literary pilgrimage, following the traces of Friedrich Nietzsche. I was 19 when I catastrophically ran into the German philosopher. I still see myself sitting on that couch, a late autumn afternoon, reading The Birth of Tragedy. That vision of a ‘vital pessimism’ struck me like a bolt from the blue. In the years following that fateful encounter I continued to engage with his work. Nietzsche’s reputation as ‘philosopher with the hammer’ became uncomfortably tangible for me; it felt like my impressionable self was being flattened by a diligent squadron of bulldozers.

I never got rid of Nietzsche. He impregnated me with a fundamental drive for self-questioning and self-perfection. Later I discovered another side of the man. Behind the pugilistic façade hid a bodhisattva, a powerful and fragile human being on the threshold of enlightenment. The residents of Genova, who encountered the philosopher on his daily walks, referred to him as ‘il piccolo santo’, the little saint. This intense spiritual energy condensed itself in his amor fati, this most radical and dry-eyed commitment to life: “My formula for human greatness is amor fati: that one wants nothing to be different, not in the future, not in the past, not for all eternity. Not only to endure what is necessary, still less to conceal it, but to love it …”

Mount Vesuvius, seen from the Sorrento peninsula (photo: Philippe Vandenbroeck)

Nietzsche’s connection with Sorrento goes back to the winter of 1876–77, a critical juncture in his life. As a young intellectual Nietzsche had sided with the artistic project of Richard Wagner. It is difficult to overstate the magnetic attraction of Wagner on the cultural and political elite of his day. Composer, dramatist, philosopher, preacher, business man — he was a supreme influencer on a vastly ambitious mission: to put in place the foundation of a rejuvenated German culture. Wagner became a personal mentor to the junior Nietzsche. But gradually the latter grew disenchanted with the Wagnerian project. The disenchantment turned into positive disgust at the opening of the Festspielhaus in Bayreuth, in August 1876. The opera house was built on Wagner’s specifications for the exclusive performance of his works (as it is until the present day). It was meant to be a place of pilgrimage for the revolutionary forces in the fledgling German empire. But Nietzsche saw in it only a travesty. He thought Wagner, out of vanity and sheer ambition, had sold out to the bourgeois establishment. What should have been a triumph for the partnership between Wagner and Nietzsche drove them irrevocably apart. Bayreuth, 1876, is when Nietzsche dropped the mask and gave free reign to his anti-Wagner, anti-metaphysics and anti-establishment sentiments. But it left the young philosopher devastated. The mental upheavals, compounded by chronic ill-health, prompted him to ask for an extended leave from his university post in Basel. For the very first time, 32 years old, he travelled to the South, to rebuild his strength and to give birth to an entirely new philosophy.

Indeed, the Sorrento winter proved to be pivotal point in Nietzsche’s development as a thinker. The break with Wagner was painful. But it also allowed him to acknowledge the half-truths in his philosophy up to that point. There is a very clear statement in his papers from that time: “I want to declare expressly to the readers of my earlier works that I have abandoned the metaphysical-aesthetic views that essentially dominated them: they are pleasant, but untenable.” In Sorrento, Nietzsche wrote a major part of his new book Things Human, All Too Human. It constituted a decisive break with his past, in tone, composition and substance. It signals Nietzsche’s acceptance of his vocation as a philosopher who ruthlessly pursues truth and authenticity.

This personal crisis is reflected in a guiding image that pervades his middle period works: the ‘free spirit’ (der Freigeist). The Free Spirit is a person who is uncompromisingly in search of truth and freedom from false ideas. This entails inevitable conflict with conventional morality that is seen to compromise our true potential as human beings. The Free Spirit is an Einzelgänger, a contrarian who challenges the norms of the day. Nietzsche wanted to create a space for a ‘mature freedom of spirit, which is equally self-mastery and discipline of the heart, and permits access to many and contradictory modes of thought, (…), to that overabundance of formative, curative, molding and restorative forces which is precisely the sign of great health — an overabundance that grants to the free spirit the dangerous privilege of living experimentally and of being allowed to offer itself to adventure: the master-prerogative of the free spirit!” (HH I Preface 4). These reckless ideas germinated during that reflective winter on the penisola sorrentina.

The road toward Punta Campanella (photo: Philippe Vandenbroeck)

Paolo D’Iorio has produced a fascinating study about Nietzsche’s sojourn in Sorrento. The book is important as it reframes the developmental arc of the philosopher’s thinking. D’Iorio dismisses the three-phase chronology that is frequently used to summarise Nietzsche’s intellectual development and which relegates the ‘positivist’, free spirit middle period to the status of an intermezzo between the dithyrambic fervour of the early Birth of Tragedy and the late Zarathustra. Instead, he argues that Nietzsche’s philosophical opening gambit, as evidenced by his writings before his Basel appointment, took its cue from the materialism of the ancient Greek philosophers such as Democritus. Seen from that vantage point, it is Nietzsche’s early 1870s metaphysics of art that is out of tune with the long-term guiding spirit of his philosophical project.

This is a revealing point, but the book offers more. It gives readers a feeling for the way Nietzsche’s thinking emerged from the images and sensations that he absorbed during his sojourn. At Sorrento, Nietzsche spent his days mostly in the company of just three friends: his hostess Malwida von Meysenbug, his dear friend Paul Rée and the young Albert Brenner. They passed the time reading, writing, walking, and indulging in excursions along the coast and on the surrounding islands. It gave Nietzsche plenty of exposure to the genius loci of his Mediterranean abode. It is moving to see how hurried jottings — numerous examples included in the book as facsimiles — were polished and deepened in Nietzsche’s drafts and correspondence. As an example, this is one of the entries in the Sorrento notebooks:

A bay on the peninsula (photo: Philippe Vandenbroeck)

“Sunlight glistens on the ground and shows what the waves flow over: craggy rocks. What matters is how much breath you have to plunge into this element: if you have a lot of it, then you’ll be able to see the ground. The glistening sunshine of knowledge cascades through the flux of things, down to their ground.”

And this is how it appears in Human, All Too Human:

“The free spirited, men who live for the sake of knowledge alone, will find they soon attain the external goal of their life, their definitive position in relation to society and the state, and will easily be content with, for example, a minor office or an income that just enables them to live; for they will organize their life in such a way that a great transformation of external circumstances, even an overturning of the political order, does not overturn their life with it. Upon all these things they expend as little energy as possible, so that they may dive down into the element of knowledge with all their accumulated strength and as it were with a deep breath. Thus they may hope to dive deep and perhaps get a view of the ground at the bottom.”

Images emerge that assume a role as a motto theme in Nietzsche’s later works. He found inspiration for the Blessed Isles, prominent in Zarathustra, in the Isle of Ischia, visible from the terrace of the Villa Rubinacci. D’Iorio devotes a full chapter to the bells of Genoa, a potent, aurally mediated epiphany that struck Nietzsche during his journey back to Basel. It’s a startling image that resonates through the whole of Nietzsche’s mature oeuvre.

D’Iorio’s study persuasively shows how intense visual observations and sensorial experiences ‘en plein air’ were slowly refined into philosophical ideas. By doing so he reveals the geopoetic core of Nietzsche’s thinking. What is geopoetics? Kenneth White, a Scottish poet and essayist and latter-day Nietzschean, puts it as follows:

The island of Ischia (photo: Philippe Vandenbroeck)

“Geopoetics is concerned with ‘worlding’. In my semantics, ‘world’ emerges from a contact between the human mind and the things, the lines, the rhythms of the earth, the person in relation to the planet. When this contact is sensitive, subtle, intelligent, you have ‘a world’ (a culture) in the strong, confirming and enlightening sense of the word. When that contact is insensitive, simplistic and stupid, you don’t have a world at all, you have a non-world, a pseudo-culture, a dictatorial enclosure, or a mass-mess. Geopoetics is concerned with developing sensitive and intelligent contact, and with working out original ways to express that contact.”

Indeed, Nietzsche’s thinking cannot be dissociated from his nomadic lifestyle, his pedestrianism and the intimate contact with marine and alpine nature. His philosophy would eventually take the shape of a dynamic, earthbound cosmology of which Zarathustra is the most radical and deeply felt articulation. In his reading of Thus Spoke Zarathustra, the Dutch philosopher Henk Manschot discerns the contours of a ‘terra-sophy’ developed around the central question of how man relates to Earth. Nietzsche fundamentally challenged the modern project of ‘disenchantment’ and de-coupling between man and cosmos. Earth for Nietzsche is Menschen-Erde (‘human-earth’), the immanent site of human experience, rather than some abstract totality governed by a Hegelian ‘Spirit’. Gary Shapiro has drawn attention to the inescapable political implications of this conception of earth. Geopoetics encompasses geopolitics. Shaping the future of the Earth should not be a state monopoly. Intelligent contact between human beings and their planetary habitat cultivates an openness to time and circumstance that enables us to take active part in the ‘great events’ that shape our habitat.

Now let’s return to my journey. Our base was Vico Equense, in the shadow of the Monte Faito, a high peak in the mountain range that forms the backbone of the peninsula. The range’s name — Monti Lattari — derives from the flocks of goats grazing in the area, which provide a good quality of milk (lactis in Latin). Sorrento has become a cancerous tourism outgrowth and is best avoided. The Villa Rubinacci, where Nietzsche and his friends resided, still exists but the premises seem to be given to a pizza restaurant (“The food is average. Prices a bit high” according to one guest who shared impressions online.) We walked. Starting from Termini we descended on an old Roman road towards Punta Campanella. Our excursion was carefully timed to benefit optimally from solitude and solar splendor. Indeed, just as we arrived at the Saracen Tower which marks the westernmost point of the peninsula, the sun sank behind the island of Capri. Further away the husky contours of the volcanic island of Ischia seemed to be afloat. A time machine. The atmosphere was pregnant with mythical resonances. It is said that this is the place where Ulysses was lured by the Sirens. There is ample archaeological evidence that the site hosted an ancient temple dedicated to Athena, later Minerva. It was so easy to leap over centuries here and to partake of that fragrance of older, wilder age. It’s that atmosphere that pervades the whole of Nietzsche’s work, from Homer’s Contest to Zarathustra. It was pitch dark when we arrived back at our starting point.

Capri from Punta Campanella (Photo: Philippe Vandenbroeck)

The next day we set off from the village of Arola and made our way up on the slopes of the Monte Commune. When we reached the crest, the breadth and luminosity of the spectacle made us gasp for air. The Gulf of Salerno deep below at our feet, the coast of Campania unfurling over a boundless horizon. Behind us: Naples, the bay, Vesuvius. We were on a ridge between two seas. Kenneth White summons this very setting in relation to the whole of Nietzsche’s personality and philosophical project: “Looking at him now from afar. I see Nietzsche as walking a high ridge between two seas. The ‘high ridge’ is the one he evoked in The Birth of Tragedy, that ‘ridge line’ that must be maintained if culture is not to subside into total confusion and platitude, if fertile and brilliant contact is to be kept up between the past and future.” The ridge is a line of tension between key spheres in the philosopher’s universe: art and knowledge, poetry and philosophy, East and West, homelessness and grounding, serenity and madness. That day I saw Nietzsche walking on that splendid ridge too. ‘Il piccolo santo’. The bodhisattva. Seeking enlightenment and exposing the fatal weaknesses in our culture with a ruthless energy that would destroy him.

“Remain faithful to the earth, my brothers, with the power of your virtue. Let your gift-giving love and your knowledge serve the meaning of the earth. Thus I beg and beseech you. Lead back to earth the virtue that flew away, as I do — back to the body, back to life, that may give earth a meaning, a human meaning.”

Friedrich Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra. On the Gift-Giving Virtue.

Further reading

Rebecca Bamford, Ed., 2015, Nietzsche’s Free Spirit Philosophy. Rowman & Littlefield.

Paolo D’Iorio, 2016, Nietzsche’s Journey to Sorrento. Genesis of the Philosophy of the Free Spirit. University of Chicago Press.

Henk Manschot, 2016, Blijf de aarde trouw. Pleidooi voor een Nietzscheaanse terrasofie. Uitgevery Vantilt.

Gary Shapiro, 2016, Nietzsche’s Earth. Great Events, Great Politics. University of Chicago Press.

Kenneth White, 2004, ‘On a Ridge Between Two Seas’, in: The Wanderer and his Charts. Essays on Cultural Renewal.

Facilitator @ shiftN ⎹ Post-disciplinary researcher @ Newrope, ETH Zürich ⎹ How to create spaces were life is able to unfold, and is experienced as life?