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Books: An Effusive Vampire

4 minute read

MY SISTER, MY SPOUSE (320 pp.)—H. F. Peters—Norton ($5).

“I shall never be faithful to men,” the great Russian beauty Lou Andreas-Salomé confided to her diary. It was a vow she kept. Her passions, she felt, were too grand for any one man, even a Nietzsche or a Rilke. When she was deprived of a lover one night, she compensated by eating one of his letters. One man once favored by Lou, recounting the affair 50 years later, was still dazzled. “There was something terrifying about her embrace,” he recalled; “elemental, archaic. She was completely amoral and yet very pious, a vampire and a child.”

Lou was one of those stormy, romantic women of the 19th century who always agonized over love: Should it be spiritual or should it be physical? At first it was strictly spiritual. On her “intellectual awakening” at 17, Lou left St. Petersburg in search of freedom to live and to write.

In Rome she met a philosopher named Paul Ree and his friend Friedrich Nietzsche, who wrote on meeting Lou: “I am greedy for her kind of souls. In the near future I am going to rape one.”

A Wife’s Revenge. Nietzsche was soon tamed. Lou took him on soulful walks through the woods, discussing the great themes of life; but whenever Nietzsche proposed an earthier relationship, Lou balked. She soon left him for the more placid Ree; the embittered Nietzsche, so Peters says, wrote his prose-poem Thus Spake Zarathustra to express his resentment of all womankind. Ree, however, fared no better than Nietzsche. For five years he lived with Lou as “brother and sister” and was known among his friends as Lou’s “maid of honor.” Nothing better expressed the relationship of the two philosophers to Lou than a photograph they once had taken. Nietzsche and Ree are harnessed to a cart in which a grinning Lou is brandishing a whip.

One of Lou’s many suitors, a German philologist named Friedrich Carl Andreas, was shrewd enough to realize that Lou could be won only by shock. When she refused him. he stabbed himself. Shaken. Lou married him. But she had her revenge. In the 43 years she lived with him as his wife, she never consummated the marriage.

Instead, she took a series of lovers, most famous of whom was Poet Rainer Maria Rilke. At the time, she was a fullblown 36. Rilke only 22. but the pair exchanged murky, passionate letters. Wrote Lou: “I was your wife for years because you were the first reality, body and man indistinguishably one, the incontestable fact of life.” Rilke returned the compliment: “The transforming experience which then seized me at a hundred places at once emanated from the great reality of your being.” But Lou inevitably tired of Rilke’s explosive temperament. She finally noted in her diary: “Rainer must go.”

Freudian Phase. After breaking with him, Lou took on several more lovers, had an abortion, finally went to Vienna to see what psychoanalysis could do for her. There she attended Freud’s seminars and seduced one of Freud’s disciples. But Lou’s Vienna phase was her last sexual fling. She spent her post-Freudian years with her husband in sublimated happiness in Germany, where she died in 1937.

Biographer Peters has packed all these racy details into this colorful biography. Great thinkers like Nietzsche make hard work for biographers; the most important parts of their lives occur in the blank spaces when they were lost in thought. Chatty women like Lou are a biographer’s joy; they record their brightest incidents, and posterity is spared the long silences in which no thought occurred at all.

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