In her wonderfully gripping new biography of Nietzsche – the type you stay in bed all Sunday just to finish – Sue Prideaux casts doubt on this story. Indeed, the horse only makes an appearance in the legend 11 years later – in 1900, the year of Nietzsche’s death – when a journalist interviewed Fino, the landlord, about the events of the day. And only in the 1930s – more than 40 years later – do we hear about the horse being beaten and Nietzsche breaking down in tears; this time in an interview with Fino’s son, Ernesto, who would have been about 14 at the time.
…Prideaux casts even more doubt on the cause usually attributed to this insanity: syphilis. Popularised by Thomas Mann’s novel Doctor Faustus, which has a Nietzsche-like character contract syphilis in a brothel, the evidence simply doesn’t stack up. Although diagnosed as such when admitted to the asylum in Basle, Nietzsche showed none of symptoms now associated with it: no tremor, faceless expression or slurred speech. If he was at an advanced stage of dementia caused by syphilis, Nietzsche should have died within the next two years; five max. He lived for another 11. The two infections he told the doctors about were for gonorrhoea, contracted when he was a medical orderly during the Franco-Prussian War.
Instead Prideaux puts forward the – correct – view that Nietzsche probably died of a brain tumour, the same “softening of the brain” that had taken away his father, a rural pastor, when Nietzsche was a boy. Indeed both sides of the family showed signs of neurological problems, or of suffering of “nerves”, as one put it at the time.
You know, it’s getting to the point where I murmur a little traveller’s prayer before getting on the web each day: please let me get where I’m going without encountering any more stray books I feel compelled to pick up and bring home. I have a fair amount of Nietzscheana on my shelves, especially for a non-scholarly amateur, but I don’t recall ever reading a debunking of these legends surrounding his mental collapse before. Could it be that there is still more to learn here? A biography so gripping you want to stay in bed all day to finish it? Sigh. Well, as Zarathustra said sorrowfully, I recognize my lot. Thus my destiny wants it. Well, I am ready.