For a little while now I’ve been interested in finding out more about Lou Andreas-Salomé, muse extraordinaire to Nietzsche, Rilke and Freud. I wondered what kind of woman could possibly enchant so many heavyweight literary thinkers, and how could she manage to cover so much ground, as it were, muse-wise? Imagine my delight, then, on coming across Francine Prose’s The Lives of the Muses, a biography of nine inspirational women including Elizabeth Siddell, Hester Thrale, Gala Dali, Charis Weston, and Lou Andreas-Salomé. Prose is a wonderful writer; wry and witty, insightful and lucid, informative and enlightening and I’m enjoying this book so much it’s going to set an awfully high standard for subsequent biographies.
In its earliest conception in classical Greek writings, the relationship between the artist and the muse was one of reciprocity; the woman acting as intermediary for the Gods offered the man access to memory and knowledge that he lacked. The artist would subsequently produce an autonomous text that was not about the female muse, but which celebrated her involvement in the act of creativity. Such an exchange implied a lack on the part of the man that could only be filled by a momentary loss of self-possession as he was inhabited by the power and the insight of the muse. In the historical movement from Classical Greece to Augustan Rome, the poet shrugged off his dependency on some higher power to inspire him, and started to assume that his own creativity was sufficient. Poetic genius became innate, rather than inspired, and the muse was more of a guardian angel that a divine conduit. By the Romantic age, however, the best muse was proving to be a dead one. For a while, the woman was excluded from creativity and the story was all about male mastery.
By the end of the nineteenth century, the figure of the muse was evolving again, and Lou Andreas-Salomé provided an intriguing example of her new incarnation. Lou was a writer and managed to support herself with the proceeds from it – a rare accomplishment in those times. She was a beautiful, unconventional, intelligent woman whose mind was firmly fixed on distant ideals of God, the self, consciousness and love, which she managed to conflate together in her many affairs with equally passionate and spiritual writers. Lou’s brilliance, however, was to recognise the power of the triangular relationship. She was already enjoying a platonic, spiritually elevated relationship with the philosopher Paul Rée when she met Nietzsche (Rée introduced them), an ageing, mentally troubled, syphilitic curmudgeon. Lou whipped up their fervour for truth, love and beauty, bought into the messianic beliefs that inspired their work, whilst playing the men off against one another. The trio eventually collapsed into bitter recriminations, the most vindictive coming from Nietzsche’s over-protective sister, Elizabeth, but Lou had already moved on, marrying the philology professor, Friedrich Carl Andreas, with whom she was to share a half-century of unconsummated marriage. It wasn’t long before Lou’s own publications had attracted the notice of a young, overwrought poet, Rainer Maria Rilke (it was Lou who persuaded him to change his name from Réné to Rainer) and yet again the triangular structure was in place. Later on in life, when Lou moved into the newly-formed psychoanalytic circle and became one of Freud’s most important interlocutors, she had the insight to play him off against his rival, Alfred Adler. It proved repeatedly to be an unbeatable strategy in drawing fervent male attention onto herself and ensuring that it was sustained by the fires of male jealousy and possessiveness.
But Lou’s talents were greater than this. What Francine Prose suggests she possessed by the truckload was an ability to empathise with the artist and his work that was as powerful as the most addictive drug:
‘Both Nietzsche and Rilke, it will be noted, commenced their most creative and important work in the period immediately following their separation from Lou. Perhaps it was just coincidence, and yet it seems clear that Lou (whom Freud would later refer to as “the great understander”) offered both men a generous, deceptively unlimited abundance of understanding, admiration, encouragement, a sense of common mission, a vision of the future, and the explicit or implicit promise that they would enter that future together. The abrupt and shocking retraction of that promise was (as much as Lou herself) the muse that inspired them to seek out the consolations and distractions of work, and to re-create, alone and for themselves, some version of what they had counted on sharing with Lou. When Lou ceased understanding, it was necessary for them both to make the world understand, in her place.’
All of which makes me think about the odd conjunction of man, woman and artistic creativity. On the one hand there’s a series of ill-starred relationships between difficult, unstable men, and a manipulative woman in love with idealism, on the other there’s the creation of some of the most significant literary work of the twentieth century. The life experience – messy, painful, fraught, overheated, becomes transformed into wisdom, beauty, originality, insight. All of which begs the question: if they had lived sane and emotionally reasonable lives, would they have created such great art? Is there inevitably a price to pay for creativity, and is it the loss of a balanced, harmonious life? The only person who emerged well from these turbulent struggles was Lou herself, who remained always the agent of her own destiny and the unchallenged creator of herself as a joyfully generous muse, despite the anguish she caused.