Notes on a statement by Nietzsche.
Probably the most quoted words from Nietzsche’s work go like this: “Are you going to the women? Don’t forget the whip!” “Du gehst zu Frauen? Vergiß die Peitsche nicht!” Those words, behind which the exclamation point alone already worked like a little whip, seem to suit the mouth of a woman-hater like Arthur Schopenhauer, whom Nietzsche admired for a long time and one of the last philosophers to have claimed that it is woman’s natural destiny to be obedient. When she isn’t so voluntarily, she must be tamed, and the whip is the appropriate instrument for it.
Understood that way, Nietzsche’s statement can quickly and easily be placed in a long tradition of male dominance and virile toughness. The intention of these notes are to question the self-evidence of this understanding by placing the statement in its context and trying to do it some sort of hermeneutic justice. To do so i’m assuming that here, too, as is usually the case with Nietzsche, the situation is more complex than it seems at first sight.
The first task is fairly simple. The infamous word can be found in the first part of ‘Also sprach Zarathustra’, written in the fall of 1882 and published in 1883. The dates will turn out to be of importance. The chapter that ends with these words has the somewhat forced naughty title ‘About old and young little women’, ‘von alten and jungen Weiblein’, and seems to paraphrase the title of Schopenhauer’s ‘über die Weiber’ from the second part of ‘Parerga und Paralipomena’.
Zarathustra is talking and tells that he was asked, why he was sneaking so skittishly through the slumber and what he was so cautiously hiding under his cloak. Is it a treasure he received, a new born child, or is he out thieving? Yes, he says, it is a treasure, a small truth that he carries on him. But it is as uncontrolled as a little child, and if he doesn’t hold his hand to its mouth, it will scream far too loud.
He then tells that he met a little old lady who said to him that for once, he shouldn’t talk to men, but to a woman about women. She was after all old enough to immediately forget again everything he said. Zarathustra then puts a page worth of wisdom, too much to quote here, about real men, therefore warriors, and real women, therefor the mothers of soldiers, on display. “And women should be obedient, so to find a depth in her surface.”
Now I quote: “Then the little old lady answered me: ‘Lots of courtly things did Zarathustra say, and especially for her young enough for them. Curious that is. Zarathustra barely knows women, yet still he is right, when it concerns women. Is this the case, because nothing is impossible with women? And now, as a token of gratitude, you have to accept a small truth. After all, i’m old enough for it! Wrap it in your cloak and hold your had in front of its mouth; otherwise it screams far too loud.’
‘Give me, woman (‘Weib’) your small truth, said I’. And thus spoke the little old lady: ‘Are you going to the women? Don’t forget the whip!’
Thus Nietzsche, in a context that doesn’t seem to let any misunderstanding in existence about who is talking here: Nietzsche himself, his character Zarathustra, or the old lady, a character of his character, therefore Nietzsche to the third degree. In any case, we cannot say that it isn’t Nietzsche talking. ‘Also sprach Zarathustra’ is completely his own text and Nietzsche thought of this text as his main work. Zarathustra speaks the language of Nietzsche and he proclaims his message. In that aspect, he can sooner be compared to the figure of Socrates in Plato’s dialogues than to the main character in a novel or a play.
Decisive is that Zarathustra is contradicted or schooled in this chapter, and that he cherishes the result of this as a valuable wisdom. The old lady must have the pretension to tell a deep truth, enigmatic in its formulation, easily misunderstood as a loud cry, and to be handled carefully. This has been announced already at the beginning of the chapter.
It is not very probable that the old lady only wants to acknowledge Zarathustra’s statements concisely. That would not be very enigmatic. Without any tension in regards to the previous, the statement remains a far too simple a summary and that would make the caution with which it is made nonsensical. The old lady only makes her statement after Zarathustra has proclaimed his wisdoms, but it is difficult to plainly call the statement a ‘truth’. After all, it doesn’t claim anything, but asks a question and gives an encouragement: then don’t forget the whip. That encouragement can only be considered a wisdom, if there is a truth or wisdom connected to the whip that is about to get lost.
The lady therefore did not say: “Don’t forget to bring the whip to tame those women with it’. There is no question of bringing at all and of taming neither. The intention of ‘going to the women’ isn’t elucidated, and there is no reason to assume that this is, for example, about visiting a brothel, in which case the whip would allow for an easy phallic interpretation.
It is likely that the woman is portrayed as old and wise to precisely at this point guarantee a bit of detachment.
We can therefore assume that the woman is talking about dealing with women in general. And when ‘forgetting’ does not have to mean ‘to not think about bringing’, the only remaining or the most obvious meaning is ‘to not lose the memory of something’, ‘to hold the truth of a prior experience in your mind and cherish it like a treasure’. And apparently it concerns a truth with a somewhat esoteric character here, one best served if it remains the object of attention without it being proclaimed with too much emphasis.
Understood that way, the enigmatic words of the wise old lady don’t mean the women want to be suppressed by men, like Zarathustra had suggested in his inexperience. The words are enigmatic and secret because they contain a truth that is under threat of being forgotten: that women, just to speak in the same category for the time being, occasionally handle the whip, the slab or the slipper to tame men and to keep them in line. The precious truth is then on second reading just a reversal of what Zarathustra had just proclaimed.
It is worthwhile to pay some attention to this possibility. There is moreover a clue to be found, that this interpretation is absolutely not nonsensical. Nietzsche, as we can assume, worked on this text in the summer of 1882. In that summer he had made acquaintance with the Russian girl Lou Salomé and he had fallen in love with her. He had asked her to marry him, but she had discretely made it understood that she didn’t feel that way. From their letters it shows that Nietzsche did his best to introduce this sister soul to his work and he inundated her with notes from it.
There is a well-known and slightly embarrassing photo from 1882, found in the archives of Lou Salomé, in which Nietzsche, together with his friend Paul Rée, is hitched to a cart, a ladder car that on this occasion had to service as a victory cart or a chariot. On that cart Lou is seated. With some effort she seems to balance herself on the standing edge of the cart. She has a little whip in her right hand, apparently to spur on the pair of philosophers to obedience or hurry.
The thought that this concerns a simple and spontaneous holiday snap cannot even arise in us. In 1882 the exposure of a photo was too long to make facile snapshots. For everything you’d have to pose. And of course there wasn’t accidentally a chariot or ladder cart available. Everything, up to the painted décor with the Jungfrau in the background, points to a careful arrangement of the scene and that the threesome is firmly posing in the direction of the camera and audience.
It is fairly obvious that whoever handles the whip can be suspected to have taken charge. In her memoirs, Lou Salomé herself said that Nietzsche orchestrated the tableau down to the details, for example the lilac branch on the whip, and that Paul Rée was resisting quite a bit.2But Curt Paul Janz adds to that in his monumental Nietzsche biography: “Really it was Lou who wanted to tie both men in front on the cart and both the philosophers complied.”That is how the woman born for obedience was once again ‘die Herrin der Herren’ (the mistress over masters), and it remains unclear, in which head the lines from Wagner’s ‘Walküre’ were buzzing that Janz quotes here: “Fricka naht, deine frau im wagen mit Widdergespann. Hei, wie die gold’ne geißel sie schwingt.”3 (“Fricka approaches, your wife in a car pulled by rams. Hey, how she swings the golden scourge!”)
The gentlemen are therefore sniggering a little at this drastic reversal of roles. Rée seems to be very embarrassed indeed, while the master of the Zarathustra looks like he has decided he finds it funny. All together the image sooner makes a pious than a sensual impression.
And is it really a whip that the girl is holding? It looks more like a scourge or a karwats, an instrument of chastising, also of one’s own body. Which frisky flesh is being chastised here and what could be the relation between this chastisement and the subjection of the woman to the man or vice versa? Which lesson is the spectator taught in this allegory?
Both the pose as the composition can evoke the suggestion that a famous depiction is being parodied here. But also the thought may rise that both classicists wanted to playfully portray the story by Herodotus about Cleobis and Biton, who brought their mother, priestess of Hera, with an ox cart to the temple. That thought doesn’t provide many leads for an interpretation of the tableau and mostly: it forgets the whip.
It is not impossible that the tableau in Luzern wants to evoke memories of the painting by Annibale Carracci that Nietzsche admired, ‘the triumph of Bacchus’.4 The god, or allegorically explained, the Dionysian, lets himself be pulled, surrounded by enthusiastic supporters, in a cart drawn by panthers. But it is dubious that the woman in the photo would play Bacchus or the Dionysian, and the men wild animals. It is more obvious to think of a beast of burden or a draft animal, to leave to woman for all eternity the woman, and mostly to not forget the whip.
That whip was, according to a tradition that has its comical sides, long before Lou Salomé, handled by Phyllis, a lady from the circles of Alexander the Great. According to a late story, she wanted to teach Aristotle, tutor of the great conqueror, a lesson in an area where he was as inconversant as Zarathustra, that of dealing with women. Phyllis managed to get such power over the philosopher, that he let her mount him as an animal.
The story fits in with lots of other myths and sagas in which, according to Nietzsche’s contemporary Johann Jakob Bachofen, contain the remains of an old gynaecocracy, or in which women take revenge for suppression and maltreatment. For example, that’s how tough guy Heracles was tamed by the Lydic Omphale, who took from him his attributes, club and lion skin, to decorate herself with them, and who threatened him with the karwats.5
In countless images the situation of the humiliated philosopher is depicted to the audience. In a woodcarving by Hans Baldung Grien from 1515, Phyllis sits, not astride, but like an amazon, on the back of a crawling Aristotle, and holds in one hand a whip or karwats, and in the other the bit she has put on the ancient sage. He too does not look happy or frisky, but sooner totally washed out.
A closer comparison between the wood carving from 1515 and the photo from 1882 shows that Lou too holds in her left hand a sort of bit or bridle, to which the reins of the span are attached. Those reins in turn have been attached in a fairly dilettante way to the arms of the pulling couple, as though it were strands. The comparison also brings to light that the lady in the so-called chariot, just like Phyllis on her mount, is in the Amazon position, as though she isn’t carrying out the regime over two mounts, but over one mount. Demands of composition and watching the birdy do not explain this detail: this is the depiction of an Amazon, a ruling woman.
So if Nietzsche in his explanations about little women was leaning on his iconographic memory and if the photo from that same year is a product of staging, then it seems to sooner qualify for the painful tableau of Aristotle and Phyllis than for the triumphal march of Bacchus.
In the meantime, one more similarity has to be pointed out. Both the woman in the photo and Phyllis in the wood carving seem to ready the whip to viciously eviscerate with it, but at the same time, in their pose the distance between the whip and the span is a big as is possible. They keep the karwats more in reserve than in preparation, and remind the span or the mount more of its existence than that they are preparing to actually use it. They seem to use the whip, in the picture adorned with flowers, more as a symbolic and iconographic attribute than as an instrument of subjugation or chastisement. It is enough to not forget the whip and the distance it creates.
In the fragments that make up the Nachslaß from 1882, in part VII.I of the big Colli-Montinari edition are collected the statements that Nietzsche wrote down for his correspondence with Lou Salomé. In that same time he listed almost all wisdoms about women that he puts in the mouth of Zarathustra. Between those notes we can also find the small truth of the old woman, which here is still completely Nietzsche’s own truth, without narrative veils. But here it is followed by an enigmatic addition, which is included by the publishers under the same number: “Du gehst zu Frauen? Vergiß die Peitsche nicht! In der Art, wie und was man ehrt, zieht man immer eine Distanz um sich.”6 (“Are you going to the women? Don’t forget the whip! In the way of how and what you honour, you always draw a distance around you.”)
‘Distanz’ (‘distance’) is a word that Nietzsche also uses in connection to women in ‘Die frölische Wissenschaft’, also from 1882. “Der Zauber und die mächtigste Wirkung der Frauen ist, um die Sprache der Philosophen zu reden, eine Wirkung in die Ferne, eine actio in distans: dazu gehört aber, zuerst und vor allem -Distanz.”7 (“The magic and the most powerful effect of women is, to speak the language of the philosophers, an effect far afield, an action in distance: but that includes, first and foremost, distance.”) In ‘Zur Genealogie der Moral’ and ‘Götzendammerung’ he uses the apt term which he formulated ‘Pathos der Distanz’ a couple of times, to indicate the force which carries and maintains the tension between extremes and opposites.8
When the whip then is an instrument with which a respectful distance is created, ‘drawn’, or is used as a reminder of such, the addition loses some of its enigma. ‘Don’t forget the whip’ then means ‘stay at a respectful distance’, and that advice fits, when added to the question ‘are you going to the women?’, very well in the mouth of a wise woman.
Why does Nietzsche put so much emphasis in the quoted chapter on the fact that Zarathustra hears the wise words about the whip from an old woman? Is that to let it compete in its dignity with the priestess Diotima, who initiated Socrates in the secrets of the eros? There can be another reason, namely that Nietzsche wants to hide this way that it concerns a young woman, namely Loe Salomé, with whom he had immortalized himself shortly before under the sign of the whip and distance. Not an old woman, but a girl twenty years old had taught the philosopher to remember the fate of philosophers of old, of Thales, who was laughed at by a slave girl with whipping words, of Socrates and his Xantippe, of Aristotle and Phyllis, and of all those intellectual henpecked heroes from countless farces.
Possibly Nietzsche is talking about himself when he writes Lou in August 1882: “Erst hat man Not, sich von seinen Ketten zu emanziperen und schließlich muß man sich auch von dieser Emanzipation emanziperen! Es hat jeder von uns, wenn auch in seht verscheidener Weise, an der Ketten-Krankheit zu laborieren, auch nachdem er die Ketten zerbrochen hat”9. (“First one has need to emancipate oneself from his chains and finally one must also emancipate oneself from this emancipation! Every one of us, albeit in a different way, has to suffer from the disease of chains, even after he breaks his chains.”)
Is this emancipating the forgetting which the old woman mentions twice in the text? The first time she is old enough to listen to the wisdoms of Zarathustra and to forget them again. The second time she is old enough to put a valuable wisdom opposite them that Zarathustra may not forget, but has to cherish carefully without proclaiming it too emphatically.
Now when the forgetting can be explained as the neglecting of distance and the loss of tension, the old woman places herself with her first words outside of the terrain where there is that tension and emancipates herself from it, but she advices Zarathustra not to follow her in that.
Concerning that repetition of ‘forgetting’, all sorts of Freudian and Heideggerian speculations are possible, which I will leave behind now. Derrida says what is necessary and even a bit more than that in his ‘Eperons’10.
More interesting is what Nietzsche himself wrote on November 7th 1872 to Malwilda von Meysenbug: he often forgot to write letters to the ones he thought of most. She then had to explain that as favourably as possible and then forget about it. “Es gibt so viel Irrationelles gegen das man sich durch vergessen hilft. Mit diesem dunklen Spruche will ich heute schließen.”11 (“There are so many irrational things against that it helps man to forget. With these dark words I shall close for today.”)
Here he recommends, in the name of friendship, forgetting: after all, to forget is to cover things up with the mantel of love. In the text of Zarathustra something might be covered with a mantel, but this precisely contributes to saving and retaining.
When the whip then indeed symbolises the pathos of distance, and represents the tension of opposites, we can understand this. For without those oppositions there is also no life anymore. Oppositions are supposed to keep each other alive. Is that what Nietzsche means with his glorification of the distance?
One detail which we haven’t paid attention to yet and which gets a bit of relief from the preceding, is that Nietzsche in the text continuously speaks about ‘woman’ and ‘little women’ as ‘Weib’ and ‘Weiblein’. Not until the final sentence, which is the subject of this study here, because it’s so often been explained as denigrating, does he say ‘Frauen’: “Du gehst zu Frauen?” And no matter how it is exactly with the connotations of the words ‘Weib’ and ‘Frau’ around 1880, it doesn’t seem premature to me to assume that ‘Frau’, as it is in contemporary German, not just relates to a married woman, but is also a more respectful denomination, and indicates a person of the other sex more as a ‘lady’, while ‘Weib’ more appoints the woman as a representative of a species than as a human person. In the proverbial notes that Lou Salomé wrote during the time of her encounters with Nietzsche, and which might be representative of her talks with him, she appears to reflect on this difference: “Die Liebe macht das Mädchen zum Weibe, die Heirath zur Frau”12. (“Love makes a girl into a female, marriage into a woman.”)
So when Nietzsche or Zarathustra or the old lady had wanted to sprout some banal wisdom about visiting the happy little women, or about male suppression, they would, as we may assume, have chosen the less lady-like moniker ‘Weiber’.
So again it becomes even more improbable that the whip was really handled, by whomever, and that it here represents anything other than a metaphor of the distance that respect creates around itself.
In the context of the story it is not made explicitly clear, why the little truth had to be hidden underneath a cloak. On the one hand the cloak has to protect the treasure against curious looks or the greed of the outside world. And on the other hand, that outside world seems to need to be protected from the uncontrollability of the screaming child to which this truth is being compared. And for that a cloak alone is not enough: there is also a part for a hand that, like a sort of bridle, restrains the boisterous little mouth.
No matter how, the cloak is like a curtain or a veil between the valued truth and the spectator who addresses Zarathustra. It represents at least a delay of the disclosure and that in turn gives it the opportunity to gain importance. The truth itself seems to want to open the curtains, throw off the cloak or veil, and make itself known unequivocally.
When this can be read as a reference to the daughter of king Herod and namesake of Lou, who threw of her veils as she was dancing, then Nietzsche has hid it very deep. But his cryptic text compels the reader to fetch far. He then finds, too, that the keeper of the treasure does not want to unveil it, but, like it says in an addendum in the ‘Nachlaß’, he wants to remain at a respectful distance from its direct workings, so that this indeed becomes an actio in distans.
Zarathustra is asked, what he is hiding under his cloak, and if perhaps he has stolen something. Nietzsche creates the impression that the valuable truth, which has to be protected by darkness, cloak and silence this way, must be smuggled into his life by him. Its value won’t allow that it becomes a public possession. Zarathustra too has borrowed it -or still has to get used to possessing it. For the time being, as it appears too from his wisdoms about women, he cannot integrate this truth in the whole of his own insights. It was then revealed to him by a priestess or a higher authority.
What its name was, we can guess from a note by Lou Salomé, written in August 1882: “Liebe ist für Männer etwas ganz Anderes als für Frauen. Den Meisten wohl ist die Liebe eine Art von Habsucht; den übrigen Männern ist Liebe die Anbetung einer leidenden und verhüllten Gottheit. Wenn Freund Rée dies läse, würde er mich für toll halten.”13 (“Love is something completely different for men than it is for women. For most men, love is a type of greed; for the rest of them, love is the worship of a suffering and veiled deity. When our friend Rée reads this, he’ll think me mad.”)