D. L. Hobman (essay date 1960)
SOURCE: "Lou Andreas-Salomé," in The Hibbert Journal, Vol. 58, January, 1960, pp. 149-56.
[In the following essay, Hobman offers an overview of Andreas-Salomé's life.]
Lou Andreas-Salomé wanted love—the love of man and the love of God—and she took what she wanted. Throughout her whole being and throughout her whole life she was filled with an awareness of God. This RussoGerman woman writer, famous on the Continent but scarcely known in England, divided her autobiography [Lebensrückblick: Grundrißeioiger Lebenser innerungen, 1951] into separate parts, not in chronological order but according to her experiences; one of the last sections, about Sigmund Freud, is an account of her close friendship with him. She was his disciple, and her intuitive understanding of men and women was further enlarged by his discoveries concerning the psyche, but although she learned much from him, she never learned to explain away religious faith as an illusion. The title of the first and most important chapter in the story of her life is Experience of God.
She recalls that as a very small and naughty child, if she was occasionally whipped by her adoring parents, she complained of this treatment to God who invariably agreed heartily with her resentment; indeed it made him so angry that, for the sake of the father and mother whom she dearly loved, she then persuaded him to ignore the whole affair. In a postscript to this book the editor, Ernst Pfeiffer relates that as an old woman shortly before her death in 1937 she said: "No matter what happens to me, I never lose the certainty that in the background there are arms open to receive me."
Her mysticism was bound up with a strongly erotic temperament and a passionate zest for life. She would not accept any form of orthodoxy and already in adolescence gave up the Protestant creed in which she had been brought up. "He who loves God does not need a Church," was a Russian saying which she quoted with approval. She felt that this explained a peculiarity of Russianized Christianity, which gave devotion less to the clerical hierarchy than to individual pilgrims, "in whose footsteps anyone could walk, so that this reverence included something of which each man in secret felt himself capable. Conversely, it could happen to any man to find himself in the position of one condemned—a criminal." This attitude accounted for a lack of discrimination in values, a kind of fatalism, since all things for good or evil lay ultimately in the hands of God.
Lou Andreas-Salomé believed that, in spite of all their superstition, the Russian masses provided a basis of profound primitive strength for the educated classes as well, and that in this passionate inner life the tensions of sexual love were somehow lessened, so that love was accepted with greater natural simplicity in Russia than in more civilized nations. She analyses the Slav attitude as though it were also her own, as no doubt to some extent it was. Although she was of mixed, partly German origin, and spent the greater part of her adult life in Germany, she seems to embody a point of view which belongs to Eastern rather than to Western Europe, where goodness and morality are not necessarily equated. Educated Russian women of the nineteenth century might have been puzzled by the idea of subordinating personal emotion to a generalized code. Famous English-women, on the other hand, were usually moral, not in the accepted sense only, but in their efforts at improving their social surroundings. Their faith in public opinion, and therefore in Parliament, to redress social evils was the result of living in a country with democratic institutions, however imperfect. In Russia any faith in reform was almost inevitably bound up with the desire for revolution, and Lou Andreas-Salomé was neither a political rebel, nor indeed was she politically minded at all. In her life and work she was first and foremost an artist, and her concern was with the individual and not with society. The edifice of religion seemed to her a dreary ruin, cumbering ground which was urgently needed for a more rational development, yet she was no rationalist. She was a primitive impulsive creature, avid for life, awed by its mystery. As a child she comforted herself by talking to God as a friend, and in old age she still depended upon his love.
She sought the reflection of her own feelings in the hearts of her friends. Many years after she had refused Nietzsche's offer of marriage, she published a long book about him, an analysis of his nature through his works, and she was convinced that religious genius permeated all that he had written. According to her, his entire development sprang from his own loss of faith, from his "emotion over the loss of God." He was a split individual who had "achieved health through disease, genuine adoration through illusion, genuine affirmation and enhancement of the self through self-wounding." In the same way, in the poet Rilke, it was the mystic to whom she responded out of the depth of her own nature. She gave him an understanding which bound them together during a passionate friendship of nearly thirty years. He left the manuscript of his Book of Hours in her keeping until in 1905 his publisher persuaded him to let it be brought out. After she had sent it back to him, he wrote to her of his longing for her presence, and said that the old prayers were re-echoing within him, "vibrating inwardly down to the very foundations, and echoing outwardly far beyond myself. Echoing to you …"
Louisa (Ljola) von Salomé, later always known as Lou, was born in St. Petersburg on February 6th, 1861. Her father, General von Salomé, was of Huguenot descent, whose ancestors had emigrated from Avignon, and after the French Revolution had wandered across Germany to the Baltic Provinces, where he was born. He had been brought to St. Petersburg as a little boy and had there received a military education. He was given a patent of hereditary Russian nobility after he had taken part in putting down the Polish insurrection of 1830. His wife was of mixed Danish and German origin, and at home the family spoke German or sometimes French. This was by no means unusual in the cosmopolitan society of the Russian capital, where foreign languages were much in fashion. The fact that they were Protestant made the General's wife feel herself an emigrant in a Greek-Orthodox land, and she passed on something of this feeling to her children. Her husband, on the other hand, felt deep love for the narod, the common people, which found an echo in Lou.
As the sixth child and only girl, she was cherished by her family, so that in after life she said that her instinct led her to seek a brother in every man whom she met. To judge by an early picture she was a beautiful little girl, with boyishly short curly hair, a high forehead, full sensuous lips, and eyes which seemed to be asking a question of the world.
In spite of all the affection by which she was surrounded she seems to have been a curiously lonely child, and something of a rebel against authority from her earliest years. Like all imaginative children she was much given to making up stories, and in bed at night, with two dolls beside her pillow, she told these stories to God, beginning with an invariable formula: "As thou knowest." Sometimes she told them to her family, but was to discover with a shock that not every audience was favourably impressed. One day, on her return from a walk with a little cousin, she related a dramatic adventure which was supposed to have befallen them both on the way, when to her consternation she saw the other child staring at her, not in admiration, and heard her exclaim: "But you're telling lies!" Her father once brought home for her from a Court ball a fine large cracker, which was said to contain a dress. Lou at once pictured to herself a golden robe, and when it was explained that the gown could only be made of tissue-paper, with perhaps a little tinsel trimming, she refused to pull the cracker at all. As long as it remained intact she could keep her illusion, and that mattered more to the child than reality.
She was devoted to her parents, especially to her father, who liked to fondle her, but their caresses always ceased as soon as her mother—Muschka—came into the room. Sometimes in the summer the latter, who enjoyed seabathing, took her for a drive to the coast. On one such occasion, when she was still very young, she watched her mother in the water through a little window in the bathing-hut, and suddenly cried out eagerly: "Oh, dear Muschka, do drown!"
Laughing, her mother called back: "Why, child, then I should die."
Lou's response to this was a shout of "Nitschevol" (No matter.)
She was once bitten by a favourite dog who, to her great grief, had to be destroyed, because hydrophobia was rampant in the town. Told that a mad dog usually attacked his beloved master before anybody else, she was in anguish lest—having gone mad herself—she might bite him whom she loved above all else on earth. It was only in later life that she realized the full implication of this fear of injuring her father; in childhood she seemed to herself to love both parents equally.
One winter's day, when she was eight years old, walking...
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