Klaas Meilier, Brigitta. Hochsaison in Sils-Maria: Meta von Salis und Friedrich Nietzsche. Zur Geschichte ihrer Begegnung.
Not since Swiss Germanist Doris Stump published Sie toten uns, nicht unsere Ideen in 1986 has a book-length study been devoted to Swiss historian, poet, and journalist Meta von Salis (1855-1929). While Brigitta Klaas Meilier focuses the greater part of her study on the friendship between von Salis and Friedrich Nietzsche, her meticulously researched historical biography contributes in general to a better understanding of aristocratic women's history in Switzerland, offering a more conciliatory tone vis-a-vis feminist aristocrats than scholars have in the past. In addition, Klaas Meilier's work provides a history of how 19th-century friendship networks functioned beyond national and familial boundaries. The author demonstrates an impressive ability to keep dates, times, places, and stories clear while constructing a rather non-linear historical narrative around a complicated and ever-mobile circle of friends.
Divided into twelve chapters, the book slowly unfolds with two chapters on the von Salis family, one of the oldest and most powerful in the Swiss canton of Graubunden. In chapter three, the author introduces Malwida von Meysenbug, whose three-volume Memoiren einer Idealistin (1876) inspired numerous kindred spirits to travel to Rome to meet her, including von Salis and Nietzsche. Through her, they learn about each other (around 1879) and eventually meet in 1884. From chapter three on, Klaas Meilier weaves a complicated biographical narrative that connects von Salis and Nietzsche to friends such as Richard Wagner, Lou von Salome, Paul Ree, Emma von Wohrmann, Theophanie Schucking, Resa von Schirnhofer, Franz Overbeck, and Heinrich Koselitz. We learn of von Salis's central role in Swiss women's efforts to gain financial freedom via employment and education. She graduated from Zurich University as the first woman PhD in the field of history in 1887 and wrote a novel, two volumes of poetry, and many articles.
In the main chapters of the book (six through eleven), Klaas Meilier explains and reiterates various events in von Salis's and Nietzsche's lives that define their friendship. By the time they spend the summer of 1887 in Sils-Maria (together with von Salis's companion Hedwig Kym), von Salis and Nietzsche have both experienced personal and professional successes and failures. Klaas Meilier convincingly argues that what they experience is akin to a marriage of the minds. Von Salis overcomes restrictive aristocratic decorum and Nietzsche transcends his reputed extreme civility: "Nach all dem zuvor Gesagten muss kaum noch hervorgehoben werden, wie unkonventionell es gewesen sein muss, zwei Damen zu sehen, die einen Herrn uber den See ruderten--und nicht umgekehrt" (217). Klaas Meilier avoids the conundrum as to why feminist von Salis does not take Nietzsche to task for his misogyny, focusing instead on the spiritual and psychological dimensions of their friendship. In light of the social pressure on each of them to marry and their rejection of "Konvenienzehen" (particularly for Nietzsche after several failed attempts), Klaas Meilier argues that they developed a close emotional bond during the summer in Sils-Maria, far from the scrutinizing gaze of society. In his letter to von Salis upon her departure from Sils-Maria, Nietzsche describes feeling "verwitwet and verwaist" (289). Unlike Nietzsche, von Salis had no specific negative romantic experience to speak of (the question of sexual orientation dissolves in the haziness of 19th-century definitions of female friendship), but she was driven by a personal conviction that women be allowed to make their own choices. Her ongoing battles with the patriarchal systems around her (familial, educational, legal) led to a palpable resentment of men. Nietzsche proves to be the exception, evident in her description of their relationship as "geeignet, einen vergoldenden Schimmer uber den Rest meines Lebens zu verbreiten" (288). Even long after Nietzsche's descent into mental illness in 1889, von Salis remains loyal, providing Elisabeth Forster-Nietzsche with the finances to care for him and establish the Nietzsche archive in Weimar.
At times, the level of detail that Klaas Meilier provides becomes tedious, such as in the logistical minutiae of travel and lodging. At other times however, the book reads like a good detective novel, in particular in the final chapter on Elisabeth Nietzsche's machinations against von Salis. Because Klaas Meilier concentrates a good deal on time and place, the reader's understanding of certain individuals can be vague. Orte unfortunate deficiency is the lack of information on photographer Hedwig Kym, the person closest to von Salis during her entire adult life. Instead of regarding Kym's photographs as a source of insight and interpretation, Klaas Meilier laments Kym's silence. Readers of Klaas Meilier's book will learn a great deal about the trials and tribulations of late 19th-century intellectuals and appreciate her skills in archival navigation. In addition, in the author's brief comparisons to women's lives today, one can find a surreptitious critique of the patriarchal paradigm that continues to dominate the European academy.
College of Wooster
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|Publication:||The German Quarterly|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Mar 22, 2007|
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