Lou Andreas-Salomé

By: David Smay
February 12, 2014


LOU ANDREAS-SALOMÉ (Louise von Salomé, 1861–1937) had a knack for winding up on the wrong side of the cultural debates of the 20th century. Worse, it’s nearly impossible to see her, today, except via the distorted perspective of her genius admirers. True, Andreas-Salomé was the great love of Nietzsche’s life. Much more important, however, is the fact that the two of them spent months together discussing philosophy; she brilliantly challenged Nietzsche at every point to articulate his mature philosophy, and was formative in its creation. You may already know that Andreas-Salomé was one of Freud’s most respected correspondents, but did you know that her work on female sexuality preceded his — and that, at the time of their meeting, she was far more famous than he (because of her career as a popular novelist)? And of Andreas-Salomé’s relationship with Rilke, what is there to say that Rilke hasn’t already said better, in one of the greatest love poems in any language, “To Lou Andreas-Salomé”:

As one puts a handkerchief before pent-in-breath —
no: as one presses it against a wound
out of which the whole of life, in a single gush,
wants to stream, I held you to me: I saw you
turn red from me. How could anyone express
what took place between us? We made up for everything
there was never time for. I matured strangely
in every impulse of unperformed youth,
and you, love, had wildest childhood over my heart.

She was the wrong kind of feminist, the wrong kind of novelist, and (along with Freud’s) her pioneering work in psychoanalysis is fading away in our era of neuroscience. There aren’t many today who acknowledge Andreas-Salomé as a forebear, or champion her work. Which is a shame!


READ MORE about Nietzsche and Andreas-Salomé, and their abortive Argonaut Folly.

On his or her birthday, HiLobrow irregularly pays tribute to one of our high-, low-, no-, or hilobrow heroes. Also born this date: Charles Darwin, David Graeber, Marie Vassilieff.

READ MORE about members of the Plutonian Generation (1854-63).


HiLo Heroes, Philosophy

What do you think?

  1. Great item — and I’d love to know more about why Andreas-Salomé is the “wrong kind of feminist” and the “wrong kind of novelist”!

  2. That’s worth clarifying! She’s not the wrong kind of feminist or novelist to me. Lou was certainly a feminist in that she advocated for women’s rights, and freedoms. And she exercised tremendous agency over her own life, becoming (among other things) one of the first women to graduate from the University of Zurich and she moved freely among the intellectual salons of Berlin, Paris and Switzerland. But in her essays about feminism she took an essentialist stance, arguing that women were more cosmically connected with nature and should take submissive and traditional roles with men. So this put her at odds with most feminist thinkers of her time and indeed very few feminists claim her as a forebear.

  3. As a novelist, though, she presents a much broader range of narratives that as one critic describe them “negotiated the crisis in femininity and masculinity of the 19th century.” She was not an ideologue and examined the limits that traditional and conventional women’s roles created. How they were could be restrictive and unsatisfying. You get a much broader sense of her empathy for women (and men) in her novels. She’s the “wrong kind of novelist” because she wrote popular fiction, not high literary works. She was no creator of new forms, so the bulk of her writing sits on the other side of Modernism. But she was a very successful pop fiction novelist of her day, creating stories that examined the lives of women in a variety of circumstances. Imagine a slightly pulpier, more romantic version of Ibsen’s plays as novels. It is only within the last few years that her novels have even been translated from the German. There has been some reappraisal of her work recently, seeing her fictive strategies as a precursor to questions of the construction of identity. In many ways, she works better in a post-modern context.

  4. As a final note, often when doing deep research on Hilo Heroes you discover some repugnant bit about the person your examining. With Lou, it’s the opposite. She doesn’t parse very well into ideological soundbites. She was interested in strategies not ideologies, and the real world. And for all of her intellectual gifts, her genius was in synthesis and contextualizing things. The reason she was so important to Nietzsche and Freud and Rilke is that she was the ultimate sounding board. Somebody who not only brought a great mind, and a deep education to her discussion, but did with immediacy and feeling. She was a very good person, a very loyal friend. It’s not hard to see why men fell in love with her.

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