Sunday, March 08, 2020

I Will Keep You Safe

Podcast. Link to recording.

In 1887, a small woman with delicate features sailed with 14 families to Paraguay to establish the “Nueva Germania,” something that began as a grand utopian experiment, but in the end had fewer than 100 settlers. The doll-like charismatic leader was Elisabeth Forster-Nietzsche, the sister of Friedrich Nietzsche. Friedrich had already written The Birth of Tragedy, On Truth and Lies in a Nonmoral Sense, Philosophy in the Tragic Age of the Greeks, Untimely Meditations, Human, All Too Human, Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Beyond Good and Evil, and On the Genealogy of Morality. But, almost no one had read the work. Two years later, Friedrich was to collapse, foaming language no one cared to hear. He was deemed mentally diseased due to tertiary syphilus (never actually confirmed) and treated with mercury, which did, in fact negatively affect his mind and his body.  Friedrich was essentially incarcerated in a mental hospital. He lived until the year 1900, the birth of the 20th century, which his ideas (mediated by Elisabeth, who edited, organized, and promoted) so deeply shaped.  When Friedrich collapsed, Elisabeth was still in Paraguay in her doomed utopian experiment.

Her face, tender and sweet like a model in a Northern Renaissance genre painting depicting life in the home, gazed imploringly to the knot of true believers gathered in the building sturdily constructed of red quebracho, its tannins permeating the humid air with a pleasant, woody cologne.  They sat on benches made of the bottle-shaped samuú, and many held small cups carved from cow horns, from which they sipped through a metal bombilla a cool infusion of tereré, a mildly stimulating tea made from yerba mate.

Elisabeth was unrepentant. Nueva Germania was not thriving, but it had, at any rate, allowed the true believers to escape the foul miasma of Europe that was infecting most of the tiny German principalities with endless, internecine war.

“When the sickness has passed, we will go back,” said Elisabeth.  She had not intended the sojourn to be a temporary quarantine. She and her husband, Bernhard Forster, intended it to be a model for the world of racial purity and the supremacy of German culture. But, potatoes rotted in the soil and their innocence about sand flies resulted in terrible infections.

“Last year, before dear Bernhard, passed away,” said Elisabeth, solemnly euphemizing the death by suicide by her partner and fellow ideologue, “He told me that we must go back to Germany with the truth, and I made a sacred promise to share our truths with the world.”

Elisabeth had in her possession the few published copies of Friedrich’s work. Word had reached her that he was ill, and her heart ached to go back and make all his, her brother’s, and her true believers’ pain and sacrifice meaningful in the world.

Above all, her own.

Heinrich Raus took a long cooling sip of tereré, and as he did so, the afternoon rain began, with thunderclaps.

“I don’t think we’ll go back. Once we switched from potatoes to mandioca, and we learned to take a siesta during the heat of the day, and also to raise the floors up from the ground, things were good,” he said.

What he did not say is that his soul resonated with the ghost of the soldiers killed in the Triple Alliance War, and he, too, had felt the presence of the luisón, the werewolf creature who feasted on the dead, and he saw all around him the impact of the Pombero, the trickster creature, who loved nothing more than to sneak in during the siesta and have his way with young women.

Sex and Death. Eros and Thanatos.

The ideas were boiling in the zeitgeist even before Freud, and Elisabeth’s dear brother’s passionate writings about the Dionysian in literature. In Paraguay, in Nueva Germania, they were living, breathing, sweating, and streaming with the rain of an afternoon.

“The outside world has suffered from diseases.  The outside world IS a disease,” she said softly.  Her true believers paid more attention when she spoke in tones between a whisper and a lullaby.

Her eyes slowly filled with tears.  Was it her fault that dear Bernhard took his own life? She suspected it was so. Was it her fault that Friedrich had collapsed and was being considered mentally ill?  She suspected it was so.  She was altogether too weak, too undisciplined, and her ideas about a better world only ricocheted from side to side inside the skulls of those she loved.

“Come with me, or not. It is up to you. But you know how I kept you safe while the whole world around us roiled and twisted with a murderous disease. And so, I will keep you safe.”

Elisabeth sailed alone back to Germany.  Her true believers stayed behind in Nueva Germania, clinging to the safety of Bernhard’s beliefs in the superiority of the German race and culture, even as they planted mandioca and yerba mate, and slowly changed their language to a blend of Guaraní. Each succeeding “pure” generation was increasingly deformed and mentally impaired.

“Oh, Friedrich!” cried Elisabeth when she saw her brother unable to get out of bed for days on end. “I will help you with your books, and we will make sure that you live on.”

Friedrich closed his eyes and imagined a self-designed modern Leviathan, many steps removed from the self-limiting monarch described by Hobbes. Elisabeth closed her eyes and imagined a Superman constructed from the building blocks of hate and fear, each block a chunk of a terrified citizen’s heart.

“Keep them afraid,” she said to herself.  She turned quietly to Friedrich and laid a soft, doll-like hand on his arm. Her other hand rested on a pile of his books and manuscripts.  What failed in Paraguay could prevail here in Europe, she vowed.

“I will keep you safe,” she said.

Somewhere in Paraguay in the light of the full moon, the pure evil of the luisón, the werewolf devourer of souls, glowed cool blue eyes.

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