Why a horse made Nietzsche cry

It is a January day in 1889. We are on a quiet street in the Italian town of Turin.

Freidrich Nietzsche – philosopher, cultural critic, Greek and Latin scholar – watches as a coachman brutally whips his horse, before he throws himself between them.

He now cradles the horse, his arms around him in protection, before he begins to weep uncontrollably. Anger and sadness wells up.

And he cannot cope.  The man who has spent his life suppressing and denying his feelings cannot cope with the emotions that now arise and run terrible riot through his body.

On a quiet street in Turin, faced with a suffering horse, the labyrinth of his clever intellect is flooded like an abandoned mine shaft.

And he sobs and sobs and sobs.

Had they known who he was, onlookers might have been surprised.

Here was a man famous for his dazzling and savage intelligence; and his intellect had undoubtedly helped him survive his childhood.

It had taken him from his difficult feelings. For young Freidrich, abstract thought, safely in his head, had offered the chance of survival.

He had endured the sternest of Protestant upbringings, with many beatings to help silence the boy’s curiosity.

And the beatings worked.

In his diary, aged twelve, he recounts walking home from school, when it is raining. Though he is getting wet, he does not quicken his pace, but maintains a slow walk, his head erect.

As he explains, ‘On leaving school, one must go home in a calm and orderly manner. That’s what regulations require.’

He was told much about Christian virtue, but probably wondered, on some unconscious level, why it was never practiced on him.

To ask the question would be against regulations. And when you have no support and no witness, obedience to regulations is one way to survive.

Later, he would tear into a religion with real ferocity, never linking his assaults with either his family or his past.

But for now, it was his body that paid the price for repression.

In one year, 1879, (aged thirty five) he was sick 118 times, enduring throat infections, persistent bouts of rheumatism and almost intolerable muscular tension.

Yet how could his muscles relax with so much fury in his body?

And brought up by five women who were less than tender, it was no surprise that as an adult, he could never find a woman he could trust.

But the horse whipping in Turin proves a terrible watershed.

Emotion pours out, the screaming genie finally released from the bottle. He identifies totally with the horse… but with no bridge from his intellect to his feelings, Nietzsche loses his mind.

He will live another eleven years, but only in a state of total dependence first on his mother and then his sister…not his best healers.

In his days of fearless prose, he wrote, ‘We all fear the truth.’

And Nietzsche was fearless in his pursuit of intellectual truth, a thundering gong across Europe.

But his personal truth was a more buried affair, feared above all things… and quite unreachable.

And so on a street in Turin, like a flooded mine shaft, his intellect finally gives up the fight and jumps ship.

The thundering is over; breakdown has arrived.

‘The terrible and almost unceasing martyrdom of my life makes me thirst for the end,’ he wrote, aged thirty six.

His body had spoken, his past had come up for air; but there was no one who could help him home to hug little Freidrich.

Certainly not his mother…


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