Sigmund Freud called her “the great understander”. Friedrich Nietzsche said of her: “I found no more gifted or reflective spirit … Lou is by far the smartest person I ever knew.” Rainer Maria Rilke sang of her: “…all that I am stirs me, because of you.” Today we pay tribute to Lou Andreas-Salomé – author, pioneering psychoanalyst, truth-seeker, iconoclast, libertine and unrepentant individual. A ‘serial muse’ whose formidable intellect and personal charm aroused powerful creative forces in the many notable men who fell in love with her, Lou would “form a passionate attachment to a man and nine months later the man gave birth to a book” as one of her contemporaries put it. But while she is chiefly remembered for her intense cerebral relationships with three of the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries’ most illustrious men, Lou Andreas-Salomé did not merely shine by borrowed light.
Unusually for a woman of her era, Lou made her living as a successful and distinguished full-time writer – penning more than twenty books including novels, short stories essays, rigorous volumes of philosophy and psychology, literary and art criticism as well as biographies on Nietzsche, Rilke and Freud. In the age of disillusionment – as Europe’s elite minds strove to replace an absent God with a new religion of the ‘self’ – it was the brilliant Lou Andreas-Salomé, not Nietzsche, who detected the fundamental fallacy in “ I think, therefore I am” and declared instead: “I am, therefore I think”. A distinguished (and favourite) disciple of Freud, she became one of the first practicing psychoanalysts. But as fascinating as her numerous and often illicit relationships were – she was one of the most controversial figures of her time – and as great and daring as her intellect was, diarist and writer Anaïs Nin proposed an altogether more significant lasting legacy when she proclaimed Lou to be “a women whose importance to the history of the development of women is immeasurable.” In spite of the many patriarchal obstacles that stood in her way, Lou demanded the right to be an individual. No woman before her had ever so brilliantly invaded the intellectual domains of men or stepped out of the confines of her gender with such unruly determination.
Louise von Salomé was born in 1861 in Czarist Russia “under the star of freedom” at the historic moment of the serfs’ emancipation. The privileged daughter of a general, her lifelong quest for truth and meaning began when, as a pious child, she beseeched God to appear before her. He failed to materialise. Henceforth, she rejected all higher authority and answered only to herself. Refusing to bow to the conventional expectations of her high station, Lou demanded instead the right to further education and was accepted at the University of Zurich. Throwing herself into her studies with characteristic intensity, she fell ill and was sent to Rome to recuperate. It was there at the age of twenty-one that she met philosophers Paul Rée and Friedrich Nietzsche. The three became inseparable and scandalously planned to live together in a utopian commune-cum-think-tank. But the plan was thwarted when both men fell madly in love with the beautiful and bewitching Lou. Her association with Nietzsche was to end bitterly, but their intense exchange of ideas and emotions bore magnificent fruit: admittedly inspired by Lou and just nine months after their meeting, he wrote Thus Spake Zarathustra.
At twenty-five, Lou married philologist Friedrich Carl Andreas. Still a virgin, she refused to consummate the marriage – but her marital status afforded her the freedom to travel adventurously without causing further scandal. She would remain married to Andreas until his death in 1930. Lou embarked upon her first love affair when she was thirty-four with a Viennese physician seven years younger than she; her belated sexual liberation preparing the way for her celebrated role in the life of Rainer Maria Rilke – twelve years her junior – who pursued her with poetic fervour. It was Lou who suggested the change of name from René to Rainer, and it was Lou who nurtured the young poet from promise to genius. Their love affair lasted four explosive years, but they would remain lifelong allies. More relationships followed, so too did more writing and travel. But the truth Lou had sought since losing God as a child finally arrived after meeting Freud in 1911 at the Weimar Congress of the International Psychoanalytical Association: in psychoanalysis she found the great fulfilment of her life. She and Freud enjoyed a vigorous two-decade correspondence, which provides evidence of the high professional and personal regard he held her in. When Lou died at the age of seventy-five in the German university town of Göttingen, the Gestapo raided her house and confiscated her entire library because of her close association with Freud and the “Jewish Science” of psychoanalysis.
The writer Barbara Kraft called Lou Andreas-Salomé the first “modern women”. She demanded, she strove, she sought. Her pursuits were marked not by conventionality but by that unrepentant individualism which epitomised her. She profoundly altered prevailing nineteenth-century notions and inspired the most distinguished proponents of radical new ideas. She is one of my greatest heroines.