A"hazy greatness" surrounds the name Lou Andreas-Salome. So writes her latest biographer, Angela Livingstone, who seeks to sharpen the outlines of that greatness, to shed light on the work of an elusive and fascinating woman.
When Salome was born, in St. Petersburg in 1861, Czar Alexander II was about to free the Russian serfs. When she died, in 1937, Hitler was in power. In the intervening decades, European intellectual life underwent a massive transformation, and Salome was never far from the creative center of that transformation.
As a brilliantly precocious teen-ager, she sought the guidance of the most daring thinker in her community--an avant-garde Protestant pastor--only to discover that his interest in her was more erotic than platonic. The encounter improved Salome's mind, for the pastor had assigned her a strenuous regime of study, reading philosophy and learning Dutch. Yet it apparently confirmed her belief that for a woman with aspirations to living to the full the life of the mind, celibacy was essential.
In her 20s and 30s she published novels, essays, articles and poems, a prolific outpouring of words. "She spun out words all her life," Livingstone writes, "as naturally as a silkworm spins silk."
Much of what she wrote, particularly in her intense, involuted novels, was autobiographical, and in treating these works as peripheral rather than fundamental to Salome's thought, Livingstone throws the biography out of balance.
For Salome's ultimate creation was her absolutely independent life, a life lived according to the dictates of an inner voice or instinct which she believed never failed her. All her life she felt "that she was looked after, that something vast and mysterious prompted her actions."
This "something mysterious" led her to reject the conventional path prescribed for women and to choose the unconventional and experimental, especially in her personal relationships. "I can neither live according to models nor shall I ever be a model for anyone at all," she wrote. "On the contrary--what I shall quite certainly do is make my own life according to myself."
This she set out to do, not defiantly or rebelliously, but with a quiet and serene determination. She did her writing, she enjoyed the friendship of other artists and intellectuals throughout Europe, and she made certain to avoid the romantic and sexual entanglements that her mysterious inner guide advised against. (She married, at 25, an Orientalist who tolerated her insistence that the marriage remain unconsummated; he eventually took their housekeeper as his mistress.)
Salome's unwavering devotion to her singular path was baffling to her contemporaries, some of whom condemned her; female eccentricity invariably elicits scorn. Livingstone, however, has nothing but respect and praise for Salome's strength of purpose and independence. She was, according to her biographer, a "sovereign" person, propelled throughout her life from one "inner liberation" to another.
In her late 30s, she liberated herself from the self-imposed restraint of celibacy and fell in love with the poet Rainer Maria Rilke, then a mere 21. Gossips ridiculed them--the tall, heavy woman in her ill-fitting homemade clothes, her looks fading, and the thin, sensitive and boyish poet, holding hands like children as they walked down the street together. People stared, but the couple ignored them. For Salome, it was a late but joyous initiation into sexual love. For Rilke, it was an obsessive infatuation that bred a lifelong dependency.
Salome's posthumous reputation rests on her involvement with Rilke--and with Freud, whose friend and student she became, and with Nietzsche, whom she knew well if briefly as a very young woman. While Livingstone asserts that these relationships are usually given disproportionate importance in accounts of Salome's life--to Salome's detriment--Livingstone herself is guilty of the same distortion.
"If sections of this book are dominated by (Salome's) acquaintance with these influential persons," Livingstone writes, "it is for the sake of our interest in them and may well be out of proportion to their significance in her life."
This is regrettable, as is Livingstone's rather narrow focus on Salome's nonfiction writings and options and her tendency to substitute summaries of Salome's works for description and narrative. Livingstone's prose is stiff and graceless, and there is little sense of Salome's life as an unfolding story.
These drawbacks are offset, however, by the image of the "daemonically primordial woman" who emerges from Livingstone's pages. It is a sharp-edged image of an absolutely self-assured woman, content and fulfilled, who did what she liked without caring about the world's opinion--and enjoyed every minute of it.