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A sketch of Nietzsche's horse

The True Story of the Turin Horse (or Nietzsche's Horse)


A legendary episode changed the life (and thought) of one of Germany’s greatest philosophers...

If there’s a multifaceted figure in the history of human thought, it’s that of Friedrich Nietzsche. A musician, poet, philosopher, and philologist, he changed Western philosophy forever. Less well-known is that Nietzsche had very particular relationships with animals and, especially, with a horse he stumbled upon one day in Turin.

On January 3, 1889, in an outburst, Nietzsche left the home of his hosts in the Italian city to witness a scene which irreversibly touched his soul: a horse being whipped by the driver of a chariot. Seeing this, Nietzsche threw himself onto the neck of the animal to defend him from the blows. He immediately burst into tears. That same day, he was almost arrested for rioting, but was saved by his Italian host and taken home. The episode, hovering somewhere between legend and reality, marks the beginning of the madness which was to last 11 years until the very day of Nietzsche’s death

The truth of the collapse, stemming as it does from popular knowledge of Nietzsche’s persona, has never been proven. It may even seem normal —man defends animal from abuse— but the meaning is far more than one may at first perceive. The day that began the failure of one of the 19th century’s most dazzling minds was an event in no way trivial. It’s one of those days that may have passed largely unnoticed, but it was of historical importance to put it mildly.

Nietzsche’s historians and biographers, even some artists, have bestowed great importance on the figure of this anecdotal horse. Proof comes in a spectacular film, The Turin Horse (2011), by Hungarian filmmaker Béla Tarr. But further mention of the collapse is made in an enormous number of literary works, among them Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of the Being.

As of today, though, there’s no evidence that Nietzsche’s horse ever actually existed, or that he really lived through such a scene. It’s curious (perhaps too much to be mere coincidence) that a similar scene appears between the pages of one of history’s most spectacular novels: Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment. Near the beginning of the novel, Raskolnikov the protagonist about to starkly murder two elderly women, lays anxious in bed. As a kind of premonition to the guilt and horror that will beset him after the crime, he dreams of himself as a child walking with his father in a provincial town. Outside a tavern, the two of them see a crowd surrounding a horse unable to pull a wagon full of people. It’s just too heavy. Here begins the parallelism with Nietzsche in Turin.

The owner of the horse beats the animal again and again responding to those who protest his cruelty that the animal is his property. The young Raskolnikov approaches and attempts to stop the blows raining down. When the horse eventually falls, the child embraces him, only finally torn away by his father. At that moment the protagonist wakes from his nightmare. Raskolnikov understands the dream as a premonition and knows that he is, simultaneously, horse, boy, and the man with the whip. He then gets out of bed, dresses, and prepares himself for murder.

The story of the horse was drawn from Dostoyevsky’s own experience in a similar scene that included his father and his brother. A drunk man beat the driver of his carriage who, desperate in turn, then beat his horse. For Dostoyevsky, the relationship between any society and its animals would faithfully reflect the quality of the ethics with which neighbors relate to one another.

The episode of the horse is deeply important to Crime and Punishment. In Dostoyevsky’s notebooks of the time one can see that he’d planned the scene prior to writing the novel, and that he looked carefully at where it was to be inserted and changed his mind at least six times. But a similar event — a horse cannot pull a wagon and is beaten for it—appears again in his final novel, The Brothers Karamazov. Curiously, another scene of a battered horse appears in a poem by Nikolai Nekrasov, a contemporary of Dostoyevsky’s only slightly older than Nietzsche. The lively anecdote is thus considered particularly Russian.

One more curious fact is that Nietzsche suffered his nervous breakdown at 44 years of age, the same age as Dostoyevsky when he wrote Crime and Punishment. Nietzsche had been living a nomadic existence, fleeing European universities for their positions on religion, and as a result of his own provocative writing. In Turin, he’d been hosted by the prominent Fino family, and it was in Turin, after this incident, where Nietzsche began the especially prolific period when he wrote some of his most important works. But the same year was also characterized by his increasingly erratic behavior. Nietzsche played the piano, singing tunelessly for hours on end. He danced naked in his room, and, according to the family, left torn money in the waste bins. All were considered symptoms of mental decline.

The only written record of the legendary day in June comes from the interview conducted by an anonymous journalist with Mr. Fino in 1900. Fino recalled that one day, walking along the Via Po (one of Turin’s primary streets), he’d witnessed a group of people surrounding two guards who’d arrested “the Professor.” The guards had found Nietzsche hugging the neck of a horse and refusing to let go. Fino quickly secured Nietzsche’s release but the story was only written down some 11 years after the events had taken place. This record was made by an anonymous journalist who noted only what Fino had heard from an equally anonymous policeman. The veracity is, to say the least, dubious. Most records of the event emphasize Nietzsche’s tears and the nervous breakdown, and these were written down by people who knew neither Nietzsche nor Fino and may well have adorned the episode.

From Nietzsche’s letters of the period, we know that he had several dreams of horses. He is also known to have considered Dostoyevsky “the only psychologist, incidentally, from whom I had something to learn.” The simple symbolic power of the horse needs to be mentioned here, too, for Dostoyevsky always considered the animal both the embodiment of human cruelty and of empathy. This leads to a suspicion that Nietzsche may have been well acquainted with the horse scene in Crime and Punishment and that he’d made a note of it somehow.

It’s tempting to see more in Nietzsche’s encounter with the Turin horse than that which is really implied. This may be especially true in that Nietzsche was always against Schopenhauer’s emphasis on the importance of empathy and compassion —a fact which seems to imply a break between Nietzsche and his own thinking— an epiphany, perhaps. But among the story’s many interpretations, in both Dostoyevsky and of Nietzsche, there’s a sense that violence simply begets more violence, and that animals don’t deserve our cruelty in part because they are mirrors of ourselves. Perhaps, at long last, Nietzsche really did discover a reverence for human compassion on that day in June in Italy.

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