January 1876, Basel
Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche is sat in an armchair by the fire, pensively stroking the long, coarse whiskers of his prodigious moustache. Without breaking his middle distance stare, his left hand suddenly reaches out to the table next to him, palm down, patting the table in a jerky left-right motion.
He is searching for the source of the ringing he can hear. A slow intermittent, high pitched “briiiiiiing briiiiiing”. It takes a little while for him to realise that the sound must be in his mind, as the telephone had only just been invented and wouldn’t be commercially available for several more years to come.
Elisabeth, his sister, bustles in, destroying the moment.
“Thinking again? You’re always bloody thinking, you are. It won’t do you any good, Fred, I tell you.”
Elisabeth, Friedrich’s junior by two years and a right brassy old mare, had been looking after him since the “incident”.
She insisted on calling him “Fred”, a situation he secretly loathed but tolerated out of love for his sibling.
The “incident” had lost Friedrich his tenure at Basel university and he was therefore currently unemployed.
The general public, it would seem, were very sensitive about the welfare of their horses.
Elisabeth had noticed that Friedrich had become very quiet recently, barely moving or speaking at all, and if he did speak, it was incomprehensible muttering. She had become inured to the silence and was shocked when, out of the blue, he broke it.
“I have something I need you to write down,” he mumbled, hardly audible above the crackling of the logs on the fire.
She stopped herself making a flippant remark on him losing the use of his hands, just in time; remembering the near catatonia of her brother’s state.
As much as she may have resented being coerced into his being his secretary/carer, she knew her brother was a brilliant man and she managed to calm herself before reaching for her fountain pen.
“Go ahead, Fred, I’m ready.” she said, waiting expectantly. She licked the nib of the pen and placed it on the parchment.
“That which doesn’t kill us, makes us stronger,” this utterance coming out halfway between a whisper and whistle.
“Sorry, Fred, I didn’t quite catch that. You’re going to have to speak up a bit.”
A chestnut log issues a whistle and a loud “snap”, causing Elisabeth to jump.
Friedrich doesn’t react at all.
“Could you just say it again, dear?” she asks, hopefully. His magnificent moustache bristles almost imperceptibly as she says this; Elisabeth pretends not to notice.
Friedrich clears his throat before saying angrily but still no louder,
“That which doesn’t kill us, makes… us… stronger…”
The scratchy nib on the parchment is the last thing Friedrich hears before falling into a comatose sleep.
Knowing she will not be able to wake him for hours, Elisabeth remains standing next to her brother, soaking up the warmth of the fire and squinting at the candlelit parchment.
She reads out loud to herself the sentence he dictated, which, strangely, reads more like a shopping list-cum-stage directions than a philosophical master work:
“Sandwich dozen pillows, place it on her?”
The same log snaps and hisses as Elisabeth mumbles under her breath,
“Well, Fred, it’s not one of your best.”