Before Ayn Rand and Nietzsche was La Païva

Most 19th century courtesans looked rather tame by our standards

Esther Pauline Thérèse Lachmann, Mme Villoing, Mme la Marquise de Païva, Countess Henckel von Donnersmarck

Grandes Horizontales, Virginia Rounding, Bloomsbury, 2003

Pages from the Goncourt Journals, Edmond and Jules de Goncourt (tr. Baldick), NYRB, 2007

At table she expounded a frightening theory of will-power, saying that everything was the result of an effort of the will, that there were no such things as fortuitous circumstances, that one created one’s own circumstances, and that unfortunate people were so only because they did not want to stop being unfortunate….She spoke of a woman who, in order to attain some unspecified aim, shut herself up for three years, completely cut off from the world, scarcely eating anything and often forgetting about food, walled up within herself and entirely given over to the plan she was developing. And then she concluded: “I was that woman”.

Goncourt Journals, January 3, 1868 (p. 134)

La Païva (Esther Pauline Thérèse Lachmann, Mme Villoing, Mme la Marquise de Païva, Countess Henckel von Donnersmarck) was one of the most famous courtesans of decadent Second Empire France — famous for bleeding her lovers dry. In those days marriages were expected to be loveless and there was no such thing as a relationship, and men who had the wherewithal satisfied their needs for sex, romance, fantasy, ego-gratification, etc. through a variety of more or less openly commercial arrangements. A few of the courtesans became the objects of bidding wars and were able do very well for themselves, and La Païva married several aristocrats and spent the last years of her life in her final husband’s castle.

When La Païva declared her metaphysic of the will in the passage above, Nietzsche was only 24 and had published nothing, so the direction of influence is presumably in the other direction. However, it seems unlikely that, impecunious and inept as he was, Nietzsche ever met La Païva in the flesh, so we can conclude that the influence was transmitted through some intermediary.*

As for Ayn Rand, La Païva seems like a much more likely teacher and role model  for her than for Nietzsche, given Nietzsche’s notable lack of worldly success. Like La Païva, Ayn Rand was an unobservant Russian Jew who reinvented herself very successfully in a hostile foreign environment, and Rand’s first book (in Russian) was a biography of another self-made woman who triumphed in a strange land: the Polish vamp and femme fatale Pola Negri. We may thus conclude that La Païva was the great unsung philosopher of the 19th century.


Between 1842 and 1846, when she was living with the pianist Herz,  La Païva became friends with the composers / musicians von Bülow and Wagner  (Rounding, p. 82).  These men, who successively married Franz Liszt’s daughter Cosima in 1857 and 1870, were both close to Nietzsche from 1868 to 1872, and during this period Nietzsche also became obsessed with Cosima. In 1868, when La Païva’s above statement of her philosophy was made, Cosima was involved with Wagner, still married to von Bülow, and flirting with Nietzsche.  Thus, Cosima was the most likely channel by which Païvism reached Nietzsche, though as far as we know there is no documentary evidence for Cosima’s  Païvism (or Lou Salomé’s either. )

Surprisingly to me, Oscar Wilde greatly admired Balzac, probably because of his cynicism and over-the-top extravagance. “Life imitates art” was one of Wilde’s guiding principles, and he went so far as to model his sad final years and even his death on those of one of Balzac’x villains”

“[Balzac’s] Melmoth dies in a wretched furnished room near St.-Sulpice, another prefiguration of Wilde, who was to come to Paris, fifty years later, and die in a modest little hotel in the same neighborhood. Wilde before Reading Gaol: Dudley. Wilde after Reading Gaol: Melmoth. Did this occur to Wilde too? Or was it simply a coincidence that when he came out of prison he changed his name to Melmoth?”

Felicien Marceau, Balzac and his World, Orion, 1966, p. 392

Published in: on June 2, 2010 at 10:41 pm  Comments (6)  

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6 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. I’m certain there needs to be no line of influence here. The idea that we create the would through our own force of will, and thus everyone is to blame for their own fates, is just one of those perennial stupidities. You can see strong streaks of it in the Greek Sophists, for instance.

    Another important thinker in the 19th century egoist-asshole tradition is Max Stirner, who, unlike La Païva, died in poverty and obscurity. I sometimes fantasize about researching the history of this particular brand of assholery, to see, for instance, if there are particular circumstances in which it is likely to crop up.

  2. I brook no contradiction, Rob. It was La Païva, period.

    Stirner’s teaching in a girls’ school always seemed to make his egoism look pretty weak. Teachers in those days were incredibly low status and miserably paid. What a servile job.

  3. (Good to add an update, but the second sentence seems to say that Cosima Liszt married Wagner first, then von Bulow, instead of the opposite.)

  4. Fixed. Thanks.

  5. Interesting! It’s maybe more understandable that an ambitious woman would think that in that day and age than that Nietzsche would, and that she would choose the career path Laiva did. It does suggest (to me anyway) that people are maybe willfully ignoring/down-weighting parts of themselves in doing so — that there’s something a bit crippled and sad about the attitude.

  6. […] or early death from the tuberculosis that made them so fetching. (The exception was the monster La Païva, who left us an architectural monument to remember her by and died a Countess — someone who […]

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