Review of Lovers of Philosophy in The Conversation

Sex, lies and Hegel: did the intimate lives of philosophers shape their ideas?

Bernini’s Ecstasy of St Teresa. Wikimedia commons

Hugh Breakey, Griffith University

How did the intimate lives of major philosophers shape their ideas? Did their closest relationships with families, spouses, life partners and secret lovers influence their philosophies?

These are the questions Warren Ward sets out to answer in his new book, Lovers of Philosophy: How the Intimate Lives of Seven Philosophers Shaped Modern Thought.

A psychiatrist and psychotherapist, Ward brings to his task both expertise and a passionate interest in his subjects. His canvas is continental philosophy from the Enlightenment to the late 20th century. He enters into the lives of this period’s most widely known philosophers: Kant, Hegel, Nietzsche, Heidegger, Sartre, Foucault and Derrida.

Review: Lovers of Philosophy: How the Intimate Lives of Seven Philosophers Shaped Modern Thought (Okham)

As well as exploring the connection between intimacy and philosophy, this book has another ambition. Ward recalls having been intimidated by the daunting authority of the philosophical greats. His perspective changed when he read Simone de Beauvoir’s autobiographical novel She Came to Stay (1943). Its unsparing portrayal of her lover Jean-Paul Sartre made the imposing philosopher seem more accessible.

Lovers of Philosophy similarly serves as a point of entry for all those who need reminding that philosophical giants are flawed and complex human beings, just like the rest of us.

An accessible and exciting history

Ward delivers on his ambitions. Filled with insight and more than a little excitement and intrigue, Lovers of Philosophy is enjoyably readable.

With dramatic flair, Ward recounts the excitement of the first meetings between the philosophers and their future lovers. He describes the consummation and growth of their relationships, and their experiences of devastating collapse and stinging rejection. While it is impossible to purge all scandal and salaciousness from such a work, Ward treats his subjects with dignity and thoughtfulness.

Philosophical events are brought to life too. Ward builds palpable tension as he enrols us into the bustling crowds awaiting Sartre’s famous public lecture, “Existentialism is a Humanism”. We are led discreetly into a hushed hall to witness Foucault’s scintillating defence of his thesis under searching cross-examination.

Ward’s psychological insights are thoughtful and commonsense. If anything, a little more psychological theorising might have been welcome. After all, many of the philosophers he discusses — Nietzsche and Foucault, in particular — left their marks on psychiatry. It’s intriguing to reflect on the possibility of their own insights being turned back on them.

The penetration of Ward’s psychoanalysis increases appreciably as we move forward in time. The historical records about the lives of Sartre, de Beauvoir, Foucault and Derrida are more detailed than those of earlier thinkers, so Ward is able to speak with greater confidence and nuance.

The book’s focus, like the philosophical canon itself, is weighted towards men. Yet the intellectual heft of philosophical women permeates the book. This is most explicit in the cases of Hannah Arendt and Simone de Beauvoir. These two philosophers’ lives and loves are explored in detail, and not merely with reference to their relationships with Heidegger and Sartre respectively.

This intellectual heft is also apparent in Ward’s discussion of the influence of lesser known figures who acted as confidants and discussants, such as the essayist and artist Countess Caroline von Keyserlingk (for Kant) and the Russian-born psychotherapist Lou Salome (for Nietzsche).

Hannah Arendt in 1933. Wikimedia commons

Ward’s book is not too heavy on philosophy. It keeps a strong focus on families, lovers and life partners. It also registers the tumult of disease, revolution and war that ravaged Europe throughout this period. There is typically around a generation between each of the figures Ward studies, allowing each chapter to pick up, biographically and philosophically, where the last one left off.

Ward does, however, provide accessible overviews of his philosophers’ main theoretical ideas, often using their own words to explain their perspectives. This provides enough philosophical grist to consider the ways that the philosophers’ conflicts and passions might have influenced their ideas, though there are a few moments when Ward’s discussion is a little off-beam.

It would have been a surprise to Kant, for example, and even more to his predecessors Thomas Hobbes and David Hume, to discover that he intended to craft the first purely secular moral philosophy since Hellenistic times.

Humanising the canon

There is much to be learned from Ward’s insightful journey through the history of philosophy. His study helpfully reminds us that, although these august figures became authorities whose names are invoked in respectful tones, their authority was hard won.

All the philosophers he examines had revolutionary ideas. They were trying to step outside assumptions and perspectives that had held sway for centuries, or even millennia. Being a “great” philosopher necessarily requires introducing something genuinely original, or questioning ideas that have not been questioned.

The road of a philosophical revolutionary is hard and difficult, but Ward’s biographies provide an enjoyable series of “rags to riches” stories. They chart each philosopher’s journey from heresy or irrelevance to philosophical and often popular acclaim (with the notable exception of Nietzsche, who received little acclaim in his own lifetime).

Apprehending the often difficult lives of philosophers, the work and sacrifice they poured into their philosophy, and the personal struggles that left an imprint on their thinking can serve to make the reader a little more sympathetic to their ideas.

Many of Ward’s philosophers lived through hard times. In Kant’s and Hegel’s families, almost half the children did not make it to maturity. The early deaths of beloved parents is a consistent refrain.

Understanding these challenges and sacrifices makes it easier to appreciate how counter-intuitive and even radical ideas may have made sense to their authors, given their situations in life and the personal histories that had led them there.

The dark side of dreamers

There is no escaping that these esteemed philosophers had their sinister sides. Ward’s exploration of their intimate relationships exposes unsavoury aspects of their personalities, sometimes to the point where this challenges how we should think of their work.

Many of their personal decisions were scandalous in their own time and look even more shocking to the modern eye. In addition to the many infidelities, there are multiple trysts between teachers and students (Heidegger and Arendt, de Beauvoir and Olga Kosakiewicz, Foucault and Daniel Defert.

Michel Foucault. Wikimedia commons

There was even impropriety between therapist and patient. Late in his life, Sartre started performing a new type of psychotherapy, basing the treatment on his existentialist philosophy. He quickly took one of his new clients, 19-year-old Arlette Elkaim, as a lover. Soon after, in a strange twist, he legally adopted her as his daughter.

The reader is forced to face up to Hegel’s harrowing refusal to honour his promise to marry the mother of his illegitimate son, leaving her alone and destitute, and consigning his son to the miseries of an orphanage. Both were ultimately to die in tragic circumstances.

There is also the problem of Heidegger’s appalling anti-Semitism, to say nothing of his Nazi party membership. Derrida and Sartre could be sinister in their pursuit of sexual conquests. There is little evidence in any of this that moralising philosophers are ethically better than anyone else.

Immanuel Kant. Wikimedia commons

Nietzsche and Kant stand somewhat apart from this indictment, though in different ways. Kant’s intimate life is roughly what one would expect from the author of the Categorical Imperative. Apart from a curious period of midlife listlessness, during which he frequented billiard halls and card-playing dens, Kant behaved in his intimate relations with dignity and conscientiousness. In fact, his carefulness and procrastination in matters of the heart seem almost stereotypical.

Nietzsche is different again. Strikingly, given the explicit misogyny in his published works, there appears to be little that is objectionable about his private treatment of women. Rather than failing in his personal life to live up to the high standards of his ethical philosophy, the self-declared “immoralist” invites the opposite complaint.

He failed to voice in his philosophy the respect he showed in his life to the two extraordinary, free-spirited and fiercely intelligent women who, at different times, captured his heart: Cosima von Bulow (Richard Wagner’s lover and later wife) and the trailblazing psychologist Lou Salome.

Lou Salome wields the whip against Nietzsche and his friend Paul Ree, Lucerne, Switzerland, 1882. Wikimedia commons

The impact of private life on philosophical ideas

There is both scholarly danger and intellectual promise in Ward’s project of tracing the influence of intimate lives on philosophical thought.

The danger parallels the challenges that arise when tracing one philosophical work’s influence on a subsequent work. As the philosopher Quentin Skinner has pointed out, it is all too easy to find points of contact between one philosophical system and another.

Philosophical systems, often developed over lifetimes and delivered through publications, speeches and discussions are rich, dynamic, nuanced and often slightly contradictory intellectual creations. This means there will always be overlaps and resemblances from one system and another. We must be wary of making too much of these similarities.

The same point may be made about exploring the intersection between human lives and philosophical theories. A human life, from start to finish, is as rich, dynamic, nuanced and contradictory as any philosophical system. All humans have their complex biographies and journeys, their families and relationships, their secrets and intrigues, their unique psychologies and thoughts. They are all influenced by the reigning culture’s ideas, language and practices.

When we map a human life onto a philosophical system, we will inevitably find enticing parallels. It may well be that the conflict in Hegel’s personal life helped spur his dialectical idealism.

Perhaps the raw sense of something important dying within Nietzsche in the wake of his rejection by Lou Salome drove him to pen his famous declaration that “God is Dead!”

Perhaps the shifting notions of identity (French, Algerian, American, Jew) that dominated Derrida’s early life might have driven his later insights on the importance, but also the plasticity, of language and its construction. Equally though, these overlaps might be merely coincidental. Confirmation bias is an ever-present risk.

Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre in Beijing, 1955. Wikimedia commons

The streetlight effect

Yet we must not be too quick to brush aside explorations like Ward’s, for there is another cognitive bias lurking here, which is sometimes termed the “streetlight effect”.

The name is derived from a quaint parable about a drunk man looking for his keys under a streetlight. A police officer comes along and helps, but when they fail to find the keys, the officer asks if the man is sure he lost them here. The man replies that he lost the keys in the nearby park. When the officer asks why he is looking for them here, the man answers: because this is where the light is.

When we search for the influences that helped to create groundbreaking philosophical works, we can try to avoid speculation by focusing on tangibles and verifiable facts: that their scholarly mentor was such-and-such, or that they were known to have read so-and-so. This approach lets us invoke hard evidence.

The worry is that we work here because this is where the light is. Less knowable is what happens behind closed doors and in secret whispers. The philosophical consequences of passions, betrayals and trysts are much harder to discern.

Ward’s explorations hammer home that it is altogether possible that these experiences leave the most telling psychological marks. The things that exert the most profound influence are often our families, our loves and our most intimate friends. Yet it is to his credit that Ward explicitly invites us to “wonder” and “speculate” at key junctures, cautioning us even as he cultivates the fertile terrain between psychology and philosophy.

Grave life costs

What, then, do we learn from this rich and thrilling history of philosophy and lived intimacy?

One repeated lesson is that new philosophical systems require solitary work. All of Ward’s philosophers shared the joys of philosophical discussion, but equally their writing required enormous swathes of time spent on their own.

Kant cut off almost all social engagements during a “silent decade” of intense study from 1771 to 1780, where he formulated his world-changing philosophical ideas. Heidegger would isolate himself in die Hütte (“the Hut”): a cabin in the dark German forest, almost cut off from the outside world.

Heidegger would retreat to a hut deep in the German forest to think. Wikimedia commons

In their own ways, all of Ward’s philosophers had times when they had to become, as Nietzsche put it, “born, sworn jealous friends of solitude”.

Sometimes this solitude was healthily interspersed with human contact. Sartre and de Beauvoir’s lunchtime discussions were bookended by their solitary morning and afternoon writing sessions. But all too often there were grave life costs. Partners and wives were left alone and ignored as philosophical ambitions were pursued.

Indeed, there could be psychological costs to the philosophical life. Ward rightly speaks of philosophers being consumed by their work. Often, this is in a good way: they are driven by a deeper calling that gives their lives meaning.

But the labours of philosophical creation demanded effort, isolation, sacrifice, and even risks of poverty. Hypochondria was far from uncommon. Lou Salome’s sickness and fainting spells, driven by her obsessive learning, recalls David Hume’s sufferings from the “disease of the learned”.

Yet philosophy was enriching and fulfilling too, sometimes driving the scholars to seek human connection in their world. Almost all found a trusted partner that they could speak with and who would enrich and challenge their thinking. Even during his “silent decade”, Kant regularly met his two prized friends, Joseph Green and the Countess von Keyserlingk, for philosophical discussion.

Sheer sexiness

One final point warrants emphasis, as strange as it must sound to those who find philosophy dry and abstract: the sheer sexiness of the philosophical encounter.

Throughout many of Ward’s vignettes, the descent into deep philosophical discussion with a respected peer, especially when that peer is a potential romantic partner, turns out to be as erotically charged as it is intellectually exciting.

There are many potential forces at work here pushing two minds into intimate connection. There is the playful jousting, the recognition of being seen for one’s deepest thoughts and honoured for one’s intelligence and erudition, the hypnotic flow of genuine listening and the awareness of being truly heard, the meeting of the minds and the shared intellectual creation that is philosophical argument, the heady frisson of questioning the unquestionable, and the wonder of seeing one’s ideas take root in another’s deepest psyche.

Alas, the erotic edge here is not innocent in the lives of these philosophers. While it did sometimes occur between equals — between Nietzsche and Salome, Sartre and de Beauvoir — it very often arose between unequals and in ways that shattered existing intimate relationships.

This, then, is the image with which Ward leaves us on his closing pages, as he completes his visit to the École normale supérieure in Paris, where the paths of de Beauvoir and Sartre first crossed. There he spies two students, a young man and woman, not yet lovers, but consumed in conversation, being drawn ever-deeper into the dance of each other’s ideas.

Arguably, this is the great contribution of Ward’s book. It purges us of what Derrida bemoaned as the carefully crafted presentation of the philosopher as asexual, standing forever apart.

In Lovers of Philosophy, philosophers come to us in their full richness. They are lifelong spouses, warm friends and secret lovers, as much as they are careful scholars, dazzling thinkers and imposing authorities.

Hugh Breakey, Deputy Director, Institute for Ethics, Governance & Law. President, Australian Association for Professional & Applied Ethics., Griffith University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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Calvino’s Kaleidoscope

If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller by Italo Calvino

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I’ve always wanted to read this, as many a literary critic has sung its praises and now I can see why. Plays with all the themes of postmodernist writing — self-referentiality, intertextuality, genre, parody, and literary theory — but does so with such a self-assured mastery of craft and story that I couldn’t put it down. Like The Name of the Rose, or Borge’s library, it draws ‘you’, through a deft use of second-person narrative, into a dizzying hall of mirrors, false starts, and kaleidoscopic carnivalesque. As Joyce said about Ulysses, it will keep the professors talking for years. A game, a trap, a ruse, a brilliant multithreaded interrogation of the intimate, mysterious, magical dance between writer and reader, text and world, beginning, middle and end.

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Djuna Barnes

Nightwood by Djuna Barnes

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I was drawn to this book because Djuna Barnes was a member of the modernist expat Paris-based circle that included Gertude Stein, who I am writing a book about. Although I acknowledge this slim novel was ahead of its time in the way it presented lesbianism and transgenderism, and it creates a unique atmosphere of an other-worldly underworld Paris, I found it a bit hard to get into. It made me think of Woolf, Joyce, Beckett and other modernists, but didn’t quite ensnare me and pull me in like those writers do. Still, I’m glad I read it and the eerie, dark, sub-logical, liminal, demi-monde it portrays is deliciously idiosyncratic and haunting.

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Knausgaard on writing

Inadvertent by Karl Ove Knausgård

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This essay cuts to the heart of what writing is with the clarity of a diamond. Knausgaard talks about his failures and successes in trying to write authentically without artifice or pretension. His method involves stripping away all hindrances to capturing the truth of a moment or an experience. He also writes eloquently about the ways that culture and common beliefs shape the way we see the world, literally constructing the world we inhabit. He touches on how science, for example, colours the way we see the world, but stumbles in helping us to answer the big philosophical questions that children naturally ask, but adults learn to stop wondering about. What is the world? How did it come into existence? What is the meaning of our time here on earth? I plan to keep reading as much Knausgaard as I can get my hands on. A modern-day Proust who writes with the unashamed honesty of a Sartre or Beauvoir.

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Writing Tips

Letters to a Young Writer: Some Practical and Philosophical Advice

Letters to a Young Writer: Some Practical and Philosophical Advice by Colum McCann

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Inspired by Rainer Maria Rilke’s ‘Letters to a Young Poet’, McCann’s book contains lots of really helpful little gems for the young (and not so young) writer. The prose is fresh, honest and pleasantly surprising, and refreshingly free of tired old cliches like ‘show don’t tell’. Covers all the aspects of being a writer, from seeking inspiration to dealing with frustration and failure, finding an agent, not finding an agent, etc, etc.

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Knausgaard’s Struggle

A Death in the Family (My Struggle Book 1)

A Death in the Family by Karl Ove Knausgård

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I’ve been looking forward to reading this for some time and it did not disappoint. Knausgaard is rigorously honest, but most if this honesty is targeted at himself and his own (often ‘unacceptable’) thoughts and feelings. He comes across as an outsider looking in on life, in the tradition of Sartre’s Roquentin in Nausea. The writing also poignantly and painfully describes the distance between us all even when we are close. A fine piece of literature that belongs amongst the best in the existentialist canon.

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A Writer’s Paris

A Writer's Paris: A Guided Journey For The Creative Soul

A Writer’s Paris: A Guided Journey For The Creative Soul by Eric Maisel

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

A writing friend recommended this to me for my recent self-arranged writing residency in Paris and it was perfect. Bite-sized pieces that I could read each day for inspiration about places/things/attitudes to get me in right frame of mind for creating. And it had a very important message which I heeded – to write in Paris you have to sit on your bum for many hours and write! The writing won’t just appear from endlessly swanning around Paris’s glorious streets, although I made sure i did a bit of that too…

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Read. Plot. Write.

That’s my 3-step approach to planning, structuring and writing a chapter. Or a book. Or an essay for that matter. I write narrative nonfiction: biography and cultural history. I’m often trying to capture a time in history, or a particular person’s contribution to history, so I need to research and absorb lots of disparate facts before trying to string it all together into a coherent, engaging narrative.

I’ll take you through the 3 steps I’ve developed, and describe how they work for me.


I also call this phase ‘Dream.’ It’s where I read for hours, days, sometimes a whole week, absorbing everything I can about the subject in question. I prefer to read actual books, especially second-hand ones I’ve found in bookstores or libraries. There’s something more inspiring about the smell of old texts, the yellowing of pre-loved pages. While reading I prefer not to take any notes, but occasionally I’ll jot things down in pencil on 5×3 index cards, each allocated to a different sub-topic. I especially like to record things I might not remember, like quotes, dates, names and facts. After reading for a few days, I go for a long walk or have a sleep, and when I return I . . .


I also call this phase ‘Draw.’ It’s where I activate the right hemisphere of my brain, the visuospatial part, to map out scenes for my chapter, chapters for my book, or if I’m writing an essay the subcomponent ‘pulses’ or ‘beats.’ Each of these scenes is represented by a post-it note, ideally just one word, that might have underneath it several 5×3 cards with details, facts, dates, quotes, etc. Even though I write nonfiction, I like, as much as possible, for the scenes to have the qualities a scene has in fiction: subject/protagonist, action, object, place, time, etc. I like to be able to visualise the scene as if it were in a film. And the post-it notes together must have a dramatic arc that gives narrative shape to the chapter.

Scenes for current chapter I’m working on

Sometimes I find it helpful to do a bit of mind mapping too. There are apps for this, such as Scapple and Simplemind, but I find a big block of white art paper and pencil (and eraser) easier to work with. Here is my mind map of the same chapter, including all the characters that will be involved. (If you’re wondering, this is a chapter on Marie Geoffrin, the greatest salon host of the French Enlightenment, and one of the seven women I explore in my next book, Salonnières.)

Mindmap of characters. Words on left are scene titles.


Now that I’ve read/dreamed and plotted/drawn, it’s time to put it all away. I have my structure ready. As Hemingway once said:

‘Prose is architecture, not interior decoration.’

When I’m ready to write, I will select whichever post-it note I’m up to, read the 5×3 cards under it, put it all away, go for another walk, and when I come back, start writing non-stop (without notes) until that chapter (usually 1-3,000 words) is complete. I won’t stop to check dates, quotes, etc because that will stop the narrative flow that is so crucial to first drafts. I can always come back later to fill in the missing bits.

Anyhow, that’s my process: Read. Plot. Write. What’s yours? I’d love to hear your thoughts about what I’ve described above, or any other processes you’ve found helpful to get those words flowing in the way you want them to!

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Writing Residencies

This year I was lucky enough to be selected for 4 writing residencies:

The Arteles Creative Centre in Finland

The Katharine Susannah Prichard Writers Centre in Perth, Australia

The Vermont Studio Center in the United States, and

The Can Serrat International Art Residency in Barcelona

In March this year, I spent three weeks at the Arteles Creative Centre in the Finnish countryside.

This was the first residency I had ever attended. Although excited and honoured to be selected (the application process is quite competitive), I was actually a little apprehensive before I left my comfortable Brisbane home. A few fears started doing the rounds in my mind:

Would I get writer’s block with all that time on my hands? Three full weeks without distraction, with nothing to do but write. The terror of the blank page started to haunt me before I even began.

Would I be lonely? Although I was looking forward to being away from my family to focus on my manuscript, would I miss them?

Would I be cold? I’d never been to Europe, let alone one of its northernmost countries, during winter.

Would I be able to feed myself? This is a bit of an embarrassing question to admit to, but I had been depending on my partner and daughter, who are much better cooks than me, to look after the bulk of my nutrition at home. The residency was in a remote location, with weekly drives to a grocery store about half an hour away, and residents expected to cater for themselves. How would I fare?

As it turns out, none of my fears were warranted.

In fact, I ended up having one of the best times of my life. I felt a deep happiness and joy at Arteles that I had not felt for years. What was so good about it?

Being able to write, create, ponder, and go deeply into my project all day, every day, without interruption.

Meeting other writers and artists from all over the world.

The beautiful environment — pristine, quiet, still and white. Just what my creative soul needed.

Nothing to do but write…

walk in the forest…

…or watch the sunset.

And I still have three residencies to look forward to over the next year. In Perth, Vermont and Barcelona. Although I’ve had a few ups and downs with my writing career (I’m still looking for a publisher for my longer works), I feel blessed to have been selected for these opportunities. I was also selected for the Yale Writers Conference last year, but was unable to attend due to family commitments.

The recent residency at Arteles reminded me that the most rewarding thing about writing is writing itself. To be absorbed in the reverie of creative flow for hours on end provides a joy like no other.

Have you ever been to a writers residency? If so, I’d love to hear about your experience:


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Searching for Henriette Herz

Earlier this month, I flew to Berlin to conduct some research for my next book, SalonnièresSalonnières explores the lives of seven women who hosted literary salons in Europe: Isabella d’Este, Catherine de Vivonne, Marie Geoffrin, Henriette Herz, George Sand, Gertrude Stein, and Virginia Woolf.

I was in Berlin to learn more about Henriette Herz. There is very little information available about her in English, even on the Internet. A brief Wikipedia entry tells us she lived in Berlin from 1764 to 1847, and was one of the first women to establish a salon in that city during the Jewish Emancipation.


Detail from Bildnis Henriette Herz by Anna Dorothea Therbusch, 1778. Alte Nationalgalerie, Berlin. Public Domain.

A generation earlier, the Jewish philosopher Moses Mendelssohn kicked off the Jewish Enlightenment when he came out of the ghetto and engaged in regular philosophical discussions with his non-Jewish peers. Herz’s salon continued this tradition; her guests included Wilhelm and Alexander von Humboldt, Mirabeau, and the theologian Schleiermacher, who eventually persuaded Herz to convert to Protestantism. Moses Mendelssohn’s daughter, the novelist and translator Dorothea Schlegel, also attended the salon.

On arriving in Berlin, I had very few leads to guide my research. Apart from the Wikipedia entry, the only useful resource I could find online was a photograph of Herz’s grave with a caption indicating its location.

And so, on a quiet grey morning in Berlin, I found myself standing outside a rather neglected-looking cemetery in lower Kreuzberg with a sign on its front wall — Kirchhof Jerusalem und Neue Kirche — that matched the caption on the online photograph. The gates of the cemetery, however, were securely locked, and there wasn’t another soul in sight. I then remembered it was a public holiday in Berlin, Whitsun Monday.


I had travelled all the way from Australia to find Henriette’s grave, but now all I could do was look through the wrought-iron fence to the wild array of headstones and monuments inside, wondering if hers was amongst them. I made my way around the perimeter of the graveyard, trying to find a way in. Eventually, I came across a side-gate that didn’t appear to be locked. I pushed it open and, after checking there were no police or other authorities around (was it an offence to break into a cemetery in Berlin on a public holiday, I wondered?), I let myself in.

Soon I found myself surrounded by the implacable silence of the dead. Gravestones and memorials for Brechts, Bernsteins, and Fischers in various states of disrepair stared blankly back at me. After about twenty minutes searching, I came across the heavily signposted gravesite of Moses Mendelssohn’s grandson, the composer Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy. This discovery gave me hope that I must be getting close to Henriette.


But she eluded me. I wandered past grave after grave, straining to read the names on the heavily-weathered headstones. I started to wonder if I was even in the right cemetery.

A strange, but surprisingly peaceful, feeling came over me as I traipsed through this seemingly never-ending field of nineteenth-century bourgeois Jews. This feeling was accentuated by the fact I was the only one in the cemetery at that time. All I had for company was the rustle of the trees and an occasional flitting sparrow. At one point a nervous-looking squirrel crossed my path before scurrying away into the undergrowth.


I was just about to call off my search, when I decided to look in one last area. An unruly, heavily-overgrown section in the cemetery’s south-eastern corner that didn’t look at all promising. It had no signage, only a few small headstones, and was almost completely covered by weeds.

Then, behind a large tree, I saw it. Henrietta’s grave, just as it had appeared online, with its headstone and cross rendered in dark, charcoal-grey marble. In front of her grave, rather impudently, lay an empty beer bottle, a indignity I found quite discomfiting given all the trouble I had undergone to come and pay my respects.


Still, at least I could be alone with her now. I felt like a detective who has just solved a major crime, or an archeologist who has unearthed a long-forgotten relic. I sat down before the resting place of the woman I had been imagining for the past two years, where she had been lying, undisturbed, for more than two centuries. There was a small sign at the foot of her grave. It read:

Henriette Herz 5.9.1764 to 22.10.1847. Saloniere. Sie leitete einen berühmten literarischen Salon. Ehefrau des Philosophen und Arztes Marcus Herz.

(Henriette Herz 5.9.1764 to 22.10.1847. Salonnière. She led a famous literary salon. Wife of the philosopher and physician Marcus Herz.


After spending a good hour silently communing with Henriette, I slowly walked back through the cemetery grounds, and on to the noisy, jostling Kreuzberg streets outside.


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