In praise of “vigorous ablutions with cold water, a scrupulous regard for personal cleanliness, and daily walks immediately after the midday meal.”
Our popular imagination tends to cast creative work as the product of the mind and the disembodied spirit. But any writer who has ever felt neuronally severed from her own cognitive faculties by sleeplessness, any artist whose paintbrush has trembled with the pangs of ravenous hunger, any musician whose strings have thundered with the oxytocin of a kiss, knows how intimately entwined our creaturely conditions are with our creative vitality. Rilke captured this symbiosis beautifully: “I am not one of those who neglect the body in order to make of it a sacrificial offering for the soul, since my soul would thoroughly dislike being served in such a fashion.”
But perhaps no artist embodies this interdependence of the creaturely and the creative better than Ludwig van Beethoven (December 16, 1770–March 26, 1827), whose outsiderly exceptionalism was the source of both his tragedy and his genius.
In his 1927 masterwork Beethoven the Creator (public library) — that uncommon and impassioned ode to “the joy of suffering overcome” — the French dramatist, novelist, essayist, and art historian Romain Rolland describes Beethoven’s superhuman strength and vigor, as extolled by the composer’s contemporaries:
He is built of solid stuff well cemented; the mind of Beethoven has strength for its base. The musculature is powerful, the body athletic; we see the short stocky body with its great shoulders, the swarthy red face, tanned by sun and wind, the stiff black mane, the bushy eyebrows, the beard running up to the eyes, the broad and lofty forehead and cranium, “like the vault of a temple,” powerful jaws “that can grind nuts,” the muzzle and the voice of a lion. Everyone of his acquaintance was astonished at his physical vigour. “He was strength personified,” said the poet Castelli. “A picture of energy,” wrote Seyfried. And so he remained to the last years, — until that pistol shot of the nephew that struck him to the heart. Reichardt and Benedict describe him as “cyciopean”; others invoke Hercules. He is one of the hard, knotty, pitted fruits of the age that produced a Mirabeau, a Danton, a Napoleon.
Rolland outlines the lifestyle regimen which held the secret to Beethoven’s extraordinary vitality:
He sustains this strength of his by means of vigorous ablutions with cold water, a scrupulous regard for personal cleanliness, and daily walks immediately after the midday meal, walks that lasted the entire afternoon and often extended into the night; then a sleep so sound and long that he thanklessly complained against it! His way of living is substantial but simple. Nothing to excess; he is no glutton, no drinker (in the evil sense of the word) as some have wrongfully described him. Like a good Rhinelander he loved wine, but he never abused it — except for a short period (1825–1826) … when he was badly shaken. He was fonder of fish than of meat; fish was his great treat. But his fare was rough and countrified: delicate stomachs could not endure it.
Rolland bridges these physical habits with the psychological constitution of this visionary artist, whose work ushered in nothing less than a creative revolution:
He who has freed himself from the bonds and the gags of an old rotting world, freed himself from its masters, its gods, must show himself to be worthy of his new liberty, capable of bearing it; otherwise, let him remain in chains! The prime condition for the free man is strength. Beethoven exalts it… There is something in him of Nietzsche’s superman, long before Nietzsche.
Complement the fascinating and beautifully written Beethoven the Creator with the young composer’s stirring letters to his brother about the loneliness of deafness and his passionate love letters, then revisit Mozart’s daily routine and the habits of great writers.
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