In an empty retro-futuro gate lounge at Kennedy Airport in New York, I began turning around a few queer facts about Friedrich Nietzsche in the year before syphilitic madness turned him into a vegetable.
Nietzsche spent the months before his breakdown in Turin, Italy, nurturing a fetishistic enchantment with the city's baroque architecture and wide, straight boulevards. He lived as a boarder with a family with two daughters, took long walks by himself and, with failing eyesight, scribbled out his shocking autobiography, "Ecce Homo," in a few weeks. By the end of his stay, he began to feel alternately that he was Dionysus, Christ and a royal personage awaiting reception by the Savoys, Italy's royal family, whose palace was within shouting distance of Nietzsche's room.
As his decline steepened, one of the daughters in the house caught him dancing around in the midst of a Dionysian autoerotic exercise. On an afternoon walk down to the River Po, he threw his arms around the neck of a bedraggled cart-horse and collapsed with it to the pavement, talking all the while about his imaginary affair with Cosima Wagner, the composer's second wife. This last episode was one of the final acts in a personal drama that he thought of as his Passion -- the disintegration of personality and sense equaling the final sufferings of Jesus of Nazareth.
These facts came to mind because I was on my way to Turin that day and Nietzsche's history there was one of the few things I knew of the city. My trip was impulsive -- I had bought the ticket only two days earlier. I was going there to satisfy a fascination I had acquired from a good friend and classmate several years earlier.
This friend had gotten to know a professor at the medical school at our university who, for 15 years, had been researching the Shroud of Turin. My friend, by nature skeptical, had slowly come to share the doctor's opinion that the cloth had, in fact, once enshrouded the corpse of Jesus of Nazareth, and that by unexplained means a very complex likeness of the dead man had been formed on the surface of its threads.
Since then I had followed the developments in Shroud of Turin research and through this friend had met some of the primary researchers. I couldn't deny my appetite to see this thing. According to the archbishop of Turin, it will not be on display again until 2025 -- a little postponement meant a very long postponement, so I sprung for the ticket.
But thinking about Nietzsche began to infect my notion of the trip. In an absurd and monumental way, characteristic of the philosopher himself, he seemed to own Turin -- like I would be his guest there and had to adjust to his terms. With nothing else to do, I wondered, and didn't stop throughout my trip: What would Nietzsche -- who helped define the intellectual climate of the 20th century, who attacked Christianity and its God with an appetite for no less than complete decimation -- make of this strip of linen with its ketchup-colored bloodstains and the unexplained picture of the bearded man upon it? Could I visit one without offending the spirit of the other?
It's no surprise that Nietzsche never made a written reference to the Shroud of Turin. It was not on display when he lived in the city -- rather it was kept wrapped around a wooden dowel in a silver reliquary chest in the private chapel at Savoy Palace. There would have been no reason for Nietzsche to regard this relic any differently than all the pieces of the True Cross or crucifixion nails scattered throughout the churches of Europe: He ignored it.
It was only a decade after Nietzsche was carried from Turin to an institution in Switzerland in some form of butterfly net that some of the more remarkable properties of the relic began to surface. While he passed his final days in catatonia, the shroud was exhibited and photographed for the first time. An amateur named Segundo Pia took pictures of the separate frontal and dorsal images of the 6-foot-tall man. These images overlay a set of bloodstains congruent with wounds from the process of torture and crucifixion described in the gospels.
To the naked eye, it's not that impressive -- the lights and darks seem strangely jumbled. But when Pia developed his plates, the negatives revealed positive images of photographic quality, never before seen or suspected, of the bearded man. It seemed the shroud image itself had been, at least since it surfaced in southwest France in the 14th century, a negative that had predated the invention of photography by half a millennium.
Twentieth century examination has found that extensive skeletal detail is subtly visible in the image; vertebrae, the roots of the teeth and bones of the skull show up as they would appear in an X-ray. The most convincing descriptions of how the "image areas" of cloth were formed suggest that a pattern of thread fibers was oxidized and dehydrated from exposure to some form of radiation.
To date, none of the modern students of the cloth who consider it the manufactured hoax of an anonymous medieval artisan have enjoyed anything but complete embarrassment in trying to reproduce it themselves. Those who think it did cover Jesus' body and that the image was formed by an "event" in the tomb are left to discuss why in 1988 the linen cloth was found by carbon dating to be from the 14th century.
When people ask me what I think the cloth is, I usually respond that the barriers to explaining the shroud as a forgery are greater than those to explaining a flaw in the protocol of the C14 dating -- a flaw that might prove a first century origin after all. A great deal of physical data has been compiled and published in peer-reviewed journals by shroud researchers -- many of whom are well-credentialed doctors and scientists who came to the shroud through their specialties, such as forensic medicine. Much of this data indicates that the shroud is, indeed, extraordinary. Nothing in my own experience suggests that religious miracles occur, but I feel no responsibility to try to explain what did happen.
I arrived in Turin just as Nietzsche did for the first time: at midday on a bright Thursday aboard a train from Milan. Like the philosopher, I walked north from the Porta Nuova station in the direction of the Palazzo Reale in search of a room. Nietzsche was immediately intoxicated by the city and wrote to a theologian:
Turin! ... This is really the town I can use now! Aristocratic tranquillity has been preserved here in everything ... a unity of taste, which extends even to the color (the whole city is yellow or reddish brown). And for the feet as the eyes it is a classical place! What safety, what pavements, not to speak of the omnibuses and trams which are so well run they evoke wonder! No, what serious and splendid squares! ... Evenings on the Po Bridge: superb! Beyond Good or Evil!!
It was the place he'd been looking for -- somewhere to be a capital seat for the Kingdom of Himself. As he remarked in several letters, the light in Turin is pale and strong. The Alps are visible to the north and the ruler-straight roads seem to run all the way to their vanishing points in the foothills. The unity and grandness of the architecture give the city a monolithic, and surreal, feeling. When I arrived, most stores were closed either for lunch or for the last week of summer vacation. In the empty streets I felt a sudden sympathy for the dwarfed figure in Giorgio de Chirico's cityscape "Spring in Turin."
That first evening, still dazed from travel, I walked from my hotel to the large public square in front of the Royal Palace, and followed signs for the shroud exhibition. To view the relic requires a circuitous trek around the royal armory and through the palace grounds.
The pavilioned pathway took the sparse evening crowd through a series of temporary structures with carpeted walls, each a station to commemorate major events of the Passion with reprints from Old Master paintings. It finally led to a very stuffy corrugated metal warehouse in which a silent film presenting the cloth was being screened. The film offered close-ups of the famous image and of the bloodstains, including one from the apparent piercing of the left wrist. One shot lingered on this bloodstain, about the size of a 50-cent piece, with trickles of blood winding away down the forearm. Very unexpectedly, I felt an ache rise in my chest. At that moment, and then never quite again, it felt real.
We came finally to the ornate chapel where the relic was mounted in a bulletproof-glass case filled with argon gas, and draped all around with red velvet cloth. Two small palm plants in plastic pots flanked it and a bunch of white irises drooped in a vase beneath. The pilgrims and tourists beside me gazed intently, seeming edgy and puzzled. I ended up looking at them more than at the cloth, trying to see how a Belgian tourist or an old priest in a wheelchair reacts when he thinks he might be looking at the blood and image of his Lord. With remarkable restraint, it turns out. An announcer offered a prayer to remind us that "il Signore" suffered for us, and then asked that we move away to our right.
Nietzsche was an atheist. But much of his writing is infused with a sense of the possibility of human transformation, of momentary revelation, of symbols, of the unspeakable joys and horrors of insight -- in short, the ground of religion. He was obsessed with poetic means of framing and re-framing his own experience and knowledge and often used religious themes for this; by the end of his life the Christ figure had become absolutely central in how he thought of himself. He began to choreograph his own Passion, signing his ranting letters as "The Crucified One." In some ways he's the ideal modern Christ: strange, brilliant, fearless, iconoclastic and influential beyond measure.
Among his final pieces of prose was "Dionysus Zagreus comes to the River Po," a short and vitriolic account of himself as a god-man torn to pieces by his enemies and resurrected to walk again along the Po, surveying all that he ever loved. It was destroyed by his sister and survives only in summary, but clearly Turin felt like his own Jerusalem.
Nietzsche was self-important and good-humored enough -- knowing that his own "Passion" was playing out blocks from a purported snapshot of Jesus, midresurrection, would surely have given him a thrill. Whether he would have regarded the shroud as pathetic, as some critics do today, I can't say. It seems possible that he would not have. There is a risking and hunger in Nietzsche's thought, one that might have liked the strangeness and pure audacity of this swath of possibility.
On my last day in Turin I got the chance, through the kindness of two new friends making a network special for Italian television, to spend a morning looking at the relic up close while pretending to assist the film crew. After about 45 minutes, I finally felt some perceptual clarity looking at it. I let this grow while waves of visitors passed through, stared for the allotted three minutes and shuffled away to the right.
As merely an aesthetic object -- all I was trying to see it as -- the shroud is unlike anything else on the planet. It is layered, haunting and evocative, and it bears a singular tension between reality and symbol. Genuine burial cloth or not, it should be seen.
I wonder if Nietzsche might not have applied his boisterous "Beyond Good or Evil!!" descriptor sympathetically to the Shroud of Turin as well as to Turin itself: beyond a hackneyed "Good" of dumb pious acceptance, and beyond an "Evil" of implacable, secular scorn. He was a man of refined judgment, after all, and if nothing else, it's a damn good tapestry.