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But here I have to admit to some embarrassment because I seem to be 'explaining' Nico's lyrics when actually the main interest lies in the fact that they can't be explained - that, at their best, they have an impact that is only loosely connected to their prose meaning. The purpose of what I've written so far has been to show that they are not arbitrary, they are deeply rooted in her life experience. One of the proofs that the words are not arbitrary or indifferent comes in the difficulty she had writing them. This was nowhere so evident as when she was commissioned by her former musical accompanist Lutz Graf-Ulbrich to produce material for a major concert to be held in the Berlin Planetarium in 1988. She managed to produce a grand total of 122 words. One can imagine the dismay of her arranger, James Young, when confronted with the need to make a seven minute piece of music out of the words:

I will be seven
When we meet in Heaven.

Yet these words are not arbitrary. Serge Féray in his commentary on Nico's writings in Cible mouvant (p.170) quotes the notes she made for a projected autobiography/diary saying 'one is only once in a lifetime seven times seven years old.' The passage continues 'In sixteen days exactly that will happen to me. In sixteen more days I might be dead twice.' And of course Nico died at the age of forty nine. James Young (p.148) records an exchange with her manager in the 1980s, Alan Wise, who was Jewish, who obviously loved her and whose relationship with her was consequently problematical:

'"Give me a child till the age of seven - I quote Ignatius Loyola - and he is mine for life'" said Demetrius [Young in the book calls Wise 'Dr Demetrius']. "Hitler also employed that motto, Nico ... when were you born? 1938? Let me see ... forty five minus thirty eight why, that makes seven. Interesting."'

1945, of course, was the year the war ended, Germany was defeated and, it could be thought, ceased to exist as a distinct moral entity. There is a suggestion in her song that Nico never really reached the age of seven and that in turn maybe echoes the mysterious lines in Janitor of lunacy (nothing to do with Brian Jones, surely (8)):

Janitor of lunacy
Paralyse my infancy
Petrify the empty cradle
Bring hope to them and me

As if to say she wished she had never been born.

(8) Féray relates the title, Janitor of Lunacy, to Philippe Garrel and a treatment he underwent - including shock therapy - for a mental disorder. Nico rescued him. The incident is treated fictionally in his film L'enfant secret (the secret child being fairly clearly based on  Ari).

The two lines 'I will be seven etc' appear in Cible mouvant as part of a longer poem, On a cross-road in Shanghai:

It will be a day perhaps in December
For everybody to remember
On a crossroad in Shanghai
You can be the story of my life
And I - I will be seven
When we meet in Heaven

Nico had fantasies about her father and, though he died very young and seems to have been a rather weak character, succumbing to family pressure to divorce Grete soon after marrying her, she spoke of him as having been a Sufi mystic who had travelled widely in the Orient and knew Gandhi. (9) Well ... Maybe it is her father she imagines on a crossroad in Shanghai.

(9) The Päffgen family were brewers based in Cologne. Witts says that Wilhelm had 'voyaged as a student to distant lands on ventures of a soul-searching nature; he followed the bourgeois German traditions of the Wanderjahr, the year of wandering.' That may explain the stories Nico built round him. Bickerdike, however, tells us (p.9) that Wilhelm was Grete's second husband. She had previously been married to a painter called Rodolf Paul Emil Schulz ('Schulz' was also Grete's family name). I know nothing about him but wonder if he might not have been behind some of the ideas Nico had about her father. 

But there I go again trying to 'explain' what Nico has - obviously deliberately - left obscure.

Which brings me to the problem that caused me to turn to Heidegger. I wanted to find a word that would somehow convey the meaning of 'stupidity' without being pejorative. Because it seems to me that it is almost Nico's 'stupidity' - her limitations, the things that were somehow, deliberately or not, blocked out of her mind (10) - that could constitute her strength. Actually I think I might have found the word I was looking for - 'stupefaction'. Nico strikes me as someone in a manner of speaking 'stunned' by her confrontation with reality. But it still needs some explaining how this will turn into poetry.

(10) The song Purple Lips has the lines: 'Sometimes we must keep from bringing/Certain thoughts up to the light.'

In the 1920s, prior to publishing Being and time, Heidegger gave a series of lectures on Plato's Sophist which began with a discussion of the 'five qualities through which the mind achieves truth' as proposed by Aristotle. These were broadly techne (technical skill), phronesis (circumspection, prudence), episteme (scientific knowledge, study), sophia (wisdom) and nous - (for which I will here propose the term 'vision', direct perception). (11)

(11) I discuss this in my essay 'Heidegger and the "Latinisation" of Greek Culture', Church and State, No 138, Oct-Dec 2019, accessible in the 'Politics and Theology' section of the present website.

The first four of these are susceptible to being expressed in words. The fifth - the nous - is not. In traditional religious societies, the nous, which can be translated as the 'noetic faculty', is the means by which we enter into relations with God, gods, demons, angels and, perhaps, the dead. The Philokalia, a compilation of the writings of monks and hermits which plays a central role in the thinking of the Orthodox Church, could be described as a manual, or collection of manuals, for the ascetic discipline necessary to the opening of the noetic faculty. But I think we can usefully think of it, like all the other 'qualities through which the mind achieves truth' listed by Aristotle, as something very varied and even on occasion commonplace. For example, what happens when we find ourselves face to face with the stark beauty of a tree in winter? Something happens, something undoubtedly real, but it would be very difficult to find words for it.

Heidegger says that Aristotle - pre-eminently a man of words - had great difficulty discussing the noetic faculty but that he saw 'wisdom' (sophia, the means of achieving truth loved by philosophers) as a combination of the nous with episteme (scientific knowledge, study), recognising in wisdom the part of intuition or 'inspiration', the gift of the gods, in the philosopher's work. But it would seem obvious that the natural terrain for the exercise of the noetic faculty is in the domain of the arts, with poetry particularly challenged to convey in words perceptions that lie outside language. I believe that trying to make sense of this, to bring it to the centre of our idea of what it is to be human, lies at the heart of Heidegger's whole life-long endeavour, including the very early period when he still hoped to be a theologian. And I would add that the attempt to open Marxism up to this dimension is perhaps also how we can understand the endeavour of Herbert Marcuse who, unintentionally I suppose, provided a theoretical justification for the actions of the Red Army Faction and related groups. It would be difficult to justify Ulrike Meinhof's hatred of consumerism on the basis of a pure application of the canons of dialectical materialism (a problem of which she was herself aware).

A great poet, one imagines, would exercise all the means of attaining truth listed by Aristotle. Nico was not a great poet. Her technique (techne) as a singer and player of the harmonium was perfectly adapted to what she wanted to do but, considered purely as a matter of skill, what she wanted to do was modest when compared to what any classical or jazz musician would want to do. Her conduct of her life could hardly be regarded as a great example of prudence (phronesis) nor would we turn to her for thoughts that could adequately be expressed in words (as episteme, knowledge acquired through study, or sophia, wisdom). Her life, her reflections on her life, the retreat into the world of dreams, with or without the use of drugs (but without the crippling theoretical self-consciousness of Surrealism) were chaotic. But it is precisely this 'stupidity' or, better, 'stupefaction' that opens the way for the exercise of the noetic faculty, and that is the essence of poetry - the element that distinguishes poetry from prose, a confrontation with words that has an effect similar to the confrontation with a naked tree, stripped of its leaves, in Winter. 

That is how, I believe, Heidegger understands it in his essay on Hölderlin, when he says '"To dwell poetically" means to stand in the presence of the gods and to be struck by the essential nearness of things.' (12) But Heidegger, though respecting Hölderlin's descent into madness, would still be looking for the exercise of the other means of attaining truth. Nico was taught by Jim Morrison who would certainly have known Rimbaud's famous formula: 'The Poet makes himself a seer by a long, rational and immense disordering of all the senses.' Nico of course was infinitely better at it than Morrison. (13)

(12) Martin Heidegger: Elucidations of Hölderlin's poetry, translated by Keith Hoeller, Humanity Books, 2000, p.60.

(13) Féray prefaces his book with a quote attributed to Nico reading, in French: 'Le véritable artiste se doit de s'autodestruire.' I find it difficult to imagine how she would have expressed this in English - 'The true artist has a duty to destroy himself' - doesn't quite get the resonance of 'se doit' - 'the true artist owes it to himself to destroy himself.'

My overall thesis, then, is that Nico's songs are rooted in an emotional world that would have been deeply felt by many Germans after the war but which couldn't be expressed openly. I'm not suggesting - the suggestion has been made by others - that she was a Nazi sympathiser. But the collapse of something that had been immensely powerful into a state of endless cringing apology necessarily leaves an emotional scar (I'm tempted to refer to the title of the film she made with Philippe Garrel - La Cicatrice intérieure). The need to express something that couldn't be expressed projected her into an inner life full of images of loss that have a power that goes beyond any prose meaning that could be assigned to them.

Three examples, chosen more or less at random, each of which I could discuss at greater length in prose but what would be the point:

1) From the song Purple Lips (Drama of Exile, 1981)

I have been looking out for him
From over a broken bridge
The safest place it seems to be
To ever reach his purple lips

2) from The Hanging Gardens of Semiramis (Fata Morgana, 1994, the Berlin Planetarium concert, recorded in 1988)

Who of all the faces could it be
Where of all the places could it be
Laughing and coughing
Coughing and laughing
In the hanging gardens of

3) Maybe the greatest of them all, from You forget to answer (The End, 1974)

You seem not to be listening
You seem not to be listening
The high tide has taken everything
And you forget to answer

Well. If you're not convinced, just go to Youtube and hear her singing them.