November 1887. The last rays of a winter sun warm the Promenade des Anglais. A few red-haired tourists, under hats as wide as gulls, swear against the wind which rushes into their garish dresses and turns their openwork umbrellas, with feeble whalebones, made for the heat of July. The chubby husbands, cream pants, two-tone boots and knobbed canes, clutch their boaters. All are expected at the restaurant, where they will be served fine wines and lobster. It’s 6 o’clock in the evening.
In the doorway of a porte-cochere, a brilliant mustache, whose love of the Mediterranean keeps bringing him back to the Côte d’Azur, no longer has the strength to smile. This grotesque, cosy, fearful humanity has never asked itself the question of the intensity of life. And the enormous mustache of the atrabilaire trembles with contempt: the “dominant” class of this ending 19th century has restricted its horizon to cushions.
At least nihilism finds an illustration at every street corner, in the opulent softness of these slaves who do not know each other, and who deserve to be knocked out, if not by the Superman who is too late, at least by some vigorous warrior worthy of the name of man. Fortunately, in the small port, a band of merry fishermen unload their cases of gurnards and clams while singing. Nice is an Italian city. We are far from Saxony.
Calvados too. Because Thérèse, a 14-year-old from Normandy, is coming back from Rome. She went there with her father and her sister Céline on the occasion of a pilgrimage organized by the diocese of Bayeux. She is also worried. Her meeting with the pope, on the day of the long-awaited audience, was not conclusive: the Holy Father, very old and half deaf, did not grant her the dispensation she had hoped for in order to be able to enter as soon as she was 15 years, which she will celebrate on January 2, at the Carmel of Lisieux.
Wouldn’t the Lord hear his prayers? Yet it was he who placed such a huge desire in his heart. A desire that no lobster platter, no frou-frou of dress, no bourgeois with boater and curly mustache will ever be able to satisfy. The palm trees are swaying. The wind has picked up over the sea. Tomorrow it will be Paris, then Lisieux, where no one is yet able to say what the outcome of the affair will be. Thérèse does not dare to imagine that she will be forbidden to live the vocation of which she is sure. But the melancholy hovers.
Under her little white hat, she leaves the large building with modern comforts where she spent the night with her family, and where Chekhov and Matisse will stay in turn, a few years later. She takes a few steps on the Promenade des Anglais, meets a group of fashionable socialites there, whose squalls threaten the parasols and the boaters. The vanity of such a spectacle wrung his heart. She thinks.
Towards what is this humanity marching? She leans against the wall of the large hotel building, looks at the sky, a bright blue. But suddenly there she is in the shadows. She looks up at this unwelcome cloud: he sports a huge salt-and-pepper mustache, a roughly knotted black tie, a worried forehead. Thérèse Martin maintains the steely gaze of the prophet of atheism. Friedrich Nietzsche regains hope: humanity is perhaps not completely lost. There is still this little girl, with in her eyes the courageous gleam of those who have decided to be happy.
Hans Urs von Balthasar once said that Saint Thérèse of Lisieux was the only weapon available to Catholics to respond to Nietzsche. In November 1887, little Norman was in Nice. She was able to meet there a Friedrich Nietzsche on vacation, who then spent all his winters in the capital of the Côte d’Azur.