“I am not a man, I am dynamite!” Friedrich Nietzsche is famous for this kind of bombast, but most of his works are unassuming in tone, and his sentences are always plain, direct and clear as a bell. Take for instance the celebrated assault on “theorists” in his first book, The Birth of Tragedy, published in 1872. Theorists, Nietzsche says, know everything there is to know about “world literature”—they can “name its periods and styles as Adam did the beasts.” But instead of “plunging into the icy torrent of existence” they merely content themselves with “running nervously up and down the river bank.”
Read this word by word and the meaning seems straightforward enough. But it looks rather different when you zoom out to take in the book as a whole. Nietzsche begins The Birth of Tragedy by postulating an eternal conflict between two artistic principles: Dionysiac fury versus Apollonian cool. He then denounces philosophical reason as a sworn enemy to “healthy, natural creativity,” and concludes by saying that salvation lies in German music, beginning with Bach and Beethoven and culminating in Richard Wagner.
You don’t have to be a philosophical genius to notice that something strange is going on. Nietzsche’s grand theory of world culture can hardly be exempted from his own strictures on know-it-all theorists who deliver commentaries from the safety of the river bank.
But that, it seems to me, is where the fascination of Nietzsche lies. He constantly plays tricks on his readers, dangling solutions in front of us and then snatching them away. His books are like games of musical chairs, in which the reader always ends up with nowhere to sit down. Other philosophers may hope to console us, but Nietzsche offers nothing but bewilderment, embarrassment and discombobulation.
Nietzsche did all he could to prevent us from bringing his works together to form a stable theoretical edifice, and those seeking to unlock his philosophical secrets have always had to look to his life as much as his writings. It has become customary to regard him as not just an -iconoclast but an auto-iconoclast: a philosophical superhero who shattered the idols of his age and destroyed himself in the process. This is the approach taken by Sue Prideaux in her handsome, well-paced and readable new biography.
Prideaux has already demonstrated her biographical skills with prize-winning books on two of Nietzsche’s most colourful contemporaries: Edvard Munch and August Strindberg. As she presents them, Munch and Strindberg were pioneers of plain-speaking modernity, who faced up to Darwin’s challenge to Christianity while everyone else was busy wrapping frills around table legs. (Old stereotypes die hard.) Nietzsche now joins Munch and Strindberg as the third and most outspoken of Prideaux’s anti-Victorians.
His life makes a good story, and Prideaux tells it well. He was born in rural Saxony in 1844, and was four when he lost his father, a pious rural pastor, to “softening of the brain.” He then decided to dedicate his talents to the service of God. He also dreamed of getting a place at a venerable old college known as Schulpforta, and when he was 14 his wish came true. He impressed the teachers with his prodigious talent for languages, and went on to gain a reputation for scholarly brilliance at the universities of Bonn and Leipzig. At the age of 24, before he had even taken a degree, he was snapped up by the University of Basel to become Professor of Classical Philology. The job suited him well enough—he enjoyed expounding the classics of ancient Greek literature, especially when he could cast doubt on the idea that they are embodiments of eternal truth and beauty—but after 10 years he was pensioned off on grounds of poor health, and embarked on the life of a rootless freelance philosopher.
Nietzsche preferred his own company to that of others, but he also had a rare capacity for friendship. First among his friends was Richard Wagner, who lived for a while at Tribschen, not far from Basel. Wagner was working on his massive Ring Cycle at the time, but he enjoyed having the star-struck young professor as a house-guest, at least until Nietzsche started trying to impress him with his own musical compositions. After that Nietzsche turned to someone his own age: a German Jew called Paul Rée (some relation of mine) who opened his eyes to the challenges of English utilitarianism, the allure of French style, and the pleasures of life in Italy. Rée also introduced him to a fearless young Russian psychoanalyst called Lou Salomé, who proposed that the three of them should live together as an “unholy trinity” of free spirits—a proposal that Nietzsche did not endorse.
Nietzsche’s philosophical contemporaries tended to see themselves as participants in an impersonal, cumulative process of intellectual evolution, under an obligation to articulate what they took to be the most advanced ideas of their time. But this approach struck Nietzsche as disastrous—servile, conformist and hypocritical—and after finishing The Birth of Tragedy he embarked on a set of essays called Untimely Meditations in which he raised a banner for cheerful anachronism as opposed to up-to-date modernity. Wisdom was at its best, he said, when most erratic and evanescent. “Consider the cattle,” he wrote:
They have no knowledge of yesterday or today; they frisk around, they rest, they ruminate and digest, and then they frisk again… What they have—a life without pain or boredom—is precisely what we would like to have too; but we reject it because we don’t want to lower ourselves to the level of cattle. We might ask one of them the following question: “Why stand there staring at me—why not speak and tell me about your happiness?” The beast would like to answer us and say: “The reason is that I always forget what I was going to say”—but it immediately forgets this answer too. It lapses into silence and keeps its counsel… and we are left amazed.
Everything we know is wrong and we should do our best to forget it.
In the next 10 years, Nietzsche wrote a series of knowledgeable denunciations of knowledge, conjuring paradoxes from common sense under such brilliant titles as Human, All Too Human, The Wanderer and his Shadow and The Gay Science. He also started playing cat-and-mouse with one of the simplest sequences of monosyllables you could imagine: “God is dead.” The sentence was not new, but earlier proponents such as Hegel and Ralph Waldo Emerson had not really known what to do with it. It expresses a conceptual impossibility after all: if God has ever existed, then by definition he must exist for all time; and if he does not exist now, then by definition he never did. Either way the question of his death could not arise.
But Nietzsche persevered as if it made perfect sense: “God is dead,” he said, and what is more, “it was us that killed him.” In 1883 he started elaborating the theme in Thus Spoke Zarathustra, a set of orations which some readers seem to find inspiring, though the rest of us see them as a regrettable lapse into pseudo-biblical melodrama. In any case he soon regained his poise, and in Beyond Good and Evil and The Genealogy of Morality he went back to playing witty games with his readers, arguing that once we have killed off God, we will be able to raise ourselves above the rest of humanity by treating compassion as a vice rather than a virtue, and morality itself as immoral.
Over a period of 15 years Nietzsche brought out around 15 books (depending how you count them), each with its own paradoxes, its own style and its own pungent flavours. Sometimes he seemed to be behaving like Hamlet, flaunting his ability to stay sane while acting as if he was mad, but his performances became more and more extreme, and finally lost their charm. In 1889, when he was 44, he started signing his letters der Gekreuzigte (“the Crucified”), and his friends realised he was no longer messing around.
Within a few weeks he transitioned to full-blown megalomania and suffered a breakdown from which he never recovered. He spent the remaining 11 years of his life in a state of infantile dependency, treated by both admirers and detractors as a screen on which they could project all sorts of lurid fantasies. They picked a few isolated phrases from his well-crafted works and rode hobby-horses with names like “new atheism,” “immoralism,” “decadence,” “nihilism,” “egoism” and “aristocratic radicalism.” They have carried on doing so ever since.
Apart from Lou Salomé, the only other woman to have a lasting impact on Nietzsche was, as Prideaux shows, his sister Elisabeth. In his early days in Basel she sometimes kept house for him, but eventually he came to loathe her for her petty nationalism and ferocious anti-semitism. After his breakdown, however, she took it on herself to serve as his nurse and protector and before his death in 1900 she had created the grotesque Nietzsche-Archiv in Weimar—a combined shrine and library where her helpless and uncomprehending brother would be wheeled out to gratify the curiosity of her guests. She also brought out luxurious editions of his works, including unpublished manuscripts, and composed a long and tendentious biography. As far as she was concerned her crowning achievement came in 1934, when she received a visit from Adolf Hitler, whom she saw as the fulfilment of her brother’s prophecies.
If anyone still believes in some affinity between Nietzsche and Nazism then this engaging book will disabuse them. Prideaux is not officiously scholarly, but she paints a vivid picture of Nietzsche as “an unusually mild man” who had a passion for Alpine hikes and wild swimming, and struck all who met him as “uncomplicated and friendly.” Like many writers he often seemed self-preoccupied or absent-minded but, as Prideaux puts it, “there wasn’t a trace of the prophet about him.” He was, it seems, a perfect gentleman, soft-spoken and impeccably groomed, shy, attentive, and perhaps a little whimsical: not dynamite, in short, but another eminent Victorian.