The invigorating strangeness of Friedrich Nietzsche


The philosopher and his shadow: A convalescent Nietzsche painted in
1894 by Curt Stoeving; right, his sister Elisabeth, who forever linked his name with the Nazis. PHOTO/Getty

A new biography reveals Nietzsche to be a perfect gentleman—shy, attentive, and a little whimsical

“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.

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