You have probably heard of Friedrich Nietzsche. He’s the 19th century German philosopher with the exceptional moustache who told us that what doesn’t kill us makes us stronger, and that ‘God is dead’.
While those are among his best known quotes, in a sense they exemplify the main problem when it comes to Nietzsche. That problem is how little people actually know about him, and how poorly he’s understood.
This problem was even more acute until the 1970s, when his works were rescued by scholars including Reg Hollingdale and Walter Kaufmann. If you own a Nietzsche book it’s likely to have been translated by one of these two reputation rehabilitators.
But even today people don’t know much about Nietzsche. Nietzsche is the man who – in my opinion – has shaped Western thought more than anyone since the time of ancient Greece.
Why, where, and how Nietzsche exerted this profound influence is explored in I Am Dynamite! Sue Prideaux’s work is an intimate, humorous, sometimes scathing, and always expertly crafted biography. The title is derived from a quote from the man himself:
‘I know my fate. One day my name will be associated with the memory of something tremendous […] I am no man, I am dynamite!’
Prideaux’s take on the life of Nietzsche spells out with charm and intimacy the factors, historical and personal, which went into bringing about this man and his tectonic ideas.
Behold the man
The phases of Nietzsche’s life might be very roughly separated as follows. In each episode, Prideaux brings to bear expert scholarship to flesh out the personality, quirks, strengths, and weaknesses of the man who would later, in a moment of contested sanity, declare himself ‘the Antichrist’.
Youth and school years
Nietzsche’s father Carl Ludwig was a Lutheran pastor in the German village of Rӧcken. Carl died when Nietzsche was still an infant, bequeathing to his son two significant things. First, the early ambition to become a member of the church, the study towards which would turn Nietzsche on his path towards becoming the greatest enemy of Christianity. Second, a devastating neurological illness, which killed father at 35 and son at 55.
We are also granted a peek into the brutal regime endured by Nietzsche at the Schulpforta, a former monastery turned school, to which he won a scholarship. Here Nietzsche indulged his passion for Greek, Latin, philosophy and history, earning himself the good-natured nickname of ‘the little scholar’.
Relationship with the Wagners
Absolutely fundamental to Nietzsche’s development is his relationship with the Wagners – note the plural, for Cosima plays a significant role here, too. Championed by the titanic Wagner as a man of especial ability, Nietzsche was sure to reciprocate, most notably by penning his first book The Birth of Tragedy. The book is essentially a homage to Wagner’s emergence in his eyes as Germany’s best hope at cultural renewal. But this friendship was not set to last…
In this period, Nietzsche’s eternally poor health takes a particularly bad turn, resulting in him being pensioned off. Thus begins the years of travelling and self-discovery that come to define the man and his philosophy. This new outlook is perhaps best exemplified by Human, All Too Human, which comes during this period, and is considered by most to be the starting point for Nietzsche’s mature philosophy.
We also get a fascinating – and heart-breaking – insight into the part of Nietzsche’s life which you might call the ‘romantic’. Nietzsche’s life was punctuated by illness and failure with women. It’s perhaps no surprise, then, that in this period he somehow ends up in a bizarre ménage à trois with the love of his life, Lou Salomé and their mutual friend Paul Rée.
The new philosopher and isolation
When Nietzsche breaks with Salomé and Rée, and more or less the rest of humanity, he embarks upon a decade or so of prodigiousness perhaps unrivalled in history. In this ten year period Nietzsche rattles off work after work; all of them masterpieces.
During this time we see the emergence of some of Nietzsche’s defining ideas including: the Übermensch, the transvaluation of values, the eternal recurrence, amor fati, and the genealogical approach to morality. Zarathustra, Nietzsche’s prophet and the saviour of humanity, is also born in this period.
This flirtation with stardom and recognition, the lack of which Nietzsche had always rued bitterly, is made all the more heart-breaking by what happened next.
Illness, the end and his legacy
By the time Nietzsche famously broke down in Turin, clutching at a flogged horse and declaring ‘I understand you!’, he had already given plenty of signs of his impending doom. His behaviour, in person and in print, had become increasingly erratic. He was signing his letters as ‘Dionysus’ (personifying chaos, the spirit of music, and all things primal), ‘the crucified one’, and ‘the Antichrist’.
The verdict? Probably brain cancer. Nietzsche’s story, which in many ways started with his father, finishes at the same place.
But if only it had finished there. After his breakdown, Nietzsche lived on as an angry and confused patient for another ten years, requiring constant care and suffering repeated strokes. Worse, though, he suffered a devastating campaign by his sister Elisabeth to co-opt his philosophy in service of Nazism.
A personal friend to the Führer, Elisabeth spent Nietzsche’s last living decade rewriting his philosophy, and destroying his reputation in the eyes of the world. The man described by Prideaux as a vehement ‘anti-anti-Semite’ was now being distorted, edited, bastardised, and distributed to Nazi soldiers in the trenches.
The cruel irony is that many of those soldiers were fighting against France, whom Nietzsche adored and saw as far superior to Germany in the first place. (For years Nietzsche perpetuated the total fabrication that he was Polish, in order to give his lineage some aristocratic and non-German sheen.) It was from this campaign by his cynical, racist, and bitterly jealous sister that Nietzsche’s reputation required rehabilitation.
Nietzsche and non-fiction November
Most biographies ask for, or even demand, an interest in the subject. As someone with half a shelf dedicated to Nietzsche, this book was probably bound to score with me. But Prideaux’s enviable arsenal of wit, humour, attention to detail, and objectivity means that this book should appeal to any student of history or philosophy.
If you enjoy philosophical non-fiction check out the recent review of Sam Harris’ Free Will for non-fiction November.