Ni­et­zsche as he really was

DavidCon­way wel­comes a cor­rec­tive state­ment. An­drewMer­ri­man laughs and sighs

The Jewish Chronicle - - LIFE - He is now part of the most pop­u­lar A-level syl­labus

AF­TER THE Sec­ond World War, a cam­paign suc­cess­fully re­stored Ni­et­zsche’s rep­u­ta­tion by re­pu­di­at­ing any sugg e s t i o n t hat he har­boured gen­uine an­ti­semitic sen­ti­ments. The nu­mer­ous, seem­ingly anti-Jewish re­marks that fes­toon his writ­ings were ei­ther sub­ject to sani­tised rein­ter­pre­ta­tion or at­trib­uted to the ma­lign in­flu­ence of his “wicked” sis­ter El­iz­a­beth who gained ed­i­to­rial con­trol of his oeu­vre af­ter her brother de­scended into mad­ness in his fi­nal years.

So re­ha­bil­i­tated has the once al­most vil­i­fied thinker be­come that Ni­et­zsche’s writ­ing now fig­ures along­side that by Plato, Descartes, Hume and Mill as a set tex­tinthe­coun­try’smost­pop­u­lar A-level phi­los­o­phy syl­labus.

Those who buy in to this re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion will have to re­vise their opin­ion in the light of the over­whelm­ing ev­i­dence scrupu­lously as­sem­bled by Amer­i­can aca­demic RobertHol­u­bin­his­metic­u­lous­lyre­searched and well-doc­u­mented book. As Holub ex­plains, “an­ti­semitism” now means some­thing dif­fer­ent from what it did when Ni­et­zsche could faith­fully call him­self an anti-an­ti­semite:

“Nor­mally, if we speak of… ‘ an­ti­semitism’, we sim­ply mean… ha­tred of, or bias against, Jewry. But there is a par­tic­u­lar sense at­tached to an­ti­semitism for Ni­et­zsche… that does not ex­actly match our cur­rent un­der­stand­ing of the term… op­po­si­tion to an­ti­semitism for Ni­et­zsche did not nec­es­sar­ily en­tail the elim­i­na­tion of bias against Jewry.”

While op­posed to the racist po­lit­i­cal move­ment that arose in Ger­many in the 1880s un­der the name “An­ti­semitism”, through­out his adult life, Ni­et­zsche har­boured, and in­ter­mit­tently ex­pressed, strongly hos­tile sen­ti­ments to­wards Jews, de­spite oc­ca­sional ex­pres­sions of ad­mi­ra­tion for their unique ca­pac­ity to sur­vive the sever­est ad­ver­sity.

Althoughraise­d­i­nanap­par­ent­lyJewfree en­vi­ron­ment, a note­book of the ado­les­cent Ni­et­zsche con­tains a poem with the line: “Throw the Jew Itzig out, out of the tem­ple, the raven-black can­tor house.”

More as­ton­ish­ingly, de­spite at the start of his univer­sity stud­ies in Bonn read­ing two works about Less­ing’s play Nathan the Wise sym­pa­thetic to its favourable de­pic­tion of its Jewish hero, within a year of mov­ing to Leipzig to con­tinue his stud­ies, the 22-year-old Ni­et­zsche was echo­ing in a let­ter home the con­temp­tu­ous at­ti­tude of his fel­low stu­dents totheJewish­mer­chantswhofre­quented the city’s an­nual fair: “Every­where is teem­ing with re­volt­ing, in­sipid apes and other mer­chants. Fi­nally… I found a tav­ern where we didn’t have to coun­te­nance oily but­ter and Jewish mugs… Every­where you look there are Jews and as­so­ciates of Jews.”

Ni­et­zsche’s low opin­ion of Jews was not im­proved by his sub­se­quent fate­ful en­counter with the pair of vir­u­lent Jew-haters Arthur Schopen­hauer and Richard Wag­ner. His low es­ti­mate of the cul­tural ca­pa­bil­i­ties of Jews, es­pe­cially in re­li­gion and the larger one they had be­queathed to gen­tiles in the form of Chris­tian­ity, sur­vived to the very end his break with the thought of th­ese two.

This il­lu­mi­nat­ing book makes it all too clear why Ni­et­zsche is so ven­er­ated to­day as to be thought wor­thy of in­clu­sion in the school curriculum. It is pre­cisely his ve­he­ment de­tes­ta­tion of the Judeo-Chris­tian tra­di­tion that so ap­peals to the bien pen­sants who de­ter­mine and re­in­force to­day’s deca­dent, sec­u­lar, de­ra­ci­nated cul­ture. Ni­et­zsche’s re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion marks a true re­birth of tragedy in a sense wholly un­in­tended by him. David Con­way is a vis­it­ing pro­fes­so­rial re­search fel­low at Civ­i­tas


Friedrich Ni­et­zsche: Blot on the cul­tural land­scape?

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