An out­stand­ing bi­og­ra­phy re­veals the full ex­tent of Ni­et­zsche’s delu­sions of grandeur, says John Carey.

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Friedrich Ni­et­zsche was the Wal­ter Mitty of philoso­phers. Like James Thurber’s comic hero, he was not much to look at: short and stout, he wore thick-lensed green spec­ta­cles to pro­tect his weak eyes. His con­duct matched his ap­pear­ance: he was mild-man­nered and cour­te­ous to­wards women. But in his imag­i­na­tion he was a su­per­man, a mighty prophet, an “as­tro­naut of the spirit” – and ruth­less with the fair sex. “You go to women? Do not for­get the whip!” he ad­vised in his philo­soph­i­cal tes­ta­ment Thus Spake Zarathus­tra.

Un­for­tu­nately, his delu­sions of grandeur grad­u­ally took hold of him. His fa­ther, a Lutheran pas­tor in the small Ger­man town of Rocken, had died young and in­sane, and in mid­dle age Ni­et­zsche be­gan to show signs of mad­ness. “I shall rule the world from now on,” he told a friend in 1888. In Jan­uary 1889, aged 45, he was found danc­ing naked, ap­par­ently be­liev­ing him­self to be the Greek god Diony­sius. Un­til his death 10 years later, he re­mained in­cur­ably in­sane, cared for by his mother and sis­ter, of whom he ob­served: “It would blas­pheme my divin­ity to think that I am re­lated to this sort of canaille.”

In her lat­est bi­og­ra­phy I Am Dy­na­mite! A Life of Friedrich Ni­et­zsche, Sue Prideaux has cho­sen an­other dif­fi­cult sub­ject to cel­e­brate. Her last, writ­ten in 2012, was about the drama­tist Au­gust Strind­berg, a ra­bid misog­y­nist in thrall to weird oc­cult be­liefs, who was bru­tal to his three wives. Ni­et­zsche seems al­most like­able by com­par­i­son. He bat­tled against chronic ill-health all his life – blind­ing headaches, sup­pu­rat­ing ears, marathons of vom­it­ing. As a boy, he got up at 5am each day to study, and won a place at a top Ger­man school where pupils were ex­pected to converse in Latin and Greek. He shone aca­dem­i­cally, and at 24 be­came the youngest pro­fes­sor of clas­si­cal philol­ogy at Basel Univer­sity.

But he wanted to be a philoso­pher, and found his idol in the great ro­man­tic im­pre­sario Richard Wag­ner, who gra­ciously ac­cepted him as a dis­ci­ple. Prideaux is won­der­fully funny about Wag­ner and his wife, Cosima – the flum­mery they sur­rounded them­selves with, their limitless ego­tism, and the ridicu­lous myth­i­cal ex­trav­a­gan­zas of Wag­ner’s Ring cycle, bankrolled by mad King Lud­wig. The dress re­hearsal of The Ring in the grandiose new opera house in Bayreuth was a chaos of comic mishaps. The scenery fell down, the smoke ma­chine would not work, and the dragon, made in an English work­shop (be­cause no one else could cre­ate one that breathed fire, waved its tail and rolled its eyes), was shipped in three parts – of which only two ar­rived in Bayreuth. The third went to Beirut.

It used to be thought that Ni­et­zsche parted com­pany with Wag­ner over some philo­soph­i­cal is­sue. But it now seems it was be­cause Wag­ner, writ­ing to a doc­tor friend, had sug­gested that Ni­et­zsche’s poor eye­sight was the re­sult of mas­tur­ba­tion and would im­prove if he mar­ried. What­ever the truth of this, there seems to be no re­li­able ev­i­dence that Ni­et­zsche ever formed any kind of sex­ual union. He pro­posed to sev­eral women, who de­clined the of­fer, and he be­lieved for a time that he was shar­ing a mys­ti­cal re­la­tion­ship with a young Rus­sian woman called Lou Salome. How­ever, she proved less mys­ti­cal than he had sup­posed and went off with one of his male friends. Ni­et­zsche ex­pressed his dis­ap­proval by char­ac­ter­is­ing her as “a ster­ile, dirty, evil-smelling she-ape with false breasts”. In his post-Wag­ner pe­riod he trans­ferred his al­le­giance from The Ring cycle to Bizet’s Car­men, which he saw 20 times.

He counted him­self among “the great teach­ers of mankind”, but he was not an orig­i­nal thinker. Com­pared to a true orig­i­na­tor such as Dar­win, he was scarcely a thinker at all. What he had was a tal­ent for pithy apho­risms. His most fa­mous, “God is dead”, is of­ten cited as a land­mark in thought, but it merely summed up the of­ten-noted de­cline of re­li­gious faith since the En­light­en­ment.

Com­pared to a true orig­i­na­tor such as Dar­win, he was scarcely a thinker at all. What he had was a tal­ent for pithy apho­risms.

Whereas many com­men­ta­tors re­gret­ted the con­se­quent eclipse of moral cer­tain­ties, Ni­et­zsche wel­comed it. He saw Chris­tian­ity, which taught pity and com­pas­sion, as a “slave moral­ity” that in­hib­ited hu­man­ity’s “most nat­u­ral instincts”. Its ex­tinc­tion would, he pre­dicted, en­able the su­per­man (Uber­men­sch) to move “be­yond good and evil” and rise above the “sickly, tired, ex­hausted” masses that Chris­tian­ity had “poi­soned”. He en­vis­aged the su­per­man as a “mag­nif­i­cent blond beast”, avid for pil­lage and con­quest, and de­clared that such a be­ing could be seen at the cen­tre of all “no­ble races”.

Why he should have imag­ined that pity and com­pas­sion were less nat­u­ral to hu­mans than bru­tal­ity is not clear, and his be­lief that th­ese virtues would not sur­vive the de­cline of religion was demon­stra­bly mis­taken. It is a weak­ness of Prideaux’s book that she does not point out the gaps in Ni­et­zsche’s thought. He ex­pressed him­self mostly in apho­risms and was of­ten self-con­tra­dic­tory, as he read­ily ad­mit­ted. “There are no facts, only in­ter­pre­ta­tions”, for ex­am­ple, of­fers it­self as a fact, but then can­cels that pos­si­bil­ity. Prideaux ap­plauds his self­con­tra­dic­tions as “mis­chievous”. But they could be dan­ger­ous. They en­abled his Jew-hat­ing sis­ter Elis­a­beth to put to­gether a se­lec­tion of his uncollected apho­risms that, pub­lished af­ter his death, al­lowed the Nazis to see them­selves as Ni­et­zscheans. Elis­a­beth en­cour­aged them. She was a fan of Mus­solini and helped to get a play he co-au­thored per­formed at Weimar’s Na­tional The­atre. When it was pro­duced in 1932, Hitler turned up with his stormtroop­ers and pre­sented her with a bunch of red roses.

De­spite Prideaux’s re­luc­tance to chal­lenge Ni­et­zsche’s ideas, this is an out­stand­ing bi­og­ra­phy im­pres­sive in the depth and breadth of its knowl­edge. Her Strind­berg de­servedly won the Duff Cooper prize, and I Am Dy­na­mite (which takes its ti­tle from Ni­et­zsche’s boast in his au­to­bi­og­ra­phy Ecce Homo) is of com­pa­ra­ble stature. Prideaux thinks he might have had an inkling of the hor­rors his ad­mir­ers would per­pe­trate. “One day there will be as­so­ci­ated with my name,” he wrote, “the rec­ol­lec­tion of some­thing fright­ful – of a cri­sis like no other be­fore on Earth.” About that, at any rate, he was right.

I Am Dy­na­mite! A Life of Friedrich Ni­et­zsche, by Sue Prideaux (Faber)

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