ASTRONAUT OF THE SPIRIT
An outstanding biography reveals the full extent of Nietzsche’s delusions of grandeur, says John Carey.
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)