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Man of Mind

What was Friedrich Nietzsche thinking?

Feb 13, 2006, Vol. 11, No. 21 • By LAWRENCE KLEPP
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Friedrich Nietzsche

by Curtis Cate

Overlook, 689 pp., $21.95

GENIUSES BEQUEATH THEIR WORKS to the world, and their flaws to their disciples. Nietzsche, who had plenty of flaws, acquired after his death a particularly large collection of grotesque, self-proclaimed disciples, including Gavrilo Princip, the Serbian assassin who set off World War I, Mussolini, who named him his favorite philosopher, and assorted Nazi professors and propagandists. On a more comical note, American university postmodernists have lately made him their philosophical mascot, while cultivating the resentment of "Eurocentric" high culture that he had called nihilism and an opaque, convoluted, and humorless academic prose style even worse than the German ones to which his own style--witty, incisive, and acrobatic--was meant as an antidote.

He once wrote that he was "terrified by the thought" of what sort of people might someday invoke his name. But since he was by temperament an extremist, always looking for edges and deep ends, intellectual Alps to climb, philosophical cliffs to walk off, he bears some responsibility for the misappropriations. Even when he was just complaining about the complacencies of bourgeois Europeans, he couldn't resist scorched-earth formulations and drastic metaphors. It was always going to be easy for other kinds of extremists with aims that would have appalled him to pocket his ideas, or at least his polemical excesses, while marching off their own cliffs.

It also helped, for purposes of misunderstanding, that he was probably the most unsystematic philosopher in Western history, writing in aphorisms and soaring, scathing, metaphor-charged prose. This has been to his disadvantage in terms of deciding, much less defending, what he "really" meant, but a plus in terms of philosophical longevity. Systematic thinkers attract hordes of dogmatic disciples who can easily detach the system from the thinking and apply it to the front page of the newspaper, or whatever else comes along, greatly extending its influence. But systems can suddenly become untenable or, worse, unfashionable and collapse quickly. (In the case of Marxism, as quickly and conclusively as the Berlin Wall.)

Nietzsche has been buried quite a few times, but for an atheist, he's had a lot of resurrections. During the 1890s, when he was still alive but hopelessly mad, and for several decades after his death in 1900, he had a brilliant career in bohemian and radical circles throughout Europe and America as the mystical prophet of a liberating Life Force, a champion of uncompromising individual self-realization and freedom from outmoded conventions. Feminists embraced him despite some glaring misogynistic passages, and socialists and anarchists enlisted him despite his hatred of the French and other revolutions.

The Nietzsche whose image can be found in the paintings of Edvard Munch and Giorgio de Chirico, and whose quoted words resonate in Long Day's Journey into Night and in the Joan Crawford film Rain is this bohemian-artistic-vitalist Nietzsche, the exponent of passionate creativity, the sentinel before the enigmas and abysmal depths of life. But there were also the psychological Nietzsches of Alfred Adler and Otto Rank, the cynical-satirical Nietzsches of G.B. Shaw and H.L. Mencken, the visionary-surrealist Nietzsche of Georges Bataille, and, after World War II, a film-noir existentialist Nietzsche, the outsider philosopher of alienation, solitude, and stoical toughness, the liberal humanist Nietzsche of the American scholar Walter Kaufmann, for whom every saber-rattling image is just a metaphor for daring thought. And so forth. Almost a Nietzsche for every reader, which he might have said was his point ("There are no facts, only interpretations") or one of his points.

Curtis Cate's Nietzsche is a cultural conservative, much like Curtis Cate. Cate, who has also written biographies of André Malraux and George Sand, says that his 600-page biography "has not been written for 'professionals,' for university professors or teachers of philosophy." It's aimed at the general public, including people who know nothing of the philosopher but the name and blasphemous reputation, and is thus intended to clear away "stereotypic prejudices" that cling to him, "like the naive notion that he was viscerally antireligious." In this, it succeeds.