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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.

Cate's Nietzsche isn't primarily the intrepid, subtle explorer of precipitous interior landscapes who emerges so brilliantly from Lesley Chamberlain's Nietzsche in Turin (1996) and Rüdiger Safranski's Nietzsche: A Philosophical Biography (2002). He's a social critic, a farsighted foe of what Cate calls our "shamelessly transparent culture," the ethos of self-exposure and sensationalism that has become the "effective day-to-day religion" of the West. Nietzsche, who favored an austere, distance-imposing ideal of art, a heroic and severe sort of individualism, and an aristocratic reserve, would certainly not feel much at home in 21st-century America; but Cate overdoes it, regularly interrupting his account of the philosopher's life and ideas to deploy him against rap music, Benjamin Spock's childrearing advice, the reformed liturgy in the Roman Catholic church, pornography, the "transparently clad model-girls--the new idols of our sensation-seeking age" who debase high fashion, and the "sentimental frenzy" on TV every evening, all this being the kind of thing, says Cate, that would have left the philosopher "speechless with disgust."

Well, maybe not speechless.

What's amazing is how prolific Nietzsche was, given that he went mad at 44 and spent much of his time in a nomadic search for Mediterranean and Alpine microclimates that would alleviate the chronic blinding headaches and fits of nervous prostration that kept him in bed for days at a time. Cate's is the most thorough, day-to-day, Richard-Ellmannesque biography of Nietzsche in English, written with a novelist's eye for setting and significant detail; but much of it reads like a case history. He was a human barometer: Cloudy days floored him, thunderstorms left him a wreck, but bright sunlight hurt his eyes and heat oppressed him. And as he criss-crossed Italy and Switzerland from rented room to rented room, the ordeals by train, with their inevitable missed connections and lost luggage, only made matters worse.

Yet, when halfway healthy, he was up at dawn, writing relentlessly, hiking for hours up mountains and around glaciers in the Swiss Alps while jotting down thoughts in a notebook, or taking long, intricate walks through the streets of Genoa or Turin, sustaining himself on a frugal diet of café lunches, tea, biscuits, peasant bread, and fruit. He produced over a dozen iconoclastic and disorienting books in 16 years. Aside from the final descent into raving madness that began when he tearfully wrapped his arms around a horse being beaten in a Turin street in January 1889, his life was undramatic.

But there were three noteworthy episodes. It was probably while serving as a medical orderly during the Franco-Prussian War that he contracted syphilis in a brothel, which most biographers, including Cate, assume brought on the mental collapse two decades later. It was also at this time that he acquired an instinctive hatred of German nationalism. After witnessing the bitter resentment that forcible incorporation into the new Prussian-led German Reich provoked among even German-speaking peasants in Alsace, and hearing the triumphalist note being sounded not only in the newspapers but also in academic quarters, he began his relentless attacks on the new Bismarckian obsession with power politics, writing that "a great victory is a great danger," the danger being that German culture would be wrecked by German militarism, a prophecy confirmed more than once.

A close friendship with Richard and Cosima Wagner while he was a young professor of classical philology at Basel ended when he felt the composer was using him as a kind of philosophical factotum and, after their move from Lucerne to Bayreuth, the Wagners immersed themselves in a nationalistic and anti-Semitic milieu he couldn't stand. The break was emotionally wrenching, but set him on an independent philosophical course. Then there was his brief flirtation with a passionately intellectual young German-Russian named Lou Salomé. She wanted to attach herself to a man of genius, while he saw in the headstrong 21-year-old a feminine alter ego. There were long walks and talks in the mountains and plans for a platonic ménage à trois with their mutual philosophical friend Paul Rée in Vienna or Paris. But there were also triangular misunderstandings and jealous rages, with Nietzsche finally backing off just as he was starting to look a bit like Emil Jannings's Professor Rath chasing Marlene Dietrich's Lola Lola in The Blue Angel. There may have been a kiss between them--Lou, who later took up with Rainer Maria Rilke, was coy about it in her memoirs--but no more. It was a bedroom farce without the bedroom.

The decisive event in Nietzsche's intellectual life had come in a used bookstore when he was 21. He picked up a volume of Schopenhauer by chance and was immediately transfixed by the dark, sardonic vision of the world as a phantasm driven by an irrational, malign cosmic Will, with the only escape in aesthetic experience, where the will is momentarily quieted in detached contemplation. Already devout about art and especially music ("Without music, life would be a mistake"), he was smitten with both the idea of redemption through art and the notion of a mysterious, pulsing force coursing through the world. But he eventually turned Schopenhauer upside down, transforming the futile willing that art allows us to escape into a Dionysian creative will, the "will to power," that art and artist consummate.

For Nietzsche, the "death of God" had foreclosed the possibility of transcendence through a spiritual world, traditionally attained by renouncing this one and, with it, the life of the body and the senses. Art, which engages the body and senses but also involves a creative self-overcoming, a constant reaching into the unknown, becomes a way of giving life in this world a sense of transcendence. But the secular, progressive, democratic vision of social equality and technological comfort offered by socialists or welfare-state liberals would, by removing risks, challenges, and disciplines from life, remove with them the conditions for creative genius and the highest art, maybe even a higher humanity (the suspicious character known as the Übermensch).

This accounts for the bombastic ranting of Nietzsche's "atrocious anti-democratism," as he himself put it, and the ranting accounts of his fascist fans, though after his breakdown the distortions and forgeries of his sister Elisabeth--who embraced (literally, she married one) the nationalists and anti-Semites he despised--in effect substituted the rant for the philosophy. Nietzsche proposed that all anti-Semites be expelled from Germany, denounced the proto-Nazi racial theorists of his day, and regarded the Jews as an essential component of the new aristocracy of "good Europeans" who, he hoped, would rescue European civilization from the "decadence" exemplified by both nationalism and socialism as well as artistic decline. Cate, like Walter Kaufmann, has no trouble separating him from his most toxic disciples. But his legacy is still ambiguous, and the shorter book by his German philosophical biographer Safranski does a more scrupulous job of sorting it out.

Nietzsche's philosophy was the aestheticization of life. He thought life is necessarily shaped the way artists shape their materials, and once we admit this--and admit that it's inherent in and essential to life itself--tonic, life-enhancing aesthetic judgments can be substituted for moral judgments everywhere, and a new, epic sense of politics driven by visionary artist-aristocrats will follow. Add to this Nietzsche's mile-wide sadistic streak, his reiterated affinity (which appears only in his later work) for cruel barbarians, conquerors, strongmen, Cesare Borgia, and Napoleon, and you get a recipe for disaster. Cate deplores the "dangerous" passages in Nietzsche's work, though he doesn't quote some of the most dangerous, such as this one from Ecce Homo: "That new party of life, which takes charge of the greatest of all tasks, namely the improvement of humanity, including the relentless destruction of all that was degenerate and parasitical, will make possible again that excess of life on earth from which the Dionysian condition must once more grow." While correctly arguing that Nietzsche's ideal was not racist or nationalist or militarist, and that he couldn't possibly have been a fascist, Cate fails to see the way in which his work nevertheless helped create the political and cultural atmosphere in which fascism and National Socialism emerged and won intellectual converts.

The increasing vehemence of Nietzsche's later work was a measure of his desperation. The son of a Lutheran clergyman retained, as Cate makes clear, a devoutly religious temperament, and he wanted to be the prophet of a new revelation. And so he thought that Thus Spake Zarathustra, with its pseudo-biblical language and gnomic, parable-dispensing, wandering sage-hero, would eclipse the Gospels, and that his unrealized crowning work, The Will to Power: Attempt at a Revaluation of all Values, would be "the greatest philosophical event of all time, with which the history of mankind breaks into two halves."

His dithyrambic revelations ring hollow now. The religion of Life looks like a period piece. If Isadora Duncan didn't choreograph a dance around Zarathustra, she should have. But there's still a lot left. There's the mordant aphorist, the shrewd psychologist, not just of individuals but of cultures, eras, cities, and works of art. There is the virtuoso of searching introspection, the skeptical saboteur of all dogmas. Cate doesn't do justice to all of this, and he doesn't contain any biographical surprises, either. Cate also has to admit that his assigned role for the philosopher as conservative scourge of our self-expressive, self-indulgent popular culture doesn't always fit, since, if he sounds that way in one passage, two pages later he's the patron saint of all fluid, rootless, experimental contemporary selves, the shifting sands on which our established cultural church is built.

This is the writer who advised his readers to "live dangerously [and] become what you are." Curtis Cate makes Nietzsche's troubled life and troubling thought accessible, and lets him be what he wanted to be, impossible to ignore.

Lawrence Klepp writes from New York.