The Magazine

Man of Mind

What was Friedrich Nietzsche thinking?

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