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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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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.