Reinventing Nietzsche

By Gott, Richard | New Statesman (1996), December 20, 1996 | Go to article overview

Reinventing Nietzsche


Gott, Richard, New Statesman (1996)


He was an anti-feminist philosopher who was appropriated by the Nazis. So why is he the most fashionable philosopher of the 1990s?

How come the young have moved so swiftly from Marx to Nietzsche? Organise a scholarly conference on Nietzsche and you get nearly as many people as would come for a rock concert. Scan a specialist bookshop and the Nietzschean PhDs tumble from the shelves. Nietzsche for Beginners is already available, Nietzsche: The Novel is now on sale, the Nietzshirt - a T-shirt with aphorisms recently appeared on the market.

For some this has been cause for alarm. When the late Allan Bloom came to write his influential right-wing polemic about the disintegration of American universities, The Closing of the American Mind, published in 1987, he put the blame entirely on the influence of Nietzsche. He described how the philosopher had infected the American language: words such as charisma, life-style, commitment and identity had virtually become American slang; and they could all be traced back to Nietzsche.

The Archbishop of Canterbury also had Nietzsche in his sights in his speech about morality in July. He deplored the fact that "the traditional vocabulary of moral discourse - virtue, sin, good, bad, right, wrong, moral, wholesome, godly, righteous and sober - have come under acute contemporary suspicion."

And he made a fierce attack on the development of moral relativism, a world "in which there are no firm 'rights' and 'wrongs' except what we as individuals deem to be true for ourselves."

The Archbishop apportioned no blame, but Allan Bloom had the insight to point out an extraordinary trend: Nietzsche had become far better known and influential on the left than on the right.

So how did this once-forgotten German philosopher come to acquire such astonishing pre-eminence a hundred years after his death?

Time was when Nietzsche was perceived as the Antichrist, the father figure of the Nazis, the bane of feminists everywhere. Yet it wasn't his fault that his sister Elizabeth corresponded with Mussolini and took up with Hitler. For Nietzsche died in 1900, when the 20th century and its attendant horrors had hardly begun. And in spite of the famous phrase "Are you visiting women? Do not forget the whip!" a number of contemporary feminist philosophers have been prepared to give Nietzsche the benefit of the doubt.

Friedrich Nietzsche was a jobbing German philosopher who went mad in 1889 without achieving fame or fortune. Born in 1844, he wrote a number of philosophical works over a 20-year period, and during the last ten years of his life he was kept under lock and key by his sister. Yet in the period between the onset of his madness and the outbreak of the first world war, he was to become one of the most influential philosophers in the world. Every important artist, writer, musician, and playwright in Europe paid him homage.

Mahler and Delius, Strindberg and Shaw, Gide and Mann, Picasso and Modigliani, Freud and Max Weber, Proust and Joyce - all were caught up in his spell. It's not difficult now to understand the appeal that Nietzsche had then. He proclaimed the death of God, he was hostile to the stifling bourgeois morality of the era, and he glorified in the intense feelings of the senses, exalting - as the art historian Sarah O'Brien Twohig points out - "music, dancing, sexual excitement, making love, giving birth, hatred, fighting, and war". Not for nothing was he a powerful influence on the futurists and the vorticists. Even today his enthusiasms can seem intensely modem as well as modernist. Yet he is also perceived as the high priest of the postmodern. He speaks across the century to the specific concerns of our fractured times.

In the 1930s Nietzsche became misappropriated by the Nazis, who swept up as many figures in the German canon as they could. The damage was done. In the Anglo-Saxon world after 1945 (though not elsewhere) Nietzsche went into disgrace and almost total eclipse. …

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