Nietzsche's Prophecy. (Reviews)

By Balint, Benjamin | Judaism: A Quarterly Journal of Jewish Life and Thought, Winter 2002 | Go to article overview
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Nietzsche's Prophecy. (Reviews)

Balint, Benjamin, Judaism: A Quarterly Journal of Jewish Life and Thought

Nietzsche: A Philosophical Biography. by rudiger safranski. Translated by shelley frisch new york: w.w. Norton, 2001.

According to Rudiger Safranski, Friedrich Nietzsche's latest biographer, the preeminent philosopher of the nineteenth century teetered "between prophet and clown" (241). In taking us from Nietzsche's birth in Rocken in 1844-the eldest child of the village's pastor-to his final mental collapse in Turin in 1888, twelve years before his death, Safranski provides much evidence for both characterizations.

Safranski, a 56-year-old German author of previous biographies of Schopenhauer and Heidegger, draws on Nietzsche's letters and journals to offer some glimpses of a rather unhappy personal life: a childhood made solemn by his father's death when Nietzsche was not yet five; youthful ambition (he left a promising academic career in philology for philosophy, Safranski tells us, on the grounds that "even the most minuscule creation ranks higher than simply talking about the creations of others"); an adulthood beset by painful migraines, nausea, and vision problems; and tortured relations with his mother and sister (he accused them of "unfathomable vulgarity"), with the composer Richard Wagner (in whose works Nietzsche found a "new mythology"), and with an alluringly brilliant young Russian woman named Lou Salome.

But safranski's book, rendered into English by Shelley Frisch, who teaches German literature at Rutgers, generally avoids biographical detail in favor of summarizing the development of Nietzsche's main ideas. To a great degree, of course, Nietzsche's life was his thought. In one place Nietzsche writes that he treats ideas "as though they were individuals with whom one had to fight and whom one must join, protect, care for, and nourish." In another, he says, "I have to keep on living because I have to keep thinking."

So Safranski gives us a detailed tour of the thoughts which kept the thinker alive: Nietzsche's harnessing of Schopenhauer's concept of the will; his attack on the 'disastorus" Socratic idea that "everything must be conscious to be good"; his distinction in The Birth of Tragedy between the Apollonian and Dionysian forces of culture; his claim in Human, All Too Human that how we know, and not only what we know, changes over time; his explanation in Daybreak of the immoral foundations of morality; and his doctrine of "eternal recurrence" first set out in The Gay Science.

In what sense can it be said that this man was--of all things--a prophet? Well, first, Safranski shows that Nietzsche clearly believed himself one. His mother regarded him as an itinerant, failed, unmarriageable professor. Wagner too was concerned on this score, once telling Nietzsche, "I think you ought to marry." (Nietzsche, however, proved a poor pickup artist. His first words to Lou Salome were: "From which stars did we fall to meet each other here?") Frustrated by his mother's refusal to acknowledge his greatness after he finished Daybreak in 1881, Nietzsche sent heran ardent letter: "I have produced one of the boldest and most sublime and most thought-provoking books ever born of the human brain and heart." And seven years later, after an occasion on which his sister annoyed him, he wrote to her: "You do not have he foggiest notion of being next of kin to a man and destiny in which the questions of millennia have been resolved."

These statements, besides inviting charges of clownish absurdity, go some way toward explaining Nietzsche's astonishing narcissism. During his high school and university years, he penned no fewer than nine autobiographical essays. As an undergraduate in Bonn Nietzsche wrote in his journal of his desire to "leave aside everything and to think only of myself." "No other philosopher has employed the pronoun 'I' as often as Nietzsche," Safranski observes (28).

Nietzsche styled himself a prophet-as-iconoclast, a thinker and heralder of dangerous and subversive thoughts.

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