Examining Nietzsche the Man

The Washington Times (Washington, DC), March 20, 2005 | Go to article overview

Examining Nietzsche the Man


Byline: Steve Good, THE WASHINGTON TIMES

The incident is now famous in the annals of philosophy. During the Christmas season of 1888, Friedrich Nietzsche suddenly embraced a horse he saw being harshly beaten on the streets of Turin, Italy, and wouldn't let go. The philosopher whose works denounced compassion and pity as unhealthy and undesirable expressions of weakness had succumbed to those very feelings to save an old nag pulling a cart from the wrath of its master.

Nietzsche's sanity never returned. He was taken back to his rooms. When a friend came down from Switzerland to see what he might do, he found the philosopher - who had turned 44 the previous October - stark naked and frenzedly dancing in the privacy of his bedroom.

When Nietzsche went mad, his major works - "The Joyous Science," "Thus Spake Zarathrustra" and "Beyond Good and Evil," among others - were hardly known in Europe. But by the time he died, in 1900, a little over a decade later, he had become famous and his books widely discussed.

That fame would increase steadily. His notion of the "Superman" - the man who allows no moral or religious constraints to hinder his full development - appealed to large numbers of young men (and often young women, too). Nietzsche's fierce, relentless attacks on Christianity and middle-class sobriety found outspoken approval among surprisingly large numbers of educated Europeans who were already beginning to learn to despise their own traditions.

German soldiers carried copies of Nietzsche's "Zarathrustra" with them to the front during World War I. Twenty years later, he was the philosopher Adolf Hitler and other Nazis professed to admire above all others. But adulation was not confined to right-wing circles. Philosophers fell under his sway. So did Christian theologians and even feminists, although Nietzsche was often rabidly anti-Christian and more than a little bit misogynistic. In recent decades, the post-modernists have made great use of his thought.

So it comes as no surprise that there is no shortage of scholarship on Nietzsche and that his extraordinary life has spawned a number of biographies. Three years ago saw the publication, in English by Yale University Press, of Joachim Kohler's controversial "Zarathrustra's Secret." Mr. Kohler's book, which had appeared in German in 1989, claimed that the philosopher had been homosexual and that this fact explained both his tortured life and the nature of his thought.

In the same year, Rudiger Safranski's superb "Nietzsche - A Philosophical Biography" appeared in English. Now comes a book much larger than either of the two previous works, journalist Curtis Cate's "Friedrich Nietzsche," which offers a great deal of often interesting and well-presented information, but which ultimately fails to pull all of the vast detail into a meaningful and coherent whole.

But perhaps that is the fault not of the biographer but of his subject. Nietzsche lived a life of ecstatic highs followed by the bluest of depressions. He had close friendships - with the composer Richard Wagner, for example - but then came to denounce those friends as the foulest of enemies. And his books, laden with aphorisms and very passionate (and often beautiful) prose and poetry, are difficult going, with what's said on one page seemingly contradicted by something appearing a few pages later.

With this difficult material, Mr. Cate, who has written highly regarded books on George Sand and Andre Malraux, has done as well as any biographer can. His Nietzsche above all is a man beset by relentless, debilitating illness and severe eye problems. Too much heat or too much cold weather could bring on prolonged periods of vomiting and convulsions that sent him to bed in a darkened room for days at a time.

Thunderstorms upset him profoundly. So did an uncomfortable train trip. …

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