Nietzsche: an explosion in thought

Sue Prideaux has written a fine biography of this most misunderstood of thinkers.

Patrick West


Friedrich Nietzsche is a character who continues to fascinate us long after his death. In this respect, he is not unlike Adolf Hitler, the man who famously misunderstood his work – probably because he never read any of it, certainly not beyond borrowing some of the most arresting phrases, such as ‘master morality’, ‘the will to power’ and ‘the blond beast’. Indeed, the appetite for biographies of both men remains insatiable. To complain that there are too many books about them (or about Churchill, Napoleon, Wellington, etc) is to miss the point. As one fictional television presenter put it: ‘People like them – let’s make some more of them.’

Nietzsche continues to beguile largely because of his exciting and libertine aphorisms, and his unhappy life and tragic end. This is the man who exclaimed ‘God is dead’, ‘live dangerously’, ‘what doesn’t kill me makes me stronger’, and who devised the idea of the ‘Superman’ – his idealised human being who not only transcends social rules and the bovine herd, but who also becomes supreme master of himself. Nietzsche is the everyman philosopher for writers and journalists: he wrote beautifully, yet during his life his books scarcely sold at all. He went mad in 1889 and, after his death, his work was disgracefully appropriated by the Nazis. What’s not to like?

Sue Prideaux’s I Am Dynamite! A Life of Friedrich Nietzsche is the first philosophical biography to have appeared in the UK since 2003, when Rüdiger Safranski’s Nietzsche: A Philosophical Biography and Curtis Cate’s Friedrich Nietzsche were published. To my mind, the finest and most humane biography in living memory remains RG Hollingdale’s Nietzsche: The Man and His Philosophy (1965). Hollingdale is considered by most the greatest populariser of Nietzsche’s work, and his translations for Penguin are still available at your local bookshop.

So there is always room for one more, and Prideaux’s lavish hardback is a welcome addition. Meticulously researched and delivered in a pleasing prose, it will surely be found among the Christmas stockings of many a black-clad, angry 17-year-old boy who is tired of his parents telling him to clean up his room. Sure, there is little to add to the familiar narrative of Nietzsche’s life: the devastating effect of his father’s death when he is an infant; his precociousness as a student; losing his faith as an adolescent; his bad eyesight and his agonising, chronic ill-health; his adoration and then fallout with Richard Wagner; his commercial failure; and then his mental breakdown.

But Prideaux’s book has two real strengths. The first of which is that it powerfully addresses the still common misperception that Nietzsche was the father of fascism. This was long ago debunked by pre-eminent Nietzsche scholar Walter Kaufmann in the 1950s (but still no one listened until the 1970s). Nietzsche loathed his fellow countrymen, even before they refused to buy his books, and he had an abiding hatred for Prussian and German nationalism – indeed for any nationalism. He was also, if not quite a sincere philo-semite, certainly a foe of anti-Semitism. Those who resented the Jews were for him sour weaklings who only envied people who were more successful than them.

The second strength of this book lies in Prideaux’s distillation of Nietzsche’s philosophy, which will help to clarify it for those who have heard differing and conflicting versions of it. His book Beyond Good and Evil (1886) wasn’t meant to be a libertine manifesto. It was merely an extension of his thinking as it had developed in The Gay Science (1882) and, from 1883 to 1885, in the four volumes of Thus Spoke Zarathustra. He focuses on a key question: without Christianity, how can we live by a Christian morality, blindly accepting its rules concerning good and evil? Or as Prideaux sums it up: ‘What happens when man cancels the moral code on which he has built the edifice of his civilisation? What does it mean to be human unchained from a central metaphysical purpose? Does a vacuum of meaning occur? If so, what is to fill that vacuum?’

Nietzsche, then, wasn’t prescriptivist; he was the eternal doubter who railed against all ideologies – Christian, socialist, liberal – and forever questioned what society held conveniently, but no longer with foundation, to be ‘good and evil’. Nietzsche questioned ‘truth’ not because he was a relativist, but because he asked us to ask ourselves what we thought our truths were based on.

As Prideaux reminds us, while Nietzsche has been defamed as the father of modern-day relativism, he would have dismissed it out of hand as itself a faith system without foundation. ‘Having called into question the nature of self and declared objective truth to be an impossible fiction, he mischievously goes on to point out that to assert that objective truth is a fiction is to make a statement of objective truth which must itself be a fiction.’

I Am Dynamite! does have its faults. There are too many diversions: into 19th-century history, and on subjects such as Austro-Prussian history, Otto von Bismarck, Franz Liszt, the French decadents, Lou Andreas-Salomé (the Russian-French aristocrat who was probably the only woman Nietzsche loved, and who ultimately spurned him), and especially Richard Wagner. At one stage there are 25 consecutive pages devoted wholly to the ghastly composer – interrupted only by an aside on the historian of the Renaissance, Jacob Burckhardt.

What’s more, for a biography that aspires to present the philosopher as a more human character, the author could have delved more into Nietzsche’s heartbreaking private correspondence. While the bombastic, withering prose found in his publications gives the impression of a fierce, Wagnerian warrior, his letters reveal him to be a sweet, fragile character who was devastated by loneliness and the fact that no one listened to him or bought his books. As he wrote in 1888: ‘To lack not only health, but also money, recognition, love and protection – and not to become a tragic grumbler: this constitutes the paradoxical character of our present condition, its problem.’ Some years before that, he wrote: ‘Yesterday, the first day of the year, I looked into the future and trembled. Life is dreadful and hazardous – I envy anyone who is well and truly dead.’ These are the words of a man who really was human, all too human.

Patrick West is a spiked columnist. His latest book, Get Over Yourself: Nietzsche For Our Times, is published by Societas.

I am Dynamite! A Life of Friedrich Nietzsche, by Sue Prideaux, is published by Faber and Faber. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)