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26 September 2018updated 28 Sep 2018 10:06am

The agony and the destiny: Friedrich Nietzsche’s descent into madness

Nietzsche was overlooked for most of his career. By the time his genius was discovered, his health had rapidly deteriorated.

By Ray Monk

The Nietzsche scholar Walter Kaufmann told a story of how, in 1952, just two years after publishing his ground-breaking book, Nietzsche: Philosopher, Psychologist, Antichrist, he visited the Cambridge philosopher CD Broad at Trinity College. During their conversation, Broad mentioned someone by the name of Salter. Was that, Kaufmann asked, the Salter who had written a book on Nietzsche? “Dear no,” Broad replied, “he did not deal with crackpot subjects like that; he wrote about psychical research.”

In the years immediately before, during and just after the Second World War, Nietzsche’s reputation in the English-speaking world was at its lowest, largely owing to the fact that his work had been, with the support of his virulently anti-Semitic sister Elisabeth, appropriated by the Nazis. In their hands, Nietzsche’s notion of the Übermensch (I prefer to use the original German than any of the published translations; “superman” sounds silly, and “beyond-man” and “overman” do not sound like natural English) became associated with notions of Aryan racial superiority, while his idea of the “will to power” was used to justify militarism and authoritarianism.

In the chapter on Nietzsche in his History of Western Philosophy, published in 1946, Bertrand Russell went some way towards correcting some of these Nazi-led misunderstandings, emphasising that Nietzsche was far from being a nationalist, a racist, a worshipper of the state, or a German supremacist (his writings are in fact full of anti-German sentiment). Russell, however, could not free himself from his times sufficiently to avoid misrepresenting Nietzsche’s notion of the will to power.

Nietzsche’s ethic, Russell claims, can be summed up by saying: “Victors in war, and their descendants, are usually biologically superior to the vanquished. It is therefore desirable that they should hold all the power, and should manage affairs exclusively in their own interests.” Russell’s chapter ends with a statement that has often been quoted and which helped to shape Nietzsche’s reputation among English-speaking people for a generation: “I dislike Nietzsche because he likes the contemplation of pain… because the men whom he most admires are conquerors, whose glory is cleverness in causing men to die.”

Walter Kaufmann’s book, aided in 1965 by RJ Hollingdale’s Nietzsche: The Man and His Philosophy, did much to change this caricature and replace it with a more accurate and nuanced view, but it still took a while for British philosophers to think of Nietzsche as someone worth studying. When I was a graduate student of philosophy at Oxford in the early 1980s, I developed an interest in Nietzsche but was told by my supervisor that Nietzsche didn’t count as a philosopher at all; he was a “literary figure”. Thirty-five years on, that has utterly changed and Nietzsche’s place in the canon now looks secure, much more so, indeed, than that of Wittgenstein, whose reputation among English-speaking philosophers is in sharp decline. Nietzsche’s, meanwhile, is very much on the ascendant.

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During my time in the philosophy department at the University of Southampton, we have had, I would guess, more PhD students writing on Nietzsche than on any other philosopher. The secondary literature on him is enormous. Type Nietzsche’s name into the search box on Amazon UK and you will get over 10,000 results. By comparison, Sartre and Wittgenstein produce 4,000 each, while the late Derek Parfit, regarded by many as the most influential English-speaking philosopher of the last few decades, returns a mere 54.

Among that avalanche of secondary work, there are several good biographies. Hollingdale’s book, revised in 1999, is still worth reading, as is Ronald Hayman’s Nietzsche: A Critical Life, first published in 1980, which offers a more detailed account of Nietzsche’s life, but possibly a less authoritative reading of his works. Rüdiger Safranski’s Nietzsche: A Philosophical Biography (2002) concentrates, as its title suggests, on the development of Nietzsche’s thought, as does the more recent and even more scholarly book with virtually the same title by Julian Young, published in 2010. And then there is Curtis Cate’s monumental, and often overlooked, Friedrich Nietzsche: A Biography (2003), which at nearly 700 pages, is probably only for the committed.

Is there room for yet another biography? Sue Prideaux’s wonderfully readable book suggests that there is. Like most of the biographers mentioned above (the exception is Julian Young), Prideaux is a freelance writer rather than an academic. Unlike them, however, she has not spent most of her life steeped in philosophy, still less in Nietzsche’s philosophy, let alone in the academic literature that discusses that literature. So her book will not, one suspects, be much discussed by the academic philosophers who are busy generating that mountainous body of secondary discussion. On the other hand, she has written well-researched, well-reviewed and prize-winning biographies of Edvard Munch and August Strindberg and is clearly entirely at home with the languages as well as the artistic, literary and musical culture of Europe, which is arguably a more apposite background for catching the tone of Nietzsche’s voice, a tone so different from that used to write articles in academic journals.

Prideaux certainly does not ignore Nietzsche’s philosophical ideas. In her Acknowledgements she thanks the philosopher Nigel Warburton for “overseeing the philosophy”, and her book contains perfectly decent summaries of all Nietzsche’s main works. It is, just about, possible to recommend this book as an introduction to Nietzsche’s philosophy (though it cannot compete in that respect with Michael Tanner’s Nietzsche: A Very Short Introduction), but its real strengths lie in the quality of its writing and the way it deals with Nietzsche’s relations with the remarkably few people with whom he was close. Other writers have tried to get inside Nietzsche’s mind, but in using her empathic imagination to understand Nietzsche’s relations with his mother, his sister, his friends, his publisher, and even his landlords, Prideaux is able to offer us a valuable new perspective, one in which he emerges as a unique and endlessly fascinating person, but nevertheless a person to whom we can relate.

The tone is set in the opening chapter, which begins, not with Nietzsche’s birth or an account of his ancestors, but with his first meeting with the man with whom he shared what was arguably the most important relationship of his life: Richard Wagner. Nietzsche was then a 24-year-old student of philology (the study of the history of language) at Leipzig University. He had admired Wagner since schooldays (“my youth would have been intolerable without Wagner’s music,” he once wrote), and he was extremely excited to be invited to meet the great man. The meeting went well. They bonded over their shared admiration of Schopenhauer, and Wagner invited him to Tribschen, the villa beside Lake Lucerne where he lived with his then mistress (later his wife), Cosima.

After providing a beautiful and engaging description of this momentous turning point in Nietzsche’s life, Prideaux does not theorise about it, speculate about it, or even comment on it. She just turns straight away to Nietzsche’s earliest years, emphasising the stifling atmosphere in which he grew up. When he was an infant, his family home was in Röcken, Saxony, where his father, Karl Ludwig, was the parish pastor. The home was dominated by his grandmother, Erdmuthe, and his father’s two “sickly and neurotic elder stepsisters”, Augusta and Rosalie. Nietzsche was just four when his father died, after which the family moved to a flat in Erdmuthe’s hometown of Naumburg, where Erdmuthe, Augusta and Rosalie had the front rooms, and Nietzsche, his mother Franziska, and his younger sister Elisabeth, were crammed into “the two worst rooms at the back”.

When Nietzsche was 11, Erdmuthe died, and Franziska was free to set up her own household, again in Naumburg. Nietzsche was a sickly but industrious and scholarly child. He worked hard when he could, but he was often incapacitated, as he would continue to be throughout his life, by illnesses of various sorts. He suffered severe headaches, vomiting and eye strain so extreme he had to lie in a darkened room for days on end. He was nursed by his mother and sister, both of whom doted on him. Despite his poor health, Nietzsche won a place at Schulpforta, “the foremost classical school in the German Bund”, as Prideaux describes it, where the boys were encouraged to speak to each other in Latin and Greek at all times.

At school, the suffering Nietzsche endured as a result of his ailments was increased further by the way those ailments were treated. He was put to bed in a darkened room with leeches attached to his earlobes. “I must learn to get used to it,” he wrote. Russell was wrong to suggest that Nietzsche liked the contemplation of pain; what he celebrated was rather the overcoming of pain, for the very good reason that he suffered more than his fair share of it. When he wasn’t in a darkened room having blood sucked from his head, he worked hard and excelled, being described by one of his teachers as “the most gifted pupil that Pforta has ever had”.

Before he went to Leipzig, Nietzsche’s student career got off to a false start at the University of Bonn, where he spent two terms. This period of his life is notable mainly for an incident that took place in 1865, when Nietzsche visited a brothel in Cologne. He claimed later that he did not know at first that he was in a brothel and ran out of the place as soon as he realised, but many believe that he had sex with a prostitute from whom he contracted the syphilis that later caused him to go mad. Prideaux approaches the matter cautiously, and avoids speculating either about whether Nietzsche had sex or whether his madness was caused by syphilis.

After two terms at Leipzig, Nietzsche, still just 24, was invited to take up the Chair of Philology at the University of Basle, having been recommended for the post by one of his lecturers, Friedrich Ritschl. It was an extraordinary offer and Nietzsche was quite naturally delighted to receive it, but he probably should have turned it down. Although he was a good lecturer, he was already more interested in Schopenhauer’s philosophy and Wagner’s music than in philology. The main advantage to him of being in Basle was that it was within striking distance of Tribschen, where he spent what were probably his happiest days, playing and listening to music, discussing philosophy and falling in love with Cosima.

Nietzsche did not resign his Basle professorship until 1879, but a long time before that he started to consider himself a “philosopher of life” rather than an academic philologist. “I practise unlearning the haste of wanting-to-know from which all scholars suffer,” he wrote to a friend. His first book, The Birth of Tragedy (1872) was severely criticised by the few university professors who read it. One of them wrote, “Anyone who has written a thing like that is finished as a scholar.”

Nietzsche had less than ten years of sanity left after he resigned his chair, but in that time he wrote and published books that have had, I would say, a greater impact on our culture than the work of any other philosopher: The Gay Science (1882), in which he announced the “death of God”, Thus Spoke Zarathustra (1883-85), in which he expounded his idea of “eternal recurrence”, Beyond Good and Evil (1886) and The Genealogy of Morals (1887), which present his daring analysis and rejection of traditional morality, and finally, just before he went insane, Ecce Homo, one of the strangest autobiographies ever published in which he addressed matters such as “Why I am so wise”, “Why I write such good books” and “Why I am a destiny”.

Extraordinarily, even though these books sold very badly and attracted very little attention, Nietzsche never lost his conviction that he was a destiny, never doubted that what he was writing was important and would one day be recognised as such. Prideaux’s descriptions of his life during these amazingly productive years are very moving, dwelling on his fortitude in the face of suffering and poverty and his determination to get written and published the work he knew was great even though he received almost no confirmation of that. Even more moving are the last chapters, which describe how, after years of being ignored, Nietzsche more or less suddenly came to be revered. Meanwhile, he himself descended into  madness and knew little of what was going on.

Though there had been earlier indications of insanity, the onset of his madness is usually dated to 3 January 1889, when, seeing a cabman mercilessly beating his horse, a sobbing Nietzsche threw his arms around the horse’s neck and then collapsed. He was taken to his lodgings, where for several days he shouted, sang, raved and babbled to himself. After receiving a variety of ineffective treatments, he was taken back to Naumburg to be looked after by his mother. When she died in 1897, he was taken to Weimar, where for the last three years of his life, he was under the care of Elisabeth. By this time, Nietzsche was internationally famous, and his books were selling well.

Elisabeth acquired sole copyright of his work and complete control of his life. Their house became a place of pilgrimage, with Elisabeth allowing special visitors the privilege of gazing at Nietzsche as he in turn gazed into space. Nietzsche died in 1900, after suffering a series of strokes. Elisabeth outlived him by 35 years, during which she placed his archive and his reputation in the hands of the Nazis.

It has taken a while, but Nietzsche’s reputation as a philosopher has been fully restored. The story of his life is by turns inspiring, poignant and dispiriting, and it has never been better told than in this riveting book. 

Ray Monk is emeritus professor at the University of Southampton. His books include “Ludwig Wittgenstein: The Duty of Genius” (Vintage)

I Am Dynamite! A Life of Friedrich Nietzsche
Sue Prideaux
Faber & Faber, 464pp, £25

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This article appears in the 26 Sep 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory Brexit crisis