THE GOOD EUROPEAN: Nietzsche’s Work Sites in Word and Image.<i> By David Farrell Krell and Donald L. Bates</i> .<i> University of Chicago Press: 266 pp., $55</i> : NIETZSCHE IN TURIN: An Intimate Biography.<i> By Lesley Chamberlain</i> .<i> Picador USA: 256 pp., $23</i>
He certainly thought he had made an impact. And more than 100 years later, the absence of modesty does not seem so misplaced. “I know my fate,” wrote Friedrich Nietzsche in “Ecce Homo” (in a concluding chapter entitled “Why I am a destiny”). “One day there will be associated with my name the recollection of something frightful--of a crisis like no other before on Earth, of the profoundest collision of conscience, of decision evoked against everything that had until then been believed, demanded and sanctified. I am not a man, I am dynamite.”
Even so, it is hard to define exactly what Nietzsche wanted or managed to blow up. He had no interest in founding a religion (“religions are the affairs of the rabble, I need to wash my hands whenever I’ve had contact with religious people”); he didn’t wish to inspire followers; he preferred to be thought of more as a buffoon than as a saint, and his writings--fragmented, aphoristic and unfinished--lent themselves to a variety of interpretations. Which was in a sense unfortunate because, until recently, the predominant interpretation of Nietzsche was as sinister as it was unjustified. His rabidly anti-Semitic sister, Elisabeth Forster-Nietzsche, did much of the damage through her editorial work; Third Reich propagandists did the rest, presenting him as a proto-nazi, a prophet of German expansionism and racism.
Nothing was further from the truth, as it has slowly emerged thanks to sound scholarship. In the Anglo-Saxon world, Walter Kaufmann’s 1950 biography, “Nietzsche: Philosopher, Psychologist, Antichrist,” spearheaded the rehabilitation and has been followed by a host of excellent studies, notably Alexander Nehamas’ “Nietzsche: Life as Literature” in 1985. “The Good European” and “Nietzsche in Turin” are distinguished additions to the Nietzsche-friendly corpus.
If Nietzsche is today one of the most well-known and widely read of all philosophers, it is perhaps because of his conception of what philosophy was for--that it should help us to live--an idea close to what people typically expect of philosophy but which professional academics ignore almost entirely. As he put it: “It makes all the difference whether a thinker stands in a personal relationship to his problems, so that he possesses in them his destiny, his necessity and also his greatest happiness, or whether this relationship is ‘impersonal,’ that is he knows how to feel and grasp them only with the tentacles of cold, inquisitive thought.” And he evidently belonged to the former camp. His thoughts on the ubermensch, morality, eternal recurrence, Wagner and Greek tragedy were all intensely felt stages in a quest for his own salvation.
Nietzsche’s unusually intimate relation to thinking extended to more mundane details. He was persuaded that his philosophy would be vitally colored by what he ate, what the temperature was like outside, at what altitude he was reading a book and whether his bedroom had a high ceiling. There was nothing trivial in these issues, he argued, it was only intellectual hypocrisy that would lead us to suppose otherwise: “These little things--food, place, climate, recreation, the whole casuistry of egoism--are beyond all comparison more serious things than anything that has been taken seriously hitherto.”
From an early age, Nietzsche felt that he would never be able to write anything decent in his native Germany: “The German climate all by itself is enough to dishearten strong and even heroic innards,” he wrote. “Think of all those places where spirited people used to live and still live, places where wit, ingenuity, and a malicious sense of humor were the very meaning of happiness . . . they all had exceptionally dry air. Paris, Provence, Florence, Jerusalem, Athens--these names prove something, namely, that genius is conditioned by dry air and a clear sky.”
It was in search of these elements that in 1879, at 35, Nietzsche resigned his post as professor of classical philology at Basel University and began a decade of travels across Europe, during which he wrote his greatest books, “Thus Spake Zarathustra,” “Beyond Good and Evil” and “The Genealogy of Morals.” Winters were spent in Genoa and Nice, summers in the Engadine village of Sils Maria, and these travels are recorded in the superb photographs in “The Good European.” Some contemporary and others from Nietzsche’s own time, the photographs show us, among other sites, the famous “Zarathustra stone” on the southern shore of Lake Silvaplana, where Nietzsche claimed to have thought of the idea of eternal recurrence; the Engadine valleys and mountains in which he went on extensive hikes with notebooks in hand in case of inspiration; his room in Sils Maria, whose low ceiling caused him much anxiety; and his bedroom in Genoa, which had sublime views of the Gulf of Genoa.
David Farrel Krell and Donald Bates accompany these photographs with a thorough biographical account of Nietzsche’s life, which places particular emphasis on Nietzsche’s attachment to the idea of Europe. “Even if I should be a bad German, I am at all events a very good European,” he wrote to his mother from Sils Maria in 1886. He looked forward to a time when the peoples of Europe would define themselves as Europeans rather than as citizens of particular countries. This should not be confused with developments going on across the continent today; Nietzsche’s hopes for Europe had nothing to do with a unified currency and the abolition of border controls. It was a romantic definition of Europe, an identification with values found in pre-Socratic Greece, 12th century Provence and Renaissance Italy. It was the Europe of the south that attracted Nietzsche: To define himself as a European was a way to distance himself from the militaristic, bureaucratic, bourgeois Germany of Bismarck, whom he abhorred.
Lesley Chamberlain’s elegant and sympathetic “Nietzsche in Turin” describes Nietzsche in the last of his European homes, Turin, where he lived on and off from April 1888 to 1889. His friend, the composer Henrich Koselitz, had suggested the Piedmontese capital, and Nietzsche at once fell in love with its aristocratic tranquillity, mild climate and fine cafes: “What safety, what pavements, not to speak of the omnibuses and trams, which are so well run they evoke wonder,” he remarked, also praising the city’s air, which he said put him in the kind of mood otherwise only inspired by Bizet’s “Carmen”: “A charming, light, frivolous wind in which the heaviest thoughts take wing.” Chamberlain delights in the small details of Nietzsche’s life: She tells us of his taste for lean continental sausage, Lachshinkenwurst, and Zwiebeck, a kind of French toast; she finds out what kind of stove he bought for his room and how old he was when he started growing his walrus mustache.
Unfortunately, no climate could prevent the mental degeneration caused by Nietzsche’s tertiary syphilis. Chamberlain chronicles the philosopher’s tragi-comic descent into madness. The first signs came with megalomania. Nietzsche started to call himself a genius, the leading person of all millenniums, he claimed that all women loved him, drafted letters to the kaiser and to Bismarck, then drew up a memorandum to send to European embassies, asking that countries join to form an anti-German league (“My hands won’t be free until I have the young kaiser and his entourage in my hands”). He hoped for a war of ideas, financed by Jews, to destroy Christianity and predicted that after the abdication of the old God, he would reign. He took on different identities--the Buddha, Alexander the Great, Caesar, Voltaire, Napoleon, Wagner--and danced naked in his room, enacting solitary Dionysian rites. He asked that his room be redecorated like a temple so that he could receive the king and queen of Italy. The charade came to an end when in early January 1889 he broke down in the street and tearfully embraced a horse. He was declared insane by doctors and taken back to Germany by train, where he sat in a vegetative state until his death in 1900.
One cannot help but feel great sympathy for Nietzsche upon reading Chamberlain’s account. He emerges as a kind, awkward man with an immense, unsatisfied hunger for love. Though his philosophy was filled with hyperbolic comments about the benefits of solitude, Nietzsche felt an equal pull toward companionship. “At bottom, I am not made at all for solitude,” he confessed to his sister Elisabeth.
One leaves these two books admiring the courage and good humor with which Nietzsche braved his extraordinary existence. We are given a taste of what he termed his “life-affirming spirit,” a combination of exuberance, irreverence and playfulness: “Early in the morning,” he wrote, “at break of day, in all the freshness and dawn of one’s strength, to read a book--I call that vicious!” One of the world’s great philosophers emerges as someone who knew there were occasionally better things to do than read.
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