FRIEDRICH Nietzsche is a cult. He has been deified by almost all who read him, studied him and researched on him. Such is the pull of the man, his words and philosophy. The self-styled anti-Christ was an enigma to his contemporaries and the aura continues till date. His life was relatively short, he died when he was 55, but his mental imbalance had set in by the time he turned 44.
An exhaustive philosophical biography of Nietzsche has been published recently that wonderfully travels through the life of the great man, simultaneously reading his writings. The result is a synchronised narration of the man and his work. The book, simply titled Friedrich Nietzsche: A Philosophical Biography, has been written by Julian Young, a scholar in 19th-20th century German philosophy and author of nine books and professor at Wake Forest University, University of Auckland and Honourary professor at the University of Tasmania.
Born a son of a Lutheran pastor, Fritz, as Nietzsche was called, as a young boy had vowed to be a pastor like this father, who died when Nietzsche was only five. He was sent to school and “because he was shy and because he had high expectations, Nietzsche found it difficult to make friends. But once made, he valued them deeply. Unsurprisingly, therefore, friendship is much discussed in his writings.” He was a virtuous and obedient boy, and there was not the remotest hint that this boy would one day go on to “pull down the pillars of the Christian temple.” Fritz was a proud Prussian and a great admirer of Bismarck, till the wars turned his opinion against both.
Nietzsche loved music. When only 14 he wrote: “God has given music so that above all it might lead us upwards. Music unites all qualities: it can exalt us, divert us, cheer us up, or break the hardest of heart with the softness of its melancholy tones. But its principal task is to lead our thoughts to higher things, to elevate, even to make us tremble.” He wrote several musical compositions, which are now available online, on the book’s website. Throughout his school days he wrote poems and also wrote about poetry. He was greatly influenced by Richard Wagner, with whom he made a bonding that lasted till the great maestro-philosopher died.
By 1862, that is when he was 18, Nietzsche “while remaining committed to its ethics, had abandoned the metaphysics of Christianity.” The year 1873, when he was 29, saw him in the grip of tensions. He was a professor of clinical philology and yet his mind was continually occupied with philosophy. He was torn between profession and vocation. His other anxiety was to “escape the gigantic shadow cast by Wagner’s personality and intellect, to find a place in the sun in which he could grow into his own man.”
According to Julian Young, Nietzsche believed that “Jesus taught by parable and by example. His death was not an expiation of human sins but rather the ultimate demonstration of his doctrine of nonresistance. He was, in short, a kind of Buddhist, Buddhism being also a non-metaphysical life-practice engendered by hypersensitivity to pain.”
One of Nietzsche’s lasting contributions is The Anti-Christ which was almost the last work done by him. He has raised eight major charges against Christianity in that. The book discusses them in detail. Some of them are: Christianity suffers from ‘idealist’ ‘arrogance’ an arrogance that ‘does not allow any scrap of reality to be honoured, or even expressed.’ That, Christianity produces and intensifies self-hatred, that, it destroys all life-enhancing instincts, and the most serious of all charges, it ‘cheated us out of the fruits of ancient culture.’ “Rome died, Nietzsche agrees with Gibbon, on account of Christianity, the ‘vampire’ within it which gradually sucked out its life-blood. And so the West’s magnificent ‘beginning’ turned into a tragic end.”
Nietzsche discusses the Lawbook of Manu. His sources was ‘undoubtedly Deussen’s book on Hinduism.’ Young quoting Nietzsche says, “At a certain point, the spiritual leaders of ancient Indian society decided that the age of moral experimentation should be brought to a close: that their society had now arrived at the code that best served the health of their community. And so they recorded that code as the ‘Laws of Manu’, the central feature of which is the division of society into five levels…” Nietzsche calls this ‘holy lie.’ But as opposed to the Christian ‘holy lie,’ this “at least aims at promoting human well-being, seems to ‘say Yes to life.’
Thus Spoke Zarathustra: A Book for All and None, written in four parts between 1883-85 has biographical tinge in it. Nietzsche called it his biggest work.
Young’s book mentions the several women Nietzsche admired and fell in love with. But his lifelong love was Lou Salome, who married a man much disparaged by Nietzsche. He was nearly anti-women and yet his female friends were all feminists. Nietzsche had a sister Elizabeth, whom he was fond of who probably was his greatest enemy. Towards the end of his life, when he was confined to asylum, she sought to cash in on his name. By then his name had become a craze and people waited outside his home to catch a glimpse of him. Elizabeth set up a trust, took all the money and all his works and appointed persons to edit Nietzsche’s works. She had a few pre-conditions. That Lau Salome would be thoroughly denigrated, Nietzsche’s mother’s role would be minimised and instead, Elizabeth would be projected as the soul mate and the pillar behind the master. She even received Hitler at the museum set up by her.
People thronged to visit Nietzsche, even though he could not recognise anyone. Rudolf Steiner after visiting him wrote, “Whoever saw Nietzsche at the time he wrote as he reclined in his white, pleated robe – with the glance of a Brahman in his wide – and deep-set eyes beneath bushy eyebrows, with the nobility of his enigmatic, questioning face and the leonine, majestic carriage of the thinker’s head – had the feeling that this man could not die, but that his eye would rest for all eternity upon mankind and the whole world of appearance in this unfathomable exultation.”
As though unwilling to attribute mundane, physical reasons for the madness of Nietzsche, Julian Young argues and discounts theories on tumour and neurosyphilis. Nietzsche had been suffering severe headaches right from his school days. There is nothing pathological about this genius’s madness, he says. Contrary to his will, Elizabeth buried him between their parents. He wished to be buried at Sils Maria and had written to her expressing this desire. “In death she inflicted the last of the many indignities she had visited on her brother. On her orders, he was dug up and placed to one side so that she could be placed between her parents. When it came to power politics Elizabeth won every time.”
A mesmerizing account of the life and work of Nietzsche, the book brings out the metamorphosis that happened to the iconic philosopher. He travelled from being a monarchist to anti-royalty, from being a religious, obedient Lutheran to being anti-Christ and a man who didn’t think much of women and yet fell in love with feminists, a proud Prussian, who declared himself ‘a good citizen of Europe.’ The book is a harmonic merger mixture of two tracks – the man and his works, it makes a compelling read. Complete with exhaustive notes and references, it is an academic source book on Nietzsche.
(Cambridge University Press, 32, Avenue of Americas, New York, NY 10013-2473, USA)