I am Dynamite! : A Life of Friedrich Nietzsche by Sue Prideaux

Reviewed by Max Dunbar

Alpha males in print tend to be omega males in real life. Friedrich Nietzsche was not rich during his lifetime. He had one job, at the University of Basel, teaching a subject he disliked. The books that he considered his real work went out on small publishers at a return of perhaps a hundred sales each. He lived off his university pension. He never married, and had few relationships with women. He had few friends. He was beset by chronic health problems all his life. In middle age he lost his mind and was taken back to his childhood home via the asylum. He was looked after by his mother and sister for much of his last years.

So much for the Übermensch. Yet his life was fascinating, and not just for the writing. Nietzsche walked away from the academy and lived most of his working life on the road. He wandered over Europe alone. Doctors at the funny farm where Nietzsche ended up noted that his bone and muscles were at least in decent shape. The man walked four or five miles a day. He loved mountains, and forests, because the filtered light under canopy was good for his photophobic eyes. He planned his travels around the quality of light as the season turned, and developed cheap hotels and pensions as periodic bases in his wanderings from city to city. Landlords rented to him at reduced rates, and made sure he had his creature comforts. Nietzsche was selfish, vainglorious and histrionic. Yet there was something about the philosopher that made people want to take care of him – he was like some eccentric old housepet, unpredictable and prone to bite, but ultimately inspiring affection and a kind of gentle pity.

Parts of Nietzsche’s story just feel bizarre. He attended the elite Pforta boarding school which put its pupils through a rigorous schedule of study, reveille and taps: ‘the Pforta boys’ freedom,’ Prideaux writes, ‘consisted of the evening hour between seven thirty and eight thirty in the garden where scholarly debates in Greek or Latin over a gentle game such as bowls might develop into verbal duels fought in improvised Latin hexameters.’ There is a long interlude where he meets Richard Wagner, and they hit it off so well that the composer practically moved him into his private mansion by Lake Lucerne. And these chapters are truly surreal.

Pages and pages it takes for Prideaux to do justice to the Tribschen mansion, its statues, damask, balconies, watchtowers, crags – you could fit an orchestra in there. Nietzsche remembered happy days spent in this world with Wagner, his children and his dogs – and his wife Cosima, a formidable presence and very much part of the scene, at least until some younger Brünnhilde should catch the composer’s wandering eye. They seem to have spent the whole time in recitals and conversations of an intensity one wouldn’t expect human beings could sustain.

Now smiling ear to ear, now turning emotional to the point of tears, now working himself up into a prophetic frenzy, all sorts of topics found their way into his extraordinary flights of improvisation… Overwhelmed and dazed by all this, [we] laughed and cried along with him, sharing his ecstasies, seeing his visions; we felt like a cloud of dust stirred up by a storm, but also illuminated by his imperious discourse, frightful and delightful at once.

The musician of the new Germany had the talent and means to do perhaps what all artists dream of – to live in their own fantasy world, Wagner’s being a Gothic mythos of playful gods, Dionysian revels and tall, assertive women.

It’s a matter of public record that both Wagners were noisy anti-Semites. Was Nietzsche? His reputation has been irredeemably compromised by association with the Third Reich. Nietzsche thought all morality was bunk because it derived from Christianity, which he described as a slave religion shaped by the bitter experiences of early Christians oppressed by Rome. The whole thing should be torn down, Nietzsche declared. It gives you pause. What else do we have to build on except the shaky and imperfect systematisations of compassion and mercy? And who knows what might emerge from its ruins? It didn’t help that Nietzsche was forever going on about the Übermensch, and blond beasts frolicking in swamps.

Prideaux’s genius as biographer is that she makes you reevaluate Nietzsche’s legacy, not with hedging and whataboutery but a clear, strong case. Nietzsche was a minnow in the intellectual swampland that was late eighteenth century German intellectualism. He dealt with anti-Semites daily, and seemed to weary of them as boring conformists. His sister, Elisabeth, married a ludicrous man named Bernhard Förster, a white supremacist who planned to found an alternative fatherland of ethnic purity in Latin America. As a lifelong invalid Nietzsche had the perfect excuse not to join this lunatic expedition, and indeed the new colony was quickly overwhelmed by Paraguay’s somewhat inhospitable climate and wildlife. Nietzsche said of Förster that ‘I do not have his enthusiasm for all “things German”, and even less for keeping this “glorious” race pure. On the contrary, on the contrary –’

Förster took a deliberate overdose in a San Bernardino hotel, leaving Elisabeth ruling like a feudal queen over what remained of the colony. Formerly a spinster and a nursemaid, she grew confident with age, to the point where she eventually shaped her brother’s reputation, archive and legacy. Nietzsche had completely lost it by this point and was living under Elisabeth’s care: he could barely remember his own name and had no idea of the tumult his books were now causing (for, in the 1890s, his work was finally being widely read and talked about). Elisabeth in later life was an admirer of the Third Reich. Adolf Hitler attended her funeral.

At one point in the long years of his insanity, a man named Julius Langbehn offered to adopt Nietzsche and cure him. Langbehn was a celebrated writer. He had written a bestseller called Rembrandt as Educator.

Langbehn had analysed Germany. Its problem was that it was overeducated. The professor and the expert, with their scholarship and their so-called ‘expertise’ must cease to be venerated. It would then follow, as night follows day, that the spiritual rebirth of Germany would be accomplished from within the fundamentally good German soul. Wisdom was to be found in the soil, in open air and in simple German hearts. The expulsion of foreign influences went without saying, particularly Jews.

Langbehn’s scheme came to nothing – the family matriarch, Franziska, put her foot down – but the point of the story for Prideaux was that mediocrities like Langbehn became successful and influenced governments, while Nietzsche’s work was treated as a chaotic sideshow.

Whatever we think of Nietzsche, Prideaux’s biography of him is a breath of fresh mountain air. Plenty of writers grappled with the death of God (and still do) but while most are content with wistful nostalgia for a lost illusion, Nietzsche at least had the nerve to say that the meaning of life is up to us, now, and that the magic is a part of life, not outside it. Nietzsche loved to walk in the forests and a forest is exactly what his life and work were, a great sprawling canopy with trails every which way into the darkness – and a few to glory.

Max blogs at maxdunbar.wordpress.com

Sue Prideaux, I Am Dynamite! A Life of Friedrich Nietzsche (Faber, 2018), ISBN 978-0571336210, 464 pp., hardback.

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