Human, all too human - Friedrich Nietzsche

In October 1876, around the time of his thirty-second birthday, Friedrich Nietzsche set off on his first journey to Italy. He was at this point Professor of Classical Philology in Basel, a post he had secured at the astonishingly young age of twenty-four. Nietzsche had been quite sickly, suffering from a number of ailments, ranging from debilitating headaches and vision problems to frequent bouts of nausea and vomiting. It was thought that some restful time in the pleasant climate of the south would do him good. Malwida von Meysenbug, a well-to-do aristocrat and writer, invited Nietzsche to join her, and secured rooms in the Villa Rubinacci, perched up the rocky cliffs of Sorrento, across the gulf from Naples and Vesuvius. Richard and Cosima Wagner were a short stroll away, luxuriously ensconced at the Hotel Vittoria. They too were resting, with a monumental undertaking recently completed. A few months before, Wagner’s cycle of music dramas, Der Ring des Niebelungen, had had its premiere at the newly inaugurated festival in Bayreuth. Both Nietzsche and Meysenbug had been close with the Wagner family, and had been champions of the Wagnerian programme for German cultural renewal. While relations between Nietzsche and the Wagners were still cordial, they had cooled somewhat. It was on this trip that Nietzsche would see Wagner for the last time. As Wagner’s influence over him diminished, he began to assert his intellectual independence and come into his own as a philosopher, beginning to write his aphoristic work Human, All Too Human.

Paolo D’Iorio’s Nietzsche’s Journey to Sorrento charts this trip, and this pivotal year in Nietzsche’s life. D’Iorio cites a moving notebook entry of Nietzsche’s, from a few years later, where he reflects back on what this meant to him:
I don’t have enough strength for the North: awkward and artificial souls reign there, who work as constantly and necessarily at the measures of prudence as the beaver at his dam. And to think I spent my whole youth among them! That is what overcame me when, for the first time, I saw the evening come up, with its velvet gray and red, in the sky over Naples – like a shudder of pity for myself, that I had started my life by being old, and tears came to my eyes and the feeling of having been saved at the last moment. I have enough spirit for the South.
This journey was the start of a lasting infatuation with Italy. Not long after this trip to Sorrento, Nietzsche would come to resign his professorship on grounds of ill health. He afterwards lived on his modest pension and divided his time between Italy, the Côte d’Azur and the Swiss mountains, particularly around Sils Maria. This trip marked a turning point, both personally and philosophically. In addition to Nietzsche’s move away from Wagner, his early work was strongly under the influence of Arthur Schopenhauer. Although Nietzsche was dubious of Schopenhauer’s metaphysics early on, he was drawn to aspects of Schopenhauer’s bleak world view. Schopenhauer argued that ours was a miserable lot, where we are perpetually buffeted between states of suffering and boredom, and can never reach lasting satisfaction of our desires. It would be better, he thought, never to have come into existence. Nietzsche’s crucial shift away from this Schopenhauerian stance of “life negation” to his eventual one of “life affirmation” was of course an incremental process. But this foray to the South, if not necessarily the impetus for the philosophical transformation, provides a beautiful geographical image of what was happening more gradually: Nietzsche moves from attachment to a cold, pessimistic philosophy of the North to a sunnier philosophy of the South, a philosophy celebrating life and the world, the body and vitality. Like Lesley Chamberlain’s superb Nietzsche in Turin(1996), covering the last year of Nietzsche’s sane life, D’Iorio’s book focuses judiciously on a key year. It is well judged in its plan and its execution.

Covering a considerably longer span, Daniel Blue’s The Making of Friedrich Nietzsche charts the philosopher’s formative years. He was born in 1844 in the Saxon town of Röcken. His father, a Lutheran pastor, died when Friedrich was a young child. Blue recounts the first decades of Nietzsche’s life, up to the point that he finished his university education. Subtitled The quest for identity, Blue’s book takes as its guiding thread Nietzsche’s interest, from an early age, in writing his autobiography. At the age of thirteen, he wrote a charmingly pompous first attempt: “From My Life – by F. W. Nietzsche. The years of youth”. This was the beginning of several efforts at the genre throughout his life, culminating in 1888, on the brink of his collapse into insanity, with Ecce Homo, whose chapters notoriously include “Why I Am So Wise”, “Why I Write Such Good Books”, and “Why I Am Destiny”.

In 1858 Nietzsche enrolled at Schulpforta, a boarding school with a distinguished register of alumni, including the philosopher Johann Gottlieb Fichte and the historian Leopold von Ranke. It was here that he received the rigorous training in classical languages that prepared him for his future academic career. Nietzsche’s seriousness about matters of Bildung was evident from this early stage, and extended beyond his formal academic work. Along with a few friends, Nietzsche formed a club called Germania, an intellectual discussion circle, where they would take turns presenting essays, poetry and music. One of the most interesting elements in Blue’s story is its charting of Nietzsche’s loss of faith, beginning in his middle teenage years. In his contributions to Germania, we don’t see outright atheism, but we do see a cautious movement to a more sceptical perspective. In one of his essays from this period, Nietzsche reflects on how difficult it can be to distance oneself from the tradition in which one has grown up, and to reflect on it in a critical way. This gives a nice hint of what, in the face of this difficulty, will become one of his most striking philosophical accomplishments: specifically his ability to step, insofar as possible, outside the Judaeo-Christian moral tradition and look at it as an anthropologist might, explaining how it gained traction and why it continues to retain it. Nietzsche pressed this still further, going beyond the role of anthropologist to that of philosophical “legislator”, concerned with the task of “revaluing” these hitherto revered values.

From Schulpforta, Nietzsche first moved to Bonn to study, then to Leipzig, where he did his doctoral training. While philology was his subject, philosophy was a strong side interest. He had ongoing doubts about whether he would be cut out for a career as a philologist, but his talent was evident to his teachers. Blue is particularly good in charting Nietzsche’s relationship to Friedrich Ritschl, a noted classicist who was Nietzsche’s supervisor in Leipzig. It was partly on Ritschl’s glowing recommendation that Nietzsche secured his first (and only) academic post, at the University of Basel.

Blue’s book is meticulously researched and carefully footnoted, but also engaging and readable. One gets a vivid sense of the precociously intellectual teenage Nietzsche and then of the budding scholar finding his place in academia, but also a sense of the ordinary person too. Blue, for example, relates a story in which Nietzsche goes out with a classmate, drinks four mugs of beer, and is then charged with drunkenness on his return to school grounds, which brings him into a certain disgrace and leads to his being stripped of his status as “Primus” (i.e. head boy). And, in a more domestic vein, even while at university, he was sending his clothes along by train for his mother to launder. With figures of Nietzsche’s sort, it can be fascinating, if also rather deflating, to know the mundane ways in which they were human, all too human. As Alexander Nehamas stressed in his classic study Nietzsche: Life as literature (1985), Nietzsche crafts a literary persona for himself, who emerges from his texts. That character, in a certain way, will always outshine the man who created it, and no doubt should. But the life of that in many ways ordinary man, and his relation to that extraordinary character, remain intriguing. One of the centrepieces of Blue’s book is Nietzsche’s relationship with his mother Franziska and his sister Elisabeth. His sister, later to take the married name Elisabeth Förster-Nietzsche, has routinely been vilified by Nietzsche scholars. She has been held responsible for a number of crimes against her brother’s legacy, especially his posthumous association with National Socialism in Germany. She and her husband Bernhard Förster were virulent anti-Semites, occupied with the foundation of an Aryan colony in South America. Nietzsche scholars are often quick to point out Nietzsche’s anti-anti-Semitism, and to distance him as much as possible from such views. Given this background, Robert Holub, in Nietzsche’s Jewish Problem, presents a rather revisionary take on his subject’s relationship to Judaism and anti-Semitism. Nietzsche, Holub agrees, despised the poisonous anti-Semitism of his day, of the sort voiced by his brother-in-law and by the Wagners. But Holub urges that we distinguish socio-political anti-Semitism, as it would have been understood in the nineteenth century, from various milder forms of anti-Jewish prejudice. Despite Nietzsche’s disdain for the former, he, as Holub shows, was by no means free of the latter. Holub catalogues a striking set of anti-Jewish remarks that we get from Nietzsche in various places in his letters and notebooks. These are not, as with the Wagners, or with Förster, the expression of a deep-seated, powerful animus towards Jews. But Nietzsche does make a number of casual remarks, where he traffics in anti-Jewish stereotypes. He was living and writing at a time when, even among the intellectual elite, negative attitudes towards Jews were extremely common. 

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